The Beauty of the Silent Car, and other Rail Secrets

This elegant fountain greets arrivals to Zurich's Hauptbahnhof. Not a bad station in which to kill a few hours in case you do miss your connection.

This elegant fountain greets arrivals to Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof. Not a bad station in which to kill a few hours in case you do miss your connection.

My newest post on the Eurail Blog is fittingly titled 10 Hacks for an Epic Eurail Trip. Hack, as you probably know, refers to a trick or shortcut producing greater efficiency or productivity. When it comes to travel, as in many other arenas, I’ve found that the only way to properly hack something is to first fail at it.

To miserably fail. In travel terms, that would mean utterly botching your transport plans and winding up alone at night in a chilly rural station because you missed the proverbial last train. A station that, while not technically god-forsaken or in the middle of nowhere, is in a remote part of town where the cafes and shops are shuttered past six. Most likely the restrooms are shuttered, too.

Or it could mean waiting until the last minute to buy a TGV to Paris (I’ve done this and don’t recommend it, as it can be surprisingly expensive). Or spending your whole day traveling to, say, Venice, only to crash in a pricey mediocre hotel––when you could have bunked down on the night train and saved yourself a night of lodging, as well as daylight hours better spent museum binging.                           

Slightly disheveled but thrilled to make my connection to the City Night Line train in Zurich, after dallying too long at a traditional beer hall dinner on the first day of Fasnacht, the Swiss version of Carnival.

Slightly disheveled but thrilled to make my connection to the City Night Line train in Zurich, after dallying too long at a traditional beer hall dinner on the first day of Fasnacht, the Swiss version of Carnival.

 

 

To PIN or not to PIN: There’s really no question

My latest travel story for CNBC Road Warrior is all about plastic: the good (chip and PIN cards), the not-so-bad (signature and PIN cards), and the ugly (magnetic stripe cards).

Forget the old-fashioned Visa card. Paris wants your cash.Forget the old-fashioned Visa card. Paris wants your cash.

One thing I learned while researching this story is that no matter how respectable or trustworthy you may appear, it’s difficult to loiter around train station ticket counters or machines to interview tourists without them thinking you’re trying to rob them.

American tourists, who have been adamantly warned that pickpockets are rampant in Europe, sometimes seem convinced they are about to be robbed even if all evidence points to the contrary. David Sedaris wrote an extremely funny essay about this peculiar phenomenon, which he reads here on This American Life.

Unfortunately, wearing fanny packs, bulky money belts, and other awkward accessories that scream I’m a tourist may make one more likely to actually get pickpocketed…

Jazz Caves and Pig Roasts in the Languedoc

On the way to Caunes-Minervois.

On the way to Caunes-Minervois

On Friday nights in Caunes-Minervois, people come for the pig roast, but they stay for the jazz. There are other places to eat in town, but La Mangeoire is not only charming, it’s an amazing deal: €15 for a hunk of roasted pig, plus dessert and coffee? You won’t find that in Paris. Then again, it’s unlikely you’ll find a pig roast in Paris.

Like Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, I don’t dig on swine. So, on the infrequent occasion that I happen to attend a pig roast–and it’s usually in France that I end up at a pig roast––I don’t think “pork.” I think “pig.” Swine, yes. But not pork. Even in France, I don’t think porc––I think cochon.

IMG_3625

If you’ve never chanced to witness a pig roast, it’s a bit of a mess. Flesh, everywhere. A sticky-sweet, burnt smell permeates the air. In French, the verb cochonner means to make a mess of something. I prefer cochonner to cochon itself, but even as a former longtime vegetarian I could appreciate the festive air in the courtyard as diners lined up to watch the pit master (that’s what they call the person who presides over barbecue pits in Texas––I’m unsure if such a term exists for pig roasts) pile their plates with meat. Because it’s France, it’s more of a modest portion than a pile, of course.

A pig skewered and roasted on a spit as people congregate around the flames, waiting to be fed…

Yes, it feels like a Pagan sacrifice. But one has to admit it’s more humane than McDonald’s. At least there is no denial: as you stand there, you are absolutely certain you are eating an animal––that an animal has been slaughtered for your sustenance and your pleasure. Maybe the pig roast somehow pays homage to this morally ambiguous trade-off. If I were a pig, I’d prefer to make my finale this way, rather than winding up wrapped up in plastic and sold as pork chops at the supermarket.

IMG_3629

I was squeamish about taking a photo of the outdoor spit, which I now regret. The pit master, as I shall call him, was a cheerful British expat who seemed to genuinely enjoy serving everyone. He was a pig roast evangelist to the point he almost convinced me to order the €15 jazz formule. Instead, I had a salad. The Americans and the Brits milling about the courtyard seemed relieved to safely partake in excesses of the flesh that were authentically French, yet had nothing to do with extramarital affairs or Gerard Depardieu.

Caunes-Minervois sits in the lush green lowlands at the foot of les Montagnes Noires, or the Black Mountains. If that sounds mysteriously fetching, it is. Part of the Languedoc, this is geographically and historically speaking one of the most enigmatic parts of France.

Languedoc comes from Langue D’Oc, or the Occitan language. While Occitan is now generally considered to be a dialect of French (although locals may not agree) it was the widely spoken language of this part of southern France in the Middle Ages, made famous in literature by the troubadours. Of course, back then, this region did not belong to the French crown, but rather was governed peacefully between the King of Aragon and the Count of Toulouse. It was also home to the legendary Cathars: Christians who rejected the lavish accoutrements, tithing, and many of the sacaments of the Roman Catholic Church and were thus considered heretics. In the 13th century, after a brutal 20-year crusade waged by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism, the Languedoc was annexed to the Kingdom of France.

It’s interesting how the language of oppressors becomes institutionalized: while France promotes Cathar Country as an up-and-coming tourist destination, the very word “cathar” was a slang word used as an insult by the Roman Catholic papacy.

On a more frivolous note, when the Romans settled here, they established vineyards and wine-making. “Minervois” probably derives from the Roman goddess Minerva, who, as goddesses go, was a bit of a dilettante: though she might be best known as a goddess of war (like Athena, but probably better at making pizza), she also served time as the goddess of the professions, the arts, and, strangely, handicrafts.

Just imagine: before there was unemployment insurance, before there were job search engines, before there were the want ads and Monster.com and headhunters and unions and LinkedIn, there was Minerva, goddess of the professions. A big job–I doubt she had much time to mess with handicrafts.

IMG_3645

Jazz au Caveau (Jazz in the Cave) is a marvelous place to hang out and drink wine with the locals––everyone and their mother from the whole area seems to come out for the packed shows. Concerts, which run about once a month from September to June, cost €12. Considering a glass of wine costs €2, the Jazz au Caveau is serious cheap date material.

Scratch that. As my friend Colette, an American journalist living in Paris, has oft informed me,  the French do not date. They do many things well: bread, cheese, films, wine, maternity leave, government bureaucracy, mime, and making smoking still look cool. But they do not do dating well.*

*I just went to a disco in Paris and was reminded that they don’t do dancing (not ballet or jazz, but the kind you might do with a cocktail in your hand) all that well, either. And being that most of the clubs I’ve been to the past few years were in the Netherlands, Belgium or the Czech Republic, my standard of what constitutes dancing is suspiciously low. But that is another post.

 

Test driving (or, test-railing) Eurail’s new Rail Planner App

Eurail sent me on a six country jaunt to try out the fancy new Rail Planner app. If you possess even a hint of wanderlust, it’s a dangerous piece of technology: you can infinitely plan hypothetical adventures. IMG_2213 Check out the post at the Eurail Blog: Eurail Blog: Introducing the Rail Planner App If only an app could have prevented me from dropping my iPhone in a snowbank in the Swiss Alps near Pontresina, or from leaving it in a pizzeria in Tirano, Italy. I’m afraid there is not yet an app to correct clumsiness or post-lunch food comas.

IMG_2089

 

Back on the train from Lake Como towards St. Moritz, and trying desperately to stay awake despite the massive pizza al funghi and glass of Verdicchio I just consumed.