“We shall be travelling overland as far as we possibly can” we announced smugly when plans were made and friends and families informed. “Arrival in Moscow in a week or so, via various European capitals”.
We plotted our itinerary and people nodded, with awe, we assumed. Two days before departure my friend Abi asked “But why don’t you just fly to Berlin?”
A pregnant pause. A cough. A throat cleared.
“Because – we don’t – because – THAT’S NOT WHAT WE’RE DOING ABI, STOP ASKING QUESTIONS”.
Fair question, though, Abi. And I must admit that when we struggled into our AirBNB apartment at 10pm last night, the thought did cross my own mind. But overland travel is the point of this journey and actually, it would only have subtracted a very few hours overall, and added enormous unpleasantness, and probably have involved a trip to Luton. This way we left home (or what was our home!) at a very reasonable 9:30am, rolling into St Pancras with more than enough time to pick up a bottle of cava (the fact that it’s not champagne is what makes us flashpackers, see? FRUGAL) before check-in began for our 11am train. No liquids to separate, no mega grumps due to the discovery and forced abandonment of either a personalised Swiss Army Knife, expensive eyeliner, or heavy-duty spanner from our hand luggage. Passport control is entirely in London; no-mans-land about 6 feet across.
And whilst the folks returning to London were faced with delays due to people on the line at Calais, we had no such issues going in the other direction and whizzed through trouble-free. A mere 20 minutes to change at Brussels for a train to Cologne seemed terrifyingly short but of course we were comparing it to airport transfers. With expert tips from The Man in Seat 61 welded firmly to our brains, we needed no more than five.
German efficiency though? Not so much. The international train arrived on time. Brussels-Cologne was an ICE train which we had read online rather ominously “waits for nobody” (I had visions of it departing with my foot still sticking out the door) but left an entire minute later than scheduled. A WHOLE MINUTE. And arrived no less than SIX minutes late which given our subsequent 25 minute gap to reach our train to Berlin made us increasingly fearful. But in layout I had imagined the straggling expanse of Kings Cross and instead it was barely Vauxhall so we had time to grab a sandwich.
Unless you have a burning desire to visit these cities (I’ve already been to Brussels, and Cologne held no particular pull), 20 minutes is plenty of time to change, as it would be at any London station. For future reference!
The thoroughly un-Germanic lack of organisation continued as we boarded to discover that we had no seat reservations; and nor did half our fellow passengers. The option had simply not been given whilst booking. The lady in front of me brandished her paper ticket at the flustered guard who glanced down, and up, and down, and blinked. “Madam, you have no seat reservation”. “I know”, she replied, “so where do I sit?” “Well – you have no reservation” he repeated, before briskly turning and abandoning the woman to her inevitable fate. His futile gestures seemed to say “You were foolish enough not to plan in advance. Pick a seat and hope for the best. You’re beyond anybody’s help now”.
We were only booted our of our chosen seats once.
And the rest of the time, we watched the scenery change, as you simply cannot do from the plane’s metal box. Northern France is similar to Britain and so is Belgium and so is Germany but at some point, the autumnal fields gave way to evergreen wooded hills and the houses changed in shape and size. Soon we were whizzing past small compact towns sprinkled over steep hillsides, and the peculiarly continental sight of smoke-belching industry sat squarely alongside residential homes in otherwise picturesque riverside villages.
In Brussels I announced “Belgian houses are narrow” with a degree of authority reserved for only the most astute socio-economic observers. “That’s why the Belgian word for house is ‘narrow'” Peter replied, and since he used to live there I trusted him completely until I remembered that they don’t speak Belgian there, they speak French.
In Wuppertal we encountered a hanging monorail which stretched across the city, a hideous monstrosity or engineering marvel (depending on whether you ask me or Peter). It undoubtedly answers a transport conundrum and arguably puts the city on the map but it did resemble those cities of the future you see in dystopian films, with gigantic rusting spider-like struts planted over the river and between buildings. It’s “the oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars in the world” and to my astonishment, still in use. Should you fancy a gander, the Cologne-Berlin train offers an excellent vantage point.
At 9pm our train rolled into Berlin’s jawdropping multi-storied Hauptbahnhof station, and after several false starts we found our way to the metro and finally after no less than six different trains in one day (including metros and a tube) we arrived. We are staying in Neukolln, the hippest area of Berlin thank you very much.
Brunch in Berlin's newest hipster district, Neukölln. No English menus (hurrah!) at this warm little cafe in what appears to be a former bar with a boarded-up door. Cheesy eggs for €6 served at an arcade table to a soundtrack of Jeff Buckley and Nick Cave. Probably won't be playing the Super Nintendo but nice to know we've got the option.
With little time for decompression, we are starting our trip gently with brunch at the appropriately hipster Cafe Dritter Raum. Further exploration is limited due to Peter needing to recover from carrying both of our horrifically heavy rucksacks all day yesterday.
This is definitely number one on the benefits of travelling with a partner over travelling alone, although I’m not entirely sure he shares my sentiments.