Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

Czech It Out

After saying goodbye to Itzel and alighting at Praha-hlavní nádraží, the main train station of Prague, I set out to navigate the public transport system of the capital of the Czech Republic. It was so close to 5 o’clock by the time I arrived in Prague that I didn’t even have to wait around at all – another perk of my detour was that I had done all my waiting either on the train, or in Bratislava. But first I did have to withdraw some crowns, the local currency, and then find somewhere to spend the large value notes in order to get change when I realised none of the metro ticket machines would accept them. There was also the strange requirement that I had to buy an extension for my luggage on top of my regular ticket, presumably because it would take up more room that could potentially fit another passenger. There was also a similar ticket for taking dogs on the metro, but in the end I had to forgo this extension and just buy a regular ticket simply because I didn’t have enough change to get the right one that I needed. “They rarely check for tickets on the metro in Prague,” Itzel had told me. “But they’re not really that expensive either, so you might as well buy it.” I did the best I could with what I had, and hoped that I could bluff my way out of any encountered trouble with excuses of being a tourist.

I followed the directions that my hosts had given me, though it was still very confusing. There were so many buses going on different routes and in different directions that all left from the same stop, and there was an uncomfortably lack of anyone who spoke English to help me out. But I persevered, and in the end I caught the right bus and followed the little blue dot on my iPhone GPS until I finally made it to my new home. Tomas and his boyfriend Matej’s house was right near the bus stop, and thankfully they were home by the time I finally arrived. Tomas had told me that I would be the first guest that the couple had hosted via Couchsurfing. I’m not sure if they were excited or nervous, but they warmly welcomed me into their home, a gorgeous little flat in a beautiful part of town. They had made me some dinner, too – I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but it was a homemade meat dish with some vegetables and it was a traditional Czech recipe and it was absolutely delicious – just what I had needed after a long day of travelling. I also noticed the distinct use of dill in the cooking, and I smiled to myself and remembered my time in Russia, and in my head I could still hear Marti saying “Isn’t this dill-icious?” I guess that’s how I knew I was back in Eastern Europe. We sat around their kitchen for a little while, chatting and getting to know each other, and then Tomas asked if I felt like going out and seeing some of the city. After a day of doing nothing but watch the Eastern European countryside pass me by, I was keen to get out and about, so I showered and got changed and the three of us headed back into the city centre.

***

Tomas was probably one of the best hosts I could have asked for during my stay in Prague – he was incredibly knowledgeable of his city, and was always pointing out the smallest and most random things, yet had some interesting story or weird fact about each and every thing. Some things were history lessons, while others were more modern facts, or even urban street smart tips. “Don’t come here at night, it’s a little dangerous,” he had said as we passed a park area on the bus. “There are drugs. Drug dealing, things like that.” Then he shrugged his shoulders with a smile. “Unless you are looking for that kind of thing.” Our first stop that evening was down by the river, where there was some kind of small outdoor performance on, with a band playing live music and a temporary bar set up selling some local Czech beer. Tomas bought us a few beers and we listened to the music and talked more about Prague, and my previous and future travels. Most of my European hosts seemed a lot more interested about Australia though – I’d been gone for so long that even I started to forget that I was actually a foreigner from half a world away. Out on the water, the river was filled with paddle boats, some of them in the shape of swans, slowly gliding along in the warm afternoon sunlight. The further north I travelled, the longer the daylight hours were becoming, and I loved it.

From there we walked back along the river, Tomas pointing out different architectural features of different buildings until we finally wandered up to the Old Town historical centre. Where the riverside pop-up bar had been a more underground affair, I could tell that we had wandered into the prime tourist zone of Prague as soon as we arrive. It was a beautiful area though, with the main square surrounded by small Gothic churches and cathedrals. I say ‘small’ in comparison to some of the larger churches I’d seen in Madrid and Rome, but they did manage to tower above the cobblestone pavements of Staroměstské náměstí, letting the small city hold its own and even stand out as one of the more beautiful places I had visited so far. The other major feature of the Old Town Square was the Old Town Hall, or more specifically, the astronomical clock on the bell tower. “It’s very popular with tourists,” Matej said, indicating the throng of people that was amassing at the base of the tower.
“Yes, every hour there is this… show… display…” At first it just seemed like Tomas couldn’t find the right word in English to explain what he was trying to say, but later I would realise he was just uncomfortable at using any of those words to even try and explain what we were about to witness.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The bell tower performance isn’t technically a tourist trap in that it doesn’t really cost any money. Yet still, I couldn’t help but feel a little ripped off after watching it. It’s an extremely famous and popular sight to witness, and the flocks of people surrounding the bell tower had definitely peaked my curiosity. Matej and Tomas must have been rolling their eyes as I stood on my tip-toes to peer over the crowd, but they knew it was something I would have to witness and judge for myself. When the hour rolled around, the chimes began to echo through the square, and little wooden doors opened up from the clock, and out came a small procession of figurines, which Tomas would later inform me were supposed to be a parade of the apostles. Above them, a skeleton emerged to ring a small bell, which clanged out over the crowd. Flashed from hundreds of cameras went off, and I waited eagerly to see what else would happen… The apostles did their loop and went back inside, and the skeleton eventually finished ringing his bell and retired back into the clock. There was a small cheer from the crowd in front of me.

“That… wait, that was it? Everyone stood around waiting for that?” Don’t get me wrong, it was a cute display, and more than most clocks manage to do to entertain a crowd. But I just couldn’t believe that that was all it took to attract such an audience. Tomas and Matej both chuckled, having clearly anticipated my reaction. “It’s a tourist thing,” they both said. “You had to see it at least once.” As fate would have it, I ended up in the same part of town the following afternoon and purely by chance, I happened to be there on the hour. During the daylight hours it was easier to take some clearer photos, although I can’t say they’re that much more exciting than being there to witness the show first hand… which isn’t saying much.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

After that we wandered through some more of the town, exploring the old streets as I marvelled at the simple, intrinsic beauty of the place. Prague really did feel like a kingdom from a storybook, complete with a castle on the hill across the river, gazing down over the city. The three of us stopped by another one of the couples favourite bars on the way home, where we had a few more beers while Tomas told me more about Prague, while also interrogating me about my own journey and travels. They were both such sweet and lovely guys – I was starting to wonder when my luck at finding such nice hosts was going to run out. The two of them both had to work in the morning though, so we eventually stumbled back down the street to crash, and I would continue my exploring of the fairytale city on the morrow.

Detour: Bratislava

For a trip that should only have taken approximately three hours, I spent a ridiculously long time getting to Prague from Vienna, but there were many factors I had to consider when planning out my day. The first was that Kathi and Anna-Greta would both be leaving before 9 o’clock in the morning, which meant that I would also have to leave at that time, since I would definitely need to be on a train out of Vienna before either of them finished work. Kathi was catching a tram in the same direction as myself – towards the train station – on her way to work, so when my stop finally came we said our warm, slightly emotional goodbyes, and promised that we would definitely see each other at some point in the future. She been a great girl and had been a lovely host, and I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Vienna and staying with her.

I had my next Couchsurfing hosts lined up for that evening in Prague – however, Tomas had informed me that no one would be home before 5 o’clock, so if I arrived in Prague before then I would have to look after myself until that time came. No big deal, I thought to myself. There was always pretty elementary things to take care of when arriving in a new city or country – for example, the Czech Republic’s currency was Czech crowns, or koruna, not the Euro, so I would have to exchange or withdraw some new money. There was also the possibility that trains would run late, so a three hour journey was still only a very approximate guess.

***

The trains were not running late. Neither was I. However, the train station that I was departing from was not that same one that I had arrived in, and the layout of this new one was very confusing. There was English translations for pretty much everything, but it didn’t help me run any fast when I realised I had made a wrong turn and had three flights of stairs to run up with all my baggage to even make it to the entrance of the platform that I was supposed to be on. I made it just in time… to watch the train I had intended to catch slide out of the platform and down the tracks into the distance. Luckily for me, I hadn’t reserved a place on the train, so there was no financial harm done in missing it. It just meant I had to wait a lot longer at the train station for the next train heading to Prague.

Or did I? I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Eurail app I had downloaded, which has listing of all the train stations on the Europeans rail network, as well as all the different times the trains run. It had saved me before when I was stranded in Hamburg, telling me exactly what trains I needed to catch in order to make to Groningen that same evening, and now it was giving me another piece of alternative advice. I could wait for a few hours at this platform, for the next direct train to Prague, or I could take a detour. There is a regular route from Budapest in Hungary to Berlin, and Prague is one of the stops along the way. That train doesn’t pass through Vienna, but if I jumped on a different train I would be in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – in just under an hour, and would be able to intercept the train there. That was the beauty of the flexible Eurail pass I was using – I could catch as many of these unreserved trains as I liked in one day, and it would not cost me any extra as it would have to catch the single train to Prague. And, I got to visit another country and city along the way! All aboard for Eastern Europe!

***

On the train ride to Bratislava, I looked up the city on my Lonely Planet book. “Bratislava was pretty fun,” Rachel had told me during the brief period we had hung out in Madrid, “but you only need a couple of hours to see the main centre, really. Talon and my brothers and I were there at like, four in the morning, I think?” She’d laughed, shaking her head at the stories she was reliving. “It was ridiculous, but it was fun. Check it out if you get the chance.”

Despite having an entire day to get from Vienna to Prague, I didn’t have a couple of hours to spend in Bratislava – then entire length of my layover was about 45 minutes. Even so, that didn’t stop me from running out of the train station and down to the nearest main road to take a few photos as evidence that I had made it this far east. I still had all my luggage strapped to me, so it wasn’t as easy as you may think. Unfortunately, the train station isn’t that close to the historical centre, where all the more beautiful architecture can be found. I didn’t want to venture out into an unfamiliar city where I didn’t speak the language and had a deadline to return to – I didn’t want to miss another train – so I settled for taking photos of some street signs, whatever buildings I could see, and the front of the train station.

Welcome to Bratislava!

Welcome to Bratislava!

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

Slovak billboard - I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

Slovak billboard – I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

The train station at Bratislava.

The train station at Bratislava.

And a selfie to prove that I didn't just steal these pictures off the Internet.

And a selfie to prove that I didn’t just steal these pictures off the Internet.

***

Then it was back to the station to buy a few snacks before boarding the train to Prague. The train was unlike most of the other ones I’d been on throughout Europe. Rather than being much more open with rows of seats on either side of an aisle, this train was more like the cabins we had on the Trans-Siberian railway. They were closed off compartments with sliding doors, except instead of seats that folded out into beds there were simply six regular seats per compartment. I would later be told by Tomas, one of my hosts in Prague, that that style meant the train was rather old, but it seemed pretty clean and modern to me at the time. I walked down the halls and poked my head into the cabins until I found one that seemed manageable. The curtains were drawn, and there was a young man lying across three of the seats on one side of the cabin, apparently sleeping. On the other side, an young woman who looked about my age sat by herself, looking rather timid. I squeezed in and took the window seat, peeking out the window through a crack in the curtain.

The trip started out quite uneventful. After a while, the sleeping man sat up, rubbed his eyes, and threw open the curtains. He couldn’t have been much older than myself or the other girl who was sitting quietly to my right. He gathered up his things and, without a word to either of us, departed at one of the stops along the way. I can’t say I’m surprised at his silence – in these environments, with the tourists and local travellers thrown in altogether, its pure luck as to whether the people around you even speak your language. He was soon replaced by a family – a mother, father and small child. They would prove to be strange cabin companions, with the little boy being cheeky and misbehaving so much that we witnessed the father lose his temper and repeatedly smack the child. It was a little scary, but I didn’t say anything because I really had no idea if such kind of thing was normal in this part of the world. The child would start crying and wailing, before going back to whatever he had been doing before and earning himself another smack. This exchanged happened periodically throughout the whole journey. However, when they first climbed on board was also the time when someone came around to check our tickets. Mine had already been stamped on the train to Bratislava though, so all I had to do was flash my Eurail pass.

When I pulled out my pass, the eyes of the girl sitting next to me lit up.  I saw her pull out her own Eurail Pass to show the the train attendants, which meant that she had to be a non-European resident. We got chatting after that – Itzel was a traveller from Mexico who was also backpacking around Europe after spending some time studying abroad in France. We got talking about different places we’d been to and where we were going. Itzel had gotten on the train in Budapest, somewhere that was now not on my itinerary but somewhere I had really wanted to see, so she told me all about the city and the things she did there. It sounded like a pretty fun place, and Itzel said she had an awesome time. She was doing the full length of the train route, from Budapest to Berlin, so after that I was my turn to rant and rave about my favourite European city. I told her all about the crazy things I’d done and where she should go, and how to not get turned away from Berghain. She had a hostel booked in advance as well, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and showed her the way to get there from the train station.

As it would happen, Itzel had also been to Prague, so she told me as much as she could about the city. “It’s a cute city, pretty small, and it’s easy to get around with the public transport. And of course there’s the castle.” I’d heard a lot of good things about Prague, but I guess I would be finding it all out for myself in a few hours. Itzel and I continued to talk the entire journey – I could hardly believe how much time had passed when my stop crept up on us. I said my goodbyes to Itzel, but we exchanged contact details just in case our paths crossed again in Europe, or if I ever found myself in Mexico on my future travels. I really enjoy the way travel brings people together like that – maybe I won’t see Itzel for months or years. Perhaps I’ll never see her again. But for that shared moment of travel we became the best of friends, and the train trip to Prague would have been quite boring without her.

Bonjour: First Impressions of Paris

I stepped off the train in Brussels, counting my blessings that my train hadn’t been caught up with a bunch of strikes that had been happening throughout some of the train companies in Europe. I had plenty of time before boarding my connection train to Paris, so I left the station in search of a place to eat lunch. I hadn’t done too much research about Belgium, with the reality being I would be spending approximately two hours in the country, but I knew that it had quite a reputation for its beer, so I had expected a similar beer-centric culture to that of Germany, or even the Netherlands. I’d told myself I’d have one last hearty meal of brew and sausages before moving on to the finer delicacies that French cuisine would have to offer. So you can imagine my… not disappointment, but confusion when, after browsing a couple of restaurants in the area around the station, found myself eating a pasta dish, drinking red wine and being served by a waiter with a distinct French accent. It hadn’t been what I was anticipating, but in retrospect it made complete sense: Belgium is a tiny country wedged primarily in between the Netherlands and France – the customs and culture was obviously going to get a lot more French in the southern end of the country, the closer I came to Paris. Perhaps it was something I should have already known, but in all honesty, there’s something far more fascinating about making those kind of discoveries first hand.

***

I guess the first thing I really learnt about the culture in France is that nobody is in a great deal of hurry to get anywhere or do anything. Brussels had been the starting point of my trains journey – it hadn’t been late coming in from anywhere else, yet the French train company still managed to be delayed by about 15 minutes, with no real explanation offered to the passengers. Luckily it was a high speed train, and we arrived in Paris a little over an hour after we finally got going. But before I went rushing off into the city, I had some more planning and administration to take care of. While I had been sipping on my wine in Brussels, I had also been speaking to Gemma back in Groningen, filling her in in on my time in Berlin, telling her all the stories, and explaining the circumstances in which I had left and the situation I was in now. She helped me come up with a more realistic rough plan for my route around Europe, and agreed I needed to be a little more proactive when it came to moving on from each destination. So while the plan was still essentially free and flexible, I decided to book my train out of Paris as soon as I got there – being one of the most visited cities in the world, transport to and from the City of Lights was almost always sold out well in advance. So I lined up in the dedicated line for Eurail Pass holders… where I waited for over an hour. There were only two serving windows open, one of which closed while I was still waiting. The entirety of the staff seemed completely nonchalant and blasé about the growing line and mounting frustration that was becoming extremely visible among the crowd. No points for customer service there. The line continued to grow longer and longer behind me, and at the rate it was moving I was starting to fear I wouldn’t even make it to the front of the line before opening hours ended, and would have the shutters to the serving windows slammed shut in my face instead.

But I did make it there in the end, though once I did I made another unfortunate discovery – the train departing Paris on the night I had intended to leave was completely booked out.
“There’s nothing you can do? Nothing at all?” I practically begged the woman sitting behind the perspex window. I had been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts in Paris and, not wanting a repeat of my experience in Hamburg, had booked a hostel for three nights. That was the only affordable accommodation I had been able to find, and there hadn’t even been any room beyond those three nights. I’d been planning to get the overnight train to Barcelona, but if I couldn’t leave on that evening I would be stranded for a night in Paris.
“No, I’m sorry, there are no seats available for Eurail pass holders.” She did sound genuinely sorry, but it was still frustrating.
“Okay, well… How about the next night?” I had to book something, or Paris would end up being the city that I’d truly never escape from.
She tapped away at her computer before answering. “There are places available, but…” I held my breath. “There are no sleeper beds available. The best I can offer you is the reclining seat carriage.” That was, unless I wanted to fork out for a first class ticket, she had added – you’d think these kinds of people would have a better idea of how backpacking works, right?
Once again it wasn’t an ideal option, but it was as good as it was going to get. I still had the three nights in the hostel to figure out a plan for the final night, so I made the reservation for the overnight train before trudging off to navigate the metro system, trying to not let my frustrating first impressions of Paris ruin my mood.

***

With a new city comes the excitement of getting to discover a new local public transport system. For all the negative things I’d heard about how confusing and complicated the Paris metro system was, I actually thought it was brilliant, although maybe after so many cities I just found it much easier to learn and adapt. Or maybe every other city in the world has a system that is still more impressive than Sydney’s. Whatever, we all know I have a thing for public transport. For the Parisian metro, as long as you had a map tell you where your required interchanges were, it was extremely easy to traverse the city. There are over a dozen lines that can take you almost anywhere, which is very important because not only is Paris a huge city, it’s also quite spread out, with many of the famous and popular attractions being on opposite sides of the city, no where near each other. Unlike the U- and S-Bahn in Berlin, tickets were required to even enter the stations, but they were also quite inexpensive compared to anything I had paid in Berlin, and you had the option to buy in bulk to save a couple of euros. While my experience with Parisians had been an abundance of lateness and inefficiency so far, the metro was the one exception. I suppose it’s hard to be late when it doesn’t actually run to specific schedule, as far as I know, but the trains came frequently enough.

Coming from Sydney, a city that was created through urban sprawl and expansion from a central city, it’s always interesting to see maps of many European cities, such as Paris, and notice how well-planned they appear in comparison. Paris is divided into twenty districts, with District 1 starting in the centre, and the numbers of each subsequent district progressing in a clockwise spiral shape. I hadn’t realised this when booking my accommodation, and thus found myself on my way to the 20th District, the eastern-most district that reached the edge of the official city limits of Paris. However, such is the efficiency of the Paris metro that it only took me about 20 minutes to reach my station from Gare du Nord, the major train station in the city’s north. Once I got to the hostel, I settled in and freshened up before heading out to explore Paris. While I may have entertained my romantic ideals about the French capital, I’d heard very few first hand accounts of the city from people I knew, so I was interested to see what kind of nightlife dwelled in the City of Lights.

Smells Good: A pit stop in Cologne

The end goal was to reach Paris. However, all the direct express trains were completely booked, and it was quite a long distance to cover via the slower, less direct trains. So keeping that in mind, I picked a geographical midpoint to make a one night stopover on my way to the City of Lights. And that’s how I found myself in the west German city of Köln, or Cologne in English.

Tim, an ex-lover and good friend of mine back in Sydney, had spent six months studying abroad and living in Cologne, so I had dropped him a line and asked him what there was to do in Cologne, and what sights were worth visiting. “Even if you don’t spend a night in Cologne,” he had replied, “It’s worth getting off the train just to see the cathedral. It’s right outside the train station – you could literally step outside, have a look around, then jump on another train.” The Dom – which I would later learn is the second largest church in Europe, after the one in the Vatican – was the pride and joy of the city of Cologne, and Tim assured me it was the only really must see attraction. “It’s can be a pretty fun city though. Have a little explore if you get the chance.”

***

When I arrived in Cologne in the early evening, I headed straight to my hostel – booked ahead the previous evening at Ralf’s – and crashed for a little while. Visiting hours at the Dom had finished for the day, so if I wanted to go inside I would have to check it out before I left in the morning. But after a brief chat with some English travellers in my dorm, a quick power nap and a much needed shower, I set out to wander the street a little bit. I’d been told by Simon and some of the other Berlin housemates that many people actually considered Cologne to be the gay capital of Germany, so I felt it somewhat mandatory to at least go out and do a little exploring. Cologne was very different to Berlin – it felt distinctly more… German. Despite having all the well-known German landmarks, Berlin is still quite an international, cosmopolitan city, and I noticed that feature even more when I visited Cologne, which looked like an older, slightly more traditional city. The streets were damp from rain, but they were very clean – a tribute to stereotypical German efficiency, I suppose. I believe they had also recently celebrated gay pride in Cologne too – either that, or there is always a rainbow flag flying outside one of the main government buildings.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that's still a rainbow flag!

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that’s still a rainbow flag!

I was heading towards Hohenzollernring, what I believed to be a main nightlife street if my research skills and Google could be trusted, but I knew it as soon as I hit it. I emerged from the quite, dimly lit roads to a strip lined with shops, restaurants, clubs and bars. I headed towards Loom, the closest gay bar I had read about, but upon arrival discovered that it was more of a nightclub than a bar. In addition to that, it was a White Party – the club was divided into two floors: one for the exclusive admittance of those dressed in white, and one for unrestricted access. I stood out the front for a few minutes, pondering on whether it would be worth it. The thought of being inside a packed nightclub made me realise for the first time just how tired I still was, so I ended up skipping the club and continued wandering down the street. I’d well and truly given up on my goal I had once had of trying to experience the nightlife in every city I visited – there can be too much of a good thing, and I had since learnt that I would need to pick my battles when it came to that mission.

I did, however, descend some mysterious steps into one venue, which turned out to be full of salsa dancers. It was the last thing I had expected to find in a city in Germany, but I hung around and watched some of the dancers do their thing. It reminded me of when I used to take ballroom dancing classes back when I was in high school, and seeing all these people having such a good time reaffirmed by belief that when I eventually got home, I needed to get some hobbies. But for the rest of the night, I contented myself to getting some takeaway KFC and wandering back to the hostel to pass out in my dorm.

***

The following morning I woke up relatively early to head back to the station to book my train ticket to Paris, since the office that sold them had been closed when I arrived in Cologne the previous evening. However, I encountered more difficulties: all the direct trains had no available spaces for Eurail pass holders, and the only way I could get on that train was if I purchased a full priced first class ticket. Assuring the sales woman that that was not an option, I asked if there were any alternative routes I could take. After a bit of searching, she found two trains that could get me to Paris that day, with a connection in Brussels, Belgium. It seemed like my best and only option, so I booked the tickets and returned to the hostel to organise some last minute accommodation in Paris.

The train didn’t leave Cologne until noon, so I used the remainder of my morning to see the famed cathedral, the Dom. It was truly a towering masterpiece, so huge that I had to keep backing up and backing up until I was eventually able to capture the whole thing in a single photograph. The ancient Gothic architecture was exquisite, despite some scaffolding to disrupt the otherwise picturesque sight, but as with any church it was the insides that were the most impressive. Beautiful stained glass windows glittered in the sunlight pouring in from outside, and towering ceilings and long halls created a vast space that subdued all who entered into a respectful silence. Despite having no real affinity with Roman Catholicism, Christianity or organised religion in general, I still can’t help but be in awe of these kinds of places, and feel a sense of the spirituality they once harvested in times gone by. The churches all throughout Europe look nothing like most of the ones in Australia, which are usually fairly modern and quite plain looking at best. The Cologne Cathedral is indisputably a work of art. Even though hundreds of tourists pour through the doors of the church, it still remains an active place or service and worship – though I can’t help but think that a church that has a fully stocked gift shop has turned into a bit of a sellout somewhere along the way.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

I wandered through the church for a while, observing some of the alters and statues, and by the time I was done it was time to check out of the hostel and catch my train to Brussels.

Danish Delights

The day I left Stockholm was actually something of a milestone in my journey – it was the day I activated my Eurail Pass, and began my tour of mainland Europe via train. The type of pass I’d gotten was a Flexi Global Pass, which meant that I had unlimited travel on the European train systems for 15 non-consecutive days within a two month period. It had seemed like the best option for me, given that my own plans were virtually non-existent, and I had plenty of room to be flexible. Though something else exciting also happened that morning – I received my first successful reply to a Couch Request on Couchsurfing! On the website, you can either post public messages or requests to which individual users may reply to, or you can browse through hosts and send them more personalised requests to stay with them. As I checked my emails before checking out of the hostel, a weight was lifted off my shoulders when a guy named Esben had agreed to host me during my time in Copenhagen. I set out to the train station to leave Stockholm with much higher spirits than when I had arrived – I had a place to stay and, most importantly, someone to hang out with upon my arrival. My time in Stockholm had taught me that having company or going solo can make a huge difference in the way you experience a city.

***

Unfortunately, those high spirits were somewhat deflated by the time I reached Copenhagen. After sitting around on a train that had been motionless for almost two hours, listening to numerous non-English announcements, a Swedish woman finally explained to me that there had been a fire on the tracks ahead of us, and that we had been unable to proceed due to a back up of other trains. It was certainly a bizarre, unexpected circumstance, and I’ll never know for sure if it was a train that was on fire, or just the area around the tracks, or something else entirely. All I knew is that I would be late for meeting Esben at the train station in Copenhagen, and he had to work until midnight in the evening. So instead of meeting him beforehand, when I finally got to Copenhagen I lugged my bags into an all you can eat pizza and salad bar and virtually ate my weight in lettuce – it had been a while seen I’d seen fresh vegetables. After overstaying my welcome, I returned to the station and set up camp on the floor, and waited for Esben to arrive.

I was approached by various people, including numerous beggars and a vulgar group of young men, one of whom – when I failed to understand what he said in Danish – told me to perform fellatio on him (using much more vulgar terminology, of course). But then the group just laughed and wandered away, leaving me by myself to sit and wait. I was so relieved when Esben finally arrived – the city hadn’t been making a very good impression so far, but right from the start I could tell Esben was a good guy. He was a gentle giant – tall and broad, but mild-mannered and soft spoken. He showed me which bus to get on, and asked the driver to tell me which stop I had to get off at – Esben had his bike with him, so he told me he’d meet me at the bus stop. By the time we got home and set up the air mattress in the small living room it was nearly one in the morning, but Esben was extraordinarily patient, and only headed to bed himself when I assured him I settled and comfortable.

***

The following day, Esben said he would be able to show me around in the afternoon, but had a few errands to run during the morning. He was, however, able to lend me his spare bicycle. At first I was a little wary – firstly because the last time I rode a two wheeled vehicle had been a disaster, and even managing the quad bikes in Siberia had been a bit of a fluke, and secondly, I knew that cycling was a serious thing around these parts. Counties like Denmark and the Netherlands are interesting when it comes to their topography because they are exceptionally flat. As a result, riding bicycles becomes a highly favoured mode of transport, because its so easy to get around – there’s no steep hills to work you into a sweat on your way to wherever you’re going, and the bike lane systems are so integrated that its actually easier than driving a car. Seriously, the bike lines even have their own miniature traffic lights! It’s a nice change from the usually arrogant and sometimes aggressive cyclists of Sydney, who usually obey neither road rules or pedestrian etiquette. Helmets are also optional in Denmark – I know there’s obvious dangers in that, but it gives the city a totally picturesque and carefree feeling, with hipster girls in their flowing summer dresses and unbridled hair catching the breeze as they cycle through the wide, open streets.

While Esben ran his errands, I busied myself by cycling to the National Museum, and only getting lost once. There was a huge collection of ethnographic displays and exhibits from ancient cultures from all around the world, and the fascinated sociologist in me was able to spend a couple of hours there trawling through the artefacts. The fact they had free WiFi probably helped as well, the Viking and medieval rooms with displays full of weapons, armour, goblets and tapestries even satisfied the Game of Thrones nerd in me.

Viking drinking horn that excited the GOT nerd in me.

Viking drinking horn that excited the GOT nerd in me.

Wooden statue of St George slaying the dragon of legend.

Wooden statue of St George slaying the dragon of legend.

Ancient skull - the living human most likely died from the damage visible here.

Ancient skull – the living human most likely died from the damage visible here.

***

After the museum I met up with Esben again, and we rode our bikes through the city, passing a lot of old and beautiful buildings mixed in with the modern. With a major street named after Hans Christian Anderson, Copenhagen appropriately has a fairytale feeling surrounding it. We stopped a 17th century church called Vor Freslers Kirke, an elegant looking building with a bell tower that loomed over the city, and was finished with a narrow, spiralling point at the top. Esben and I went inside and climbed to the top – from the final steps, at a height of 95 metres, you could pretty much see the entire city. The land itself was so flat that a tower didn’t need to be much higher than that to get the sweeping panoramas. Esben pointed out some major landmarks and buildings around Copenhagen, allowing me to better familiarise myself with the city and get my bearings for when it came time to do some exploring without his guidance.

The enchanting tower above the church.

The enchanting tower above the church.

The bells inside the old wooden interior of the tower.

The bells inside the old wooden interior of the tower.

Copenhagen horizon - view from the tower.

Copenhagen horizon – view from the tower.

We pressed on via bicycle to an area that I had been very excited to visit ever since Susanna had told me about it back in Helsinki – the commune at Freetown of Christiania. “They’re a commune that have managed to stay pretty independent from the rest if the laws in Denmark. It’s legal to smoke pot, and everyone there’s a little bit of a hippie – it’s just a really cool and chilled out place.” It sounded fascinating from the first time I heard about it, and when I met Esben he told me that he actually worked in a store in Christiania, so he’d be able to give me a tour of the area. And it was really cool – it definitely felt like I’d walked into a completely different city, which I guess I technically had.

Groovy mural on the side of Esben's shop.

Groovy mural on the side of Esben’s shop.

The local brew in Christiania.

The local brew in Christiania.

There were shops, stalls, cafes and restaurants littered throughout the area. There were mainly unsealed roads and paths through the gardens and greenery that were almost always filled with pedestrians and cyclists – in retrospect, I don’t think I saw a single car in the main centre of the village, if at all in the whole commune. Maybe they’re not even allowed there? I’m not sure. It almost felt like a big festival, the kind that turns into a small village for the duration of the event, except this was a small, permanent village. A highlight was probably walking through the Green Light District. There were only three rules in the Green Light District: no running (it can cause panic and alarm people), no photos, and have fun. The ‘no photos’ rule is obviously the most applicable, because any outsider would see what was inside the district and automatically feel compelled to capture such a foreign world on camera. Esben also told me that while the sale of these drugs goes on quite openly, it’s still technically illegal. I’m not sure if the law just turns a blind eye, or if there really is something infringing their jurisdiction, but within the community it all seemed pretty normal. Christiania displayed a lot of it own laws, including no fighting or physical and no ‘hard drugs’, so I suppose they can’t be accused of actively promoting a hugely rampant drug culture, I don’t even know if I should be saying so much about it on a public platform – I feel like it might be in violation of some kind of code of secrecy, something the mainstream world isn’t supposed to know about without experiencing for themselves. But lets just say that before browsing the stalls and shops that were set up throughout the Green Light District, I’d had no idea that hash and marijuana came in such a wide variety of types, styles, flavours, and any other kind of property. Weed isn’t really my drug of choice – not saying that I have a drug of choice at all – so I was merely an observer as I passed through the Green Light District.

The folk band playing in Christiania.

The folk band playing in Christiania.

Being all about freedom, people in Christiania seem to be very active and aware about the situation in Tibet, and sights like this are common in the area.

Being all about freedom, people in Christiania seem to be very active and aware about the situation in Tibet, and sights like this are common in the area.

The rest of Christiania was a little less busy and a lot more mellow. There was an American folk band playing out the front the shop where Esben worked, and we sat and listened to them for a while as we drank a few of the local beers. Afterwards we rode our bikes through the rest of Christiania, which was mainly parks and other areas of greenery. The vibe was so relaxed and chilled out – I could imagine being a regular visitor if I was ever a resident of Copenhagen, purely just to enjoy such an open-minded and chilled out little corner of the world. The following afternoon I even returned by myself, while Esben was at work, to grab a beer and lie on the grass under the warm afternoon sun. At six in the evening the sun was still strong, but the European sun in general doesn’t seem as dangerous as the Australian sun – perhaps it has something to do with their lack of a hole in the ozone layer. I laid in the afternoon sunshine for so long that I think I actually fell asleep for a little while, yet when I woke up all I had was a few tan lines on my feet from slip on shoes. Scandinavia was once again surprising me with a climate that actually allowed for sunbathing.