If you take a “travel” company tour in Europe, as I am at present, you should understand that, when you get off the plane, wherever you get off, you are entering Theme Park Europe, a Disneyland for adults.
Or really, senior citizens, for that’s who most of us are – retirees busy spending their super, or their children’s inheritance (depending how you look at it), on train and boats and buses, viewing great history, great art and great folly.
It’s civilisation at its grandest, and in small, digestible bites.
Dame Edna lives on the Australian tour buses, and Basil Fawlty in the budget hotels with their cramped quarters, inadequate bathrooms and airconditioning, and obvious need for constant maintenance.
And yet why would you not do it, if you have the urge and can raise the price?
Take Venice for example – one vast art gallery. Even if you’re the last of the Philistines how could you not appreciate it, at least at the level of constant amazement?
I can’t add anything what has already been said about the wonder of it all. I am just happy now that, even for a day, I was able to revisit Venice. I first went there when I was 23 years old and on one of those famous Australian camping tours of Europe – 15 youngsters crammed in a Ford Transit van, blissful in our naivety and know-everything confidence.
Venice was wasted on us then. Now a day in Venice is hardly enough, but much better appreciated from the perspective of a lifetime of experience discovering that know-everything is really know-all (for non-Australians, read “ignorant”).
Trying to express how it blew me away will only expose my ongoing ignorance. Just let it be that after a day wandering the streets and alleys, capped off with Vivaldi concert after dinner, I was on a natural high that couldn’t be diminished by the stifling heat, the slight whiff of sewage in the air and the milling masses of tourists.
Something that can be observed, though, off the aesthetic plane is that Venice is in a constant state of renewal – or if you like, being propped up, kept alive and, above all, maintained in all its glory for the benefit of the tourist trade, without which it would have long ago accepted its fate and slipped into the sea that threatens to overwhelm it at any time.
Only 56,000 people now live in Venice; many more thousands travel in every day to service the millions like me who come to gape, or simply to cross Venice off their personal bucket lists.
And so there’s a certain amount of illusion involved. Life on low islands exposed to the sea, salt and humidity means a constant battle to fend off decay and to repair the inevitable damage done to the artworks and the city’s famous features.
It’s hard not to wonder how much of the place is like the proverbial hundred-year-old axe: it’s had six new heads and 12 new handles but somehow it’s still the same old axe.
Of course, much of the continual restoration work must occur in the public eye. To keep the visitors to Venice-land happy, it’s done behind hoardings every bit as arty as the contents of the palazzos, villas and churches.
This is wholly consistent with Venice. It is a visual treat wherever you look. One of the many buildings that took my eye was the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which has external walls of marble sculptures given a 3D appearance, I know not how. This brilliant trompe l’oeil on show in frescoes and facades everywhere is translated on the restoration hoardings into ordinary commerce.
So: what news from the Rialto? Well, it’s being restored (rebuilt?) half at a time and that half is covered in a canvas on which is painted exactly the appearance of the bridge. If you look along the Grand Canal from not too far away, it’s hard to see that half the Rialto (at this point in time) is a picture. Not quite Spike Milligan’s cardboard replica – but close.
I was to see that again, not two days later, and in Paris. Unlike Venice, it’s a real, working city, of course, but it’s no less a major part of Theme Park Europe.
The illusion must be maintained. All the paying customers must be happy.
So on the Place de la Concorde, amid the preparations for Bastille Day celebrations and the arrival of the Tour de France, is one of those elegant public buildings that make Paris what it is. As of a couple of days ago it was covered in a hoarding on which was painted a picture of its façade while work proceeds on whatever is going on behind.
More on Paris later, when we revisit the City of Love. This time, though, we (my wretch of a wife and I) were just passing through. We had arrived there from Venice on another grand illusion – the Simplon Orient Express, the train fabled in legend and literature for elegance and mystery.
The first thing to note about it is that it has no connection with the “Simplon”, a pass/tunnel through the Alps which delivers trains between Paris and Milan. One of the old Orient Expresses (and there were several) ran that way to Venice and points east to Istanbul. This current version, on its way to Paris from Venice, takes a sharp right turn at Verona and heads across the Brenner Pass to Innsbruck and then turns west across Switzerland, Lichtenstein and France to Paris.
The second item of significance is that today’s Orient Express is as much an amusement ride as any Luna Park scenic railway. No one, repeat no one, travels on the Orient Express to get to Venice, or Paris, or anywhere in particular. It is a train to nowhere.
It is “the experience” that matters. The train’s boutique sells beautifully dressed copies of Agatha Christie’s Murder of the Orient Express, passengers are encouraged to deck themselves in their finery for grand wining (at three-figure prices) and dining and the carriages are sparkling restorations of the grand old days of railway travel. Each carriage has its own personal attendant. The compartments are stacked with monogrammed bathrobes and slippers and cosmetics. Each has a cupboard behind curved, polished wood-pannelled doors which houses a perfect Edwardian washbasin.
The perfection is underlined by the warning not to drink the water and the realisation that this little splash bowl is never going to substitute for the shower so desperately needed after a day soaking up the authentic Edwardian experience without airconditioning in 30-degree summer heat. The compulsory jacket and tie at dinner with limited air circulation leaves a body more than somewhat limp.
So to bed: beautifully (and this is the only word that can be used about the whole “experience”) made-up bunks with blankets concede nothing to summer heat. The small fan contributes little, and so life in the top bunk above the windows becomes the fitful sleep so beloved of writers who trade in the uneasy.
And did I mention that the compartments are a bit cramped for two? David Suchet’s Poirot was most put out in his version of Murder that he had to share his space with another. I can sympathise with him. I’ve travelled many a sleeper train in two-person cabins but somehow I don’t remember being so, compressed, as on the luxurious Orient Express.
But don’t let me mislead: the luxury is real and authentic. We visited the Cite du Train museum in Mulhouse, Alsace, a couple of days later and there in full glory are the same Compagnie de Wagon-Lits coaches. The current so-called Simplon-Orient Express is correct in every detail – pity it’s not genuine, and I don’t mean that in any derogatory way. It can’t be genuine. It just can’t.
The great days of the overnight expresses (read, slow) are long gone. In Europe the TGV and equivalents whisk people around at aircraft speed. Venice to Paris is a day trip, not any overnight “experience”. If murders happen on those trains, they are likely to be nasty and short, not elegant and mysterious. Poirot would be baffled by not having enough time to gather all the suspects in the dining car for a grand exposition.
One’s fellow passengers are mundane. If there are any Henry Pullings and Aunt Augustas nestled in the airline chairs, fiddling with their iPads, they are uncommunicative and anxious about getting their bags off in the 30 seconds allowed at a stop.
But by heaven you get there, wherever it is you’re going. You are most definitely not a on a train to nowhere.
Next stop Switzerland, the world’s biggest train set and, literally, the centrepiece of Theme Park Europe.