European train travel gets unromantic fast

FLORENCE: Travel can mean misunderstandings and fights, usually on trains at 5am.
FLORENCE: Travel can mean misunderstandings and fights, usually on trains at 5am.

Fifty Shades of Summer is a series of essays on the many variations of love and romance. Philip Matthews is a senior writer at The Press.

So it went London and then Paris, and then La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast, and then Bilbao, and then across Spain to Seville and Granada, and then up to Barcelona (and the Dali museum in Figueres), and then Nice, and on to Florence, Amalfi, Venice, and then Paris again, and then London again.

Apologies for the very long sentence but you have to say it in one breath, without full stops, because it seemed like that at the time: a compressed time frame, everything in a hurry, on trains and in cheap accommodation. It was an intensive induction course, and not so much in Europe, which sped by outside train windows, as in ourselves.

This summer romance happened in our winter. I remember May and June 2001 as particularly bleak. Even Aucklanders complained about the cold. Rebecca had gone to the northern hemisphere. I would fly over and join her and we would travel around. We had known each other less than a year. Again, that compressed time frame.

PARIS: A city they would like to live in, not just visit.
PARIS: A city they would like to live in, not just visit.

Why such a hurry? Laughably, from a perspective 11 years on, I probably worried we were getting old. Actually, we were barely in our 30s.

Call it an awkward age, though. We soon learnt that we were too old to backpack and too young for coach tours.

Sleeping on crowded night trains and eating for $10 a day gets unromantic fast. The best moments came when we stopped pretending to be spontaneous and Rebecca - she was and is the organised one, not me - phoned ahead and sorted out accommodation.

LONDON: Enjoying a break from the travel frenzy.
LONDON: Enjoying a break from the travel frenzy.

Some moments come back more clearly than the others. The bus that winds slowly around the Amalfi coast from Naples, with a drop to certain death just below the passenger window. Arriving in Amalfi in late afternoon or early evening, knowing that there was a room waiting after however many phone calls (Rebecca in a mix of French and English, the other person in Italian). Splashing out on an actual dinner in an actual restaurant, right on the beach.

Being woken all through the night by church bells. That last part was much less pleasant at the time than it is in memory.

The beach was hot, the Mediterranean was warm and in the mornings we walked through steep, narrow streets above views of the town and in the afternoons we did the proper thing and slept. Then we woke, had something to drink and something to eat, and slept.

This didn't last long enough. Three days, maybe four? On one of these days, we took a day trip - bus, train? - to Pompeii. I had been a Greek and Roman mythology nerd as a kid. I had seen that Roberto Rossellini film Journey to Italy, in which an English couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) test their marriage by taking it to Naples in general and Pompeii in particular. Or I might just have seen that Pink Floyd movie in which they jam in the old amphitheatre.

Pompeii is profound, impossible and utterly sad. People talk about erotic frescoes and graffiti, but I kept noticing death, and how close the mountain seemed, and how unexpected the city's end must have been when it came. It was quiet and time stopped. You leave Pompeii and you go forward nearly 2000 years and you feel grateful to be alive.

I remember the day: August 19, 2001. The date was already significant. Rebecca and I had met exactly one year earlier. So for at least two reasons, I thought that August 19, 2001, was the greatest day of my life up to that point.

We may even have splashed out on an actual restaurant for a second time.

This is the glass half full version of that European tour. In the glass half empty one, other things are remembered more strongly. Nothing tests a relationship like travelling under pressure and I think that not having enough money, having nothing booked and not speaking most of the languages counts as pressure.

There were arguments, fights, misunderstandings, and they were usually on trains at 5am or when we had lugged backpacks through crowded streets for hours, and these arguments and fights were entirely my fault.

Yes, Nice was great too. That was another place where we stopped rushing, and time stopped. And Paris is a city we wanted to live in, not just visit (Italo Calvino has that line in Invisible Cities about travel showing you all the lives you don't get to lead).

Oddly, Barcelona was a bummer. Bilbao is a long way to go for one great art gallery. Other places just blur into each other.

There was a happy ending. Reader, I married her - the next time August 19 came around. We went to Thailand and had everything very carefully booked. And if we go to Europe again - and I know we shall, maybe back to the places we liked in 2001 - we will be old and we will go by coach.

The Press