This article appears in a translated form in the May 2010 edition of ZINE magazine.
It isn’t just due to Iceland’s newest and noisiest volcano that we’re doing more overland travel. More and more of us are choosing to make the journey part of the holiday, or take a road, rail or sea trip to see more along the way.
Can you stop wafting that smoke in my direction please?
My own experience is that while the idea is very nice you should be prepared for a few adventures along the way. A few years ago I was asked to speak at a conference in Oslo. I was pleased about this as at the time I hadn’t been to Norway, and thought this was a good chance to see somewhere new. I walked into the office of my boss and asked him what he thought. ‘You can go…’ he said. I paused, knowing something else was coming ‘but you’re not allowed to fly. I want you to get there without flying and write an article about your experiences’.
I breathed in, both excited and slightly worried. The conference was a week away and I realised I had little idea how I was going to get there. I quickly worked out a route. The ferry was too slow and too expensive – this being the last days of the Newcastle to Bergen boat service – but trains, it seemed, would work just fine. I made bookings where I could and packed my bags for a big adventure.
The route was far from simple and I had planned some tight connections. Nine minutes in Brussels, an hour in Hamburg, half that in Copenhagen and half that again in Gothenburg. The railways of mainland Europe have a formidable reputation in Britain compared to our own frequently late and overcrowded trains, so I figured if I could somehow arrive on time heading from London to Brussels that everything else would go like clockwork.
Eurostars at St Pancras
The Eurostar pulled in a few minutes ahead of schedule and I sprinted to the platform for my sleeper service to be greeted with a sign saying the sleeper to Hamburg was four hours late. There was no explanation and no-one to speak to. I had no choice but to join the small band of night-train refugees huddled together for protection from the perils of Brussels-Zuid station at night. In an instant, I had missed every connection on my journey and had no idea what time I would get to Oslo. I lay down on a bench and cursed my boss in his comfy bed, oblivious to the chaos he had indirectly caused.
On boarding the sleeper I found another obstacle in my path. My travelling companion, a French businessman, had locked the door of my compartment and would not let me in. I knocked, rattled and shouted and eventually gave up. There was no guard in sight. I lay down in the corridor and tried to sleep before being woken two hours late by the same man heading to the toilet, then by the guard who threw me off the train at Dortmund aiming for a faster connection to Cologne. It appeared to be a smoking-only service. Things admittedly got better from there on in: trains improved in standard in Germany and Denmark, the ferry journey between the two was a marvellous journey where the train drove on and off the boat, and I even made a three-minute connection in the Danish capital. I added Hamburg to my list of great underrated European cities after a brief wander around town between trains. Crossing the Oresundsbron ticked another travel ambition off the list.
It was eleven o’clock at night before I arrived in Gothenburg, where I checked into the kind of small and depressing business hotel that becomes the refuge of the desperate and sleep-deprived and lay down for a few hours. The only train that would get me to Oslo in time was a 6am departure. I reached journeys end unwashed, exhausted and more than a little wired after such a long and strange journey. It had taken just over 40 hours from door-to-door.
Olso's new opera house
At the conference, which funnily enough was about ecotourism, I became something of a celebrity. I was ‘the guy who came by train’ and, rather than finding the hardships of the trip grimly fascinating found everyone I spoke to was jealous. Many told me they would gladly have swapped another flight in a metal tube for seeing some new places and having an adventure. There were limits though and not many volunteers for dozing on a Brussels train station bench.
While this trip doesn’t compare with Amundsen or Heyerdahl’s adventures, it does suggest that ditching the plane sometimes can lead to something different, meeting new people and picking up a story or two. Maybe that’s why we all delight in tales of unusual journeys whether caused by a volcano or a mildly sadistic boss. With just a small but different decision, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.
I took the plane home, in case you’re wondering.
I booked my tickets through a combination of sources, arranging Eurostar direct, then using Deutsche Bahn‘s helpful UK booking office to get to Copenhagen. From there I could have booked as I went, but I made advance reservations through Trainseurope. The journey was a couple of years ago but cost in the region of £300 total. I flew back for considerably less than that with British Airways.