A 5.40am Eurostar is not everybody's cup of tea, not mine certainly, but it is a pleasure to see the sun rise over the misty plain of Northern France and, with the time difference, I was at the Gare du Nord just after 9.00am. A twenty minute wait for Cynthia to be extracted from the Goods Despatch Dept and then a gentle ride down to the Gare de Lyon, where I was booked on a TGV to Geneva and just after lunch I was in Switzerland. TGVs have a rather pokey bicycle section at the very front of the train. You have to sit in the same compartment as your bike and the windows are tiny but I had a makeshift conversation with a young man from Iran and we were able to congratulate each other that both our nations had qualified for the World Cup in Brazil. A nifty change of trains saw me on my way to Zurich.The geographically inclined amongst you might be muttering that this seems to be a rather roundabout way to go to Budapest, surely Paris-Munich-Vienna would be more direct but I had decided to make a stopover in Bregenz at the westernmost point of Austria. This town, on the shore of Lake Constance, the Bodensee, is where I first met my wife and I nostalgically booked a room in the hotel where she worked in 1988. I also booked an evening of beer with Gerd Alfons, the technical director of the Bregenz Opera Festival, whom I haven't seen for twenty years.
Austria holds about twenty kilometres of the shore of the lake between Switzerland and Germany and when I first came to Bregenz twenty five years ago there was still a border between Switzerland and Austria. The guard on the train from Zurich Airport would make sure that any passengers for Bregenz were all in the same carriage before the train pulled out of the last stop before the Swiss/Austrian border, he would then lock all the other carriages so that no one else could leave the train in Austrian territory, only unlocking the doors when the train crossed into Germany a few kilometres further on. On arrival the passengers from the Bregenz carriage would be firmly escorted across the tracks to a grubby shed where a couple of bored customs men made chalk marks on our bags. Sometimes I would hire a car at Zurich and immediately after crossing the border into Austria, on a relatively quiet rural road, witnessed the bizarre sight of dozens of prostitutes in hot-pants and 'Saturday Night Fever' hair-dos stationed along the side of the road waiting for Swiss customers to come across and make full use of their facilities in the more liberal Austrian sexual climate.
For non-opera lovers I should explain that the Bregenz Festival is an outdoor summer event in which a single opera is presented in spectacular fashion on a man-made island a few metres offshore and in front of a 5000 seat amphitheatre. If you have seen the movie A Quantum of Solace you will have seen Bregenz which was used as the venue where the baddies get together. When I say spectacular I mean spectacular, Alfons, leading a team of fearless technicians in some breathtaking engineering feats, many of them underwater. Under the amphitheatre is an indoor opera stage which housed the Samson & Dalila that I worked on in 1988. The indoor stage itself is considerably larger than that of the London Coliseum (it has an 18m revolve) and was used as an alternative venue for the outdoor production (in a semi-staged concert version) on rainy days. I had a lovely time working there and, even if I say so myself, the collapsing hydraulic temple that we built for the finale of Samson & Dalila was one of my better efforts in the field of theatrical production management.
So twenty five years on Alfons and I meet for beer. We had a delightful 'old blokes' evening talking over past triumphs and disasters but mostly we talked about our knees and our retirement plans. At the end of the evening I think we both decided to go down fighting.
In the morning I cycle through the rain back to the station to catch the 6.00am Vienna train which runs almost the full length of Austria and takes eight hours, with lots of Sound of Music scenery. In Vienna I am not allowed to take Cynthia on a direct train to Budapest and am forced to go to a different station and make two changes on a relatively short journey. I share the first leg to Hegyeshalom, on the Hungarian border, with a train load of Hungarian commuters who travel into Vienna every day.The next leg, to Gyor, is pleasingly quick but the final leg on a stopping train is interminable and, this being Hungary all the intermediate stations have names with more than twelve letters. The train deposits me at an unfamiliar station in an unfamiliar district of Budapest but navigating by Blackberry I quickly find the Danube (hard to miss really) and I am back where I left off in June.