Rail and Sail: Dublin Bound

And so I found myself getting up at some ungodly hour of the morning (by my standards, at least) with not nearly enough sleep (even by my standards, which really says something) to get back to Euston train station. I was heading across the Irish sea, and while I had originally thought it would be easy to get a cheap flight across, I soon learned that with Ryanair the baggage I would be carrying would double the price of the ticket to the point that it simply wasn’t worth it – especially not after the traumatic experience I had had trying to fly with them last time. During my scouring the internet for travel options I discovered a deal called the ‘Rail and Sail’ offered by Irish Ferries, which was a package deal that included a train ticket from London to Holyhead, a small port town in Wales, and a ticket for the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. It was roughly 4 hours on the train and 6 hours on the ferry, as opposed to a flight from London that took an hour at most, but I had heard so many complaints about getting to the various airports in and around London – as well as the endless Ryanair horror stories – that I decided that trying to organise a flight for such a short distance was just not worth the hassle. I was in no rush, so I was more than happy to take a full day out to make the trip. It was cheaper than the flight, there were no extra baggage costs or restrictions, and I rather enjoyed the last trip I had made via ferry, so I thought it would be something nice to do again.

In the end it was the train ride that proved to be a little hair-raising. At one point the tracks travelled along the ground at such an angle that I could feel the slight pull of gravity dragging me towards the window. It was a brief terrifying moment, but other than that the ride went along smoothly and without much other excitement. When we finally arrived at Holyhead, the passengers disembarked and headed down the platform and towards the ferry port. I think it was almost a unanimous migration – aside from the ferry port there didn’t really seem to be much other reason to visit a town like Holyhead. I know that a lot of people said that same thing about Ancona, but at least I knew that in Italy there was sunshine and beaches to be found – the coast of Wales was as gloomy as I would ever have imagined it that morning, and in no way did I feel compelled to hang around, even if I’d had the choice. When I’d booked the ticket it had said that there was a bit of a wait between the arrival of my train and the departure of the ferry, but in reality it was just enough time to wait in the long queue with the rest of the mob, have my ticket and baggage checked, and board the vessel that would carry me across the Irish Sea.

The boat was similar to the one I had caught from Helsinki to Stockholm, except this time it was a shorter trip so I didn’t have a cabin, or any kind of personal quarters. The ship did have a huge variety of rooms and activities though, including a bar, restaurants, duty free shops, games rooms and theatres for the kids, as well as plenty of lounging spaces to sit around and enjoy the views of the open seas. To get in the mood for my arrival on the Emerald Isle, I tucked into a hot steak and Guinness pie from one of the cafeterias, and after a quick walk around to see the rest of the ship, I curled up on one of the lounges in the main area and tried to doze off and have a nap, given that I was running on very little sleep due to my late last night out in London. There were a lot of families travelling that day though, with some particularly noisy children, so in the end I really only managed to shut my eyes and rest my physical body. The mind would have to endure until Dublin, although being able to stretch out and have my own personal space to relax in was definitely a highlight of travelling via ferry rather than a plane. The Rail and Sail option was an experience a thousand times better than anything I would likely have received from Ryanair, and if you have the time to take the day trip and are travelling between Ireland and Great Britain then I would definitely recommend it.

When the ship finally pulled into port early that evening, I gathered my things and made my way off the ship to collect my checked baggage. When I got to immigration, I was a little confused as to where to go. There were basic directions to the exits, but rather than queues and individual gates and passport checks, everyone just seemed to be walking through a main gate with very little resistance. I assumed it was just for returning EU citizens, so I approached one of the desks to the side.
“Hi,” I said to them as I set my bag down.
“Hello there! Well, what can do for yer?” one of the two gentleman said to me with a friendly smile.
“Ahh… Is this where you stamp my passport?” I’d never seen security personnel being so relaxed around the new arrivals – welcome to Ireland, I suppose?
“Why, do yer need one?” The other man said.
“Um… I think… ah, I probably do?” I held up my Australian passport, seriously confused at this point.
“Oooh, yes! Yes.” Obviously they had just assumed I was another Irishman returning home. “Alright, here we go,” they said as they briefly checked my passport before stamping it and handing it back. I was a little dumbfounded as I walked out of the terminal and over to the bus stop. I’d thought the security at Southend airport in London had been pretty lax, but Dublin Port had well and truly usurped that title. I chuckled to myself, realising that all I’d heard about the carefree Irish nature was turning out to be remarkably, incredibly accurate.

The bus into the main city of Dublin was rather uneventful, but the whole time I was still riddled with anxiety. During my last days in London I had been searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Dublin – I had been living at Giles’ for so long that I’d all but forgotten the very real need to search for accommodation, or the very ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ style in which I had been doing it. Unfortunately, all my searching had come up with nothing, but in my desperate hanging on for a potential, miraculous breakthrough, I had put off booking any hostels either. Eventually I alighted from the bus in the centre of the city, and hacked into some free wifi at the bus station to search for a nearby hostel. There was one around the corner, so I lugged myself over there and was overjoyed to learn that they had some availability. I enquired about the room prices, and the helpful guy at the front desk told me everything I needed to know.
“But I’m gonna give you a little bit of a discount,” he said with a little smile, without even lifting his eyes away from his computer screen to look at me. “Our little secret.” I was genuinely stunned – was he flirting with me? He didn’t seem like he was flirting with me? Not even a cheeky wink. But hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a price reduction. He gave me my key and directed me to the stairs towards my room, and I don’t think I even saw him again during my stay at the hostel, but it turns out his little gesture would be the first of a few rather unexpected surprises during my time in Dublin.

Humbug, Hamburg

The next destination on my European tour was the German city of Hamburg, a port town on the Elbe River that was known for, among other things, having particularly wild red light district that has even been compared to the likes of Berlin and Amsterdam. I was actually heading towards the Dutch town of Groningen, where I would be meeting my old high school friend Gemma, but I decided that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to party in Hamburg during the weekend that I passed through, and discover the reputation for myself. After having a quiet night in with Esben on my last night in Copenhagen, I was definitely ready to make up for it on the Saturday night.

***

The journey itself to Hamburg was a little strange. I took a seat on the train and put my headphones in, listening to my music as I watched the countryside roll by. After a few hours, there were announcements throughout the train, either in Danish or German, and a lot of confused looking tourists. I paused my music to listen in on some conversations – there was a lot of talk about a ferry, and having to get off the train. Eventually there was an English announcement, asking passengers to disembark from the train because we weren’t allowed to travel in the cargo hold… wait, wait? That definitely hadn’t been in the guidebook. It all became clear pretty quickly though – rather than a bridge or tunnel, the train was transported from Denmark to Germany via ferry, along with a bunch of private cars and other passengers. I have to admit, it was a little nice to break up the journey with a 45 minute ferry ride – a smaller adventure within a journey within a bigger journey. I followed the crowds and listened to the announcements, and it all went up without a hitch. Soon enough we were back on the tracks and on our way to Hamburg.

***

I arrived in Hamburg in the afternoon, and immediately set out on the U-Bahn (German underground metro system) towards some of the hostels I had looked up in advance, which were within a reasonable walking distance to Reeperbahn, the street in Hamburg that was famous for being the hub of all things sexual and kinky. I should probably take a moment to explain why I have such a fascination with places of such a nature: my old work – the one that sold Tom of Finland t-shirts – was a fetish store. In my year of working there I learnt and saw a lot of strange and crazy things, and discovered that the world and community of sexual fetish is a broad, complicated and intriguing thing. I had learnt so much about that world in a theoretical sense, since I needed to know how to explain products to customers, but so far I was yet to see what any of it looked like when put into practice. In a trip that was all about discovering new things, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a peek into the world that I supposedly knew so much about.

However, when I arrived at the hostel, I was a little taken aback when I was told they were completely full.
“Sorry – you can use the Internet on the computer there if you need to look for somewhere else.” The receptionist sounded sympathetic, but there was nothing else she could do. I dumped my bags onto the floor and logged onto the computer, cursing myself for not bothering to book ahead. It had never been a problem in South-East Asia – it hadn’t really occurred to me that walking into a hostel and asking for a bed on the spot might not be so simple in Europe. But hey, no big deal, right? There’s plenty of other hostels around, surely there’ll be room in one of them?

Wrong. I trawled all the search websites, and every single one told me that there was no accommodation that fit my criteria – that being “one bed in budget accommodation” and “tonight”. First I started searching for areas around Reeperbahn, but even searches for hostels in the city at large proved unsuccessful. I jumped onto Couchsurfing and found the group for “Emergency Couch Requests in Hamburg” and sent out a few messages, but I didn’t know how long I could wait for a reply. Things were looking pretty desperate. I logged onto Facebook and sent a message to Gemma in Groningen, who also joined me in the online accommodation search, but to no avail. The only available places we could find were well out of my price range.
“Maybe I could just hire a locker at the station and leave my stuff there while I party all night?” At the rate this was going, even if I did find a place to stay, I wouldn’t be staying there so much as I would be dumping my bags and going out to enjoy the nightlife.
“That could be cool! You’ve done crazier things,” was Gemma’s reply, and I was already thinking how maybe that would make an interesting blog post. Though I was already a sweaty mess from walking around with my bags in the afternoon sun, and quite frankly the stress of not already having a place to stay was making me kind of exhausted. In my mind I weighed everything up, including the fact that I hadn’t even been feeling so well the night before, and suddenly this night out in Hamburg sounded like a huge effort that might not be worth the way I would feel when it was all over. I consulted the Eurail App for some train times before messaging Gemma.
“You know what? Screw it. Is it okay if I arrive a day early?”

***

And so I found myself back on a train, heading to Bremen, where I could changeover at Leer, which would then take me the rest of the way to Groningen. I had an hour to get from the hostel back to the station via the U-Bahn, but because of the way my Eurail pass worked, I was able to take as many trains as I wanted on my recorded travel days. So essentially it didn’t cost me any extra to jump on a few regional trains, even if it did mean arriving in Groningen at 11:30pm. It was a stressful and exhausting afternoon that eventually worked out well in the end – I would miss out on having a wild night in Hamburg, but I was definitely excited to be on my way to see Gemma. Though above all, it was a lesson in planning. For so long I’d had the spontaneous and unplanned approach to my travels, making things up as I went along and choosing destinations on the day before I decided to travel, sometimes even on the day of travel itself. Tourism in South-East Asia and tourism in Europe were producing a vast number of differences with every passing day – the price was the most obvious, but this was the beginning of my learning the importance of booking ahead, even for the most budget accommodation, or risk being left out in the streets. In retrospect it seems so obvious – who in their right mind would travel to a foreign city where they knew absolutely no one with no place to stay? But I had managed to scrape through in Stockholm, so I thought I might have similar luck in Hamburg. Instead, I learnt this lesson the hard way.

The night out in Hamburg was the price I had to pay, in this scenario. However, I would be passing back through Germany on my way to Berlin – who knows, maybe an overnight stopover in Hamburg wasn’t completely off the table yet?

Cruisin’

On my first night in Helsinki, I’d been chatting with Susanna about prospective routes for my journey. “I’m thinking about getting a boat to Stockholm,” I’d said. “I feel as though it would take too long to get the train all the up through Finland and then back through the rest of Sweden.”
“Ah, the good old booze cruise,” Susanna had laughed. “You’re right though, and there isn’t that much to see up that way anyway. But the cruises are a lot of fun. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve had to go to Stockholm.” She explained that a lot of Finnish people booked the overnight cruise as a round trip – they partied all night on the boat, slept all day when the boat was docked in Stockholm, and partied the whole night on the way back. “I had to do things in Stockholm though, so didn’t get the benefit of a day of sleep. But it’s still heaps of fun.”

Then I’d mentioned potentially getting the train to Turku, a town on the western coast, and getting the ferry from there. “Yeah…” Susanna had replied, but there was obvious skepticism in her voice. “The trains are pretty expensive though, if you were still thinking about waiting to activate your Eurail Pass. And Turku isn’t that exciting either. I’d get then boat from Helsinki, if it were me.” Back when I had been making rough plans for my world tour, I had the intention of visiting not only the major cities, but other smaller, less frequented destinations. However, it seemed that the scope of the countries I wanted to visit meant I was going to have to be a little more selective. I cast my thoughts back to Chau Doc in Vietnam, and how the side trip had really not been worth it at all, so I decided to heed Susanna’s advice and head straight to Stockholm from Helsinki.

***

Being the terrible decision maker that I am, it wasn’t until the Sunday morning that I booked my ticket on the ferry for that night. That was something I had to work on, although I had discovered a ridiculously good value fare online, so perhaps this time it worked to my advantage. After saying farewell to Susanna, I headed for the docks on the south-eastern side of the city and boarded the boat. I was still feeling quite hungover from the previous night out, so I wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle a night where I was essentially trapped in a party atmosphere.

The boat was massive. There were 10 levels, including a conference room on the top deck and several levels of restaurants, shops, game rooms, nightclubs and stages with live music. I was actually really impressed at how nice the whole thing was – red carpers and gold trimmings on the decor made it feel as though I was in a fancy hotel. However, my room was less glamorous – a small room in the depths of the hull (thank god there was an elevator) with four bunks that made me feel a little nostalgic for the Trans-Siberian Railway cabins, except there were no windows. None of my cabin mates had arrived, so I made my bed with the provided linen, dropped my bags off and did some exploring. There was some kind of convention or conference on this trip, as I noticed a lot of traditionally dressed Muslim men heading up towards the 10th floor. I wandered thought the duty free shop and around the games room, before having dinner at the cafeteria buffet and then making my way over to see what was happening in the entertainment area.

There was already a rock band in full swing, belting out songs I didn’t know – possibly in a language I didn’t know – but there were only a few smatterings of people around the bar, groups talking amongst themselves and not really paying attention to the actual entertainment. No one was dancing. It was a middle-aged crowd that didn’t seem like the partying type at all. I wondered where the rest of the young people who I had seen boarding the ferry earlier had gotten to. They’d come on with their stylish clothes and suitcases and for the most part seemingly enthusiastic attitudes. However, it was a Sunday night, and I wondered if maybe I hadn’t chosen the right evening to expect the party boat or “booze cruise”.

And the unsatisfying end to this story is that I will never know. I went below the main deck to my cabin to find that it was still empty, a clear indication that the boat wasn’t full. So I decided to go and shower, and then returned to my cabin… where I promptly passed out. My hangover and day of sightseeing in the warm Helsinki sun had caught up with me, and when I stirred to check the time again it was already after one in the morning. Rather than drag myself out of bed to see if there was in fact a raging party on the upper levels, I decided to indulge in the fact I had a room to myself and continue with a solid night of sleep. I know I’d only just had a room to myself back at Susanna’s apartment, but the uncertainty of my future accommodation meant that I had no idea when I would have such a luxury again. Considering I had been expecting to be sharing with three other people, I took full advantage of the situation.

I awoke in the morning with enough time for the buffet breakfast before gathering my things and departing the ship. We’d crossed another time zone on our voyage to Stockholm, so I had an extra hour on the day. Which was helpful, considering I had no accommodation booked, knew very little about the city – just what was in my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring guide – and didn’t know a single person in the city. Yep, this was going to be interesting.

***

I’d always been a little dismissive of cruises, on the argument that it was a holiday for a holidays sake. You didn’t really see that much if you spent all your time on a boat, and you didn’t get a very cultural experience if you were spending all day on what was essentially a big hotel. I still sort of hold that view of cruises, although I have to say, being on the boat made me think that it would actually be a lot of fun, especially if I’d been with a group of friends. After the staggering range of cultural differences I’d experiences over the past 2 months, I think I can appreciate the idea of a holiday where the sole purpose is to just relax, and not really care if the only sight you see is 360 degrees of ocean for seven days. I know that’s not exactly how cruises work either, but I’ll admit, given I did have my own room, I wouldn’t have minded spending a little bit longer on that boat. And next time my friends suggest it, maybe I won’t be so quick to shun the idea of a cruise holiday.

Nothin' but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

Nothin’ but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.