It is the 4th of December. The snow has taken an unmerciful grip of London rarely seen before, and escape seems decreasingly likely. An impossibly early morning and we are lucky. Good seats and in Paris only a little late.
We are treated with indifference at the acceptable Hotel Liberty. To raise our spirits we spend some time with the dead, through tunnels and chambers we stroll among the lifeless exhibits of graveyards and catacombs, stopping only briefly for a little rock ‘n’ roll at Café l’Industrie on avenue Parmentier. We go back to 1900 and traverse the other Paris below, emerging through Guimard’s édicules only to stare at Piaf, Chopin, and later Satre, as if they need our eyes to rest.
The edicules by Père Lachaise
From Montparnasse to Père Lachaise, death makes short entertainment so we rise with them to eat and drink at the small but attractive Part des Anges in Montmartre. I finish with something strong, and from a blur some time later we emerge in Lyon to see the dance of the ribbons and an explosion of colour in Place du Bellecour.
Dancer at the Fête des lumières
Merci Marie for the Fête des lumières, all lights and colour, mulled wine and cigarettes. It is warmer here. The best I can do is taste Lyon, from Chabert & Fils to la Traboulerie, hiding from the eye of judgement of the now illuminated Notre-Dame de Fourvière; the magic here is in the food. I buy a cap from la Croix-Rousse in anticipation of the cold. We stop by the wonderfully named Cassoulet, Whisky, Ping Pong for a well-enjoyed bottle of wine. One last night-time look over the illuminated Lyon, and after three fantastical nights we check out with regret of the welcoming Hotel de la Marne.
A drink for the journey and we are to Strasbourg. A tale of two cities is Strasbourg, torn as it is between languages and no less beautiful for it. They celebrate Christmas several times over throughout the streets here, although each Christmas is much the same. The hostel Ciarus is a good place for a game of cards and a cheap beer. One night is not enough but at least we have a taste of Germany now.
In Nuremberg we can swap wine for beer, and enjoy a culture of drinking perhaps more akin to our own. Once again we are in Christmas wonderland, and once again it is much the same. Like Strasbourg, the straight-off-the-bus tourists make it difficult to navigate but the city is welcoming and has torn itself from a past it seeks to confront head-on. Masses of Christmas-seekers, singing Bavarians and frustrated merchants betray the beauty of Nuremberg, but it is most certainly there. Breakfast at the excellent Treibhaus before we exchange the reliable trains for an equally decent coach ride.
Prague is always in my dreams and through red-wine tinted glasses the spires tempt me through the decayed upper chamber of the station and on through its winding streets. The City Club hotel is dead and lifeless, left empty without a care on a road impossible to cross. The pavements are full of holes and filled with snow. Prague sparkles in a busy glow of broken activity. The Whale Bar is good for a drink and metal music. The late night walk around Vyšehrad is good for the soul.
We catch some live music at the Ungelt Jazz bar, and the food matches the happy atmosphere. The snow is now relentless but the next morning it stops long enough for us to climb the slopes of Petřín Hill and breathe in the beauty surrounding Prague. After such a walk we eat and drink Czech style, and the dumplings are well worth the wait.
We stand in a snowy silence in the Jewish Cemetry. The stones are shining white and all sound is dampened within the walls. There is not much to be said but the silence says it all. Further on the exhibitions are less than inspiring and add little to the shocking truth already laid out in stones.
The Whale Bar
Once again we continue our train journey to our final destination. The overnight train to Amsterdam is unbearable, late and freezing cold. We sit bolt upright between a frozen window and an arrogant fool being frozen out by a girl he isn’t impressing. After they leave we are left, for many more hours, at frozen stations where all information is likewise suitably frozen.
We arrive with the snow at Amsterdam. I have never seen it so stunning and the city becomes a closer companion with each visit. Behind the piss and vomit of American, British and German tourists, and hanging between the final casts of a red-light glow is a very real and artful city. The hostel boat, the Gandalf, goes a long way to cement this impression, and it is there that I sit at the end of the night, with a cup of tea and a moment’s reflection. What a way to travel.
The Amsterdam (VOC)
Hours, drinks and a couple of meals later I find myself at the hell that is Bruxelles Midi, staring down the barrel of the Eurotunnel, ready to have my head blown off by reality, taking my soul with it. I do have with me, however, the desire to get back on to the (mostly) reliable rails of Europe with impressive speed.