The US by train

‘I’m not like anyone you’ve met before. Not in Europe, America or anyplace else.” Rider, my unexpected travelling companion for a sizeable tranche of the train ride from Washington DC to New York, is not delivering an idle boast — just the opposite, in fact. At 6ft-plus, with lank, straw-coloured hair and a wide-rimmed Panama hat, he is Crocodile Dundee if Paul Hogan had arms like tree trunks, a southern drawl and a mischievous glint in his eye.

Rider and I have only been sitting together five minutes — I was forced to switch carriages when the air-con in mine packed in before we had even left the District of Columbia city limits — but already he is halfway through the Cliff Notes version of his life story.

As Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, drifts past our window, and we slip seamlessly from Maryland into Delaware, Rider solemnly recounts his annotated successes and failures: he became a furniture maker after he lost his job (and his marriage) in the aftermath of the financial crash; he now lives in Kentucky, but is headed for Philadelphia to see his sister’s newborn baby for the first time; he’s 38 and would dearly like “to kick my 19-year-old self’s butt”.

Rider is certainly sui generis, but his openness, his desire to tell his story, is surprisingly typical of rail travellers in America.

In a country where nobody takes the train because they need to get somewhere fast, railway carriages double up as public places, spaces where strangers meet, talk and, at times, argue. That most Americans seldom set foot on a train — the average annual distance travelled by rail per head of population is just half that of Pakistan (and a whopping 30 times less than those train-loving Swiss) — contributes to a garrulous sense of conviviality, of shared experience, that you’ll struggle to find on any European rail line.

Alfred Hitchcock perfectly understood the possibilities, both for benign chatter and malignant plotting, American train travel presents.

His classic ‘Strangers on a Train’, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of its release later this year, centred on a plan for the perfect murder hatched by two complete strangers during the course of their journey from Washington to New York.

Just like amateur tennis player Guy Haines and the nefarious Bruno Anthony, Hitchcock’s pair of would-be murderers, my trip begins in the rather grandiose setting of Washington’s Union Station. Designed by the renowned American architect Daniel Burnham, the façade’s triumphal arch and neo-classical colonnades were inspired by the old Euston station in London. Unfortunately, nowadays the station’s interior feels a little too much like present-day Euston; glass-fronted shops, ubiquitous queues and precious little passenger information.

“The first thing you learn about rail travel in America is that the trains are late,” the acerbic English novelist Jenny Diski warns in ‘Stranger on a Train’, her singular account of travelling across America in 1997. Almost a decade and a half later, not much has changed.

After a half-hour wait, my train — the Crescent — finally appears and I gladly clamber aboard. The Crescent was once the jewel in the crown of the American railways. It still runs the 1,377 miles from New Orleans to Penn Station in New York daily, but its halcyon days are well behind it now.

The high-speed Acela does the journey from DC to New York in a little over two-and-a-half hours (my train will take upwards of five), while it’s less than an hour by plane.

A hundred years ago, America’s railroads were the envy of the world. Now, for vast swathes of the population, they are practically defunct.

Back in 1916, the US boasted some 254,251 miles of track; today, that figure stands at just 140,695. Many states have seen their public railways decimated, while two contiguous states, Wyoming and South Dakota, have no trains at all anymore. That Amtrak, the government-owned rail company, makes its money from freight (passenger trains run at a loss) is hardly a state secret.

Despite the poor condition of many US lines — or maybe even because of it — train travel is one of the best ways to see Uncle Sam in his most natural state. To stare out at an unfamiliar landscape as it goes by outside your control, in time to the rhythm of the wheels and the swaying of the carriage, is one of the few ways to truly comprehend the sheer vastness of America. And it’s only a fraction of the cost of an internal flight.

Few stops compare to spectacular Harpers Ferry, the historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers where the states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet, on the DC to Chicago line.

The journey from Washington to New York is not all rolling countryside and rural idylls, however. Barely 45 minutes after we leave Union Station a view familiar to fans of HBO’s remarkable series ‘The Wire’ pulls into view: dominated by John Hopkins and tall, shiny waterfront developments, Baltimore’s skyline formed the outer edge of the dystopian world rendered by ‘The Wire’s creator David Simon.

There’s no sign of McNulty, Omar Little or Avon Barksdale — the arbiters of good and evil in Simon’s fictional Baltimore — but, as our train moves out of the station and skirts through the city’s impoverished western edge, the urban scars left behind by decades of drugs and crime are all too visible. Rows and rows of abandoned houses zip past my eyes; wide, empty streets where nothing seems to move except intermittent clouds of dust.

Even the dark underbelly of the American Dream, it seems, cannot escape the train traveller’s gaze.

“Gee, did you see that back there? That looked really rough.” Rider, with all his worldly experience, is still shocked by our five-minute glimpse of inner-city Baltimore. Not that shocked, mind — 30 seconds later he resumes the telling of his life story.

As Rider recounts his move into carpentry, I keep the corner of my eye fixed on the window, where the east coast of America drifts by dispassionately. Ours is a journey through the industrial heartland of the US, a tract of land once packed full of busy shipping lane, and tireless cities that built the America we know today.

Past Chesapeake Bay and we’re into Wilmington, the largest city in the state of Delaware. Wilmington itself is unremarkable, its adherence to the unwritten diktat that all medium-sized American cities must have a shimmering high-rise urban core depressingly complete.

From Wilmington, it is a short hop across the invisible state line into Pennsylvania and on to Philadelphia. The ‘City of Brotherly Love’ is Rider’s destination, and my newfound travelling companion refuses to depart until he has given me some of its fabled fraternal affection.

“You take real good care now,” a lifetime of cigarettes and bourbon audible on Rider’s gravel-encrusted voice. “And don’t go forgetting me.” There’s precious little chance of that, but as the mass of concrete that entombs Philadelphia’s train station disappears from

view, I’m happy to my turn my attention once more to the blue-collar country beckoning outside my window.

Thirty kilometres or so past Philly, the Crescent pulls into Trenton, on New Jersey’s southern lip. “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” reads the large lettering on the two-lane Lower Free Bridge that crosses the Delaware river.

Installed in 1935, the slogan is a throwback to better times: remarkable as it now seems, in the late 19th and early-20th centuries, this sleepy, rather ramshackled town was a manufacturing powerhouse, where vast quantities of rubber, wire rope, ceramics and cigars were produced.

By the early 1960s, America’s manufacturing industry — and with it Trenton — was in terminal decline. In 1950 the town’s population was almost 125,000; now barely 80,000 hardy souls call it home, the decaying chimneys and abandoned factories reminders of its former glories.

Trenton, in many ways, is a microcosm of much of modern New Jersey. Although one of the wealthiest places in America by average income, the south-east coast of the much-maligned Garden State is no thing of great beauty. From New Brunswick to Elizabeth then Newark, we slowly plod past remnants of a rich, productive past lost forever.

This is classic rock country — Bruce Springsteen grew up in nearby Long Branch, Bon Jovi emerged from down the road in Sayreville — and I can’t resist humming ‘Glory Days’ as the train shuffles down the rail.

Finally, over an hour north of Trenton, the majestic New York skyline appears, almost out of thin air. Where scrapyards were, just moments before, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the iconic lower Manhattan skyline now fills my vista.

As our train ambles into Penn Station — some 70 minutes shy of our scheduled arrival time — a much smaller coach passes, heading in the opposite direction. ‘Hicksville’ reads the sign on the front carriage.

I’m about to step out into the probably the most vivacious city on earth, but a little part of me wishes I was riding the rails to Hicksville. Just imagine who you might meet on that train!

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent 12 February

Argyll peninsula: Lochs, Scots… and two whisky barrels

There are two types of season in Scotland,” Billy Connolly once quipped, “June and winter.”

As the warm evening sun flickers one final time on the calm, aquamarine waters of Loch Goil, near Loch Lomond, before disappearing behind the ruins of Carrick castle, I glance at my wristwatch. If the Big Yin ever tires of stand-up comedy, he could certainly have a future in meteorology: it’s 10.46pm on June 1.

Scotland is often described as a land of contrasts, both physical and cultural, and it’s not hard to see why. The bright lights of Glasgow are barely 40 miles away, but out on the loch, as porpoises bob up and down and gannets and oystercatchers soar majestically overhead, the big city feels like another, distant world. Only the slow, steady hum of the generator punctures the silence.

As darkness draws quickly in, I drain the last amber drops of Scotch from my glass and slip back into my lodgings for the night — and for the next week — the Glen Massan.

The boat, a converted fishing trawler, is one of two belonging to The Majestic Line, an Edinburgh-based outfit that specialises in luxurious cruises along the west coast of Scotland. I’m on board for a six-night wildlife-spotting cruise around the south Argyll peninsula.

The Massan, an 85ft slab of Irish oak, has been stripped and redecorated for less able seamen, with a stylish saloon, surprisingly salubrious and spacious cabins, and a viewing deck replete with sun loungers (for those occasional non-June afternoons when a bout of high pressure interrupts Connolly’s long-term outlook).

The brainchild of keen amateur sailors and old school friends Ken Grant and Andy Thoms — inspired by a jaunt on a Turkish gulet, they founded the company in 2004 — The Majestic Line operates from Dunoon and Oban, two of the most famous fishing ports in west Scotland. Both are little more than an hour’s drive from Glasgow, but there’s no need to hire a car: I’m one of a handful of guests collected from the international airport by shore manager Andrew Manwell.

“It’s all part of the service,” Andrew smiles, before going on to entertain his rapt audience with salty tales from the Clyde’s long shipbuilding history, the remnants of which are clearly visible in rusting industrial towns such as Greenock and Port Glasgow that pockmark the road from Glasgow to Dunoon.

Andrew’s friendly, informative manner is typical of The Majestic Line, where luxury seldom equates with stuffiness. Indeed, our vessel has barely pulled out of its berth when there’s a knock on my cabin door. “Sorry to bother you but we’re going to be sounding the horn in a moment,” explains engineer Bob McLean, who I’d been introduced to only moments earlier over a bon voyage glass of bubbly in the saloon.

“Don’t be alarmed. It’s because we’ll be passing by Andy Thoms’ mum’s house and we’re giving her a birthday salute. She’s 94 today. You’re more than welcome to come up and have a wave if you like!”

Scurrying up the stairs, I’m just in time to spot a white tea-cloth furiously moving back and forth across the front window of a semi-detached house on the shore. “There’s Mrs Thoms,” Bob smiles, as we glide by, picking up a gentle speed. We begin the voyage towards Loch Goil, our first night’s port of call.

As the sun sets over the rolling hills, the guests — eight in total — unwind over a long, languorous and consistently excellent evening meal in the saloon.

My girlfriend and I are, by some distance, the youngest members of our party, but the group has little of the static, retired air I had expected from a cruise boat. Two middle-aged English couples, Viv and Robin, and Jean and Gordon, have come north separately but share a love of wildlife, while Carol and her octogenarian father George have travelled from the east coast of the US especially for the trip. “I come for the whisky, really,” George laughs, admiring the two fingers of Talisker single malt in his tumbler.

It’s impossible to gauge how guests will gel beforehand — and it could be a long week if they don’t — but thankfully there are no personality clashes, and we’ve nothing to distract us from the remarkable scenery of Argyll and its myriad islands. The area’s roads are notoriously bad (think Cavan circa 1987 but worse), so water really is the best form of transport for exploring Scotland at its wildest and most dramatic.

Our daily itinerary is pleasingly flexible: each morning, skipper Martin McWhirr puts down his sextant and alights from his cosy, wood-panelled bridge to inquire of the breakfast table, in dulcet Clydeside tones, “Where do you want to go today?” McWhirr’s ‘suggestions’ are generally accepted — he is the captain, after all — but where we decide to stop, and for how long, along the day’s route is always up for playful negotiation.

On the island of Bute, past the faded seaside glamour of its main town, Rothesay, we spend a sunny afternoon exploring Mount Stuart house, home to the current Marquess of Bute. The house was built by the third Marquess in the second half of the 19th century: a dyed-in-the-world eccentric, he installed one of world’s first heated swimming pools, decorated his pile with astrological symbols, collected fine art and built a majestic white marble chapel. (An orphan, the Marquess converted to Catholicism at the age of 18.)

Mount Stuart also hints at the rich history Argyll shares with Ireland. Throughout the sixth and seventh centuries, the powerful, Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada encompassed Antrim and the west coast of Scotland, and some historians argue that the Book of Kells was produced on the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides.

The old language hasn’t died out completely, and a quick stop at the picturesque village of Tighnabruaich, nestled on the east coast of Loch Fyne, provides a golden opportunity for this journalist to wow his fellow guests with a cúpla focal.

“Aye, it means ‘the house on the bank’,” Dougie Wilson confirms my guestimate. Dougie, the Glen Massan’s hugely talented chef, moved from Falkirk — an unremarkable commuter town midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow — to live on one of the many farmsteads dotted along Loch Fyne.

“I love it here. It’s so peaceful — there’s never a sound, except the nature all around you.” And Dougie is dead right. Apart from the occasional puffin squawk, as it flies past the bridge, or the expectant chatter of seagulls circling the fishing trawlers that still work the Kyles of Bute, life on the open sea is remarkably quiet, though never dull.

Our land legs get regular exercise, visiting pretty fishing villages such as Tarbet, or strolling around ruined churches, as at Lochranza on the Isle of Arran.

There is no shortage of on-board adventure, too, whether you’re learning to drive the small, motorised tender to lay lobster pots in still loch waters, or just standing on deck, binoculars glued to your face, scanning the horizon for signs of otters or basking sharks.

Pitching up in a different spot every evening has a definite nomadic charm. Each night, we eat dinner with a fresh vista through the saloon windows, and often with some pretty distinguished neighbours for company: along the Kyles of Bute, we drop anchor not far from Richard Attenborough’s boreal bolthole, while a little further north, at Loch Fyne, we moor across from Ewan McGregor’s palatial Scottish retreat.

The pace of life quickens — but only just — on Great Cumbrae island. This tiny lump of rock, a stone’s throw from the mainland town of Largs, is still popular with day trippers from Glasgow and its main drag, Millport, is filled with retro cafés, fishing shops and, most importantly for cyclists, bike hire shops. With a circumference of exactly 10 knots — sorry, I mean miles — and little in the way of hills, the island is perfect for a leisurely cycle. The route is littered with orchids and other wild flowers, while Goat Fell, Arran’s imperious peak, dominates the western skyline.

Back in Millport, I treat myself to a well-deserved 99 in the Ritz Café, a hallowed name among Scots of a certain generation that still serves some of the best ice cream this side of Milan. After a quick nosey around Britain’s smallest cathedral and a photo outside the country’s narrowest house — scarcely the width of a door — it’s back on board for our final evening meal.

The unmistakable (should that be inescapable?) sound of Wings’ Mull of Kintyre is blasting across the PA as we clamber back on board the Glen Massan. In the distance Ailsa Craig, or Paddy’s Milestone, halfway between Belfast and Glasgow, shimmers in the bright, warm sun, while fat, round-headed seals loll on the rocks opposite the boat.

Ten minutes later, Dougie emerges from the kitchen brandishing a plate of canapés: Stornoway black pudding and locally caught scallops.

I doubt even Billy Connolly himself could conjure up a more fitting punchline for a wonderful week on the Scottish high seas.

This article first appeared in The Irish Independent on July 24

Aarhus: A city that's second to none

This feature on the beautiful (and wonderfully vibrant) Danish city of Aarhus appeared in The Irish Independent on June 6.

“Why wasn’t Jesus born in Aarhus?” starts a popular Danish joke. “They couldn’t find three wise men.” Evidently, second-city bashing is not a sport confined to Ireland: Copenhagen’s urban sophisticates love to mock Denmark’s other city, but just as Cork has far more to offer than most Dubs would like to admit, Aarhus is no provincial backwater.

At just under 300,000 inhabitants Aarhus might be a fraction of Copenhagen’s size, but the latter’s reputation for studied cosmopolitan cool is alive and well among the Friday afternoon drinkers in Café Under Masken, a dive bar near Aarhus’s imposing Romanesque cathedral.

It’s not even 4.30pm but already the low-ceilinged lounge — it literally is the ‘cafe under the mask’, as an ornate African head smiles down from over the front door — is full of hip twentysomethings in skinny jeans and trilby hats (men and women), smoking like it is going out of fashion and shouting to be heard over The Pogues’ greatest hits.

Danish avant-garde artist Hans Krull owns Café Under Masken and the bar is decorated with myriad examples of his eclectic work — except, of course, on the three walls that the café’s gigantic aquarium runs along. As I sit slowly supping bottles of lager from the local Fur brewery and watching the tropical red snapper through a fug of cigarette smoke, the opening verse of Sally MacLennane kicks in, to howls of approval from the locals. Doubtless Shane McGowan is still longing to back in “the greatest little boozer” but I feel as if I’ve found it — and, much to my surprise, it’s in the middle of Denmark.

Aarhus, to borrow a phrase from one of Denmark — and Copenhagen’s — most famous literary sons, Hans Christian Andersen, is something of an ugly duckling. The harbour, one of the largest in northern Europe, is filled with Maersk containers and passenger ferries, and large factories still dominate skyline around the docks. A romantic stroll along the waterfront might not be possible but, over the past 25 years, Aarhus has transformed itself from the industrial powerhouse of the Midtjylland (Mid-Jutland) region into a vibrant, bohemian city with a reputation for food, drink and live music.

At the heart of this reinvention is the Latin Quarter, the rather incongruous, tourist office-invented sobriquet for what was formerly known as the Old Town. The warren of narrow, stone streets with historical names such as Klostergade (Convent St), Volden (The Rampart) and Borggade (Castle St) in and around the cathedral were, until recently, run-down and unloved but now are among the most trendy addresses in Aarhus and, indeed, Denmark.

Stella McCartney and Bang and Olufsen are among the designer stores vying for shoppers’ attention alongside independent craft-shops and small galleries on Badstuegade, one of the Latin Quarter’s main thoroughfares. Around the corner, on Rosengade, Casablanca is the city’s oldest café, dating back from the mid-1970s, a time when a lozenge-shaped ‘Tabac’ sign outside and a bottle of Chartreuse behind the bar was the height of Parisian sophistication (both, by the way, still present).

While Scandinavia is often held up as a model for what Europe should aspire to — socially liberal, progressive, fair — our Nordic neighbours are often traduced as safe, predictable and rather boring.

But, as I discovered when I lived in Aalborg, a nearby city of 100,000 folk in North Jutland, a few years back, Danes are anything but dull — as befitting the country that brought the world Carlsberg, Denmark is a nation of beer-drinkers and pub-goers. And Aarhus is blessed with a fine selection of bars to choose from.

A stone’s throw from Café Under Masken, the achingly cool clientele in Ris Ras Filliongong recline on opulent chaises longue, drink draught beers from Denmark and Germany and puff on cigars. Smoking is banned in public in Denmark but paradoxically allowed in bars of less than 40 square metres. It feels a bit too much like sitting in the smoking carriage on the old Dublin-Sligo train for my (ex-smoker) liking but, thankfully, the bar’s basement is larger and, consequently, smoke-free.

During my student days in Aalborg I often ventured south for gigs, and, outside urbane Copenhagen, Aarhus remains Denmark’s undisputed live music capital. Venues such as Voxhall and Train host top-notch international acts most nights of the week, while the burgeoning Danish music scene is well supported: bands such as Efterklang and Oh No Ono are closely connected with Aarhus and still return to the city regularly.

Not everything has remained the same since my last visit, however. The town centre is now almost completely pedestrianised, part of a broader initiative, begun back in the early 1990s, to reduce traffic. Bicycles have become the main mode of downtown transport in Aarhus — city bikes that can be rented by the hour are available on most street corners and are a great way to enjoy this most compact of European cities — and the area along Aaboulevarden (literally “the river boulevard”), once choked up with cars, is now the perfect place to kick back and enjoy the city’s burgeoning café culture.

Foodies take note: Copenhagen might be more than three hours south on the train but the Nordic food revolution that has gripped the Danish capital — Noma in Copenhagen was recently voted best restaurant in the world — is evident in Aarhus, too.

Noma famously uses only produce available in the Nordic region, a commitment to seasonal, local cooking shared by many, including Thorsten Schmidts, head chef at Nordisk Spisehus.

A favourite among Aarhus’s chattering classes, if the packed house on my Friday evening visit is anything to go by, Nordisk Spisehus is a pleasing marriage of minimalism, with sleek, white walls and unfussy service, and maximalism, with portions generous to a fault and all dishes available as takeaway. And, unlike many fine-dining establishments, beer is actively encouraged as a wine alternative. Jutland has undergone a brewing revolution in recent years, with more than 50 micro-breweries appearing in the past decade alone, and locally brewed beer is available in restaurants and bars throughout the city. Nordisk Spisehus boasts a particularly impressive selection (many in special 750ml bottles so you don’t feel left out among the wine quaffers).

Although Copenhageners mock Aarhus as backward and unsophisticated, across Scandinavia the city has a reputation as a cultural capital.

The annual Aarhus festival, which runs for 10 days in late August/early September, is the biggest arts festival in the Nordic region, with past events featuring everyone from the Rolling Stones and Ravi Shankar to Latin American rainmakers and African choirs. The theme for this year’s festival, which starts on August 27, is “neighbours” — expect music, dance, theatre, sport, opera and exhibitions for all ages.

Elsewhere, the Kvindemusset, or ‘women’s museum’, provides a fascinating feminist history of Denmark, while the nearby Frihedsmuseet tells the story of Danish resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War.

Across town, a five-metre tall Boy hunches down, hiding his face behind his left arm. It might look thrillingly lifelike but Ron Mueck’s hyperreal sculpture is the main attraction at the ARoS museum, a magnificent Guggenheim-esque edifice complete with spiral stairs and a light, airy glass roof. This remarkable contemporary art gallery wasn’t named after the Greek god of love but actually borrows its title from the city’s original name, Aaross, or the mouth of a small river.

From small acorns (well, rivers) Denmark’s second city has grown into an engaging, invigorating and vibrant destination. Don’t believe the hype from sniping Copenhageners, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better spot for a weekend break in Europe. And before you ask, yes, I have heard the one about the Aarhus man who threw his clock out the window…