Tag Archives: Train

Up Close and Personal

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Checking out of our Zagreb hostel, my best friend and I chatted with the owners about the next stage of the journey we had been planning for much of our twenty-year friendship. On hearing that we were travelling on the overnight train to Split, they exchanged a glance.

‘You do know there’s a Zagreb v Split football game today? The Split fans will be going home on the same train.’

Split football team

Split

We brushed this off, smiling. On our first journey of this rail tour of Europe, gas had been pumped into our compartment and our valuables stolen while we were insensible. By comparison, a few boisterous football fans would be a reassuringly familiar experience.

We had met an Irish girl and a Finnish boy in the hostel and we all found a compartment together in plenty of time. The moon was already high over lovely Zagreb as we got comfortable, my three travel companions sitting across from me, I by the window. I read a little, distracting myself with daydreams of the Adriatic islands we would soon explore.

Five minutes before the scheduled departure time, the Split fans arrived. Zagreb had won; it appeared we would be journeying south with the losers. Still, spirits didn’t seem in the least dampened; soon the platform and carriages were overwhelmed with red and white checked flags and strips, the air thick with shouts, song and the unmistakable odours of beer and sweat.

The door to our compartment was yanked open and the two seats next to me quickly filled. All thoughts of pine-littered beaches were driven swiftly from my mind by the smell of my new immediate neighbour. Two weeks into our shoestring-financed trip and never one to prioritise hygiene over comfort, I had enjoyed a few shower-free days myself. But his was a stench that spoke of dedicated consumption of beer and garlic-infused meat products, with a hint of lucky-and-therefore-unwashable football kit and socks.

I watched wonderingly as the compartment’s five other occupants settled down to sleep, seemingly unfazed – or perhaps knocked out – by the stink. Curling my legs under me and leaning as far from my neighbour as possible, I pulled a scarf over my nose and closed my eyes.

As I focused on the rhythms of the train rattling towards the coast, I became aware of shuffling and grumbling beside me, followed a sudden pressure along the side of my body. Looking up, I discovered that my neighbour was now using my bottom as a pillow, his cheek resting against mine, arms draped over my lower back.

My exclamations of outrage went unheeded. He continued to snore gently. Attempts to shift him were in vain; unconsciousness had rendered his skinny body a dead weight. I had to content myself with scrunching even smaller, allowing his head to crash towards the cracked faux-leather of the seat.

As he snorted awake, I tried again to make myself comfortable. But moments later, the sequence of events was repeated. By the fourth time, my indignant protestations were reduced to bleats of despair.

The train was passing through black countryside by now, the compartment dark. Through the gloom I detected the Finnish boy opposite signalling to me. He mimed giving the offender a shove and pulling down the armrest between us. Of course! Sleep-deprivation and the fumes had addled my brain. There was a simple solution.

Clearly, subtlety wasn’t an option. I took a deep breath and heaved my reeking neighbour with all my strength. As he careened towards the drooling man to his left, I slammed the armrest down, threw myself against the window and feigned obliviousness to his splutterings. My personal space regained, the smell now seemed a minor concern. At last I felt sleep approach.

When the squeak of the armrest woke me minutes later, I felt no surprise. Sighing, I budged up to accommodate the weight of my bedfellow’s head, as it settled once more against me.

Split, Croatia Port

Split, Croatia Port (Photo credit: MacExposure)

While the wheezes and mumbles of the other travellers filled the compartment, my eyes found the peaceful reflection of my oldest friend in the window. I watched her familiar face until the lights at last grew closer together, and then began to fade entirely when dawn touched the cream and ochre buildings of Split.

As the train slowed, my neighbour suddenly lurched to his feet and staggered from the compartment, without so much as a backward glance in acknowledgement of the intimate night we had shared.

English: Train from Zagreb in Split station.

Train from Zagreb in Split station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only now did my best friend – who had warned me at the start of the trip that she could never sleep on public transport – begin to stir.

‘It’s so cold in here! I barely slept at all!’

I smiled fondly at her, serene in the knowledge that the first coffee of the day was on her.

A Travel Horror Story (One from the archives)

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Time again for another tale from my earlier travels. For Halloween, I’ve chosen one of my personal travel horror stories. It’s another one from my interrailing trip around Europe – this time from our very first train journey of the holiday. 

Hello hello hello . . . or perhaps dzien dobry (which I can in no way pronounce) to you all.

Writing this in a rather bleary state in an internet café in Kraków (selected because Lonely Planet praised its stunning views, but it turns out to have darkened windows looking onto a grotty street.)

We’ve only been travelling since Monday, but as usual it feels like years already. We left Prague last night after two and a half beautiful days. It was the ideal start to our holiday; a stunning city, people chilled out to the point of complete indifference, the right balance of seeing stuff and just soaking up the atmosphere . . . perfect.

We quickly got into the swing of unidentifiable pastries from the bakery for breakfast, eaten in some sunny spot, wandering around for hours and passing the same place three times, outrageous guesses at pronunciation met with indulgent smiles and encountering some breathtaking view every time we rounded the corner. The incredible cheapness of everything puts you in a permanent good mood, as does the lack of harassment from people in general. On our first afternoon we did a lot of wandering, sandwiched between long patches of sitting, watching and chatting. Our dinner that first night was in a ridiculously cool restaurant in the cellar of the architecture museum – think vaulted ceilings and low hanging lights. The insane prices on the menu encouraged me to go for a similarly insane dinner choice – baked potatoes stuffed with ‘turkey-ham’ covered with plum sauce and garlic cream cheese and served with potato wedges. And surprisingly, it was completely delicious. Just the first indication of many we had that the Czechs are not afraid to mix their flavours. The Czech wine was also very good and dangerously inexpensive.

Prague Castle and part of Charles bridge by ni...

Prague Castle at night

On Tuesday, already feeling like well-established Praguians (?!), we set off on a whirlwind tour of the top Prague sites on our list. A morning in Prague Castle (stunning, if v unusual cathedral; exhausting climb up the tower to breathtaking views; basking outside, and dreaming of waltzing inside the palace; a stroll down Golden Lane where Kafka once lived). A picnic lunch (grand total [cost] of £1) of bread, goats cheese and paprika salami) and then a trek up to the old Jewish Quarter. We found this v trendy and expensive, but having paid into the synagogues got much more of a feeling for the tragedy of the place. In particular, the Pinkas Synagogue, whose walls bear the names of the 80, 000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia killed in the Holocaust, was simple and yet devastating. After reading about the history of the Czech Jews we felt in serious need of some light relief and went in search of some local beer.

That evening was my favourite so far. In a previously unexplored part of town we had a very authentic-feeling Czech meal in a slightly grotty but character-filled restaurant. We then went to a brilliant jazz bar. The basement area was painted in blue, red and gold and a fantastic Czech band kept us entertained with their interpretation of Cuban music for over three hours.

Charles Bridge in Prague.

Charles Bridge

Afterwards, despite being shattered, we went for another wander on the Charles Bridge, which looked particularly spooky and beautiful in the moonlight.

Yesterday we began our day in a more leisurely manner, with the funniest river boat trip I’ve ever been on. Rather than going either up or down the Vltava as we had expected, the boat just went back and forth in front of the same part of the city for the whole hour!

We spent most of the rest of the day acquainting ourselves with parts of the city we hadn’t yet visited. In the evening we headed back to the hostel to pick up our bags, and then found our way to the main train station, feeling just a little nervous, partly due to the incomprehensible signs, but mainly due to the dire warnings in Lonely Planet about the gassings and robberies on trains into and out of Kraków, especially night ones and especially those arriving from Prague.

However, we found the platform and, after narrowly escaping sitting in the carriages that only went to the end of the Czech Republic, we were foolishly convinced that nothing more could go wrong. Nothing in the course of the night indicated otherwise. We both slept fitfully, but as far as we were concerned, our compartment was locked and we were v safe. We were disturbed a couple of time by people rattling at the doors, but after they went away we thought nothing more of it. That is until the morning (i.e. 5.30 a.m.) when we realised that Sarah’s phone had gone. It had been on the little table by her head but was now nowhere to be seen. I was convinced that no one could have come in without me noticing, as I hadn’t felt deeply asleep. But there was no explanation for where it had gone.

Coat of arms of Kraków

Kraków coat of arms

When we arrived at Kraków and went to change the rest of Sarah’s koruna, only to find they had disappeared, we knew something was a bit odd. All my sterling coppers (amounting to a grand total of 25p) had gone, as had my camera, Sarah’s sunglasses and my penknife. We quickly got onto the police with the help of a volunteer translator and realised we had been victims of the old sleeping-gas ’em then rob ’em trick. We spent all of our first morning looking first for our hostel, then for the police station – only to find that the only English speaker wasn’t in and we had to make another appointment to come back.

Needless to say, my opinion of Kraków has suffered somewhat as a result (especially when we got attacked by evil wasps while trying to eat our breakfast!)

However, we have since snoozed in the park, had a very little wander and sat outside a lovely sunny pub drinking beers. I’m v tired but feeling a little more positive.

OK, that’s more than enough waffle for one day. I hope this finds you all well wherever you are. I’ll write again, hopefully with no more disaster stories (chance’d be. . .).

An Italian Odyssey (One from the archives)

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Time for another tale from my earlier travels. Since today is Columbus Day in the US, I thought I’d choose a suitable one to honour the famous Italian, not to mention the spirit of exploration! This is from the Italian leg of my interrailing trip around Europe with my oldest friend, Sarah.

The year is 2004. The interrailing tour is our big adventure to celebrate turning 21 (we have the same birthday). In addition to the strange preponderance of the word ‘damn’ in much of my earlier writing, I seem to at this stage in my life to have favoured tedious ‘shout-outs’ to particular friends and family members in my emails home. You’ll be glad to know I have edited these out!

We’re in beautiful Perugia, hopefully our last stop in Bella Italia, with the exception of Bari, from where we hope to get to Greece. We shall see. . . (Just wait til you hear what a marathon we have ahead!)

. . . [I think I’ll save the Slovenian leg of the trip – detailed here in the original email – for another day!]

Venice in a day is always going to be manic, but I feel we managed to do it with a degree of style. Despite being prepared for it, going from eastern to western European prices was a difficult transition. We solved it by not paying to get into anything that day, except for our 90 mins up and down the Grand Canal on vaporetto, which I seriously recommend to anyone who wants to get an idea of the city without forking out for a gondola, and in minimal time. We spent most of the day meandering through the little side streets and alleys and getting delightfully lost. Delightfully, that is, until we had to get back to the station to catch our train to Verona. It was a manic hour’s slog through the city (during which Sarah spotted Jen from Dawson’s Creek but couldn’t draw enough breath to point her out to me). We made it to the station ten minutes after our train was due to leave . . . but ah, wonderful Italy, it was still there.

Sadly, it broke down (went ‘kaput’, in the conductor’s words) at Dolo, chucked us out and thus began a night of hell. The next train came quite quickly but took aaaages. We arrived at Verona and had to wait another ages for the bus. Then we got really lost looking for the hostel, so that by the time we arrived there it was very, very closed. Only by making a cacophony of whingy girly noises, and looking like we might very well burst into tears, did we manage to persuade the man [the owner, one assumes] to let us in.

Verona was beautiful. We happily spent the day Romeo and Juliet memento spotting. Juliet’s house was surprisingly nice – I found all the love notes stuck to the wall with chewing gum really touching . . . but the groups of old English men blushingly groping Juliet’s statue for photos less so. A noteworthy event was almost losing the sainted Lonely Planet [in Sante Croce with no Baedeker!] in a bar. I legged it the whole way back in 2 mins before the bar closed & babbled on and on about ‘il mio libro’ until the bar man wearily handed me the book, happy to be rid of me.

Piazza dei Signori, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Als...

Beautiful Verona

Next stop (oh yes, this is a whistle-stop Italian tour) was Roma – my home from home [pretentious, much?] (obviously excluding Dublin). The hostel was a dive – very, very like how i imagine jail, except there they don’t charge you 20 euro for the privilege and I expect they have some kind of mozzie control. I don’t like to be a wuss about bug bites, but I’m talking serious red, blotchy, mountainous terrain along my left arm. Yuck. However, on the plus side, our one full day in Rome happened to be National Tourism day – i.e. all sites free (with the exception of the Vatican – different state, doncha know?)! We did old St Pete’s, then one of the national museums, the Colosseum and the Palatine all for freeee! Our first night there we met some friends of Sarah’s living in Rome who sweetly put us on the wrong bus home. Ah! Never mind, we found our way. Of course, I managed to make time for a good old Tre Scalini ice cream, which for me is always the highlight of a trip to Rome. Um um . . . that’s it for the main Roman points, I think.

We nearly killed ourselves getting to the station in time for our overnight to Palermo [are we detecting a pattern here?]. The poor Spanish boy we encountered en route was left spinning. We made it, however and had the best night’s sleep I’ve had so far on an overnight. Some sweet girls who got on at Messina drove away any noisy boys who might have contemplated making us move from one of the four seats we were hogging. I have long wanted to go to Sicily. The coast we travelled along on the train was stunningly beautiful. And Palermo was fascinating as a combination of European, Arab and African cultures. However, it did rain for a day and a half of our 2 days there. And a city as run down and dirty as that does not look its best in the rain. Best bits – the classical concert we tipsily attended at the fabulous Teatro Massimo and the charming Sicilian we spoke to there. Oh and when the sun came out on the afternoon we left and everything looked better.

Teatro Massimo opera house.

Teatro Massimo, Palermo

Our impression of Sicily was not improved by the 30 euro supplement we paid to get back to Rome. It was a couchette-only train – surely it’s illegal not to give people the option of slumming it? Tsk is not the word. [I have since returned to Sicily and loved it –
again, a story for another day.]

Then from Rome onto here (despite having worked out that it just barely fit into our schedule). It was so worth the risk we’re now running with getting to Greece (though you can ask me again afterwards. . .). It’s beautiful, chilled out, full of students who’re just starting at the uni here. It’s also like the chocolate capital of Italy, so needless to say we’ve been sampling the local delicacies. I’m dreaming of a master’s here.

Which is just was well, cos here’s the plan for the next few days. . . Tomorrow crack of dawn train back to Rome. Then 25 mins to connect to our train to Bari (the odds of our train not being late are slim to none, I know), then arrive in Bari and head straight to the ferry terminal from where we hope to get an overnight boat to Patras, Greece. Then a nice long train journey to Athens, where we’ll prob have to spend a night before hopefully, hopefully, hopefully getting onto a beautiful Greek island or two to stock up on sunshine before returning to greyer parts of the world (did i mention the weather in Perugia is gorgeous?)

Station of Patras, Greece

Station in Patras, Greece

Ciao!

To Sea in a Sieve: By boat to Ireland

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Having lived in Dublin for four years, as well as having often visited family in Ireland as a child, I have had ample opportunity to experience the Holyhead to Dublin ferry . . . and ample opportunity to decide that it was definitely not for me.

Don’t get me wrong – normally I love travel by boat. And I’m usually pretty hardy when it comes to any kind of motion sickness, too (except when faced with a special set of circumstances involving an empty tummy, a hot car and winding Italian mountain roads, but that’s a different story). It’s just that something about crossing the stormy Irish Sea cooped up indoors in a bustling ferry café seemed guaranteed to bring out the nauseous in me.

But since moving back to London, I’ve noticed a steady increase in airfares to the Fair City (particularly since I would rather swim the 460-odd kilometres than give Mike O’Leary so much as a penny of my money). And of course there are environmental implications to all those fifty-minute hops across the water. Finally, when icy conditions grounded most flights in and out of London airports last Christmas and it suddenly looked as though all my Irish friends were going to be stuck joining my family’s festive cracker-pulling and charades around the dinner table, sailing appeared again as a viable option.

So when I needed to book a last-minute trip over recently, and flight prices were cruising at an altitude of around £200 minimum, I decided to give the boat another chance.

And it must be said, there are many immediate and obvious benefits to not travelling by plane. Arriving at Euston a mere hour before my train was scheduled to depart, I found that I was actually excessively early and had more than enough time to buy a cup of tea and a paper. I was already in good spirits, having been able to avoid the nerve-testing torture of decanting all my toiletries into tiny overpriced Boots bottles for fear of the extortionate rates for checking in a bag.

On the train, I had booked a seat with a table and a power socket, and could have worked away on my laptop (or caught up on episodes of Camelot) the whole way to Holyhead, had I wanted. As it was, I found myself more than adequately enterained by people-and-view-watching.

Holyhead station

Holyhead train station

And that’s another thing about not travelling from A to B in a sealed, air-conditioned tin can – you have a much greater sense of your journey, and of the towns, cities, villages and countryside you are passing through. Would I have ever known that Crewe Heritage Centre, with its lovely old vintage trains (I’m not a trainspotter, honest!), is right by the station otherwise? Or that the track passes alongside the castle walls at Conwy? I certainly wouldn’t have been able to watch the air ambulance practise emergency lifts out on the water; or to idly admire the shadows of seagulls on its foamy surface.

There’s also something rather romantic about the land-and-sea journey, which seems to connect in a much more tangible way with the generations of people travelling to, but more often from, Ireland. To mark my profound comprehension of a long and tragic history of forced emigration through poverty, occupation, famine, or simple lack of employment – the latter linking to my own maternal grandparents who emigrated to Yorkshire in the 1940s – I began to hum the theme tune to the Titanic, and couldn’t dislodge it from my brain for the rest of the weekend.

My fellow rail-and-sailors were an interesting crowd. The train was packed and a lot of people seemed to be planning rather longer trips than me – the aisles soon filled with oversized suitcases. Aussies and Americans abounded, to my surprise. There were also a lot of mongrel accents. I found myself particularly riveted by the soap opera that was my neighbours on the table across the aisle. She was a glamorous fifty-something, with long, straight, blonde hair and a leather jacket. Accompanying her were four children between the ages of about six and twelve. She had an accent that sounded 100% cockney . . . until we were about forty minutes out of Euston, at which point three of the children started vomiting into their paper bags/laps (depending on their reflexes) and she turned pure Dub.

“Sorry!” she exclaimed to the poor soul who was sitting next to her. “Dey don’ normally get loike dis til we gerr on de boa’!”

Still, with that piece of information in mind, at least I had the option of choosing a different part of the huge ferry to base myself in for that leg of the journey.

In fact, I was so taken with the spontaneous nature of the journey once you decide not to go by plane that my boyfriend and I booked another boat trip back for the end of the month – on this occasion travelling by car rather than train.

Since we were heading for a party in Waterford, this time we drove to Pembroke and got the boat from there to Rosslare. Tiny Pembroke is a huge improvement on Holyhead (but, then, it wouldn’t be hard), though you have to drive down some seriously remote-feeling country lanes to get to the port. Ours was an overnight boat so we decided that, after a week of work, and with a weekend of hardcore socialising ahead, we could more than justify a cabin. You don’t get much for your money in terms of size or luxury, but when compared with the prospect of squeezing into an upright chair in a brightly-lit bar, surrounded by squawking children – which could just as easily refer to an airport as the communal areas on a ferry – it was worth every penny.

And arriving into Rosslare before 7 a.m. was a rather lovely experience. The tiny part of me that doesn’t consider itself a Londoner is definitely a Dubliner, and too much countryside brings on claustrophobia attacks after a day or two. But even I had to admit that in the soft early more morning light, the quiet roads, hazy hills and lush fields of County Wexford were a sight more scenic than Dublin’s North Wall.

I don’t imagine I’ve seen the last of the Aer Lingus and BMI departure gates at Heathrow. It cannot be denied that there are times when flying is really the only practical choice. But it is nice to feel that there are options. And I’m already gleefully considering the possibilities of Christmas gifts that don’t have to be liquid-free and squeezable into a carry-on bag!

Corsica’s answer to Thomas the Tank Engine?

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Along the coast of Corsica a little two-carriage train – known as to the locals u trinighellu (‘the trembler’) in the traditional language of the island – runs along a track that is over 100 years old.

The track was first laid – by hand, which explains its historic wobbliness – in the last twenty-two years of the nineteenth century. Up until four years ago, the trains themselves were lovely 1940s models – red and cream affairs that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the pages of Thomas the Tank Engine. They were replaced with less charming but supposedly more efficient versions in 2007 (much of the track was relaid at the same time) and these trains now trundle across the island from Bastia in the north, to Île Rousse, Calvi and Ajaccio on the west coast, via Corte and Ponte Leccia in its centre. In the low season, there are about four trains a day along the Ajaccio-Corte-Bastia stretch (connecting with about two between Bastia and Île Rousse and Calvi). This increases in the high season. The long east coast line was destroyed in the Second World War and has as yet never been replaced. 

Rattling along in the sweltering heat between the little platform at Marine de Davia and the tourist town of Calvi, the ‘modern’ incarnation of the trembler certainly didn’t feel like luxury. At every stop, sunburnt tourists crammed on with beach mats and umbrellas, cool boxes and tents. The air was stifling and you’d have more chance of a seat on the 18:27 from Waterloo to Kingston. But the views through the dusty panoramic windows more than made up for the lack of comfort. As we rounded each bend, another perfect little jewel of coastline was revealed – deep blue waters contrasting vividly with the lush green of the vegetation, the occasional picturesque white boat bobbing on the waves, tiny fishing towns and the bigger beaches, usually with their attendant sprawling campsites.

The open doors at the stops brought welcome blasts of cooling sea breeze, pleasantly scented with the pine, rosemary and mint that are everywhere detectable in the this part of the lush island. We passengers were all in good spirits – laughing with each other in our different languages, offering seats where needed. And why wouldn’t we be?

Calvi, the town where the festival takes place.

Calvi at last!

After about forty minutes, we finally pulled up at the platform in the pretty town of Calvi (one of surely hundreds of towns that claim to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus) – its buildings all in eye-pleasing peach and orange hues. The passengers poured – never have I used that expression more literally – off the train and onto the surrounding streets with their plethora of somewhat overpriced cafés and shops full of tourist tat.

Earlier in the week, I had walked along the tracks to pretty and popular Junquidou beach, further north towards Île Rousse – hopping off into the scrubby undergrowth as the train crept past at a snail’s pace, beeping cheerily as it went.

In fact, it struck me that exploring this part of Corsica entirely by train would provide a great opportunity to discover some smaller, less busy beaches – particularly at quieter times of the year. And the inland track offers a path into the beautiful, verdant, less touristy interior of the island, where the majority of the island’s produce is grown and locals go about their lives much as they always have done.

The trinighellu may not have quite the nostalgic charm of its youth, but it still rewards visitors prepared to put up with a little discomfort with a refreshingly different view of this gorgeous corner of the Mediterranean.