Hello. My name is Isaac, 35 years old from Vancouver, Canada. I have set this blog up to document my journey following Mark Knopfler’s 2013 “Privateering” tour, from April 25 (Bucharest, Romania) to July 31 (Calella de Palafrugell, Spain).

Due to Despite the tour’s obnoxious schedule (thanks, Mark), I cannot be entirely sure that I will attend all concerts. That being said, I will try. You are more than welcome to sit back, relax, read, and comment. You can also subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed (see the “Subscribe for Updates” box at the right hand side of the page. For standard RSS readers, select the “Atom” option).

Have fun,

Note: The contents of this blog are also available in hardcover and paperback formats. For more information, click here:

Friday, July 12, 2013

Nîmes, France to Locarno, Switzerland (July 10–11, 2013)

After great two days in Nîmes—following great two days in Stuttgart—it was time to decamp and travel north east, for another expected great two days in Locarno. When following such a tour, you learn to appreciate and embrace time periods that involve no travel: travelling by train is more tiring than not travelling at all, even when you travel in 1st class cabins all the time. Being able to wake up whenever you want without subjecting yourself to the whims of alarm clocks… savour these mornings.

The punishment: wake up early enough to grab breakfast at the hotel and make it to Nîmes’ central railway station to catch the 7:29am train heading to Lyon; about an hour connection time, then catch the 10:04am train heading to Mulhouse Ville; ten minutes connection time, then catch the 1:07pm train to Basel; and lastly, about 40 minutes connection time, then catch the 2:04pm train to Locarno.

I’ll save you the math: it’s just under 11 hours of travel, over four different trains. Three of the trains were TGV, so I knew that travel wouldn’t be that hard anyway: TGV’s 1st class cabins are excellent—spacious and comfortable. It’s the last leg—the four hours ride from Basel to Locarno—that I wasn’t sure about: the train’s code began with “IR”, and while I might have ridden one during the last tour, I couldn’t remember anything about it.

Long, long travel day, one of the longest ones in the tour.

The first layover in Lyon was used to look for, and buy, packed lunch of some sort. The next opportunity to do so would be in Basel, which would be too late as I’d starve to death by then. Exiting the station, it was decided to go for a safe bet: the good old American mega food corporation of Subway has a shop conveniently located right outside Lyon Part Dieu.

After much debate, it was decided to buy two types of sandwiches—two “foot long” ones—and share them. As the sandwich connoisseur was completing working his magic on the second sandwich, and we were debating between ourselves how on earth we were going to divide the two sandwiches so we can share them (if you have ever been to Subway before, and know how they pack sandwiches to go, then you should be familiar with the challenge we were facing), the Dutchman decided to start the day with a giant leap over language barriers.

– “I am going to ask him to cut each sandwich in half, separate the halves, mix them and pack them.”

Yeah, right”, I thought to myself.

– “Yeah, right”, I then said out loud.

– “What?”

– “Do you speak French?”, I asked a rhetorical question.

– “No, but we’ll see how it goes.”

I was curious to see how this would work out, considering the language barrier and the fact that the Dutchman was going to assign an unusual task to an individual who lives in a country where bar owners often refuse to serve you cappuccino because “it takes too long to prepare”.

The Dutchman then proceeded to explain his wish to the sandwich God in plain English. The sandwich God responded with one of the most vile, dumbfounded look I ever witnessed on the face of a Frenchman—but then, surprisingly, did exactly what he was asked to, no questions asked.

Some of you may wonder why I was so surprised to see that this minutiae worked out just fine. Well, some background information is needed: I live in North America. While exceptions exist (of course), people in North America whose jobs involve a great deal of routine work tend to perform their duties “by the book”: any request for a slight deviation from what they have been trained to think of as “standard” is perceived with a great deal of suspicion and helplessness. There are strong reasons for such mentality, concerned with strong obedience to authority; I have done a lot of reading on the subject and I’d recommend that you do, too. Fascinating subject.

Sandwiches grabbed, and backtracked a few steps to a nearby cafe, to kill some half an hour left to departure. Lovely lady barista eagerly tried to convince me to add some sugar to my specialty cold cappuccino—smiling all throughout—that I was starting to think she might be flirting. Then again, I have no idea how flirting works and I couldn’t tell when a lady flirts with me even if she smacked my face with her bra. At any rate, I was never persuaded so strongly to add sugar to my drink.

Back to the platform, off to the next train… arrived at Mulhouse, off the train, back to another platform, hopped on another train… then arrived at Basel SBB for a much awaited forty minutes break.

The black wrist brace I had bought in Vienna started wearing out, as the Velcro there wouldn’t attach well anymore. That, combined with my decision to be more conservative about how I treat this wrist of mine, prompted me to try something else—a firmer brace, one of those featuring a metal bracket that prevents you from bending your wrist altogether. Luckily, this is Switzerland, and in Switzerland there appears to be a pharmacy in every block; expectedly, there was one in the train station itself. Quite a few Euros later and I was the proud owner of a beige wrist trap.

Back to the platform for the last train for the day. Those “IR” trains… who knows what they are made of? would there be 1st class cabins at all? are they crowded? air conditioned? how would the next four hours look like?…

… Senseless fears. That train ride turned out to be the best train ride in the tour so far. Modern, spotless 1st class cabin with panoramic windows—almost floor to ceiling—and for a good reason: the ride from Basel to Locarno is really, really, really scenic, once you leave the big city and head south east.

How scenic? well, I was very busy writing the previous post, and still, at times, I just couldn’t let go of my camera. Memories of British Columbia kept creeping in—mountains, valleys, snowy peaks, gorgeous lakes. The same British Columbia that is my home, and that I chose to leave for 3+ months to wander around European destinations of all sorts. The more natural scenery my eyes transmitted to my brain, the happier I was that the tour is coming to an end, and in three weeks time, I’ll be home again.

Time for some pictures.


With scenery like that, and the 1st class cabin being almost completely devoid of other people, it’s no wonder that the four hours train ride passed quickly. At 6:13pm, finally arrived at Locarno’s central railway station.

Locarno is located at the foot of the Swiss Alps. About 15,000 people live in this tiny town, and some might say that these are 15,000 exceptionally lucky people: it only happens that Locarno is a very popular tourist destination, as people from Switzerland, Germany and Italy flood its streets year round. Why? well, it is, as written before, located at the foot of the Swiss Alps; plus, we are talking about an immensely picturesque place.

Amazing natural scenery aside, the city itself is beautiful, featuring beautiful, colourful houses, narrow streets and a great deal of history. Now, that scenery that we had put aside before… add it back into the picture, and you get a total eye‐candy of a place.

Much of the Locarno’s beauty has to do with the fact that the town lies on the shore of Lake Maggiore. This huge lake, shared between Switzerland and Italy, boasts clear water that blend perfectly with the beautiful mountains all around. You need to see it to understand just how majestic that entire natural ordeal is.

And, of course, seeing it from an altitude of 1,340m may just be the best way to go about doing so.

I have been to Locarno before, during the 2010 Get Lucky tour. During that tour, I was in the bad habit of planning my itinerary while on the go, resulting in a financial catastrophe in Locarno: ended up booking an outrageously expensive room in a mediocre hotel with no air conditioning at all, right by Lake Maggiore: that’s what happens when you book accommodations in short notice for staying in a Swiss resort town during one of the busiest periods in the year—the famous Moon and Stars Festival, taking place annually in mid‐July and attracting big names in the music industry.

For this tour, however, planning was done well in advance. The problem, though, was that it was next to impossible to find rooms with two separate beds in them. Very few options came up, and after factoring in others’ reviews of these hotels, three options came up: one in a town neighbouring to Locarno (still, very close: about 3km away); one in Orselina, which is about 300 meters above Locarno, accessible by walk, car or a funicular; and one in Cardada, located even further up the mountain (1,340m above Locarno).

The latter hotel, Albergo Cardada, was shown to offer magnificent views over Locarno, Lake Maggiore and the surrounding mountains. There was one caveat, though: it is only accessible by a cable car, or walk. You can’t drive a car there.

Considering the options, and figuring that it would be nice to spend a couple of days in a hotel offering such peaceful, magnificent views, it was decided to book Albergo Cardada: reasonably priced, and the views are fantastic. The hotel also received very good reviews, so why not?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from the hotel asking whether I’m going to be attending the Moon and Stars Festival. Odd question. I asked why, to which they replied that they were going to book a “special cable car” late at night for those who want to attend the festival and go back to the hotel afterwards.

I shrugged. Well, sure, OK, put me down for this. In hindsight, though, the amount of details I neglected to look into turned out to be scary to the extent of ridiculousness. The fact that everything worked out at the end is a matter of mere luck.

So, here’s how it goes: to get to the hotel from Locarno’s center, you need to take two methods of transit: first, you take a funicular to Orselina, and from there, you take a cable car to Cardada.

The funicular from Locarno to Orselina operates daily between 7:00am to midnight, every 15 minutes (starting 8:00pm, every 30 minutes). Sounds reasonable, but things start getting scary when you consider the schedule of the cable car that takes you further up to Cardada: operating daily, from 8:00am to 8:15pm (!). If you miss that cable car, you have no way of arriving to the hotel except for walking, and we’re not talking about an easy walk in the park: the difference in altitude is about a kilometer. It is said to take about 3–4 hours to walk your way to the hotel.

We didn’t know all of this.

Instead, as soon as arrived to Locarno’s central railway station, we started looking for a place to eat. Locarno, being a resort town, is obnoxiously filled with dining options, most of which cater to tourists. Prices are stupidly high. Looking online, we found a vegetarian Indian restaurant by the name of Govinda. Prices were so expensive that we ended up taking a one person’s meal and splitting it half way.

Then, went back to the funicular station, paid and went up to Orselina. It’s a short 5 minutes ride up, then a short few meters walk to catch the cable car station to get you up to Cardada.

By complete and utter luck, we were in time to catch the very last cable car available for the day; and we didn’t even know it.

Arriving at the cable car station, there was nobody there. Knocked on the ticket office’s windows… no response. Knocked on the only door I could find there… no response. Ten minutes before the scheduled departure, someone finally made it to the receiving end of the counter. Good. Tickets purchased, and we waited by the entrance for the time to come.

At 8:07pm, eight minutes before schedule, the cable car’s doors closed and it started making its way up.

We were not in it.

I approached the control window, where the dude controlling things was sitting and appeared to be pushing buttons. He noticed me and immediately had the look of “oh, crap” on his face. He looked up, pushed a few other buttons, and the cable car came back.


Heading up to Cardada was… well… a lot of fun. I captured it all on video, and I might publish it on my Facebook page soon. It’s a very fast ride—the cable car reaches maximum speed of 10m/s, climbing to an altitude of 1,340m above Locarno in about 5 minutes. Not for the faint of heart, I tell you. With every second of the cable car climbing up, I got a better sense of what it would be like to be up there, watching the view.

Cable car reached its destination. Doors opened, and the hotel was right there. Looked to my left, and saw the magic of mother nature right there—but it was cloudy so I didn’t bother taking pictures. Weather seemed to be worsening every minute, so the first order of business was to check in first, and see what was going on around later.

Stepped into the hotel, which looked more like a gigantic two‐ or three‐level house. Checking in, I already got the idea of how things were going to look like interacting with these people: almost no ability to communicate in English whatsoever. Locarno’s official language is Italian (as it is located in the “Italian part” of Switzerland), and, despite what you might think, knowledge of the English language isn’t considered to be a “must have” here, even if you’re in the tourism business.

Up to the room, which had three single beds and a playpen. Why a playpen? because I asked for one. No, just kidding: I didn’t ask for one. But a playpen was there. Also, all three or four rooms on that floor had access to one shared huge patio, offering excellent views of Lake Maggiore and the town of Locarno, far below.

But first, before enjoying the Alpine air, some room setup is needed. Very awkwardly organized room, and what do you look for first when you’re setting yourself up in the room? That’s right: electricity sockets.

Now, I wonder how many of you have ever encountered this:


There were three of these in the room: one (pictured above) inconveniently located at the room’s entrance by the door; and one on each side of the two single beds that were attached together. The ones by the sides of the bed were behind the beds’ frames, and a round hole was sawn in the beds’ frames to allow access to them.

It took us about 30 minutes to figure out how to optimally use those. These outlets look like they cater to all sorts of plug types, but they don’t. The holes are either too thin, or too close to each other, or too far apart. A “normal” European plug, consisting of two prongs, will not fit in all pairs: there’s a slight width difference between the various pairs, and it takes some trial an error to figure things out.

Now, when one travels, one usually carries some sort of a socket adapter. My adapter was just too big to fit through the bed frame’s hole. That took five minutes to fight with until I gave up.

The good thing about these sockets (and I can’t believe that I’m writing that there’s a good thing about these sockets. Probably the only good thing) is that you could fit three normal European 2‐prong plugs in one socket.

Wi‐Fi connection took forever to work, as my devices kept stuck on the adapter’s “obtaining IP address” phase, which, in geek speak, means that the device is waiting for the router’s DHCP server to assign it with a unique NAT address; and in laymen terms, it means that the device is waiting for the Wi‐Fi router to “accept it”. That’s not uncommon in Wi‐Fi infrastructure setups that use cheap equipment that is geared towards home use.

All the while, thunders were sounding around. Rain. Minutes later, a lightning. Electricity went down, and then back up again after a second. All electrics immediately plugged out from those fancy sockets—last thing I need was a lightning to burn my laptop and my phone.

What a rush.

Wi‐Fi down. That’s another common thing with low‐end routers: a sudden fluctuation in electricity may cause them to lose all touch with the world. Agreed with the Dutchman (actually, didn’t “agree”; I simply refused to go downstairs to speak to these people—all I wanted was to take a shower and go to bed) that he steps downstairs to report the Wi‐Fi problem while I take a long shower to wash this long day off.

Out of the shower, and I thought I’ll chat with my family for a bit. Still no Wi‐Fi. The Dutchman reported that he went downstairs to speak to the staff, but couldn’t quite explain to them what the problem is, as he couldn’t speak Italian.

Whatever. What time is it? 10:00pm? good. I’m going to bed, good night.

(Luckily, 3G connectivity was available.)

The next morning started much, much better. Beautiful weather. Quick wakeup procedure and downstairs for breakfast, not before taking a quick panoramic shot of the view from the room’s patio:


The hotel offers a huge patio for breakfast, and in a sunny morning, that’s where most people I know would have liked to have their breakfast, and here is why.


That was a sign that this was going to be a good day. Took my time with breakfast—I had nowhere to hurry to. Once done, went upstairs to bring my laptop so I could finish my previous post and upload it. Post finished, started uploading…

And continued uploading…

(All the while, I was wandering aimlessly around the patio just breathing pristine air.)

And continued uploading…

And then Wi‐Fi signal was lost.


Went back to the room and found out that there was no electricity at all. A quick calculation of cause and effect in my head led to the conclusion that Wi‐Fi was down simply because there was no electricity in the entire hotel.

You know what? alright. Might be nice to disconnect from the grid. Packed a few bottles of water and an apple, and together with the Dutchman headed off to a nearby chairlift station: the plan was to take the chairlift to Cimetta—even higher than where we already where—and hike down.

Approaching the chairlift station, we noticed a bunch of people sitting on the stairs leading to the station, as well as on benches around. Hmmm, interesting.

– “Can we buy tickets?”

And the man on attendance there informed us that the chairlift doesn’t work at the moment due to a power outage. Apparently, one of the cables connecting Cardada with the main electricity grid went kaput.

That’s not the kind of news you’d be happy to hear when you’re high up on a mountain with no way of getting down. I mean, I wouldn’t that mind it if there wasn’t a concert to attend, some nine hours later.

After waiting about 20–30 minutes on site, electricity was still not restored. While it was possible to walk up the mountain, it was decided to return to the hotel and try again later.

The hotel offers a few plastic beach‐like benches so you can sit (or lie down) and watch the view, basking in the sun. I was therefore forced to spend the next couple of hours like this:


I didn’t quite know whether I’m supposed to enjoy the total and complete serenity around, or get worried about the fact that electricity is out on that mountain and there’s no way down at all. I ended up striking a balance between the two. A quick discussion with the chairlift’s operator revealed that the cable car, connecting Cardada with Orselina below, gets its power supply from Orselina, so the power outage wouldn’t keep people stranded in the mountain. That being heard, I was able to enjoy the surroundings.

Possibly the most relaxing couple of hours in the tour so far. It’s futile to attempt to describe, in words, the feeling you get when you’re sitting like this watching Mother Nature at its best, in perfect weather, breathing pristine air into your lungs; it’s either futile to try, or my English vocabulary isn’t rich enough.

Either way, if you can, then I strongly suggest you try it at least once.

Once I had enough of the sun, went back to the room and got a good nap. A long day was ahead, and I wasn’t going to spend it being tired: tried to gain as much energy as I could.

Woke up… hey! what’s that? electricity is back! YES! Published that previous post and fled the scene to the chairlift.

From the moment I sat on that chairlift, until I was back at the hotel an hour and a half later, I found it very difficult to let go of my camera. The views were insanely difficult to ignore. Everywhere you look, there’s a postcard opportunity. I took so many pictures, and writing this post now, I find it hard to filter them: almost all of them turned out really, really well. Here are some.


And of course, some of these had to be taken, otherwise my sister would kill me:


Brilliant! Twenty minutes there flew by, then it was time to hike back down. About forty minutes give or take, with picturesque views every step of the way.


On August 2nd, I’ll be back in British Columbia. I’m going to crisscross it until my car dies. I really miss it.

Definitely, the best day of the tour so far.

Back to the hotel and prepared to take the cable car down. Weather forecast (at least on my mobile app) called for a slight chance of rain. Also, once it turned out that it would be impossible for us to take the cable car up to the hotel right after the concert—we’d have to wait until 12:45am!—it was decided to grab rain jackets just in case.

Down with the cable car… then the funicular… and back into the tourist‐laden town center. Grabbed the tickets for the concert, and then met my friend Philipp and his friend Thomas. Philipp flew in to Locarno for the concert, and by “flew in” I mean “flew himself (and his friend) in”, as Philipp happens to be a pilot, was good to see him again. ticket purchasers were allowed early entry to the venue, an option that I was very much happy to forfeit. I have been to the front row in this venue three years ago (in what turned out to be one of the best concerts in the entire Get Lucky tour), and I was more curious to find what the concert experience would be like from the back, given that the venue, Piazza Grande, is tantalizingly beautiful. The group therefore opted at a nearby Italian restaurant for some pre‐concert pizza.

Philipp and Thomas went to the Piazza…


… and the two remaining ones decided to take a look at Lake Maggiore.


Time was up—back to the Piazza.

The venue, Piazza Grande (“Large Square”), is located in Locarno’s city center. It is, really, a square: what makes it so beautiful is the fact that it is surrounded by beautifully coloured houses.


At the sides of the Piazza, there are about five thousand restaurants and ice cream stands. The day before, walking through the Piazza on the way to dinner, I noticed fences around the perimeter, effectively separating between the restaurants’ area and the venue. These fences weren’t there now: you could really easily just sit in a restaurant, have dinner and watch the show over a glass of wine. Perfect. Too bad I didn’t know about it; many others, though, did.

The concert started a few minutes past schedule. A shorter set (15 songs), and it was quite an experience to watch it from the far back. It felt, really, like a festival. The concert was also broadcasted on two big screens positioned at both sides of the stage.

So, I liked the concert, liked the venue, liked the setting… but of course, something negative must (almost) always pop up. As this was a general admission show, I was once again witnessing all the typical annoyances of general admission concerts: at least at the back, people kept on talking loudly—even on their phones; drinking alcohol all the time, getting hammered to the sound of music; beer done? why throw it in the garbage, if I can just squeeze it with my foot and wait for some other sucker to pick it up later? in summary, a huge bunch of losers who clearly weren’t there for the music. It was, after all, a festival: people are there just for the sake of being there. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that many people in the audience yesterday weren’t really appreciative of Mark’s music—that is, assuming they even knew who Mark was.

Why do people behave this way? why would a group of people buy concert tickets, just so they can enter the venue, get hammered with alcohol (isn’t alcohol more expensive in concert venues, anyway?), chat loudly with their co‐losers and interfere with others’ enjoyment of the concert?

It is what it is, though. What can I do? nothing much, except for complaining digitally.

Still, it was a nice experience to be a part of. Good music, and the Piazza prettier as the sun sets.


Concert ended in just under two hours. There was still an hour or so left until the hotel’s special cable car service. Time spent with Philipp, Thomas, their friend Barbara and two other strangers. Bid everyone goodbye and headed to the funicular en route to Orselina.

Once in Orselina, it was still 40 minutes or so before the cable car was scheduled to arrive. I was a bit worried that the “special service” might end up being forgotten altogether, which would really, really ruin the night.

Near the cable car station, there’s a viewpoint over the lake and the mountains. Spent some time there taking photographs with long exposure:


A nice couple from Switzerland, also staying at that hotel, joined shortly after. Was good to speak with locals. Time passed quickly, and fortunately, the special cable car service showed up on time.

Was good to be up there again. Packed everything that needed packing, and off for a good night sleep.

Brilliant and adventurous couple of days in the beautiful city of Locarno. Lucky to be doing this.

Signing off this post from the hotel room in Padova, Italy. Will go hunt for food now, and then to the concert—some 20km away.



  1. Hi Isaac
    I was in Locarno again - and I searched you in the front row, where you have been three years ago. Unfortunately I couldn't find you - and now I know why: You enjoyed the concert from behind.
    Wishing you a nice trip following the steps of Mark Knopfler!
    Kind regards from Switzerland

  2. This post made me decide that one of my next destinations would be Switzerland. Beautiful.