by David McVey
I’m not a betting man, but I keep backing losers.
I voted Labour throughout the Thatcher/Major nightmare. I watch Scotland play at Hampden. I voted ‘Yes’ in 2014. I voted ‘Remain’ in 2016.
Long before the EU Referendum, we’d booked a rail-based tour of European capitals. It started just a fortnight after Calamity Cameron’s vanity project had blown up in his face. What a time to visit our European neighbours, just after the UK electorate had handed them the mitten.
We reached France by Eurostar. There was some grudging here, since rail services through the Tunnel represent a great betrayal of Scotland and the North of England. We were promised direct services to the continent, remember. In June 1990, Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson (aye, him) told the House of Commons ‘There will be direct links from the tunnel to all the regions of Britain.’ He went on to compare the UK unfavourably to France, where onward travel from Paris meant transferring to the shabby old TGV. ‘The trains which leave Paris will be the trains which arrive in Edinburgh, and vice versa,’ promised Parkinson. Aye, right. Further, a fleet of sleeper coaches was built at public expense (for ‘Nightstar’ services). A Eurostar departure lounge was built at Glasgow Central.
No Eurotrains ever left from Glasgow or Edinburgh or Manchester or Leeds. The sleeper coaches were sold off cheaply abroad and the Glasgow Central lounge, used briefly by Virgin Trains, is no more. No politician or civil servant or business figure was ever taken to task for the lies and betrayal. Indeed, the Major and Blair governments fell over themselves to not be curious about what had happened. Competition from budget airlines was used as a convenient excuse. Oddly, budget airlines also fly from London airports, but Eurostar continued to serve the capital…
The trip through the Tunnel is quick and smooth, like the last bit before Glasgow Queen Street but on better trains. After two hours we’re waiting for our connection to Cologne in the Gare du Midi, Brussels. It’s a sobering place. Three army vehicles are parked outside and the concourse and platforms are patrolled by soldiers, tooled-up but uneasy-looking. Belgium is nervous.
Our first stay is in Berlin, and we arrive at the shiny new Hauptbanhof just across the River Spree from the refurbished Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. The EU flag flies reproachfully from the Reichstag alongside the German national flag. The latter droops a bit; Germany have just been knocked out of Euro 2016 by an unremarkable France side. The tournament fan park by the Gate will still be in use for the final, but it looks a bit forlorn.
Berlin is a vast city, divided for a generation by power politics, yet today it can be difficult to see the join; little of the notorious wall remains. We take a four-hour walking tour, led by Michael, a South Londoner long resident in Berlin, engaged to a local girl and bitterly despondent about the Brexit vote. When he does a roll call of tour members we’re careful to give our location as ‘Glasgow, Scotland, Europe.’
We hop from former West Berlin to former East Berlin on an S-Bahn local train and join the rest of the group, to begin an exhaustive journey through Berlin east and west, old and new, sacred and hideously profane. I’m particularly moved (as a writer and reader) by the memorial in the Bebelplatz to the Nazi book burnings of 1933. Sean Connery, as Dr Henry Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, got it right when he told a Nazi, ‘…goosh-shtepping morons like yourshelf should try reading booksh inshtead of burning them.’
Quite suddenly we find ourselves on the site of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery and its bunker, now a mundane car park behind some modern flats. You could quite easily be in Inverness or Kilmarnock. All the same, I wonder what it’s like to live in one of those flats, to know… Nearby is the 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by the American architect Peter Eisenman. It’s a sombre place, as you’d expect, with something of cemetery and maze and futuristic city about it. Eisenman has wisely imposed no meaning on it, leaving visitors to form their own interpretations. It partly occupies the former Chancellery gardens.
Our tour concludes at the Brandenburg Gate. Berlin is big, fascinating, rich in culture and two days weren’t nearly enough; two weeks wouldn’t be enough. We now leave for Prague but the train is already late at Berlin and subsequently breaks down twice. When we cross the border and a Czech crew take over, there’s a PA announcement that the train is late ‘…owing to its late arrival from abroad.’ Blame the Germans.
Why use trains at all in the era of cheap flights? Because I’m frightened of flying, that’s why. My favourite other country, England, is great because I can zip down to the Lake District, say, by Virgin Pendolino without leaving the ground. Past trips to the continent have generally involved ferries (including the lamented Rosyth to Zeebrugge route) when I haven’t been dragged kicking and screaming (no exaggeration) onto an airliner. Anyway, travel’s more likely to broaden the mind when you actually pass through, rather than over, the places you’re visiting.
Prague is a riot of historic buildings, with city centre and castle area facing each other across the Vltava, joined by the historic Charles Bridge. I’ve heard it described as ‘a victim of its own success’ and at times the crowds are overwhelming; crossing the Charles Bridge was like exiting a football stadium after a big match. The castle area, including St Vitus Cathedral, is thronged all day. But here’s my canny traveller’s Hot Prague Tip; the Sternberg Palace, off Hradcany Square just outside the castle complex, was astonishingly quiet by comparison. It houses the European Art collection of the Czech National Gallery; it’s not free, but not expensive either, and you can enjoy the art in relative peace. The café wasn’t busy either, and the sculpture garden was a green oasis of tranquillity, mere yards from the milling tourist crowds.
A guide at the castle area asks us about Brexit and Scottish Independence. He doesn’t understand the latter; ‘English and Scottish, you both seem the same to me.’ Discussion about Brexit founders owing to language difficulties. Of course, he has considerable English and we have no Czech, so the fault is all ours.
A long but trouble-free train journey takes us from Prague, through Slovakia, into Hungary. I’d expected little from Budapest, because I knew little about it. It rather blows me away; the city centre resembles a vastly expanded Prague. The Royal Palace area is high on a hill on the Buda side, looking across the Danube to Pest, the standout here the stunning late-Habsburg Parliament building. It’s a jaw-dropping location.
Our hotel gets both BBC World News and the Murdoch Channel. Teresa May, it seems, is about to replace the failed Cameron, while Angela Eagle is the inexplicable choice of Labour’s Blairite deadbeats to replace Jeremy Corbyn (Owen Smith hasn’t been invented yet). There seems little enthusiasm among the Beeb’s journos to look under the Brexit bonnet, and the Scottish dimension isn’t mentioned; the only Scottish references are to Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory and Celtic’s first-leg mishap at Lincoln Red Imps.
Prague and Budapest can both experience summer temperatures high in the thirties Celsius, worth bearing in mind if, like me, you get badly sunburnt on a wet September weekend in Callander. On our first night in Budapest, there is a spectacular series of thunderstorms, a light-show like no other accompanied by thunder rumbling deeply from the belly of the earth.
Next day there are fallen branches everywhere (some, alas, on car windscreens) and massive puddles. We pay homage to two Scots commemorated in Budapest place names. Jane Haining Rakpart is the road alongside the quays from which cruises on the Danube depart. It recalls the heroic Christian missionary from Dunscore who did her best to protect the Jews in her care in Budapest’s Scottish Church Mission School (see the article by Irene Lebeter in iScot, July 2016). The Scottish Church, now named St Columba’s, survives in Budapest and they assure
Scottish visitors that if you’re missing ceilidhs, kilts and the pipes, that it’s the place to go.
If you leave Jane Haining Rakpart and cross the Chain Bridge, you come to a public square with a busy roundabout and the lower station of the funicular to the Royal Palace. This is Clark Adam Ter (or Square). Adam Clark was chief engineer on the Chain Bridge, the first crossing of the Danube in Budapest, in the 1840s. Clark, originally from Edinburgh, spent the rest of his life in Budapest as a civil engineer. Even if Scotland is dragged unwillingly out of the EU, a little of it will remain in Budapest street names. The city can’t be done justice in a few days or some short paragraphs. Go and see it, while you still can, hassle-free.
Vienna is our last European capital, and on the short train journey from Budapest, the news is of the latest mass killing in Nice. Our first visit in Vienna is to the Military History Museum (known as the HGM, an acronym of its formidable German name). The highlight is the car that
Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie travelled in through Sarajevo to their deaths on June 28, 1914. How often I’ve read about this incident and studied photographs of the car! The killer was Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist, and the event triggered the July Crisis, during which Europe’s bungling politicians created a devastating war.
Now, shooting people is always wrong, but Princip was an intelligent young man from a grindingly poor background whose motivation was to remove the heir to the throne of the empire he saw as exploiting his country and people (Sophie he shot unintentionally; he said afterwards that he regretted her death). Princip would have been baffled by the actions of the Nice killer who took the lives of over 80 innocent people. Yet Princip is sometimes described as a ‘terrorist’. If he was, he was a very different kind of terrorist from the mass killers of today.
We return to London on a massive final day’s journey; the first leg, Vienna to Frankfurt, is seven hours; then there’s three hours to Brussels; finally, we have a quick two-hour hop to St Pancras on Eurostar. That’s ten hours or more of looking out on the gaudy daubs and scrawled tags of the ubiquitous European railway graffiti that is spreading inexorably to Scotland (as you’ll have noticed if you use Glasgow Central or Edinburgh Waverley much). Now, certain Guardian-type liberals praise graffiti, affirm it as freedom of expression, but there are those of us who like to see the railway environment and railway architecture the way they were designed to be seen. Besides, graffiti is ugly and its omnipresence means that urban rail travel in Europe is now rather samey. Any hipster Guardian graffitophiles with silly chin beards who object to these views are welcome, any time, to a skwerr go.
Lessons? We travelled through nine countries; Scotland, England, France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria. Humblingly, only one of them failed to qualify for Euro 2016. Not only were there no border checks on the continent (besides Eurostar) but there aren’t even lineside signs telling you, say, that you are moving from Hungary into Austria. Is this ease of travel threatened by a potential domino effect of nations leaving the EU following Cameron’s Folly? Everywhere we saw tourists from the nations of the UK. Do those who voted ‘Leave’ realise how their freedom of travel is now threatened?
A final thought; Berlin, Prague, Budapest and Vienna all have trams, underground, local trains and buses; all have easy-to-buy-and-use day tickets that are valid on all modes of transport. The Vienna day card costs about the same as the ticket that gets me one return journey to
Glasgow on FirstBus. If the EU failed in anything, it was in convincing the UK that fragmented, privatised, rationalised city public transport is a rubbish idea. And so in Glasgow our wee subway goes no further than it did when built, our former Corporation buses are now firmly in
FirstBus’s mitts and interavailable ticketing is still in the Stone Age.
Europe is still there. It’s not going anywhere. But if you want to enjoy it while you’re still a part of it, don’t hang about.