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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

James Went To Milan. And Tirano. And Zurich.

A couple of years ago, I decided to go on holiday wherever the random country generator told me to go.

It chose Somalia.  I decided to over-rule it given the high chance of kidnapping and/or death.  It then chose Switzerland.  A much lower chance of death.

Then I had the question of what to actually do.  Where in Switzerland to go.  I could just have taken cheap Ryanair flights to say, Bern.  Or perhaps a city break to Geneva or Zurich.  Or go see the large hadron collider.  Nowhere grabbed me and said 'get your cheapo ass here'.

Then I saw Michael Portillo on a train in Switzerland and the scenery was just astonishingly beautiful.  I was sold.  Eventually I ordered a brochure on Swiss train journeys and saw that the prices were astonishing - and not at all beautiful.  Except for the Bernina Express, which went between Tirano in Italy, and Chur in Switzerland.

I soon found out that if I booked a journey with Deutsche Bahn, there was a cap on prices if my journey finished in Germany, which made it much cheaper than booking through Swiss trains.

I was quite happy to do the holiday by myself, but quite a few people were interested. In the end it was myself, my sister and my sister's friend, Dave, a fellow Hullite - someone roughly as funny and weird as me.  I'd like to think he is my friend too now.

Milan had never been on my to-do list, and I have definitely 'done' enough of Italy over the years.  But given that we had to fly into Milan, it seemed irresponsible not to spend a bit of time there too.

Arriving into Milan, it was hot - the kind of temperatures of which I had already forgotten about, but thankfully not the exceptional 37'C of the week before.  There were even thunderstorms in the distance - ooh!


The train station itself was probably one of the grandest train stations I have ever visited.  If not the grandest.  Quite an architectural masterpiece - a truly stunning building - so much so that there was actually no graffiti on it - a crazy idea in an Italian city.  Though my sister said it reminded her of Hull train station.  Rightio.


There was no plan for Milan, but after a quick Google search, the top tourist destination was the Duomo - a very grand and impressive cathedral.  We joined various queues and eventually managed to work out how to get tickets to go both inside and on the roof terrace.  Then joined a couple more queues, found out our tickets were only for the terrace, so joined the queue to go up to the terrace, queued a bit more for the lift, queued a bit more to exit the lift and there we were.  On top of a cathedral.  It felt naughty.  If only I smoked weed.  Highlight 1 of the holiday.


We then made the rookie tourist mistake of buying a drink next to a tourist square in Italy - which cost more than my excellent pizza later in the night - the only meal of the holiday that I was especially impressed with.  And even then just an 8/10.

Later in the evening we found a fairly decent collection of canal-side bars - though I am sure you've seen European canal-side bars before so I won't go on.

Again there was no plan for the next day, until Dave suggested going to the 'Klimt Experience'.  Yeah, me neither.  Apparently Gustav Klimt was an Austrian artist in the late 19th and early 20th century.  I didn't have any better suggestions and was hoping to get the two indie kids with me to a techno parade on Saturday, so I agreed and hobbled along.


It was billed as an immersive experience.  A large room with Klimt's pictures projected around, moving at different speeds, replacing each other at different speeds, with booming (slightly headache-inducing and very obvious) classical music from the era.  His pictures seemed quite fucked up with patterns happening in random places - often completely nonsensical yet totally beautiful.  Oh, and he liked painting naked women.

Not only do I have a new favourite artist, but I have a new insight and understanding on the art world - art is something that I have rarely understood.  This touched me and was highlight number 2 of the holiday.  I was so impressed that when (if) I have some spare money, I am going to buy a print of his work.

Then it was time to step outside into the thundery-feeling atmosphere to go buy some drinks ready for our train journey into the mountains, and to the small town of Tirano.

Milan surprised me.  I didn't think I'd be so keen - I expected all up-market snobbery, I expected to feel completely out of place (not that I give a fuck) with people looking down at me for not wearing Armani socks.  The people were actually less 'stylish' than in London, far friendlier than Rome, there was a really good mix of culture, some history - and I grew to really like it in my 30 hours there.  Even if I was teased by distant thunderstorm clouds the whole time.  Though maybe all the Milanese were not in Milan - it was August.

So we headed out of Milan, thunderstorm clouds in the distance, on a 2.5 hour train journey to Tirano, where the Bernina Express would leave from the next day.

We started to get a taste of the scenery as we headed up into the mountains, with the train hugging the edge of Lake Como for quite some time.  It became a little less fun a few drinks in when we realised the toilet was out of order - there were two trains connected so it meant missions from one train to another when it stopped.


We arrived into Tirano to pouring rain.  And no thunder.  Our hotel was fairly basic - but had spectacular views of the mountains, and the toilet was probably made in Hull.  Again none of us had had time to research anything to do or anywhere to eat - then again there wasn't anything to do in Tirano.

We found a restaurant in a very cute looking area, and they clearly saw me coming - €20 I paid for one duck thigh and a handful of very small roast potatoes.  One was not amused.


Yes that was it.

I had pretty much run out of Euros so we called it a night, via a cocktail bar - a thankfully very good value cocktail bar.

The next morning, I had around 34 salami and cheese sandwiches from the buffet, and then we went for a walk up the river, to see what we could see - a gentle incline though not actually tackling any of the mountains themselves.

The scenery was just stunning.  It was a delight to be out in the countryside (the one thing I miss now I live in London), watching the river flow, seeing the clouds build.  Predictably there was a thunderstorm in Milan.



We stocked up on vodka for the Bernina Express, and sat down outside, watching the clouds roll in and the rain start.  Predictably the last place we drank at was the only place without a card machine - none of us had any Euros so I had a mad dash around to try to find a cash machine.

As we hauled our suitcases onto the Bernina Express, it began to pour down once more.

I love rain.  But rain was not the ideal weather for either being able to see out of our panoramic train windows, or to photograph the beauty.

The Bernina Express winds it way up the mountain on a single track with occasional passing points.  You often see the same scenery as it gradually makes its way up the mountain range, but as the height becomes greater, so does the spectacular nature of the scenery.

Doncaster to Hull this ain't.

Mountains, waterfalls, valleys, industrial works - trains for logs.  We went over bridges, viaducts and through many tunnels - it was quite the feat of engineering.


It was also notable as the train went further into Switzerland, that the housing became more typically Swiss.


Perhaps the last hour of the 4 hour journey became a bit samey, and I pined to see some sunshine - I actually saw some wet snow falling over the highest peak.  Just a few flakes - enough for a Facebook meltdown if it happened in the UK.

Once in Chur, we changed for the fast train to Zurich which was fairly unremarkable - as was the rest of the evening except for gawping at how expensive everything was in Zurich. Kind of like when I first moved from Hull to Reading.

I did have a nice piece of salmon, a good pint of Erdinger and a practice on the hotel corridor ice machine.


And then Saturday happened.  Given the prices at restaurants, we just bought exceptionally crap 'sausage rolls' from the coop (not co-op) and went for a nice walk around Zurich.

I never quite understood the point of Zurich.  It's nice, they have lots of fountains and fairly low-rise buildings.  Plenty of offices - not a huge amount of historical buildings.  It was very orderly and clean, I didn't have one person ask me for spare change - quite the opposite to Milan, and I don't recall seeing any signs of anyone being poor - no surprise given that Switzerland is known as being a rich place - a banker's paradise.

Given that my two travelling companions were not especially enamoured with techno music, being into bands and stuff, I was more hoping to persuade them to go to Zurich Street Parade than expecting.  Perhaps just for a couple of hours.

Whilst awaiting the start time, we plonked ourselves out the front of a bar (which also sold bicycles at up to £8,000 - wtf?), and did a bit of people watching.  And there was plenty to see.

Once start time was upon us, we headed down to the parade, and found the front of it.  It was a queue of 25 trucks, each with a big fat soundsystem on the back and around 1-200 dressed-up people on board.


Everyone else, around 900,000 people, just drunk and danced - all kinds of ages from 5 to 75, all kinds of people.  As soon as the music started on the first truck, it just went off.

We stayed roughly in the same position for much of the day, awaiting the various trucks - with occasional visits to the shops to stock up on alcohol.

There was more tech-house or techno than any other form of music, but hardcore, freestyle, drum'n'bass, minimal and house all featured.  My two favourite trucks were the Elrow truck with the giant rhino leading it - quite a cacophony of celebration as you would expect.  I also though the hardstyle truck was ace - absolutely mental - didn't like the music, but the mentalness was another level.  Neither music favourites - but for atmosphere and crazies.

This was a truly mental day out.  A great celebration of dance music.  I have lost interest in clubbing this year, partly due to unemployment, partly due to trying to be successful in my new job - and partly because it just takes so fucking long to recover.  But it was like being home - mentally.

Much vodka was consumed and I don't remember an awful lot about the end of it. Apparently we went to MacDonald's, I refused the chicken nuggets that my sister bought for me and bought my own instead.  I was apparently unable to walk exclusively on the pavement.  I do have vague memories of ice bowling in the corridor of the hotel.  And vague memories of taking refuge in a church, to use their toilet.

Sunday was just one of those waiting to come home days.  A £15 all-you-can-eat breakfast (not especially good), followed by a nice walk around the local industrial/commercial area, and a few beers in the sunshine whilst being attacked by wasps.

Arriving back and going into work on the Monday morning, I still had a really big smile on my face following just the supreme amount of fun that we had.  I really could have done with a nice relaxing holiday, but I wouldn't swap it for the world.

I absolutely loved being in the mountains, delighted to have discovered my new favourite artist, Gustav Klimt, and just had a ridiculous amount of fun at the street parade in Zurich.  And had just excellent company too.

There was only one thing left to do and that was to ask the random country generator for the next destination.

It picked Kuwait.

I rolled again.

It picked Dijbouti.

I rolled again.

It picked Fiji.

Hmmm.  Need to go back to the drawing board on this random selection idea.  But I really do need to book another holiday soon.  Maybe even an actual relaxing holiday.  I'll get my thinking cap on...and stop spending so much money on shite.

Very good, son.