Relieved of luggage, we were a carefree family of five on the banks of the
Seine before breakfast. After months of breakneck work, it was a bit like
the qualitative deceleration you experience when your canopy snaps open
during a freefall parachute jump; a sudden transition to a world where
everything moves in slow motion, and rather beautifully. We headed along the
river bank, through a sculpture park to the pair of islands that floats
serenely in the Seine.
In a backstreet we found a salon de thé called Saveurs de l’Île St
Louis, where a mothering propriétaire brought cauldrons of hot
chocolate, café au lait, warm baguettes and lashings of strawberry jam.
Plans were laid. Paris in July is a city of light; of dappled boulevards and
sun-filled space. It was a day for walking the city’s axis of tranquillity,
the three-mile line of island, riverbank, woodland and garden that unfurls
from Île St Louis to the Champs-Elysées.
Paris has always been a hectic city. Grand Tourists of the 16th century
reported that the capital stank of mud and that 10,000 horses could be seen
on the streets every day. The horses have been traded for six million motor
vehicles that swirl in cataracts and eddies of hypermobility. The key to
walking any city is linking the pools of tranquillity.
Paris, a city visited on the Grand Tour for centuries
And so we strolled idly west, over Pont St Louis on to Île de la Cité, where
we detoured into the shadowed well of the Mémorial de la Déportation, then
wandered past the flying buttresses of Notre Dame cathedral to venerable
Pont Neuf, the oldest of the capital’s bridges; the first English tourists
to gaze into the green Seine from its hefty stone parapet were subjects of
Queen Elizabeth I.
There were a few minutes of traffic to suffer while we crossed Place de
l’École, but as quickly as you could say “run” we were into
the palatial calm of the Louvre, with its reflective water and mute
courtyards. Beyond Pei’s transparent pyramid, we emerged into the Jardin des
Tuileries, perhaps the most elegant urban forest in Europe. The eviction of
motor traffic from the gardens 20 years ago has created a peaceful, bosky
rectangle nearly a mile long. So it’s a shock at the far end of the gardens
to emerge beside Rodin’s Kiss and confront the vehicular whirlpool of
Place de la Concorde.
There was one other haven of tranquillity we wanted to get to before taking
the sleeper train to Venice. With the clock ticking we route-marched along
the south bank of the river to the Eiffel Tower and climbed calf-burning
switchbacks of steps to the viewing platform. And there was Paris, so
distant below that every arrondissement from Montmartre to Montparnasse had
fallen silent. In a day, we had walked the city’s heart from east to west. A
couple of hours later, reunited with our luggage, we were climbing the steps
to the Gare de Bercy.
The prospect of a long night in a couchette provoked excitement or dread
according to age. Connie couldn’t wait to organise her bed; my wife,
Annabel, looked surprised; couchette 45 was a little smaller than we had
expected. It had two bench seats and a window. With five burdened Cranes
issuing instructions simultaneously, it felt like a riot in an upholstered
garden shed. Rucksacks, limbs, plastic carrier bags, sun hats and baguettes
jostled and jabbed. During the melee, Connie appeared six feet above the
floor, having figured that the beds flipped out of the walls.
With all six beds locked into place, couchette 45 began to resemble a
survivable billet. There was plenty of space to stow bags, and each bunk had
its own reading light and fresh linen. The unoccupied sixth bunk was a bit
of a worry. Who, wondered the children, might take it? A chip-fed,
psychopathic maniac? A schoolteacher? One of their own teachers? Alarm was
allowed to increase to pre-hysterical levels before Annabel revealed that
she had paid for the sixth bunk as a precautionary measure.
I woke in the night and lay peeking around the edge of the blind at French
countryside. From Paris, the night train follows the Seine upriver, then
slices through the heart of Bourgogne to Dijon and then Dole. By midnight
it’s beginning to squirm through the outlying ribs of the Alps. Through the
window, I could see trees, a farm with a stubby tower, not a light showing.
At some point in the early hours, the train would pass through Lausanne and
then whisper along the shore of Lake Geneva before entering the great
U-shaped portal of the Rhône Valley, turning east to avoid the glacial barbs
between Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.
The urge to spend the night spotting Alpine landmarks from my pillow was
strong. But not strong enough. When I next woke, the train was tilted
downhill, snaking through a deep, misted valley. While I was sleeping, we
had passed beneath the final row of Alps. I guessed we were somewhere
downstream of Domodossola, and that the canyon we were following was the
Toce, the cataract that carries meltwater down from the ice-capped
Blinnenhorn in Switzerland.
‘Suddenly the lake appeared, Maggiore, with a marigold sun rising from
its far shore’
The Italian track was so smooth that couchette 45 seemed to be floating on a
cushion of air and the scenery presented itself as scrolling vignettes:
cloud wrapped like a scarf around a rocky precipice; cavorting rapids framed
by trees; a balcony hung with washing; a solitary car with doleful
headlights. I lay there, bewitched.
In the half-light of dawn, villas began to appear, and swimming pools. A palm
slid by, and suddenly the lake appeared, Maggiore, with a marigold sun
rising from its far shore. I understood why Turner’s sketch book filled so
quickly when he took his Grand Tour of the Alps in 1802.
The train paused at Milan, and then turned east along the edge of the vast
plain of the Po. Arable fields watered by melted snows from the blue ranges
to our left separated the cities of Brescia, then Verona and Vicenza. After
Mestre, the train left mainland Italy, rolling across the sea on the
two-and-a-quarter-mile bridge that has connected Venice to mainland Italy
Arriving at Venice at the end of a transcontinental train ride is a sensation
that can be fully savoured just once. I have ridden a bicycle across Europe
and walked across Europe, but this was the first time I had crossed from
shore to shore by train. At first inhalation, Stazione di Venezia Santa
Lucia seemed as torrid as any Mediterranean terminus in midsummer; a mad
hubbub of tribes from all over the world, trundling cases, lugging
backpacks, momentarily queuing and massing for no apparent reason; 82,000
travellers pass over this concourse every day; 30 million a year.
But once we had filed through the hot gusts of pandemonium and escaped the
station, we found ourselves at the top of a broad flight of steps descending
to water. In London, Liverpool and Paris, station steps descend to Tarmac
thundering with road traffic; in Venice, you are greeted by blue water and
boats. It’s enough to make you drop to the stone in amazement, which is what
we all did, line abreast among the bags, gazing at the most wonderful
station frontage in the world.
Annabel deciphered the ticket system for the water-buses – the vaporetti
– and we were soon aboard a Number 42 sailing through the docks and across
to the island of Giudecca (“drifting like folded paper on the surface”
– as the poet Petr Kral put it), where we were met at the landing stage by
Caterina, who guided us along the waterfront to the apartment we had rented
near the women’s penitentiary.
We stayed for four days, allowing ourselves to be led by the city and our
moods. I got into the habit of sitting by the sunlit windowsill each
morning, listening to the soft footsteps of fellow Giudeccans, heading off
with bags and trolleys to the waterfront shops. No city in the world has had
its wonders more exhaustively catalogued nor left its admirers more
confounded. In Venice: Pure City, Peter Ackroyd recently concluded
that these labyrinthine islands were “unmappable” and that this
was a city “of the mind”.
Like millions before us, we walked and sailed the city’s currents, taking a vaporetto
out to the art pavilions of the Biennale and on to the glass-blowing island
of Murano and, farther still, to tiny Burano, where reflections of brightly
painted houses turn every canal into a trembling palette. We crept into
cave-like churches hunting for Renaissance ghosts and explored the
light-filled galleries of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Early one morning, we came across Saverio Pastor as he was opening his
workshop. A remer, Saverio is one of the craftsmen who specialise in making
oars and forcole – the carved leg of hardwood that gondoliers lever
their oar against to propel the vessel forward. On another day, we came
across a little square not far from the Rialto Bridge. Away from the busier
alleys, we could sit at an outside table in Campo san Silvestro while boys
hoofed a football around a battered marble well that must have been
supplying water for centuries.
On a warm Saturday evening, we left Venice on the 27-hour voyage to Greece. A vaporetto
took us to the docks, where the children found a couple of trolleys and
wheeled our bags along the quay to the gigantic white hull of the Olympia
On board, most passengers were efficiently ushered towards cabins, but the
Crane family was travelling “deck class”, along with other sundry
migrants, all of whom seemed to have boarded with sleeping bags, mattresses
and tents. We had none of these essentials. By dusk, the decks of the ship
resembled Glastonbury as knots of budget travellers created tented camps and
bivouacs on the steel decks. Those without sleeping gear simply lay fully
clothed on the carpeted floors inside the ship. It worked, after a fashion.
The rugged Albanian coastline
The morning after was blissful, as the ship cruised the calm Adriatic beneath
a blazing sun. Six days after leaving St Pancras, we lined the rail and
watched the rugged shore of Albania and then Corfu slide by. As the ship
turned into a channel marked by red and green buoys and began to cross
Igoumenitsa Bay, the sound of cicadas carried across the water from the
ruckled folds of the Pindus Mountains. If the success of a journey is
measured by riches en route, this had been as grand as they come; Greece
felt a very long way from St Pancras.
- Nick Crane is the author of Coast: Our Island Story (BBC Books), and Mercator:
The Man Who Mapped the Planet (Phoenix Books). His Barefoot Books
World Atlas for children was published last October.
The Man in Seat Sixty-One is an invaluable website packed with
information useful to those undertaking transcontinental train journeys: seat61.com.
Return fares from London to Venice start at £178 per child in a six-berth
couchette or £204 in a four-berth couchette. Adult fares start at £216 in a
six-berth couchette or £246 in a four-berth couchette. Bookings through Rail
Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk).
Ferries ply between Venice and Igoumenitsa in north-west Greece all year
round. In winter there are two sailings a week and in summer four. The
journey takes around 24 hours one-way. Prices in the summer holidays for a
deck-class return start at £107 per person. Further information from Minoan
How Kit saw it
As a born-and-bred Crane, I was shocked to be told that we wouldn’t be
dragging ourselves up a mountain in Scotland for our summer holiday but
travelling to the balmy Ionian Islands.
My favourite Venetian pastime was aimlessly wandering the alleys. It was
during one of these that we came across a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition
inside an old church. Engineering students had built working models of all
Leonardo’s most pivotal inventions.
There were also negative aspects of our journey. Travelling deck class didn’t
go down well with my 16-year-old sister. I don’t blame her. Even I didn’t
feel like the brightest button in the box on waking up to a large Greek man
shoving a Hoover up my nose.
Things got worse going home, when my sister burst into tears while racing
around looking for the most comfortable bit of floor to lie on and my mum
(in a state of depression) abandoned herself to a bottle of cheap Greek wine
before falling asleep on my patch of carpet. That was definitely a low
How Imogen saw it
Grand is not the word I would use to describe our travelling style. My brother
and I ended up on the bottom bunks of an Italian train, or “the caves”
as we called them, where sitting up too fast meant you smashed your head on
the bunk above. The announcement of a five-hour delay at Milan was followed
by a feeble “breakfast” of wafers and an apple. Throughout the
journey there were three weeks’ worth of clothes (and a similar weight in
books) to haul around – across platforms, ports, cities and into lockers.
Rough travel and lack of space meant I couldn’t even buy a Venetian mask or
spare fake sunglasses.
My favourite day in Venice was our visit to the Biennale exhibition, where an
artist in the Belgian pavilion had thrown mounds of torn red, white and
black Plasticine on to the floor, inviting visitors to stick their own works
of art to the walls.
The trip not only gave us the chance to escape London and spend time together
as a family, it also forced us to engage with the true scale of the
Continent we were crossing.