Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 23: An Anglo-Italian connection

I’ve twice traveled by train, in 2004 and 2006, from my home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire to Rome in central Italy. And if I had my way, I’d travel everywhere by train, if that were possible.

When visiting government agencies that provided financial support to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) when I was Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), I tried to combine as many visits into a single trip as possible, thus making the best use of my time on the road. In Europe, traveling by train was by far the most convenient (and comfortable) way of visiting several cities on the way, rather than hopping on and off planes for relatively short flights. Not to mention the inconvenience of additional waiting time at airports and the hassle of actually getting to and from them.

Train travel in many European countries is reliable and, compared to the UK, competitively priced. Purchasing a Eurail pass was by far the cheapest option, even for First Class tickets, and could be bought online from the Philippines.

This was my itinerary on both occasions:

  • Bromsgrove – Birmingham New Street – London Euston (into Birmingham on London Midland—now operated by West Midlands Trains—then Virgin Trains to London; around 2 hours or so; map)
  • London Waterloo (Eurostar now operates from London St Pancras) – Brussels Midi (on Eurostar; around 2 hours; map)
  • Brussels Midi – Cologne – Bonn Central (on the Thalys to Cologne, and Deutsche Bahn, DB; just over 2 hours; map)
  • Bonn Central – Basel – Bern (Deutsche Bahn to Basel, then Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS), along the Rhine Valley (around 5½ hours; map)
  • Bern – Milan Central (on Swiss Federal Railways; around 4½ hours; map)
  • Milan Central – Rome Termini (on Trenitalia; 3 hours; map)

On the second trip I traveled with IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler (and his wife Crissan) to visit donor agencies in Brussels (Directorate General for International Cooperation or DGCI of Belgium, and the European Union, EU), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Bern (and a side trip to Basel where Bob gave a seminar at the Syngenta Foundation), and finally, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, an agency of the United Nations) in Rome – all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

Crissan and Bob Zeigler

We met at London’s Waterloo station for the Eurostar service to Brussels, arriving there mid-afternoon. Since no meetings had been arranged that same day, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine for a stroll around La Grand-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), before enjoying our dinner at one of the many cafes close by.

Bob and Crissan feasted on one of the local delicacies: moules (mussels).

I like mussels, but in moderation, just a few added to a fish pie or a fish soup. Not a whole meal. In any case, our meal was accompanied, of course, by several glasses of excellent Belgian beer.

The day after our meetings, we caught the Thalys (the Belgian TGV) to Cologne, and then a regional service for the short hop to Bonn. We had just one day of meetings in Bonn, with the German aid ministry (BMZ), and then spent an excellent day touring the vineyards of the Ahr Valley just south of Bonn. Our main contact was my old friend Marlene Diekmann who I’d known for many years before she joined the BMZ when she was a plant pathologist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome.

On previous visits to Bonn, in all weathers, Marlene and I had gone walking along the terraces of the Ahr Valley, as I described in this blog post. On this current trip with the Zeiglers, as in the past, we sampled some of the fruits of the vintner’s art. And very good it was.

Each time I have visited the Ahr Valley I have never failed to be impressed at the cultivation of the vines on such steep slopes. In the early evening we headed to Rheinbach (map) to join Dr Hans-Jochen de Haas, who was Germany’s representative to the CGIAR, and became a good friend.

I’d last seen him the previous year in Bonn and presented him with a book on rice culture.

A few years later (and before I retired in 2010) he sadly passed away after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

Bob and I (with Marlene) also made a one-day visit to Hannover (again by train) to visit the Volkwagen Foundation to try and tempt them to support a research project on rice and climate change involving a German scientist seconded to IRRI.

Commitments in Germany completed, Switzerland was our next stop, so we took the train along the River Rhine to Basel, and transferring to Swiss railways to Bern.

I first visited Switzerland in July 1984 when I attended the 9th Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR), that was held in Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland.

A group of us from the UK flew from London Gatwick to Bern (Switzerland’s capital city) on a Swissair BAe 146, and then taken the train for the 1 hour rail journey to Interlaken. There are no flights to Bern nowadays; Switzerland is served by two major international airports in Geneva (in the west) and Zurich (in the north central part of the country). And, in any case, rail services across the country are frequent, convenient, and comfortable.

In 1984, I’d taken a trip up to Wengen (1274 m) from Interlaken, with the last leg on the funicular railway from Lauterbrunnen. The Zeiglers and I repeated this trip. And after lunch in Wengen, we took the cable car up to Männlichen (2343 m), before dropping to Grindelwald (1034 m) on Europe’s longest gondola cableway (and third longest in the world).

At Männlichen there are fabulous views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and other mountains.

Watch this video that I found on YouTube of the cable car ride to Männlichen and the gondola cableway down to Grindelwald.

All too soon, our Swiss visit was over, and we took the train to Milan, an impressive journey through the Alps and the Italian lakes.

In Milan, we transferred to the high speed train to Rome. That was an interesting journey. In 2006, the 18th FIFA World Cup was hosted by Germany. Although Mexico had been eliminated from the competition by then, our train was full of supporters from Mexico on their way to Rome to enjoy the sights. Bob, Crissan and I all spoke Spanish. Bob and Crissan had actually lived in Mexico for a few years before returning to IRRI in 2005. So we had a great time with the Mexicans, and our fast train journey to Rome (a city I have visited numerous times) passed even faster it seemed.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 7. Letting the train take the strain

trainI love traveling by train.

And were it possible to travel everywhere by train, that would be my preferred mode of transport. There are many journeys I would love to take, particularly on the luxury trains such as the Orient Express, the Blue Train in South Africa, or the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok (I have the time, but don’t have the budget), as well as others across the USA and Canada through the Rockies, or in Australia (from Adelaide to Darwin on The Ghan, for example or across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Perth on the Indian Pacific).

When traveling on business for IRRI in Europe to visit the institute’s donor agencies, I most often traveled from city to city by train rather than flying. More relaxed, comfortable, convenient, and a better use of my time than sitting in an airport departure lounge wondering if the flight would depart on time, never mind – if there was inclement weather – if it would depart at all. The longest journey I made (twice), over about two weeks in total, was : Bromsgrove (my home town) – Birmingham New Street – London Euston / London Waterloo – Brussels (on the Eurostar) – Bonn (on the Thalys to Cologne) – Basel (down the Rhine valley) – Bern – Milan (cutting through Alps and along the Italian lakes such as Como) – Rome (but return to Birmingham by air). Seat reservations are a requirement on many European train journeys – none of this ‘sardine’ travel so typical on a number of commuter lines in the UK (and even on long distance trains at some times of the day or on holidays).

Braunschweig to Gatersleben and Berlin
In the late 1980s, while I was still working at the University of Birmingham, I decided to visit two genetic resources programs in Germany – at Braunschweig (in West Germany) and Gatersleben (in East Germany). This was before the Berlin Wall had been pulled down. It was actually quite easy to cross over from the West to the East, and at the crossing, border guards came on board to check documents. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly relaxed until my passport had been checked, all was in order, and I continued with my journey, via Magdeburg, Halberstadt, to Gatersleben.

Gatersleben is home to the Leibniz-Institut für Pflanzengenetik und Kulturpflanzenforschung (IPK-Gatersleben) with one of the most important crop genebanks in Europe. I was made most welcome by the head of the genebank, the late Dr Christian Lehmann and his colleagues Karl Hammer and Peter Hanelt (and other genebank staff). It was a memorable visit, particularly walking through the impressive summer regeneration plots of cereals such as wheat, barley (seeing hooded barleys for the first time) and oats, and other crops, and discussing crop evolution and diversity with Dr Lehmann.

My return journey took me to Berlin, where I left the train at Schönefeld Airport station (in the southeast of Berlin), and crossed through the Berlin Wall by taxi, to arrive at the airport in the West. I’ve remembered that as Templehof Airport, although it might have been Tegel.

Stahleck Castle at Bacharach

The Rhine Valley
I’ve visited Bonn on many occasions. Flying into Frankfurt I could have taken the direct, fast train to Cologne via Bonn. But it’s much more enjoyable to take the (slightly) slower train that hugs the River Rhine. What magnificent views of the vineyards that embroider the steep slopes either side of the river. And also the fairytale castles that  cling to rocky outcrops. The river is a watery motorway, with barges flying the flags of many nations, many carrying a motor vehicle for use at ports along the journey.

Bern to Montpellier (via Geneva, Lyon, Valence and Avignon)
For my second visit to Montpellier in southern France in the early 90s I traveled from Switzerland’s capital Bern down the Rhône Valley. It’s not a particularly fast journey, because the line snakes along the valley. But the views of the surrounding mountains are simply stunning – impressive precipices over which plunge waterfalls for hundreds of feet.

Even 30 secs is late for Swiss trains. They have remarkable punctuality. I’ve spent time visiting various places throughout the country when I’ve had a weekend to spare during my business trips. Bern is a good base with excellent rail connections. Close by is the Jungfrau, and although I’ve not taken the train to the summit, I have twice been on the funicular up to Wengen (starting the journey in Interlaken), then the cable car up to Männlichen where there is a fabulous view of the Alps (Eiger on the left). From Männlichen you take the cable car down to Grindelwald, and then the train back to Interlaken.

The view from Männlichen, with the north face of the Eiger on the left.

Then there was the weekend I decided to see the Matterhorn in May 2004. Leaving Bern early in the morning, we headed through the Alps to Brig where I transferred to the local line up to Zermatt. What a fabulous day out – made even better by the train journey!

High speed journeys
Eurostar, Thalys or TGV. There’s something impressive about these high speed trains across Europe. I’ve been through the Eurotunnel a couple of times, and joined the Thalys (Belgian equivalent of the TGV) to Cologne or Amsterdam (and return). The German ICE (shown here) is incredible – fast, silent and very comfortable. I took this the first time from Amsterdam Central to Cologne, and had a seat just behind the driver’s cab. When he didn’t want to be distracted the driver could make the glass screen turn translucent. Otherwise it was fun watching the train eat up the kilometers from the driver’s perspective.

One thing I do remember from my first TGV from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Montpellier, is the speed we reached south of Paris to Lyon, over undulating terrain. It was the first time I had that sinking feeling on a train – just as in a plane descending – as we went over one hill and down the other side. South of Lyon, the TGV proceeds at a more stately pace since the line follows the river.

Yangon to Yezin, Myanmar
I visited Myanmar (Burma) just the once in about 1997 – I don’t remember the exact year. I had received a grant from the Swiss government of more than US$3.3 million to develop and manage a project to collect and conserve rice varieties and wild species in South and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Although Myanmar had been essentially closed to the outside world for many years, IRRI had retained a presence there, with a liaison scientist and small office. Given the importance of rice in that country, it was appropriate to see what might be done in terms of collecting rice germplasm. So with my colleague Eves Loresto we  traveled the 250 miles or so north from Yangon (Rangoon) by train to Yezin where the Central Agricultural Research Institute (and university) is located, with its large rice genebank. Our outward journey was during the day, and although very slow (about 10 hours) it was interesting traveling through the vast plain of rice paddies. Several times the train was reduced to a snail’s pace as the track was flooded. We returned to Yangon a few days later by the ‘sleeper’ – I use that term advisedly, because I didn’t get much sleep and the accommodation wasn’t exactly desirable. At Yezin we had to evict a group of about five passengers who had commandeered our cabin.

Melbourne – Sydney
On Christmas Day 2003 Steph and I flew to Sydney, arriving the following morning, Boxing Day. We spent a couple of days looking round the city (we’d been there for the first time in December 1998 and saw the New Year in watching the fireworks display over the Sydney harbor bridge).

Anyway, on this second trip, we took a memorable road trip to Melbourne (about 1,000 miles) along the coast road with several diversions inland. After a couple of days in Melbourne we returned to Sydney by train. It was scheduled for about nine hours, but due to the heat (>40C) between Albury on the Victoria-New South Wales border and Wagga Wagga (in NSW) (about half way through the journey), the train speed was seriously reduced because the track was buckling. Instead of arriving in Sydney at around 5 pm, we didn’t get in until after 10 pm. An interesting but rather tiring journey. Thankfully we had a couple more days to recover, enjoy a evening Sydney harbor dinner cruise (courtesy of Hannah and Philippa) before flying back to the Philippines.

One regret
One regret I do have is that I never traveled by train from Lima on the coast of Peru to Huancayo, crossing the Andes at over 16,000 feet at Ticlio (at 11:20 in the excellent video by takyvlaky on YouTube below). I used to travel by road to Huancayo almost weekly when I lived in Lima in the early 70s. The road and railway climb up into the Andes almost side by side, as you will see at various points in the video.

The wonder of steam
Wonderful as the train journeys were that I have described, there’s nothing quite like a journey on a steam train. Near where I live, the Severn Valley Railway – a heritage line from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth via Bewdley – has hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. I made this short video in 2008 when I was back in the UK on home leave.

I just had to include the next video that I found on YouTube, celebrating the Age of Steam.