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Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Train to Transylvania - part one: Bristol to Cologne

The train to Spain was never going to be enough. Once you’ve sampled the – shall we say ‘peculiar’ – delights of rail travel beyond the borders of dear old Blighty, chances are that sooner or later you’ll need another fix. 
The numerous trains to Spain: By hook or by crook,  swear I'm going to 'em all (The Man in Seat 61:
 My good friend The Consultant has a dentist appointment in Budapest – it’s where every middle class Guardianista goes to get their teeth fixed nowadays – and asks me to join her to make a week of it. Or rather, several days of hard-core sightseeing, the likes of which we haven’t experienced since Mexico City in 1990. I’m quite happy to tag along whilst she feverishly goes through the guidebook, ticking off every church, museum, art gallery and tat shop within a ten kilometre radius but first I need to get away on my for a bit of time on my own.
There’s a ten-day gap in my diary between finishing a teaching stint at summer school and presenting myself in downtown Buda – or is it Pest? It’s marked down as ten days of walking already but The Consultant’s kind offer adds another dimension to my plans. At first I consider Hungary’s Blue Trail but deterred by both linguistic terrors and a distinct lack of undulations I plump for Romania. Yes, yes; I hear what you’re saying. Not so much of an adventurous decision given that Romanian is a romance language; still in my comfort zone – but only just. 
The Train to Transylvania - I took the 'alternative' route via Brussels and Cologne    (The Man in Seat 61:
There was, of course, no question of taking the plane, even more so once I’d read about the ‘Dacian Express’ that links Vienna and Bucharest. Thanks to the munificent ‘Man in Seat 61’, planning a journey right across the continent is now more pleasure than pain. The omniscient deity of European rail travel offers a number itineraries, I selected the option I considered the most romantic: Eurostar to Cologne via Brussels (same fare for both destinations if you make the onward connection with ICE) then an overnight service to Vienna. The girt humungous gap between Vienna and Bucharest would be breached by the Dacian Express, leaving Vienna at 19:46 and passing through Transylvania in the early afternoon of the following day. For too long I dithered over a standard seat, couchette or sleeping berth; by the time I’d opted for the latter it was too late for the ticket to be mailed to me (no e-tickets on this service, as far as I can tell, though you might try the Hungarian Railways website). Just as well, prevarication saved me seventy quid[1].
In the still of the night: Bristol Temple Meads at dawn
So, last week I left The Consultant’s apartment in the leafy inner suburbs of north Bristol at some ungodly hour to catch the 04:47 from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington. An uncivilised hour, perhaps, but a very civilised time to travel; it appears stupid o’ clock in the morning brings out the best in travellers and travel staff alike. We distance ourselves from the bleary-eyed, tired and emotional adolescents waiting for the first train to Weston-super-Mare. They’ve been out on the town, celebrating – or maybe commiserating– their ‘A’ level results and one of them, ever the wit, calls out I as stride purposefully and very soberly by: ‘don’t stop walking’.
If only he knew; if only he knew.
And in the beginning there was darkness ... and the 04:47 Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington
At twenty-past six in the morning, Paddington, too, exists in a state of relative calm, before the hubris of commuterdom takes over and assumes control. This is London at its crepuscular best; the urchin hours of twilight workers, louche hedonists, Champagne Charlies (of either gender and none) and the indolent, itinerant traveller. We are always on our way to somewhere but we never quite arrive – such is our fate.
There’s time for a leisurely stroll to St Pancras and, like a bucolic peasant up from the sticks, I find myself absent-mindedly meandering through the side-streets, trying to come to terms with the capital’s inflated conception of its own importance: but I’ve been here before and I’m not going to get sucked in again. What does impress, during this forty five minute perambulation, are the numerous and diverse expressions of religiosity and faith present in the urban landscape, many of them hidden or tucked away down a side street or behind scaffolding. 
Everyone's favourite over-exuberant gothic - St Pancreas Station
 The purist within me worries about the Eurostar ‘experience’, that with its ‘airport-lite’ departure lounge and security gates it’s not so much a train service as an aeroplane on wheels. Those were my thoughts the first time I took the train to continental Europe, only a couple of months ago but second time around I think that’s probably a little unfair. Yes, there’s an element of ‘airport-lite’ in the boarding process but one crucial aspect is present – humanity. Everyone seems to have a little bit more time for everyone else. The departure lounge exudes calm, collected and composed; none of the frantic, headless-chicken acts witnessed on a day-to-day basis in your Luton, Stansted or Gatwick airports (I have a soft spot for Bristol but that’s as far it goes). And no endless aisles of duty-free to negotiate; it’s a railways station, not a shopping mall – amen to that. 
The 08:58 London to Brussels Eurostar

Somewhere under the sea I drift off but I wake in time for Belgium, the journey’s first big show. Brussels, politically the heart of Europe – or rather, technically, one of two hearts, as if the city were a technocratic timelord – also feels as if it has railway lines running like veins through its torso. A transport hub, full of Europeans on the move. It’s the beginning, the doorway to a multicultural, multilingual web of railway networks that spin out of its grimy platforms. Brussels Midi/Zuid station consumes a vast amount of energy, a dynamic enclave of travellers forever passing through, to the most distant parts of the continent and beyond. A place of endless and enormous possibilities; an itinerant’s wet dream. 
Drab but paradoxically intoxicating Brussels railway landscape
 From Brussels to Cologne takes a couple of hours, sat right behind the driver’s cab. The scenery slowly unfolds: undulating farmland, the gentle contours beginning to exert themselves as if they can sense the great rift of the Rhine Valley looming on the horizon and the kilometres slipping away. We’re already putting the past behind us, already got more than one eye on tomorrow. It’s getting serious.
16:25 ICE from Brussels to Cologne

The Driver's seat
Cologne’s cathedral is, of course, a must see but I can’t help thinking that the vast roof canopy that spans the hauptbahnhof platforms is the city’s really piece-de-resistance. I’d like to avoid using the old ‘travellers’ temple’ cliché, I really would, but you can see how I got lulled into lazy literary techniques. 

Cologne: Cathedral and square

Cologne: Station canopy and Cathedral

The gem that is Cologne's station canopy
On a Friday evening, at rush hour in the height of the summer, Koln Hauptbahnhof is heaving, busting at its seams – and they’re just a little frayed. Commuters and tourists, travellers and inter-railers – good to see this adolescent rite of passage is still going strong – cram into the concourse as a storm rages overhead. The remnants of Hurricane Bertha are still chasing across northern Europe but the overnight train to Vienna will whisk me away from her scudding clouds and driving rain. Austria beckons, beyond that an untraveled world ...

[1] I booked the Eurostar London – Cologne via Brussels via the Eurostar and Cologne– Vienna via Deutsche Bahn (DB) – probably the best place to book most tickets for European rail travel though neither DB, Austrian Railways (OBB) nor Romanian Railways (CFR) offer tickets for the Dacian Express online. Voyages SNCF (formerly Rail Europe) does but it would have charged me €80 more than I paid when buying on the day of travel at Vienna Westbahnhof).

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