Saturday, 11 December 2021

Christmas Market Rhine Cruise

With Great Rail Journeys to What's Left of the German Christmas Markets!

Or Doing Battle with the Greek Alphabet

I have visited "German" Christmas markets in England a few times, three such visits by train being described earlier in this weblog, but I thought the time had come to go to Germany and see what they are like at home. Great Rail Journeys had sent me a winter tour brochure which included a short Rhine cruise with visits to Christmas markets including those in Cologne, a city where we had spent the night on our way to other places but had never really visited properly before. We booked it straight away, upgrading to First Class train travel and booking a similar cabin to one we had enjoyed so much on the Danube cruise a few years ago. We had also travelled along the Rhine valley by train a few times on our way to and from Switzerland, and now we would see it much more slowly from a river cruise ship, the Amadeus Silver II, a sister ship of the vessel on which we had cruised the Danube.

Coronavirus pandemic precautions in Germany tightened up a couple of weeks before the tour, and the cruise operator required us to book a Covid test before we could board, so we booked the test with Collinson's at St Pancras as we had for the Italian trip in October. We also intended to book with Collinson the required rapid antigen test for entry to the UK on our return but before bookings were available for either test the British government changed the requirement to the more expensive and time-consuming PCR test in order to check for the new and more transmissible "Omicron" variant of the virus. Self-isolation was required until a negative result was received. I managed, with some effort, to book all of these tests and then the government, just a few days later, added the need for a pre-departure rapid antigen test which meant we would also need a test before we could leave the continent. (This was a bizarre ruling: if we took that test at, say, Brussels before boarding the Eurostar and then took our arrival test in London - as booked - as soon as we arrived, the tests would be less than three hours apart! What is the point in that?) Thankfully, Great Rail Journeys sent an email message to assure us that they were arranging the pre-departure tests for us, at their expense. Even so we later learned that several people cancelled their bookings and a few simply failed to turn up on the departure day. So sad, but quite understandable. Our booking for the PCR test on arrival meant that our self-isolation should be only two days assuming the result is negative.

On the train!

I don't want to put readers off travelling so I shall not describe all of the hassle, but eventually the day dawned and we set off for London, using the open First Class tickets booked for us by Great Rail Journeys. Leaving on a Sunday meant that we were subject to the timetable changes of weekend engineering work, but that all worked perfectly satisfactorily and we had a smooth an easy trip to London. Cutting a long story short, we checked in at the Premier Inn opposite St Pancras International station, also booked for us by Great Rail Journeys, took our rapid antigen tests and then visited our son's family in west London for supper before turning in for the night.

We did not have breakfast booked at the hotel because we anticipated an early start on Monday morning and knew that we would have breakfast on the train, and an opportunity to eat and drink while waiting for it. We went to the Great Rail Journeys office at St Pancras and met our tour manager who was Julia, the very person who had accompanied us to Italy in October. It was lovely to see her again. Normally the tour managers would just take us to the ship and then meet us after the cruise to take us back to London, with a cruise manager looking after us on board - Great Rail Journeys had booked all of the places on this cruise and there were four of their groups on board - but with the amount of paperwork and testing needed it was easier for the company to give their tour managers a cruise with their parties than to send them home and out again, so Julia was with us for the whole time.

We were soon on board the 09:01 Eurostar departure, with a light breakfast for those of us travelling Standard Premier Class. The train was for Brussels, where we had a couple of hours to buy a picnic lunch for the next leg of the journey, and to enjoy a Belgian beer (well, you have to: it's that or chocolate, isn't it?) before taking the German ICE train onward to Cologne. In case of extra formalities, this was a later train than originally planned and because of the late change we had to travel 2nd class on this leg of the journey: this was OK, though, for even in that class we still had reclining seats and adequate space. Typical of German railways, though, we arrived several minutes late at Cologne, but at least that ensured that the four road coaches taking the four groups were waiting for us at the station to take us to our ship which was moored on the other side of the river. In December you don't want to hang around waiting!

Afternoon tea was being served in the Panorama Lounge so we went to our cabin and simply left our coats and hand luggage and went to the bar. The ship's crew had collected all the luggage from the coaches and was delivering it to the cabins ready for us to unpack later. The cabin was very pleasant and spacious, with a picture window, a small walk-in wardrobe and a shower room. There were plenty of power sockets for charging our electronics, an improvement on the older ship on which we'd cruised the Danube. It was St Nicolas's day, and each of us had a chocolate Santa Claus on our pillow - not needed just yet! After tea we were introduced to the crew and given the necessary safety briefing before a glass of sparkling wine and canapes. Then everyone went down to the restaurant on the deck below for the first of many excellent on-board meals. We sat with a couple from Australia who were staying with family in Britain and were giving their family a bit of a break by leaving them for a few days on this tour.

After dinner there was a quiz in the Panorama Lounge. We teamed up with two others to enter the quiz but even the four of us with very different tastes and backgrounds managed to score very few points in a quiz about "Christmas music". Our new acquaintances were a retired detective and one of the other Great Rail Journeys tour managers who used to be a train driver. We were still sitting chatting at 23:00 hours when the ship departed on its journey southwards along the Rhine, and it was after midnight before we had finished unpacking and gone to bed. We kept our curtains open and fell asleep as the towns and villages slipped by our cabin.

Loreley statue seen from our ship on Tuesday morning

In the morning we had a fairly light breakfast and then sat in the Panorama Lounge watching the scenery pass in the bright sunshine as the ship made its way to our first stop at Rüdesheim. Rüdesheim's Christmas Market had been seriously cut back owing to the surge in Covid cases in Germany, so Great Rail Journeys had arranged coaches to Mainz for those who would prefer to go there for the full Christmas Market experience, but we decided to visit Rüdesheim anyway, the markets not really being our main reason for taking this tour. We were glad that we did, for the town is the home of Asbach brandy and the local speciality coffee which features burning Asbach and sugar with strong coffee and whipped cream atop. This we had to try, and we also bought some little Christmas gifts here in one of the local shops. It was good to be there and to spend a little money with the local traders who seemed to be having a difficult time - many shops and hospitality businesses were closed and the streets while not quite deserted were certainly not busy. It is a charming little town and a great place to visit and enjoy.

Back on the Amadeus Silver II we had a cup of tea in the lounge at the rear of the ship, but a problem with the water supply prevented us having a shower before we gathered with the others for nibbles, gluhwein and carol-singing in the Panorama Lounge. This was slightly disappointing as we sang together only The Twelve Days of Christmas before recorded carols and hymns were played but with no words for the people it was hard to join in so I soon realised I was singing a poor solo and joined everyone else sipping the gluhwein in silence ... We then moved on to dinner, the usual excellent standard, and a fairly early night with a good night's sleep. (The water supply was back to usual by now.)

Wednesday morning was not bright and sunny,  but rather dull and misty, as we took our breakfast and then sat in the Panorama Lounge as the ship left on time and turned to make its way back through the Rhine Gorge towards the next port at Koblenz. Apart from the stunning rocky scenery and the views of villages and vineyards, this whole stretch of the Rhine valley is interesting in having a road and a railway on each bank and a lot of passenger and freight shipping on the river itself: we have travelled along the west side of this valley by train several times ourselves. On the way to Koblenz there was a gingerbread making demonstration in the lounge.

At Koblenz the ship docked in the River Mosel (or Moselle), which flows into the Rhine in the city centre and which gives the city its name, a corruption of the Latin for "confluence", for this had begun as a Roman city.  A guided walking tour of the city centre had been arranged and we were split into small groups divided among several guides, using radio headsets in order to hear the commentary clearly. Although Koblenz still had its full Christmas Market, this was spaced out more than usual and it was clear that a lot of local people were staying away and, of course, visitors such as ourselves were also present in smaller numbers than normal, so social distancing to avoid viral infection was not difficult. In order to but anything at the Christmas Market we had to show our vaccination certificates and photographic identity, but in order to avoid having to do this several times over we were given wristbands at the first stall we visited so that subsequent stallholders could quickly accept us as vaccinated customers. The first port of call once our guided tour was completed was a glühwein stall to try the mulled white Riesling - not something we have ever tried at home. 

We made our own way back to the ship and prepared for the evening, billed as a gala dinner with a Christmas theme. I was surprised when we arrived in the bar before the dinner to see that most men were wearing ties, and of those quite a lot were bow ties including a handful in full black tie dinner suits and several in Highland Dress. For once did not feel out of place in the bow tie I generally wear for these dinners on our tours. The meal was several courses, although I omitted one of them, and there was a choice of traditional British or German main course - I chose German, natürlich (no sausage or saurkraut included!). As always on an Amadeus ship there was as much wine as we wanted, included in the fare. After the meal we went back to our cabin and had a fairly early night, having had such a full day. The ship remained docked in Koblenz overnight and we woke at our usual time just as the ship was moving away to rejoin the Rhine for the trip down to our next port at Bonn.

I knew very little about Bonn and one of the attractions of this trip was that a stop at Bonn was included. I knew, of course, that before the reunification of Germany, Bonn was the provisional capital of West Germany, and I had once changed trains here but had not left the station on that occasion. The visit to the city was after lunch on board the ship. We met our local guide and the tour began with a poignant memorial to those who suffered in the holocaust, the darkest chapter of Germany's history, and then moved on to the Kennedy Bridge, named after the late president of the United States who visited Bonn just a few weeks before his assassination and was very popular in West Germany.

Outside the Rathaus (town hall) the paving was spotted with brass casts resembling book spines including titles by many respected German philosophers and other intellectuals, commemorating the burning of books on that site by the Nazis - today's despising of experts and learning is not new, and such popularism is always catastrophic. By 1945 the beautiful historic cities of this wonderful nation had paid an enormous price for the follies we had commemorated on this visit. This city was also the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven and there is a museum at the house where he was born and a statue in the main square where the Christmas Market was held. Our guide left us there for an hour to do our own exploring and then took us back to our ship in time for afternoon tea. Tea was interesting: we had cups of tea, of course, and there were sandwiches, stollen and mince pies - but these turned out to be exactly that, minced beef pies, dusted with icing sugar but with no fruit in sight ... Once enough time had passed we all took our pre-departure Covid-19 tests ready for the following day, and everyone struggled with the Belgian and British Passenger Locator Forms. These worked well enough on our iPhones but with a river cruise it was hard to know how to answer some of the questions, and those who are less tech-literate had a real problem with what actually had to be done, what "download a pdf" means, for example. One passenger had acquired a smartphone just for this tour - it is hard to travel abroad now without one. We soon learned that everyone had tested negative and we could at least return to Britain - but such is the muddled thinking of our government that we now had to test again when we got there, and isolate until we had the result. We just had to hope that the results would come quickly, and would be negative.

On arrival at the mooring in Cologne we had plenty of time to explore some of Cologne's Christmas Markets in the early evening December darkness: the atmosphere there was fantastic and the goods on sale fascinating. We had to be careful not to be tempted to buy food: we had had our afternoon tea, and we had dinner still to come! Our ship's mooring was on the far side of the river from the city centre, so we had a stroll over the landmark Hohenzollern Bridge to get there and back again. A coach was provided for any who wished to visit the city but could not manage the walk, but we were more than happy to get some exercise after all the eating and drinking! The fence between the footway and the six railway tracks was solidly encrusted with what must have been millions of padlocks placed there by lovers over the years; we did not add one ourselves.  Thursday's final dinner together was up to the usual standard and we enjoyed the company of some new friends, and then retired upstairs to the bar for a final Asbach brandy before bed.

Up at the usual time on Friday we packed our suitcases ready for collection and enjoyed our final breakfast on board before returning to our cabin for our hand luggage. We were not due to leave Cologne until 13:43, so we had the morning to continue to explore Cologne, which was interesting but did not have the atmosphere of the previous evening. A coach took us with our luggage to the station and our luggage stayed with the coach while we explored, then we were able to collect it before going to the station for our train to Brussels where we changed trains for the Eurostar back to London. We enjoyed a hot chocolate from the buffet car on the ICE from Cologne and the usual complimentary light meal was served aboard the Eurostar from Brussels, but the waiting area at Brussel Zuid station was disappointing, with rebuilding work making it a dark and dreary place and the only source of coffee being the checkout at the new duty-free supermarket which presumably is one of the "sunlit uplands" of the UK's exit from the European Union. One of our chocolate Father Christmases was finally eaten at this point while we waited for the train to be ready for us to board.

Finally we were on the Eurostar train and relaxing in the familiar comfort of our Standard Premier seats and were whisked back to London with on-time departure and arrival, and an extremely friendly service of the complimentary light meal with wine and coffee. At St Pancras we were soon off the train and reconvened with several of the tour party in the queue for our so-called "Day 2" tests at Collinson's. Our appointment was at 20:00 and that was almost exactly the time we got to the front of the queue, which was extremely well-managed. Test done, we made our way over to Kings Cross station and caught the 21:00 departure for Peterborough, the last train from London to make a connection for Stamford. As with all the trains on the homeward trip, these we on time and efficient. LNER have introduced a Christmas menu in First Class, although our ride from London to Peterborough is too short to enjoy much of it, but the cheese and fig sandwich was really good.

And so to walk home and straight to bed, leaving unpacking and washing for the morning, along with opening the pile of Christmas cards that awaited us on our doormat. We have at least two days to to await freedom, ten if we turn out to be positive for Covid-19. Merry Christmas!

Update:

Our test results were indeed negative, and delivered early so we had only one day of isolation. We evaded Omicron until mid-January when our luck finally ran out and the dreaded "T" line appeared on a lateral flow test. Despite my three doses of vaccine I was quite ill for a couple of days - very much like 'flu with a nasty cough - and I certainly would not want to have faced it without the protection of the vaccine. The ten days isolation is over now and my negative test results have resumed, but the cough is only departing very slowly ...


Thursday, 25 November 2021

Getting Back to Business at Last

By Train to a Real Meeting with Real People!

It has been a long time, but I have finally travelled to a meeting. Who would have guessed that going to a meeting could be so much fun, could have been a longed-for day out? The meeting was in Lincoln, not far away, and although I went there recently to visit with friends for a day out, I still looked forward to this day out on my own and not only to meeting my colleagues in person, in a room but also to travelling there and back on the improved train services to and from Lincoln.

When looking up train times to suit my meeting time (the ending of which had to be flexible), and allowing for time before and time after the actual business for any opportunities for friendly exchanges, it turned out that the travel both directions would best be done via Newark and LNER rather than Spalding at East Midlands Railway: I would have to change trains at Newark Northgate on the way there but that is never a problem.

On the day all my trains ran on time and the whole thing went very smoothly. I had plenty of time to work on the way there and the way back - this is all voluntary work, by the way, because I am now retired. Even going via the East Coast Main Line route on fast trains the journeys still took longer than driving because of the need to travel via a change of train at Peterborough, but the travel time was useful time and I made sure I had plenty to do on the trip. Further,  being retired I am seldom in a hurry anyway and wanted to enjoy my day out, so I booked First Class tickets for the LNER legs of the journey (but only claimed Standard Class fares on expenses, of course).

USB charging on the train
between Newark and Lincoln

On the way to Newark in the morning I enjoyed coffee and a pain-au-chocolat for my morning coffee break, included in the First Class fare, and kept the included sandwiches for an early lunch in Lincoln (my meeting started at noon!). At Newark I had to cross the bridge to Platform 3 where an East Midlands Railway Sprinter train soon arrived to take connecting passengers to Lincoln. They now use more comfortable, and big enough, trains on this connecting service, making it much more of a pleasure than it used to be.

At Lincoln I had plenty of time before my meeting and chose to walk up the hill rather than take the (free for a pensioner!) bus as I often have. As I have mentioned before, Lincoln is definitely improving, and the walk up the High Street and Steep Hill was great. 

After the meeting I walked back down to the station via the High Street. I had been for ages carrying a fully-stamped loyalty card for Caffè Nero on my iPhone, waiting for the day when I would find myself away from home and needing a coffee shop, so I based myself in Caffè Nero to do my post-meeting paperwork, emailing out to other members of the group the notes and instructions we had agreed. How much simpler and quicker IT has made this sort of administration! 

Off then to the station to await my LNER "Azuma" all the way to Peterborough this time, again in  First Class with tea and cake on leaving Lincoln, with a glass of white wine later before changing trains for the short trip home to Stamford. I was meeting my wife in town for dinner later, so I did not take up the offer of the hot meal on the train, but the cake was just what was needed to see me through to dinner time, and it was the right time of day for that sort of thing.

A few days later I returned to Lincoln for the weekend on personal business and had to travel by car for various reasons. For several days beforehand I had to keep reminding myself that it was no use taking things to do on the journey: I would have to concentrate on driving. It is interesting how used I have become to spending my travel time doing things which are useful and/or fun, but although driving was a bit quicker I had no use for my computer or my books and magazines when I took the car.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Starting the Christmas Shopping

 By train to Leicester

Stamford, the town where I live, has some excellent shops and we seldom have to leave it for shopping, Christmas shopping included, but one thing we do lack is a department store and when it comes to seeking inspiration for gifts there is nothing quite like looking at a wide variety of possibilities under one roof. In addition there were a couple of things we needed for ourselves which we had failed to find in town, so the time had come to try elsewhere. In the past we had generally visited Peterborough, just thirteen train minutes away, or a free bus ride in my case! But Peterborough no longer has a department store either and the rest of its shops are no better, indeed perhaps not quite as good, as Stamford's. We thought we'd try Leicester which we've never used for shopping although we have been there for days out occasionally.

I booked tickets on Cross Country's Train Tickets app including seat reservations on the outward journey and on one of the busiest trains back just in case we needed to use a busy train, but with every intention of catching an earlier one if we were finished before the peak travel time. As we crossed the bridge to the westbound side of the station to catch our train it occurred to me that we had not been this way togethe since last summer's trip to Dorset with our granddaughter. Such has been the pandemic that the things we had been used to doing, like a visit to Leicester or Birmingham or beyond had just not been happening. So here was our "reset" day for travelling west!

The train was on time and the journey smooth. We had decided that the first thing we would do on arrival was find a coffee shop and have coffee, and behold, opposite the station was the Merchant of Venice Italian coffee shop, so that was where we went, acknowledging the statue of Thomas Cook, founder of the escorted railtour, as we passed. We greeted the staff in Italian as we walked in, having been in Venice not long before, and held a short conversation with one of them. We later found out that he was not Italian but had thought that we were because we greeted him in that language! I am not sure where he was from but we did find out that his colleague was Greek; such is multicultural Leicester! An Italian coffee shop with a William Shakespeare theme run by a Greek ...

And so off to the shops, including Blunts shoe shop near the station and coffee shop, an enormous footwear emporium (this one run by Asian people) with more shoes, boots, slippers and sandals - plus some bags, socks and stockings - than you can imagine. Then to John Lewis, now sadly absent from both Peterborough and Birmingham. There is one in Cambridge, but I think Leicester is nearer and unless you especially need books or academic dress then the rest of Leicester's shopping is probably more useful than Cambridge, too ... and the station is in the city centre, no bus required. The weather forecast had been for rain all day; we never let that put us off and had set out in mackintoshes and hats but in the event there was the faintest drizzle from time to time and I never really needed the hat which ended up in one of the shopping bags for the whole day. Our experience has generally been that we should never let the weather interfere with our plans unless the Met Office issues a warning - it is seldom as bad as forecast.

We achieved all that we needed to do in plenty of time and decided to return to the Merchant of Venice for lunch and then take the next train home, the 15:12. Lunch was great, with suitable Italian dishes and drinks, and then, laden with rather more baggage than we brought with us in the morning, we made our way to the station. Arriving at the station we were disappointed to see that our train was rather late - it did not really matter much except that we were stuck there on the platform just waiting for it. Still, at least Leicester is a fairly busy station with trains coming and going, so it was not too boring. The delay to our train slipped a bit more and a bit more, but then it started making up a little bit which was heartening. We never did find out what the problem had been: it was not mentioned in the announcements (which are automated on East Midlands Railway stations) nor by the train manager on board, and all the other trains had been on time. I cannot remember when I last travelled on a late train with no apology or explanation, probably the 1970s when most trains were not equipped with public address systems! It was not ever so late, about 12 minutes by the time we got to Stamford, and we were an hour or two earlier than we might have been anyway.

It had been a good day, and we decided that in future, on the odd occasions we needed a city for shopping, Leicester will be the place for us. And I noticed that in the event that we need to stay, there is a Premier Inn very near the station.

And now to start writing the Christmas Cards!

Friday, 5 November 2021

Lincoln: A New Start for Me

Azuma at Peterborough, where we changed for
Stamford on our way home
A Day Out by Train with Friends

I have not been to Lincoln for a couple of years, whereas before Covid and retirement I used to visit about monthly. In those days there were few trains and I had to drive as often as not, and the rail journey was often longer and more complex than a short trip to ones own county town ought to be. During the lockdowns and "stay at home" advice of the last couple of years some significant improvements to the rail services have taken place and there has also much much work done to the city centre at Lincoln, and to Lincoln Cathedral, too. When some friends were staying and we were looking for somewhere for a day out together Lincoln came to mind: it is a place where I had lived many years ago, and before that a place where I and one of the friends had spent a few days when we had not known each other for long, so there were some memories to be stirred. Tickets were booked using the LNER app, choosing trains that would take us out by one route and back by another and would give us plenty of time in Lincoln while allowing us back to Stamford in time for a restaurant dinner. All of us having Senior Railcards the total fare was just under £100 for Anytime Day Returns, although where possible we did have seats booked on our chosen trains. Had we become bored or the weather become rough we could return early (but not late if we wanted our booked dinner!).

(This was to be an easy-going, relaxed day out, so I did not take my camera with me and any illustrations you see here are from my earlier collection.)

We left Stamford on the 09:56 Cross Country train to Peterborough and although our reserved seats were not all adjacent (the Cross Country algorithm does seem to leave something to be desired) we did manage to find a table for 4 for this short leg of the trip. This service neatly connects with an East Midlands Railway departure from Peterborough to Lincoln, part of the improved offering from this company since I last travelled that way. Although there had long been a train at about this time, it had always been a short, single-coach train which might be able to take everyone at Peterborough but was always grossly overcrowded when it reached Lincoln. The service also used to start late in the morning and finish early in the afternoon, of little use to most potential passengers - and although that did not affect us on this trip it was the main reason for me having to use my car in the past. We were surprised to find that our train was not just a bit longer than before, but consisted of four coaches and although there are no seat reservations on this route it was easy to choose a table together with a window to open for anti-viral ventilation as well as a view of the countryside. We were blessed with gorgeous weather for the time of the year, late October, with lots of sunshine and no rain (although the forecast until that very morning had not been so optimistic).

The first part of the ride to Lincoln took us up the East Coast Main Line as far as Werrington Junction, retracing the steps of the last couple of miles of the trip from Stamford, and then we set off across the Lincolnshire fens on the route through Spalding and Stamford towards Lincoln. This section is marked by distant and not-so-distant spires and towers of town and village churches among the clumps of trees that mark those places, including Deeping St James where we also once lived and Crowland, the historic Abbey of St Guthlac. Soon the train approached Spalding where two of us had grown up, but apart from the area immediately around the station all now unrecognisable, so much has the town grown. There were enormous new houses being built well out of the town centre and we wondered where on earth the people to live in them would work and shop, there being little in Spalding itself these days.

Soon we were off across the fens again to Sleaford, with a slight hold-up on the approach to the station because of the constricted access since tracks there were reduced some years previously. More people joined the train here than left it, and the four coaches were beginning to look more of a necessity than a luxury. Many more joined us at Ruskington and at Metheringham, now well out of the fens into gently rolling hills, and the train was nicely full without being crowded when we arrived on time at Lincoln. A pleasant ride through sunny Lincolnshire, and now to explore the city. It was great to be back, and I was looking forward to seeing how the city centre improvements had progressed since I was last here.

We started "uphill" around the cathedral and castle and made our way down, so the first thing to do was to visit the bus station, opposite the rail station, and take a bus up to the cathedral. These run frequently are are not too expensive and do save the effort (and time) of climbing one of the steepest streets in England!

From the Cathedral bus stop we went to look at the foundations of the Roman east gate, preserved in front of The Lincoln Hotel - fresh from a holiday in Rome it was good to be reminded that we have quite a lot of Roman remains here in England, too, even if ours are several centuries younger than some of the Italian ones! Strolling around East Bight we followed the course of the Roman city wall and saw more fragments of it in private gardens and then arrived at the north gate which is still in use by modern traffic, although somewhat reduced in grandeur, most notably by lorries not quite small enough to pass through. As we walked down Bailgate we reminisced about how things used to be: much was the same, and the pub where I used to recover from philosophy lectures had not changed much. We visited the site of St Paul's church, supposedly founded by St Paulinus in the early years of English Christianity, and then went to the Castle. No tickets were left to visit the buildings, but actually that was OK: it would leave us with plenty of time to see the rest of the city, and entry to the grounds is free so we spent a little time there and then found some lunch in one of the cafés on Steep Hill (yes, that is the name of the street!) before moving on to the Cathedral. One snag with visiting on a Monday as we did is that some bars, restaurants etc are not open for lunch on Mondays and with a table for four required we did have to queue for a few minutes, but only a few.

I know Lincoln Cathedral very well, partly from living in its precincts for nearly three years and partly from having taken part in its services from time to time over the last forty years, but my friends do not know it half so well, so it was good to show them around, and we did not need to join the guided tour ... What I had not seen before was the new visitor centre and education facility which had been built, with grant funding, on the north side of the Cathedral, partly in buildings formerly part of the cathedral school. The centre was not completely finished but had been partially opened for the half-term holiday for children's activities, and the new café was also open for our afternoon cup of tea, replacing the tiny coffee shop that had opened by the chapter house four decades ago.

When we had seen everything we wanted to see at Lincoln Cathedral we began the walk down the hill, stopping on the way to see the places that had mattered to us many years ago, and popping into the model shop to buy just a few more HO scale figures for my Swiss model railway, then doing just a little more shopping before exploring the Sincil Street area. This is now known as the Cornhill Quarter and a good deal more pleasant an area it is, although with many of the good local shops still present, and a cinema added. The Cornhill Quarter is immediately adjacent to the bus station, rail station and multi-storey car park and forms a great entrance to the city centre. There is still some work to do, but it is now much further advanced than when I last saw it and already looking great.

It was now time to make our way to the station and await our train home. Checking the departures we were not surprised to see that we needed to cross the bridge to the far platform, but as we crossed we were pleasantly surprised to see that the train, this time a LNER "Azuma" inter-city set, was already on its way from the siding to the platform and within a few moments of arriving the doors were unlocked and we were able to board, easily finding our reserved seats around a table for four. Much more spacious than the train on which we had arrived at Lincoln, this one took us back to Peterborough via Newark and the East Coast Main Line. As soon as it left Lincoln I went to the café-bar and bought a round of white wine to round of the warm, sunny day we had enjoyed together - I bought the last of the white wine, so I hope no-one else wanted any! While I was at the bar, the rest were watching the University of Lincoln slide past the window, and then were amazed to find that the Cathedral was also visible from the left side of the train, having been on the right side when we were at the station! There is quite a loop to get from the former Central station to the Newark line which was served by a separate station until a new link was constructed late last century. By the time we stopped at Newark darkness had come and we watched the scenery no longer. LNER took us smoothly to Peterborough for our Cross Country connection to Stamford, all on time and just right for dinner at the Cosy Club!

It had been a simple day out and yet a really good one: the weather was better than one dared hope
in mind-October, all our trains were clean, punctual and spacious enough, we had good company (well, mine was good: I have to hope the others felt the same!) and enjoyed all that we saw and did.

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Grand Tour of Italy

Six Italian Cities with Great Rail Journeys

My "iconic blue" passport: in action
at last!
Our first trip abroad for two years


We first booked this tour for May 2020 and were initially disappointed when Great Rail Journeys telephoned to say they had insufficient bookings and they could not run the trip, so they booked us for October instead. That seemed really fortuitous in March when Italy became the epicentre of the new coronavirus Covid-19 ... October seemed far enough into the future then, but, of course it was not to be and finally we were able to take the trip in October 2021, subject to a complex set of conditions. I spent a whole day, one week before the trip, booking Covid tests (for the Italians and the British) and filling in Passenger Locator Forms (for everyone) and sworn statements (for the French). By the time you've done the admin for a trip abroad you need the holiday more than ever!

Our luggage was collected a couple of weeks before departure, when the weather forecast was for hot, sunny weather throughout Italy. I packed shorts and summer shirts. By the time we departed it had all changed and we were expecting warm, wet weather ... 

Eventually the day dawned and we left Stamford for a very rainy London. Great Rail Journeys had booked us First Class tickets to London and back, but on the train from Stamford all the First Class seats were taken so we stood in the vestibule as it was such a short trip before our change of train at Peterborough. once aboard the LNER Azuma we were comfortably seated and were plied with the usual refreshments, although we had brought lunch with us and just accepted the wine and coffee. Soon we were in London and checked in at the Premier Inn, almost exactly opposite St Pancras International station. As usual in these establishments the room was spacious, the bed comfortable and the air-conditioning effective, nothing special but everything perfectly satisfactory. At 6pm we returned to St Pancras for our pre-departure Covid-19 tests. Italy had relaxed its rules for fully-vaccinated people from the UK so that we only needed the rapid antigen test, within 48 hours of arrival in Italy, so it could not have been earlier than this evening but at least we had a swift result, mercifully both negative. We downloaded our certificates to our iPhones ready to show in Italy if asked. We already had our vaccination certificates printed and kept along with our passports ready for the morning.

We had been unable to secure a table at any of the restaurants at the station - staff shortages had made them unable to serve the usual number of customers and this was a Saturday night ... but the Thyme restaurant at our hotel had been able to fit us in at 8.30, very late for us but at least it would help us cope with the expected late breakfast in the morning. The combination of the pandemic and the leaving of the EU meant that things were a long way from normal and we could never be sure what might happen, but I made a mental note always to book dinner in London when overnighting before an international trip in future.

We had a wonderful night's sleep and showered and packed in the morning ready to go. We went to M&S at St Pancras and bought some breakfast things and some lunch things (the change of train - and station - in Paris would be very tight so we were not expecting to have time to buy anything there) and went to the Great Rail Journeys office to meet Julia our tour manager and the rest of the party. That was when we discovered just how much things were not yet normal, for there were only four of us, with another four, from the US, to join us in Rome, a total of eight. Since last year these tours have all been advertised as "small group," meaning up to 25 (rather than the previous 40), but the decision had been taken that all the tours would run because they had to get started somehow. Passing through the ticket barriers and security checks was much as usual except for reduced numbers of passengers for fewer train departures, so fewer gates were open. Passport control included the need to show our vaccination certificates, and, of course, we were now going abroad as non-EU citizens. We wondered how we would feel as foreigners now, and how our travelling companions would feel, too, as well as how we would be viewed by our French and Italian hosts.

Once through all the checks we waited for our train to be announced and at last were able to buy coffee and sit down to enjoy our breakfast. No sooner done than we were called to platform 8 to board the train for Paris, non-stop. In our section of one of the Standard Premier coaches, with 23 seats, there were just the four of our group with our tour manager and one other passenger. I have never seen so sparsely-filled a Eurostar carriage, but it was not difficult to keep our distance! The light meal was soon served: we had expected a late continuation of breakfast, but it turned out to be a rather early lunch, although by French time it was not ever so early. It did call into question whether I might need the very British BLT sandwich I had bought at M&S before boarding, though! In the event I opted to eat it before arrival at Paris: one less thing to carry. Crossing Paris to Gare de Lyon was fun on a Sunday, which is a popular day for national pastime of strikes and demonstrations, but it was fairly straightforward, a small coach speeding us through the city streets with no problem - much more pleasant than the RER. We had just over an hour to make the trip and did it in plenty of time, with our double-deck TGV waiting for us just inside the main entrance to the station.

The TGV left Paris on time and took us swiftly and smoothly to an on-time arrival at Lyon Perrache, its terminus, with just one intermediate stop at Lyon Part Dieu. Our hotel was right outside the station and so in spite of the heavy rain we needed no transport to the front door and were soon checked in. Normally when we have these overnight stops on our longer-distance trip we go for a walk and explore the city, but with heavy rain we decided to forego this pleasure in Lyon: it is a place we intend to visit in the future anyway. Our hotel was a superb example of Art Nouveau architecture of a type seldom seen outside France, and seldom bettered anywhere. Dinner was in the hotel bar-restaurant and was excellent, and with such a small group we were able to order à la carte rather than there being a set menu as is usually the case with a group tour. We went to bed fairly early with our luggage as ready as possible for the morning, for it was to be an early start ... 

The hotel staircase seen from our room

The following morning's train into Italy did not leave from Perrache but from Lyon St Exupery, outside the city at the airport and on the high speed line between Paris and the south coast, and although it did not leave until 08:42 we had to take road transport to get to the station and with Lyon's traffic that meant leaving the hotel soon after 07:15, so we were in the breakfast room when it opened at 06:30 in order to be away on time. The drive through suburban Lyon in driving rain was not the most inspiring part of the holiday, but the sight of St Exupery's TGV station soon put it behind us, an excellent example of SNCF's striking modern station architecture. Our train started at St Exupery so it was at the platform in good time and we were soon able to board. We had not been going long when the train manager announced that owing to a "surprise problem" there was no catering aboard - apparently there had been a fire at the catering depot - so having had an unseemly early breakfast we were now facing a five-hour trip before we could eat again, and no coffee. By now it was daylight and although the mountain scenery was partly obscured by mist and cloud we were able to enjoy the ride, winding among the hills and through the Fréjus Tunnel into Italy and after Turin thence to Milan.

In Milan we had a short metro ride between stations before taking the high-speed Frecciarossa train to Rome. We were in Second Class for this stretch of the journey but still had comfortable leather seats and plenty of space for ourselves and for our luggage. It was at Milano that we were asked for the first time for our vaccine certificates, and no time were we ever asked for our Passenger Locator Forms, nor did anyone in France ask to see our signed statements that we were Covid-free. The train to Rome was a little late and then had to wait for a platform at Roma Termini station, being almost half-an-hour late by the time we arrived. It was a short walk to our hotel where we were united with our luggage which had been packed at home a week beforehand and sent ahead. Being late there was little time to prepare for dinner but we did just manage to unpack before making our way down for the evening meal together. Dinner was across the road in a different hotel: this complexity arose from pandemic closure - the meal was in the hotel in which we had expected to stay, but this had not yet reopened following Italy's lockdown although its restaurant had opened. The hotels belonged to the same group, a family hotel business which owned three clustered in one street near the main railway station. Here we met the other four members of our tour who had flown into Rome from Florida the day before and had already settled in. Even with eight of us, we were still under a third of the expected group size for this trip.


After a good night's sleep we were ready for our first day in Rome, which began with a guided tour, partly by coach but mostly on foot. Our enthusiastic guide Giuseppe introduced us in just a couple of hours to the long history of this ancient city which is now the capital of a fairly young country as well as the centre of western Christianity. Interspersed among all the paraphernalia of a modern capital city, including a metro line under construction, plundered over the centuries for building materials, and disturbed by the attempts of a Fascist dictator to create city to show off his power, were the remains of one of the world's ancient civilisations. Aware of its history the modern civic authority uses the "SPQR" badge on public facilities throughout Rome, even on boring things like inspection chamber covers! The rain which had dogged us in London and Lyon continued in Rome (not good for photography) but this tailed off and stopped towards the end of our guided tour and we even had some sunshine.  We were shown the Colosseum, the Pantheon and an overview of the Forum, as well as the Trevi Fountain with a lot of history and statues in between - I am glad there was no test afterwards because it was hard to take it all in!

The tour had included a coffee stop at the Capitol museum and ended in the Piazza Navona at lunch time. We sought out the gelateria Giolitti for our first Italian ice cream of the tour - if it is good enough for the Obamas it is probably good enough for us - and that was all we needed for lunch! In the morning before setting off on the guided tour we had booked online for a visit to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, and we thought we would spend the afternoon exploring the city and would head towards St Peter's Basilica to check out how to arrange to visit that. After a pleasant walk westwards from our gelato stop we soon found ourselves in St Peter's Square and discovered that entry was (a) free of charge and (b) quick and simple, with just a modest queue for the requisite security check - no more arduous than queuing for Eurostar. We soon realised how fortunate we were to be visiting Rome this year, for there were so few people there. Everywhere was busy enough to have atmosphere but nowhere was overcrowded. We had a chance to look at everything properly without being jostled by crowds. So we did not hesitate to join the security-check queue and made our visit to St Peter's right then.

First and foremost, of course, this is a cathedral, and it is a shrine to the chief apostle who was buried here, but it is also a monument to past popes and it was particularly moving to stand before the burial site of Pope John XXIII who did so much to modernise the Roman Catholic Church and to advance the cause of Christian unity, and heartening to see how many people were praying there. I am not a huge fan of baroque architecture but even so the size of this building is extremely impressive and I could not help the naughty thought that St Paul's Cathedral in London was a deliberate attempt to copy the spectacle of St Peter's in Rome.

From St Peter's we took a long walk alongside the River Tiber, which was disappointing in terms of maintenance. I am not sure if this was a pandemic-related issue or if they never maintain the sides of the river, but there were substantial clumps of weeds and saplings and a lot of graffiti along the lower-level roadways on both side of the river, in great contrast to the Seine and the Thames. After a while we crossed the river and visited what remains of the Jewish Ghetto which still has a huge Jewish character with kosher Italian restaurants and pizzerias. It was a bit early for dinner or we might have given it a try. On the other hand it was also too late to visit the museum in the Synagogue, so that will have to wait for a future visit to Rome. The population of the Jewish quarter suffered immensely in the second world war, of course, under the Fascist government, although it was interesting to see a war memorial showing that prior to that there had been several who had served the nation and died for it in other conflicts.

We strolled back into the city centre and had our dinner at the street corner Ristorante Abruzzi as darkness was falling. We were greeted enthusiastically (as everywhere else - this city needs tourists!) and sat outside. The reserved table next to ours was soon taken by a group of three priests of different nationalities conversing in English ... a constant probability in Rome! We didn't order bread and mineral water but it came anyway, and we were billed for it anyway, but that is apparently how it is in Italy, or in Rome anyway, and when in Rome you have no choice, really, but to live as Romans do. And yes, they do still call themselves Romans. Back at our hotel after a walk via the Spanish Steps our iPhones revealed we had walked a little short of 30,000 steps that day and we were soon well asleep.

The second day in Rome was almost completely spoken-for, beginning with a "hidden Rome" tour, new this year (although it would have been last year if last year had happened) to Great Rail Journeys, ending with an included lunch, and followed by the Vatican tour we had booked ourselves for the free afternoon. The hidden Rome tour was simply a look at some of the interesting buildings which are not famous, and began with a coach to the north side of the inner city, to a small area of large villas and apartments designed by the architect Gino Coppedè of Florence and known as the Quartiere Coppedè. It is a gorgeous pastiche of many styles of building, most of them flamboyant and full of meaning as well as style, and all expensive when built and still expensive now, although rather cluttered with parked cars these days. From there our coach took us to a very unusual church, still in use and in popular demand for weddings, apparently, San Stefano Rotondo: it is circular in plan (with the Altar in the centre, like a smaller and far older version of Liverpool Metropolitan (RC) Cathedral, and dedicated to St Stephen the first martyr, and all around the walls are depictions of the deaths of many Christian martyrs. It is the unofficial church of Hungarians in Rome. Our third and last port of call on the hidden Rome tour was a restaurant in the Trastavere district ("across the Tiber") where we had a lunch included as part of the tour, local Italian food with wine. 

Our four American companions left the restaurant promptly by taxi for the Vatican where they had booked a guided tour. We left soon after the on foot for a self-guided visit starting half an hour later than theirs ... and we certainly walked off our lunch striding it out to arrive at our stated ticket time! With only one short afternoon it was pointless to try to se much of the extensive Vatican Museums so we made it our aim to see the Sistine Chapel and such other things as we might chance upon on our way around. We were so very fortunate to have been visiting in such a strange year when many foreign visitors were absent and we were able to spend time looking in some depth at the décor of the chapel: very few of the millions of people who have squeezed their way through this historic and sacred site will have the opportunity we had to look at every painting and even to go back for a second look to check some missed detail! Among all the suffering and devatsation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, we felt very blessed to have visited some of Italy's most important and popular sites and seen them without the pressure of the crowds. After refreshments we visited the Papal collection of horse-drawn and horseless carriages, all of great interest. Photography was not allowed in the Sistine Chapel, but no-one stopped us photographing the collection of popemobiles!

That night we packed our large suitcase for porterage and on the Thursday morning after breakfast we left together for the station for our train to Florence, Firenze in Italian, travelling in 2nd Class again in another high-speed Frecciarossa. This was the first rail journey our American companions had undertaken on the tour, and as they were due to fly home to Florida from Venice they would not have the joy of travelling in First Class because the trips within Italy are all 2nd. We departed Rome on time and must have made good progress because we had to wait five minutes for a platform at Florence but still arrived on time! We made our way on foot to the Michaelangelo hotel where we spent the next three nights, but first we simply left our hand luggage there and had some free time before a guided walking tour of Florence at 14:30.

On the guided tour we were shown the Ponte Vecchio, of course, the Duomo (Florence's cathedral) and the 

On the first evening in Florence there was an evening meal included at a restaurant local to our hotel, where we were were served the traditional local Florentine beef (bistecca alla fiorentina) with a superb red wine. This was accompanied by meat balls and peas and preceded by a starter of various cold meats and cheeses, so it probably gave us all the protein we needed for the week but not a lot of carbohydrate or fibre ... 

The first full day in Florence was completely free and we opted to spend it walking around and enjoying the city itself. We began by crossing the River Arno with a view to climbing the hill that overlooks the city. Along the way we stopped for coffee at a traditional bar where we stood at the bar for our espresso, and then we also enjoyed a gelato from the shop recommended by our guide during our tour the previous day. So fortified we climbed up to the Rose Garden,  and thence onwards and upwards to the Piazzale Michelangelo and then the abbey at the very top of the hill with stupendous views over Florence to the hills beyond. We walked slowly back down via the city centre.

After all this exertion we returned to our hotel room for a hot bath to recover from the walking before crossing the street to a local pizzeria for dinner. This did not look much from the outside but was fantastic inside and did a very good pizza for a decent price.

On Saturday the whole party (less two who had done the tour before and used the day for something else) took the tram one stop from the hotel to the station and boarded a regional train for Pisa. After a slight delay owing to trespassers on the line (a problem not unique to Britain) we arrived in Pisa and took a local bus to the famous cathedral - well, its bell tower is famous, or infamous, anyway. As you walk through the crowded market place, valuables kept securely against the hordes of pickpockets, and through the gate into the cathedral precincts, the sight of the gleaming white buildings is quite breathtaking. Like Florence, Pisa cathedral has a separate baptistry opposite the front entrance, but its bell tower is at the far end and famously leans at about 5 degrees from vertical owing to inadequate foundations on the shifting soil of the river delta on which the city is built. Centuries of corrective, restorative and strengthening work have ensured the survival of the tower but its bells cannot be rung for fear of bringing the tower down and bell sounds for services are provided by electronic means. The cathedral is just as interesting inside, with much history on display as well as fine depictions of the gospel narrative in painting and sculpture.

Departure from Pisa was from a station much nearer the cathedral, so no bus ride was needed for this leg of the journey and we soon boarded another regional train for the city of Lucca which is a fascinating medieval town which still has its city walls intact and its Roman ampitheatre in use as a continuous crescent of residential and commercial premises, notably restaurants. We had lunch here, outdoors at at street corner trattoria and walked around the city taking in its remarkable history and architecture.

Outside the ampitheatre at Lucca

A third regional train took us "home" to Florence for our last night there and we revisited the same pizzeria as the previous evening, at our "usual" table with our "usual" house red wine. Then back to pack for the next move ...

A small part of the view of Venice from the station
On Sunday morning we had a little time before our next train, so after checking out we had a final stroll around our end of Florence and bought some take-away salad from a little shop near the hotel and then made our way to the station to meet the others and board the Frecciarossa to Venice Santa Lucia. It has to be said that the Italian high speed lines do seem to have a lot of tunnel and so the view from the windows is often not all it could be, but when we could see scenery it was worth seeing! It was also exciting to be gliding smoothly past everything on the adjacent motorway ... Julia our tour manager primed us to be ready for our first sight of Venice when we were off the train and heading towards the exit from the station, so I had my camera ready and as we walked through the doorway we were met with a sight of incredible beauty and excitement: the famous Grand Canal runs right past the station forecourt, there are no road vehicles at all, and the buildings are a stunning collection, many of them with a distinct eastern influence. 

We were taken by boat to collect our luggage which had gone before us and then to check in at our hotel on the Venetian district of Murano. Murano consists of seven islands linked by bridges and that afternoon we explored Murano and made sure we set foot on all of its islands. Two were of no real interest to us and we did not spend any worthwhile time there, and the others we explored more or less throughly. An essential part of our exploration was identify the waterbus stop at Colonna and the south side of Murano because on the following day there was to be a one-day public transport strike and only a few essential waterbus services would operate, including a shuttle between Colonna and the nearest stop on the main island of Venice. As we wandered around I could not help thinking that the big way in which Venice as a city was superior to any other I have visited was the absolute lack of motor transport on its streets. It was so quiet in the side streets and housing estates and children were playing outside their houses, all goods being delivered by trolley from boats on the canals. In Murano most canals had footways on both sides like an ordinary city street but boat movements were far fewer than car movements in an ordinary town. Most streets, though, do not have a canal and are simply peaceful. All towns should be like this, perhaps, with just a few roads. There is no need to access ones home with ones own vehicle - most Venetians do not expect to get right to their homes by boat. 

Sunday evening's restaurant

After unpacking and getting ourselves ready we were taken as a group to dinner an a local hotel a couple of streets and a couple of bridges away. Like all the included meals this one was really, really good  and was enjoyed by all. A starter (antipasto), first course (primo), main course (secondo) and dessert (dolce) were served, followed by coffee (espresso) and accompanied by wine (vino).

The Monday was to have included our guided walking tour of Venice city centre but because the public transport strike may have made travel timing difficult, this was moved to the Tuesday and we had the Monday completely free to make our own arrangements. This was a pity as we have generally found that having the guided tour first helps us to decide what we shall do in the free time, both sparking ideas about what to do and enabling us to avoid things that the guided tour will include anyway. There is so much to see and do in Venice, though, that we were not too concerned about this, and we knew not to visit St Mark's Cathedral as this was included in the guided tour.

The strike affected all the waterbus ("vaporetto") lines in Venice but essential ferry services like those between Murano and Venice city centre were operating on simplified routes at reduced frequencies, so straight after breakfast we made our way to the only vaporetto stop in Murano, which was not as crowded as feared and we were able to board the next boat to Venice. Our Great Rail Journeys holiday included a two-day transport pass for Venice and although we would not get much value from it on the Monday we used it as much as we could on the Tuesday when full services were operating. From the terminal on the north side of the main island we made or way on foot, appreciating the tranquility of this boat-and-pedestrian city, to the Jewish quarter, once the ghetto, of this city. There was much twentieth-century tragedy about Jewish life in Italian cities, of course, and much oppression for centuries before that, but life in his quarter is much more settled now and there is an interesting museum (currently being restored, so only a smaller temporary museum is now available), and many Jewish business premises. As in Rome, kosher Italian food is available as well as traditional Jewish ritual items.

From there we went to the Grand Canal at the railway station where our visit to Venice had begun. We came across a couple of gondoliers waiting for customers and as we had intended to take a gondola ride at some point (You have to, don't you? You can't do it anywhere else, after all!) this seemed as good a time as any. For €80 per gondola a tour takes in a short stretch of the Grand Canal and some of the smaller canals, returning to the same berth about 45 minutes later. Longer tours are available but that seemed about right for us. Gondolas are an interesting design: they are all black and a similar size and shape but their furnishing and decoration varies considerably except that almost all of them have the distinctive front end design which symbolises the city of Venice and its districts. They are asymmetric and lean slightly sideways, apparently to assist passage under the low bridges. Propelling and steering them is something of an art, and we left that to our professional gondolier.

Back at the canalside we went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. It had a terrace overlooking the Grand Canal and was probably the nearest restaurant to the station but although this may not have made it the best bargain in town it was the one that suited us, with an unbeatable place to sit, a menu that fitted our needs and it was there when we wanted it, with the sun shining warmly on the terrace! Once more we felt fortunate to be travelling this year when so few foreign tourists were there; we felt sure that any other year it would have been difficult to find a table for lunch. After lunch we navigated our way on foot (ever thankful for our iPhones!) to St Mark's Square for a quick look around and a photo opportunity and then set off back to Murano by way of a long walk through the fascinating and often stunningly beautiful streets and a quick, efficient boat ride. Murano is world-famous for decorative glass and there are many shops selling glass ornaments priced from two or three Euros to many thousands, some of them shops of large factories, many of them workshops of individual craftspeople. Our hotel was construction in a former glass factory and its presence in Murano must have transformed the economy of this part of Venice, a city which has lost about a third of its population over the last twenty years or so and has many derelict buildings outside the city centre. After our extensive lunch no dinner was necessary that evening, a gelato sufficing ...

The following day we left from the vaporetto stop right outside the hotel and were taken around the eastern end of the city’s main islands to a stop near to St Mark’s Square for our guided walking tour. We visited some smaller squares where we learned about the fascinating and unique history of this unique city and about the design and function of its many palaces. We finished at St Mark’s cathedral which is not simply dedicated to the evangelist but also is the burial place of his relics. Quite awesome to stand near the mortal remains of my namesake saint! 

After the guided tour we set off to the vaporetto stop and started making the most of our passes, travelling in both directions along the Grand Canal and then taking the journey "home" to Murano via the west end of the city and so seeing the parts we had missed on the morning's outward trip. The homeward trip took us past the cruise liner terminal (empty: no passenger ships at all) and then past the rail station and out towards Murano, dropping us back at our hotel. The passes work much like Oyster cards on London buses: simply tap in to open the barrier onto the pontoon at which the water bus docks; no need to tap out. It was then time to get ready for the dinner out at the Palazzo Pisani: after showering and changing we took a vaporetto to the rail station and changed there for another along the Grand Canal which dropped us near the Palazzo, now a hotel with a restaurant in which we were to enjoy our dinner as part of the included activities of the tour. We would never have booked this ourselves or even known it was available. It is always good to have a special meal together towards the end of a tour when you have come to know the other members of the party and everyone tried to make it just that bit more special than the other dinners we had shared. As a bonus we had watched the sun set over the Venetian Lagoon on the water bus ride from Murano to the city centre! Fabulous. We were taken back to Murano by a water taxi through an interesting route which the larger vaporetti would not have been able to use, and then to bed for an early start in the morning.

Our last morning in Venice started very early because not only did we have a train to catch, but we had to pack our portered suitcase and have it ready for collection before we left. Our tour party was alone in the breakfast room at the hotel and then we left for the station. The four British members of the party bade farewell to our American friends who were making their own way to Venice airport that morning to fly home. We were taken to the station by the same boat that brought us to Murano and this time we were taken around the eastern side of the city and watched the sun rise over the lagoon just as we had seen it set the evening before. The Doge's Palace and St Mark's looked stunning in the low morning sunlight as we hurried on past them to catch our train to Turin, the last city in our Grand Tour of Italy. 

We boarded the Frecciarossa and were whisked across northern Italy to Turin, arriving at the central station Torino Porta Nuova and walked the short distance to the Hotel Concord where would spend our last night in Italy. It was still morning and we had almost the whole day to explore the city; no guided tour this time and we set off to see Turin on our own. We found a small cafe to enjoy a cup of the local hot chocolate speciality, bicerin, which I thoroughly recommend, and a little late a great little place for lunch with pizza served by he slice and a selection of local craft beers. I photographed the architecture and the trams and, just as in Florence, we climbed a high hill overlooking the city. On a clear day, apparently, the Alps form a scenic backdrop to the plain on which Turin stands, but when we were there only the very faintest outline of the lowest parts of the mountains could be seen, and then only if you were looking for it. The view of the city remained stunning, however. Returning to the hotel we bought some supplies at a local supermarket for the following day as we could not be sure that we would be able to buy lunch on the train; our room had a refrigerator, so all we had to do was remember to take it with us in the morning ... which we did! I have to say that dinner at the hotel that evening and breakfast in the morning were a bit of a disappointment after all we had enjoyed elsewhere: it was as if the hotel was not really fully open yet and they had taken on catering for our group without having the resources to do it properly.

On our final morning we left Turin early, with a coach taking us across the city centre to the station Torino Porta Susa, a new station served by the French TGV which was to take us, in First Class now, direct to Paris on our way home. It left on time and the buffet bar was open but serving a very reduced offering, so it was as well that we had brought our lunch with us. The bar did supply the wine and coffee to accompany it, though. And now I could speak in French which, although I am certainly not fluent, I speak a lot better than Italian. The Italian classes we had taken over the previous year or two had helped enormously, though, with the enjoyment of the holiday. Being able to converse at a basic level and to understand signs and information boards was hugely beneficial, and since returning we have begun polishing up our German ready for our next international trip! I found that reverting to French was a bit of a struggle because I kept lapsing into Italian - I could ask for things but found myself saying, "please" in the wrong language.

Taken across Paris to the Gare du Nord by coach we were soon showing our Covid vaccination passes, tickets and passports at the Eurostar terminal, having filled in our Passenger Locator Forms the evening before (never to be seen again ...) and were soon on the Eurostar non-stop to Londres St Pancras International where our "Day 2" PCR test appointment awaited. Having been tested we made our way across the road to Kings Cross and boarded the next LNER train for Peterborough where we changed for Stamford and were soon home. Most of our luggage, of course, was still in transit with the porterage service, so there was only minimal unpacking and washing to do, most of it happening a few days later when the suitcase appeared with a driver from DHL.

The Grand Tour was indeed a grand tour and we are already planning to return to Italy, hopefully next year, pandemic permitting, with a different Great Rail Journeys tour that will take us back to Rome and further south to visit Pompeii and other places we have not yet seen.