Eurailing: Texel to Piran … via Waffleland
Vail CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: This is part 2 in a series of stories about European rail travel. For part 1, visit http://www.vaildaily.com/travel.
After a bike marathon on the Dutch island of Texel, we wake up with growling tummies. Outside the major cities, restaurants in Holland close down early in the evening, so we’ve been eating supermarket fare for a few days, including little foil-covered packets of “mystery meat” salad.
At this point, a Belgian waffle sounds good. Leigh breaks out the Eurail map and timetable, and within a few minutes, we have a plan. On the train, we laugh about our craving, day-dreaming about a mythical Waffleland theme park, where all the attractions are modeled on the fried treats. Hey, there’s a Legoland nearby, so why not an amusement park waffle theme? We’re not sure it exists, but if it did, it would be Shangri La for waffleheads like us, and every good trip has a mission. And the beauty of a Eurail Pass is that, when you feel like a Belgian waffle, there’s nothing stopping you.
In Bruxelles, we’re pretty sure we’ve disembarked at the wrong station. Above the escalator, ceiling panels and electrical wires droop down. Some of the faux-marble benches have been ripped apart, as if someone needed a slab of rock for a backyard home improvement project. The sodden sky splits apart as we walk toward the hostel. Under a rainbow, the bourgeouis brick facades miraculously change hue, from gray to brick-red.
The waffle shops are closed as far as we can tell, so we call it a night. I take a late-night walk around the block, enjoying the hodge-podge of culture and languages: French-speaking Africans share a beer and a smoke with Russian stock brokers, while Arab vendors dish out falafels to traveling salesmen from Pakistan and Ireland.
Still questing for that waffle, I wake up early the next morning and accidentally wake Leigh while trying to sneak out to do some early morning photography.
Big mistake. Leigh is an all-star travel partner; creative, patient, spontaneous and kind, but she doesn’t like to get up before the sun.
“I knew that,” I mutter beneath my breath, watching as she grumpily gathers her gear, brushes her teeth and hair all in about two minutes flat, suggesting that I take a hike – by myself.
But a quiet morning stroll beneath the city’s exquisite Baroque facades soothes the water, especially after we drop our packs in a locker at the station and finally track down the sought-after confection in a cozy joint near the Grande Place. The waffle comes with scoops of ice cream, fruit compote, whipped cream and syrup. Just around the corner, Mannequin Pis is wearing a red vest in honor of some ethnic celebration in this multi-ethnic city, cheerfully spurting his steady stream while grinning at the rooftops.
It’s gloomy in the Benelux, so we’re starting to think about the sunny south. Leigh finds a winding connection through Luxembourg, Trier and Koblenz that will put us on an overnight train to Munich, transferring on to Salzburg and Linz, Austria.
In Luxembourg we agree that pay toilets are not one of Europe’s great contributions to world culture. You can use a cell phone text function to buy candy in a vending machine, but when it comes to public sanitation – look out – you’d better have the right coins in your pocket, especially if you’re a woman. Out of protest, Leigh decides to invade a deserted men’s stall of urinals (which are free) while I stand guard outside.
An afternoon cloudburst sends us scurrying to shelter under the Gothic arches of a convent. We drip dry as a passing nun gives us a curious stare.
The train to Munich is a true Eurail special. As the station manager adds on extra cars, we find a compartment and stretch out a bit awkwardly on the spring-loaded, straight-back seats. Before dozing off to the clickety-clack of the railroad ties and passing powerline poles, I ponder how everybody trying to sleep on planes, trains and in station waiting rooms ends up looking like one of those grotesque Pompeii cinder figures, all arched backs and twisted arms, sometimes cradling the head of a loved one. It may be macabre, but it’s of an ode to the art of travel.
With seamless transfers, we arrive in Linz in time to buy a luscious bucket of gooseberries and fresh chanterelle mushrooms at the Saturday morning market. Austria’s Second City on the Danube is bustling on a fine summer weekend, but we beeline for my Aunt’s apartment, eager to do laundry and to nap in a comfortable bed.
The next morning we head downtown, stopping at the Hauptplatz for an ice cream and Prosecco at the Garda Cafe, where a gilded statue honoring the Holy Trinity for deliverance from the plague hovers above the scene. The ice cream parlor specializes in creations that look like savory dishes. One features strands of vanilla covered with Strawberry sauce to mimic spaghetti, while another uses peach halves, whipped cream and pools of vanilla sauce to create a convincing likeness of sunnyside-up eggs.
Generally heading east and south, we roll to Vienna, jump on the subway and find a speedy hydrofoil heading for Bratislava on the Danube River. We’ve vowed to try as many modes of transit as we can during the trip, so the river cruise fits the bill.
After a night in a funky floating Boat-el, we walk the length of the town to the railway station, where the ATM is covered with bird poop, and a food vendor sells two-inch thick wedges of what looks like bacon pie, with slices of sausage layered on top for good measure.
A serendipitous and unspoken agreement puts us aboard an express headed for Croatia. We’re not sure exactly where we’ll end up when we hop on as the train pulls away. Not worrying about it too much, we settle in the dining car, where a wry waiter keeps us well-supplied with icy Croatian beer and a platter of air-dried ham, country cheeses, farm bread, peppers and pickles. We toast to the freedom of the rails, chugging up steep grades of Slovenia’s Julian Alps toward Ljubljana.
The promise of sunshine lures us farther south, toward the Adriatic Sea. Skimming our guidebook, we spot a world heritage cave site about half-way. With plenty of daylight remaining, we jump off in Divaca. The musty hilltop town has been a crossroads since Roman times. It’s still strategic, straddling the main freeway between huge Italian seaports and entire Balkan peninsula. Much of the trade burgeoning recently in the southeastern sector of the expanding European Union passes through this corridor.
We pop into the pub near the station, seeking a bus to the Skocjan Caves. The last one is gone and time is getting short, so we offer the local lads what we think is fair for a ride, and jostle around a foosball table for a quick game. They laugh and nod, suggesting that they would take us – if they only had a car.
We decide to walk and hitch, throwing our thumbs out in the air with a Sissy Hankshaw attitude. The sassy hitchhiking heroine in Tom Robbins’ 1976 classic (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) taught us that you gotta keep on truckin’, no matter what life throws your way. We just miss the last tour of the day, so ice cream is our consolation prize. Wandering around the visitor center grounds, we get a glimpse of the setting, dominated by cliffs and clumps of pines all rimming a deep crevice where the river spills forth from the cave mouth.
The region is geologically well-known as a significant limestone uplift ” a karst landscape, carved into gorges and caves by mountain streams. And for residents during the stone and bronze ages, the site was sacred, a place of emergence and spiritual renewal, amazingly similar to Hopi beliefs in the American Southwest, or Mayan theology practiced in caves and cenotes of what is now Mexico and Belize.
A nature trail leads from the visitor center leads us back to town along a more scenic and direct route, along the rim of the gorge and then through the old settlements outside the center. Along the path is a Romanesque chapel, crumbling in the ivy. The site isn’t described in our books, but we can feel that the grounds have been hallowed for centuries.
Nearby, a pair of locals lounge at their cars, trunks open to display mounded boxes of fresh forest blueberries. We can’t resist, and in the bargain, we get short lecture from one of the vendors on the ancient and recent history of the northern Balkans, current events and predictions for the future. According to our blueberry docent, the era of contention in the region is subdued, but perhaps only dormant.
Quickly, our fingers and tongues are stained blue, ready for one more train ride down to the coastal plain and Piran, a Slovenian fishing village that fills a skinny spit of land squeezed between Italy and Croatia.
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