The Euro Love Train 00. 5 years on and 1 month to go

People all over the world – join hands! Start a love train, a love train

As I type, it's Wednesday June 13th. In exactly a month, on Friday July 13th, I'm going on holiday. I mean, I'm starting in Dublin, so in a way you could say I'm starting on Thursday 12th but let's gloss over that for now. Reaching Dublin doesn't count as part of the trip; the trip starts when 5 of us convene on Friday morning to go to Dublin's port and catch a Stena Line ferry back to the UK. After lunch, and possibly a beer or two, we'll get the train to London Euston and then I'll go home.

The next stop that we make, will be England.

Wait, what? Let me explain, by retreading our steps from 5 years ago. Warning: this is a long read. I wouldn't blame you for skimming through it, or even just closing this tab right now.

The Great Circular European Railway Challenge

AKA: The DisOrient Express

In July 2013, yours truly and several of the gents with whom I shall be spending a chunk of July 2018 got on a train. Then we got on another train, and another, and another. If you read the graphic above clockwise from London, that's the route we took.

It looked a bit like this. A lot like this, really.

Somewhat unbelievably, we hit 23 countries in 18 days, stopping in each of the capitals on the way. It was pretty punishing in a variety of ways and oh my christ so much fun.

Kings Cross, London. We got Eurostar on a Saturday morning, early enough that we had to pay the pub in advance to open especially and make us breakfast. We went to Brussels and had lunch. There was beer and cheese. Much, much cheese.

But, no time to hang around. We had to get to Amsterdam, ready to meet a man our leader - Lester - had spoken with on some rail forum. The bloke delivered us a bag full of beers in the 20 minutes or so we had before going to our accommodation: an overnight train to Copenhagen.

My glasses were less thick-rimmed back then, but my hipster credentials weren't in doubt due to the trilby I wore all my waking hours. I loved that hat, almost as much as Lester loved this Spelt.

We got to Copenhagen late, putting our onward journey in danger on just the second day. Three hours in the Danish capital turned into 15 minutes, so without respite from the rails we headed to Gothenburg, glued to my phone both for progress reports on what would prove to be Andy Murray's first Wimbledon victory but also arrangements for meeting up with two new joiners at Oslo, hours later.

Mike, the king of squeezy bacon.

At Oslo we didn't even leave the station – in fact, not even by train, since uncommonly high temperatures melted the rails and caused yet another delay, albeit one only Mike and I knew about because we stayed up drinking way longer than everyone else.

At Trondheim we crossed the platform and took over half another carriage, relentlessly heading north. Some of us were wondering just how much more north there could possibly be.

The answer was "a lot". The train finished at Fauske, at which point we got on a bus even further north, for like 4 more hours or something including a boat across a fjord, until we reached Narvik. The photo behind this text was taken at, like, 1.30am or something. Cloudy yes, but dark no.

Here we stayed on terra firma for the first time, way inside the arctic circle. We had a train to catch in the morning, as well as "fat 'Mickey from Snatch' impressions" to do.

Stockholm (and everything else in Europe) is that way

We went south, and south, and south. A train from Narvik to somewhere in Sweden, onto an overnight train to Stockholm on which we spent a long time talking to an idiosyncratic local girl.

At the capital, an acquaintance of mine met us in the morning rush hour just to hand over a couple carrier bags of Guinness with Hebrew lettering on the side. Oh, and we also picked up the small matter of two immense fishy-cheesecakes: smorgastata. Mike had McDonald's for breakfast.

Back to Copenhagen on yet another delayed train, this time we really did miss our connection. Bugger. We sorted our tickets for the next Hamburg service. Mike had McDonald's for lunch. We got a train that itself got on a boat. Victory!

Hamburg was not our destination for the day; that would be Berlin. But we had a little while between trains. Mike had a McDonalds for dinner.

Another night in a hostel, with a doppelganger at breakfast and about an hour to spare for tourism. My first proper hangover of the trip was cured in the buffet car to Prague, where alongside the river we were served cheap beer in glass and food on proper plates.

Felt pretty good once we got to Praha, even better once we'd gone up a funicular railway, sat in a brewery, and had a cracking meal outdoors. Across that famous bridge and back to the station, it was around here I gave up trying to learn how my camera worked, while Mick lost his.

Our overnight train had been of Hungarian provenance and would indeed take us to Budapest if we wished. But hang on, there are two other capitals to visit. An hour and half in Vienna around breakfast time, and 10 minutes in Bratislava where this photo was basically our only proof we even visited the country.

But things are close together around here and we were still in Budapest by lunchtime, enabling me to absolutely lose my shit at discovering a Manowar-themed cafe-bar.

Some other stuff probably happened - lovely food and drink, amazing views, the Danube - yeah, whatever.

The two of our number who'd joined in Oslo - Albert and Mike - disappeared today, Albert in Berlin and Mike in Budapest. A beer before the evening departure on our night train to Brasov in Romania: things were about to get rowdy rowdy.

The bar car - a fully fledged pub on wheels - was smoky and loud. There were power cuts. People played mandolin songs. The train crew got wasted with us. It was beaufitful carnage.

No-one wanted to go to Brasov. Literally no-one. Rather, we wanted to stay on the train all the way until mid-afternoon in Bucharest, by which time the pounding in our heads might have stopped.

In the Romanian capital, the architecture was as brutal as our hangovers had been.

We wandered around until finding somewhere who'd serve the 8 or so of us at a single table. We had beer and food, but it didn't feel like there was much point carrying on after how good the previous day had been.

That night we got "the Russian ghost train", a service we had tickets for but seemingly appeared in no timetables and may not even exist. But it did, and maybe it would provide a calmer night than the previous.

This was our half way point, so I rewarded myself with the present of an uncomfortable night without sleep, and all the deprivation hallucinations that came with it. The others woke up as sunrise greeted our journey into Sofia, Bulgaria, I just about managed to function en route to the hostel where I slept the morning away while the others did ... whatever they did.

A bus ride took us across the border into Skopje, Macedonia, which provided bad kebabs, a hundred mosquito bites and a desolate main station. What appeared to be a train to Serbia arrived, much to our relief.

We got a picture of a train in our passports when crossing the border late at night. Waking up early in Belgrade, if memory serves I was the only person who poked his head outside the station, while the others got wifi, electricity and coffee. A early morning service to Uzice had us crammed inside the corridor of a very crowded train.

We piled into vans which took us to a scenic railway. A real tourist attaction!

The Sargans Eight was fun 'n all, but not half as much fun as the massive shouting match between us (well, Lester) and two sets of Bosnian and Serbian cab drivers at the other end. Look, can't you all just get along? We just want to reach Sarajevo. Surely no-one around here is a fan of conflict?

Eventually the arguments are resolved and we are driven in debatable safety across the border into Bosnia, and some more shouting until finally we have some acceptable accommodation. Well, that was something, eh?

Staying up late to get drunk in Sarajevo was, at the time, a great idea. At 0530 the next morning it felt somewhat less so.

We had a train to catch, though. No rest for the wicked, we took ourselves to the end of the line, down there in that Croatia. The folk selling bus tickets seemed a little taken aback by the 9 of us turning up and wanting a coach to Split but, well, whatever. 2.5 hours along the coast and everyone but me goes into the sea, while I look after bags and eat pizza dedicated to horrible politicians. The city looks amazing, so let's fuck off to Zagreb shall we?

There was a beautiful sunrise in Zagreb, and the professional photographer in our ranks took what I remember as being the best pic of the trip. We got soft drinks - soft! - and left on a train through the gorgeous countryside, changing at Ljubljana for about 20 minutes, then again in a valley somewhere else in Slovenia. Things got mountainous. Another border arrived, this time on foot.

Ciao, Italia

A delay on Trenitalia - who knew that was a thing? - led us to relax in the station bar a bit too much as 50 minutes of it disappeared. Our 6th train of the day took us to Venice, just as sun was setting.

Our evening in Venice was entertaining enough to warrant a blog post to itself. We had this giant pizza, and a perilous walk back to the curfew-enforcing hostel we were staying at.

Remarkably, the next morning we didn't have to hurry up and get a train. In fact, we had tons of time to kill and I took the opportunity to explore Venice on my own LIKE A BOSS.

Venice was a bit of a cheat, really. I mean not exactly, but the point of the trip was to visit capitals, so obviously we had to go to Rome. I had a shit day and let everyone know about it, culminating in the loss of my beloved trilby at a bar overlooking the coliseum. Fuck you, Rome!

Finding Italy to be surprisingly big, we woke up the next morning still in it, in Milan in fact.

A rush hour service up to the border with Switzerland was a pleasant way to be awake, going alongside the lake and leading us to a town with two train stations, one in each country.

Then it started to get special, and I mean special. Switzerland know how to do trains, and we got a succession of them – starting with one which spirals its way out of town before going straight out through a mountain.

We reached St Moritz, via some sections of track where we were above ski lifts. It was relentless pictureseque, not to mention a bit cold. We ate, constantly, from the enormous amount of posh delicatessen food purchased back down there in grumpy Rome.

After so much ascent we obviously had to descend, by other remarkable railways, en route to our night stop in Zurich.

Having run out of small countries, the rest of our trip would involve long rides on fast trains crossing few borders. Once we left Switzerland, that is. To Geneva, then a few hours in Lyon trying to watch the Tour de France on TV while avoiding the blistering heat outside. A TGV took us up to Paris, the fastest ride of our whole trip and most of the others spent it asleep.

From Paris we were heading south again, on a mobile hotel to Barcelona. With tons of time to kill, just like in Venice I spent the morning on my own - mostly spent sitting in the only bar I found that was open, chatting to the Irish guy behind the bar, and eating the local food.

Later a couple of us met up with an ex-Yahoo! colleague, before our rainy fast trip across the country to the capital, Madrid. Here we scurried across town and sat under some plastic at a restaurant near a terminus, awaiting the train taking us to our final country and capital, on which we would stay up very late in the bar.

Lisbon, Portugal. We'd done it! Some nerves were frayed, but it mattered little - especially to me, as I just let all hints of turmoil wash over me. Much like the shower we had at the municipal baths we virtually had to bribe our way into. But yes, Lisbon, our 23rd capital city and country. Holy smokes! And what a place to finish.

One of the rules of the trip had been "no culture, no museums", but we broke that rule by visiting the Museum of Beer. And then we went home.

Of course, we didn't just jump on a plane. We had trains to catch; an overnight to Hendaye, a TGV to Paris, and the Eurostar home. People were waiting for us at Kings Cross, folk who'd been following our progress – some of whom had even been present in the first week. I was looking forward to throwing away all the local transit tickets I had inexplicably kept ahold of.

The Euro Love Train

So, er, what does that have to do with a holiday in 2018? Well I'm glad you asked. Next month, several of us who participated in the madness I've just described (in that "oh god, make it stop" style where each successive day got less written about it - yeah, I get it) are kinda recreating it, with an anti-Brexit slant and some new tricks up our sleeves.

This time, we're not visiting any countries which aren't in the EU. We think Europe is wonderful and are somewhat dismayed by Brexit, and would like to let our continental brethren know that some of us Brits love them ... by descending upon them like a bunch of whirling drinking dervishes, with sundry other nationalities in tow.

We're not visiting all the EU territories, mind, but whatever. The demise of sleeper services across the continent, combined with the rise of annoying commitments like satisfying work which curtails available time off, has led to a shortened itinerary where nights are spent not on trains but in AirBNBs or on boats; we're swapping the Balkans for the Baltics; we're skipping most of the south and all of Iberia; and we're doing pretty much the whole thing in first class. I mean, how else would they have convinced me to come along?

So in some ways it's not nearly as mental as the Great Circular European Railway Challenge; that said, we are hitting something like 16 countries in just 10 days, so maybe it is? Either way, it should be fun.

Created By
Darren Foreman

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