The Leyton Orient Express
I am never sure of time or place upon a Railroad. I can’t read, I can’t think, I can’t sleep — I can only dream. Rattling along in this railway carriage in a state of luxurious confusion, I take it for granted I am coming from somewhere, and going somewhere else… I know nothing about myself — for anything I know, I may be coming from the Moon.
Immediately after I retired I took a journey by train that started in my home town and ended in Rome. Travelling through France and into Italy. My way of establishing a clean break between the world of work and that of retirement. I called my journey, a trip on the ‘Leyton Orient Express’, given my plan to use scheduled train services and stay in budget hotels. What follows is a short reminisce of my journey with the occasional culinary insight.
There is a saying that the longest journey starts with the first step. Well, mine started with cows on the line! Not the most auspicious of starts for my two and a half thousand-mile venture as those cows brought the Great Western Railway between London Paddington and all points west to a complete standstill.
I arrived at my local station, late in the morning, to find people milling around on the platform. All seemingly avoiding each other. It was reminiscent of the scene in the ‘Great Escape’, where the escapees arrive at the railway station and try to avoid eye contact or any other sign of recognition.
Unlike some of my fellow travellers, the delay did not agitate me. I had booked to see the 1970s film classic, ‘Don’t Look Now’, for mid-afternoon but missing that wasn’t the end of the world. As it was, forty-five minutes after my scheduled departure, I was speeding eastward to arrive in London with plenty of time before my film.
I’d been economical with the costs of this trip, staying in small hotels in the cheaper areas of each city, so my first hotel found me near Pimlico. It was a quiet residential area and the hotel was nice enough. A friendly welcome greeted me, and while my room was small, it had all I needed. After checking in, I headed for the Curzon cinema in Bloomsbury and my film.
I have seen, ‘Don’t Look Now’ many times. Yet, I found this remastered version as enjoyable as every other viewing. Although I pondered, as I left the cinema, it might not be the best film to watch given the days ahead wandering around alone at night through the narrow streets of French and Italian cities.
The next day saw an early start for my tube journey to St Pancras and from there, an onward trip to Paris by Eurostar. Once through the melee before security at St Pancras, everything calmed down, and the short wait for boarding was quiet and relaxed.
We left on time with not a hint of a cow, and it wasn’t long before we plunged into the darkness of the Channel Tunnel. Twenty-odd minutes later, we burst from darkness into the sunshine as we sped our way to Paris through the fields of Northern France.
Gare de Nord was as busy as ever. I, therefore, girded my loins to battle the crowds and find the Metro for my journey to the Champs de Mars area of Paris and my hotel. A struggle then ensued between the turnstile entrance to the Metro and me. I inserted my ticket and moved my bag through the open gates to then have them close with my bag on one side and me on the other. Reinserting my ticket proved fruitless. Fortunately, a native Parisian let me use his ticket while he vaulted the barrier. From there, I successfully navigated the metro system, and I was soon back into the hot sunshine in search of my hotel.
I found it quickly enough tucked away on a busy street of bars, restaurants, and small shops. I also found it closed with a little handwritten sign on the door apologising and saying someone would be back in two minutes. It may have been more like five minutes before I heard the unlocking of the front door, and with greetings and more apologies, I checked into my room.
The room while tiny was charming and very French in style. The bed, with many pillows, almost filled the space available, but as with that in London, the room offered all I needed for a good night’s rest. It was then to explore the area. On my walk, I also checked out my planned bistro for the evening. Recommended by the receptionist in my hotel who said if I was looking for decent quality at sensible prices this was the place.
They were correct as it turned out that the food was superb. Unfussy yet packed with flavour. The owner was enchanting and reminded me a little of Yvette in ‘Allo, Allo’. Not in stature but how her presence commanded the establishment that also resembled the bistro set of the TV programme. My ‘Yvette’ swapped between English and French with ease, but it was also helpful in that she spoke in slow French as I tried to avoid falling into English. All three courses were to die for (especially the boef bourguignon main) yet the bill was a fraction of that of a ‘grand’ restaurant. You can tell an excellent restaurant by its local clientele, and this had them in spades. Not the sophisticates, just ordinary working Parisians who know great food.
It was another comparatively early start the next morning for my journey to Marseille. I navigated the metro interconnections without mishap and arrived in Gare de Lyon, as tends to be my habit, well before the time of my morning train.
Fifteen minutes before departure came the announcement of the platform, and I and many others, headed off as directed. I confirmed the correct platform by looking at the board above the entrance but confusingly it had two trains listed with two different numbers but both leaving at the same time. One was destined for Nice the other for Marseille.
Before boarding, what I believed to be, the correct carriage, I asked the train attendant and was confident they confirmed my choice. I settled myself into my seat, exchanging a polite ‘bonjour’ with the chap in the seat beside me and waited for departure.
Around five minutes later, a lady appeared, and although my French is modest, she was clearly telling me I had her seat. We looked at each other’s tickets, and on both, it said carriage two seat two. Except hers said, destination Nice and mine said destination Marseille. I was clearly on the wrong train.
With apologies from me in strangulated French and helpful guidance and reassurance in excellent English from those around, I left that train to carry on down the platform to look for my own.
There it was, sitting in front of the train to Nice. I found carriage two and seat two sitting empty. My confidence was now a little shaken; I asked in confirmation if this was the train for Marseille. “yes’, came the reply from several people in a variety of languages.
As I travelled south, it was not without one or two misgivings given what some had said of Marseille before I left the UK. I knew Marseille had a dark and edgy reputation, not unlike Naples. Marseille railway station was apparently a place in which not to linger. I had visions of entering a dark station unimproved from its earliest days and filled with miscreants and malcontents lurking in the shadows.
It was another comparatively early start the following day for my journey to Marseille. Again, I navigated the metro interconnections without mishap and arrived in Gare de Lyon, as tends to be my habit, well before my morning train.
Gare de Lyon seemed to have changed since my last visit there 10 years ago. It is much expanded and has a modern glass and metal ‘feel’. But, as with many railway stations, it is as much a shopping mall as a passenger terminal.
Fifteen minutes before its scheduled departure, I heard the platform announcement for my train, and I and many others headed off as directed. I confirmed the correct platform by looking at the board above the entrance. Still, confusingly it had two trains listed with two different numbers but with identical departure times. One was destined for Nice, the other for Marseille.
Before boarding, what I believed to be, the correct carriage, I asked the train attendant and was confident they confirmed my choice. Therefore, I settled myself into my seat, exchanging a polite ‘bonjour’ with the chap in the seat beside me and waited for departure.
Around five minutes later, a lady appeared at my elbow. Although my French is modest, I understood clearly that she was telling me I had her seat. We looked at each other’s tickets, and on both, it said carriage two seat two. Except hers said, destination Nice and mine said destination Marseille. So, I was in the correct seat but on the wrong train!
I offered apologies in strangulated French. Then with both guidance and reassurance from those around, I left that train to look for mine.
It was there in front of the train to Nice. I found carriage two and seat two sitting empty. My confidence was now a little shaken. So before sitting down, I asked other passengers if this was the train for Marseille. “yes’, came the reply from several people in various languages.
As I travelled south, it was not without one or two misgivings, given what some had said of Marseille before I left the UK. I knew Marseille had a dark and edgy reputation, not unlike Naples. However, I much enjoy Naples, so to begin with, I wasn’t too concerned.
However, many had said that the Marseille railway station really was a place to avoid. So, to be safe, I decided that I would not walk to my hotel on this occasion. Instead, I would take a taxi and thus minimise any potential threat to my person.
As we drew nearer Marseille, I had visions of entering a dark station unimproved from its earliest days and filled with miscreants and malcontents lurking in the shadows.
In contrast, I arrived at a wonderfully light and airy station that was busy, yes but filled with people going about their regular business. So, my transport plans changed at once. On leaving the station, it was to exit onto a beautiful viewing gallery that offered magnificent views across the sprawling city.
The sun was again shining. The cloudless sky was a deep blue. And a ride in a taxi was the least of my desires. So off I headed in the direction of my hotel. As I walked, I wondered if any who warned me of the station’s ‘dangers’ had ever visited the place. My first discovery was an impressive and lengthy set of steps guarded on each side with statues of grandeur.
On my arrival at the hotel, I discovered that my room wasn’t ready, so leaving my case, it was to the harbour area and lunch by the water.
Marseille has a transitory feel. Not a destination as such, more a city that people pass through while journeying elsewhere. As a result, it’s not a pretty city with tourist sights. Instead, it has impressive buildings and an attractive restaurant-lined waterfront where I took lunch of fresh tuna with a salad crisp to the bite. Eaten as I looked out over the water. In the distance, a cathedral sat imperiously on a hill, looking down on all.
Lunch over, I strolled around the extensive harbour. The most eye-catching feature was a canopy of which the underside is polished metal. It reflected in reverse everything below and made for fascinating viewing.
I always look to eat local offerings as much as possible on my travels. I had picked a restaurant again on the waterfront that had a reputation for traditional Marseilles cooking. The menu offered such delicacies as lamb’s testicles however I played safe and opted for lamb ribs. They arrived cooked beautifully and served with a crisp salad. A half bottle of fresh and fruitful Sancerre washed them down.
My train to Nice left a little later than those of my other journeys, so I could take my walk to the station at a gentle pace. The weather was as pleasant as that of the day before. However, this time, I had to climb up the grand steps rather than down. It took a couple of rest stops to complete the task.
The train left promptly and this time I found the correct carriage and seat without the aid of anyone else. Once we left the urban landscape of Marseille, we headed towards the coast for the journey to Nice.
The journey was not long, and I soon arrived in Nice, feeling at home, given my visits there over the years. I got my bearings quickly on where the hotel was situated. After a short stroll through the primarily residential streets, it was a warm welcome at the hotel and directions to a small, well-appointed room.
After lunch on the beach of perfectly grilled sole and a glass of Chablis, it was a stroll around familiar sights in Nice. The market, the waterspouts in the park and finally, Michelangelo’s David. Or at least the smaller version of that statue. There’s a tiny version of the Statue of Liberty too.
My evening meal was again superb. Veal in a tuna sauce. A meal I have enjoyed several times while travelling but, as with Salad Niçoise, never tastes quite the same when eaten in a restaurant in the UK.
My meal over and with thoughts of the next day’s early start for my journey across the border to Italy, I strolled back to the hotel. The light had taken the mauve, and purple pastel tones that fall upon the Mediterranean towns as the sun makes its descent. No wonder artists so much love this area.
The following day, I was back in Nice’s station in time for my journey to Genoa. Unfortunately, on arrival on the indicated platform, I, and others around me spotted our intended train several tracks away from where we all stood.
Usually, on arrival at the platform, it’s to await your train’s arrival or to find it emptily awaiting its occupants. In this case, some minutes before we were due to leave, our train began to move and slowly disappeared out of the station. It reappeared some moments later, travelling in the opposite direction from which it had left, pulling slowly to the platform on which my fellow passengers and I, stood.
Soon we were off and speeding again along the beautiful ‘Blue Coast’ railway. As with the journey from Marseille, when looking one way we had the Mediterranean stretching out to the horizon. Looking in the other direction, offered sheer cliffs towering way above us.
It wasn’t long before we pulled into Genoa station. As grandiose as I remembered it. Now to find my hotel. Aided by my trusty iPhone maps, I headed off in what I believed was the correct direction. Around five minutes later, I retraced my steps to head off in the opposite direction.
Things went well for the first 15 minutes of walking, given the easily navigable broad streets. Then, as I entered the old town of Genoa with its narrow winding streets virtually unchanged for some 400 years, things went awry. I knew where the hotel must be, but there seemed no way to reach it from the large piazza to which the map had guided me. There was a tiny alleyway about as wide as my shoulders, that seemed to travel in the correct direction, but I had no desire to walk down that.
Ignoring my map I left the piazza and after strolling down one street and then another, I stumbled upon the tiny piazza in which my hotel stood. Once a 17th-century palace its conversion to a boutique hotel was beautiful. Outside had kept the older splendour while inside, all was sleek and modern.
While checking in, I mentioned my challenge in finding the place. Recognition fell over the face of the receptionist. I was clearly not the first to meet such a problem. She helpfully answered that the small alleyway was indeed the quickest way to the hotel, suggesting I use that alleyway as my exit to explore the city.
I did so, and I came across several ‘interesting’ female characters on my short journey through it. All middle-aged and wearing heavy makeup. I didn’t linger on my walk as thoughts of the red-coated dwarf from ‘Don’t Look Now’ came to mind.
Genoa is a magnificent city, but those touring Italy tend to overlook what is also a working city. Nevertheless, it has beautiful piazzas, grand fountains, imposing buildings, and fine statues. Many of the latter being of Christopher Columbus, who was born there. There was a feeling of being home in England. For example, the red cross of St George (the Patron Saint of Genoa) hangs from many homes and buildings. There are also statues and plasterwork of the Saint.
It was then to my restaurant for the evening. The menu proffered was something to behold. It consisted of several wooden tablets bound together with metal loops. The whole thing was about two inches thick. Therefore, choosing my meal involved some exercise. I opted for the waiter’s recommendation of a local pasta and pesto combination. Not usually my choice but, in this case, I really enjoyed it.
After my meal, it was back to the hotel, and even though darkness had descended, I braved the small alleyway again. The ‘ladies’ still sat there within small pools of light cast from inside their homes. While offering goodnight greetings, I kept moving at pace.
It was a much earlier start the following day for my long journey to Rome. As I left my hotel, the sun had not fully risen, and a faint light shrouded eerily the empty piazza and streets. Unlike Nice, on arriving at the station this time, the train already stood alongside the platform. We were soon off and while the journey was long at five hours, the time passed quickly as gazed dreamily at the Mediterranean fleeting by. The train arrived at Rome’s Termini right on schedule.
My hotel was some distance away, near the Castel D’Angelo, and even the taxi driver took some time to find it. Checking in was an experience. After ascending in the rickety old lift, still common across Europe, it was to discover that the receptionist was, in fact, the cleaner who did not speak a word of English. Not even hello. Fortunately, I knew enough Italian, and supplemented by gestures and lots of smiles in both our cases, I was able to check-in. The best description of my room was functional. It held a bed, a table, and a TV. Nothing else, not even a glass to drink from. The bathroom was equally stark. A shower and a toilet. There was toilet paper but nothing else. Catering arrangements were from a vending machine in reception. The receptionist/cleaner also gave me a voucher entitling me to breakfast the next day at a nearby café. It was then off to my destination for the afternoon of the Domus Aurea.
Built by Nero, Domus Aurea is Latin for Golden House in Latin. And golden it once was with walls covered in gold as well as ornate marble and gemstones. It was also massive with over 300 rooms (but no bedrooms!). After Nero’s death, his successors wished to eradicate his memory so buried the palace. It wasn’t until the 15th century that it was rediscovered. It is now an underground archaeological site. Its glory is faded but it’s still magnificent to behold.
I’d received a recommendation for a restaurant, close to my hotel, for the evening and made a reservation there. When the time came, I entered its cramped space to a bustling atmosphere, a warm greeting, a winning smile, and a menu proffered in my direction. People occupied most tables, but my reservation stood me in good stead. I pondered going for the multiple courses with which Italian dining is synonymous. In the end, I managed three as the portions of each were not meagre. Antipasti of cured meats, a generous Primi of pasta and then a secondi of roast chicken with a contorni of vegetables. All beautifully cooked and of a quantity that sated my appetite. After a meal in Italy, I often waddle back to the hotel.
The hotel owner had kindly arranged transport for me to the airport the next day, so I spent the blazingly hot morning strolling up to the Castel D’Angelo and St Peters. That was after a light and flavoursome tuna and tomato panini breakfast, courtesy of my hotel voucher, washed down with a cappuccino.
I was back at the rendezvous point for my car to the airport in perfect time and soon sped along Rome’s streets. Fortunately, my amiable, chatty driver did not drive in that classic Italian pedal to the metal style. I, therefore, arrived at the airport less fraught than is sometimes the case.
Having had every train while in Europe run on time, it was typical that a delay would occur on the ‘English’ leg of the journey. But after not too long a wait, I was airborne and homeward bound after a marvellous journey. My trip was everything I wished it to be as a transition from the world of work. I returned a little tired but very relaxed and ready for life’s next chapter.