Huntly – Istanbul by train

Train Journey Huntly – Istanbul

24 Jan 2012 – 3 Feb 2012

In January/February 2012 I accompanied my daughter Rachel to Istanbul by train, where we she will be studying International Relations at Bilgi University for the next six months. The journey was an exploration into Slow Travel, as well as a kind of sabatical with room for contemplation, adventure and making new contacts across 11 countries of Europe.

Tuesday: Huntly – Edinburgh

Left Huntly for the Creative Place Awards on Tuesday at the unsociable hour of 6am. Luckily Fiona and Mihret provided good company to Edinburgh, where after some coffee we embarked on the agony of the award ceremony.

With our ‘special’ award in hand, the rest of the day was enjoyed by seeing a few shows and meeting the Deveron Arts Edinburgh expat community in the City Café over a couple of Weissbier.

Wednesday: Edinburgh – London – Lille

Rachel – sad from her good-byes – and I met the next morning at 9 am at Waverley to embark on our journey across Europe with our InterRail ticket on platform 9. Before Berwick we see a large white corbusieresque building offset in gold overlooking the North Sea. What is it?

ICE soon arriving in Munich

Rolling down the English countrysides working on my remaining Ross Sinclair book proofreading and making my first tea-cosy we arrive at the Eurostar terminal and after some checks we embark and soon arrive in Lille.

We spent the night visiting Amanda Crabtree and Bruno Dupont who run ARTCONNEXION; they cooked us a lovely meal with veal and cheese so nice that you can only find it in France and some Patisserie afterwards in exchange for the first fluffy tea cosy made en route. We looked at the gallery (I worked with them years ago on a number of projects with Glenfidddich, Dalziel + Scullion and Kenny Hunter) which I had not seen before, and also paid a quick visit to the red brick coloured Kenny Hunter demoiselle in front of the Place de la Mairie.  Before we embarked on a couple of beers in a wee local bar and then to our nice modest room in the Hotel Chopin next to the train station we clogged up our marathon miles goal around the old town. Lille is certainly not the run down northern former industrial city any longer that it once was. Very chic and very confident it presents itself today.

Tea Cosy 1: Amanda Crabtree

Thursday: Lille – Bonn – Mainz – München

The next morning gave us a little Interrail stress, the 40 minutes on the TGV would have costed us an extra 26 Euros, so we had to abandon our lovely croissant breakfast to take an Express Regional. Anyway, my route went via Tournai, Brussels and Köln to Bonn, where I met my old friend Ulrike for lunch in a nice very German eco-restaurant. Ulrike and I studied in Berlin together back in the 8Oies Economics and Anthropology, so we had a lot to reminisce. I gave her the pink tea cosy I had just finished on the train, in exchange for some Haribo, which I only today learned oriuginates from Bonn.

Tea Cosy  2: Ulrike Haupt

The route takes me down the Rhine, which the interrail documentation promotes as one of the most scenic rail routes in Europe. I arrive in Mainz, where an interesting feature is that the street signs parallel to the Rhine are in red and the ones going towards the Rhine are in blue. Here I wait for my Tante Traude and Onkel Peter. Sadly they got the dates mixed up and after some phone finding, they came and we managed to spend half an hour at their cosy new house; I gain more wool for my tea cosies and get onto the Regional Express to Frankfurt where I hook up with Rachel on the ICE to Munich, who meanwhile has been off to Maastricht to meet her friend Rae who is doing an Erasmus exchange there.

Tea Cosy 3: Traude Grosenick

Friday – Sunday: Visiting relatives in and around Munich

Its after midnight when we arrive at Mutti’s in Germering-Unterpfaffenhofen. But on Friday we go to Munich for some shopping, Stachus Café for a slice of fine Strudel, Residenz Weinstuben, and then the theatre in the evening. We saw ANGST by Stefan Zweig, a beautiful production in the Kammerspiele about a woman that is going mad of guilt after her sidestep from marriage with a young lover. But this was not enough, back at Mutti’s little we watched PRECIOUS (in German) till 2 am in the morning…..

Tea Cosy 4: Gertraud Zeiske

Saturday I p-walked to the cemetery in Puchheim through the mass of new snow we got. I decorated Hannelore’s grave with snow balls. In the afternoon we went back to Munich to see the Pinakothek der Moderne, which features a massive Joseph Beuys work of basalt stones jumbled up as if they had come down from a war bombing. We met my old friend Gabriele with some more wool for her tea cosy for a good shot of Prinzregententorte. She told me the sad news about our old friend Paul Müller who recently fell victim to cancer.

Tea Cosy 5: Gabriele Knoblauch

Sunday saw us breakfasting with Tante Angela big time with the local feast of Brezeln und Semmeln, and then we went to the Weβlinger See to meet my brother Stefan, Ulrike and the kids. Besides circumnavigating the lake three times in very icy conditions, another tea cosy for them gets finished and more cake gets eaten.

Tea Cosy 6: Ulrike Baier

Monday: München – Prien – St Johann i Pongau – Zagreb

The big journey starts early in the morning. We take the S Bahn to Munich and get onto the IC to Prien am Chiemsee, where we meet my father for coffee who is there for a REHA to recover from his hip operation. The visit went well and so I was glad to embark on the train again via Salzburg to reach St Johann im Pongau where my old artist friend Willi Scherübl was waiting for us. Willi painted the windows of the 18th century neo-gothic dome there. The effects of the yellow and purple organic plant matter patterns on the rest of the church are magic. The light from the south floods the whole of the church ship. Sadly there was a funeral, which I later recognized as the celebration of a young boy, the age of my Michael. This – every mother’s nightmare – haunted me for many hours to come on our journey.

Willi says good bye with wool, chocolate and promises to see each other in the mountains next summer.

That night we arrived in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. The arrival started a bit funny, as we could not find the Horvat Palace Hotel, but after settling down to a Croatian beer and taking part in local life, we found our Palace which turned out to be a room in a back yard rented by an old lady and her grandson, looking like anything else but a palace. But never mind, it was clean and central and that’s all we needed.

Tea Cosy 7: Wilhelm Scherübl

Train to Zagreb

Tuesday 31 Jan 2012: Zagreb

We got a bit tipsy on Croatian pivo last night and slept in till lunch time, but made up with a big breakfast at an old fashioned Kaffeehouse.  Zagreb turned out to be a wonderful place to just wonder about its new and old town. The old town is elevated, and encompasses the main market, many cobblestone streets and the main churches. The new town has many museums and galleries and a very leafy park with promenades making it look like a little Vienna with many prominent ornamental stuck houses. We went to the museum of naïve art, which we learn has its origins in Croatia. And then we went to the Museum of Broken Relationships, an initiative by two artists that I have been following for the last 10 years or so. It is full of relationship memorabilia (bride dresses, unused condoms, fluffy soft toys, even some fake boobs are to be found here with a story attached from somewhere in the world) and stories and must have done a hell ofgood to the local tourism industry, let alone to the psyche of the original donors of the objects. We also watched War Horse, which personally, I think is not a must; Steven Spielberg would not have reached his reputation if he started with this movie. We leave Zagreb in style with a lovely dinner at a Bistro which has only 2 menus improvised by the chefs according to what was available at the market that day. We pick up our luggage late in the Horvat Palace, where our boy host, a law student wished us good luck, but told us he would never go to Serbia, as he would not be welcome there.

Zagreb Dolac market

Wednesday 1 Feb 2012: Zagreb – Beograd – Niš

The sleeper train was comfortable despite the multiple interruptions by Croatian and Serbian customs, smoking their cigarettes into our cabin We reach Belgrade in the early morning, where we spontaneously hop into a taxi that takes us round the major sights for 20 Euros before we embark on the train to Niš in Southern Serbia. The taxi driver gives us some wine, made by his friend, at 7.30am and fills up our water bottle (in the evening we turn it into Glühwein). The train takes us through a snow filled frosty landscape with some knitting, reading of Die Zeit and contemplation over the many wars this area has been through over the centuries till very recently.

Niš is a lively place place of strange contrasts: horsedrawn carriages trott alongside big cars. Cocktails next to Soviet architecture. It has a grim history, but seems to make the best of its old sites today. The 35 Euro apartment in Niš is lovely and comfortable. The town obviously has had its bruises over history, from Turkish occupation; a large concentration camp during WWII which saw the death of many, many thousands of people. Soviet style architecture of the cold war area and then being an infarous gathering place for Serb nationalists during the Balkan conflicts marked the area during post war history. But spirit seems high, with lots of cafes and market stalls, despite the bitter, bitter cold that awaited us. We had cevapcici and after some mulled wine back (from the Belgrade taxi driver) in our room, we braved the outdoors again and went to a nice pub for a couple of pivos.

Our train compartment to Belgrade

Thursday: Niš – Istanbul

We got up to visit some of the sights of atrocities that this area had to face. First the so called skull tower, a building made out of 952 skulls (only 58 remaining) from the Turkish-Serbian war. After that we went to the Niš concentration camp (ironically called Red Cross), where many Serbian dissidents, Jews and Romas lost their lives to the unspeakable atrocities of the German Reich. Unlike some of the other concentration camps I have seen (Ausschwitz, Dachau, Oranienburg), this site was left as it was after its discovery in 1945. We were left to wander the camp by ourselves, empty of any other visitors and deep in snow. I was thinking all day about whether letting it decay or making a maintained monument is a better approach to these sights. This place certainly did not need any further interpretation.

Nis train station

The train to Istanbul was very late, apparently there were troubles finding a locomotive, but a man in his forties joined our compartment. He was noticeably hungry to speak English, which he learned during the war(s), as he had asked the BBC for some books. He himself is of Croatian origin, but his parents are Serbs/Montenegro, so over the years of the Balkan wars he was forced to fight against them all. It was so good for us to understand a bit more about the origins and developments of those wars, but also embarrassing about how ignorant we were. We had a Turkish conductor who demonstrated fine, good-hearted Turkish hospitality, he set up an open flame gas cooker in our compartment when we were cold, and regularly brought us sweet Turkish tea. However his official role on the train was unclear to us.

Keeping warm on the train to Sofija
Landscape in Serbia, South of Nis

As the train was so late, we ditched the plan of visiting Plovdiv in Bulgaria and continued on to Istanbul overnight instead of trying to find the hotel at 2 am at some 20 degrees minus.

Friday  – Wednesday: Istanbul

The figures for Istanbul seem to vary depending on who one is talking to, but level at an average of 15 million people, that is 3 x the population of Scotland. Hence navigating is at first a bit of a nightmare, but I think we are getting the hang of it. The first day we spent walking off the main sights: Bazaar and Hagia Sophia mosque, etc. After that we started flat (Rachel) and artist (me) hunting at the other side of the Golden Horn catching up on our walking miles. It feels a bit like in Orhan Pamuk land – Istanbul in snow.

This hooked us up with a German colony of artists/art lovers who we went out with in the incredible busy Taksim area. We left the restaurant at 1pm and the place was rocking – no wonder Berlin is getting worried of its status as the number one hip place. We tried to walk home, but gave up after an hour when we managed to get over the Atatürk bridge where some one or two hundred men were still out fishing over the edge of the bridge under street lights. A taksi was the answer.

The following days were filled with eating plenty of good food, catching up on our marathon miles, flat hunting (we found a nice one in the end very near the university with a lovely couple – I am so glad to see Rachel happy and safe in her new home) and I had the great chance to hook up with plenty of artists and art organizations, including Caravansarai, PIST, DEPOT and the Istanbul Bienniale.

Tea Cosy 8: Asena Günal, DEPOT

Tea Cosy 9: Deveron Arts

I thank Anna, Norma, Duncan, Katy, the Deveron Arts board and of course Nick for letting me go on this amazing trip, which gave a lot of opportunity for contemplation and making new contacts en route. Without their support back home this epic slow journey would not have been possible.

And of course Rachel, for the great company, great laughs and good sport when things became a bit more tricky (and cold).


  1. It all sounds amazing! I especially love the photo of you two and the stove to keep you warm on the train!

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