Editor’s note: Tim Woodward recently returned from Kenya and Europe. This is the fourth of five stories from the trip.
When our plane from Africa landed in Europe, we thought the hard part of our trip was over. We’d survived long days on back-breaking roads in Kenya and were looking forward to the relative luxury of traveling by train.
Our flight home included a four-hour layover in Amsterdam that we stretched into a week, reasoning that we’d never have a chance to get to Europe as cheaply again. We’d purchased first-class Eurail passes, which cost only a little more than second class, and visions of beautiful scenery, comfortable beds and the rhythm of the rails lulling us to sleep filled our heads as we boarded our first train.
For a while, that’s how it was. A sleek, high speed train whisked us through quaint villages and emerald countryside in the Netherlands and Germany. We reclined in sumptuous leather seats, enjoyed the view, chatted with an amiable conductor. It was all very pleasant.
Until we got to Cologne, Germany.
Cologne was where we needed to board a midnight train to Prague, a city we’d always wanted to visit. We had a two-hour layover, so getting to the train on time wasn’t a problem. Getting onto the right car on the train was.
Regular readers of this column may be wondering if this is shaping up to be a vacation-mishap story. A reasonable expectation, given my history of them, and one that did not go unfulfilled.
Boarding the right car on a European train can be challenging. Your reservation has the number of the car you’re supposed to be on, but the numbers on the cars themselves are small, difficult to spot, and the cars aren’t always in order. We’d reserved a room with two couchettes for sleeping. With the train starting to move and us with no idea where our car was, we panicked and clambered onto one that said simply, “couchette.”
“This is first class?” my wife said. “It’s dirty. And it stinks!”
The car smelled like it had been used to haul horses. There was no place to put luggage, no bathrooms, no rooms at all; just curtains. Opening the curtains revealed spaces with bunk beds. Sprawled on the bunk beds were what appeared to be college students. The smell of marijuana smoke was palpable, which was fine with us because it was a big improvement over horses, or goats or whatever the previous occupants had been. But it still wasn’t quite what we’d had in mind.
“You stay here and keep an eye on the luggage,” my wife said. “I’ll go find the car where we’re supposed to be.”
The car where we were supposed to be turned out to be 12 cars ahead. Negotiating 12 swaying cars in aisles barely one person wide with lurching platforms between the cars would have been daunting without luggage. We were lugging two continents’ worth — four suitcases and two shoulder bags containing over 100 pounds of everything from Kenyan coffee to ebony elephants. By the time we reached our room, my wife had sprained a finger, I had multiple bruises from careening into walls, doors and sleeping passengers, and we were sweating like pigs.
The room was so small you could stand in the middle and touch all four walls. It took two hours to unpack, muscle the luggage into crannies and shower off two days of African dust in a shower the size of a broom closet. You had to be a contortionist to climb into the upper bunk, and you couldn’t move more than a few inches in the bathroom without knocking your phone charger out of the wall plug. When at last we were ready for bed, at nearly 3 a.m., I had to stagger through two swaying cars to find the conductor to show us how to turn off the light. (My assumption that no one else would be awake to see me staggering about in my boxers at that hour was incorrect.) The light switch was cunningly hidden in a nook above the door.
We arrived in Prague the next day, spent two nights there and enjoyed every minute. But our train mishaps were just beginning.
In the good old days when Boise had passenger trains, you’d have had to have been a complete bonehead to miss your train. One track, one train. Stations in many European cities have dozens of tracks used by hundreds of trains. Tracks and departure times are shown on reader boards, but not until 15 minutes before departure. So you have 15 desperate minutes to find out where the track is and sprint down corridors and up flights of stairs lugging heavy suitcases to get there.
Regular passengers know the system and have no trouble. For novices, meaning us, it was a source of recurring panic attacks. We’d used up most of our 15 minutes frantically searching for the track of our train leaving Prague when an alert bystander noticed our plight. (Our hysterical wails might have tipped him off.) He took us to our train, then politely asked for a well-deserved tip. Without him we could still be in the Prague train station, or possibly an asylum.
Most — but not all — of the stops trains make are shown on monitors aboard the trains. When one of our trains stopped at what we thought was Cologne, where we had to change trains for Amsterdam, we trusted the monitor and got off. It seemed odd that our next train was leaving from Track 4 and there were only three tracks, but we figured it was just another vagary of European train travel.
“Where is Track 4?” we asked a woman at the information booth.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Amsterdam? There is no train from here to Amsterdam.”
“But it says so right here on our reservation — Cologne to Amsterdam.”
“Cologne? This is Siegburg!”
Our faith in the accursed monitor had put us off a stop early, in a town that is to Cologne what Melba is to Boise.
“But there is another train to Cologne leaving in three minutes,” she added.
Three minutes? Running like overloaded camels and sweating like pigs (again), we boarded the train while it was moving (again). By this time my pulse was off the charts. (Note to readers: If you ever plan to see Europe by train, pack nitroglycerine pills.)
With a two-hour layover in Cologne, we treated ourselves to beers at a pub near the station. It was crowded and cramped (mainly due to our luggage) and my wife deftly knocked the beers over. A smiling waitress mopped them up and brought replacements. On our way out, my shoulder bag knocked over a glass that shattered on the floor. The waitress, probably not sorry to see us go, wasn’t smiling anymore.
Here we will draw the curtain of mercy over this episode, except to say that excluding language barriers, a missed connection and some spirited cursing, the rest of the trip was uneventful.
Did it lessen our fondness for train travel?
Not at all. We plan to travel by train again whenever possible — right here in the U.S.
Next Sunday: Prague, the fall of Communism and old haunts. After that Tim’s column will return to its normal schedule of every other Sunday. His columns are posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.