Saturday, September 16, 2017

Across Europe by Eurail. A railroad retrospective.

Remembering his time as a wide-eyed youngster on the trains of Cold War Europe, Roderick Eime dusts off his backpack for a railroad reprise.

We huddle like half-frozen refugees on the icy, windswept platform. Little snow flurries dance around the luggage trolleys like excited sprites, kissing our cheeks with their chilly caresses.

The train pulls up slowly, the sub-zero temperatures making the steel brakes squeal in torment and when the door finally swings open, we cram in like our lives depend on it, often eight or more of us filling the six berth compartments.

Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. En route to Europe 1977. Writer is standing far left. (RE)

It’s December 1977 and ten of us are on a school-holidays StudentRail adventure all over Europe. We’ve shrugged off groping touts in Morocco, hidden from over-zealous conductors in Sicily, slept in coffee shops and cafes in Vienna, had passports stamped at Check-Point Charlie, shared bunks and floorspace in Switzerland, and drunk too much beer in Bavaria.
A 1970s-era Eurail Pass

It was an eight-week rollercoaster that introduced this bunch of naive, wide-eyed kids to the joys of spontaneous travel in Baader-Meinhof-era Germany and Cold War Europe. There are plenty of memories and, seeing how we lived in them for almost two months, I’ll always remember the trains.

Lifting the lid on the loo on the Spanish and Italian trains revealed the sleepers and rails rattling underneath at speed while one completed one’s ablutions. Or my first computerised ticket in Madrid that put us in a six-seat compartment with eight Moroccans. Such fun.

Now, almost forty years later, I am revisiting the rails of Europe in the post-Soviet age with my Rail Europe Flexipass, smartphone and Rail Planner app.

My free-form journey starts in Athens after I disembark a cruise. I’ve left five days to get to Frankfurt and that’s the plan from start to finish.

Greek train at Thessaloniki. Shades of 1977. (RE)

Boarding the train in Athens takes me back to 1977 in a rush of nostalgia. The dusty, platforms and dishevelled types hanging around the station buildings built, I’m sure, when Aristotle was still a lad, had me daydreaming of crumpled rucksacks and pungent sleeping bags.

Here’s my first tip. The Hellenic Railways Organisation (OSE) are the only Eurail partner whose schedules are not in the overall system, hence you can only make your reservation when standing at the ticket window. But once you’re under way, you can start punching in your plan to the Rail Europe app to join the dots for the rest of your journey.

Trains to who-knows-where in Sofia (RE)

The midnight train from Larissa, on the outskirts of Athens, took me to an early morning arrival in Thessaloniki where our wagons were hitched to the train for Sofia, whose central station seems to be in stalled state somewhere between construction and destruction.

I wandered around the former communist capital for a bit, but settled into the Ramada Hotel lounge for a club sandwich and local lager before opting for the overnighter to Belgrade. Not before bribing the conductor to find me an empty compartment after being bundling into a tight six-berth sleeper with two otherwise charming young chaps from the USA. Of course, the rest of the carriage was empty. Crafty bugger. The ageing carriage I’m sure rattled these routes long before the Iron Curtain came down, or maybe went up.

One of Tito's famous blue trains on display at Belgrade station. (RE)

The war torn, former capital of Yugoslavia welcomed me with a wintry drizzle, helping me decide to catch the next train to Vienna, departing an hour hence. Enough time for an ad hoc taxi tour with Zoran the cab driver and a mandatory fleecing when it came time to pay the bill. Ah, the joys!

The next leg, in the First Class section of the Vienna (via Budapest) express was a thoroughly enjoyable day trip through the gorgeous green countryside of northern Bulgaria and the Great Alföld (flat plain) of Hungary. Made all the more so by the two delightful lads in the dining car who kept me plied with coffee and power for my laptop.

My charming waitstaff en route to Vienna. (RE)

Now here’s where my plan hit a speed hump. It was holidays in Vienna and every train out of town was full. I had my heart set on a swank new couchette in which to enjoy a cocoon-like sleep in modern comfort, and the prospects were grim.

“Wait,” said the very helpful lass tap-tapping furiously on keyboard trying to find me some escape from the Eurovision-induced madness of Marie Antoinette’s hometown.

“There’s one left going to Hannover,” she said with some urgency, “but you’d better hurry ….”

She wasn’t kidding. The train left from the other side of town, so in a cacophony of limping Samsonite wheels on cobblestones, I bolted for the subway and literally fell onto the Hannover express with minutes to spare. Without a reservation, I sat among the bicycles until the bemused conductor rescued me and found the last couchette I’d been promised.

Modern German ICE train speeds at 250kmh (supplied)

Now comfortably ensconced in a Deutsche Bahn (DB) Intercity (IC) solo sleeper (reservation fee E100), this 21st century train rocketed along at 200kmh all night to Hannover. A packaged breakfast was even included.

German trains, it has to be said, are light-years ahead of what I recall in 1977 and I spend the next couple of days in business-class comfort aboard the super-fast ICE trains exploring as far afield as Berlin and Amsterdam at speeds up to 250kmh as easily as if I was catching a cab, except perhaps in Belgrade.

Fact File

Comprehensive European train passes are available from specialist ticket distributor, Rail Europe, in a variety of classes and combinations. Consult your travel advisor to purchase the correct pass for your needs.

Selfie at the Berlin Wall :) Last time I was here, East German
guards were poised to shoot anyone who tried to cross.

2015 Route

The writer was provided a Flexipass by Rail Europe for the duration of the journey.

All other costs, including airfares, meals, reservations fees, hotels etc were born by the writer.


Originally published in Get Up & Go Magazine Summer 2016