28 Sep 2016

Train 463 - The Kalman Imre from Munich to Budapest

Tonight's journey is my first taste of a Hungarian train. At first sight it looks quite unusual here on platform 14 of Munich HBF, surrounded by modern high speed (ICE) trains. The Kalman Imre is actually more than one train at this stage of the night. It is made up of just five carriages - a sleeper and a coach to Budapest, a sleeper and a coach to Zagreb and a coach to Venice. During the night there will be much railway shuffling. More of this later.

My carriage is number 263, in the middle of the train. It is a distinctive and rare looking Hungarian sleeper, painted light blue. At one end a steward called Oscar greets genuine passengers and stops drunk German's looking for the last train to Stuttgart from getting onto his carriage. His face says he is used to this. He studies my paperwork and ushers me aboard. I'm in berth 11, which happens to be the very first one in the carriage. That's bad news for me as it will be a bumpy night over the wheels, but at least the toilets are at the other end. The carriage next door is locked off to prevent any InterRailers heading to Croatia sneaking in. I have booked a single berth compartment, which in effect is just blocking off a three berth one and using it for single occupancy. As I booked it at the last minute I have had to pay an exorbitant "full" fare (£170), but all my other plans work around this train so I have taken the hit. By comparison, on the Romanian leg later in the week, the same set up and nearly twice the distance, cost me £80.

On the plus side the sheets are clean and the air conditioning works. It's slightly grubby, but not really dirty. The bin contains a few cigarette butts. So much for non smoking. I lay my things out and settle in.  We set off on time, and it's immediately clear I should have taken some sea sickness pills. The carriage bounces along, swaying from side to side as we accelerate. There isn't much to do, and it's been a long day so my plan is to sleep for as long as possible. 

Oscar comes to see each passenger to explain how the lights and the door locks work. There are three locks on the inside of my door, and I'm not sure why we need to be locked down like Fort Knox tonight. With that done he wishes me goodnight, but before he leaves I ask him for a spare pillow. He stares at me blankly, so I show him my single pillow and hold up two fingers. "One bed, one pillow" he says. "But I have paid for three beds.." I remind him. He ignores this and retreats down the corridor. I thank him for his help and go digging in my bag for the secret key. If you have followed my adventures before you will know that I can open pretty much any door or compartment on most trains. All I need to do here is unlock and pull down an unused berth and then get a pillow myself. I hope you don't think this makes me a bad person. With this secretive pillow hijack completed, Oscar then surprises me by returning with the fabled second pillow. I don't think he notices what I have done, which is just as well. This has happened to me before, and my guess is that he had not realised I had bought a single compartment, maybe he was thinking I was just a lucky lone passenger in a triple. After this incident he seemed much more helpful..

As directed, I locked up my door, and turned in straight away. It was a good plan but after about half an hour I had to rethink a few things. The problem was that the train was constantly speeding up then braking. Braking much harder than I had ever experienced on a train - this was the deceleration of a jet aircraft landing on a short run way. Surely trains would have seat belts if this were envisaged? I was okay as my berth was across the direction of travel, but everything else in the compartment was hitting me or something else as the driver braked. Even my bag was landing on my bed. I put the light back on and decided to just lay everything flat on the floor so nothing could fly away. With this done I wedged myself into the narrow bed and tried to drift off. 

The train had other ideas. Over the next six hours I was put through some fairly intensive Hungarian train passenger crash test dummy testing. Every time we stopped the steward dropped the steps to pick up non existent passengers. This made a noise like a small family car being dropped upside down onto concrete from about 10 feet. The alarm kept on going off - I didn't know what this meant, so like everyone else I ignored it. The train decoupled and recouped five times (that I counted) - with the unsurprising banging and crashing that usually accompanies such a procedure. Several times we must have switched engines as the power went off. In the compartment this was signalled by loss of lighting and air conditioning. The quality of my sleep was thus probably on par with a foot soldier on night sentry duty in the Vietnam (American) war. I only got few short bursts of fatigued sleep, but I made the best of it.  

For some reason I had imagined there would be border formalities during the journey, but of course I was wrong - this journey was all inside the EU and the Schengen rules were in play. We spent much of the night in Austria, and after leaving Vienna at 06.00 we then crossed into Hungary at about 07.30. I lay on my bed dressed and ready for action but dozing occasionally until Oscar served me a breakfast tray at about 08.00. This consisted of a risky chicken sandwich, a croissant in a sealed bag that was guaranteed to be fresh for several years, and instant coffee. I passed on the food, but needed the caffeine badly. We pulled into Budapest Keleti station at 09.24. As The Four Seasons would say, "Oh what a night"..

Oscar, still in nice first class mode, helped be get my bag onto the platform and wished me a good day. The sun was shining, and the station felt different to those of the day before - less ordered and full of people selling random things. This included lots of books. I contemplated picking up a cheap copy of "The Greatest Chess Moments of the Twentieth Century" before deciding I needed to find a shower as a priority. Shopping for exotic paperbacks could come later. Doing my best to avoid a classic train station taxi scam, I still managed to fall for a mild version of the train station taxi scam, but it was just a non metered slightly inflated price in Euros, nothing to feel too bad about.

Time to explore Budapest, which was looking amazing in the late September sunshine.

27 Sep 2016

The Duplex TGV from Paris to Munich

Paris Gare d'Est is a charming and rather old school French railway station. By modern standards it's simple, but perfectly formed. The atmosphere is relaxed, but there are signs of obvious tension around the edges. Paris has suffered so much and security is obviously at a heightened state, especially at railway stations. My immediate priority on arrival is an emergency ablution pit stop. I'm not well. As I have a first class ticket for my next train, I head straight for the SNCF Grand Voyage lounge. Outside the lounge are a pair of female soldiers dressed in full combats. They are armed not with assault rifles, but with heavy machine guns so large it makes them look like small soldiers. It's a sign of the times.

Like a puzzle from the "Crystal Maze" television show, the door to the lounge does not open. At first I think it's a door controlled by a sensor, so I move about, gently at first, and eventually even throwing some shapes. The door stays firmly closed. I look around feeling foolish, but there is no obvious sign of how to get in. The soldiers stare but offer no guidance. In the end I have to wait for a regular who shows me the secret button, hidden on a pole behind a bush. Very cunning.

I have an hour or so to wait for the 9577 TGV to Munich. Munich doesn't really feature much as a connecting stop in the original timetable of the Orient Express, as Vienna was the major rail junction. Here trains headed for either Bucharest or Istanbul. Today Munich is a better staging post for me going west, as it gives me access to a connecting sleeper train tonight headed for Budapest. There are several trains headed from Paris to Munich, mainly German ICE trains, but once a day there is also a TGV operated jointly by DB and SNCF. 

The "duplex" or "double decker" trains are huge, and the silver locomotives look very impressive. Just in case you might not be aware, the "Double Deckers" was a slightly cult and influential British children's television show in the 1970's. There is a catchy theme tune too, but I shall spare you from that here. My service today is the latest (third generation) version of this TGV type, known as the EuroDuplex. It's a cool train, and I don't care if you think I'm a train spotter for saying so.

I head for carriage 11, seat 93 - it's a top deck seat in first class. I had booked a seat facing the direction of travel, and seat 93 isn't. The reason for this as a I later discover, is that the train changes direction in Stuttgart. Right on time at 15.55 we cruise out of Paris, and once out of the suburbs we quickly break the 300 km/h barrier. It feels effortless and the ride is incredibly smooth. This is a journey to savour as the seats are very comfy and I'm pretty tired. I fall asleep almost immediately and wake up in Strasbourg, 1 hour and 40 minutes later. 

The staff on the train are great. They all speak German, French and some English. In the end I give up with my French, as I don't want to accidentally address a German in French, so I just stick to English. It seems best all round. A friendly chap with a cap at a jaunty angle and a pierced ear takes regular orders for food and drink. I'm just not feeling well enough to eat, but I manage to drink lots of water.

After a relaxing afternoon passing through some great scenery the train glides into Munich at 21.30, the end of the line for this service. Munich is not a particularly modern or beautiful station, but it has a huge number of platforms. This leg has been easy, comfortable and shows off all that is good about European high speed rail. 

My plan here is to hold my own mini Oktoberfest in the two hours I have before my next train. One of the helpful DB staff confirms that I need to be on platform 14 at 23.35 for Budapest. As I head for a beer keller I have to do a bit of a double take in the station concourse. Nearly everyone is dressed in lederhosen or traditional costume. The men look slightly comical and the women look just lovely. Oktoberfest is a big deal locally as well as internationally, and I feel quite underdressed. I hope to return to Munich later this trip, as the prices for rooms are incredibly high in September. Tonight I'm going to keep heading east.

Zen and the art of not missing your Eurostar

I had only been on the Eurostar once before, and that was 18 years ago. Not only did they now depart from the reborn St Pancras station (rather than Waterloo), but there were a new generation of trains. I liked the check in system at St Pancras, and was only sad that that the champagne bar above the platform was closed for my visit. Security and immigration were a doddle, and my luck was in - I found a seat, from which I people watched and nursed my stomach, ravished by cramps from something I had eaten that it clearly didn't agree with. 

There were three trains departing in the next hour, one to Disneyland, one to Paris and one to Brussels. Identifying passengers headed to Disneyland was easy. They were either (a) wearing Mickey Mouse ears, or (b) carrying vast quantities of Trans-Atlantic baggage in suitably garish colours, or (c) all of the above. Once they had set off I readied myself, but an announcement was made about a "small technical problem" with our train. The delay was only 20 minutes, but it made me think about the consequences for anyone with a tight connection.

I positioned myself with a hopeful crowd at the escalator gate to platform 9, and waited for the doors to open. Propelled forward amidst a party of school kids, I was distinguishable on the escalator as the only person not wearing a red school baseball cap. Up on the platform there were two trains, our delayed service and the next one, and I quickly found carriage number four on board my train - a new E320 Eurostar. What was unusual about my carriage was it had a film crew on board, the full smash with loads of equipment. I found a rather nice PR lady sat in my seat. We agreed that it was my seat, and with a lovely smile she admitted that she didn't even have a reservation. "We booked the whole carriage" she explained. A few of the production crew were surprised I had a ticket in the middle of their film set, but we agreed I had a valid ticket for seat 63 in coach 4.

A couple of the creatives gave me a good look over, and I heard one woman say to the other "he's okay there". It seemed like I might have a part to play, so kept quiet about my lack of an Equity card. They were all rather nice and chatty, like I might be in the green room before a popular TV show. I only hoped make up were on board too. It was about at this time that one of the film construction crew felt something was wrong. "This is your train?" he asked me. I thought it was much my train as his train, but I got my ticket out once again and showed him too, as if to make my presence legitimate to the film crew. He pondered over it for some time. "But this is the 11.24 - you are on the 10.24 - I thought we had the whole of this carriage". And so the situation dawned on me. Opposite me on platform 10 was my train, about to depart. It was a cock up of Mr Bean proportions, and all my fault. How could I be such a fool? I was supposed to be a long range rail adventurer, but yet I had just made the most basic schoolboy error in my blind rush for baggage space. I then got to re-enact that train scene from the much under rated 1980's John Cleese comedy "Clockwise". 

I looked at both end doors to the carriage I was in, now blocked by cameras and scaffolding, said goodbye to the posh PR lady and legged it. "You're on the wrong train" the conductor told me as I got myself back onto the platform. Top marks for stating the obvious, if only he had been there to direct me before I boarded. Fortunately I didn't have time to be embarrassed. My train was making final preparations to depart, but as a result of the delay it wasn't clear exactly when. My bag was still in the wrong train at the other end of the coach. I had to make this my priority, so ran down the platform and extracted it. I almost made a clean getaway, but was blocked by more film type scaffolding being carried on. Once I had persuaded them to reverse, I made it back out and bundled myself and my luggage into the door of the train on the opposite platform. Thank heavens my bag only weighs 13 kg this trip. I'm sure it wasn't the advertised platform, but it was clear on the door display, and I just hadn't paid attention. I hadn't even had time to find out what the film was. Had I just turned down a part in a Hollywood blockbuster? Only time will tell, as I shall recognise my carriage and my seat on the set.

I was surprised to find space for my bag as the last passenger on the train, but I did. I was in second class but the seats were spacious enough. The carriage was a mixed bag of businessmen on cheap tickets, a party of school children (the red caps - I should have followed teacher) and well dressed women off for some major retail therapy. I hope they hadn't seen my performance on the platform. No one seemed to notice me inside, so I shuffled to my seat and hoped that I might have got away with it and my rail adventurer credibility was still in tact.

I'm a big believer in the luck that comes from something going wrong early in an adventure. What had just taken place was a timely reminder, a "get a grip" moment, but hopefully the only major glitch for this mission.

Emerging an hour or so later from the channel tunnel, we streaked through the French countryside towards Paris at just under 300 km/h. The sun came out as we ventured further inland, something improved my mood somewhat. With my minimalist packing I was dressed in shorts and sandals. I must have been thinking Greek beach when I chose my wardrobe. Although full, I was happy with my big new seat in second class, if only I wasn't feeling a bit unwell. Anyway, there was no time to get depressed - I had some more trains to catch today.

21 Sep 2016

The Caledonian Sleeper from Edinburgh to London

It feels good to be on the move again. Tonight's journey was not originally planned as part of my London - Istanbul trip, a recreation of the Orient Express for the modern age. I thought I would be starting my trip in London, but in fact I'm a few hundred miles further away from the start line, in Edinburgh. 

Waverley Station has a strange atmosphere on a Sunday night. Police officers patrol a fairly deserted concourse. The bar is busy with stag and hen parties winding down after a busy weekend. They mix rather uncomfortably with walkers and cyclists returning from the mountains dressed in a uniform of lycra and sporting impressive outward bound accessories.

The Caledonian Sleeper sits at platform 11 waiting for its passengers. There is no hurry. You can get on  40 minutes before it sets off. I head for carriage C and "check in" with the stewardess. Angela gives me the impression that she has been doing this for years. To her the lifestyle is a vocation, a calling. We quickly establish that I'm having a bacon roll for breakfast and I know the drill. She let's me on, after scribbling something artistic but without any obvious meaning on my ticket. 

I dump my bag in my compartment and head for the bar carriage. It's not the nicest type in the Caledonian Sleeper fleet (they have leather sofas) but is nonetheless comfy enough. I treat myself to a late night cheese plate and a glass of Chilean merlot. Hopefully they will help me sleep without strange dreams. I know from experience that there is no point trying to go to bed before Carstairs, where the train gets connected to the connecting Glasgow service with some fairly serious jolts and bangs. The bar carriage is busy but not full. As always it's a mixture of tourists, businessmen, priests and politicians heading for a week in London. I can't quite work out the accent of the man sat opposite me, maybe it's Danish. He feasts on haggis, heaps and taties, washed down with a bottle of Irn Bru and some ice. 

Back in my compartment I settle in to my eight by four foot space. The carriage is ancient, but at least everything works. The bedding is surprisingly nice, and once I have figured out how to turn off all the lights, I manage to get a few hours reasonable sleep. 

I have worked out from past experience that breakfast served in your compartment sounds good, but impacts on sleep, as one feels the need to get up and dressed before it actually arrives. Instead I ask to have it served in the bar. The first light of dawn backlights Watford Junction station as I enjoy a reasonable bacon roll and a terrible cup of instant coffee. Great Britain is an age behind Western Europe in train coffee terms, and I hope it catches up soon.

Euston has to be one of the most depressing stations in England to arrive in. We come to a halt at platform one in the underground bunker of platforms. It takes me five minutes to walk the length of the extended train and get out into the concourse. 

I need to get into my rail adventurer mode today. This means never passing on the opportunity to eat or get clean. Euston has a lounge with showers, so I take full advantage. Depressingly without thought for passenger needs, there is no washbasin in the shower room, so I shave and brush my teeth in the shower. Hard core InterRailing on day one!

Ready for the day ahead I stroll over to St Pancras and drink expensive coffee in Searcys Bar until it's time to check in for the next leg, to Paris.

20 Sep 2016

Final Preparations for the Orient Express

Next week I am getting back on the rails and heading for Istanbul, a journey I last completed in the 1980's. Not surprisingly I have been doing some packing, much reading of Seat 61 (it feels like I have been cramming train times and numbers for some sort of European Interail qualification), and a bit of reflection on what I got out of Interrail all those years ago - and what I want to get out of this trip.

First the bad news. Interrail isn't as simple as it used to be. I would expect it to be more expensive, but it's also now more complicated than it used to be. The need for reservations and supplements seems now to undermine the freedom that it once gave me. Interrailler's also seem on occasions to be second class citizens, with limited open reservations on some trains. It used to be great to be able to hop on any train and sort it out with the conductor in the old days, but I'm not convinced that is going to work any more. Add to this that I'm keen for a proper bed on the night trains, and a supplement and reservation is needed for any night trains anyway. The price of these at short notice seems the same with or without an Interrail ticket on some of the trains I need to use. To cut a long story short, I'm going to buy my tickets one by one, as I go along. This will be probably be slightly more expensive, but it gives me ultimate flexibility. I will pay more for those last minute tickets, but it seems like the way to go to feel "free". Interrail is just not the deal it once was. My 2nd class £150 "all you can eat" for a month student ticket in 1987 now costs £489 (as an over 26 year old) before adding on the reservation supplements, which will be several hundred pounds with the sleepers, and of course the Eurostar, which also isn't included.

There are some other challenges too. The territorial and political landscape of Europe is quite different in some places to how it looked 30 years ago. Last time I went to Istanbul I travelled through Yugoslavia and on to Greece, crossing from Thessaloniki into Turkey. I had to totally avoid countries behind the Iron Curtain, such as Bulgaria and Hungary. These days there is no longer a rail link between Greece and Turkey, but on the plus side, Eastern Europe is mainly visa free. It's not an easy time to be travelling in some of these parts, and I have considered my security carefully. There are of course risks, but to me they are acceptable.

I have packed my train kit up this week. I'm trying to carry far less than I normally do for the Siberian winter. I have just a single big bag, and if my scales are right, it only weighs 13kg. Add to this my mobile office - a shoulder camera bag, and its the most "alpinist" I have ever been on my rail adventures so far. In case you were wondering, the Iban shield is staying at home, it just lives in my hallway!

I was thinking over breakfast yesterday about my experiences from all that time ago, and what advice my 21 year old self would now give my 49 year old self getting back on the rails of Southern Europe. As a student I might have had little money, but I also had few worries and no real perception of possible dangers or what might go wrong. Young people might not have great life experience, but they are mainly positive and optimistic. Taking chances and being unorganised are all part of the Interrail spirit of adventure. These days I tend to over plan (is there such a thing?) and work through endless scenarios of disaster before setting off. So I think my student self would probably tell me to "chill out", relax, and have fun. Being a happy Interrailer is all about living in the moment and not worrying about the past or the future. My 49 year old self would probably encourage my younger self to engage better with local people, avoid McDonalds at all costs, and to try and speak a few words of local lingo.

I know the route I'm planning to take now, at least as far as Istanbul. After some research on the original route of the Orient Express, I realise that there are several routes, and none can be achieved exactly in the modern world as they were in the last century. I'm going to travel from Paris to Munich, Munich to Budapest, Budapest to Bucharest, then try my luck at the train and bus routing from Bucharest to Istanbul. The engineering works on the railway lines in and out of Turkey have made train travel all the way impossible for several years now. I had been waiting for this to be fixed, but my impatience has got the better of me - I'm going for it,  train or no train for the last leg from the Turkish border into Istanbul. I'm planning to exit Turkey via Sofia, and then decide if I'm going south to Greece, or north to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The interweb has of course made planning such a journey much easier than it was in the 1980's. I won't carry a printed timetable with me this trip. A combination of Seat 61, and the DB navigator app give me almost all that is needed. Just add TripAdvisor for some ideas on accommodation and what to see, and I have nearly all that I need. You would think it would be easier to book tickets too, but I have found this quite hard so far, in the end buying some of my tickets over the phone. Many can only be purchased cost effectively at the station in the local country. I had the most luck with Voyages SNCF.

I shall update as the journey progresses. Its not too late to join in!