Monday, 8 June 2009

The BritFrance Rail Pass

For two decades I've had a dilemma when I decided to fly to Europe. Would I go first to London or first to Paris? Usually I decided to go to one or the other because going both places meant the cost of two rail passes--Brit and Eurail. No more. Starting January 1,1990 there has been a neat solution to my tourist schizophrenia: the Brit France Pass. With it you can choose to travel 5 days of your choice out of 15, or ten out of 30, in France or the U.K. with a free round trip Hovercraft ticket thrown in. I chose to go second class for ten days for $299. It was a trip--in more ways than one!

First it was my bad luck to arrive at Heathrow the morning of January 25, which meteorologists will long remember as one of the most destructive days in twentieth century British weather. I holed up in the Sheraton Skyline to overcome jet lag and avoid the elements. I couldn't have taken the Piccadilly line into London to stay at my friends as planned because roofing from a housing estate blew across their lines, shutting the service down.

It wouldn't have done me much good anyway because the Victoria station line to Dover was down as well, and the Hovercraft wasn't running. Naturally the Hovercraft was shelved for the duration of the storm. Trouble was I had a rendezvous in Paris with the Brazilian architect Zanine for a Connoisseur magazine assignment, and the show closed Sunday. So Friday morning I flew to Paris (for a fare identical with what I had paid to fly Philadelphia-London!) Lucky I was on an expense account or the Sheraton and British Airways charges would have put me in the poorhouse.

So after completing my interview with Zanine, I spent a night in my friends' apartment on the outskirts of Paris. I started my pass ticking (you have to write in the days as you use them) on the late night train to Strasbourg. (If you leave after l0 p.m., you get to write in the next day.) After an early morning breakfast and a visit to the Palais D'Europe to see a Cypriot painter's opening, I was back on the train to St. Etienne where there was an important show on twentieth century Russian art. I stayed at the Hotel Terminus ($50) where the morning's Figaro informed me that there was a train strike scheduled for 8 p.m. that night.

So I had to scrap plans to visit Firminy Vert and Latourette to check out two major Le Corbusier structures to get into Germany by supper time. I bought a round trip ticket from Strasbourg to Berlin via Frankfort with my Visa in St. Etienne. All went swimmingly until I discovered in Frankfurt that I could fly to Berlin on a subsidized fare. So I had my unused ticket segments endorsed in the Frankfurt main station for refund (I had to actually turn it in in Paris, for mail refund). I stayed at the fine youth hostel in the Frankensteinplatz in Frankfurt where a private room set me back $24 (a dorm room, which I took the next night was $12).

The train airport connections in both Berlin and Frankfurt are simply marvelous. In Frankfurt a train takes you directly from the main train station (where the lockers cost 2-3 DM for 72 hours) to the airport for 3.5DM in fifteen minutes. Well designed carts (free)make carting luggage almost a joy. In Berlin, I was afraid I might have to book an expensive airport perimeter hotel since my flight was an hour late. But a woman was manning the hotel desk in the empty airport and she booked me into the youth hostel in the Wannsee where I arrived forty-five minutes later after taking a bus and subway.

The seven year old structure is world class architecture and the tab was only $10, breakfast included. I even got a Berlin Wall/Checkpoint Charlie T-shirt for another ten, its message having been outdated by recent events. (Heh, I'm an antique myself.)

After attending the press reception for the Bauhaus photography exhibition--my main reason for going to Berlin, I decided to check out the East. I had run into the head of cultural exchanges for the DDR a month before at the Whitney Museum, and just before I left for London I got a letter from this man asking me to visit him when I got to Berlin.

Boy, did I try. The phones from W. Berlin were always busy. So I called from a pay phone just outside the Berliner Galerie. Nobody knew where he was. I ran into his number two at the gallery. He didn't know where his boss was either. Hmmm. So far the two letters I wrote before leaving for Europe and the letter I mailed from the Grand Hotel haven't been answered. A recent German acquaintance thinks he's fled to the West--not fired as I had melodramatically inferred.

You have to pay 5 DM at Checkpoint Charlie to get into E. Berlin––but that is only valid until midnight. Now hear this. To stay past midnight you have to check into one of the three highest priced hotels on the Unter den Linden. Since I engage in what I call two-tier tourism (every night I spend on a moving vehicle or in a youth hostel earns me one star towards a five star hotel), I decided to cash in a few of my accumulated stars.

The Grand ($150) wasn't very--the bath water was lukewarm and (more ominously), the kitchen flue started backing up smoke in my room. An engineer got the fume partly under control but it didn't make for an easy sleep. On the other hand, my dinner of venison noisettes and game potage was exquisitely good all of it topped off by a bottle of fine Frankish white wine.

Up at the crack of dawn I found the Pergamon museum to be the finest one devoted to antiquities I have yet seen. There was also a lively exhibition of amateur art (the appliques were professional and gorgeous) in the Television Tower that dominates the eastern sector. Nearby as well the Fine Arts Museum had a first rate exhibition on how the media (mainly photography) handled the Spartacist Uprising in 1918-19. But most interesting of all (my ancient ear picked up the unmistakable sounds of Glenn Miller's Pennsylvania 65000) was a Social Democrats rally for better financing for sports activities in the DDR.

I had a great time schmoozing with those folks even though I'm the world's least athletic type. My third night in Berlin was spent at a hostel in the northern part of the city near the Taegel airport I had to take. As the man on the desk said as I checked out just after breakfast,"Next time save several hours to walk in the woods out here." He was so right. The bucolic precinct right inside the city was a wonder even to a Pennypack Park person.

Back at the Frankfurt train station I decided to ship my luggage ahead (I tend to pick up more art catalogs than a round shouldered wimp can carry) to Paris. The charge was nominal ($7 per bag) and the comfort considerable. Unfortunately, the German boast that I could pick up those bags at the Gare de L'Est at 10 a.m. translated into French as "We have forty eight hours to deliver, monsieur." So I couldn't push on to England as planned but instead looped out to Amsterdam, where I stayed at a fine youth hostel near the Rijksmuseum for $10 and met a lot of interesting students. My real mission was to see the Kees Van Dongen show in Rotterdam which I did the next morning and was back in Paris in time for supper.

I also shipped my bags to Victoria, for slightly more ($14 each), but the thought of getting my stuff off and on the train to Boulogne, off and on the Hovercraft, off and on the boat train to Victoria would have made me willing to pay anything for that service. You can also leave them at Victoria customs for up to five days after which you pay 50 p. a bag storage. It costs a prohibitive two pounds a day to store luggage in a locker at Victoria so the customs regulation is a real boon. But don't expect to make a tight train connection with your luggage. It takes at least a day before they process the stuff.

In England, I used my pass to go out to Cardiff to visit a poet friend who used to make the BBC documentaries on the arts. And then I went up to Glasgow, the Council of Europe's City of the Year. There was a storm that night too, but Brit Rail kicked in a free breakfast at the Central Hotel.

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