21st Mar 2016
The idea was to get to Istanbul by train from London. Contrary to popular belief there is no longer such a thing as an 'Orient Express' which takes you there direct from Paris, or anywhere. The present 'Venice Simplon Orient Express' is a vastly expensive luxury trip from London (via ferry) to Venice and used to do one (mega-expensive) trip a year through to Istanbul...no longer. Much research...and do place the emphasis, unlike the ghastly lingua BBC-Americana nowadays, on the second syllable, indicated that several changes of train need to be made on a selection of possible routes. They all end up at the bottom of Bulgaria where, from the border to Istanbul, the lines have been dug up under a 'modernisation' scheme for the past few years and there is no indication of a completion date. So it's bus for the Turkey end, and possibly even some 'bus replacements' in Bulgaria. Not only that but the iconic and beautiful Sirkeci main station in Istanbul has been shut down, permanently. Things ain't what they used to be.
Not to be deterred I set off a couple of days ago from London St. Pancras armed with some bookings and a very detailed European railway map. My chosen route is via Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, Budapest, Brasov (for a couple of days), Bucharest, Kapikule (on the Bulgarian/Turkish border) to Istanbul.
A terrorist bomb went off in Istanbul the day before I left. I am a great believer in visiting places where a bomb has recently gone off (unless perhaps if it is the precursor to a Russian or American blitzkrieg) for two principle reasons. Firstly, security is tightened up and an immediate recurrence unlikely. Secondly, it deters the mass of tourists and things are easier to book, with discounts, and no queues. I planned a great trip to Bali on the back of this principle a few years ago......I had the place almost to myself at nearly half the price! Anyway, you're unlucky if a bomb has your name on it. It could happen anywhere nowadays with (metaphorically) lots of 'stable doors being shut after the horse has bolted' amid much gnashing of teeth.
In any case, my youthful experiences of living in an army junior officers' accommodation block in the early '70s where, especially if you were foolish enough to go to bed too early after a bibulous dinner, you were likely to be subjected to explosive devices lobbed into your room and then strafed by small-arms fire by your less than sober comrades, has rather inured me to the occasional bomb threat.
Eurostar left St. Pancras, on time, at 1104 on the 20th. I find the vista of sad suburban grot with ever expanding rabbit hutch estates, scrap-yards, warehouses, industrial buildings and other eyesores which seem to go on far too long after leaving London very dispiriting, and even after that the countryside is flat and dull punctuated by unattractive looking farms, electricity pylons, motorways, wind turbines and the occasional glass and concrete monstrosity of indeterminate purpose, all the way down to Folkestone. It is a distinctly uninspiring landscape to bid farewell to, or welcome in, visitors to the UK. The view in the tunnel is a great improvement.
Arrived in Brussels on time, which was just as well because I only had 15 minutes to catch the connection to Frankfurt. As I was in the rear coach of 27 it took over 5 minutes to walk, fast, up the platform to the main concourse. Down lifts, up escalators and not knowing the layout I only just made it onto the DeutscheBahn ICE train in time. Gosh, these ICE trains are smart, and fast. I don't think most people in UK realise how second rate our rolling-stock is in comparison. They are more reliable and efficient, faster, quieter, with a much smoother ride (you can walk down the aisle without lurching), more space, plenty of luggage room, cleaner, brighter, excellent restaurant/buffet facilities and no silly unnecessary PA announcements (just those usefully to tell you when you are approaching a station) and, mile for mile, cheaper. I was distinctly impressed by the buffet car. The staff were charming and efficient and it had a good selection of properly cooked meals which you can order and a waiter will bring it to your seat (anywhere on the train) if you want, plus proper glasses and metal knives and forks! (and this is just the second class service). I may have been imagining it, but even the passengers seemed so much more relaxed, better behaved and even better dressed than the rabble squashed into our UK trains.
Only 10 minutes to connect with the train from Frankfurt to Munich, but it conveniently arrived on the adjacent platform. Another ICE machine, so on in comfort to Munich, arriving on time at 2116. Night spent in a very comfortable Bavarian style hotel, The Edenwolff, just across the road from the Hauptbahnhof. The restaurant was open until 2230 and had a delicious supper served by pretty girls in those fetching Bavarian dirdle dresses. So far so civilised..........
On to Budapest tomorrow.
PS. Just heard that another bomb has gone off in Brussels.........!