In Part 1 I mentioned doing the journey the long way round (by Interrail). If you have time, I would defiantly recommend doing it that way (but make sure you book a sleeper berth if travelling by night train!).
I suppose it’s only fitting, then, that the next time I did the journey I did it the fastest way possible. Of course the fastest way would have actually been to fly, and not go by train, but where’s the fun in that?!
The reason for wanting to go the quick way was because we didn’t have as much time on our hands, and wanted to make the most of our time in Budapest: My boyfriend, Rob, is from Budapest and we were visiting his family and friends.
We did the journey from London to Budapest in about 22 hours, changing at Paris and Munich.
I was delighted when we boarded the Eurostar at St. Pancras and discovered that we would be travelling on one of the new trains they had added to their fleet. The last time I’d taken the Eurostar it looked so tired, worn and dirty, with the upholstery discoloured and falling apart at the seams. This train was different. It was slick, and clean, and bright, and felt like the future. The only down side, I felt, was the fact the the on board wifi was incredibly slow – if you were lucky enough to be able to connect to it that is. On a side note, why is it that when an operator offers no wifi you’re like ‘aw man, that sucks, but guess I’ll have to deal with it‘ but when the operator provides wifi and it’s slow/unreliable you’re like ‘THIS IS A F****ING JOKE!!! THIS IS BULLS**T!!! I’M GOING TO SCREAM!!! WHY DOES THE WORLD HATE ME?!?! AAAAAAAAAARGH!!!‘…or is that just me…?? Anyway, I digress.
We had carefully choreographed our change once we’d arrived in Paris. We only had 30 minutes to make our connection which would involve lugging ourselves, and our huge suitcase, from the Gare du Nord, where the Eurostar arrived in to, to the Gare de L’Est, where our train to Munich would depart from. Neither of us had walked it before. But according the internet, it was a pretty simple and quick walk between the two. Nevertheless, to say I was a little more than anxious would be an understatement – with Paris’s famously winding streets, I was convinced we’d take a wrong turn and get lost. Thankfully I was wrong. It took us 13 minutes to walk the 600m between the stations (with less cumbersome luggage you could easily cut that time down to 5-8 minutes), so we had time to spare to get a coffee.
Just as our coffees were being handed to us the TGV train had arrived and started to board. As recommended, by the train travel guru that is The Man In Seat 61 (yes I will be referencing him quite a lot), we had reserved seats on the upper deck, so we could have the best view for the journey. I used the 6 and a bit hour journey to try to learn Hungarian (NB: Hardest language in the world – need to set more realistic goals for myself) and staring at the beautiful sunset. Rob spent the journey trying not to be sick. It was nauseatingly hot on the train, and the windows can’t be opened. It was a pretty rough 6 and a bit hours for him.
We had a bit of time to spare when we arrived in to Munich at 9.36pm. Our sleeper train to Budapest wasn’t due until 11.31pm. Our time was spent stretching our legs and stocking up on supplies for the next part of the journey. We also bought a lot of Ritter Sport chocolate bars because they had flavours we don’t get in the UK, and a lot of the chocolate is vegan. What a treat! If we didn’t have such a massive suitcase I think we would have ventured further from the station, but as it was dark and we had no idea where anything was, we remained relatively close. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I always feel like the area directly surrounding Munich station is a bit dangerous. But that could just be my anxiety skewing my view on the world again.
I was so incredibly excited when our train to Budapest arrived! I hadn’t travelled by sleeper train in years and all the wonderful memories of previous journeys had come flooding back. My only worry was that Rob would hate it. Train travel means so much to me, and I dreaded the impact it would have on our relationship if he hated it! What if he had such an awful time that he refused to ever travel by sleeper train again?! After all, I think you have to be a certain kind of traveller to appreciate the spirit of travelling this way – which can sometimes be dangerous, often be dirty, and always be awkward in some way or another.
As we boarded the train the nostalgia hit Rob, but in a different way to me: My memories were of past journeys, his was of Communism. He commented on how old the trains were, and how surprised he was that they were still using the carriages from the times of the Soviet Bloc, which were then used to ferry soldiers across the country. He noticed the little details from history that would have completely escaped my notice – right down to the colour scheme (which was a very kitsch orange, grey, black combo). He said it even smelt like the past. The sheets were stained but the beds were comfy. Robs words propelled me in to the past and I imagined what it would be like to be one of those soldiers travelling on this train, sleeping in this very bed.
The carriages themselves had a traditional layout of 4 berths per compartment, 2 lower, and 2 upper (that get pulled down or folded up depending on how many passengers there are). We had the top bunks. I much prefer the top bunk because you have control of the speaker system and the air conditioning – this is very important. Before we set off the tinny sound of the conductor blared out of the speaker system. In fear that it would happen again, I switched it off. Our fellow travellers were 2 Germans, one man and one woman (they didn’t know each other). Neither spoke English, and we speak very limited German, so once the awkward comings and goings whilst getting sorted in our cabin were over and done with, we settled in for the night. The temperature was perfect so it was easy to drift off.
We were woken in the night by the thrashing of rain on the train roof. A storm was raging outside. Lightning lit the compartment like a photographers flash, and thunder rumbled, then crashed loudly above us. I felt cosy as I listened to the unrelenting storm battering the train outside, and, I’ll admit, a little worried that the train was going to get struck by lightning. It kept us awake for some time, me and Rob sharing silent looks in the darkness, but then we managed to drift off again.
I don’t know what time the storm woke us, but it must have been early in the journey because at 3.30am we were woken again. But this time it was by a woman moaning and groaning, panting and whining. For a few minutes I cringed and wondered why people would have such loud vocal sex on a train, and how inconsiderate that was. That was until she started screaming hysterically. Ok, now I knew it wasn’t sex.
You could hear the whole car waking to her screams, and the conductor rushed past our compartment to see what the commotion was about. She spoke in German ‘Tasche…’, ‘fehlen…’, ‘iPad…’ ‘dreitausend Euro’. With my limited German, I deduced that her bag had been stolen. The hysteria went on for an hour and a half. At 5am we decided not to try to bother sleeping any more. We grabbed the attention of the conductor as he walked past us, and Rob asked him (in Hungarian) what had happened. It turns out that the lady had placed her bag at the foot of her bed, put her earphones in, and gone to sleep… and hadn’t locked the door. The bag contained 3,000 Euros, amongst other things. She had blamed the conductor for not being sympathetic enough to her situation, and told him that she found his attitude suspicious, then went on to accuse him of stealing her bag himself. He said that, unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence, and there wasn’t much he could do until the next stop, so that was his reason for being so calm about it. Eventually the bag was found stuffed behind the toilet. The money was gone.
At about 7am the conductor visited our cabin again, this time to ask if we wanted breakfast (a simple breakfast and hot drink is included in the price of the ticket). Rob told him he was vegan, and asked what the options were. The conductor replied, ‘We have many options!… Chocolate croissant, chocolate croissant, chocolate croissant… let’s just say, if your favourite food is chocolate croissant you’re in luck!’. We settled for no chocolate croissant, and a black coffee.
The rest of the journey was smooth sailing, the weather was now gloriously sunny, and we gazed out of the window as we drank our coffee.
We arrived in to Budapest at 9.24am, talking about the journey we had just been on. It was certainly eventful, and in anticipation, I asked Rob how he found the experience. He LOVED it! ‘Even the sleeper??’, I asked him? ‘Especially the sleeper!’ was his reply, ‘when can we do it again!?!’
To be continued…