We were hanging out at The Andaman, our favourite luxury hotel on the island of Langkawi off northern Malaysia, and we needed to get to Kuala Lumpur in the south. Since we we had just come off the Trans-Siberian through Russia, Mongolia and China, we decided to continue by surface transport instead of flying.
But first, several days of luxury at the wonderful Andaman, always our home from home when we pass through this region.
Our friend Kim had flown in from Thailand, and we whiled away the time swimming in the balmy sea, paddling kayaks around Datai island, eating perfectly prepared cuisine and drinking far too many cocktails and bottles of wine. Bliss.
One interesting feature of Datai Bay is the remains of the fringing reef, which was smashed in a storm some years ago. The broken pieces all washed up in the shallows near to the beach, and each piece settled down to become a mini-reef of its own. There are staff whose job it is to wade out into the debris every day, collecting specimens and putting them in an artificial reef behind the hotel. This acts as a breeding ground and hatchery, with the ultimate intention of rebuilding the original fringing reef. In the meantime, if you are careful you can wade out at low tide and see reef life that you would normally not see without diving gear.
Eventually we had to to return to real life, so we dropped Kim at the airport and headed down to the quay for the first leg of our journey, the ferry to Georgetown on the island of Penang. We waited in the terminal and watched the approaching front of a gathering rain storm. As the heavens opened, our gate opened, and the terminal degenerated into semi-organised mayhem. The 300 or so of us who were lucky enough to have boarding passes pushed down the cramped gangway, stacking our luggage in a pile at the front of the cabin, and crammed into our plastic-clad seats.
Outside in the fog we could see a queue of other ferries being pummelled by the waves as they waited for us to clear the dock. The crew hurled more and more packages aboard as still more passengers arrived, screaming into their mobile phones. Even as we cast off and pulled away, a steady stream of new arrivals were still leaping aboard, stevedores flinging their luggage unceremoniously onto the roof of the cabin.
We’d noticed previously that the forward end of both passenger decks were protected by rows of welded steel plates, and we soon found out why. As we hit the rolling swell, the bow buried itself deep into the quartering sea. The pilot did a great job of zig-zagging to try to give us a more pleasant ride, but inevitably on each turn we were pushed back under water.
After three and a half hours of corkscrew progress, we disembarked into warm rain and humped our packs up to our favourite Georgetown hotel, the Yeng Keng. Since our last visit they’d built a cafe on one side of the courtyard, and – damp and hungry – we snuck in five minutes before closing and scoffed a very satisfying Malaysian meal washed down with white wine.
After a good sleep and an enormous breakfast (two complete servings of Nasi Lemak, and why not?), we headed out into the stunning heat and humidity for the short walk back to Georgetown jetty. We were had been on the car ferry to Butterworth before, and it is pleasant to stand in the open structure of the car deck and feel the warm wind on your face as it makes the short and scenic journey across to the Malay Peninsula. It’s even nicer because, in this direction, travel is free.
We had already purchased first class rail tickets from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur, so we ambled unhurriedly in the direction of the rail terminal. The station turned out to be closed for redevelopment, and we were redirected to a temporary structure which was largely closed. After a little searching, we found a small courtyard bar, which was also closed. However, the ceiling fans were running over the battered trestle tables, and there was a snack stall so we settled in to wait with some cans of soft drink.
There were a couple of cafes fronting the courtyard, both firmly closed with rolling shutters. While we sat there, the owner of one of them arrived and cracked open his shutter, pouring a tray of food in front of the gap. A whole family of cats and kittens emerged and began to eat, presumably this was his answer to any possible rodent problem in his stores.
Some local kids came and sat nearby, complaining to each other about their parents’ backward attitudes, and how they wouldn’t allow their children to get ahead. It was intriguing, but we never found out what they were talking about because it was time to head back to the temporary station, which had just opened. It was full of disgruntled passengers who had been told that the daily train to Bangkok had been cancelled and had been replaced by a bus service. Frankly I wouldn’t have complained, as we gathered that the reason that the service had been cancelled was that it had been derailed.
Boarding our own train, we found ourselves in one of those rather tired and battered carriages which are typical in Malaysia. Travelling first class just means that you get an assigned seat, and a pretty girl who brings you water and a piece of cake when you board. However, our seats were at the front of the carriage with copious leg room, and thankfully the flat screen TV did not seem to be working. This was fantastic news because usually they run a loud and endless loop of irritating advertising jingles.
We settled back to enjoy the ride as we travelled the entire length of the Malay peninsula. The windows were actually too dirty to see through, but by scrunching down in doorways I could get a reasonable view of this beautiful, fertile, and above all jungle country.
Arriving finally in Kuala Lumpur, we immediately headed out for food, and were once again stunned by the Malaysian attention to cuisine. A simple bowl of chips is a thing of beauty, and once you settle down to a good fish dish, you’ll never come up for air.
Suitably refreshed, we finished our trip at our favourite KL bar, the Hap Seng Belgian Beer Cafe. It’s not overwhelmingly beautiful and there isn’t much to see apart from passing traffic, but the stools are comfortable, the staff are attentive and the beer is perfect. What more could you ask for?
Boarding the Trans-Manchurian Express in Ulaanbaatar, we immediately noticed a marked improvement from the elderly Mongolian rolling stock in which we had trundled across Siberia. This time, we had been allocated a proper first class carriage with two beds, an armchair, and even a semi-private toilet shared with the next compartment. The friendly conductress kept popping in with hot water, tea and coffee (these latter came in sachets described as “3 in 1”, which apparently means that they consist of 50% sugar, 50% powdered milk, and a hint of tea or coffee).
We dozed off the excesses of our final night in Ulaanbaatar as the train climbed up onto the steppe. Waking up hungry, we made our way to the restaurant car. In contrast with the pleasantly homey but food-free Russian restaurant car which had accompanied the train across Siberia, this Mongolian car was quite plain. In place of the two elderly Russian ladies providing plates of potatoes and pickles, were uniformed waiters and chefs, and an extraordinarily expensive menu denominated in US dollars. We ordered one lunch and one breakfast between us, and it came to an astonishing $40, and that was with many of the key ingredients missing. When we first sat down, we explained that we couldn’t eat wheat, and the waiter leapt to the conclusion that we were vegetarians and no amount of argument could get him to change his mind, so we picked at our salad and watched in salivating horror as everybody else tucked into their bacon and chops. Still, at least we got to eat a lot of eggs.
The steppe ambled past our window under an enormous sky. A few mines, occasional herds of horses and camels, men with big sticks herding goats, sparse handfuls of yurts, and the odd truck.
We whiled away the time reading the train’s magazine, which is hilarious. One long and rambling folk tale seems to have been randomly generated by an online translating engine. It goes on for pages and is completely impenetrable, but peculiarly beguiling as we try to fathom what the original text might have said.
And then there’s the section on Mongolian cuisine, which goes on to list six pages of two-line recipes for cooking heart. It starts with “heart with carrot”, before moving on to “heart with carrot and turnip”, and then “heart with carrot and turnip and potato”…
At seven in the evening we stopped at the Chinese border, and everything got complicated. Most trains in Eurasia use a standard track width, which allows the interchangeable rolling stock to be mixed and matched along international train routes. However, Russia and Mongolia use a narrower track to everybody else, so it is not possible for the Trans-Siberian to proceed across the border onto Chinese rails. The rather exciting solution to this problem is to jack up the entire train with everybody aboard, remove the Russian bogies, and replace them with standard ones.
Our train was shunted into a large shed and lined up with a series of hydraulic jacks. As the train lifted, men ran around underneath hitting things with hammers until the bogies came free. We understand that in earlier times it was not permitted to watch the process, but on this occasion we were all glued in fascination to the grimy and mud-smeared windows. Once the Russian bogies had come free, they were pushed away, and a new set of Chinese bogies came rushing in, pulled by an underground cable.
The whole process took a couple of hours, followed by another hour of banging and shunting as they put the train back together. Immigration was a formality, merely involving glancing at passports and checking the toilets for stowaways, and so we drifted off into a comfortable sleep.
Since the restaurant car changes at every border, we were interested to compare the new Chinese restaurant with the Russian and Mongolian ones, particularly as our last meal had been almost protein-free and we were starving. However, when we arrived for breakfast soon after opening, it was packed and we were told to come back at 10am for lunch. There were no platform vendors at the stations, so we quietly hugged our grumbling stomachs and chewed on our last remaining pieces of dry biltong before rushing to the restaurant car precisely on time.
The car was empty, and we gorged on two lunches each, crispy chicken and diced breast and peppers and rice and salad and eggs… we were so happy to eat. The price was only 80 yuan (about 8 pounds) including beer. Bronwyn offered to pay the bill using our Mongolian currency which we had forgotten to change at the border, and the price was 80,000 which was somewhat suspiciously exactly the amount that Bronwyn was holding in her hand, and which incidentally was about 80 pounds! We turned down the kind offer and paid in yuan.
Our somewhat unreliable guide book had insisted that we get up early if we were not to miss the best of the scenery, but it wasn’t until we had finished lunch that the landscape started to change. The train was running alongside the Guanting Reservoir, a large lake in a deep gorge that seemed to have been lined by white marble terraces, in part to prevent the valley from crumbling into the fields of sweetcorn and sunflowers below.
The gorge was scattered with major engineering works, dams and power stations and bridges, all against a backdrop of spectacular mountain peaks, especially as we chugged up through the Badaling and Huyu national parks.
Finally after some eight days rolling across Siberia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway, we arrived at our final destination in Beijing.
Together with fellow travellers Gar and Tony, we stumbled blinking into the smog-laden sunshine, to find that the queue for taxis stretched clear across the square. The line of overheated and overladen shoppers and tourists snaked obliviously around a tented area of plastic tables, presided over by a smiling man with a portable freezer full of ice and beer. We looked at each other. It seemed rude not to.
We only need to board our pre-booked compartment on the Trans-Siberian Express, but our driver insisted on coming into Moscow train station with us and waiting until our platform had been announced. This took a while, so we hung around outside the station bar and sank a few Lowenbrau beers and tried to make conversation with him in pidgin Russian and French. By the time the Trans-Siberian rolled in, we were rolling a bit ourselves.
As we walked the length of the train, looking for our assigned carriage, we noticed that standing in each doorway was a pair of Mongolian conductresses, each smartly dressed in a white shirt and a blue skirt, sometimes a very short blue skirt.
We found our compartment, which was officially a four-berth but, because we’d paid for first class, there will only be two of us in it. It’s a tiny little space but our home for the next week or so. The train shook itself and then moved slowly out of Moscow station, destination Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and then Beijing in China, six thousand kilometres on the longest railway line in the world. I stuck my head out of the window and howled; I am on the Trans-Siberian Express!
Our carriage is full of travellers, we have Chileans and French on either side. As night fell, all six of us got amazingly sloshed on canned Tuborg from the restaurant car which is an arduous nine carriages away.
The next morning, we started to learn a few of the features of this train. Each carriage has a ladies’ and a gents’ toilet, but the gents’ on our carriage isn’t working. I tried to use the gents’ in the next carriage, but was firmly turned away by the conductress there, so our carriage’s toilet is now effectively unisex. Either way, it has no toilet paper, but luckily we brought some with us.
At the end of each carriage is a wood-fired samovar, tended by the conductress, which provides hot water for drinks. Although we did bring coffee and a press, there is no crockery or cutlery, and we didn’t think to bring any with us. However, with the aid of a pair of nail-scissors, we managed to fashion a flimsy coffee cup out of the base of a water bottle.
Along each corridor is a red woollen carpet, nailed to the wooden floor with long brass tacks that keep popping out. The conductress endlessly patrols this carpet, either sweeping it or hammering the tacks back in. I’ve already trodden on one of those tacks, which leaked blood everywhere, but worse than that the carpet sheds little pieces of red wool which get into every crevice of your luggage and which pile up in little drifts on the floor of each compartment.
On our first morning, we made the long trip to the restaurant car for breakfast. We gathered that although this particular train consists of Mongolian rolling stock (and therefore Mongolian staff), the restaurant car gets changed when we cross borders. Since we are still in Siberia, the restaurant car is Russian, but will be exchanged for a Mongolian one at the border town of Naushki. We sat down to a pleasant dish of potatoes fried with dill and garlic, with a side of pickled cucumbers, plus our own pressed coffee in a borrowed water glass.
At about lunchtime, the train pulled in to a station. It looked pretty quiet and desolate, but we got out anyway to stretch our legs. Suddenly there was an explosion of elderly ladies, sprinting across the tracks and ducking under trains, carrying trays of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, smoked fish, bread, and even cling-filmed plates of fresh hot food. I bought some freshly roasted chicken with boiled potatoes, and Bronwyn scored a couple of salted gherkins from a plastic bucket. We also managed to buy some sturdier soft drink bottles so that we could make better coffee cups. Just about everything cost 100 roubles (about two English pounds) per item. The chicken tasted superb, far less bland than the stuff sold in Western supermarkets, and the potatoes were wonderful.
All this time, we had been chugging across a rather monotonous flat Siberian landscape of birch, pine, and the occasional open field. At the base of the Urals, our old engine was exchanged for a new one. We started to climb, but slowly. Were the birches looking a little thinner?
The trees thinned out into grasslands. Occasionally we passed a rock-crushing plant or train repair yard, and now and again a village of wooden houses. There were no signs of crops apart from some extensive market gardens behind some of the houses, and – very occasionally – some hay ricks, although it wasn’t clear what the hay was for, as we didn’t see any farm animals.
The Trans-Siberian isn’t really about the outside world, it’s all about the microcosm that is the train, and it didn’t take long for us to fall into its rhythm. In the morning, after sweeping out the night’s accumulation of red dust-balls, we’d hang out in our compartment and catch up on our reading. During the day, we’d hang out of the window and watch the world go by. Occasionally a freight train would trundle past on the other track. We’d snack on yesterday’s left-overs and wait patiently for the next stop, where we would leap out and grab meat, beer, ice cream, whatever was being sold by the ladies on the platform. In the afternoon, we would entertain visitors (our largely empty carriage was always popular with people travelling second class). In the evenings, we would party.
And then, one night, near the tail end of an exceptionally good party, our compartment suddenly filled with armed police who confiscated our passports and made Bronwyn pour all our glasses down a sink. Then they took away our few remaining bottles of booze, including a rather expensive bottle of French wine that I had in my luggage for a special occasion. It was all a bit of a surprise, and since we didn’t have any languages in common, somewhat mysterious.
A few days later, they returned with an interpreter, who attempted to explain. It seems that each train has a contingent of police who live in one of the rear carriages. They told some story about us keeping other guests awake, but since the party had extended the full length of our carriage and included not only everyone in every compartment but also some people from other carriages, we could only infer that we were keeping our conductress awake and that she had made a complaint. At any rate, they gave us our passports back, suggested that we should party in the restaurant car instead of our carriage, and said that my special wine bottle would be returned to me when we arrived in Ulan Bator.
That night, we all went to the restaurant car and drank them out of beer. The two elderly Russian ladies who ran the restaurant shuffled calmly to their supply fridge and re-stocked. These ladies were great, they were everybody’s great-grandmother, fussing around the tables in their flowered dresses and permed hair. In the day, they liked to sit in the corner and snooze, and by night they slept on the floor of the restaurant. Before long we were clearing up the glasses for them, and when we’d finished the second cabinet-full of beer, we waved them to stay seated and just helped ourselves directly from the supply fridge while they smiled and waved their gratitude. We’d been drinking some fairly boring lager up until now, but I found a whole cache of more interesting beers in a back corner of the supply fridge, which was nice.
One peculiar thing about the train is that it always keeps Moscow time regardless of the fact that it traverses seven time zones. This means that the concepts of ‘breakfast’ and ‘dinner’ drift considerably from the day outside; midday outside now corresponds to about six in the morning train time, which introduces a certain amount of jet-lag (train-lag?) in the staff. After a while, we realised that the two ladies were nodding off, so we bought some more beers and left them to make up their beds on the floor. We didn’t want to have a repeat of the police fiasco, so rather than returning to our carriages, we decided to party in the tiny space between the restaurant carriage and the rest of the train. That worked too.
One of the few real towns was Omsk, which seemed large and prosperous, and had actual kiosks on the platform instead of mobile vendors. We bought hot chicken and bananas and thought we’d have a quick look around the town, but there were armed police everywhere who were preventing passengers from leaving the platform. In fact it was here and at another station close to Irkutsk that we realised that many of the platform vendors weren’t locals at all, they were actually travelling on our train with us, and hopping off at the stations to sell goods to the locals. In the stations with a heavy police presence, they simply sold clothing and plastic goods out of the train windows.
Suddenly a lot of things fell into place. I had wondered at the purpose of all these tiny little communities in the wilds of Siberia. What were these people doing out here? But now I realised that it is the train that is their raison d’être, without the train there would be no people. It is a nine thousand kilometre linear village, which has sprung up alongside the necessity to ship ore from one side of this enormous country to the other.
Many of our fellow travellers disembarked at Lake Baikal, but we had some deadlines to stick to so we stayed on board. We’ll see the world’s deepest freshwater lake on another occasion.
We likewise passed through Ulan Ude, which seemed to be a pleasant and prosperous city. Scattered amongst the Soviet-era apartment blocks were smart new houses, and closer to the tracks were the same kind of wooden home that we have seen all the way across Siberia, each with its own market garden packed with vegetables and fruit.
The railway here is also lined with lock-up garages. Some of them appear to be derelict, but others have been fitted with chimneys and new roofs. Do people live in them, or do the owners keep a fire burning to keep the cars from freezing in winter? We could not tell.
Brightly coloured paintwork was common on private houses. I was amused to see that the most common colours were pale blue and pale green, both of a shade usually to be found only on railway stations, signal boxes and signal poles.
We got a new engine for the final run down into Ulan Bator, this time a smoky diesel. Close now to the Mongolian border, the terrain changed completely. The railway lifted up onto an embankment as it followed a small river that wound its way through an old flood-plain, with a small range of hills rising up on either side. The flat plain was purple with heads of wild garlic, but it was the scent of a badly tuned diesel that drifted in through the window. It wasn’t long before my hands and face were black with grease. Never mind, Mongolia is just around the corner.
The Rallarvegen, the Rallar Road or Navvy Road, was constructed in 1904 to provide access for materials and workers arriving by sea, to the mountain-top site of the Oslo to Bergen railway. There are a number of different stretches, but the most famous extends more or less vertically down from Myrdal at the top of the mountain, to Flåm at the bottom.
Myrdal to Flåm
Conway, who had been feeling poorly for most of the trip, was thankfully starting to feel a bit better, so we all disembarked the Oslo-Bergen train at Myrdal, shouldered our back-packs, and began the hike down to sea level.
The first part of the switchback descent is very steep, and it immediately became obvious that – whatever else was going to happen – we were not going to run short of water, for there was a new waterfall at every turn.
We quickly descended below the snow-line, and found ourselves surrounded by a wonderful variety of wild flowers; monks-hood, fritillary, orchid, white campion, forget-me-not, and several that we could not identify.
The scenery is simply stunning. There are no words to describe the sheer size of the landscape; terms such as ‘enormous’, ‘huge’, ‘vast’, are just too everyday to describe the incredible feeling of immense craggy age and power of the peaks around us.
The fact that trees have found a toe-hold in every nook and cranny adds to the appalling sense of scale. An unadorned rock may be impressive, but it is difficult to appreciate how big it is. Here, you look up, and up, and up, and in the vertical distance you can just make out the tiny little matchsticks of full-sized ash trees perched on the ridge-top.
Every time I looked up, I could feel my heart swell with the magnificence of the view. I noted in my diary that the Romantic artist John Martin must surely have come here for inspiration.
As we descended the Rallar Road, the path became less precipitous, and the waterfalls that had hitherto launched in great rainbow arcs from the sky, became cascading rapids that raged alongside us.
It was by now getting late and a little cold, and the midges were starting to bite, so we put up our tents on a convenient flat spot.
We woke to a world that was dull, cold and grey. It was well into the morning, but the steep sides of the valley kept us in the shadow. Then, suddenly, the sun crested the mountains and the heat hit the tents like a bombshell; we all tumbled out as it was far too hot to stay inside.
I froze my scalp and fingers washing in the nearby meltwater stream, but dried off instantly in the sunshine. We breakfasted on locally sourced “hot fruit soup”, and lazed around while leisurely striking camp. There was no hurry, it was a beautiful place to be.
Later in the day, now largely on the level and approaching the town of Old Flam, we had become spread out along the trail as we looked at the scenery and investigated caves behind the waterfalls. Even though the path was reasonably flat, the surrounding landscape was still vertical, but wherever humanly possible, grass had been cut and hung out to dry for winter fodder.
Dave, Conway and Sam found some firewood and lit a fire to cook lunch. Julia encountered a goat, and got involved in a head-butting competition with its kid.
I became fascinated by the water pipeline that now ran along the trail beside us, which was constructed from wood, with about the same diameter as a wine barrel. It leaked dramatically, but I suppose there’s never any chance of running out of water here, and repairs simply involved nailing a plank across the larger holes.
At last, footsore and weary, we arrived in the village of Old Flåm. The town looked exactly as if wandering explorers had hiked up from the fjord, dropped their packs, and erected a church and widely separated houses wherever they fancied the view. It was quite lovely.
We had intended to walk all the way down to Flåm harbour on the fjord, but we were hot and tired, and couldn’t resist resting on the wooden platform by the train tracks at Lunden, a stop for the famous Flåmsbana, the steepest standard-gauge railway in the world. One came past heading in our direction, so we flagged it down and rode it to the Flåm station terminus.
Flåm to Voss
After stocking up on chocolate bars, we rode the Flåmsbana back up to Myrdal. The train doesn’t follow the path of the Rallar Road, instead carving its own route through a series of very impressive tunnels, but it was fascinating to catch the occasional glimpse of the path that we’d taken.
There’s a crowd-pleasing stop near the top, where you can clamber out onto a very wet platform and gape at a waterfall as it thunders underneath the train, and then we were back where we’d started, waiting at Myrdal for the train to Voss.
At Voss, we needed somewhere to stay. There was an official camp site, but for budgetary reasons we needed to free camp, and it quickly became clear that although the town of Voss was nominally small, it is spread out with houses as far as the eye can see; we weren’t going to able to hike out to the edge in any reasonable time frame.
By dint of some judicious clambering through building sites and over fences, we managed to get to a piece of greenery around the back of the official camp site, where we quietly set up camp, planning to leave early next morning in the hope that nobody would notice us.
The Oslo to Bergen railway is widely billed as one of the best train trips in the world. It climbs up from sea level, and runs along the mountain tops before dropping back down to the fjords of Bergen. It is made doubly special by the station half-way along at Myrdal, where you can hike from the top of the mountains down to sea level at Flåm, and then catch the cog train back up to rejoin the main railway.
Julia and I paid for reserved seats so that we could get an unrestricted view from an opening window, while the others opted to search for unreserved seats wherever they could find them. Having reserved seats also meant that we could nip into the toilet cubicle and wash some clothes, without losing our place.
Words fail me to describe the first part of the trip up to Myrdal. There are only so many ways of describing huge vistas of wild conifers, deep blue glacial lakes, and looming craggy mountains. The trees are immense, and I have never seen so many different shades of green in the riotous growth of uncultivated softwood forest.
Just when I thought that I’d seen everything, the train climbed above the tree-line, and the character of the land changed abruptly. It was 35 degrees in the shade, and the sun beat down on pristine white snowfields, relieved only by the smashed remains of last year’s snow-fences, and the early construction of next year’s.
Occasionally a lonely cluster of wooden shingle-rooted homes would spring into view, nestling against a river or lake.
When not trundling along knife-edge cliff edges, the train was diving in and out of tunnels carved through the rock. At each end of the tunnel, the train passed through a snow-barrier in the form of a long wooden house, to protect it from avalanches. As we climbed higher, these wooden tunnels became more prevalent, and sometimes entirely free-standing.
Eventually it had to end, and the train dropped down to the sleepy hamlet of Myrdal, protected by massive snow-fences and completely ringed by the high rock walls of the valley.
It was time to disembark, because we wanted to hike the famous Rallar Road down to Flåm, but we would return later to enjoy the final part of the trip to Bergen.
We disembarked the ferry from Denmark, grabbed a coffee and a croissant, and caught the local train into Oslo. Dave had visited before, and remembered an interesting sculpture garden in the centre which was our ultimate destination, but we stopped on the way to visit the grounds of the Royal Palace. Conway had had a rough night trying to sleep on the ferry and was feeling unwell, so we all relaxed in the pleasant grounds of the Palace and watched the birds so that he could have a snooze. Later it became clear that he wasn’t up to moving any further that morning, so we left him sleeping in the sunshine, and made our way into the city.
Vigeland Park, Oslo (Norway)
Frogner Park in central Oslo is dedicated to the works of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland. There are hundreds of life-like human figures, in bronze and in stone, engaged in all kinds of activities, both mundane and bizarre; juggling babies and fighting dragons as well as some beautiful thoughtful pieces.
The centrepiece of the park is a huge tower, carved (by seven sculptors over 11 years) from a single stone, and consisting entirely of human bodies; the bottom layers crushed and dead, getting younger as you move up the pile, to babies dancing on the top. This amazing piece is surrounded by twenty-odd additional sculptures of pairs of humans engaged in various acts depicting the path from birth to death.
Words cannot really describe this magical place.
On the way back to the Palace to check on Conway, we wandered through the streets of Oslo itself, and found that here, too, there were sculptures on every corner. I described the architecture in my diary as “quiet baroque interspersed with brutal concrete”, and noted that most of the young ladies had tinted their hair away from the ubiquitous Scandinavian blonde.
The temperature was now up in the low thirties, and Conway was very sick. We picked him up from the Palace and headed out on a local train to find somewhere to sleep, stopping on the way at a roadside shack for fish-burgers and ice-cream, where the kindly proprietor filled up a gallon water jug so that Conway could stay hydrated.
Later that evening, we tumbled out of the train on the shores of a likely looking lake, clambered over the rails, and found ourselves in some abandoned station buildings, the former Eidsvoll Station. We settled down nearby in a clearing in the trees, sending Conway to bed with a large tea and a dry crust, then set about preparing a meal. We had some packaged chow-mein that had been donated to us by some Chinese girls at the Copenhagen Interrail Centre, and a Vesta curry, and some macaroni soup. Not exactly gourmet stuff, but it was filling and washed down well with lots of tea.
We had intended an early start in the morning, to take the famous Oslo-Bergen line (widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world), but I’d forgotten to set my alarm, and we were all awoken at the last minute by Dave bashing a billy with a spoon. We quickly struck camp and then, with only eleven minutes to catch our connection, took the fastest route to the station which was to run along the rails to the platform. Boarding with two minutes to spare, we spent the short trip to Oslo washing up in the toilets.
We only really had time to breakfast in the Oslo station cafe. Conway was feeling a bit better, but was only able to force down some cornflakes. The rest of us examined the eye-watering prices for filled rolls, before realising to our delight that the cheapest option was to order tea with cream cakes, so that’s what we did.
The Interrail journeys previously enumerated in the blogs “Three Men on a Train” were a resounding success, but I was keenly aware that – due to time constraints – we’d missed out the whole of the Scandinavian peninsula. A few years later, with only slightly better funding, I arranged a second month-long Interrail trip to remedy the situation, accompanied by a different group of friends.
And so it was, that in the Summer of 1989, Dave, Conway and I disembarked the MV “Pride of Dover” in Calais, and met up with Julia and Sammy who had been travelling in Morocco.
The girls looked tanned and healthy, but were short of cash. The boys were pasty and unhealthy, but hadn’t yet spent any of our holiday funds. After swapping tales over a coffee, we boarded the next train out of Calais, which happened to go to Paris. Our first requirement was to get some sleep, and since the Interrail system allowed us to take any train to any destination, we chose the next long-distance train, which happened to go to Amsterdam, and hunkered down in the corridor to sleep.
When the train pulled into Amsterdam Central, we found ourselves with only 35 minutes to explore before our connection to Hamburg. Our main concern was provisions; once we left Amsterdam we would be spending at least the rest of the day traversing Germany, and we had no Deutschmarks. The girls had some Camembert cheese and some horse-meat sausage in their packs, and Conway found a 25-guilder note in his pocket. We sprinted out into the city, got a swift impression of bars and coffee shops, scored coffee and baguettes, and legged it back to the station.
Although our Interrail card was valid for travel the length and breadth of the continent, many of the trains in Northern Europe at that time had extra supplements for this and that; extra for a sleeping compartment, extra for an intercity express, and so on. In order to conserve funds, it was necessary for us to carefully pick our route so as to board only the supplement-free trains.
We got a local connection from the Netherlands into Germany, and then switched to a local train to Hamburg. Once it pulled out of the station, we found that the service had been upgraded to an “Intercity” service, and so we had to find a supplemental fare or be put off the train. Since we didn’t have any Deutschmarks, this presented a problem until we offered the conductor a ten-pound note, and he went away happy. From Hamburg it was but a short step to Fredericia, and our first Scandinavian country of Denmark. We had arrived!
There is a convenient law which applies throughout Scandinavia, which states that you are allowed to camp anywhere you like for up to two nights, anywhere at all, as long as the site is not overlooked by somebody’s window. This is extremely handy for the budget traveller, and because of this we were well equipped with camping gear, in contrast with my previous Interrail trip, where we had tried as much as we could to sleep aboard the trains.
After a close look at a local map, we took a local train to the town of Struer, on the banks of the Veno Bugt fjord to the North West of Denmark. Strolling out of town, we found ourselves a roadside picnic spot with views across the fjord, and even a small toilet block with water, dryers, and a shaver point.
After a long luxurious night’s sleep, we awoke to find a family of cygnets poking around outside the tents, and a horde of picnicking tourists who completely ignored a bunch of hippies emerging blinking into the daylight.
We lounged around drinking coffee and waiting for the dew to dry off the tents, before packing up and heading to the station.
In the local hub of Fredericia on a Monday morning, we discovered that the connection to Copenhagen only runs on Sundays and Thursdays. There were some other, more roundabout routes available; we deliberately skipped the next one in order to save the “Intercity supplement”, then finally boarded the slow train, where the conductor hit us with a “Seat Reservation supplement”.
We were still glad we’d caught it, though, for the experience as the entire train drove onto the ferry at Nyborg, and we were taken across the fjord to Korsør without ever leaving our seats.
One of my teeth was becoming increasingly painful. Julia had a poke around and found a large cavity in the side of a molar, which was full of foreign matter which she managed to clean out with a needle and thread, but which clearly needed medical attention.
In Copenhagen there’s a legendary facility, the Interrailer’s Centre, which provides an information desk, showers and kitchen facilities to anybody with a valid Interrail ticket. The receptionist was incredibly helpful in finding me a list of emergency dentists, and after a fair bit of legwork I found one who would treat me the following evening. I suggested that the others move on to Oslo while I got fixed up, but they were content to wait for me, so after cooking and eating at the Centre, we caught a local train to the nearby town of Næstved. This “local” turned out to be the lovely Ostsee Express to Moscow, every carriage embellished with Russian crests. We only went a couple of stops, though, and set up camp in a clearing in a local park, surrounded by beeches, mountain ash, and wild raspberries. Beautiful.
In Copenhagen the following day, I wasn’t really able to focus on much beyond my toothache, but did manage some minor forays into the city. Perhaps it was the pain, but I found it all a bit dull, despite some interesting architecture and sculptures.
I did note a few things in my diary, such as the handy gutter up the side of all staircases for the wheeling of bicycles, and the fact that cars will always stop for pedestrians or cyclists wherever they may be, and that bicycles stop for nothing and seem to rule the road as long as they remain in their bespoke cycle lane.
That evening, the dentist was superb. She found a piece of steak lodged inside a small cavity, which led to a very large cavity filling most of the tooth almost down to the nerve. After scraping me off the ceiling a few times, she managed a temporary fix by pumping in about a kilo of heavy metals. The tooth is now a thin shell of enamel wrapped around a lump of amalgam, which means I should avoid chewing on that side, and she made me promise to get it fixed as soon as I got home. [Of course I didn’t, and this amazing temporary repair remained in place for over a decade before I split it on a stray olive pit]
There was just time to grab a Danish Pastry before heading to the station. My mouth was completely numb but we couldn’t waste the opportunity. We bought two, each almost a foot long and packed with fruit, surmounted by chocolate.
The train decanted us onto a ferry, where we found some unoccupied reclining seats and settled down to sleep. Tomorrow, we would dock in Norway!
Back on the train, we settled down happily in an empty compartment and indulged in our usual territorial tactics; boots off, wave a bottle of alcohol around, sprawl out apparently unconscious on sheets and sleeping bags. Sadly it emerged that all the seats in ‘our’ compartment were fully reserved, so we changed carriages and crashed in with a couple of Italian lads who were trying the same trick. In the end, David moved out to sleep in the corridor, leaving the four remaining backpackers with a very comfortable night on the four convertible seats.
Our system of yo-yo-ing between cities worked particularly well because the toilet facilities at Rome Station were free, albeit only with cold water which made shaving a bit of a chore. They also provided toilet paper with each sheet imprinted “ferrovie dello stato”, of which I still have an example.
We thoroughly enjoyed our exploration of the sights of the city, and were very impressed by the Basilica St Giovanni. The ceiling is deeply wrought and gilded, everything standing out in high relief. The walls are either painted on gold leaf or occupied by enormous marble statues. The altar, even tough flanked by full-sized architectural pillars, is dwarfed by the size of the cathedral. An unbelievable experience, vying with the Basilica in Venice for its awesome beauty.
The Coliseum was interesting, but not exactly what we’d expected. The floor of the arena had eroded away, but this exposed an extensive network of tunnels, access and quarters for the fighting slaves and animals. We were curious to get up above ground level and have a look, but there was an extra fee which we chose not to afford, and anyway the historical power of the underground section was quite absorbing.
We agreed that the Pantheon would have been more impressive if not crowded in by modern buildings, and the Bridge of Angels more so if it had not been covered in scaffolding.
We were however very impressed by the enormous palace on the Piazza Venezia, which turned out to be not a palace at all, but an extravagant tomb to an unknown soldier.
For lunch, we stopped at an outdoor restaurant just as a large group were leaving. David convinced the amused waiter that it would be much easier for him to simply move all their left-overs to our table rather than to clear them away, where they went very well with our one small plain pizza to share.
On our way back to the station for our nightly commute to Venice, we started looking for a loo, and eventually discovered a pavement urinal, held up by (rather than obscured by) a skeletal frame of bricks.
Suitably refreshed, we took in the Fountains of Trevi, which are actually a series of short waterfalls running over a sculptured landscape carved from the stone walls of the neighbouring building. A lovely place to sit on a Summer’s evening.
Back at the station, I thought to avail myself of the Bureau de Change, which had separate windows for traveller’s cheques and cash. I got out my passport and cheques and stood in line, but after a while I noticed that while my queue was not moving at all, the queue for cash exchange was moving swiftly. Eventually I searched my pockets, found some left-over French francs, and switched queues. I quickly reached the counter and swapped my francs for lire. While the lady was counting my change, I asked her why the other queue was moving so slowly. She explained that whereas cash sales were instant, cheques took fifteen minutes to process. When I pointed out that in other offices the tellers had simply written down the cheque numbers in a ledger and that the process only took a minute, she agreed but shrugged and said, “Perhaps in the other offices they write faster”.
We had some hours to kill before the train left for Venice. It occurred to us that the sights that we had already seen, the Coliseum, the Vatican and the Trevi Fountains, might look quite picturesque when illuminated at night, so we set off for an evening wander around the city.
We caught the Forum in the last rays of sunlight. This is one of the more extensive set of ruins from the days of Empire, although we could not afford to go in but had to content ourselves with looking down from the streets above.
Once darkness fell, however, the historical sites were all disappointingly dark. Never mind, we stopped for another small pizza, and finished the day on time and, importantly, on budget.
In an effort to conserve money on accommodation, we had spent most of our nights thus far under canvas. Venice and Rome were next on our itinerary, and were unlikely to offer either camp sites or inexpensive hotels. Examining our Thomas Cook timetables, we noticed that the two cities were separated by an overnight train, so we hatched a plan to spend a total of two days in each city, but alternating each night in order to get a free sleep on the train as we travelled back and forth.
We were going to begin right away by taking a day train from Naples to Rome, and then immediately boarding the night train to Venice. That meant that we needed to stock up on provisions, so we popped into a local supermarket to get some bread and meat.
Much of our short experience of Italian life had been bewildering, and the meat counter was no less so. All the prices were marked in lire per pound of meat. We asked for a quarter of a pound, but were given quarter of a kilo, which was substantially larger and thus more expensive. Luckily David spoke enough Italian to sort that one out, but apparently it was no mistake, that was simply the way things were done. Meat is priced by the pound, but sold by the kilo.
Once in Rome, we hung around on the platform waiting for the overnight to Venice. To our surprise, we bumped into Keith and Lee, friends from our school days, who were also heading to Venice but they were travelling in style and had stumped up for a couchette on a sleeper train.
We waited for our own regular train, but it never showed up. Seeing that the sleeper train hadn’t departed, we ambled over for a chat with Keith and Lee, who kindly offered to share their reserved compartment with us. The train was cramped and crowded, and sleep came with difficulty, but we were on the way to Venice.
We could not fail to be impressed by Venice. The back streets and back waters were fantastically peaceful and quiet, with not a car engine to be heard. Highly polished wooden taxi-boats skimmed beneath the stone-arched bridges, or dodged around gleaming black gondolas.
The winding cobbled ‘roads’, only ten feet across, were lined with colourful shops selling the fine local glassware and beautiful pastries. We were surprised to find that the prices were the cheapest that we had encountered in Italy, and we lounged on the banks of the Grand Canal eating luxuriously soft crusty rolls, cheese and salami, watching the life of the city pass by on the water.
The city had a strangely magical air. Squinting my eyes and looking carefully at each building in isolation, I could clearly see that they were rotting and crumbling away, but as soon as I stepped back and viewed them in the context of the wider city, they were magically transformed into beautiful avenues.
We queued briefly to get in to the Basilica on St Marks Square, which was very impressive indeed. Every inch of its structure seemed to be painted with gold leaf. The nearby Doge’s Palace was also marvellous, I joked that it was a bit like the Basilica converted to living quarters.
The Palace was not all about the gilded ceilings; the dungeons were particularly atmospheric, with a feeling of hopelessness and despair that could not even be dispelled by noisy American tourists.
During our travels, we had become slowly accustomed to the strange European practice of paying to go to the toilet. In Venice, though, they had taken the concept to a whole new level. At the station, instead of a cleaner sitting by a saucer of coins, I encountered a man with a cash register. There was a menu of price options according to the intended nature of the visit, and after paying I received a paper receipt. Once inside, my receipt was taken by a girl who led me to a freshly cleaned cubicle. When I had done my business, she led me to an exit door which opened out onto a softly furnished waiting area, complete with daily newspapers, where my friends were waiting.
With several days to explore, we tended to split up and go wandering. Venice is made for that kind of exploratory ambling, and there was a kind of natural gravitation to the steps of the main station, where those travellers who cannot afford to do the tourist thing in St Marks Square sit and smoke or picnic.
Slightly tanned and completely relaxed from our idyllic week on the Greek island of Zakynthos, we caught the leisurely ferry across to Italy. The boat decanted us onto the dock, from which it was a straightforward walk up the main street to the train station. Unfortunately, this is the only possible route and the locals are fully aware of it; the road was a frantic, seething and expensive tourist trap. We paid the exorbitant price for bottled water, because we were hot and needed the fluid, but reckoned that we had enough left-over solid food in our backpacks to see us through to a less money-grabbing town.
It was much quieter inside the station, where we sat on a deserted platform and put together a meal of sorts from the remnants that we had left over from our ferry trip. We were sitting quietly, sipping our luxury water, when a train pulled in.
Everything went crazy. From nowhere, the platform suddenly filled with Italians, all running around shouting at each other, at staff, at passengers, and at random passers-by. Nobody got on or off the train apart from a handful of bewildered Interrailers who fought their way through the crowds to the exit. The train departed, everybody vanished, and suddenly it was all quiet again. The platform was deserted, apart from three baffled young Englishmen, chewing slowly on two-day old bread rolls.
Our own train wasn’t due for some hours, so I took a deep breath and popped out to see what the town was like at night. I stepped out into a street packed with yelling, screaming, snogging locals, their bodies packed across the entire width of the road, driving their motorcycles down the pavement and generally having a wild time. I’d just spent several days bimbling around in the wilderness and swimming in deserted seas, so it was all rather a shock. I forced myself to conform to the snails-pace push-and-shove just long enough to buy an extortionate can of lemonade and some chocolate, and then meekly retraced my steps to the station.
On my return, I found Andrew and David chatting to Mike and Jez, a couple of Interrailers heading in the same direction, who had found that beer from a supermarket was far cheaper than my soft drink, and indeed any soft drink, including water.
Five men in Pompeii
After a good sleep on the overnighter to Naples, we caught the local underground train to the ruins of Pompeii, only to find that we had arrived several hours too early. Mike and Jez were still with us, so we hung about and drank beer in the sun until the site finally opened.
After baulking a little at the entrance price, we all found ourselves delighted. Even though much of the area originally excavated in the 1960s is now closed to the public for conservation reasons, the remaining area to explore is still enormous.
Despite (or because of) having been inundated by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, the town is marvellously well-preserved. We stared in wonder at the original paintings, frescoes and shop signs, as well as the occasional shadow of a body, preserved by injecting plaster into the person-shaped hole left in the volcanic ash after the original had rotted away (although most of these had been spirited away to other museums).
There was plenty of room to wander. Most of the buildings had been truncated at just over head-height, giving the feeling of a Romanesque tiled maze, punctuated by ponds, fountains, baths and weirs. Every now and then I would turn a corner and find myself walking down an avenue of stone columns dotted with vibrant palm trees.
I completely fell in love with the civil engineering. The stone roadways are rutted by the passage of cart wheels, and at the end of each street there are holes drilled through the kerb stones where you can hitch your animals. It had never occurred to me before how messy a horse-based economy must be, but the roads run 18″ below the pavement to give space for the ordure. Pedestrian crossings are achieved by the placement of large stepping stones to keep feet out of the mire, with the stones separated by gaps to allow the passage of cart wheels. I am sure that on warm days, you could cut the air with a knife.
The sun was getting pretty fierce, and the site began to quiet down for siesta time. We decided that we needed to go and see the volcano that had caused the whole disaster, so we climbed back down into the cool dark of the underground train system.
Three men up a Volcano
The train dropped us deep in the slums of Naples, with no obvious sign posts or even street markings. We didn’t need directions, though, because the volcano rose impressively out of the smog in front of us, and so we hid our cameras and money-belts and set off confidently toward it.
The city seemed to consist entirely of decaying buildings and rotting garbage. In the violent midday heat, we clambered up through layers of foetid odours, trying our best to avoid the indescribable streams that ran down the cobbled streets. I had pondered earlier on the possible smells of Pompeii in its heyday, and I suspect that these modern streets came close.
Finally we emerged from the indescribably foul city and onto the flanks of the volcano itself. Sweat pouring off our bodies in streams, we managed to hitch a ride up to the base of the chairlift.
The chair was very expensive, even more so than entry to Pompeii, but we were so hot and sweaty that we couldn’t face humping our backpacks any further.
The chairlift was magical. Apart from the slight hum of the tower wheels and the distant click of cameras, the journey to the summit was silent and very peaceful, revealing a breathtaking panorama. As we rose higher, the whole of Naples came into view, the squalor masked by distance, against a back-drop of mountain-tops poking up ethereally through the cloud.
At the top, we were met by a guide who apparently came with our chairlift ticket. His English was almost incomprehensibly accented, but he did rather amusingly demonstrate the echo across the crater. We were able to wander around the caldera a bit, but there had been some recent rumbles and a lot of the path was fragmented and inaccessible. That said, to our eighteen-year old eyes there was disappointingly little overt activity, just a few small fumaroles, but the size of the volcano was impressive and the views more than compensated.
We were enjoying ourselves so much that we rather lost track of the time. Suddenly we realised that we only had three and a half hours to make the four-hour journey back to Naples Central station, so we set off down the volcano at a run. The road had recently been distorted by recent volcanic activity, and now the first part of the journey down was actually uphill. Eventually we crested the rise and began swiftly to descend.
Following the success of our previous hitch up to the base of the chairlift, we decided to see if we could get a lift from one of the occasional passing cars. We didn’t having too much joy, because after all, who has room for three large men with backpacks?
A bus rumbled past. David optimistically stuck his thumb out. “Don’t be stupid,” I said, “you can’t hitch a ride on a bus”. There was a whistle of air-brakes and it came to a stop, the doors opening invitingly. David shouted something in Italian, and we climbed aboard.
It was quite a swanky bus, but all the seats were full so we stood in the central aisle, reeking of sweat and banging people with our backpacks. At least some of the paying passengers appeared to share my opinion about the logic of hitching on buses, and a voluble argument broke out. The driver shrugged, closed the doors, and took off like a bat out of hell.
We were assailed from all sides by the stony glares of the tourists, but soon all we cared about was hanging on to the ceiling straps as we tore down the small, winding road only inches from the precipitous drop. Perhaps in direct response to his passengers’ complaints, the driver took an unscheduled detour to drop us at the only train station for which we had valid tickets.
The island of Zakynthos loomed out of the sea mist ahead, surrounded on all sides by seas of the most incredible shade of blue. As our ferry drew closer, we could make out the harbour of Zakynthos town, crouching down against the water front, nestled under the vertical craggy inland terrain.
We had no idea what to expect. As this was the half-way point of our Grand Tour, we had decided to rest for a week on one of the half-dozen Ionian islands, and had more or less randomly picked this one according to the timetables of the trains and ferries available to us.
We knew that the island was about ten miles across, and we had a vague plan of hiking over the centre to the other side, to see what adventures awaited us. We were footloose and fancy-free, and the world was our oyster.
Within seconds of disembarking, we were approached by a man who wanted to rent us a moped. A few yards later, somebody else asked us the same question. Behind him, several more salesmen were queueing up. Shaking our heads – we had barely set off on our hike, and none of us had ever ridden a motorcycle anyway – we made our way past the clamouring touts, our backpacks weighing heavily as the sun beat down on our heads. About a hundred yards further on, we gave in and rented three mopeds for the rest of the week.
The search for the perfect beach
The concept of twist-and-go was simple enough, but the little 50cc machines weren’t really designed to handle a strapping teenager with an enormous backpack. We’d only travelled a short distance up the road before I discovered that pushing mine to 28mph resulted in a loud “bang” and the ejection of a fair bit of oil. I stopped to have a look but couldn’t see any obvious damage and anyway it was still running, so I decided to ignore it. However, while we paused to examine it, Andrew’s moped stalled and wouldn’t start again.
A friendly man came out of his house and pointed knowledgeably at Andrew’s carburettor, then went indoors to phone our hire shop. While we sat on the road and waited to be rescued, the his whole family emerged and sat down with us. We couldn’t understand a word they said, and vice-versa, but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.
After a while, the rental man showed up with a replacement machine, and we said goodbye to our new friends and putt-putted away to find a beach to sleep on. The first one wasn’t really what we were looking for, and then we got lost in the enjoyment of buzzing along deserted, winding country lanes, learning how to ride the little machines and occasionally “racing” the locals.
By now it was fully dark, and we found that the pitiful light from the tiny glow-worm lamps completely failed to allow us to distinguish between the sandy road surface and the sandy verges. While we paused to sort out a minor crash where Andrew had thought that the road went one way, and I had thought that it went another, an English couple showed up and gave us directions to a good camping beach. Straightening out our handlebars, we set off along a tortuously winding road resembling a quarry track bent into the shape of a stack of paper-clips.
Higher and higher we climbed, wondering why we were going up when surely a beach should be down, until the road degenerated into a pile of rocks on a hill crest. It seemed that it was indeed a quarry after all.
We turned around, and tried a different direction. The evening wore on, and we were getting saddle-sore and tired. Eventually, in a village called Orthonies, Andrew met some children who said that we could camp in the grounds of their school. Since it was all concrete, we couldn’t pitch a tent, so we simply lay down on the ground.
In the interests of saving weight, we had all three of us made some personal compromises when we packed for the trip. David, for instance, had left his boots at home and wore only trainers, something that he had regretted when tramping around Vienna. My concession had been to leave my big heavy sleeping bag at home, instead opting for an orange plastic survival bag. This was all very well on the floor of a train, but desperately cold on plain concrete, and I woke next morning frozen and soaked with condensation.
I lay in quiet dampness, thinking about nice warming Hungarian Cherry Brandy, until the local church started broadcasting its service over a loudspeaker, which woke the others and we had a second try at finding the perfect beach. To cut a long story short, we did eventually discover a perfect little cove near Askos, and went for a welcome cleansing swim in the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean.
The kindness of strangers
The scenery on the island was beautiful and varied, ranging from terrace-farmed olives groves clambering up the sides of the blue-tinted mountains, to wide flat vineyards, ever-changing vistas against the backdrop of an azure sea.
But it wasn’t the physical beauty that impressed us most. Everywhere we went on this fabulous island, we were welcomed with friendliness, humour, and unthinking generosity. At one small shop, we put our meagre drachmas together and bought mackerel, biscuits, and fizzy drinks. An elderly customer came into the shop, saw our haul, and handed each of us a thick crust of sweet bread. Thanking her, and not wanting it to go stale, we decided to sit down outside the shop and eat our lunch there and then. We settled down in the road and realised that we needed some fruit, so popped back into the shop to get some grapes. The shopkeeper quietly and without fuss popped an extra loaf of bread into my bag.
We returned a few days later to get the deposit on our fizzy drink bottles and to stock up on biscuits, chocolates, and more drinks. The kindly shopkeeper once again donated a fresh loaf of bread to the cause, refusing any payment.
On another occasion, David had run out of fuel, so I headed off to Askos to get some. There was no fuel station in the usual sense, but by pointing at things I was directed to a private house where they gravely mixed oil and petrol in my empty orange-juice container and then waved their hands around excitedly when I tried to pay.
I returned to the others, we redistributed the available fuel, and then once all the bikes were running, we went back to the same house to fill our tanks. David – who speaks Italian – heard somebody conversing in that language and asked if there was somewhere that we could change English money into drachmas. It turned out that we’d have to go back to Zakynthos Town for that kind of service, but we were invited in for a coke and our Italian-speaking friend sketched out a deal where he gave us the bank exchange rate for our tenner, less a pound for his expenses, which made everybody happy.
And then there was the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a kebab, and somehow ended up with pork, salad, chips and wine. When we had paid our bill, and got our map out to plan our nightly search for a beach to sleep on, the kindly owner insisted that we camp for the night inside the restaurant.
Fire on the mountain
After an enjoyable day hacking around in the mountains and swimming in the sea, we found ourselves running low on petrol high up on a pass. Partly to conserve fuel, and partly just for the fun of it, we freewheeled down the mountain with the engines off for about six miles. Half way down, we noticed that a bush fire had started and was blazing fiercely along the hillside, so we made a note to report it if we ever saw anyone, because this was in the deserted southern end of the island and we hadn’t seen another soul all day. We rolled to a stop outside a small dark cafe, and I went inside to see if I could sound the alert. There were a number of men drinking in the dark cave of the interior, and none of them understood what I was trying to tell them. Eventually I dragged the owner outside and pointed up at the thickening pall of smoke and the flicker of red flame that was advancing closer with every passing minute.
Now he got excited and rapped on the open door of the cafe, shouting at his customers, who came tumbling out blinking in the evening sun. After a swift discussion they tumbled back in, and then emerged once more carrying tables, chairs, table cloths, glasses, and finally a large carafe of retsina, and we all sat and drank and watched as the sun set behind the flames.
It was here that I drank my very first ouzo. I instantly became a fan, which the proprietors found entertaining. One thing led to another, and it seemed but an eye-blink before it was full dark and we started preparing to set up our tent on the nearby village green. Our new friends the cafe owners pointed out that they already had a tent pitched permanently there, and offered to lend it to us for the night. Thanking them profusely, we moved in and found that it was a trailer with double beds; complete luxury!
David has a thing about insects, and a particular hatred of wasps, against which no reasoned logic will prevail. While exploring the southern end of the island, we stopped at a waterfront cafe in Ormos Korioy where, sitting at an outside table, we ordered three large pork chops with trimmings.
It wasn’t long before a curious wasp appeared. It buzzed in a desultory fashion around our plates and was about to continue on its way to look for more waspy fare, when David started shouting and swatting at it. This made it more curious about what he was defending, and it became more insistent. By the time Andrew and I had finished our meals in unmolested comfort – apart from choking with laughter – David’s plate was surrounded by fifteen excited insects, with the man himself cursing loudly and bashing away at them with napkins and cutlery. In the end, he had to abandon his lunch to a sea of yellow bodies.
When it became time to pay, Andrew suddenly realised that he had left his money belt at our last swimming beach, so he and I rode off to retrieve it while David held the fort at the restaurant. Luckily the belt was still jammed into a rock crevice where he had left it. Andrew decided to celebrate with another swim, so I returned to a rather hungry David, who had calmed down somewhat now that his crawling plate had been cleared away by the bemused staff.
We ordered fizzy pop to pass the time until Andrew returned. As soon as David opened his bottle, a wasp arrived at full speed and with incredible precision dived straight down the neck. Giggling as David cursed, I managed to extricate it from the bottle with a straw. It walked around looking stunned, then shook off the sugary nectar and launched itself straight at David, who took off at a run. When Andrew arrived, I was speechless with laughter and David and his pursuer were starting their third circumnavigation of the restaurant.
Lumps, bumps, and pointy things
All of the bikes were by now looking a bit worse for wear. Mine had a soggy chain-tensioner and a tendency to rattle and spit oil. Andrew’s was difficult to start and so he tended to leave it running all day. David’s sucked fuel at an alarming rate, so that on three separate occasions he ran out and one of us had to go in search of supplies. Each of the machines also showed signs of being dropped, from bent controls to scratches to a smashed headlamp.
The damage was not just restricted to the machines. We were all new to motorcycling, and we were wearing oversized backpacks and riding underpowered mopeds in shorts and T-shirts on gravel roads. It’s not surprising that we endured a number of minor bumps and scrapes, and between us we sported a good selection of minor gravel rash on hands, arms and legs.
Having thoroughly explored the northern and southern corners of this triangular island, we proceeded eastward to the more populated areas near to Zakynthos Town. It was on a blind hairpin near Port Zorro that Andrew performed his most spectacular dismount, propelled face-first through the gravel by the full weight of his backpack.
Some friendly locals brought a bowl of water so that we could clean up his rather ugly gravel rash, but Andrew was not seriously injured and it was all a bit of a joke and a lucky escape until we found that he had forgotten to get inoculated for tetanus. We got directions to the nearest hospital, but when we got there we were told that we should have brought the serum with us, as they didn’t keep stocks on site. We could buy them at a chemist, but of course the chemists were now closed, so we headed up the mountain for the night.
In the morning we returned to Zakynthos Town, and Andrew popped into a chemist for some antibiotics and his tetanus jab. He came out carrying a small package and looking a bit perturbed, and it transpired that the assistant had given him a loaded syringe and mimed that he had to find somewhere quiet and stick it in his backside. Perhaps wisely declining all offers of help, Andrew disappeared behind some bushes and emerged a little later, slightly pale and shaky but with the job done.
A bit of spit and polish
It was just as well that we had returned to Zakynthos Town for Andrew’s medication, because my bike was now running very rough indeed and wouldn’t go faster than 12mph, and I reckoned there was very little life left in it. We parked as quietly as possible around the corner from the hire place, and strolled innocently past to sneak a look at the gleaming machines lined up outside the shop. Then we returned to our battered, dust-coated wrecks, with their fractured headlamps and bent pedals, leaking oil and petrol, and gave up wondering if anybody would notice the difference.
Andrew and David started hammering out some of their bent metal with rocks, while I went round wiping off the encrusted dirt and fluids with a pack of paper hankies that David had found in his backpack. Once we’d got the poor things looking as clean and straight as possible, Andrew – whose machine had fared the worst – gave his an extra shine with sun-tan oil, and we putt-putted gently around the corner to the rental shop.
The guy barely batted and eyelid, merely charging Andrew an extra fiver for his busted headlamp and bent pedal. We counted this as a favourable result, and went off to celebrate in town before the ferry office opened.
After somehow escaping the worst horrors of the infamous Belgrade Express, we finally emerged onto Greek soil and stood blinking in the hot sun of Athens.
As had become customary on this trip, Andrew and David wanted to buy souvenirs, so we took a subway to the Flea Market, where I hung around on a street corner with our packs while the others went shopping. The market was a deafening mixture of large motorcycles and shouting men selling just about any possible item that you could imagine. The hot sun was wonderful, although by the time others came back, the sweat was pouring out from beneath my hat and down my back.
Shopping duties done, we visited the Acropolis, the ancient citadel high above the city. Perhaps the most famous building there is the Parthenon, an ancient temple which was being rebuilt when we arrived (I noted in my diary that it would be impressive when the work was complete, but when I returned 15 years later, the scaffolding was still up).
From the Acropolis is was a hot hike in the midday sun to the Agora, once the civic centre of ancient Athens. Now it is a wide area of ruins with an interesting museum of salvaged statues and columns at one end, and the almost complete Temple of Hephaestus at the other. We caught the temple just as the sun was setting, and prevailed upon a friendly tourist to take a picture of us.
Patras, Kyllini and beyond
We realised that we had given ourselves far too little time to explore Athens, but it was getting late and we needed somewhere cheap – or preferably, free – to sleep, so we caught a train to Patras. We arrived after midnight, and the whole platform was lined with the sleeping forms of other interrailers, all waiting for the morning train. We set up our sleeping bags and set about preparing our dinner. Although Greece wasn’t as expensive as northern Europe, it was still much more expensive than the Eastern bloc, so rather than try to dine locally we laid out the last of our Hungarian provisions. Our knowledge of written Hungarian was shaky at best, so we weren’t entirely sure what was in the cans that we had brought from Budapest. In the event, we feasted on sardine sandwiches and chicken-flavoured baby food. Well, it could have been worse.
We had a pleasant sleep on the platform and then I was grateful for a wash in the station bathroom. From my diary, I see that this was also my first encounter with squat toilets, which I found simple enough to deal with, especially when wearing a backpack because I could rest it against the wall behind me to take the weight off my calves.
Although we were up and about at first light, some of the other interrailers were still asleep when the station opened. These unfortunates were unceremoniously and vigorously woken by the station master, who was clearly used to finding comatose bodies when he came to work, but who didn’t want his station to look like a doss-house when the first train arrived.
While waiting for our train to Kyllini where we intended to catch a ferry to Zakynthos, we were accosted by one of those travelling Americans that you bump into from time to time. His story was that he had retired at 40 and made his living buying and selling yachts, and had spent most of his time since travelling from country to country and (if he was to be believed) picking up girls. Before he left, he introduced us to a group of three girls travelling together, which caused much embarrassed eye-rolling among the six of us.
The Kyllini train was wonderful. The tracks ran straight down to the sea and just sort of petered out into the sand, at which point we climbed down directly onto the beach. The sun was high in a perfect blue sky over golden sand, and we felt that we had truly arrived in the Greece of picture postcards.
It was lunch time, we had skipped breakfast, and there was a restaurant close at hand. Of course we spoke no Greek, but Andrew and David hatched a plan to use some of the phonetic translations in the Interrail Bible. They proudly pronounced their syllables, and were escorted into the kitchen where they were invited to select the raw ingredients for our meal. When they returned to our table, they still had no idea what they had ordered, but when it arrived it was a very tasty dish of grilled purple squid with a tomato salad. Unfortunately it was also extremely expensive, blowing our budget for the day.
Later that afternoon, we secured tickets on the MV Martha (costing a mere third of the price of our lunch), and climbed onto the rooftop deck as she set sail for the Ionian island of Zakynthos.
Our Hungarian visas were expiring, and we were not keen to have another encounter with Alien Control officials, so we hoisted our backpacks and boarded the train for Athens. The route passed through communist Yugoslavia, which in 1983 was in crisis after president-for-life Tito’s death and well on its way to civil war, and it was not permitted to disembark although foreigners were allowed to travel straight through. On the other hand, we already knew that this particular train was going to terminate early in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade, where we hoped that we could get a connection through to Athens without officially crossing the border into Yugoslavia, but the immediate problem was to get out of Budapest. Concerning our route further South, all we knew for sure was that the Belgrade-Athens run was infamous for being the worst train journey in Europe.
From Hungary to Yugoslavia on the Pushkin-Athens “Express”
The Belgrade train pulled out of Budapest, and we dropped into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by the ticket inspector wanting to see our reservations. In the early hours of the morning, it was the turn of a suspicious Hungarian Passport Control officer who compared and re-compared our faces with our photographs, before grudgingly returning our passports and leaving, but not before a final check under our seats for stowaways.
Shortly after that we were awoken once again, this time by a Yugoslav ticket collector, who merely glanced at our tickets and said “ock”, which we inferred to be a phonetic rendering of “OK”, and thus marked our passing from one communist country to the next.
Our next visitor, a laconic uniformed official of some kind, woke us up for no readily apparent reason and then moved on to the next compartment. We were just drifting back into dreamland when the Yugoslav Passport Control officer arrived. For reasons known only to himself, he stamped my currency control page and David’s US visa before continuing on his way.
We were jolted out of our slumber once again when the train made an apparently unscheduled stop to let what sounded like four hundred excited locals aboard. Fortunately the tide of humanity flowed past our little compartment to another part of the train, leaving only a thick fug of cigarette smoke.
When we finally awoke naturally, it was cold and foggy outside and we had no idea where we were, except that the train was clearly running several hours late. The carriage was bucking violently from side to side, and we inferred that at least some of the delay was down to badly laid tracks. Be that as it may, we did eventually rumble haltingly into Belgrade Central Station.
From Yugoslavia to Greece on the Belgrade-Athens “Express”
The Athens Express should have left an hour before we arrived, but it was still standing at the platform so we jumped aboard. It was comprised of two parts, the forward carriages going all the way to Athens and the rear carriages stopping short in Thessaloniki. The Athens end was crowded and the Thessaloniki end was not, so bearing in mind that we would be on this train for the next 24 hours and didn’t fancy sitting in the already packed Athens-bound corridor, we joined some other Interrailers in a relatively empty compartment to the rear.
The scenery passing our window was picturesque and somewhat bucolic. The train was passing through small farms, apparently worked by couples, who got around in WWII trucks, bicycles, horse-traps and ox-carts. I tried to take some pictures but the light was bad and the train was shaking around a lot.
Yugoslavian soldiers were patrolling the corridors, and one saw my camera and came into the compartment and indicated that taking photos was forbidden. He then stood on guard to make sure that I didn’t do it again. Presumably these were secret cabbages, unsuitable for decadent capitalist eyes.
At lunch, we discovered that the litre bottle of apple juice that we had bought in Budapest was in fact apple wine. Since it had a crown top, once it was opened we had to drink the whole thing there and then, which took our mind off our silent guard who was still carefully watching our every move.
The day wore on. The scenery became more hilly and scrubby. So far, despite a certain amount of tedium, and the fact that all the toilets were blocked and there was no tap water, the train thankfully seemed not to be living up to its bad reputation, and our journey was reasonably pleasant. Perhaps the ticket inspectors hadn’t bothered us because our travelling companions were genuinely stopping in Thessaloniki, but at any rate they did not ask us to move from the compartment. We did take it in turns to wander down toward the Athens end, just to see what was going on, but it was difficult to get into even the first carriage as it was stuffy and crowded.
At some time in the late evening we crossed the border into Greece, and the Yugoslavian soldiers were replaced by Greek Customs officials, who gave us some forms and stamped us in. Just before midnight, Andrew found three seats available in one of the Athens carriages, so we hurried down there and installed ourselves before anybody else discovered them. It was a relief to know that we were now at the right end of the train, and, blocked toilets notwithstanding, conditions didn’t seem as bad as we had expected.
A few minutes later we stopped at a station. The ticket inspector shook his head and ejected us onto the platform, because this part of the train wasn’t going to Athens after all. We had a few moments before the train left the station, so we ran up and down until we located a genuine Athens carriage, and climbed aboard.
It was at this point that we realised just how lucky we had been. The floors and seats of the compartments were completely packed with travellers and their luggage, and we only just managed to squeeze our way into the corridor, where every inch of floor space was already taken up by bodies and sleeping bags. The toilets here were not just blocked, they had backed up and effluent was slopping out of the doorway and down the corridor. The odour competed with the thick fug of Russian tobacco, and at least one person was quietly throwing up.
We wrapped towels around our heads and curled up into the tiny space left to us, and thanked our lucky stars that we hadn’t been stuck on this carriage for the whole of the previous day.
We had dropped off into an uneasy sleep, when at some time in the small wee hours, the train jolted and stopped. There were some muffled bangs – presumably the disconnecting Thessaloniki carriages – and the train started to move again. We started to drift off again, but were disturbed by some guards who came trampling through our prone bodies, demanding that we all stand up and follow them. We did, and like rats following the pied piper, trooped through the rattling carriages, collecting ever more suffering souls along the way.
At the end of the train, as if by magic, there was a fresh new empty coach with working toilets. We all piled in, got comfortable, and finally fell into a proper sleep. The train was by now running two hours late, but nobody cared.
We were in the Hungarian capital of Budapest with a place to stay and with permits to move about (in a limited fashion). We had cash in our pockets, and food in our bellies. A tram ticket to anywhere cost only pennies. We were wide-eyed nineteen-year-olds in an Eastern bloc communist country and it was time to go out and see what the city had to offer.
Actually no. Andrew and David were keen to buy souvenirs, so we spent a goodly amount of the day wandering around the tourist shops until their lust for t-shirts and whips had been sated. I amused myself by looking at the architecture, which had been described as “the most picturesque of the eastern cities”, but which thus far had been largely brutalist and monolithic, immense sooty-walled five-story blocks sat upon street-level shops. I hoped that things would improve when we left the shopping district.
Citadella on Gellért Hill, Budapest
As usual, I wanted to climb to the highest point in the city, which in the case of Budapest is Gellért Hill on the Western banks of the Danube. We set off across the dirty waters of the river by means of a somewhat rickety suspension bridge. We marvelled at the way it bounced with the passage of each successive vehicle, and turned to watch the effect of a passing truck. As it passed us, one of the steel sheets that it was carrying fell off and skittered past, narrowly missing us on the pavement. We hurried on, and then began the long climb up the extensive and picturesque stairway to the Citadella.
This fortress was built by the Hapsburgs when they gained control of the country, and was supposed to be destroyed when there was later reconciliation with Austria, but somehow that never happened and it is now a tourist attraction on the basis of its views over Budapest, and the sculptures and monuments that have since been placed there.
The fortress was reasonably interesting and the views were nice enough, improving greatly once night fell. We had a beautiful purple sunset, and then the buildings in the old town came alive with light, especially the castle and parliament building which stare at each other across the water, so we headed down towards the old town to have a look.
On our way, we got distracted by the sound of dance music and, by following our ears, ended up at a bar with a large open-air dance floor. The dances were complex in their footwork but were performed by linking arms to form a scattered ring formation. We watched from a terrace, and Andrew and David practised the foot movements on the table before going down to join the fray. I elected to look after our cameras and bags, and anyway I was quite happy to sit quietly with my beer.
From my elevated position, I could just make out the fact that two of the bodies were moving contrary to the general flow, although occasionally I must admit that they did seem to be doing the right thing at the right time.
After leaving the dance venue, we scoured the streets for a restaurant, and eventually caught one that was just opening. There were white table cloths, chandeliers, a live band, and a dance floor, and we felt a little out of place in our t-shirts, shorts and hiking boots. However, the waiter welcomed us in and suggested the three-course speciality with wine. Since it was easily within our budget, we gratefully tucked in to stacks of meat and vegetables, washed down with Bulls Blood wine.
After a really enjoyable meal, we found a tram heading in the right direction and climbed aboard. We already had tickets, which was necessary because you couldn’t buy them from the driver, you had to get wads of them in advance from old men who lurked in the subways under the streets. On the tram, we stamped our ticket with the hole-punch provided, which allowed us to stay aboard for as long as we liked.
We were heading for the tram interchange at Keleti Station, and in that we were successful. However, the last connecting tram home to Rákospatak Park had long since gone, so we hailed a taxi. We were low on local currency, but the driver cheerfully accepted Sterling, so we were treated to an exhilarating high-speed ride in a little Russian car over twenty minutes of cobblestones and tram lines; it should have been quicker, but he got lost.
Dining on the Danube
We slept in fairly late, and then I went in search of a cafe that sold Hungarian Goulash (gulyás). It was more watery than I was expecting, but with a pleasant slightly spicy taste. A passing wasp touched my plate momentarily, and instantly died. Shortly after leaving the cafe, my stomach started to rumble alarmingly and I had to find a discreet place to squat.
During a day of wandering, I realised that the beauty of the city lies not in its architecture (although Buda has its nice touches), but in the atmosphere. We were already beginning to feel right at home, and the fact that the exchange rate made us relatively wealthy did not harm our view at all. Local goods were all marvellously cheap, although imported items were likely to command vastly inflated prices. All in all we did not see many overt signs of the police state, and found young Hungarians to be helpful and friendly, older people wary at first but thawing quickly, although curiously all seemed to regard England as the epitome of freedom.
In the late afternoon, we purchased tickets for a dinner cruise along the Danube. We got aboard and ordered the first course, and then stopped to consider the scene: Three penniless students on a bread-line European tour, cruising down the Danube over the beginning of a three-course meal, washed down with creamy mocha coffee and fiercely rough Bulls Blood wine. It was so silly that we got somebody to take a photograph.
Having ordered our hors d’oeuvre (a Hungarian omelette in a spicy sauce), we ordered an inter-course second coffee, only to find that we had taken too long to order the second course because the kitchen was closing. Not to be dismayed, we decided to board the next cruise and finish the meal, if only to see the reaction of the rather pretty but confused Hungarian waitress.
Unfortunately the next sailing was already fully booked, so we decided to continue our meal in a restaurant ashore. We found one complete with a local band and wandering violin soloist, and did our best to continue our interrupted meal. Shortly after beginning my main course, the waiter smashed a glass next to my plate, covering both myself and my food in glass splinters. By the time I had removed all the shards from my bleeding knuckles, he had escaped and seemed unlikely to return to replace my meal, so I strode through the now quite crowded restaurant with my plate and buttonholed him at another table.
He eventually snatched it out of my hands and scuttled away, returning with a replacement and a nasty sneer. Thenceforth his behaviour degenerated to the downright rude, culminating in an overcharged bill, so we left with a somewhat sour taste in our mouths.
Three Men in a Sauna
It was our last day in Budapest, so we said goodbye to our landlord and shouldered our packs for the first time in three days. We were intending to leave from the impressive Nyugati station, and we’d heard that there was a sauna nearby. None of us had ever been to a sauna, and the thought of a relaxing bath was very attractive after a week on the road, so we bought some food for the evening and went to rent a station left-luggage locker.
Unfortunately all the lockers were in use, so we re-shouldered both the packs and the shopping, and headed for the sauna. The sauna was closed.
According to our Interrail Bible, there was another one at the Hotel Gellért, back up the highest hill again. Our route took us through the Budapest Forest, a fairly attractive space in the middle of town, but to our mind nowhere near as nice as the well-planted Margit (Margaret) Island which is reached by means of a pair of curious T-shaped bridges.
By the time we got to the hotel, it was already half past three, but we bought tickets anyway for a sauna and massage. We were handed three small squares of cloth and were directed to the luggage store and changing rooms.
Once stripped down, we carefully examined the handkerchief-sized cloths, each of which had long tapes at two of the corners. After some puzzled discussion, we eventually decided that the best use was to tie it around the waist so that the tiny square hung down in front. Thus equipped, we boldly entered the sauna.
Once through the showers, a doorway led through a foot bath and into a large vault supported by stone columns and containing a shallow pool, a little over a metre deep, which was signposted as 36℃ at one end, and 38℃ at the other. A hurried glance at a couple of lounging gentlemen revealed that our handkerchiefs were being correctly worn, so after a brief swim we moved on through to the sauna proper.
The first room said 35-50℃ and held four wooden chairs. The second room said 50-60℃ and the smell of ammonia was more noticeable than the heat. I walked into the third and last room (60-70℃) and plonked myself down on a seat. It was only a little later that I noticed that other guests were tiptoeing around as if the tiles were hot coals, scrabbling for rubber foot mats, and perching gingerly on the arms and backs of the chairs. Actually it was pleasantly comfortable, and I sat back and relaxed. After a while I realised that there were two gentlemen seated at the back of the room, apparently reading newspapers. Closer investigation revealed that all the newsprint had run illegibly down the page, but I gave them ten out of ten for style.
We had been given numbered tickets for our massage, and every fifteen minutes or so the burly bald gentleman by the slab in the corner shouted out a number, and a customer made their way over. The only problem was that we didn’t understand Hungarian, so every time he called out, we had to check to see if anybody else was moving. Eventually there was a lull where he repeated a number several times, so figuring that it was probably our turn, we made our way over.
After a gentle, relaxing, soapy massage which took all the ache out of back-pack weary shoulders, we discovered the cold pool and the steam room. The cold pool was more of a circular well, and I dove straight in before realising just how cold it was. Frozen in shock, I forgot all about coming out of the dive until I hit the bottom hard enough to graze my knuckles. Lying on the bottom of the pool, I turned slowly onto my back and peered up at the faraway circle of light, before eventually getting enough sense together to start stroking for the surface.
After that, it was a case of alternating the steam room and sauna with the cold well and bath-temperature pool until we sadly had to drag ourselves away. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience, and I have been a confirmed lover of sauna ever since.
Back on the Rails
We’d run out of tram tickets, so we had to run for the station, where we discovered that the train timetabled for Greece was only going as far as Jugoslavia, a communist country that we knew to be completely closed to us. Never mind, we clambered aboard, and by using our usual tactics managed to commandeer a compartment to ourselves. To mark our departure from slightly wealthy to more normal Interrail living, we dined on bread and sausage, albeit washed down with a little locally-brewed cherry brandy.
We had heard rumours about the trip ahead of us, and needed to be prepared.
There was only one carriage on the train that was going to Vienna, and it was jam-packed with people. We rushed on early and all three of us managed to squeeze into a compartment but there wasn’t room for all our rucksacks, so I padlocked mine to the window outside in the corridor, between the less lucky latecomers who were squashed together out there on the floor.
We spent a fairly wretched night sat bolt upright in our cramped and stuffy compartment, although at Salzburg the corridor emptied enough to become navigable and I spent some time sitting on my rucksack in the breeze from the window. Then as we entered the final three hours of the journey, the passenger on the seat opposite to mine left the compartment , and I wasted no time reclaiming my seat and putting my feet up on his, dropping instantly into a deep and comfortable slumber.
All too soon, we found ourselves decamping somewhat dishevelled and bleary-eyed onto the platform in Vienna. An attempt to spruce ourselves up found us scalped in the station toilets and in the cafeteria; we hadn’t realised just how expensive Austria could be. We spent even more attempting to use the telephone to find a hotel, and then once again when we checked our backpacks into the left-luggage office. We hadn’t even left the station, and we had already blown a fifth of our daily budget.
We did however now have a destination in mind, a “student annexe” to a proper hotel in the centre of the city. Glad to have left our backpacks behind us, we sprinted across five-lane intersections without any understanding of how the traffic worked, found the hotel, and reserved our rooms with a handful of notes. It was so early in the morning that no rooms were yet available, but the concierge amiably agreed to let us use some showers around the corner.
Suitably refreshed, Andrew volunteered to guide us on a whistle-stop tour of the attractions of Vienna. He did a great job and we enjoyed a whirlwind of largely Gothic splendour, a pot-pourri of cathedrals, palaces and government buildings.
The city was photogenically beautiful, and everything was conveniently situated close to the central Cathedral. The prices, however, wore us down. A combination of entrance fees and our lunch in a tourist cafe wiped us out, and we began to consider our escape to less expensive climes. The Thomas Cook International Rail Timetable, arguably one of the most amazing books ever published, showed that if we ran we could still catch a train to Hungary, which was importantly and famously inexpensive.
We made a hasty (and expensive) phone call to the hotel to cancel our reservation and, thankful that we had left our packs at the station and not at the hotel, ran for the train.
The Orient Express
Almost everybody has heard of the famous Orient Express, with its art-deco rolling stock and white-tablecloth service, subject of books and films throughout the twentieth century. However, none of those trains (for there have been a number of them) were in fact “The Orient Express”, although they did use those words as part of their name. The “true” Orient Express was from 1883 to 2009 the more prosaic everyday train that ran between Paris and Vienna, with sections going on to Budapest and Bucharest. The version that we caught in 1983 lacked in every way the glamour and history of the drama phenomenon.
We managed to secure a compartment to ourselves by the now standard practice of hanging up our washing and dirty socks to make it seem less palatable to other travellers, and stretched out to enjoy the ride.
As the designated accountant for the trip, I spent some of the time totting up our IOUs and calculated that we had spent an average of £5 per person per day which, Vienna notwithstanding, meant that we were still £1 per day under budget, and we were now heading for some cheaper nations.
At the time of our visit, Hungary was still solidly behind the iron curtain. This meant that we had five separate visits from green-uniformed officials who checked for stowaways under our seats, guarded the exits at every station, and re-counted the passengers after every stop.
As soon as we disembarked at Budapest Central, we were accosted on the platform by a man in a suit and umbrella who offered us all a room to sleep in for £9 per night. Andrew bartered him down to £6, slightly below the suggested rate in Katie Woods’ wonderful Europe By Train, which we had been using as our bible.
Our new friend Leslie led us to a money exchange where we got hold of some florints, waited while we scoffed down a welcome schnitzel and chips at the station cafe, and then took us home on the tram.
We crowded into the tiny lift of his apartment block, arrived creakily at the seventh floor, and were led into the living room of his flat. The room was packed with furniture and mats, the walls a mosaic of insulating carpet tiles, and dominating it all were a 26″ television (tuned to a single channel) and an old bakelite radiogram. Leslie gave us a soft drink, some milk, and a bowl of slightly battered pears, and we settled down to sleep wherever we could find some space.
We woke up after a good night’s sleep, and asked for some hot water to make coffee. Apparently coffee is a scarce resource here, because Leslie was very shocked when we offered to make him one, and even more shocked when Andrew left some dregs in the bottom of his cup.
Suitably refreshed, we tackled the first order of the day, which was to register our new address with the Alien Control Centre. We got back on the tram, which cost only pennies per ride, and gawked out of the windows as we traversed the ugly concrete streets, alongside tiny scurrying Lada and Skoda cars, to get to the central police station.
Leslie handled the registration process, which involved a lot of arm-waving and discussion, while the three of us perspired freely while hemmed in and hustled about by machine-gun toting henchmen. It seemed to end well, though, because we left with papers that entitled us to stay for three days as long as we did not leave the capital city.
There used to be a tradition among a certain class of English gentlemen that when the firstborn son came of age, he set off on a “Grand Tour” around the cities of Europe. Ostensibly this was to educate him in the classics of art and architecture, but it was also his first and only chance to spread his wings and do some growing up on his own. On his return, he was expected to rejoin Society as a fully formed and well-adjusted individual who had had his fun (and, possibly, sown some wild oats) far from the critical eyes of Polite Society, before taking up the serious business of marriage, children and the family estate.
That era is of course long gone, and I certainly didn’t belong to the titled or monied class, but as an eighteen-year old who had just left home to start out at university, the idea had a rather splendid appeal. I got together with David and Andrew, my closest friends from school, and bought an ‘Interrail’ ticket, available to anyone under the age of 26 and valid for 30 days on any train in the whole of Europe.
It was our first taste of independent travel, and for me it was the trigger for a lifetime of flitting from place to place, never quite settled, always moving on. This is the tale of that first trip, when, wide-eyed and naive and wet behind the ears, we set out with empty wallets, ridiculously heavy backpacks, and a wide-eyed wonder at the world beyond our borders.
Free train to Loch Ness (Scotland)
Interrail were doing a deal whereby if we purchased the ticket early enough, we received a ‘free ticket to anywhere’. Having never travelled together before, or indeed done any long distance train travel, we decided to do a trial run on the longest train journey available to us over the Easter weekend. After careful perusal of the timetables, we figured out that we just had time to take the train from London in South East England to Inverness in North East Scotland, hike to the famous Loch Ness, camp overnight on its shores, and then turn back around and go home again.
We had a fine old time, and took the opportunity to shake down our hiking and camping gear, and work out what we would take with us when we left for Europe a few months later.
London to Dover (England)
September soon arrived. Since our Interrail ticket was not valid in the country of purchase, David and I chose the cheap option of a bus to Dover to catch our ferry to France, where we could start our rail journey with an overnight train to Paris. For reasons that remain obscure, Andrew chose not to travel with us, but instead took a train. David and I arrived at the port without any problems, but the ferry to Calais began to board with no sign of Andrew. We already had tickets so we got on the boat anyway. After a look around the decks, we tried to page him on the intercom, but with no result so we had to assume that he was not on board.
Arriving in Calais with an hour to kill before the next ferry arrived – hopefully with Andrew aboard – we went for a wander. We established that there seemed to be two “cathedrals”, but one was derelict and the other was the town hall, which I later described in my diary as “a technicolor version of Big Ben”
We were particularly enamoured by the local treatment of railway crossings. If the barriers were down across the road, it simply meant that the drivers needed to slalom around them without slowing. Pedestrians just ambled across whether the barriers were up or down. On one occasion, there was actually a train parked across the road, presumably waiting for a signal, but the first pedestrian to reach it simply opened a door, stepped into the carriage and out of the door on the other side, the rest of us trooping after.
Andrew wasn’t on the second ferry either.
Remember that this was 1983, well before the invention of mobile phones. We had previously arranged for a relative to act as a message depot if we ever got separated while travelling, so after spending some time trying to understand the labyrinthine French public telephone system, we finally received a message that Andrew was going to be on the second ferry after ours. Apparently he had got on a London bus to the railway station, but the bus had crashed, resulting in him catching the wrong train which went to the wrong side of Dover. When he finally arrived at the ferry port, out of breath from running across the town, they told him that his ticket wasn’t valid until the third ferry.
The problem with this was that he would arrive after the last train had left Calais for the night. We had booked no accommodation because we had intended to sleep on the train to Paris, but the next departure after the ferry was due to arrive didn’t leave until 05:30 the following morning. In fact, once his ferry docked at 20:00 there weren’t any trains leaving for anywhere.
We suddenly recognised Andrew standing at the ferry port. His boat had come in early, and so we all sprinted with our 35lb backpacks to the station and boarded the only remaining train. Apparently it was going to Italy via Switzerland.
Andrew and David curled up on their seats, and I chose to stretch out on the floor, which was comfortable enough albeit a little bone-shaking over the points. We had come up with a new itinerary, intending to sleep until our early morning arrival in Basel, and then change for Munich, ultimately bound for the fabled fairy-tale castles of Fűssen. David and I were up and ready and hopped off when the train stopped, but Andrew had found a hot-water basin in a carriage further up and decided that he just had time to have a quick shave.
There were no open borders back in 1983. David and I headed for Customs, where our shiny blue-and-silver passports got us waved through without any attention. From behind the barrier, we noticed that Andrew’s carriage had been disconnected and was being shunted out of the station. Some distance from the platform, he suddenly appeared at a doorway, leaped out and headed back for the station, waving his passport in the air as he ran.
We repaired to the station buffet and broke our fast with coffee and a sausage roll, congratulating ourselves on having finally arrived somewhere more or less as planned and more or less together. As we lingered over coffee and made smug notes in our diaries, our Munich train rolled out of the station.
According to the timetable, it was theoretically possible to catch another Munich train from Basel’s other station, a tram ride away. “Streetcar Number 2” said a helpful uniformed gentleman, but that tram left without us while we were still trying to understand the ticket machine. Eventually Andrew managed to organise the correct change, and we purchased 60 minutes of travel time. A Number 6 passed, then another Number 6, but no Number 2. Suddenly we realised that the Number 6 also went to Badischer Bahnhof, climbed aboard the third one, leaped out at the station and sprinted across a busy street and onto the deserted platform. We’d missed the Munich train by three minutes.
It was still before 09:00 on our first day in Europe. A close perusal of the timetable revealed that, with a couple of changes, we could get to Munich by 17:00. The first train didn’t leave for a while, so we headed to the station bathroom for a wash and, for Andrew, for the second half of his shave.
After a snack of chocolate bars and iced tea, we climbed aboard the 08:36 to Singen. We’d already noticed that some trains were made up of a mixture of rolling stock from different countries, and this was our first Deutsche Bahn carriage, with compartments which boasted seats that converted into couchettes. We resolved to look out for more of these carriages in future.
We arrived in Singen with 6 minutes to transfer to the Lindau train, and made it with time to spare. We even managed to score another DB carriage, although when David pulled the seat out to form a couchette, the whole thing fell off the wall. As we were trying to quietly put it back together again, we congratulated one another on having, nevertheless, executed a flawless train connection for the first time. Then the ticket inspector arrived and told us that we were in the wrong carriage, and that the train was being split in two and we were at the wrong end of it. We sprinted up the corridor and just managed to jump the gap before our carriage moved off.
Finally, for the first time on this trip, we had a chance to sit quietly and look at the scenery. The train was zig-zagging back and forth between Germany and Switzerland, allowing us to admire the picturesque Swiss villages, partially obscured by low-lying clouds.
In Lindau, we wound our way between groups of souvenir-buying tourists and found a cafe with views across Bodensee (Lake Constance). The lake was very attractive, and although it was warm and sunny, there were thunderous cloud formations rising above the Swiss Alps.
The cafe prices were rather high for our shallow pockets, but as we sipped our coffee we discovered that they were happy to sell us individual slices of bread, which we could then load up with sliced German sausage that we had purchased earlier from a butcher.
Having bought some more supplies, we boarded the correct train at the correct time, and even got a DB carriage. There was nobody else in our six-seater compartment, so we converted all the seats to give ourselves a big flat space to lounge around in, and then – for the first time since leaving England – we dared to take off our boots.
Fűssen / Neuschwanstein (Germany)
Several changes later, including one missed connection and the wrong end of another splitting train, we arrived in the town of Fűssen. I ruefully tallied our record of correctly executed train connections in my diary: a grand total of One. Obviously there was more to this Interrail business than met the eye, but at least we could only improve.
We’d bumped into another pair of Interrailers on the train who already knew the lie of the land, so they took us on a night-time hike to a viewpoint where we could catch a glimpse of the famous castles. There are two of them, one white and one yellow, and we stared up at them spotlit against the pitch-black mountainsides, hanging up there in the stars. This was new, this was different, this was the sort of thing that we wanted to experience. We resolved to climb up to at least one of them in the morning.
While our guides returned to their hostel, we found a flat piece of grass and pitched our tent in pitch darkness, cooking tinned chicken and rice before falling into a deep and satisfied sleep.
We woke and struck camp early; necessarily so, because we had pitched our tent in the grounds of a local hotel, within view of the breakfast room, and we thought it politic to be gone before anybody noticed. We washed up and performed our ablutions down the road in the surprisingly warm waters of the Alpensee, which stands at the very foot of the Alps in a glaciated basin, and began the long climb up to the fairy-tale white castle above.
The path lead through dark and dripping pine forests, hewn out of the mud and edged with railway sleepers, with each step an awkward one-and-a-half strides. Humping metal-framed 16kg rucksacks was a bit of a chore, but finally we reached the top.
Schloss Neuschwanstein (then called Neu Hohenschwangau) was built and inhabited by “Mad King Ludwig” in the late 19th Century. He had spent the happiest days of his youth in his father’s refurbished castle, the gothic yellow Hohenschwangau that we had seen at a distance the night before. Although still rich and powerful, Ludwig’s sovereignty of the kingdom of Bavaria had been removed during a deal with Prussia, so he had it in his mind to create a small private “kingdom” which was more true to his vision of romantic Bavarian tradition. As his power dwindled, he began tinkering with the plans, focussing on the legends of the Knights Templar of the Holy Grail as his model.
The result is a candied confection of Gothic splendour mixed with the very latest in 1860s convenience and technology. The walls are painted with spectacular friezes from German legends, separated by buttresses painted in a crazy clash of red, blue, green and yellow. The Gothic carvings in the master bedroom are superb (apparently taking 14 master carvers 4 years to complete), and the chandeliers throughout are modelled on Byzantine crowns in gilt brass with coloured glass gems. The kitchens are massive, and filled with labour-saving devices such as rotisseries driven by smoke turbines.
The difficult but picturesque building site was originally chosen because it could be viewed dramatically from a suspended foot-bridge, the Marienbrűcke, that Ludwig’s father Maximillian had had built as a birthday present for his mountain-climbing consort, Marie. It was a hard climb up to the bridge, but worth it for the views.
Rain had begun to fall as we began our descent, this time running with our backpacks crashing around us at that wretched step-and-a-half, step-and-a-half cadence, but regardless of our efforts, we were soaked to the skin by the time we reached Fűssen. We were out of cash, but one of us had a credit card, so we treated ourselves to a decent Bavarian meal in the touristy Restaurant am Park.
On the way to Munich, we met a girl from Chicago who recommended the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl for its “ethnic atmosphere”, so we dropped in to see if we could get a spot of dinner.
The enormous underground cavern was awash with music and song, packed with beer-mug thumping locals in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats. We fought our way through to an opening on a long trestle table, and tried to attract the eye of one of the impatient serving girls. Even though I spoke reasonable schoolboy German and was theoretically able to communicate effectively, everything had to be shouted over the deafening music and laughter, and the serving system proved incomprehensible. The waitresses, bulging enticingly in our teenage eyes from their traditional dirndls, seemed overwhelmed and somewhat grumpy. Some girls seemed to serve only food, and others only litres of beer, but it was never clear which we were going to get. We did, however, end up with three steins of amber nectar and a single meal of sausage and sauerkraut and sweet pastries, which we shared. Then a nearby party moved away, leaving unfinished beers, so we commandeered them, at which point the waitresses got the idea and kept bringing steins to us, whether we had specifically ordered them or not.
When we eventually staggered out into a riotous evening of street entertainers performing in the Gothic shadows of central Munich, we were perhaps a little tipsy, and somehow managed to lose Andrew on the way back to the station. Luckily we had arranged a meeting point at Platform 15, where we decanted ourselves aboard the night train to Vienna.