Tuesday 30 June
We leave the Villa Tuttorotto with its Roman artefacts in the basement at 0500 for a short stroll through the old city, bag wheels clacking over the rough cobble stones. The locals must get pissed off with early departing tourists. The Venezia Line ferry departed at 0630. We were a little surprised to find we were heading south to Pula. We had originally tried get the ferry from there and they said there no sailings from there today.
There was a tour group on board; their guide rabbited on in great detail about what they would do for the day in Venice. We had a great chat with the Aussi mum and daughter sitting next to us who had just been to a wedding in Croatia. Both were well travelled and enjoying life. After a short stop in Pula we headed for Venice. Land was sited around 11.00 as we passed a couple of islands. The waterways were full of small boats.
After docking we caught a vaporetto (water bus) to the Hotel Antiche Figure opposite the train station. Staff in this hotel are incredibly helpful as they have been in the last three. After being upgraded to suite with its own lounge we head into town. Back on the vaporetto I am somewhat surprised at the state of the buildings along the Grand Canal. Most look like the need a bloody good scrub and others a coat of paint. It’s all happening – water taxies, gondolas at 80euro for 30 min, dirty old police boats, and many more jockey for space on this waterway. We pass under the Rialto bridge, once famous butcher shops now just shops. Opening in 1591 it is the oldest bridge in town.
Arriving at a people-packed St Marks Square we head to the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). Up the stairs we find a well laid out exhibition on the history of the Italian army from WWI through to the 1970s. But not a word on WWII? From there we moved through rooms with gold lined ceilings and massive paintings done hundreds of years ago. Next was the armoury – this is really well done with large displays of swords, armour, bows, arrows and firearms dating back to the matchlock days. We crossed the internal Bridge of Sighs to the prison. I still can’t work out why the kings of old seemed to want to have a bunch of bad buggers and traitors living right next door to them as is common in Europe. There are several floors of large stone cells with rounded roofs, some with solid wooden beds. .
From there we strolled through many alleys (some blind), over many quaint bridges including the Rialto. There are many shops, selfie-stick sellers and handbag touts along the way.
A nice meal including a salad with shaved horse meat rounded of the day.
Wednesday 1 July
This morning we woke, packed and walked over the bridge to the railway station to board the Orient Express to Paris. Everything from the check in process through to embarkation is handled with amazing courtesy despite the heat. The poor porters and stewards are dressed in full 1920’s style outfits complete with hats and gloves and must be sweltering. I feel a bit sorry for Roger who is sweating up a storm in his long pants and collared shirt. Our steward Georgie shows us to our cabin – G5, complete with robes, washroom with luxurious toiletries, plush furnishings and Prosecco. We settle in and watch the world pass by outside our window.
What a fantastic way to travel – we average about 70km/hour and have fabulous views of the countryside, mountains, valleys, vineyards and picturesque houses with their window boxes overflowing with colourful flowers. We will pass through Italy to Austria, Switzerland, Germany and into France.
Lunch is served in the dining car – a three-course affair with silver service. The dining car is again in the old style and very plush. Back to the cabin we rest and read. I am really enjoying reading the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Malone (as referenced in the Gallipoli section – “No Better Death: The Great War Diaries and Letters of William G. Malone” – edited by John Crawford). Not easy reading but helping to give me a real first hand sense of life in and around WWI and the Gallipoli campaign.
It seems we have only just got back to our cabin when afternoon tea is served – we will certainly not go hungry on board this train! A few hours later and we head back to the dining car – all dressed up with Roger now adding a jacket and tie. When we are moving, with the windows open we get a good air flow and it is not too hot but when we stop at a station it gets very warm on board. Of course there was no air conditioning in the 1920’s. Four courses for dinner which we enjoy with a lovely couple, Brian and Jill from England. They were both in education, and have a strong interest in autism. Retired now, they are taking this trip in memory of an aunt who passed away and left them an inheritance – she had done the trip with her husband some time earlier. The food is fantastic – I am very impressed that they can cook and serve such top class food on a moving train.
After dinner we retire for the night. Our cabin has been transformed, now with bunk beds and luxurious linens. We fall asleep to the clattering and occasional whoosh as we pass through a tunnel.
Thursday 2 July
The door bursts open. There is a big person with no face, just a skull, in full body armour, MP5 at the ready. “What did you do with it?” “What?” I say, trying to look surprised. “The body!” He shoves the muzzle into my face. Big mistake I think removing the gun from his hands as a kick is delivered from the bed to his head. A second kick sends him across the passage and out the open window into the path of an approaching freight train. Obviously not a cop or a nun as it had come alone.
Backpack on, heading down the passage as the train slows, I am out the door, rolling down a grassy slope for a stroll in the French countryside. Suddenly the ground opens. I am swallowed up into a deep cavern. Hitting the ground running there is block encased tunnel that goes on forever, running and running as the ground closes in behind me. Rounding a corner the noise stops. There they are surrounded by bones, the crossed sculls all resembling the attacker on the train.
Well we were on the Orient Express – there had to be a bit of excitement!
The detail on the train is amazing. All the carriages have been restored to the state they were in in the 1920s. All that is different is the running gear, a small electric fan and a power point in the room. The detail of the logos inlayed into the wood panelling, hand basin in a closet in the room, the old but new pump operated dunny down the passage serving the nine cabins in the carriage, no air con, wifi or other modern stuff. This is as it was and bloody well done.
Rising around 0630 Georgie arrives to turn our two bunks back into seats. This takes him around a minute. Everything – mattresses, blankets, pillows and ladder are neatly stowed away as the bunks fold back into a spacious couch. A very French breakfast is served. Bang on 0730 we pull into the Paris East station, the end of our journey.
After checking into our hotel across the river from the Eiffel Tower we caught the Metro (subway) to the Latin Quarter. Wandering the streets we came across the Pantheon and the university. A lot of the buildings around here, apart from the churches, are very similar – all six or seven stories and made of stone. We came across the Jardin de Luxembourg. Most of the grounds are gravel and seem to be growing more chairs than plants, although there was a nice patch of grass surrounded by flowers in the middle.
A few more kms down the road we came across the Catacombs (no it’s not a cat cemetery) where hundreds of years ago the Romans mined the limestone to build Paris. As we stood in the queue, which extended almost a full circle around the park, we did a little research. In the late 1700s apparently they needed some more building space. Over the next hundred odd years they dug up some 6 odd million bodies and stacked the bones in a large section of the tunnels. Two and a quarter hours later we headed down what seemed to be a never-ending spiral staircase.
Then we headed off along a maze of stone or brick lined tunnels with columns in larger areas holding up the roof. In the 1800s parts of the city around here started to sink so a bunch of engineers raced down here and sured it up. Many of their names are engraved in bricks along the walls. In a couple of places miniatures of forts and castles have been carved into stone. I am sure we are only seeing a small part of this underground maze.
After about a km we come across the bones. Amazing, stunning, macabre!? I am not sure how to describe these neat stacks and stacks of bones 1.5m plus high with rows of skulls running through them. In places loose arm and leg bones have been tossed on top. The skulls have no teeth, there is no sign of pelvic, collar bones, spine or ribs. These tunnels seem to go on forever. Again I am sure we only saw part of what must be there. If one believed in the afterlife these people must have been pretty pissed of paying for a plot then being dug up and stacked here. This place is a must see.
A stroll through the streets took us under the Eiffel Tower on route to our hotel.
The evening had arrived and it was back on the metro to Moulin Rouge. Sylvia had got us tickets to dinner and the show at this famous place established in 1889. The meal was fantastic including a bottle of bubbly. We were seated right by the dance floor. When the show started a stage came out so close I could have rested my elbows on it. The show encompassed everything from Broadway style to Cirque du Soleil. At one point the stage withdrew and up came a large glass tank with 3 three meter plus snakes in it. A girl dived in and entwined herself with the snakes. There is lots more. This is also a must see in Paris.