The story so far…

Shortly before half past six, the Regionale creaked and began to inch away from Platform 10 at Milano Centrale. The station’s arched ceiling slid back like a sunroof, allowing a blaze of orange light to ignite the carriage. Wet with sweat, I peeled myself off the seat and tugged down the window as fellow passengers pulled open doors, wiped their foreheads and fanned themselves with copies of Metro. Within a few minutes the train had gained pace, and a steady blast of air was beginning to make the ride more comfortable when a grand Frecciarossa high-speed train slammed past in the opposite direction, making our flimsy regional train rattle in its wake.It would be two hours to Verona, so I picked up my Kindle on which Tim Parks was teaching me about the fiddles and frustrations of the country’s railways in his book Italian Ways. I soon put it down again and stared out at the vineyards rolling past the window, the bushes glowing in that wonderful evening light that Italy laps up and in which it basks. suitably reflective mode, I conceded that I was obsessed with trains. Five years ago I stepped off the Charminar Express in Chennai and marked my 80th train journey around India. Armed with nothing but a 90-day rail pass, an outdated map, and extraordinary naivety, I had travelled 24,855 miles – the circumference of the Earth – reaching the southern, western, northern and easternmost extremities of India’s railways.

Leaning out of doorways, perching on steps and sleeping in the odd linen cupboard, I covered the length and breadth of the country in four months and was drawn into its warm embrace by the whole railway family – from her royal highness the Deccan Queen and the sleek and chic Durontos, to the puffing and panting toy trains and thundering Rajdhanis. I hung from the badly behaved Mumbai commuters, had sweet dreams in the Indian Maharaja’s double bed, and witnessed orthopaedic surgery on the world’s first hospital train. But it was through the cast of characters who wandered the aisles, snored in the bunk above me or chatted by my side that I came to understand how the railways had earned the nickname “The Lifeline of a Nation”.

A little secret: when I first arrived in India, I didn’t care for trains. They were simply the cheapest and most practical way to travel (my rail pass cost £350 for 90 days, the same price as a first-class return from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley – and that price included sleeper services and most of my hot meals). But when I was back home in London writing my book, something changed: I found that I was magnetised by the sound of wheels on steel. Scrolling through television channels, I’d perk up like a meerkat at any programme about trains; at night, the distant hoot of the overland service through Finchley and Frognal felt like the mother ship calling me home.

So, a few weeks ago I left my job, packed my bag and boarded the 14:31 from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Having travelled around India in 80 trains, the most obvious, albeit daunting, next step was to take on the world. Unlike Phileas Fogg and Passepartout (from whom I stole my idea) I don’t have a bet to win: the journey is not a race. I’ve never understood the bizarre need to complete a route in the fastest time possible. Why waste an opportunity to absorb all that a place and its people have to offer by shooting in and out? I could travel around the world in 10 trains; I could do it in a hundred if I wanted to. Eighty, I thought, was a nice round number that would make the journey a challenge – but not an impossibility.

In the coming months, having already travelled extensively in Europe, I’ll make my way to Moscow via Riga for the big one (although I plan to take the trans-Mongolian, dipping south at Lake Baikal to Ulan Bator and on to Beijing, rather than the trans-Siberian). I have sketched out various journeys in Asia – through Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan – followed by a route across North America, from the Rocky Mountains to the deserts of Arizona. I will obviously have to “cheat” and fly across the Pacific Ocean.

Much of the trip remains open: I want there to be spontaneity. But the penultimate leg of the trip should take me winding across China and on to the ancient route of the silk traders through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Visas permitting, I will return to Europe through Iran and Turkey, and would like to conclude the trip with the Venice to London route. And I will be sending regular dispatches to the Discover section of The Sunday Telegraph. Why do all this by train? For me, flying is expensive and boring, while car journeys are cramped and tedious. Trains, on the other hand, take the traveller into the nooks and crannies of a country and into the heart of its people. They are a microcosm of society, embodying literal class division: in India I could eat hot cornflakes with the ambassador to The Hague in a first-class carriage, then 36 carriages along, sit on wooden slats sharing pears in paper bags with a farmer from Gujarat. On trains I feel free: if I’m late, I can always catch another – and I can carry as much luggage as I like, with liquids in opaque bags. I can eat my own sandwiches, go for a wander, even move seats should I object to my companion.

When I set off, my goal was to spend the next 10 months finding out whether the charm and character of India’s railways extends around the rest of the world. Our British trains have lost the sparkle and spirit of their heyday, reduced to little more than a tired, delayed, grossly expensive form of transport for jaded commuters. But perhaps the glory of rail travel survives in other countries and undoubtedly there are pockets of the world where trains continue to play a vital role in enabling communities to survive and countries to thrive. With a one-month second-class Eurail pass in hand, I began my journey through Europe. From Paris I snaked down to Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand, weaving between forests and trundling over rivers tumbling through the Massif Central to Béziers, before curling down to Barcelona and blasting across to Madrid on the high-speed Ave opposite Rosita and Emily, two sleeping pensioners whose mouths had dropped open so far I could see the black plastic on their false teeth.

Madrid Atocha station

Madrid Atocha station

From Madrid I sat upright overnight to Lisbon, arriving with a sense of awe and a cricked neck, then circled the Douro Valley and back across Spain, hugging the coastline to Cannes, and spending the last week hopping between Milan, Verona, Florence and Rome . A Eurail pass is worth it if you’re planning a series of long-distance journeys: it pays for itself in five or six train rides. And if you have a fixed itinerary, reservations can be made anywhere from 90 days in advance. But it has its restrictions. I don’t like rigid plans and my best moments have come through serendipitous encounters with other travellers dishing out advice and redirecting me at a moment’s notice. I don’t know what I’m doing next week, let alone in 90 days’ time – and I wouldn’t want it any other way. With a rail pass, though, this presents a few problems.

The view from the Glacier Express in Switzerland

The view from the Glacier Express in Switzerland

At Milano Centrale I met Marie, a 50-year-old designer from New Zealand. She and I struck up a friendship through a session of mutual sighing and eye-rolling at the inability of Italians to form a queue – a queue, by the way, for a ticket to get into a second queue, so you can then sort out your pre-bought ticket.That’s Italy for you. I like it, though, because it’s as close as I have come to anything vaguely resembling the insanity of Indian Railways in terms of bureaucracy. Marie pushed her sunglasses on to her head and pulled a face: “You think a rail pass gives you freedom, but actually it’s the opposite. When you make a booking you have to stick to it or you end up queuing forever to change your booking and only get some of the money refunded.”

And that’s if you’re lucky. Trenitalia agents in Florence refused to change tickets I’d booked two days earlier in Monaco by SNCF, which refused to amend a booking made two days before that in Valencia by RENFE. Each insisted the other was responsible for voiding the tickets that were no longer needed and that any refunds had to be requested by post. Needless to say, I’ve racked up a fortune on reservation fees, ranging from €5 for a seat from Avignon to Cannes, to €35 for a high-speed service from Mannheim to Prague. Owing to temporary track replacement and repairs, there were no trains between Munich and Prague when I wanted to do that journey , forcing travellers on to a five-hour-long coach journey – my idea of hell. So I took an unplanned and long-winded route via Mannheim and, just before midnight, boarded the 10-hour overnight service to Prague. It was the first sleeper service of my journey, and I cleaned my teeth, picked my way back to my bunk and slid into my sleeper sheet, plumping my fleece into a pillow. My companion flipped off the switch and wriggled around below for a few minutes until his even breathing told me he was asleep. I lay blinking at the ceiling. As the air conditioner hummed and the train relaxed into a gentle rock, a familiar feeling came over me. It was the unmistakable feeling of coming home.

On the sleeper train to Prague

On the sleeper train to Prague

If you want to book a rail pass with Eurail visit: www.interrail.eu

We’re all just a bit selfie-obsessed

Just for a moment, close your eyes and think back to the good old days before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Remember how, when you went on holiday, you would take a day trip to a historical site, climb to the top and take off all your clothes? Or perhaps when you went out for a romantic dinner, photographed your tiger prawns, then drove over to your best friend’s house to show them? No? Nor do I.

Earlier this month, four tourists were arrested for stripping naked at the summit of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu and now face up to three months in jail. When I read the story over breakfast in a Rome hotel, I was more depressed than shocked. For the last six weeks that I’ve been train-hopping around Europe, my faith in the future of mankind has dwindled so far as to make me wince at the sight of tourists. Where once travel was a passive activity, it has now morphed into an aggressive, competitive sport. It’s no longer enough to slip into a city at night, stroll the streets by day, and leave as quietly as you came. Now you have to make your mark by scratching your name into a wall, airing your genitalia on a holy mountain or banging a padlock onto a bridge. It’s the travelling equivalent of taking a long drawn-out piss all over your neighbour’s front porch.

I first felt revulsion for the trend while walking hand in hand on the Pont des Arts last October. Paris’s bridges form the backbone of the city and are synonymous with romance, popping up in most art and literature. Yet, in 2008, couples began attaching metal padlocks to the Pont des Arts and throwing the keys into the water to symbolize their unbreakable love. Never mind that the keys are probably covered in sludge and littering the riverbed, the thousands of locks conceal the bridge’s original beauty and Parisian authorities have had to remove 45 tonnes of the dirty metal to prevent the bridge from collapsing. Padlocking these historical pieces of art is nothing short of vandalism. And if your relationship needs a padlock to signify its security, then you probably need to reconsider that relationship.

But the madness doesn’t stop there. Last week, I visited Juliet’s balcony at the Casa di Giulietta in Verona. There is no evidence that the Capulet family ever lived there, yet the city dines out on the tale of the star-crossed lovers and the walls in the courtyard below the balcony are covered in handwritten letters to “Juliet” from tourists who use chewing gum to attach their notes. Even Verona’s clock tower has succumbed to the abuse. With a panoramic view of the city’s terracotta rooftops and the river running along the periphery, it’s a spot of peace high above the main piazza. After climbing more than 300 steps, I reached the bell tower, only to find the walls and the grand old bell itself covered in graffiti. Did Olga and Georg really need to scratch their names into its rim? Was Glenda so oblivious to his affections that Marco was compelled to tell her on 8 December 2014 that he “hearted” her and deface the brickwork of the artist who built the façade? Would Fabio declare his love for Betta across a painting in the Louvre? Maybe clip a padlock onto The Thinker’s little finger? If the answer is no, then maybe he should think about why he did it here. As I crossed the Castel Vecchio bridge at night, I climbed onto the brick ledge and shuffled along to gaze at the river bubbling below. It tumbled in the glow of the streetlamps and I had an overwhelming sense of calm as I stroked the clean surfaces and admired the loveliness of the structure. But there it was. Like architecture’s answer to herpes, one nasty little padlock had appeared and it was bound to spread its disease. Verona’s mayor has responded by issuing fines, but it begs the question: where does this compulsion come from?

I fear it is part of the growing desperation to be a part of the story, to be seen and heard having a good time, all the time. It’s not enough to stand before the remnants of the Berlin Wall and absorb the enormity of all it represents; the experience is apparently enhanced by taking a photograph of yourself in front of it to tweet, post on Facebook or hashtag on Instagram. Heaven forbid anyone think you weren’t ever there. The greatest irony is that these people feel their experience is heightened, the immersion greater, when the truth is that the magic of travel eludes them.

A Korean couple sat at a table next to me in Florence filming each other eat. She held her camera under his fork, as he ate his penne rigata and veal ragu, and giggled. He filmed her poised with a forkful of rare steak. For more than one hour, the two of them photographed each other’s tiramisu, napkins and wine glasses, and exchanged no fewer than seven or eight words. I looked around at the restaurant and wondered, would they be able to describe the vintage wine cases lining the walls, faded at the edges? Would they remember the warm smell of fresh rosemary in vases, the murmur of voices and the sound of the first glug from a newly opened bottle of wine? Had they even noticed their table was an old barrel bottom? I’ve always erred on the side of the flâneur, strolling around observing the city. I’m pretty awful at taking photographs and hate carrying a camera, but I sometimes wonder whether my mind’s eye draws in more than any camera ever could. Balzac described flânerie as a science or “gastronomy of the eye”, but I fear that tastes have changed and if we are now a society that has to take naked photos at a historical site to enjoy the experience, then we are all the worse off for it.

Madrid’s Grand Budapest Hotel

Hopping around Europe over the last month has been enormous fun and we are currently at the Palazzo Victoria in Verona digesting a late lunch of lobster, mashed potato and herring eggs – who knew eh? It does work in case you wondered.

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It might seem like the stuff of dreams, leap-frogging from one hotel to the next, but over a stretch of nine months, it’s normal to miss creature comforts: PG Tips from your favourite mug in the morning; BBC breakfast news; ironed clothes (rather than what’s least smelly). But what makes it easier is when staff go that extra mile to make an effort for guests and to make sure they feel more at home. And so far the place we found that was at The Urso in Madrid (click the link to read about it).

The first screw up…

It was inevitable that trying to coordinate this many trains and hotels and bookings and going square-eyed from timetables was going to cause a few glitches along the way. With all good intentions to ride the steam train through the Douro Valley it turns out that the train only runs on a Saturday and I need to hot-foot it tonight to Madrid and then on to Valencia so I’m afraid it isn’t going to happen.

But I can tell you that São Bento Railway Station, or Estação de São Bento is probably the most beautiful station I’ve seen so far. The tiles tell an amazing story but I will leave that for you to discover yourself…

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Hanging around at Gare du Nord

And so it began at London’s St Pancras station. I boarded the first of eighty trains around the world, the 14:31 to Paris.

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For most of the evening I lurked in Gare du Nord station just watching people come and go. Stations aren’t really somewhere that a passer-by can fully absorb while bolting for a train. But if you stop and look around, you realise what an incredible hive of activity stations really are. I loved watching people charging their phones by cycling and then a lovely man playing the piano in the evening sunshine. Almost all stations in France seem to have pianos for anyone to sit down and play at and I loved how he was unbothered by the crowd watching him play.

 

50 Best Travel Websites

Last week The Independent listed us in their 50 Best Travel Websites http://ind.pn/mJ0Qsj and as a result we’ve had lots of emails about booking trips to India and in particular, trains! Feel free to get in touch and we will see what we can do, and in the interim more train reviews will be added soon.

Happy travels!