Wheeling through Europe
by Preeti Verma Lal
“Run. It is 16.32. The ICE train would leave in two minutes… This is the last train to Munich. Run…” At the Amsterdam railway station amidst black parkas, grey tweeds, the staccato of heeled boots and the hiss of silver trains, I could barely see my friend, all I could hear was her hollering. “Run. Platform no.10.” The neon lights were distracting, the lift a tad tardy and the clock hurried. Lugging my colossal camera bag and a suitcase stuffed with woolens, I edged, jostled, elbowed, and hastened through the platform towards the train with a long snout. A minute to go. I sprinted. One step on the footboard and the engine stuttered a start. I held the door rod and hopped in – my heart pounding and my feet aching. The clock struck 16.34 and the train chugged. On that last train to Munich, I stood breathless.
That was a rather harried beginning of my six day-six city-four country rail jaunt across Europe on a Eurail Pass. I slumped on the blue chintz seat, sighed at my bourgeois existence and yearned for the royal waiting room at the Utrecht Railway Museum. If only I were a Dutch princess, the beginnings of my 2,045 km journey would not have been so plebeian. I could have lazed in a Chippendale chair in a waiting room lined with jacquard curtains, mahogany chests, stone fireplace and liveried attendants. If only I were a princess… “You want gas water or silent water?” The attendant in black interrupted my reverie. My throat was parched but I was befuddled about ‘gas’ and ‘silent’ water. In the pantry, the aroma of coffee blended with the whiff of plum cake but all I needed was a drop of water. I looked at the blue bottle with still water and ordered in my newly-picked German. “You like silent water?” The man in black smiled. On that last train to Munich my semantics were changing – gas for sparkling and silent for still water!
As the train sped, tiny cities with gig lamps and sky-scraping spires whizzed past in the darkness of the winter night. Between meadows and smoke-bellowing industrial towns, there fell Düsseldorf known for its hoppy, amber-coloured Altbier beer; Mainz, where the first European books using movable types were printed by Gutenberg in 1450s; Heidelberg, where the Heidelberg Man, the earliest evidence of human life, died about a million years ago; and Stuttgart, where the lean-mean four-wheeled beasts like Mercs, Porsche and Maybach are manufactured. I could have jumped off the train for a ride on the beefy 6000-pounder Maybach, but the gentle chugging of the train had almost lulled me to sleep. I looked at the clock – 00.30. In four minutes, I was wheeling my bag out of the station for a snooze at the hotel next-door to get prepped for a long day ahead in Munich.
“You can’t leave the city without guzzling Munich beer,” the petite Taiwanese guide was already planning for the evening, though the sun was still warming up and it was time to begin the day in the clichéd Bavarian style - with a Weisswurst breakfast. In the city known for its architecture, my heart was longing for the sedulously painted sunflowers that adorn the walls of the van Gogh Museum and the four-cylinder BMW factory and museum. Instead, I found myself caught in the melee of a Christmas market by Marienplatz and the mischief of the painted elf statues that dance around the City Hall tower when the clock strikes 12 noon. That day, Munich was getting under my skin, but sooner than I had anticipated it was time for another train journey – 417 kms to Frankfurt where Goethe, Oscar Schindler and Anne Frank waited.
I saw Oscar Schindler first, outside his modest house by the railway station where the man who saved hundreds of Jews from Nazi concentration camps lived nearly penniless. Frankfurt was Schindler’s last home where on a grey plaque you can still trace compassion in his gimlet eyes. In the house of the moneyed Goethe, upholstery was shipped from New York, porcelain from China, cake moulds hung in the kitchen and staircase was carved in stone. Goethe was, as they say, ‘stone rich’, for his was one of the only seven households in Frankfurt to boast a well. As I walked the streets of a meticulously clean city, I thought of the days when Anne Frank must have pottered around in pinafores and pigtails – for it was here that little Anne was born.
Four days, four cities – the miles on the map were getting shorter each day, I still had two days, two cities and 658 kms left on the itinerary: Frankfurt to Luxembourg 296 kms; Luxembourg to Basel 362 kms. In Luxembourg, the world’s 20 th smallest country with the world’s highest per capita, I rested by what is known as Europe’s most beautiful balcony and ogled at the drop-dead gorgeous Duke William II of Orange Nassau and his steed, while in Basel, it was the shimmering skyline that stole my heart.
Never before had I sped past cities and nations so hastily, never before had my iris been so crowded with so much beauty and never before have my ears droned with so much historical lore. Perhaps never before had I yearned to stretch an itinerary. This time I did. Despite the wobbly knees!
in The Crest Edition, 2009