Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow

We were off with my group from Florence to Prato, where in the cathedral there is the Chapel of the Girdle of the Virgin Mary—not any old girdle, but the actual one that she dropped down to Thomas as she was being assumed into heaven. It is exposed on its feast days from a pulpit, one of the most beautiful and exhilarating creations of Donatello (the original now under cover in the adjoining cathedral museum). After the delight of seeing it, we still had time to fill in and so on the way back we stopped off at the Villa di Castello, one of the original 16th-century Medici villas, once graced by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and now the home of the venerable Accademia della Crusca, the guardian of the purity of the Italian language.

The garden is famous for its extraordinary collection of citrus fruits and it is hardly surprising that this was one of the first stops for Helena Attlee in her absorbing story of citrus growing in Italy. The garden was created in the 1540s by Niccolo dei Pericoli, known to this day by his schoolboy nickname, Tribolo, ‘the troublemaker’. He knew what he was up to, making sure that the garden was divided up with walls and lots of shade to provide the perfect temperature for the growing fruit. All this was swept away in the 18th century and the more formal open spaces are now too hot for their produce but the garden still impresses with its hundreds of large terracotta pots and extraordinary array of fruits. They are dragged off in the winter into the garden’s limonaia, the lemon house. Many of these limonaie are spectacular buildings in their own right, especially further north among the lemon growers of Lake Garda, where further protective shelter from the cold is needed.

There were only three original species of the citrus genus in Asia, the mandarin, the pomelo and the citron, but they cross-pollinated so easily that hybrids soon formed and flourished even before any fruits arrived in Italy. The citron was the first to appear, in the 2nd century AD, as a mysterious newcomer in that it is ungainly, virtually inedible but exudes a wonderful perfume that suffuses everything that it touches. Lemons, a hybrid between citrons and sour oranges that are themselves a hybrid between a mandarin and a pomelo, arrived in Sicily with the Arabs in the 9th century while pure mandarins only arrived, from China via Kew Gardens, in the 19th century. By then luck and ingenuity had created the extraordinary mix of citrus fruits that made classification a botanist’s nightmare—especially as aristocrats delighted in creating as many exotic and grotesque specimens as possible.

The distinct climatic niches of Italy and Sicily fostered their own varieties. If you are looking for the best arancie rosse, blood oranges, you must come to the slopes of Mount Etna, for here the difference in temperature between day and night is at least ten degrees, without which the blood-coloured pigments cannot develop. For the treasured oil of the bergamot, a natural cross-pollination between a lemon and a sour orange, a thirty-five kilometre stretch of coastline in Calabria, where cultivation began in the 17th century, provides the finest in the world, while the Ligurian coast is the home of the small and bitter Chinotto, most usually found as an ingredient of Campari, but now enjoying a revival in its own right.

Inside a limonaia on Lake Garda

Varieties come and go as easier ways of working or developing the land challenge the original traditions and it is only the most skilful gardeners who can keep ancient specimens alive from one generation to the next. Attlee seeks out these dedicated few, some of whom may indeed sustain revivals of vanished species. The curator of the Castello garden, Paolo Galeotti, had a spectacular coup when he spotted a twig sprouting the celebrated bizzarria, a citrated lemon that had vanished without trace for decades. It is now flourishing. Alas, alone and unprepared as my group were, and without the expertise of Helena Attlee or Signor Galeotti at hand, we missed seeing it (and how could I have taken my recent Turin tour members to the excellent Via del Sale restaurant without insisting on their sorbet made from madarino tardivo di Ciaculli, with a flavour ‘so intense it could be consumed only in tiny mouthfuls’).

It was Goethe who dreamed of the land where the lemon trees bloom and this delightful and informative book is full of the sun, sensuality and scents of Italy. From now on anyone shopping for standard oranges and lemons in their local supermarket will be consumed with guilt at their lack of discrimination. I am not sure whether our excellent greengrocer will be able to source Limone femminello sfusato amalfitano, the distinctive Amalfi lemon, now given protection from outside competitors by the EU, but I have been promised Tagiolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone for supper and, as the summer warms, we might even try the old lemon-growers’ trick of trapping flies in a concoction of ammonia with an anchovy added to it. But please may we have a new edition with a sumptuous display of coloured prints so that we can feast our eyes on the richness of these wonderful fruits when winter comes to northern Europe?

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

The Land where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit is published by Particular Books, London, 2014.

Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc

On 3rd July 1908, the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, working in the so-called ‘House 101’, northeast of the palace of Phaistos, found an object with symbols on both sides, next to a Linear A tablet. The object became known as the Phaistos Disc—and it remains as intriguing and mysterious now, over a hundred years later, as it was then. Physically it is round, hand-made, about 1.5cm thick and approx. 16.2cm in diameter, with an incised spiral decoration. The spiral is filled with little symbols, 241 or so of them (most of the motifs occurring more than once), stamped on the fresh clay. They represent the earliest evidence of the use of movable type. The clay is free from impurities and the object, unlike the tablets, was fired deliberately.

The excavator assumed it had fallen from the upper storey and that it was of Cretan manufacture. Not much progress has been made since then, though not for want of trying. Nothing else remotely similar has ever been found—and that is the main problem. Accusations of foul play were made as early as 1913. The villain of the piece was said to be Pernier who, jealous of his fellow archaeologist Halbherr’s success at Gortyn (also in Crete), where he found the famous Law Code, and of Evans’s discoveries at Knossos, deliberately planted a forged object with an invented script in order to raise the profile of his excavations. However, while it is true that Phaistos could not rival Knossos as to finds, at Aghia Triada nearby, also excavated by the Italians, the quality and quantity of material was truly amazing. Pernier and the Italian School had their hands full. He seems an unlikely accomplice in a forgery of this magnitude.

Interpretations of the object’s function and meaning are extremely diverse, ranging from an astronomical or astrological calendar to a hymn to victory, a nursery rhyme or a sacred text. Current thought assumes it is a piece of writing though the direction of it, from the centre to the periphery or the other way round, has yet to be established. The small number of characters, 45 in total, suggests it is a syllabic script and close to Linear A, which has not yet been deciphered. There has been no shortage of proposed translations, based on languages as diverse as Chinese, Dravidian, Georgian, Hittite, Luwian, Semitic, Slavic and Sumerian. Indeed it was this abundance that prompted the late John Chadwick, who decoded Linear B with Michael Ventris, to appeal to those producing their own solutions ‘not to send them to him’.

With appropriate testing, it would be possible to put this case to rest one way or another. Modern techniques such as thermoluminescence are not invasive and would ascertain the date of the firing, thereby deciding once and for all the question of authenticity, while the analysis of a minimal quantity of the clay could assist in determining provenance. So far the authorities involved have resisted all calls for such tests. But the case should not be allowed to linger.

Blue Guide Crete, which combs the island in loving detail, will be available in digital format later this month.

Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet

“The journey is its own reward” trumpets the on-train information screen on the Austrian Railways (OeBB) Railjet train, but certainly this journey did not get off to an auspicious start. The train was packed. No space to sit … hardly any space to stand, even. Then it transpired that a group of German schoolchildren – about thirty of them – had mixed up their reservation, and were not supposed to be on this train at all. A very flustered teacher finally decided they had better get off the train, two minutes before it was due to leave. General chaos ensued, and the children scrambled around to retrieve luggage and get off the train.

Following this commotion, the train pulls out of Budapest’s Keleti (Eastern) station and things begin to settle down. At this point the train is heading east, in the “wrong” direction for Austria – but it almost immediately swings round to the south, and then to the west, before crossing the Danube and stopping at the suburban station of Kelenfold.

After leaving Budapest proper, the train journeys through rather unremarkable scenery before stopping at the provincial industrial town of Tatabánya. Soon it follows the Danube for a while - the river here forms the border between Hungary and Slovakia – and passes through the town of Komárom, opposite which, on the other side of the river, lies the Slovakian town of Komárno. About 90 minutes after leaving Budapest, the train stops at the regional capital of Győr (Raab in German) – roughly half-way between Budapest and Vienna - and then speeds through the flat north-west Hungarian countryside before arriving at the border station of Hegyeshalom. Years ago Hegyeshalom meant a stop of up to thirty minutes for a change of locomotive and a passport and customs check, but nowadays the stop barely takes a couple of minutes. The Hungarian driver is replaced by his Austrian colleague, who flicks a switch to allow the locomotive to “convert” to the different Austrian power supply, and soon the train is on its way again.

The scenery remains flat through Austria, although hills appear on the horizon both to the north and west. Massive wind turbines loom up on both sides of the line. In the distance, to the right, high-rise apartment buildings reveal the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. Soon the suburbs of Vienna appear, and only a few minutes later the train passes through the new Wien Hauptbahnhof (Central station), which is currently only partly in use and will open to international trains in December 2014. The Railjet instead stops at the suburban station of Meidling, before travelling a further 10 kilometres and turning through 180 degrees to arrive from the west at Vienna’s (current) principal station, the Westbahnhof.

Railjets were first introduced at the end of 2008 to gradually replace OeBB’s ageing but comfortable Inter-City rolling-stock. The sets are formed of a locomotive plus seven coaches, and they travel in fixed formation, the last coach having a driving cab so the train can be operated in either direction. There are three classes: second class (called “economy”), first class and business class. Business class trumps first class, which may confuse frequent fliers somewhat. A seat in business class costs an extra €15 for any first-class ticket or pass holder, irrespective of the distance travelled. This can be paid on board if there are seats available. Paying extra for the comfortable armchair-style seating in the clubby mini-compartments is well worth it, especially for longer journeys. The supplement includes a welcome drink, although you may have to ask for it if not offered by the attendant.

The Railjets all operate so that the business class and first class sections are nearest the buffers and station entrance at Vienna’s Westbahnhof. This terminus station has only recently been completely renovated with a new shopping centre added, but it will lose its status as Vienna’s principal railway station when the Hauptbahnhof opens fully, since most long-distance trains will stop there instead. This will also allow for an improvement in journey time between Budapest and Salzburg or Munich of about thirty minutes (from December 2015).

On leaving Vienna, the route westwards to Salzburg soon escapes the conurbation; previously it would amble through the attractive hills and woods of the Wienerwald. However, the opening of a new section of high-speed line in 2012 means that, sadly, this is no longer the case – the train now accelerates rapidly and passes through a sequence of tunnels and cuttings; the 15-minute time-saving between Vienna and St Pölten being paltry compensation, some would say, for the loss of the scenic views.

The line from St Pölten onward to Linz has been upgraded in stages in the past few years, but it still mostly follows the route of the old Westbahn, originally opened in 1858 as the “Empress Elisabeth Railway”. There are only a few tunnels to spoil the view as you travel up to a brisk but smooth 230 km/h or so.

Time for a visit to the restaurant car, which is operated by Henry am Zug – an offshoot of Do & Co, the renowned Austrian caterer and restaurateur. The choice of foods is modest, but sandwiches are fresh and other dishes tasty. Pricing is reasonable for a train – a glass of very-drinkable wine with a sandwich costs just over €6, for example - and service, by the mostly Hungarian staff, is prompt and cheerful. Soon the industrial city of Linz is reached, then after passing through Wels the high-speed line ends and on the last stretch of the journey, the 45 minute ride from Attnang-Puchheim to Salzburg, the train meanders pleasantly along river valleys, and briefly passes by the northern shore of the Wallersee as the foothills of the Alps approach.

And so to Austria’s “second” city of Salzburg – in reputation, at least (it is actually fourth in size after Vienna, Graz and Linz). Recently, the station has been extensively rebuilt, but thankfully the grand arched roof has been retained and restored. While the train continues across the border (just outside Salzburg) to Germany, many people alight here, both to visit the city of Mozart and also to connect to trains southbound towards the High Tauern, and westwards towards Innsbruck and beyond.

Travelwise

Railjets ply the Budapest – Vienna – Salzburg - Munich route every two hours during the day. Fares from Budapest to Vienna are reasonably priced if bought from MAV (Hungarian railways): a one-way journey Budapest to Vienna (about 250 km) can be booked in advance for €13 second class, or €29 in first class. These tickets are valid for a specific train, including seat reservation, and are available until the quota for each train runs out.

Otherwise, there is a useful four-day round-trip excursion fare starting from Budapest to Vienna (second class only) for €29. (If you make the outward journey on day one of the ticket’s validity, the return trip has to be made on or before day four). This ticket does not have to be purchased in advance. However, this fare does not include seat reservations – which are not compulsory, and may be purchased separately. For an extra €9, your ticket will include unlimited travel on Vienna’s public transport for the first two days only of the ticket’s validity.

From Budapest to Salzburg there is also a very reasonable four-day round-trip excursion fare (again, second class only) for €39. Since break of journey is allowed with this ticket, it could be used to visit both Vienna and Salzburg within the four days of its validity. Again, seat reservations are not included in the fare.

Buying tickets on the Hungarian railways (MAV) website can be a challenge – there is no proper English version (use an online translator) – and no self-printing facility for international tickets. Tickets have to be collected from internet ticket terminals at main stations in Hungary. Alternatively, Blue Guides recommends buying rail tickets at MAV’s city ticketing office in Budapest on József Attila utca (near the Deák ter metro interchange). Queues are rare and the procedure is generally stress-free; the international ticket office at Keleti station can be crowded.

Note that the same range of tickets is not available in the reverse direction (when starting your journey in Austria) either booked on the OeBB website, or purchased locally in Austria. There are no equivalent excursion tickets, unfortunately, and one-way advance tickets from Vienna to Budapest start from €19 in second class (€29 in first class).

Railjets are often very full – especially on the Hungarian stretch of the journey where they also function as domestic inter-city trains. Booking is always advisable on these services. If you are leaving Budapest without a reservation, get to the station early to bag unreserved places - there is always a certain number of free seats. Otherwise, make your way to the restaurant car, where for roughly the price of a seat reservation, you can enjoy a coffee, beer or glass of wine.

June 2014

Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi

Ligozzi's drawing of a gerbil

An exhibition devoted to Jacopo Ligozzi (c. 1549–1627) is open until 28th September in Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

But who was Ligozzi? Born around 1549 in Verona, he spent most of his life in Florence and is especially known for his scientific drawings from nature. But as the exhibition also illustrates, he had great success at the Medici court as he could turn his hand to designing all kinds of things for them: from decorative harnesses for their horses to pietre dure table tops and embroidered head-dresses for the duchesses. But in order not to depend on the favours of the ruling family at any one time, and to ensure he could always earn his bread and butter, he also produced numerous paintings. This exhibition illustrates the diversity of his talents as well as his eccentricities.

It opens in the magnificent Sala Bianca, the Pitti’s 18th-century ballroom, with a small selection of watercolours of fish, plants, birds, mice and moles, commissioned over a period of some ten years at the end of the 16th century by Francesco I, who was famous for his interest in the natural sciences. The second half of the room has drawings made by Ligozzi for the apparatus used on ceremonial occasions, and two paintings by him of ladies of the court proudly wearing the paraphernalia designed him (that of Margherita Gonzaga is on loan from Lisbon). The designs for bizarre goblets, including an entire album of them, become so intricate that some of them begin to resemble the crazy inventions of Heath Robinson. In contrast, the exquisite pen-and-ink wash drawing of Portoferraio shows what a great talent Ligozzi had for landscape.

Ligozzi's Pietre dure portrait of Pope Clement VIII

There are some magnificent examples of  pietre dure work on show. Tabletops closely covered with inlays of precious stones portraying all manner of flowers and birds are displayed without their pedestals and can be seen to full advantage.

A small room contains some very macabre works, two of them on the verso of painted portraits of a lady and of a boy, both from the private collection of Lord Aberconway in Bodnant, Wales. These memento mori fully deserve the description of them given in situ as ‘repugnant’ and ‘savage’. Also here are four drawings of the Cardinal Sins, reunited from Paris (the Louvre) and Hanover. A small allegory of the Redemption from a private collection in Madrid is similarly disturbing. The dark atmosphere is only alleviated by the music provided in this room (and close by, one can go out into the little loggetta, which has a charming ceiling frescoed in 1588 by Alessandro Allori of wash day in the palace).

The last four rooms display Ligozzi’s oil paintings, which vary greatly in interest and quality. Those painted in the 1590s for the little-visited Florentine church of San Giovannino degli Scolopi (in Via Martelli, two steps from the Baptistery) are among the best: Jacob’s Dream and The Fall of Lucifer, which form a pair, and St Jerome Comforted by an Angel, with exquisite details of his piles of books and the angel in a beautiful dress. Ligozzi is known to have been a deeply religious man and his son became a Dominican friar, but his best paintings are those with an element of eccentricity, either in the composition or the details. His Madonna of the Rosary has a rather mundane Mother but a delightful Child, and they are set in a garland of roses of varieties which go from cream to deep red. Next to it hangs a Transport of St Catherine which shows the Saint stretched out comfortably (the pose has faint echoes of Mary Poppins) as she floats aloft with the help of angels. There are also some much larger altarpieces, one of the best of which is Mary Magdalen in Adoration of the Crucifix set in a wood, which is over 3 by 2 metres, painted in 1607 for the church of San Martino in Pisa. Also displayed here is a guide book to the convent of La Verna, written and illustrated by Ligozzi and complete with keyed plans: it seems that he wanted to turn his hand to everything!

The small last room has arguably his best oil paintings: four Passion scenes. They show Ligozzi’s imaginative creativity in their composition and use of colour, as well as fascinating details in the hats, armour, bejewelled costumes, and landscapes.

This is the first time that due attention has been paid to all aspects of Ligozzi’s work. It is an exhibition well worth seeing.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making

In March 1986, a disastrous fire swept through the royal palace of Hampton Court. Started by an overturned candle in the grace and favour apartments on the top floor, it did enormous damage to the apartments below that had been built for King William III at the end of the 17th century. Among the decorations of these apartments was a superb set of carvings by Grinling Gibbons, the greatest of the English sculptors in wood.

Across the Atlantic the news filtered through to David Esterly, also a carver in wood, but rare among his contemporaries in that he specialised in the same type of flamboyant and intricate carving that was the hallmark of Gibbons’ work. He feared the worst, the total destruction of the carvings, and was relieved to hear that, despite much damage, only one seven-foot drop that had graced the side of a door had been totally lost. The others could be repaired but this one had to be recreated from new.

Esterly won the commission to create the new work and this is his finely written and meditative account of the journey to its completion. He had come to carving late, after years of academic study of literature that had focused on the relationship between the poet Yeats and the 3rd-century mystic philosopher Plotinus. A chance visit, when he was thirty, to the wonderful altar carving by Gibbons in St James’s Piccadilly (image above) transported him to the ‘still centre of the universe’ and a new course for his life was set.

A carver needs wood, from the linden tree, or limewood as it is normally known, a set of tools and his or her own skills. The relationship between the three is constantly changing as the wood, at first so vulnerable to direct attack, tries to craft its own patterns against the power of the tools and their master. So carving is never dull and Esterly works longer and longer hours in the room designated to him and his co-workers in the palace. His studies of Plotinus alerted him to the possibilities of a perfection that transcended what his own efforts were shaping and so this is indeed a meditation into the core of creativity. One mark of perfection is to carve what cannot be seen to the same quality as what can be seen as if the invisible permeates the visible and so leads to a yet higher excellence. Esterly ridicules the conceptualism of Jeff Koons, who can imagine an idea in wood and then commission inept carvers (Esterly wonders whether they carved so badly as a deliberate prank) to shape it before an undiscriminating buyer parts with nearly six million dollars to own the finished article.

There are other stories running alongside the patient work of recreation: the inevitable bureaucratic conflicts, the decision whether to leave the new work as it would have been created by Gibbons or whether to match the colour to the remaining carvings. Had Gibbons used any form of sandpaper to finally smooth his work? The conventional view had been that he had not—but then what were those parallel striations which could be seen close up? The combined expertise of the Victoria & Albert and Natural History Museums finally brings up ‘Dutch rush’, a plant that incorporates silica on its stems and which once dried can indeed be used as sandpaper. An experiment shows that the striations match perfectly and a new understanding of Gibbons’ methods has emerged.

The Lost Carving reminded me of Orhan Parmuk’s My Name is Red, where his 16th-century miniaturists debate whether the end of their art is to achieve the perfection of their forbears or to risk evolving new forms. A phrase from an ancient Egyptian text also returned to me: ‘Take counsel with the ignorant as with the wise, for the limits of excellence cannot be reached and no artist fully possesses, his skill’. Esterly, sensitive as he is to the mystery of beauty, would certainly drink (a pint of Adnams Mild at the King’s Arms by the Lion Gate of Hampton Court) to that.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. To read more about Hampton Court (as well as Charles Freeman’s own account of Eton College), see Blue Guide London.

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making published by Duckworth is the UK, Viking / Penguin in the US is now out in paperback.

The image at the head of this review shows a detail from Grinling Gibbons' limewood reredos in St James's Piccadilly. Photo © Blue Guides

Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere

“NOLI ME TANGERE”

The painter Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis (1484–1539) is always known as Il Pordenone, after his birthplace in Friuli, in northeast Italy. According to Vasari, Pordenone taught himself to paint. Certainly his early works are fairly unsophisticated. As he matured, he learned to paint in the Venetian style, with all that that implies in terms of colour and dreamy romanticism. His manner shows a particular closeness to that of Giorgione and Titian. This Noli me Tangere, which hangs in the cathedral museum of Cividale del Friuli, is a good example. It was painted in 1524. Christ appears in a Venetian-pink tunic. Behind Mary Magdalene’s flowing hair we see the angel at the empty tomb. Behind are the alpine peaks that Venetian painters so often included as backdrops in their altarpieces. Christ gestures skywards. We are to imagine him uttering the words put into his mouth by St John: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17).

When Pordenone left northern Italy in the late 1520s, he fell under the spell of Michelangelo, and his style altered forever, becoming much less spatial, much more sculptural, with highly mannered gesture and with an unsettling, barely suppressed violence. His writhing figures seem to invade the viewer’s space and intimidate him/her. There is something almost Gothic in his dwelling on the more tortured and gruesome aspects of martyrdom. All in all, Pordenone is a fascinating hybrid of Gothic and German elements forced through the Michelangelo mangle.

Important examples of his frescoes and paintings can still be seen in his native town, a pleasant provincial capital with a lively atmosphere and lots of places to eat. Some of Pordenone’s modern buildings are by the Brutalist architect Gino Valle (1923–2003), born in nearby Udine, who worked for many years for Zanussi, producing office and factory buildings for them as well as designs for a number of domestic appliances (including their first washing machine). The Zanussi company was founded in Pordenone in 1916 by the son of a local blacksmith. (It was taken over by Electrolux in the 1980s.)

Pordenone, Udine and Cividale are covered in Blue Guides’ e-guide to Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

01.06.2014
22:09

Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala

Tito descending from his beloved Blue Train that ran from the capital Belgrade to Bar on the coast

The 13:30 departure to Belgrade, the EuroCity train Avala, stands at platform 7 of Budapest’s Keleti station. This is a “real” international train - the way international trains used to be – a proper locomotive and coaches, crossing borders and changing locomotives and train staff en route. It has started its journey in Prague, and, with an Agatha Christie-style frisson of intrigue, the daily sleeping-car from Moscow to Belgrade is shunted on to the front of the train. Net curtains covering the lower half of the compartment windows are drawn, protecting the occupants from prying eyes. This coach has arrived in Budapest a couple of hours previously as part of another international express train – the Tisza - after a 36-hour journey from Moscow via the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

The train leaves on time, trundling around the south-eastern suburbs of Budapest, and stops very briefly at the little-used station of Ferencváros. It then bears almost due south, quickly leaving the conurbation behind, and makes its way gently through low, flat lands along the single-track line. This is the western fringe of the Great Hungarian Plain, and it is characterised by mixed-crop fields interspersed with the occasional small settlement. Indeed, the few stops that the train makes are at large, sleepy villages rather than bustling towns; their names – Kunszentmiklós, Szabadszállás, Kiskunhalas – hardly tripping off the tongue. On this glorious day in May, the languid pace of the train and the gently swaying crops under the cornflower-blue, cloudless sky seemingly anticipate long, hot summer days to come.

This route was followed by the original Orient Express, and indeed for a long time was a major gateway to the south-east of Europe. Twenty years ago, there were still five international express trains in each direction, including one to Athens and two to Istanbul. Nowadays, there are only two trains a day from Budapest to Belgrade: this daytime train, which starts from and returns to Prague, and the night train Beograd. In the summer months, EuroCity Avala takes on a grander role with the addition, on certain days of the week, of through overnight coaches to the coastal town of Bar (in Montenegro) and the Macedonian capital, Skopje. [Update: The through coaches to and from Bar will not run in the 2014 summer season because of serious flood damage in Serbia.]

Since the train leaves Budapest at lunch-time, the best place to start the journey is in the restaurant car. And as befits an international express, this is a proper restaurant car with a chef, kitchen – rather than a microwave oven - and appropriately-dressed tables. The menu looks interesting, but the prices seem a bit too good to be true. Each column on the menu only shows “Happy Hour” prices, but it seems that on this train, happy hour lasts for the whole journey. A main course of fried chicken steak and potatoes, with a glass of wine, followed by a dessert of honey-cake and a coffee costs just over €10. On this Saturday journey, the restaurant car was hardly being used; easy to linger there until being politely but firmly chivvied out by the Czech attendant just before the border with Serbia.

The train reaches Kelebia, the Hungarian frontier town, and a small army of border police and customs officials board the train. The train is scheduled to stop here for about 30 minutes, as a thorough passport and customs checked is carried out. This is, after all, a border of the European Union, and the process is taken very seriously. (On the return journey, the Hungarian customs men board with a step-ladder and an electric drill. There have been occasions in the past when contraband has been concealed in light-fittings and air-conditioning vents).

The train is locked and then proceeds the 12 kilometres or so to the Serbian border town of Subotica. The border itself is crossed some 4 kilometres after leaving Kelebia, but it is not readily noticeable. At Subotica, the train comes to a halt and the performance is repeated, with Serbian officials now carrying out the checks. Western passports seem to elicit more attention than local travel documents, but few questions are asked. Again the train stops for about half-an-hour, the locomotive is changed, then the officials leave and the train moves forward into the station proper, where it stops for a few more minutes to pick up local passengers. The whole procedure – from arriving at the Hungarian border station to leaving the Serbian border station – has taken about 70 minutes.

If the pace of the train in Hungary was relaxed, its movement through Serbia becomes decidedly pedestrian. The first stop after is Kelebia is Bačka Topola, 36 kilometres down the line. Although the route is as flat as a pancake and nearly dead straight, the journey, at an average speed of under 40 km/hour, is scheduled to take 55 minutes. In less than this time, a German ICE train will convey you a cool 170 kilometres from Cologne to Frankfurt Airport. Even Stephenson’s Rocket – the world’s first serious steam locomotive - could reach up to 45 km/hour.

The EuroCity brand was introduced in the late 1980s to promote flagship international trains of some repute, which had to meet certain standards. One of these was the requirement to maintain a minimum average speed of 90 km/hour, except in mountainous terrain. With the advent of high-speed trains in the 1990s and later, such as France’s TGV and Germany’s ICE, the EuroCity brand has diminished in significance and, evidently, standards have slipped.

Not every rail line can be high-speed, but clearly Serbia’s rail network is desperately in need of investment and upgrading. From Subotica to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, it takes 133 minutes to cover 110 kilometres. The train then continues onwards for another hour or so to Belgrade, but the journey for Blue Guides ends here, in this delightful town with a compact but buzzing historic centre.

Travelwise

Fares between Budapest and Serbia are very reasonable. The Beograd-Spezial ticket (second class only) costs €15 one way and €26 round-trip (return within one month) from Budapest to Belgrade, not including optional reservations. The journey must be made, without break, on either of the two through trains indicated above. Supplements on the night train for couchettes and sleepers are extra but very cheap – from €6 per person for a couchette in a 6-berth compartment to €18 per person in a 2-berth sleeper compartment.

For other Serbian destinations, discounted one-way and round-trip (again, return within one month) tickets are available both in second and first class, and these tickets allow break-of-journey en route if desired. For example, Budapest to Novi Sad is €25 round-trip in second class or €37 in first, and Budapest to Belgrade is €48.80 in first class. The Czech restaurant car on EuroCity Avala is highly recommended, although, as noted, it will close for up to an hour during the Hungary/Serbia border controls.

Tickets can be booked on-line on the MAV website, but they can only be collected from internet ticketing terminals at major stations in Hungary.

For accommodation in Novi Sad, the Hotel Centar****, adjacent to the historic centre, is modern but pleasantly designed and reasonably priced; rooms are spacious and comfortable, and service friendly.

May 2014

Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane

Towering nearly 80 metres over the harbour of Trieste, cranked at an angle of about 30 degrees, stands a huge pontoon crane: the URSUS. She has been declared a national monument and has been taken to the collective heart of the people of Trieste as one of the symbols of the city, more potent probably than the halberd of St Sergius which decorates all the lamp posts and civic buildings. The pontoon on which she floats was built in 1914, in Trieste’s San Marco shipyard. The crane itself dates from 1931, from the same shipyard. When it was announced in the spring of this year that funds for her restoration were insufficient, it caused consternation. “After all,” remarked a café proprietor on Riva Nazario Sauro, “this is the Ursus we’re talking about. She’s history. She’s been towed all up and down this coast to work, even as far as Croatia. We can’t just let her sink.” But her pontoon is damaged. Furious bora winds in March 2011, sweeping the coast at over 170 kmph, wrested her from her moorings and she went galumphing out to sea like a rogue elephant, bumping herself in the process. This YouTube video shows her mad stampede, as two tugs attempt to catch her.

But the thousands of euros of public money made available by the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have been deemed insufficient to cover the maintenance and restoration costs that her overhaul will incur. More money (according to the local newspaper Il Piccolo, around 40,000 euro) needs to be found—and quickly, or the existing 150,000 made over by the region will be used for other projects.

Ursus is a magnificent sight, even in her present rusting, hunkered-down state. Let’s remain bullish that the bear can be saved.

Ursus from the top
Ursus from the bottom

News from Florence

Madonna and Child by Jacopo di Cione. Photo ©Sailko.

For many years in the buildings adjoining the magnificent church of Santa Croce (in the rooms around the sacristy and in the great refectory) some important works of art have been on a temporary display. A few weeks ago a definitive arrangement of them was presented to the public. They have been housed in the conventual buildings since the first years of the 20th century (when they were rescued from religious houses suppressed by Napoleon).

In the last few decades Santa Croce has found itself in a rather unhappy geographical position: on a straight street which provides an entrance to the city from the ring-road, which makes it a favourite place for bus tours. An added attraction is the old-established 'leather factory' attached to the church, and leather goods are now sold in the shops on the approach so that, all in all, it represents a perfect stopping place for tour groups which are being hurried on their way from Venice to Rome, but in this way can also fit in a few hours in Florence en route. So it is all the more important that if you are on your own and the church becomes too crowded (as it more often than not does by mid-morning), you can now visit the quieter areas which have been beautifully restored.

Close to the famous frescoes by Giotto in two chapels at the east end of the huge church, you enter a corridor off which is the sacristy, where Cimabue's famous painted Crucifix has at last found a permanent position. It was the most important work of art in Florence to be damaged in the Arno flood of 1966. After a spectacular restoration it is now hung high enough in this beautiful room to be safe from the waters of the Arno should they ever break their banks again. Painted before 1288, it shows Christ 'patiens' (suffering) rather than 'triumphans' and is for that reason a particularly dramatic figure. The sacristy, because it was part of such an important religious house, is very spacious and has its own 'chapel' covered with splendid frescoes by Giovanni da Milano, one of the most interesting followers of Giotto.

From the sacristy you can now go into an adjacent room which has a well in a niche frescoed by Paolo Schiavo, currently being restored. The well would have provided fresh water for the lavabo that was once here. The walls have now been hung with panel paintings (from suppressed churches and convents) which have been in storage here ever since the first years of the 19th century. A triptych by Giovanni del Biondo is dedicated to St John Gualberto, with stories from his life. A modern frame has been reconstructed around Nardo di Cione's triptych which is particularly interesting for its predella, which has unusual scenes from the life of Job. Also here is St James the Greater Enthroned by Lorenzo Monaco.

The Chapel of the Novices, built for Cosimo de' Medici by his favourite architect Michelozzo, is also now open. It houses two huge paintings in wonderful gilded frames by Battista di Marco del Tasso; a Deposition by Salviati and a Descent into Limbo by Bronzino. There is also a Descent from the Cross by Alessandro Allori and a Trinity (with the dead Christ) by Ludovico Cigoli. The enamelled terracotta altarpiece is a della Robbia work and above it a little stained-glass window (designed by Alesso Baldovinetti) has the two Medici patron saints, Cosmas and Damian.

In a tiny barrel-vaulted room off the chapel, with one little window and just large enough to hold a coffin, a bust of Galileo records the fate of the great scientist's corpse, which was hidden here in 1642 before it was decided he could be given a Christian burial inside the church nearly a century later. In the corridor outside are four gold-ground paintings and a monument to Lorenzo Bartolini, who by the time of his death in 1850 had become the most important sculptor of his day.

Back in the church itself, beside the very beautiful Annunciation tabernacle by Donatello, a door leads out to the first cloister. At the foot of the steps, behind a white curtain, is the Pazzi Chapel, one of the most perfect Renaissance interiors in Florence. Close by is the second cloister, one of the most peaceful and beautiful spaces in the city. The rooms of the museum here are now a bit shabby, but don't miss the last room, which has a delightful fragment of the Madonna learning to sew and a fragment of the grieving Madonna in a delicate peach-coloured robe, which found its way here in 1904 from somewhere in the city. In the same room are two newly restored Madonnas, one by the Maestro di San Martino alla Palma, and one by Jacopo di Cione, with the Child in a golden tunic. From this room you enter directly into the splendid Gothic refectory with its huge frescoed representation of the Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi. This space has now regained its spacious atmosphere. Don't miss the fresco fragment with one of the earliest views of the Baptistery or the gilded bronze St Louis of Toulouse made by Donatello for the exterior of Orsanmichele.

In a little cloister behind the Pazzi Chapel (entered from the new Information Office) an interesting and well-designed little exhibition illustrates the history of the Arno floods (and a 'totem' outside show the various levels the water reached). Also here there is sometimes access to a huge crypt (beneath the sacristy), the 'Famedio', a First World War memorial opened by the Fascist regime in 1937 with the names of the 3,672 Florentine soldiers who fell in the fighting inscribed on black marble all around the walls.

As mentioned above, Santa Croce and its piazza can become uncomfortably crowded—but you can slip away from the crowds with the greatest ease if you seek out the little medieval church of San Remigio, in an extremely peaceful corner of town. At the far end of the piazza (the opposite end from the church) take Borgo de' Greci and then (second left) Via de' Malagotti, which leads to it directly. The church contains one of the most beautiful 13th-century paintings of the Madonna and Child in Florence, by an unknown master named from this work the 'Maestro di San Remigio'.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence, available in print and digital formats. For more, see here.

19.05.2014
16:03

Europe by rail - an introduction

See all rail travel articles »

 

If you are intending to travel by rail in Europe, Mark Dudgeon, Blue Guides’ resident rail expert, offers advice about where to start and suggests some of the most useful internet resources to help in your planning:

Eurostar at St Pancras, London ...

GENERAL PLANNING

Seat 61 is an ex-railway manager’s personal but comprehensive guide to travelling by train in Europe and the rest of the world. Once considered to be rather too anglo-centric (“How to get from London to….”), it has since expanded to include more detailed information about travelling by train within and between almost any country which has a rail network. Regularly updated, this site is a good starting point for organising a journey by rail in Europe.

Deutsche Bahn‘s website is, they claim, “Europe’s biggest online travel booking tool”. Certainly, it is generally considered to be the best timetable planner for train journeys throughout Europe. When planning journeys, exercise care, however – except for within Germany, this site does not show temporary or last minute timetable changes: national rail websites are better for this. Weekend journeys in Britain, for example, are frequently disrupted by engineering work on the line.

If you enjoy poring over maps when planning journeys, the Railways through Europe site has comprehensive rail maps for each country, although you may find the design of the maps more of interest to the rail fan rather than the independent traveller.

EUROSTAR

For many British citizens, at least, Eurostar has offered them their first experience of international train travel. Despite being over 15 years old now, and looking rather jaded in parts – standard class seating is cramped and the bistro cars are particularly dismal – the Eurostar experience still can captivate the imagination in a way that short-haul flights cannot. London’s St Pancras station is a particularly impressive place to start a journey: until you get past check-in, that is - the Eurostar waiting lounge can get overcrowded very quickly. The experience should regain its glamour factor over the next few years, however, with new trains coming soon for Eurostar itself, and finally some competition in the form of Deutsche Bahn, which will introduce through trains between London, Cologne, Frankfurt and Amsterdam in 2016.

EUROPE-WIDE RAIL PASSES

One of the big decisions, when planning to do some serious train travel in Europe, is whether or not to buy a rail pass. The two principal types for extensive travel, which have a variety of geographic options (for one or more countries) and several validity periods, are Eurail and Inter-Rail. The basic rule is that Inter-Rail passes are available for anyone resident (for at least six months) in Europe, and Eurail passes are available for everyone else. The best sites for checking the details, including advice on planning trips, and buying passes, are the official sites operated by the Eurail.com company: Eurail and Inter-Rail.

It is important to note that – with some exceptions - Eurail and national passes can generally only be purchased before you arrive in Europe (or the specific country). Inter-Rail passes can be purchased in your country of residence, but they do not allow free travel in that country.

NATIONAL RAIL PASSES

Several countries also issue their own national passes independent of the Eurail/Inter-Rail scheme, and sometimes these offer a better deal. Most passes are available to anyone not resident in the country of travel.

The ever-popular Swiss Pass and Swiss Flexi-Pass cover most types of public transport in Switzerland without extra payment, or at a discount. There is also the useful Swiss Card, offering a visitor a round-trip transfer from the Swiss border (including airports) to any Swiss destination and back, plus unlimited tickets (including boats and some cable-cars) at 50% discount for one month.

The German Rail Pass is only available for non-European residents. Passes are available for a number of days-of-use (from 3 up to 10) within a period of one month - the days do not have to be consecutive.

Renfe’s Spain Pass operates in a different way: you can select passes offering from 4 to 12 long-distance journeys within one month. Connecting local train services at each end of your journey are included free of charge.

The range of BritRail passes is available in several variations, from the London-Plus Pass to the Britrail Pass itself - covering England, Scotland and Wales - with another version including all Ireland. BritRail also offers various discounts on the standard pass prices: for example for low-season travel (November to February), and – unusually – for a British resident travelling together with a visitor.

LOCAL RAIL PASSES

If you are visiting one country, and want to explore a smaller area by train, there is also a variety of local and regional train pass offers available to all travellers. Some countries are better than others for this: Germany, for example, has the excellent one-day Länder-Tickets valid on regional and local trains in each German state, for up to five people travelling together. These have the added advantage of being available on local transport in towns and cities – for example, the Bayern-Ticket is valid on Munich buses, trams and U-bahn (subway) as well as local trains.

Britain has a wide range of regional passes valid for one or several days, although you will need to dig around a bit on the Rangers and Rovers page to see if one would suit you.

BUYING TICKETS

While European train travel has become generally faster and more comfortable over the past couple of decades, it has also become more fragmented – rather than government-owned megaliths operating all the rail services within each country’s borders, privatisation has begun to make its mark in some countries (notably Britain), and several private operators run cross-border services (Eurostar from London to Paris and Brussels, and Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam and Cologne being prime examples).

Twenty years or so ago, you could roll up at the International Travel Centre on platform 1 at London’s Victoria station, and ask for a one-way ticket from London to Budapest. The clerk would dutifully consult a very large tome – the international ticketing manual - you would agree with him the route you intended to travel, and he would calculate a price – all worked out by the distance travelled in each country you passed through. The ticket would be issued, and you were all set – you could stop off anywhere en route, without formality, within the two-month validity of the ticket.

So nowadays, if you decide a rail pass is not for you, or you simply just want to purchase a one-way point-to-point ticket, where do you start?

If your journey is straightforward and involves only one operator, in most cases you can simply visit the operator’s website and book online, print your ticket off (or have it mailed to you).

However, things can get more complicated very quickly. It can be a challenge finding a travel agent able and willing to issue an international train ticket for a complicated routing. (It involves a lot of manual work). If you want to book online, some websites make a brave attempt at pan-European ticketing. Loco2, for example, might be able to help. For our London – Budapest journey, it will quote you a price - or rather two or more prices for separate tickets on specific trains – but the options it will offer you are limited. If you want to stopover in Cologne, say, on the way, you’re going to have to split the journey into two, and even then you will only be offered a small number of options.

Alternatively, in Britain, for example, Deutsche Bahn’s UK booking centre can be very helpful in pricing and ticketing more complicated journeys by phone.

Here are our tips for purchasing rail tickets:

1. Flexibility or specific trains? On most websites, you will be offered tickets for flexible travel (check the operator’s conditions) or cheaper tickets for travel on specific trains, which are often not refundable and not changeable (so if you don’t travel or you miss your train, you’ve lost your money). The choice is yours; you need to assess how important flexibility is to you. If your journey requires more than one non-flexible ticket, do ensure that you leave plenty of connecting time between trains, since it is not guaranteed that one operator will be understanding, and let you travel on a later train if you miss a connection because of another operator’s delay.

2. Journeys within one country: it is usually best to use the national operator’s website to book tickets, for example Deutsche Bahn for Germany or Trenitalia for Italy. You are likely to be offered the best range of tickets, and the booking experience should generally be smooth. However, do check if a smaller private operator runs trains on your planned route. For example, you might consider Westbahn if travelling between Vienna and Salzburg (instead of the Austrian national operator, OeBB); or Italo between Rome and Milan (instead of Trenitalia).

3. International journeys: many countries have bilateral or multilateral agreements with nearby countries for ticketing for specific rail journeys. In this case, check for the ticket you require on the website of the operator in either the departing or arriving country. (So, for example SNCF and DB for a Paris to Frankfurt ticket.) In some cases, you may find that the ticket is cheaper on one site rather than the other.

 

Here is our list of the principal national rail sites, useful both for up-to-date timetable information and booking tickets:

Germany: Deutsche Bahn (DB) for booking rail tickets within Germany, and for international journeys starting or ending in Germany. There is the odd additional quirk: for example, you can book a London to Salzburg ticket, since DB considers Salzburg to be within Germany for ticketing purposes; or the night train from Amsterdam to Prague (which is operated by City Night Line, a Deutsche Bahn subsidiary).

France: SNCF in its various guises can be a bit clunky. Try Capitaine Train instead – also useful for some international tickets.

Italy:  Trenitalia is quite user-friendly; usefully, train pass holders can also book and change reservations-only on high-speed trains.

Other national operators websites include Spain: Renfe; Austria: OeBB; Switzerland: SBB; and the Netherlands: NS.

In Great Britain: National Rail represents the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC). To find out the specific train operating company (TOC) for your journey, consult either the online timetable or the maps section. Refer to the individual operator’s website to buy tickets.

 

Other major operators on specific routes include:

City Night Line: the largest operator of night trains in Europe, mainly for journeys originating, ending or passing through Germany.

Eurostar – London to Paris and Brussels

Thalys - Paris to Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam

Thello - Night trains between France and Italy

TGV Lyria - Trains between Paris and Switzerland

 

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