The adventures of Max Senior

Next month, I have a birthday that ends in a zero. I’ve been casting around for some sort of project to mark this occasion, and two recent transport developments have, I hope, put me on the right track (or tracks).

Firstly, since the start of this year, Railcoop, a new railway co-operative, has been offering affordable long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains meander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines. The first service runs from Bordeaux to Lyon, wending its way through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon, and Roanne. Journey time: 7 hours and 30 minutes. This service used to be run by the state railway company, SNCF, but was abandoned many years ago. Other routes will eventually include Caen to Toulouse via Limoges in 9 hours and 43 minutes, and Le Croisic in Brittany to Basel in Switzerland with twenty-five intermediate stops in 11 hours and 13 minutes. These itineraries – unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris – have never existed before, not even at the height of the railway boom at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Planned Railcoop network

Alongside this new development, SNCF have themselves come up with a new scheme by launching the Max Senior card. For €79 a month, you can travel free to anywhere on the French railway system, and also to Luxembourg and to Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany. Travel is restricted to off-peak hours and must be booked at least two days in advance. A journey that involves changing trains entails separate bookings, one for each leg, but you can book up to six journeys on any given day. None of these restrictions presents any real problems, and the card seems tailor-made for someone like me.

I love travelling by train. By this I really mean journeys that last a minimum of an hour or so. Certainly, in the right frame of mind, travelling on the Paris Métro or the London Underground can be fun, and I always enjoy trying out the underground system in any new city I visit. But on longer train journeys, something happens when one passes the hour mark. Noisy children have usually quietened down, and adults have stopped fussing about their seats and luggage. Conversation has become quieter and more sporadic. Some people read or use their mobile devices. For the rest, a sort of communal daydreaming seems to ensue; the atmosphere is what libraries used to be like before they became “interactive info-centres”. I find this extremely relaxing. The continually changing picture through the window is like a mobile above a child’s cot. One can engage with it at will, or simply stare at it with unseeing eyes. Dozing is not compulsory but highly recommended. 

I used to think that an ideal existence might be to be permanently in transit, stopping overnight, or occasionally for a few days, in favourite places. I managed this a couple of times when I was younger, Interrailing around Europe a few weeks at a time, and I loved every minute of it. Now that I am older and wiser … well, now that I am older, I realise that this is not really feasible as a long-term strategy. In the end, it’s exhausting, and one quickly starts to yearn for the creature comforts of home. However, these two new French rail initiatives present an attractive alternative, and this has given me an idea.

My plan is to visit, in order, an A to Z of twenty-six French towns and cities, staying a day or two in each, all journeys to be completed by train (for free, whenever possible), and ideally all to be done within one year. The main objective will be to travel as widely as possible throughout France, visiting all coasts and borders, and criss-crossing the centre in as many ways as I can. For the next month, I will be looking at maps and trying to come up with an outline itinerary, or at least enough of one to get me started. As well as some major cities, I’d like to go to some lesser-known places that are worth visiting for some reason or other – this will almost certainly be the case when it comes to X and Z, for example. Any suggestions for these and other places would be very welcome.

As a birthday treat, Madame has promised to fund my ticket for a year, on condition that I use it as much as possible. She says that, albeit reluctantly, she feels she can live with my being out of the house a little more often.


In the photo section of this blog, I’ve put links to all the photos taken on the April trip to Italy. I was going to write more about it, but what with one thing and another, the moment has passed. I may return to it when I am 99 and dictating my memoirs to Madame, but other things are getting in the way right now.


This week I started an alternative blog, in French. One reason for this is to force myself to think and write in French. I’m still barely above intermediate level, which is a little embarrassing after living here for four years. There are various reasons for this slow progress. Being lazy, and having a gradually deteriorating memory, certainly doesn’t help. Most of what I read, watch, and listen to is in English, and Madame and I speak English at home. Unless I have carefully prepared a few phrases, conversation with French people tends to trigger a brain-numbing panic that erases most of my French vocabulary and grammar. I am making progress, but it is glacially slow. Committing to writing a blog will, I hope, help the process. It will consist mainly of photographs to begin with, but I hope to gradually write more, too. The French blog is here if anyone cares to look at it.


Life in France isn’t perfect. For example, you can’t buy Young’s bitter beer or Clonakilty black pudding here. But when I look at what that government of gobshites are currently doing to the UK, I am quite content to settle for a glass of Gamay and some boudin noir.

‘Do you want Parmesan?’

Parma Supermarket

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that, after Turin, my travels through Italy went by without any mention. There are various reasons for this, the most significant being chronic bone idleness on my part.

We have now been back in Poitiers for two weeks, and already the trip is receding quickly from my memory. In order to counter this, I am tidying up a few scribbled diary entries that I made on the way. The ones here cover Parma.

Monday 4th April

8.10 train to Milan. Trenitalia premier seats cost only a few euros more and are very comfortable. Free coffee, water, and snacks. Milano Centrale, Mussolini’s fascist temple, now full of fashion stores and fast food outlets. Still impressive, though.

Milano Centrale

09.22 train to Parma. Twenty minutes’ walk to Hotel Button, just behind Piazza Garibaldi. Immediately obvious town is less prosperous than Turin and on a smaller scale. Pleasant enough, though.

Piazza Garibaldi.

The manager bemused by Irish passport, Scottish wife, and French address. I tell him we are spies. He doesn’t smile. Room and bathroom v. warm. Handy for DIY laundry.

Out for walk. Two old ladies in the street, slightly sinister, like the two telepathic ladies in Don’t Look Now.

Don’t Look Now

Unsatisfactory lunch in Gran Caffè Cavour. Snotty waiter. Triangular slice of focaccia-based pizza covered in Prosciutto ham, about a kilo of mozzarella, and sliced tomatoes. Some weird aubergine concoction for Madame. A glass of Chablis each.

Walk around the historic centre, all rather dull. Better is the nearby Palazzo della Pilotta.

Palazzo della Pilotta.

It’s huge but was almost completely destroyed in World War II. The remains are impressive and eerie.

Home for a nap.

Fare better in the evening. Just a street away from our hotel is Strada Farini, a busy street full of bars, shops, and galleries. At Panino d’Artista, an Aperol spritz for me and a tomato juice for Madame, who is pacing herself. Generous with the free nibbles (cold pizza, ham, cheese, nuts, crisps). On to Bar Il Tribunalino. Campari spritz for me, glass of Sauvignon for Madame, and more complimentary nibbles. Young man on nearby table with an elaborately tattooed head, red frock coat, and Yorkshire terrier.

Decide to skip dinner and go to Tabarro wine bar. Small and attractively scruffy. Good jazz. Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker. Persuaded by very large proprietor to drink red Lambrusco. He says, ‘It is local’. It is also disgusting. Order Valpolicella and ‘a platter’. Proprietor delivers huge plate of fatty ham and cheese. He’d said he was on his own, but an equally large, more genial brother suddenly appears, wearing a blue woolly hat that makes him look like a Smurf. He takes a shine to us and tells us he learnt to speak English in Galway and had spent some time in Scotland, where he had gone to buy pigs: ‘They have pigs with wool, like sheep’.

Tabarro wine bar. “Small and attractively scruffy.”

Final drinks sitting outside Dolce Vita. Two glasses of Valpolicella to Madame’s one of something white. More nibbles.

Back at the hotel, the wardrobe door comes off in my hand.

Crash out.

RIP June Brown (Dot in East Enders)

Tuesday 5th April

No breakfast. Out at 09.30. Trip round Duomo. Famous Assumption ceiling by Correggio – the Virgin Mary floating up through a sea of limbs, faces, and swirling clouds.

The Assumption: Corregio

One contemporary called it ‘a frog leg stew’. Dickens said it was something ‘no operative surgeon gone mad could imagine in his wildest delirium’. According to the guide book, Correggio, a notorious miser, was paid with a sackful of small change – the story goes that he carried the sack of coins home in the heat, caught a fever, and died aged 40.

Coffee in small place nearby. Have worked out that Americano is the best option. Croissants are horribly sweet here and covered in sugar. Everyone eats cakes for breakfast, pastries that have cream or jam shoved in every available nook and cranny.

Locate Dubh Linn, an Irish bar mentioned in the guide book. Possible spot to watch tonight’s football. Don’t see any point in mentioning it to Madame at this stage.

A stroll around the market. People say that in any city you are never more than six feet from a rat. That’s probably an urban myth, but in Parma you are never more than six feet from some Prosciutto ham or a lump of Parmesan cheese. If you linger too long in a bar or café you will be force-fed with the stuff.

Do not ask for corned beef or Dairylea

Visit APE Parmo Museo. Two exhibitions currently on: A Century of Portraits featuring works by father and son, Renato and Luca Vernizzi, and Amedeo Bocchi: The Art of Elegance. Both are interesting, particularly the Vernizzis. The gallery is very well laid out, and we have the place almost entirely to ourselves. A real treat.

Lunch at Bar Le Malve. Tagliatelle bolognese for me (‘do you want some Parmesan?’). Madame orders Insalata pollo but gets Insalata mediterranea and settles for that. A glass of something white each. Another glass of wine, sitting in warm sunshine outside Enoteca Fontana, and then a wander around a bookshop, La Feltrinelli Libri e Musica. Take a photo of the recently published first Italian edition of Finnegans Wake. Good luck to anyone trying to read that. Home for a snooze.

Some light reading

In the evening, go for another walk around Palazzo della Pilotta. Hardly anyone there. Eerie atmosphere compounded by a busker playing a sad dirge on his accordion, but it’s suddenly interrupted by the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ ringtone on his mobile phone.

Eye of the Tiger

Aperol spritzes and nibbles at Panino d’Artista again, and then dinner at Gallo d’Oro next door to the hotel. Recommended by guide book. Decent enough. Most of the diners seem Italian. A nervous-looking couple whom Madame says are on a first date. Madame has some fancy ravioli. I order Vecchio cavallo, which translates as ‘old horse’. It’s quite tasty. Bottle of Barbaresco. Neither of us has room for dessert,

Madame retires for the evening, and I go to Dubh Linn, which turns out to be delightful. A very Irish-looking Italian barman. Two solitary customers about my age, drinking Guinness. All three avidly watching what looks like a televised radio programme in which a female disc jockey is playing heavy metal hits. I order a pint of Guinness and hesitantly mention football. The barman expresses surprise that there is a match on, and immediately switches over to the Liverpool v. Benfica game. Neither of the other customers moves or says anything. They just continue staring at the screen. I watch most of the second half, and when it is obvious that Liverpool are going to win, I ask the barman to switch to Man City v. Atletico Madrid.

My fellow footie fans in Dubh Linn

Again, no response from the others. Two pints of excellent Guinness, complete with shamrocks. In the loo, there is a strange anthropomorphic device on the wall. I take a photo, praying that no-one will come in and see me doing so.


The barman and I bid each other good night, and he immediately switches the TV back to the heavy metal channel, which they all resume watching. Neither of the other two customers had said a word the whole time I was there. It was like something out of Flann O’Brien.

I walk back to the hotel, feeling distinctly mellow, at 23.15. From about a hundred yards away, I see a man standing outside it by a street lamp, staring fixedly at his phone. From there till I reach the hotel and go in, he doesn’t move a muscle. Bit of a strange place, Parma.

“Alone and palely loitering “

There are more photos here.

A post-card from Rome

For the past ten years or so, our holidays have consisted entirely of weekend breaks, four nights maximum, in some British or European city. As a result, this month-long trip to Italy has taken a bit of getting used to. The first week was very strange, as it consisted of four short city breaks jammed together. A day-long journey by train, via Paris, took us to Turin, a day there, then on to Parma for two days, Bologna for three days, and Venice for two days. Now we are in Rome, where we will spend two weeks before heading back to Turin for another two days before returning home. We still have a couple of days to play with between Rome and Turin and will decide where to spend them nearer the time

I’m wring this at the end of our first week in Rome; the tempo has slowed, and there is a chance to reflect on the trip so far. Before we started, I had envisaged dutifully writing up notes each day in order to produce a scintillating account of our travels. Instead, I find that I have a small notebook full of semi-legible scrawls, many of them written late at night in a dimly lit bar while watching some football match or other. I also have a pile of crumpled restaurant and bar receipts, museum tickets, and visiting cards. More usefully, I have a couple of hundred photos, some of which are actually in focus. I will have to settle for a piecemeal account, written when we are not out and about in Rome.

What follows is a brief summary of our first couple of days, which now seems a very long time ago.

We travelled to Paris Montparnasse on Saturday morning, took the metro across town to Gare de Lyon, and headed south on the 12.46 Turin train. The journey takes five and a half hours, and the time passes very pleasantly. By the time we passed through Mâcon, acres of flattish arable land had changed into snow-topped pine-clad mountains. Sitting near us were an English family, mum, dad, and teenage daughter. They had various Italian guidebooks but seemed more interested in discussing a forthcoming trip to the Latitude Festival in July. As I understand it, this is a slightly upmarket version of Glastonbury. My own festival-going days are now long past. I have fond recollections of seeing The Who, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight in 1971, but these are accompanied by memories of ‘sanitary facilities’ that consisted of lines of flimsy cubicles balanced precariously above a trench. The family on the train were discussing hiring one of the lockers available on the site, to store their various phone and computer cables, so I suspect things have moved on a bit since then.

Via Cernia, Turin

I think Turin is underrated as a visitor destination. Frankly, I hope it remains so and that people continue to head further south to Florence, Siena, and Rome. This is our second visit, and it won’t be our last. There are beautiful porticoed streets, grand piazzas to stroll through, and more than enough bars and restaurants to sustain you while doing so. A favourite place is the Galleria Subalpina, a shopping mall according to Google Maps, but one that is beautifully laid out and full of antiquarian book shops and cafes/chocolatiers.

Galleria Subalpina

On Saturday evening, the first few signs that one is in Italy. Having a hotel that is not a building in its own right but the third floor of a large block that also contains lawyers and various businesses. Often having to order and pay for drinks and snacks at the bar before sitting down. An espresso that is just a smudge in the bottom of the cup. The menu structure: aperitivi, antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, insalata, formaggi e frutta, dolce, caffè, digestivo. As with exam questions, you are advised not to attempt to do them all.

Fred and his ‘tache

The philosopher Nietzsche lived here. I’m not particularly an admirer of his work, but I’ve always had a soft spot for him because of his magnificent moustache. On Sunday we visited Via Carlo Alberto, where he lodged, just around the corner from the Piazza Carignano. Here on 3 January 1889, Nietzsche saw a recalcitrant workhorse being whipped by its driver. He approached and, throwing his arms around the beast’s neck, whispered something in its ear that to this day remains a conundrum: ‘Mother, I am stupid.’ He immediately went back home, where he fell dumb and lost consciousness. He spent the next ten years of his life in various psychiatric clinics before dying in 1900. There is a plaque to him on a wall in Via Carlo Alberto. Sadly, there is no mention of the fate of the horse.

I stood there trying to reflect on the extraordinary events that had taken place on that fateful day. Unfortunately, a group of two hundred orange-shirted teenagers doing some sort of disco workout in the middle of the piazza made concentration difficult.

Nike not Nietzsche

From there we headed down Via Po and across the river. A short walk up a steep hill took us to the church of Santa Maria del Monte dei Cappuccini. From its terrace you get a stunning view of the whole city with the Alps in the background.

Lunch was back in the city centre: pizzas and half a litre of vino rosso in Da Peppino in Via Mercanti. A jolly place full of Italian families having their Sunday lunch outing, loud voices and expressive hand-waving everywhere.

In the city centre

Then a slow walk back to the hotel for a snooze before heading out for an evening stroll and a late supper in Ristorante Pollastrini in Corso Palestro. Only a few other customers. At one table, two young men were singing a sotto voce ‘Happy Birthday’ to an elderly woman; at another, two older men were watching the Italian version of Match of the Day on a mobile phone. We had bowls of pasta and more vino rosso. All seemed right with the world.