Railroad Man

The other day when Steve glanced at our tickets for the Bernina Express, his jaw dropped. “Oh my God,” he breathed. “Am I really in seat #61?” “Yeah. You’re in 61 and I’m in 63. So what?”

“But that means this morning I will literally be the Man in Seat 61,” he replied.

I grasped his wonderment then. Several years ago I became an ardent fan of a website called The Man in Seat 61. I subsequently read an article about the guy who writes it, and if I were home in front of my desktop computer, I could tell you his name and his background. But as I’m working from my iPad with painfully slow hotel internet, all I will say is: if you’re interested, Google him. What I recall from the article is that he’s a Brit who I think began by writing online about European train travel, with an eye to making it easier for newcomers to navigate. He has since expanded to cover the rest of the world. I think I used his information to take trains in Vietnam. I read him religiously before our trip to India three years ago, and I give him all the credit for enabling me to traverse the subcontinent on rails.

Today his website is a vast repository of information, wonderfully organized and copiously linked. Thanks to him, for this trip I booked seats online for Steve and me from Paris to Bordeaux and back, Paris to Luxembourg, Luxembourg to Zurich, Zurich to Sargans (the gateway to Liechtenstein), Sargans to Chur, Chur to Tirano, Tirano to Milan, Milan to Bologna, Bologna to Rimini (gateway to San Marino), and Rimini to Rome.

It was the Man in Seat 61 who inspired me to route us from Liechtenstein to Italy on the Bernina Express. Poking around on his website I stumbled upon his glowing descriptions of it. The train is one of only three in the world to have been declared a UN World Heritage rail line, and The Man could not praise it highly enough. It was complicated to book online, run by a private Swiss line (the Rhatische Bahn) and requiring two separate tickets. But I did what he said and it all worked.

Steve and I actually have ridden on one of the other two World Heritage railway lines while in India. The “toy train,” as it’s known, runs from Jalpaigur up to Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas, and I can tell you: the Bernina Express is about a million times nicer. Like the Indian train, the Swiss one runs on a narrow-gauge track, but the Swiss cars have huge panoramic windows and comfortable seats. The Indian train arrived at its destination more than three hours late, after tortuous intervals of sitting and not moving. The Swiss one took off at 8:16 instead of 8:15 and arrived in the Italian town of Tirano at 12:51 instead of 12:49. Its roughly 4.5-hour-long route took us over one of the highest rail beds in the world, one constructed more than 100 years ago specifically for tourists. It posed devilish challenges to the Swiss engineers who designed it, but it helped make them into the pre-eminent experts on tunneling that they are today.Lots of tunnels on this run!

People say it’s a strikingly different experience in summer and winter, and that you really should ride it in both seasons. I can tell you it was beautiful in late summer, on a day that began enshrouded in mist……but turned golden long before we crossed the Italian border. We had spiffy headphones that told us (in English) about the line’s history and highlights.The route literally winds through Heidi country — the part of the Alps where the book was set and movies were filmed.Bridges like this and sections of track that corkscrew through the mountains and meadows are among the attractions.In this view, the train is going under a circular bridge that it just traversed.Views of glaciers and glacial lakes also triggered avalanches of camera clicks.And there was a short rest stop that included traditional Alpine entertainment.

Steve and I enjoyed it immensely, as apparently did all our companions in the full car.

Now we’re on our last train trip of the trip, taking us from Rimini on the Adriatic southwest to Rome. Although we have more than two and a half weeks left before we return home, we’ll get around on planes and rental cars from here on. That’s too bad. When it comes to transit preferences, I’m with the Man in Seat 61.

Liechtenstamped

Even now, in this time of pandemics and panic, no one checks and stamps passports when you move around between many countries in Europe. In Andorra, Steve and I asked at the tourist office about getting our books stamped, but all the girl at the counter could offer was something that looked designed for children. (We passed.) Luxembourg appeared to be way too cool for faux passport stamps. But Liechtenstein was into it. In the center of Vaduz (the tidy little capital), we saw signs like this.

Around mid-afternoon last Thursday (9/20), Steve and I walked to the Liechtenstein Center and paid a few Swiss francs to get a postage stamp and this souvenir:

A few minutes later, serious rain finally caught up with us for the first time on this trip. We’d been on the road, moving quite a bit. I was tired, and my umbrella offered only partial protection; my feet got very damp. I felt dispirited. We abandoned any further touristic efforts and retreated to the Airbnb apartment in which we were lodging, not far from the center.

These locals were attending the inauguration of a new piece of public art. Vaduz has a LOT of public art. But the ceremonies were in German, and we were getting soaked.

The next day, the world felt renewed: warm and sunny and inviting. Throughout the morning we stockpiled tantalizing glimpses into the strange but pleasant little country that boasts it’s the last remnant in the world of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s also the only country named after the person who bought the place: Prince Johannes Adam I of Liechtenstein (aka Hans the Rich). For centuries, his descendants didn’t actually live in the land bearing their name, but they’re well-entrenched today. The current prince still actively rules the place, and he and his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and four grandkids live in the ostentatious palace that clings to the hillside high above Vaduz.

There it is in the distance.
Another view of the castle, which is closed to the public, being a private dwelling. Note the grapevines in the foreground. You see a lot of those around town.

Probably my most enduring memory of my 24 hours in Liechtenstein will be our ride on the little “train” that once a day tootles around the town.

The operator had installed protective plastic sheets between each row of seats. It gave the ride a slightly psychedelic feeling, which seemed appropriate.

Through earplugs dialed to English, we listened to some minimal commentary and a whole bunch of bouncy Teutonic music. The musical climax was a rousing rendition of the Liechtensteiner Polka. In the city center, we saw vegetable fields and cows munching emerald grass next to the main highway through town.

We also noted many massive buildings that we assumed house the countless companies from all over the world that set up headquarters here in order to decrease their tax burden. (While lower than what those companies would pay elsewhere, that tax money is a significant contributor to Liechtenstein’s current wealth.) The soulless structures share the streets with old homes that could have informed Walt Disney’s vision of Euroquaint.

We had to tear ourselves away around 2 p.m. to catch the bus back to Switzerland, and the train to the Swiss town of Chur, starting point for our Saturday morning ride on one of the most famous trains in the world. But I left with my stamps and the lingering refrain of that unforgettable polka.

Weather wonderland

I love to travel, in part, because it reminds me how unsophisticated I am about weather. Living in San Diego for as long as I have has dulled my weather wits; made me stupid about preparing for what’s to come. Most of San Diego’s weather ranges from glorious to blah (in cloudy May and June), but it’s all good enough you don’t have to plan your activities around it. Stormy weather rolls in only rarely, but when it does, it’s usually relentless and intense. It can last for days. You cancel outdoor plans.

When I’m in a foreign country and my phone’s weather app shows rain in the upcoming days, I tend to freak out. I assume the rain will screw up my plans. I’m often pleasantly surprised.

Weather didn’t impact the three days we had in Paris. They were archetypally perfect: cool in the early morning with heat building to San Diego levels of balminess by late afternoon, all under powder blue skies adorned with puffy passing clouds.But rain was forecast for Bordeaux on Friday, with heat moving in on the weekend and building to scary sounding levels Monday and Tuesday.

When our train pulled into the Bordeaux rail station early Friday afternoon, Olivia, Steve and I dodged light raindrops on our way to collect our rental car. These soon dried up, however, and by the time we dropped Olivia off at her hotel, the sun was out and the center of the old city felt pleasant and looked splendid. I’d arranged a home-exchange house in the country, very close to where Annabelle’s wedding reception would be held Saturday evening. We found it and settled into those comfortable quarters, then drove to dinner in the little town of Fargues St. Hilaire about 10 minutes away. By the time we arrived at 7:30, a torrential deluge had begun, intense enough to get us very wet as we dashed (under an umbrella) from our car the short distance to the restaurant. After we finished dinner, the downpour had stopped.

Nothing marred the perfection of Annabelle’s wedding the next day, held at 3 pm in a 1000-year-old basilica in the center of Bordeaux.It was sunny and quite warm outside, but all that stone kept out the heat.

There’s Olivia, chatting with the priest, who coincidentally happened to be an American. The interior of the basilica wasn’t air conditioned, but it felt like it was.

By the time we emerged from the church around 4:30, the heat still wasn’t overbearing.

Rose petals did briefly rain down on the bride and groom.

Over the next three days the temperature forecasts for Bordeaux looked worse and worse: around 90 on Sunday. Maybe 95 Monday, and I think I saw 97 at one point predicted for Tuesday. What surprised me, though, was how much of each of those days was lovely: cool and pleasant throughout the morning.

We stayed in the bottom floor of the house in the distance.
Had a delicious walk down the footpath from the house.

Sunday we weren’t uncomfortable at the wedding brunch on the back lawn of the chateau.

It’s possible the amazing setting distracted us.

The grapes in the vineyards surrounding the chateau looked happy!

Monday morning (after Olivia had returned to Paris), Steve and I made the 40-minute drive to St. Emilion, an important wine-making center. The ancient town and its vistas are almost indescribably charming, and we walked and lunched outdoors and felt cool until mid-afternoon, when the heat finally began to be oppressive.For our last full day in Bordeaux (yesterday), we returned to the center for more walking, another lunch, and a visit to the city’s wine museum. The pattern repeated: weather interchangeable with San Diego’s at its best in the morning, only heating up enough to sap our energy late in the day.

It was definitely shorts weather, but not sultry enough to sweat.
When we visited in the morning, it wasn’t even hot enough to lure many tourists into frolicking in Bordeaux’s famous mirror pool.

This morning (Wednesday) we packed up our rented Ford and headed for the first stop on our grand tour of Europe’s seven smallest countries: Andorra. As we drove south, my phone’s forecast looked like this, disconcerting to anyone bound for the rugged Pyrenees for a two-night stay. At one point, we drove under repeated signs warning about the thunderstorms ahead.

But after a few sprinkles in the early morning, the clouds disappeared, and by the time we whizzed through the border (with not a customs or passport or Covid vaccine checker anywhere in sight), Andorra’s Pyrenean splendors could not have looked more stunning had a professional postcard photo producer arranged the scenes.

This appeared to be the border, but everyone just breezed through it.

We drove up all those hairpin turns to get to this amazing viewpoint.

I’m writing these words in our hotel room in Andorra la Vella (the compact capital city). I’ve heard a few distant rumbles out our window, but no rain is pouring yet. The forecast still looks so bad I can’t imagine we’ll be able to hike most of tomorrow, as I had planned. But I’m wising up; amping up my reserves of flexibility. I think I need them at least as much as my umbrella.

Feeling grateful for the good weather.

Two weddings and a tour of the teeny-tiny countries

If you’re reading this, it means Steve and I have managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, enter France, and make our way to the apartment of our friend Olivia in Neuilly, just outside the Paris city limits. We will have begun an adventure I began planning two years ago, inspired by an invitation to the wedding of Olivia’s older daughter, Annabelle. Originally, we expected to fly to Europe in May of 2020, but the Covid lockdowns forced everyone to cancel all their plans. When the wedding was rescheduled and a second wedding (of Annabelle’s sister, Marguerite) was set for May/June 2021, I rebooked everything. But a surge in case levels led the sisters to postpone their celebrations again.

Now we’ve made it into the country and are just four days from the first nuptials, which will take place in Bordeaux. The second event takes place October 9 in the south of France. In between Steve and I have planned a wide-ranging tour through some of the smallest countries on earth: Andorra, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta, and Monaco.

We’ve both been to Vatican City before, and Steve made a lightning visit to Liechtenstein in 1974, but the rest will be new to us. The micro states stand out in other ways beyond their limited size. They rank among the wealthiest countries on Earth, and their citizens live longer than almost anywhere else (because prosperity and physical well-being go hand in hand?) They have oddball forms of government. Three are principalities, one’s a Grand Duchy, Vatican City is a city-state (Malta and San Marino are humdrum republics.)

We have to fly into and out of Malta (an island). But mostly we expect to get around on trains and buses and in a couple of rented cars. We smile at how this trip reminds us of our honeymoon 47 years ago. Then we tore around Europe’s Big Bruisers — France, Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy. How different will it be to visit the pipsqueaks? We don’t know. But we are optimistic it will be interesting.