Through Europe by night train
Always a little bit of traveling
Saturday, May 18, 2019 – dS Magazine
Tekst and photos Teun De Voeght
The night trains have been connecting the largest European cities with each other for more than a hundred years, while the passengers quietly doze off without nightmares about rush hour and delays. My husband went on board, stopped in a few European cities and then just continued on his way.
BRUSSELS-PARIS. Traveling to Paris remains a surprising experience in the vicinity. You get on the train in Brussels, drive through a flat green landscape and go into the city at Gare du Nord. The weather is gloomy and gray. From Saint-Germain-des-Prés we walk through the 7th arrondissement to the Musée de Rodin. Rodin himself chose the early 18th-century Hôtel Biron as the last resting place for his works.
In addition to the permanent collection, the museum is also responsible for thousands of molds of bodies, arms and legs. “We are still finding new combinations that are only being combined for the first time as one sculpture,” says Clémence Goldberger, head of the museum’s public activities. “Our last discovery was in 2016, when we finally found the right arms at the statue of Aphrodite.” In the garden next to the museum is the little statue of a naked woman, gracefully with her arms raised.
The passage about Rodin from Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The world of yesterday is significant. At the start of the 20th century, Rodin invited the young Zweig to Paris to visit his studio. Among the hundreds of detailed studies of hands, arms, necks and ears, Rodin took him to his latest work, which stood under damp cloths on a pedestal in the center of the room. Together they looked at the woman’s portrait, until Rodin took a spatula to slightly update the shoulder. Soon the artist became so absorbed in his work that he no longer noticed Zweig. “He totally forgot about me. I no longer existed for him. Only the work, the image existed for him and behind it the vision of total perfection. “
On the other side of the garden, opposite the monumental Hellepoort, De thinker looks down on us frowned. “This is a place where you can see the history of Paris at a glance,” says Goldberger. In the distance, the Eiffel Tower stands out above the statue. The gilded dome of the 17th-century Hôtel des Invalides, commissioned by Louis XIV, shines next to it.
Some clichés are there for a reason. One is to walk on the quay along the Seine. Paris cleared up at night, now the sun illuminates the plane trees. We have the quay to ourselves, although the tourist boats pass by packed. Electric steps are clearly the new thing in Paris and buzz and rattle over the cobbles above us. In addition to Notre Dame, which is still intact at the moment, we browse the obligatory book stands. A peregrine falcon hunts a group of pigeons from its towers high above the heads. That’s how we love Paris.
PARIS VENICE. In the evening we board the Italian night train from Thello in Gare de Lyon. When you say “dining car”, you immediately think of the friendly clink of glasses, set tables, mood lamps and delicious food on Agatha Christies Orient Express. Today, a dining car is a place where you are surly served on expensive beer and frozen pizza. But you can still see the sun set from your own compartment, the rhythmic roar of the train accompanies you through the night and when you slide the curtain aside in the morning, you are in Italy. After breakfast the train stops at the Venezia Santa Lucia end station and we get off in a different world.
Mass tourism is lazy and unwieldy. It crawls slowly through the streets like a thick slurry and lets the small alleys clog up, then runs out over the St. Mark’s Square like a muddy stream. Excited jawing sounds from the crowd. Selfie sticks protrude like feelers from the single-celled organism that extends over the centuries-old stones. We are not tourists, we think, but just like those millions of others, we are deeply impressed by Venice. No matter how many times you have seen photos and paintings of the Basilica, the lagoon and the maze of alleys, nothing can beat seeing them.
To get lost
Yet it is easy to escape mass tourism in Venice. You only have to take a side street or three and you walk almost alone through the streets. “Everyone who comes from outside must get lost in it; the only way to get to know her, “writes Cees Nooteboom in Venice. Because no matter how beautiful the churches and the palazzi and how beautiful the sun shines on the lagoon, Venice is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, dilapidated façades, green-black water, flapping laundry and strange echoes.
A man is singing. A few meters in front of him, his hat is lying on the paving stones, waiting for some change. He does not sing well, but the loneliness with which his arms rock beside his body is moving.
Along Cannaregio we go to Campo dei Gesuiti and walk further on the
Fondamente Nove. With a view of the island of San Michele, we continue all the
way to the eastern island of Sant’Elena and eat fish in the family restaurant
Osteria da Pampo.
It is already late when we get on the vaporetto. In the dark we sail over the pitch-black water of the Grand Canal. The palazzi are soberly lit and shadows dance enchantingly. We slide under the Rialto Bridge and get off at Ferrovia. We spend the night not far from the station in a quiet neighborhood. In bed we listen to the sounds of the city. “What you hear are footsteps, the forgotten sound that belongs to a time without cars, that has sounded uninterrupted here for centuries,” Nooteboom writes.
In the morning we are awakened by the garbage collection. Not the noisy squeaking and rumbling, but the poetic medieval version. Two men walk whistling through the small streets with a towing cart and stop at the corner at Trattoria Ai Bari for a quick coffee. A little later we do the same, then get lost again for a day.
VENICE – VIENNA. “Das ist grün” is written on the wagon to encourage our choice of transport. The night train of the Austrian company ÖBB is modern. The train stewardess takes us to the two-person compartment. We even have our own bathroom. When the train starts with a soft shock, we sound with prosecco and say goodbye to La Serenissima.
The difference is huge; from the small alleys to the large imperial avenues. Vienna is stately. Or maybe Erudite fits better with this city. Or simply conceited, that is of course also possible. The European political and cultural history is so present here that it makes you dizzy.
We travel by tram along the Ringstrasse; How can you greet Vienna better? At the Burgtheater we walk into the city. We have agreed with a guide who will show us around the historic center of Vienna in a few hours. You have to know something about its history, otherwise you can sometimes get stuck with the kitsch and excess of this city. We walk past the parliament to Maria-Theresien-Platz, with the Archduchess still on her bronze throne, Heldenplatz and imperial Hofburg. Two lipizzaner horses come out of the buildings of the Spanish Riding School on request, with their heads raised. “So healthy the pedigree of the lipizzaners, so bad the genetics of the Habsburg monarchy,” laughs our guide. Dead Habsburgs are divided into three. Their heart comes in an urn in the Augustinian church, their entrails in the crypt in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, their body in sarcophagi in the Capuchin crypt.
Coffee and opera
Come in for a kiss, is written outside the Belvedere. If you are only in Vienna for two days, you will inevitably visit some of the must sees from the umpteenth list. Whoever says Vienna, says Gustav Klimt and The kiss. Along the smartphones we look at the sensual embrace in shiny gold. If we have to choose, the intense paintings by Egon Schiele in the rooms next door make the most impression.
Vienna is also synonymous with coffee houses. Since 2011, Viennese coffeehouse culture has been included in the UNESCO list of intangible heritage. After the reconquest of Vienna from the Ottomans, the Habsburg soldiers found bags of roasted coffee beans, something they did not know before. One of the officers was assigned the beans and opened the first coffee house in the city. That’s how the legend goes. The Viennese coffee houses are something special. Stefan Zweig described them as “a kind of democratic club, accessible to everyone for the price of a cup of coffee, to talk for hours, to write, but especially to go through the endless stack of newspapers and magazines.” to go back a hundred years back in time and see the crème de la crème of Europe’s intellectuals sitting around a table, drinking coffee next to a stack of international newspapers, engaged in a heavy discussion.
In the evening, La bohème de Puccini plays in the State Opera. Tickets are no longer there, but in May, June and September you can watch the live screening of the show for free outside the opera house on the Karajan-Platz. Rodolfo sings “La più divina delle poesie è quella, amico, che c’insegna amare!” Together with a hundred others we sit on folding chairs in the square, listen with bated breath and applaud loudly to the screen at the last company. Does Vienna still keep up with the times?
– The prices for night trains vary widely depending on the type of sleeper car. If you want to visit several countries, it is worthwhile to purchase an Interrail Pass. With that pass you only have to pay the reservation costs of your train journey. www.interrail.eu
– The easiest train connection from Paris to Venice is the night train from Thello (www.thello.com).
From Venice to Vienna we drove the ÖBB’s Nightjet. Austrian society is working hard on a more extensive range of night trains through Italy, Austria and Germany (www.nightjet.com).
– From Vienna back to Brussels we rode the international train during the day.