Tag Archives: sleeper

The Joy of Tracks

Trakai Castle

Trakai Castle

On Saturday I took a train trip to Trakai, which is about half an hour west of Vilnius. It is in the middle of the Trakai Historical National Park and was once home to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The town of Trakai is built between large natural lakes and has a fairytale island castle in the middle of one  of them!

Frozen lake Bernardinai

Frozen lake Bernardinai

The lakes were completely frozen when I visited, making for some picturesque vistas, milling tourists, a traditional kibinai van (kibinai are a bit like small Cornish pasties), and assorted small children skating on the ice.

Proper Ice Skating

Proper Ice Skating

It wasn’t so much the lakes and castle that excited me, pretty though they were, but the journey there. You can get both the bus and the train from Vilnius to Trakai, but I was urged to get the bus as it goes more frequently. But it’s been nearly two years since I first took a train in another country and I was desperate for some foreign rail travel. Plus it meant I got a lie-in, so it was off to Vilnius Railway Station, another grand, high-ceiling-ed affair, the towering facade evoking anticipation of adventure.

Vilnius Railway Station

Vilnius Railway Station

Getting on a train is so straightforward, but has so many possibilities. Not so much in the UK, where train travel is cramped & expensive and distances short, but international stations are so atmospheric. From having separate local and international ticket offices to having distant destinations on the departure board, to the detail and grandiosity of the buildings – Vilnius station has a wolf (which legend says inspired Gediminas to build the city) proudly howling from one of its stuccoed buildings.

Vilnius Wolf

Vilnius Wolf

And then you step onto the platform and see the expanse of tracks and carriages, any one of them waiting to take you through obscure little towns to foreign cities. The platforms aren’t even raised, so there’s no barrier to getting to the platform you need – you can just walk across the tracks. Then you see carriages heave into view. Has that huge, unhurried train at the other side of the station come from Russia? Where is it going? Where will it stop on its way? How long have its passengers been on it? Who are they going to see? Who are they travelling with? As you watch them get off one of the longer sleeper trains, it’s clear there are a huge variety of travellers – families with kids on a Christmas visit to the city, perhaps for the Christmas festival or perhaps to see grandparents. Young men waiting  nervously on the platform with roses for their girlfriends, people with huge suitcases coming home after some time away. Smokers who’ve been in the carriage so long between stops they first thing they do is smoke a cigarette of relief, standing with their luggage while they take in the comfort of a journey finished.

Trakai Train

Trakai Train

And then I get to set off on my short trip, through countryside unfamiliar enough to me that I could pretend for half an  hour I was off on a much longer journey. My old Soviet train creaked into the station the insides of the carriage, clean, wide, comfortable, but riveted together in the most sturdy fashion.

Joan Aiken Woods

Joan Aiken Woods

We creaked out of the station,  leaving the industrial and revolution-worn suburbs, then quickly we were creaking through the bleak forests I’d seen from the plane, dotted with ramshackle wooden houses – their bright colours faded with soot, with frozen lakes adjacent holding the remnants of their inhabitants’ summers:

Frozen Countryside Lakes

Frozen Countryside Lakes

Through snow covered tracks, we passed into tiny local stations,

Voke Station

Voke Station

and just as quickly we were back in industrial suburbs, driving past Cyrillic printed freight containers, concrete cooling towers – but all of it so refreshingly different to my eyes that it I had half an hour happily imagining a half day’s worth of escape to somewhere new.

Concrete Industry

Concrete Industry

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Filed under Europe, Food & Drink, Lithuania, Railways, Travel

Concrete Blocs

Brasov Rail Station

Aaaaand we’re on a train again. I’m actually really sad to be leaving Brasov and especially our host Angi. Even though three days isn’t enough to know what somewhere’s really like, the time we have spent here has been very welcoming and a welcome change from the capital cities we’ve been to so far.

Dave’s instax of Angi – she says: “Still trying to get wiser”

But it’s time to move on to the next leg of our journey, and head for Veliko, the ancient capital of Bulgaria. As we’re now going straight from Brasov and not Bucharest, we had a quick look to see if there was a more direct way to get there than changing in the Romanian capital, but it turns out not. In fact type into google “how to get to Veliko from Romania” and you will get a host of forums urging you to avoid the daily Veliko train from Bucharest (actually the sleeper that goes right through to Istanbul) and take the bus instead – apparently it’s quicker, more frequent, more comfortable and less full of undesirables (no prizes for guessing which ethnic group gets the blame for this).

Very very early Bucharest ticket

So filled with a bit of doubt about the train but blessed with a couple of hours in Bucharest (due to leaving Brasov at the ungodly hour 0526, the only train to get us to Bucharest for any of our connections – you can imagine my horror!) we decided to give the coach a try, which would also mean we get to see a little bit of Bucharest. We checked the coach times and the connections, got Angi to check it as well, and got an early night for our stupid-o’clock start.

CFR coach to Bucharest

There wasn’t much to report from the early train to Bucharest, apart from a genial taxi driver, a grumpy lady at the Brasov ticket office, and waiting on the platform for our “daytime coaches” (with seats not beds) to arrive at the station and be coupled up to the Bucharest sleeper train we were going to be part of. Inside the carriage is functional, and looks like it was made in the 1980s. We share it only with 2 others, who the ticket lady has  has decided to book into seats next to us despite an otherwise empty coach.

Kinda greeny brown…

We are on the slow train so our journey takes us nearly 4 hours (as opposed to the 2.5 hours by express). We are at each stop for between 2 and 10 minutes though which gives us the chance to see locals in casually walk through industrial estates, across the railway tracks and up the train steps – and gave the locals the chance to hop off the train for a crafty fag.

Concrete industrial chic

Along the way the scenery becomes ever more industrial-looking with grey/green/brown manufacturing plants, yards, and grubby 60s pre-fabbed flats (although that could have something to do with the murky diesel film that coats the train window). We also see clusters of ramshackle corrugated-iron-roofed dwellings interspersed with richer, newer and freshly painted homes in pinks, yellows and oranges, about the only bit of colour we’ve seen on our train journeys since leaving Austria.

As we near Bucharest, we return exclusively to buildings with the regulation concrete colour stereotypical of the communist regimes. We take the tube to the square, Piata Unirii, where our coach goes from, but when we arrive, we realise this isn’t going to be easy. It’s not just one square but a network of 4 huge squares each with 4 or 5 lanes of traffic; the Unirii Boulevard bridge across the Dâmbovița river, leading up to the still-unfinished Palace of Parliament, or People’s House; and huge imposing concrete-coloured 8 storey apartment buildings – basically looking like pre-fabs but with strange attempts at ornate balconies made from concrete apparently bolted onto the frontages. Have an explore here – it’s the biggest square in Bucharest.

All in all, Piata Unirii is a pretty overwhelming place, especially when you’ve been up since 4 in the morning, all you want to do is work out how to get to Bulgaria, and you can’t find the right bus stop. The hotel the coach was supposed to go from knew nothing about the service, neither did tourist information next door. In a last ditch attempt to combine breakfast, a toilet break and some useable transport information, we ended up in MacDonald’s (never, ever my restaurant of choice but we were lost and knew we wouldn’t look conspicuous there). The manager was very helpful and tried his best to find our coach stop for us, but with no luck, so with 45 minutes left to get back to the rail station for the dreaded Veliko train, we legged it back onto the M1 metro.

Line M1 in Bucharest is one of the cleanest metro lines I’ve ever seen, but this may have something to do with 2 burly security guards, armed with substantial looking truncheons, who patrol each train. I’m not sure whether to be reassured that they are there to prevent unrest, or worried that there is enough unrest to warrant security. Or in fact that the regime is so paranoid about unrest that they employ such visible security guards for show. Reassuringly though the M3 line trains were crammed and covered in graffiti – I can only assume fewer dignitaries may use that particular line.

Our compartment to Veliko

With relief we made it onto our Bulgarian train, and guess what? It’s very nice! We had an 8 seater compartment shared it with a very pleasant Romanian gentleman in his late 50s/early 60s from Giurgiu (on the southern border). Again the coach is functional, but it’s comfy and cosy, with space for our luggage, and Dave and our new friend, who we eventually work out is called San Dubretto, have two hours of entertainment as Dave tries to learn Romanian and Bulgarian from him. No mean feat as we have only translations for yes/no/please/thankyou, lots of gesticulating, and lucky guesses with a smattering of Italian and Spanish.

You’re now leaving Romania…

Out of the window I can see small tree-like crops in the distance, but little else (unless you like flat brown farmland) – but I’m hopeful these are vineyards and look forward to sampling their produce. As we near the border, San points out his hometown of Giurgiu, where we say goodbye to him. Then it’s just a 15 min passport check, cross the majestic Danube river, and next is our penultimate country – Bulgaria!

The Danube between Romania & Bulgaria

Days since leaving the UK: 9

Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys:  2586+166+72=2824

Countries travelled through so far: 7

Cities visited: 7

Weather: Still quite chilly. And grey.

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Filed under Bulgaria, Europe, Railways, Romania, Travel, Writing

Four Countries in One Day

So I guess we’re off to Brussels then?

Not ones to skimp on starting out as we mean to go on, we took in not one, but four countries our first day of our exploration of Europe from London to Istanbul. Cue some Crowded House please.

Some of you may think counting the UK and London as one of these is cheating, but we started out there so it counts in my book. We’d also never been on the Eurostar before or indeed through the Channel Tunnel so that was an adventure long coming. Unfortunately it started off badly – despite us diligently checking in on time so we could take pics of the always stupendous St Pancras station…:

“The Goodbye” at St Pancras station

…we were told to stand in the naughty corner to finish our coffees before putting out bags through xray, then found we had to wait in the “lounge” with only overpriced breakfast from just 2 different shops available. And of course the train was running late. All this makes me so proud of Britain..!

I can’t complain though as it was so early that I wasn’t functioning properly either, as after looking at this departures sign I temporarily forgot that Paris had a Disneyland and wondered how on earth the train was going to take people to California… (still looks cool though I think).

Mickey Mouse departures

So, overzealous and underefficient country number one out of the way (it’s interesting to note that I am now writing from Vienna having passed through France, Belgium, Germany and into Austria that the UK is still the only one where I’ve had to show my passport or have my luggage checked in any way – Daily Mail readers will be in outrage I’m sure but you know what? It’s nice to be trusted the same way as when I travel from Leeds to London), we whizzed through northern France and into Brussels, the capital of Belgium.

Veerle and me looking (and feeling) really cold, despite our Icelandic outerwear..

My fabulous and effortlessly classy friend Veerle, who I met at Airwaves and who works in Brussels, met us to took us a lovely cafe called Zebra for lunch (I had traditional chicory soup and properly minty tea with fresh as well as dried mint tea leaves), while we gawped at the colourful continental cafe’s clientele.

Minty Minty The

Zebra Cafe

She also directed us to all the sights we’d be able to cram in in 4 hours, so off we wandered to the Grand-Place, the incredibly pretty central square that was rebuilt by the city’s merchants guilds following its destruction by Louis XIV in 1695.

Le Grand-Place

Here we almost immediately were approached by a friendly chap with a big Nikon round his neck called Raffaele. He is a German photo-artist and is in the process of collecting thousands of photos of different people’s faces to print and use as 6×4″ sized “pixels” to make one giant face.

Raffaele

Apparently we seemed like cool people and he wanted our pictures for his project, which was fine by us and we happily obliged, because we’re generally attention seekers. He told us he was in Brussels to judge a Warhammer miniature design competition, which I was completely clueless about but when my travelling companion Dave walked past Brussels’ branch of Games Workshop and saw these in the window, everything suddenly became clear!

Closet Warhammer fan Dave

No visit to Brussels is complete without a Belgian waffle (check me out ordering one in French with no help!), some Belgian beer (ours was brewed by monks and found its way to us via the local supermarket for consumption on the sleeper train), and a quick gawp at the Mannekin-Pis, a foot-high naked cupid sculpture that forms a fountain in central Brussels. I think you can probably guess where the water comes out. It’s not much to look at in itself, so here is a picture of Japanese schoolchildren posing in front of it, an equally traditional site in Brussels, and much easier to find than the statue itself for obvious reasons:

Japanese Tourists are a major attraction in Brussels

Our train to Cologne was about to leave though so off we popped Deutschlandwards. We didn’t have a stop in Germany but we did manage to see two sights which are helpfully within the station. Firstly the Cathedral which I didn’t expect to be virtually touching the front of the Bahnhof, and secondly this fairly gigantic retro neon homage to the reason why Köln (Cologne) is famous to most of us – Eau de Cologne:

The 4711

From Cologne we caught the sleeper to Vienna. We found our couchettes and found that we were sharing with a very friendly Russian guy named Youri, who offered us beer almost immediately. We could tell this was going to be the beginning of beautiful friendship! Youri had studied in Germany for 6 years and thus spoke great German – but no English, as he explained that during the Cold War Russia banned the teaching of English in schools, an idea he clearly thought was pretty damaging to Russian integration to the rest of the world, and frustrating to himself. Dave speaks only English so this posed a problem – or did it? Enter my unused-for-20-years German language skills! It turns out I can remember a pretty decent amount of what I learnt at school and I really enjoyed translating for the pair of them and thinking of roundabout ways to explain simple concepts when I couldn’t remember the crucial word in the sentence. Much fun! (I’m a geek though remember..)

Dave meets Youri and learns some German

We also learnt that Youri loves meeting people and saw us take the picture at Cologne station (the one above, scroll back up if you need to..). This apparently was enough for him to think we were pretty cool foreigners and not “boring Germans” (his words not mine!), so that earnt us our second lot of cool points for the day! (This has never happened before nor is likely to again so please forgive me for keeping tally).

Youri was also particularly excited to see Dave produce his Lomo-LC-A+ with an instant photo back, for two reasons – firstly of course the LC-A+ LOMO is originally a Russian camera and better known in his home country as the Diplomat camera Putin publicised as accessible for all. The second reason was that Youri’s brother, like Dave, is a Lomography obsessive, which I suspect will be the start of a worldwide lomo-penpals-of-Dave brotherhood, and quite rightly so if you like pretty pictures. Happy coincidences all round!

Sleeper car camera party

So, nicely stuck experimenting with German vocabulary, and not so nicely stuck with a touch of wobbly-headed landsickness after having been on a train for 14 hours – it’s onward to Vienna!

Days since leaving the UK: 1

Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys: I’ll have to add this up later, my brain hurts! 328+219+915= 1462

Countries travelled through so far: 4

Cities visited: 3

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Filed under Belgium, Europe, France, Germany, Railways, Travel, UK