Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Retreat from Warsaw

Opera has always been an international business, Mozart travelled all over Europe, Wagner was argumentative in Paris and just about everywhere else, Caruso was a global star and I have a fine postcard in my collection of Tetrazzini singing to a vast New Year’s Eve crowd in San Francisco in 1905. Twenty years ago opera companies toured around the world but these days they can barely afford to get to the sweetshop on the corner, instead we do co-productions. Several opera companies chip in to the initial budget, the originating house builds the set, props and costumes and ships them off to whoever’s turn it is to put on the production. So it was with David Alden’s excellent production of Katya Kabanova, which ENO has co-produced with the Polish National Opera in Warsaw and so it was that Justin Loader (the production’s show supervisor) and I flew to Poland 3 days after the catastrophic plane crash at Smolensk. Despite it being a week of national mourning and despite the Polish production team having done very little preparation all went surprisingly well and after two days on stage all was ready for the first stage and piano rehearsal on schedule.

Justin and I were due to fly back on Thursday night and therefore had the first part of that day to do a little light shopping in Warsaw. Our, or rather my, first target was a model railway shop a fair way from the theatre that I had researched on the internet. It was a lot further than a fair way from the theatre but it was a beautiful day and we were in an interesting city. I thought Justin was very understanding when we finally got there to discover that it had closed down. We headed for the west bank of the Vistula and were wandering back into town when my wife rang to tell me that due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland British airspace had been closed. Now I know that several million phone calls along the same lines were being made at around the same time but nevertheless it was still a remarkable phone call to receive. What to do? Our first stratagem was to drink beer and discuss how attractive Polish policewomen were. Our second was to go back to the theatre to discover that our flight had indeed been cancelled. What to do now? The train is the thing, so we rushed off to Warsaw’s grim central station to buy tickets on a sleeper to Berlin which puzzlingly went via Stettin on the Baltic coast. The ticket office couldn’t reserve us sleeping berths, we had to do that via the conductor on the train.

I have had some experience of Polish sleepers and knew exactly what to expect but Justin, despite my attempts to disillusion him, clung to a fantasy based on the train scenes in From Russia with Love. He was expecting someone to come and ask which sitting for dinner we would like to take or perhaps he was thinking of putting his shoes out in the corridor so that by the time we reached Monte Carlo or St Petersburg they would be nicely shined. The truth was about as far from that as possible. First the two conductors we consulted about getting sleeping berths put on a fine display of Polish customer service and shook their heads dismissively. We pressed the point and getting no conclusive answer we just got on the train and stood next to the conductor’s cubby-hole until he eventually ushered us into a sleeping compartment in which three of the six berths were occupied. The train had started out from Lublin, far away in the south east of Poland, and the overheated compartment already had a foetid lived in smell. Justin’s face, as his illusions of glamorous trans-European travel crumbled to dust, was a picture. I offered him a choice of top or middle bunk, he took top. As I settled onto the middle bunk I heard a voice in the corridor saying to no one in particular “Do they know that I’ve got a very tight connection in Stettin?” Leaving vulgar medical humour aside this seemed to me to be a splendidly English thing to say. The owner of the voice filled the sixth berth in our compartment. As I expected the 7 hour run to Stettin was uncomfortable, sleepless and behind schedule. As we arrived we saw the Berlin express leave, Mr ‘Tight Connection in Stettin’s’ connection to Rotterdam via Hamburg had long gone. So on a chilly Baltic morning the three of us plus two jolly Dutchmen in suits stood on the footbridge over the tracks wondering what to do. We saw a tiny ticket office and ‘Tight Connection in Stettin’, who was looking a bit flustered, and I went in to see what we could find out. The girl behind the glass had obviously graduated from the Josef Stalin Customer Services School with honours. She expressed not a shred of sympathy or interest in our predicament and eventually pointed vaguely in the direction of the door. We then realised that this was a far flung outpost of Stettin Station and that the main building was much further down the platform and there we found that if we took a small local train to a place called Pasewalk we could change onto a stopping train to Berlin. This we did and had a pleasant journey on one of those double-decker trains that they have in Germany. Justin did well I think to express polite interest as I pointed out 19th century Prussian water towers and other fascinating features of the railway landscape.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a brand new multi-tiered extravaganza of a railway station but we only got to see the ticket office queue which was long and almost stationary. Rumours flew around, “all the trains going west are full”, “the reservation system has been suspended and you can get on any train you like”, “Eurostar is booked solid for 2 weeks”, “only Portuguese speakers wearing red socks will be allowed to board the trains” and so on. Our plan at this point was to get to Ostend and cross as foot passengers to Ramsgate arriving at midnight. We had full back-up from the entire Coliseum administration, my wife and son in Basingstoke and our next door neighbour, all passing us data as we went along. Mr ‘Tight Connection in Stettin’ decided that his Warsaw to Rotterdam ticket was valid on any train so set off to try his luck. He was booked on a ferry from Rotterdam to Hull (12 hours) and then all he had to do was retrieve his car from the car park at Luton Airport and drive home to Northampton. I wonder if he got there, we shall never know. When we got to the front of the queue we were able to buy tickets for Ostend but were told that the only train between Cologne and Brussels was the Thalys (the Belgian version of the TGV) and that there were absolutely no seats available for at least four days. Justin and I decided to take our chances blagging our way onto the Thalys and set off in an ICE (Inter-City Express) for Cologne. What a great train!

Just short of Cologne my wife called to say that Ostend were not allowing foot-passengers. Then Terri-Jayne texted from the Coliseum to say that all the ferries were fully booked and there was no chance of getting on either the Paris or Brussels Eurostar. At Cologne Justin and I stood outside in the sunshine flanked on one side by the Gothic miracle that is the Cathedral and on the other by the (more impressive in my view) mighty three arched train shed of the station, without a clue as to what to do next. At this point Terri-Jayne texted “So what are you going to do now?” Not very helpful but then I had a good idea. I know Cologne well from the six weeks I spent putting ‘We Will Rock You’ into the Musical Dome and I often stayed at the Maritim Hotel and it’s one of my favourites. So with a little help from a local friend, who is an Alpaca breeder, I booked us in there for the night. We were just putting our bags into the back of a taxi when Terri-Jayne rang to say that they had two foot passenger tickets on the Dieppe-Newhaven ferry. All we had to do was get to Paris the next day in time to catch a train from the Gare St Lazaire at 13.50 to get to Dieppe. We checked into the hotel then returned to the station to join the ticket office queue. There was absolutely no way of getting to Paris by train we were told. The Thalys was full and so was the TGV between Brussels and Paris. What about local trains? None of them connect across the border and in any case wouldn’t get there in time. “Try the bus” the girl behind the desk suggested. The bus station is next door to the railway station and in a little shack we managed to buy tickets for 6.30 the next morning for Paris, arriving around 14.00 possibly in time for us to catch the 14.50 from St Lazaire which might just get us onto our ferry.

We took the night off from travelling and sat in a bar and watched the first half of FC Cologne v Bochum. The latter were rubbish and FC should have been 6-0 up at half time rather than just 1-0. Then we had a typical German protein-rush dinner at the hotel. At some point came the glorious news that Eleanor at ENO had come across some newly released Eurostar tickets and we were booked on the 20.43 from the Gare du Nord. The bus next morning left on the dot of 6.30 and all was well until we had just crossed into Belgium when there was a loud bang and the window next to me cracked into a thousand segments. Luckily coach windows are double glazed and only the outer layer was affected. Large chunks of window started to drop onto overtaking motorists and the driver pulled into a lay-by. Here I made the mistake of suggesting that perhaps an air rifle might be responsible partly because a similar thing had happened to me while travelling between Waterloo and Basingstoke. In that case it turned out that kids in a park near Surbiton were amusing themselves by taking pot shots at passing trains with an air rifle. In the lay-by the Polish driver called his boss in Gdansk who insisted that we wait for the police to turn up. Eventually two Belgian traffic cops arrived took details and witness statements by which time we had lost a precious hour. This hour was precious because Justin had never been to Paris and we were planning the ultimate speed-tour of the sights.

We were dumped by the bus on the eastern fringes of Paris at 15.40 and dived down the Metro to the Gare du Nord to check our tickets and to dump our bags in the lockers there. We fell at first hurdle when the ticket office told me that I had printed out the wrong part of the tickets and that what we had wasn’t valid and no they couldn’t print duplicates. Ten minutes later they printed the duplicates (for a fee), and we had only two more tasks to undertake: 1) take a picture of Justin in front of the Eiffel Tower. 2) Eat Steak and Frites in a Paris brasserie. We did both and crawled aboard the Eurostar. I got home 49 hours after boarding the Stettin sleeper in Warsaw.

Thanks to all who helped us home and particularly to Justin, who turned out to be an excellent travelling companion.

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