Solipsism and Me

Idle reports from an idle fellow

An Expedition into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1)

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mapofnortherneuropeClick on the above map and consider. As you can see the most direct route from London to Vilnius by train would take you through Brussells and Warsaw and then either across Belarus or by snaking a little further North directly into Lithuania. Sadly however, though it has been promised for some time now, there is currently no direct rail link, and travel via Belarus remains complicated. There is however a third way, not so well advertised, by means of the daily ferryboat across the Baltic from Kiel to Klaipeda (not marked on my map, but it’s Lithuania’s only seaport): which proves to be very agreeable if you are not in a hurry and the weather is good.

Day 1

We left Oxford around lunchtime on Sunday, and made the entirely familiar, not to say boring, train journey to Brussells, arriving in good time to enjoy an entirely unexpected fun fair located directly outside the cheap hotel I’d randomly selected from the dozens around Bruxelles-midi. Here’s the rather dramatic view from the 6th floor.


The fun fair is behind the row of caravans. Glancing down there, the first thing we saw was a strange amusement which seemed to consist of placing children into inflated floating  pods:


Otherwise, Belgian funfairs seem to be strong on deep fried food, (I rather enjoyed my beignets de framboises – real live raspberries wrapped in dough and deep-fried but Lilette was unimpressed). There were scarey roller coasters and pop music as per St Giles Fair, but also child-friendly real live pony rides, archery contests, ancient machines for trying your strength or measuring your passion, and similar atavistic delights.

Almost anything you want, covered in batter, deep fried, and sprinkled with sugar

Almost anything you want, covered in batter, deep fried, and sprinkled with sugar



Real Ponies!

Real Ponies!

Test your Passion Machine. We don't need one.

Test your Passion Machine. We don’t need one, thank you.

Really scarey rides for people with strong somachs and a serious death wish

Really scarey rides for people with strong stomachs and a serious death wish


If you can't talk nicely...

Be nice, or go away




















Afterwards we strayed into a street full of Moroccan restaurants, just as dusk came and they began to open up for the benefit of those observing Ramadam, and even us too. And so to bed on the 6th floor: a good start to the holiday.

Day 2


Sausage Break at Frankfurt hauptbahnhof: entirely appropriate.

After an entirely unmemorable breakfast, we headed back to Midi station, fighting our way through hundreds of other holiday makers, backpackers, screaming children, etc. to catch the 1030 ICE train into and across Germany. Which was, of course, just like every other ICE train I’ve ever caught, i.e. (depending on one’s mood and how late it’s running) restful, sybaritic, or really rather boring. It got less crowded after Koln, and even less so by the time we got to Frankfurt, where we were able to enjoy a protracted sausage break waiting for ICE 74, the train that goes all the way from Zurich to Kiel, and which was running about 30 minutes late. I wish I had something interesting to say about these magnificent white trains that just zoom across Europe, quietly announcing their speed and the stations they pass through on monitors at the end of each carriage. Sitting in the gros raum comfy chairs, with wifi and regular offers of drinkable coffee and refreshments (I recommend the eintopf) in real white china from impeccably turned-out wait persons, as the countryside hurtles past the window it’s easy to get blasé about them. Which one should not, as they are a splendid achievement.

ICE 37 arrives at Frankfurt, only 28 minutes late

ICE 74 arrives at Frankfurt, en route from Zurich to Kiel, only 20 minutes late

And so to Kiel, the main port of Schleswig-Holstein as any fule kno. Our hotel, the accurately named “Basic Hotel” is just a few minutes walk through the horrible modern shopping centre which seems to be the main feature of downtown Kiel, the rest of it having been presumably flattened during the war.

Burgomeister and friend

Burgermeister and friend

Bags having been dumped (second floor no lift, but a nice big bed, and good wifi) , we walked across town, following the indications of the handy tourist information leaflet. This being Germany, the tourist information board knew exactly what we wanted to see: lots of European shops, weird statues of former notables (notably former burgermeister Asmus Bremer), and a lovingly re-created alter markt with its own brewery, the renowned Kieler Brauerei. At which place,  (this being Germany), I felt obliged to consume beer, along with matjes herrings and potatos but Lilette had more sense. And so to bed.

Part Two is published on my new Medium blog


Written by Lou

July 30, 2014 at 16:03

Posted in Biographical

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Festina Lente (4)

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A leisurely breakfast after a good night’s sleep. The sky outside is very gray, and I did my tourism yesterday, so I spend the hour or so before my train is due to go sitting in the very comfortable salon and banging my head against the agora stylesheet, to little avail alas.

20130602_110918_v1Back to the station in plenty of time for the 11h59 which turns out to be the same style TER as yesterday, i.e. a real loco with one 1st class carriage containing some fairly unkempt compartments without doors … one is empty for me.

12h10 Belleville sur Saone. People stand in the station and wave us off, how charming. The old engine shed has been turned into a functioning car park. Large industrial sheds alternate with an English style countryside complete with gray sky. The towns seem to be coming more frequently round these parts, but maybe it’s just because the train’s going faster.

12h20 Villefranche sur saone for example

12:28 : St Germain au mont d’or has a rather impressive re-constructed station with some fancy brickwork. The train from here on is following the Saone river, which means glimpses of holiday homes, posh hotels, and speedboats for a change. After a few more miles flirtation with it, the train metaphorically takes a deep breath and zooms across the river, into a tunnel, back over the river again and so eventually into the proud city of Lyon, where it is time for lunch.

Lyon Part DieuI’m too lazy to leave the immediate surroundings of Part Dieu, so I chomp my way through a bavette frites at the Cafe des Vosges, sitting in the shade and ignoring a really bad street musician outside the station which (I discover after lunch) has now installed a free wifi service. Which is nice, though it takes me about 15 minutes to get connected and send a status update to Fessebouqe, before reluctantly concluding that it’s also a bit crap.

My 14h38 departure turns out to be another proper train with a locomotive. It even has a modern first class carriage with comfy seats, and a scattering of prises electriques, though the windows are grimy and small.

15h01: Bourgoin Jallieu  (altitude 254 m) is already up in the hills and boasts an immense locable bike shed, as well as a fine graveyard. The terrain constrains the train to follow the same route as the motorway  A43: there is a mountain to the right and this is becoming alpine country, trees everywhere, villages on the hillside. The train slows down with the gradient and crawls up the side of the mountain. You can see why the tgvs dont come this way.

1517 La tour du pin  (altitude 339 m) looks as if it should be in Italy, and the sun comes out to underline the fact. The train picks up speed over the mountain top pastures and little villages. There’s grazing land here, and also I think some vines. A herd of goats. Beehives. Carefully enclosed sheep. The train takes a sharp right turn onto a branch-line  and continues to descend, through deep cuts, and now we have some fairly spectacular views or would do if the windows were cleaner and the sky less overcast.

1533: Pont de Beauvoisin  (altitude 277 m ) is another Italian style station mysteriously transported to the french alps, affording delightful prospects over the river valley below, not to mention the occasional lake. Some serious looking mountains loom ahead, but the train is going down a steep gradient, through cuttings and past neglected stations. On the mist-topped mountains above there are occasional little villages. There seems to have been a major outbreak of scenic cuteness hereabouts, with added lakes and chalets. I expect Julie Andrews to start singing at any moment. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon so people are out walking their dogs and their families. A couple more tunnels, and we are through the mountain that has been looming ahead all this time, emerging into a deep cutting that leads down the valley, past the timber yards, the allotments, the sportive centre, a quick glimpse of the celebrated round engine shed, and here we are at the rather unprepossessing Gare de Chambery Challes les eaux.

Famous round engine shed at Chambery

The short walk to my chambre d’hote starts off with some unpromising road works (they’re installing a new tramline here too) but my opinion of the town takes a sudden leap upwards on my first glimpse of its celebrated elephants, known locally (I later learn) as the quatre sans q.

20130602_153646These adorn a monument to the memory of local benefactor Benoît de Boigne  (whose biography is worth a read). Benoit is on top of the tower, and there are four elephants at its base, spouting water magnificently from their trunks. It stands at one end of a fine colonnaded street leading to the ducal castle and definitely vaut le détour.

Tonight I am staying in the next best thing to a château: a carefully restored 18th c hotel. My room is huge: all parquet and antique furniture, and includes (amonst others) a painting of supercilious 18th c lady who clearly thinks I don’t belong here. But my hundred euros are as good as the next man’s ma’am, so I spread my goods and chattels around the room, and check out the wifi.

Chambery’s old town is also famous for its traboules – unexpected little passageways and courtyards linking the narrow twisty streets – so I have a nice evening wandering around exploring them until my feet say it is dinner time. I dine at Le Sporting on a rather disappointing tartiflette (potatoes a bit dry) washed down with an interesting local white wine and find my way back to my immense chambre

JeanJacques Rousseau wuz ere

JeanJacques Rousseau wuz ere

Jean-Jacques Rousseau stayed here in 1732, with Mme Warens across the way, and they don’t seem to have done much to clean up his digs since he left. All very pleasant.


A lovely sunny morning. Sit in my salon for an hour or so after breakfast trying to deal with some minor domestic crises by wifi, then a pleasant stroll through Chambery, which I now know almost by heart (it’s a VERY SMALL TOWN)…. see photos. Last night’s dinner weighs heavy, so I pause at the Café du Théatre for a tarte aux oignons and a glass of a different local white wine before strolling back to the station in good time for the 14h24 departure.

20130603_131637The last TER of my trip is more like what might have been expected: about four elderly much graffitoed carriages being shunted between Annecy and Grenoble by an old fashioned loco. Hey, these carriages are so old they actually have windows that you can open. Which I do, since the sun is still shining brightly as we rumble out of the tunnel and gingerly start advancing back up the hill.

20130603_134555As it picks up speed the train starts shaking about in an appropriate way. Yesterday was quite mountainous, but this line (the alternative approach to Grenoble) is the real alpine thing. The semi-vertical fields we pass are planted with young vines in rows like cornrows.

14h35 Montmelian  (285m) is evidently a wine growing centre, but the main crop in the areas beyond it is tree. The mountains looming to left and to right as we rattle on are snow topped and imposing.

20130603_13471714h42 Pontcherra sur breda (256m) has a grand marché bio and a scattering of alpine houses.

14h:49 Goncelin (242) has a nice new station with some fancy lampposts. There are just a few houses on the lower part of the mountains to the left, linked by a line of electric pylons to the valley below.

14h58 Brignoud. (229) Another typical tiny halt, this one with a lockable bike shed, and a nice pink station.

This train doesnt start smoothly like others. It gives a warning siren call, lurches into motion, honks defiantly, and then starts picking up speed. This end of the valley is mostly planted with young trees, though I did see a few cows.

1503 Lancey (229) seems to have more houses, but its station looks just the same, Big timber yard, followed by quite a lot of recent housong development. Do people retire to Lancey in the heart of the Savoie to enjoy the mountain air? Presumably so. Or maybe there are jobs here? Certainly there are quite a few nice new clean factory buildings as we approach the Grenoblois conurbation. All very green and geo-thermal of course.

15h08 We stop at Gières, (216) which is also the station for Grenoble university. The train on the opposite platform is a TER bound for Geneve – nearer than you might think. Modern high rise buildings, presumably associated with the University campus, shoot by. We’re still surrounded by mountains, but they no longer dominate the view, as the city of Grenoble rushes up to engulf us. Here’s a motorway. Here’s 15h16: Echirolles a typical suburban station surrounded by tall blocks of flats. Could be anywhere in France, except for the mountain backdrop. And so to Grenoble proper.

Grenoble: view from my hotel window

Grenoble: view from my hotel window

I am here to attend the newly constituted conseil scientifique of the MSH de Rhones-Alpes, which is due to meet tomorrow afternoon (and not morning as I thought when planning this trip). But that’s another and quite boring story. My heroic journey from the top left corner of the hexagon to the bottom right corner has been successfully accomplished, without taking a TGV or passing through Paris. Total travel cost 108.6 euros in first class (where available). Total time sitting on a train 11 and a half hours.

And the return journey you cry? OK, I confess. I took the TGV from Grenoble to Paris (3 hours non-stop) the Eurostar ftrom Paris to London (2.5 ditto). Total cost 172 euros. Total time sitting on a train 5.5 hours. But time isn’t everything, is it…

Written by Lou

June 6, 2013 at 11:38

Posted in Biographical

Festina Lente (3)

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It’s 09h00 on the 1st June and the sun is shining into the familiar breakfast room at the Grand Hotel de Tours, where I am enjoying my familiar breakfast and the headlines in Le Monde. And so to the 09h58 departure for Bourges. Two nice SNCF ladies are running this, and I seem to have installed myself in their private first class compartment, ah well.

SNCF ladies taking a brief and well deserved rest

10h02: St Pierre de Corps is a SNCF “technopole”, i.e. major junction, marshalling yard, engine shed, repair centre, graveyard. Rows of passenger units varyingly disfigured by graffiti or overgrown by weeds, old shunting engines shunted together, modern ones amusingly labelled “FRET”. The TGV to and from Paris stops here, which is why I know it all too well. If it were in England it would be called Tours Parkway. Speeding through its associated industrial wasteland, my train swings off to the right on the line to Vierzon  and Bourges.

10h24: Chenonceax Maybe it;s the weather but everything looks lovely, even though this is another PANG barely known to wikipedia. As we proceed, I notice that people in these parts seem to be into building houses as developments from existing limestone caves. And then of course there are also rich folks’ chateaux, poking their turrets out of the woods here and there.

10h29: Montrichard  has a full-on iron passenger bridge, dating from 1869 when they doubled the number of tracks on this line. It is followed by a couple of quite respectable tunnels. The stations on this line have rather nice red brick stripes set into white.

10h43: Saint-Aignan-Noyers  is in the middle of some flat farmland, so boasts some cereal silos and other rather unimproved old industrial architecture. There is a long long straight road leading from here to the horizon, on which you can just see the outline of one of those famous castles of the loire.

20130601_10035510h50: Selles-sur-cher (87) . Well preserved old style station. No-one gets on or off, this saturday morning, but we still sit and wait for a few minutes. Industrial buildings, some abandoned, some not, line the edge of the track for a while, until the woods reassert themselves

11h00 : Gievres (96) is a junction station with a branch line heading somewhere called Romorartin. Splashes of yellow gorse here and there. Muddy tracks enticing the eye into woodland

11h10 : Villefranche-sur-Cher (98) has an overgrown ambitious marshalling yard. This place maybe was somewhere once, or had ambitions to be. I am guessing that Cher is the name of that river we crossed a while back.

11h30 : Some even more extensive marshalling yards announce the arrival of Vierzon ville (122), which is a major junction, it seems, at the intersection of several routes, as well as a decent sized town. The junior of my two train ladies gets off here leaving her colleague to manage alone for the last part of this train’s run, past two radio masts, and a parc eolienne of the type my Norman colleagues get so cross about.

11h47 into Bourges  (130) , in plenty of time for a coffee before the next train. If only there were a bar in the station, or a functioning toilette. But there is neither, just a horrid supermarket. Outside the sun is still shining and there are numerous hopeful hotels, none of which will offer anything short of a large lunch at this time on a saturday, so I settle for a quick coffee in the only baker who’s still open before inspecting the riverside formal gardens and accompanying war memorial.

Formal garden at BourgesI see from the map that Bourges has a large area called Le Marais, which actually consists of marsh rather than narrow twisted picturesque old streets. And so back in time for my next train, the 12h30 departure for Nevers. This is an almost identical Bombardier unit, in the care of another nice SNCF lady.


Quondam station at  12h35 Saint Germain du Puy The station building has been thoughtfully transformed into a bar where I could get another coffee if we stopped for more than 2 minutes. Ah well, off we go again past nice little homes with nice little gardens into rich fertile farmland… and industrial scale agro-factories, reasuringly mixed with acres of woodland and wheat, or maybe it’s hay. A man, appropriately dressed, sprints very slowly past on the track beside our train

1245 Avord. The stations on this line are a different design from those on the line to Vierzon, but clearly of the same period. And equally clearly, not a lot has happened to disturb them between the mid 19th century and the start of the 21st (when the line was electrified).

12h51 Bengy sur Craon  has a rather pretty church visible from the station as well as a really silly name.

12h56 Nerondes The station is fairly clearly unused. This is farming country. Grain silos.A tunnel!

130h7 La guerche sur laubois seems like a pleasantly sleepy country town, prosperous enough to maintain three trains a day, and a street full of small shops.

13h20 into Nevers (186). A large station, with its own fancy subway, and all the trappings of modernity. I was a bit worried about having only ten minutes between trains, but the connexion was easy. Here we leave the Central Region and enter Burgundy, home of The 13h30 train to Dijon is (as they say) labellisé as belonging to the Conseil Regionale de Bourgogne as well as the SNCF, though the rolling stock appears to be identical (Alston, TER for the use of).

1340 Imphy station is dwarfed by surrounding old engine shed, scrap metal sheds. Once it had a proper station but now it’s just another PANG.

20130601_123051_v1 1353 At Décize I woke from my snooze to see that we are travelling alongside a river, or maybe a canal, and that most of the waterlogged fields around here also sport big crowds of white foraging beasts which are not sheep but cows. This must be were they grow the active ingredient in steack frites.

1404 Cercy la Tour No sign of a tower unless you count agricultural silos

1424 Luzy (271m) Nothing to see except sheds. Purpose of station is to load goods trains, really More fields of white cows, woods, wooded hills and rivers.

1439 Etang sur arroux (277)  There’s a fair going on here, but my train is slowing down, and then enters a tunnel. From which eventually we emerge, some 70 metres higher, into the little town of …

15h00 Le creusot (352) : lots (well five) people get on! On tother side of the mountain there is a conurbation of sorts, and then we start going down hill again alongside the river. Sky clouds over for first time today, boo.

1505: Montchanin has a smart new signal box and shunting yard but its wikipedia entry is entirely vacuous. The fields hereabouts are not full of cows any longer, but instead what looks very much like vines. We must be nearly arrived at this train’s terminus: Beaune 

Subway, BeauneThis is a large station with a much decorated subway. I am surprised to learn from it that the true father of cinematography was not a Bristolian called Friese Greene as I had always supposed, nor the American Eadweard Muybridge, but in fact some French chap called Etienne-Jules Marey  – apparently Beaune’s most celebrated son.

I have a 90 minutes between trains here, which is a good thing since the walk into the centre of town in search of a nice cup of tea takes rather longer than anticipated. The town centre, when I find it, is picturesque, and full of people on holiday enjoying the sunshine and buying large amounts of interesting wine. My luggage is heavy enough, so I content myself with some nice biscuits to go with the tea.

20130601_161253_v1Last train of the day is the stopping train from Paris Bercy to Lyon, which pauses briefly at 16h59 in Beaune. This is a cut above your average local regional TER: it is a real train with a locomotive and carriages that at least pretend to have compartments. Like other long distance trains, it proceeds in occasional rapid spurts, interspersed with patches of dawdling. Sitting on it is quite a different experience from the Bombardiers I have been on all day. The countryside looks further away, and not just because the windows are dirtier I think. There are three stops (17h15: Chagny, 17h25: Chalon sur Saone, and 17h45 Tournus) before we arrive at my final destination for the day, Macon.

I have booked into a chambre d’hote I found on the web: an old house opposite the Police Station and just ten minutes walk from the station. The lady who runs it helps me and my suitcase up the stairs to a very smartly renovated mansard, offers me home made orange wine, and wifi, and is generally welcoming. She also confirms that La Couronne restaurant just up the road is quite  acceptable and even books me a table, where I subsequently enjoy solid Burgundian dinner and a decent glass of wine (their specialty is frogs, but I decline the offer)  And then   a little stroll along the banks of the river, and so to bed.

Written by Lou

June 4, 2013 at 10:18

Posted in Biographical

Festina Lente (2)

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I make my excuses and leave the MRSH in good time to squeeze myself and my bags onto the tram down to the station. In fact, much too good time, since I then have to wait around for 20 minutes. But eventually…

15h45 : Train Express Regionale no. 57210 heads out of Caen and across the Lower Norman countryside in a southerly direction at a stately pace. There are many many stations to come…. indeed, before you can say Jacques Robinson we are pulling in to…


15h58 : Mezidon!  Never heard of it, but the sun is shining and the platform is covered with cheerful looking young people. A portly SNCF person approaches to ask whether anyone fancies getting off at the next stop, but seems uninterested in checking tickets.

16:06 : St Pierre Sur Dives  is a tiny halt, but the train still waits there hopefully for a few minutes. No one gets off, or on. It barely has a presence even on Wikipedia. The countryside remains green, with ancient looking stone barns and farmhouses. And occasional rows of cottages with their backs to the railway. There’s a general air of nothing much happens here. I realize how pleasant it is to be able to actually see the countryside I am travelling through, even though there really isn’t much to see except huge expanses of greenery interspersed with trees, with occasional clumps of stone cottages. You get the idea: la Basse Normandie is very very rural. It also has railway stations so rural even this train doesn’t stop at them. Oooh horses!

17h27 : Argentan  looks like a bigger place. For one thing it has a tennis court, and something that looks suspiciously like a factory, to say nothing of a dual highway rushing alongside, a huge multistory carpark, and a nice big newish railway station. More students pile on , though not of course into 1st class. A second cheminot, sporting a proper peaked hat rather than a mere beret, joins the first one on the train and starts checking the tickets; mine is now satisfactorily punched.

17h43 : Sées  (apparently pronounced “say”) is bosky on the approach. An old station building in brick and stone, with a greatly expanded platform. A main road beyond it along which trundle 2cvs and huge lorries. Yellow gorse on the hedgerows. L’opposition de ses habitants à la ligne de chemin de fer Paris-Granville a contribué à faire stagner la ville lors de la révolution industrielle au profit d’Argentan (Wikipedia) A motorway snarls alongside, parallel to the railway between here and the next stop

17h56 : Alencon. This is actually a city: its station has more than one platform, a plethora of platforms indeed, as well as a new building (the old one was flattened during WW2), a  carrefour market, a proper 19c cemetery, and an agglomeration. It doesn’t last. We’re back in large green fields, trees, hills, horse and cow country pretty soon.

18h12 : Vivoin – Beaumont  is approached via a deep green cutting and is of the type charmingly known in French as a PANG (un point d’arrêt non géré ) . It has a level crossing, where the traffic is held up, and a much graffitoed old shed for its station building. But people get off all the same. Not much of a conurbation, and leaving it all I notice are distant hills, topped with castles. The fields seem to be getting bigger too. A couple of stations flash by.

The first clear sign that a big city approaches is an Auchan supermarket…followed by row upon row of factory style prefab sheds. Yes, it’s

18h29 : Le Mans  a major railway junction and city as any fule kno. It even has trams, a tasteful brown colour. And of course acres of HLMs and row upon row of terraces, multistorey car parks, a bus station, a taxi rank, shops and bars… a proper big city railway station where TGVs stop. Lots of people get off, not many get on. We have now entered a new TER district. After sneaking away through vast expanses of marshalling yards, my train settles down for the last hour of its journey. Out into the countryside again, but seemingly more wooded and agricultural than Normandy: we are in the pays de la Loire.

18h50: Ecommoy is another place whose station is much too small to accommodate this train (I am sitting at the back of it), having hardly changed since it opened in 1858. The village looks much the same too. There’s lumberjacks round here somewhere, judging by the freight yard full of sliced up tree.

1908 Chateau du Loir another small place with a big disused freight yard, nothing to see of station. Can’t see any chateau, but it could be anywhere, hidden away in these wooded hills. Almost everyone has left the train and all is quiet, as those who have not left are mostly contemplating their laptops playstations or mobile phones. The scenery outside the window remains charming, varied rural, as the train skirts some river, zips through some forest, passes the edge of a hamlet, rumbles through some station not worth stopping at. Finally it crosses a huge river which I take to be the Loire and pulls into the majestic Gare de Tours, notre terminus and offficially a historic monument.

Gare de ToursI check into my favourite Tourangellian hotel, and then go in search of dinner at le Chien Jaune. This used to be a somewhat chaotic bistrot, but has now (I learn from a fellow diner) been bought by the owner of the Odeon, so the food is much better, but the prices have gone up. And so to bed, well pleased with my first day’s démarche.

Written by Lou

June 2, 2013 at 19:29

Posted in Biographical

Festina Lente (1)

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If you have to get from Oxford to Caen and then to Grenoble, there are several possibilities. You could fly, but the cheap flights are all on the wrong days, or leave from the wrong airports. You could Eurostar and TGV it. Now, it’s a commonly believed falsehood, probably fostered by the SNCF, that you cannot get anywhere in France without travelling (a) by TGV (b) via Paris. I plan to prove them wrong by doing this whole trip without doing either.


Oxford to Caen is a journey I have done several times. A 10 am departure from Oxford will just get the 1315 Eurostar, and then it’s a matter of schlepping across Paris in the rush hour to St Lazare in time for the 1810 Intercites, arriving in Caen at 20h00. Total cost, if you care, about 250 euro. OR, you could start at the same time and take a slightly slower but more direct route. A Virgin train from Manchester links Oxford to Southampton, which connects with another to Portsmouth, and then due south again by ferry to Oustrehan, which Brittany Ferries persist in pretending is actually Caen’s harbour. If everything connects, you leave Oxford at 1015 and arrive at Caen at 2100.

This being Bank Holiday Tuesday and a school holiday I was anticipating trains crowded with families on their way to Bournemouth, but the current British climate (both spiritual and meteorological) seems to have dampened popular enthusiasm for such a projects. I set off in a determined drizzle and spent most of the journey revising a paper for the Document Engineering conference. It was still raining every time I looked out of the window. And still when I changed trains at Southmapton Central. And still when my train finally pulled in to Portsmouth and Southsea station, which seemed the best bet for a taxi to the ferry port. Like the airports favoured by budget airlines, ferry ports are never where you might expect them to be. Brittany Ferries do not operate their services from Portsmouth harbour, oh no. They have their own purpose built ferryport which is 5 quids worth of taxi away. I arrive much too early, as usual, and spurn the offer of wifi for 5 quid an hour.


It’s a BOAT. It’s HUGE. Me and a dozen or so other intrepid pedestrians climb aboard, where we are affably greeted by REAL FRENCH SAILORS. I’d forgotten how much fun this is, provided the sea isn’t misbehaving (it wasn’t) and there are not too many other people having it (there weren’t). I had a slap up late lunch of roast lamb and proper french fries, with drinkable wine, and proper cheese, before retiring to my cabin for a couple of hours snooze. Wifi only works on the upper decks,which is slightly annoying, since that is also where someone is also trying hard to entertain us with a general knowledge quiz, followed by larks for the kids, but what the hay. It’s a relaxing experience, and I disembark in such a relaxed state at Oustrehan I am happy to wait 15 mins for a taxi to come and take me to my appointed hotel in downtown Caen (40 euro, gulp) far too late for any dinner,

The next three days are spent in a meeting of the Conseil Scientifique de la MRSH, and involved no rail travel, nor indeed much travel except for one surprise outing. Since last year, this committee has lost a couple of members, and gained a couple more, but otherwise it was much as last year (see revious report), except of course that both we and the MSH itself now have last year’s experience under our metaphorical belts and know what to expect from the meeting.

Written by Lou

June 1, 2013 at 21:01

Posted in Biographical

Tagged with ,

Itinerarious adventures #19 and #35

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Zadar airport staff form a nice formation while the flight from Dublin turns into the one for Belgium

Zadar airport staff form a nice formation while the flight from Dublin turns into the one for Belgium

So there I am in Zadar, Croatia on a nice family school holiday with my grandson and his parents. We’ve done the sea organ (twice), we’ve done a fair bit of lunching, we’ve enjoyed some sunshine, and Tuesday it starts off rainy, though that’s not why I have to leave. Marion’s friend and his taxi come for me at 1030, and off I go to the airport. After the obligatory small talk, I hear a bit more about what happened to Zadar during the 1991 war when the old town was seriously bombed, though you wouldn’t think so to look at it now : ok, it was clearly knocked about a bit by the Turks in the 18th century, but it’s easy to forget that quite a lot of the ancient rubble now repurposed as building materials is of more recent making. We drive through Crno, a little village which was the front line at the time, then abruptly take a very bumpy short cut through Babindub along a 200 metre stretch of what my driver calls “war road” as a further reminder. Then I spend far far too long sitting around waiting for a plane at the nice modern airport. There’s an outside terrace for smokers, which on the plus side is in the sunshine, but on the minus is throbbing with rubbish pop music. I plug in my headphones and listen to some Strauss (R.) for  an hour or so. The Ryanair flight from Dublin arrives, eventually, and air borne by 1342; as ordered, I relax, sit back, and (try to) enjoy the flight. No, no hot food, no beverages, no duty free bargains, no Ryanair scratch card thank you. I wonder how long it can be before the lingua franca of Europe becomes a faintly Irish-inflected form of English. We land at Charleroi airport (no discernible features) at 1533, and I have time to get a 4 euro sandwich before tracking down the bus to Charleroi railway station (5 euros). The bus leaves at 1606 precisely, drives through lots of industrial wasteland and eventually arrives at the railway station (a traditional design rather spoiled by being entirely made of reinforced concrete) just in time for me to catch the 1637 departure to Brussels Midi instead of the 1707. The train is very long and very empty, but it trundles along in a bored Belgian kind of way, stopping at various places I have never heard of, and disdaining to do so at many others (including — unless I dreamed this — Waterloo). I arrive in the huge concourse of Brussels Midi about 1730, just in the nick of time to catch the 1755 Eurostar

Charleroi Sud. A Belgian railway station.

Charleroi Sud. A Belgian railway station.

to London instead of the 1856 one, hoorah. Would I have done better to get the bus from Charleroi to Lille and catch the Eurostar there? Quite possibly, but in the absence of any wifi it’s hard to tell. Anyway they are bringing some snacking and maybe I will be in London in time to go out for a decent dinner after all.

I detrain at St Pancras at 1905, join the throng being subjected to an additional passport check (sigh), and proceed to the Piccadilly line, even though this is subject to “severe delays” today. Also and not coincidentally severe congestion. But I get a seat on a train which promises to get me to Heathrow without waiting for much longer, and read quite a lot of the Evening Standard before it slows down severely somewhere in the wild west of London (Acton Town I think). The Old Codger sitting next to me engages me in conversation for the rest of my rather staccato journey; he starts by bemoaning the state of the nation in general, and TfL in particular, before moving on to the legal profession and the state of his health. He’s a retired minicab driver. And eventually we arrive at Hatton Cross tube station at 2030 or therebouts. And so to Jurys Inn, heaven help me, where I refuse to pay 10 quid for internet, but manage to blag a free hour’s wifi all the same, enough to check in for my flight tomorrow. Then I consume a beer and a burger in anticipation of tomorrow’s likely dinner. And so to bed. Next morning, I am up before 8 and out of there, noticing that on the other side of the eight lane highway leading me back to Hatton Cross there is a misty field containing what appear to be real horses, real cows, and a genuine picturesque old farm building, which seems as incongruous as the notice labelling this stretch of highway “Dick Turpin Way”. A tube train trundles me and my bags underground to Terminal 5 and 21st century realities. Lifts, escalators and transits, lots of stainless steel and glass, lots of people and luggage, lots of queuing for arcane security procedures : the usual airport dystopia. One gets through. And by 0930, here I am ordering, and consuming a proper English breakfast at one end of the terminal.

By 1010 I have a gate to go to, and by 1030 I am meeting up with James and Sebastian at it. Flight BA 2012 to Boston takes off on time at 1120, and follows its appointed route without incident. I watched an old Dr Who episode and an amusing film about Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. I did not do much work. At Logan airport the frontier guards have all been on a special course to learn how to be nice to people, which is a pleasant surprise. We locate the free “silver line” bus to  South Station, and I take the Amtrak train to Providence, after a pizza and some tea. Comfy train. New England scenery flashes by : clapperboard houses, alternating with woody wasteland, and even yes a little genteel industrial wasteland too. And so eventually to the entirely splendid Biltmore Hotel and the TEI Council meeting…

... and at the other end.

… and at the other end.

James, Sebastian, and his fine bag at one end of the transatlantic flight

James, Sebastian, and his fine bag at one end of the transatlantic flight

Written by Lou

April 11, 2013 at 20:41

Posted in Biographical

The Lithuanian Flying Teapot

with 2 comments

2013-03-13 22.48.29

Lithanian teapot in “pour mode”

This fine teapot comes from a teahouse in Vilnius, Lithuania, to which I was introduced by Matthew Driscoll and Tatiana Timcenko many years ago.

Sadly, they don’t make them (the teapots) any more, and I haven’t found anything like it elsewhere. Which is strange, since the design is as effective as it is remarkable.

Tea is served from the pot holding it this way up.

Teapot in "Brew Mode".

Teapot in “Brew Mode”.

Of course, before the tea can be poured, it must be brewed. This is done with the pot rotated through 90 degrees as shown here. Tea leaves go into the compartment next to the handle, under the lid, followed by the boiling water. The pot then sits in the horizontal “brew” position for as long as you see fit. When ready, the pot is rotated to the “pour” position, and the tealeaves are kept separate from the tea by the ceramic strainer you can see in the photo below.

In brew mode. Lid removed to display cunning built in tealeaf catcher

In brew mode. Lid removed to display cunning built in tea leaf catcher

Update: Thanks to Lorraine’s comment below, I now know that this is actually a British invention “The concept of the SYP, or Simple Yet Perfect, teapot was the brainchild of Sir Douglas Baillie Hamilton Cochrane, the 12th Earl of Dundonald. His first design for the SYP teapot was patented in 1901, and the second and “improved” teapot came four months later – this was the version which was manufactured by Wedgwood’s Etruria factory between 1905 and 1919 as well as several other potters”. Thanks to Mr Google I see you can buy them on eBay, but I haven’t found anyone still manufacturing them yet.

Written by Lou

March 13, 2013 at 23:30

Posted in Biographical

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