All through long months of lockdown and British isolation I thought of mundane and ordinary train journeys in Europe. Escapes to nowhere special, in rattling and half-deserted train carriages. A kind of daydream. Something specific, and simple, and unattainable.
As if taunting me somewhat I the spent the summer not scratching this itch, but having it amplified. I wrote for a book on train travel in Europe, suggesting in wondrous and agonising detail a route down the spine of the continent. Wrote, planned, but not travelled. It was simply too hard to contemplate such a journey.
Then with summer over a year-old obligation to speak at a conference in Denmark reared its head. A full overland trip was still impractical – time, family and other work commitments saw to that. But there was some precious time, if I was careful, and quick. So suddenly after much waiting I was in Aalborg for two days, somewhat amazed to be outside the UK. On the first night I just walked, and walked, in the rain, with the quiet waters of the Limfjord and dinging bike bells for company. The next morning I went out to the west of the city and swam at a beautiful bathing pool in bright sunshine, and drank coffee, and felt very Danish.
On Wednesday afternoon, obligations fulfilled I dodged off with happy freedom towards the station and departed Aalborg for Fredericia on a comfy rubber-headed Danish DMU bound, eventually for Copenhagen Airport. Trains on the u-shaped route through Denmark take around five hours to travel from Aalborg Airport to the capital’s hub. It is glorious. The flight takes 45 minutes but is no fun at all.
Not intending to do much talking I sat in the quiet coach. On a Danish train this is a very quiet place indeed. Even the ruffle of an opening crisp packet (me) and chocolate bar (me again) sounds like a rip in the fabric of time. The gently rolling countryside and forest passed by. The clouds darkened. I did nothing other than looked out the window as everything moved, open. There was a 20 minute delay which appeared to be caused by a woman with a young family being ejected from the train. We trundled on.
Fredericia was the sort of place that having detrained you immediately wonder if you should have got off at all. I was rather cold for the first time in several months. The rain dripped down in the darkness. Stragglers like me waited for the Esbjerg service. Esbjerg was mainly notable as the former Danish destination for ferries from the UK, now sadly stopped else I would probably have headed home this way. On boarding the train everyone seemed to disappear and I was left more or less alone in the coach. We stopped often. The number of passengers thinned out, and it thinned out further when I changed again at Bramming, waiting for a southbound service coming from Esbjerg, heading to Ribe. This turned out to be a bit like a Welsh bus, decked out in Arriva blue and bound, like I was to be the following morning for Niebull over the border in Germany.
Therefore it had taken some planning and effort to reach Ribe, my destination for the night. I’d wanted to come here for some time, lured by its deep antiquity and colourful tiny houses. When making this plan I had not quite banked on Ribe being as completely dark as it turned out to be, and an inky night showed the city off in a moody, unwilling light. Ribe, presumably very jolly on a warm summer’s night was almost all shut up. No-one on reception in my hotel to say Hej or God dag or even to take my money it seems (they asked for it by email when they woke up pretty quickly) and only two places open to buy food. One was a pizza place that served a large slice of doner kebab pizza which I ate with the relish of someone who hadn’t for 9 hours. The other was a late shop that sold an ice cream for pudding and some backup breakfast for the following morning.
Some people would have stayed until daybreak but my over-enthusiastic timetabling meant I was Hamburg-bound before dawn, returning to the station to take the 6am train south to the near-mythical Niebull. At one end of the Tonder-Niebull shuttle I had pored over for the train travel writing project, Niebull loomed larger in my imagination than Niebull turned out to justify. It had two things going for it, however. First, it wasn’t Tonder, which in the pre-dawn downpour was dour and deserted- though a very nice town, I now gather – and second that it had a station cafe selling coffee. The drink was cold and the train to Altona was 20 minutes late but I didn’t care. Hamburg Altona station was another place I was eager to visit, and the two hour journey passed with impatience. I already knew it wasn’t a patch on Hauptbanhof, but found the selection of long distance trains berthed there – my reason for coming – a little underwhelming and a sketchy vibe outside the station. A shame really, as if I had been more organised and sorted myself with the Altona-93 t-shirt I’d wanted it would have filled the spare hour I ended up working. But no matter.
The rest of my time in Hamburg hammered a few nails from my only other visit, when I only had time to run from HbF to the Rathaus and back, grabbing a coffee and a change of clothes on an epic London to Oslo overlander maybe 12 years ago? The time disappears, but Hamburg looked lovely by the Elbe, if I was finding the German take on Covid rules rather striking after the Danes complete lack of them. I don’t blame them for being thorough, I wish we were, but the difference struck home. The main cases in point was a man arguing about whether I was fully vaccinated or not before serving me a coffee and the woman at check-in who declared my Danish Covid test to be a vaccination certificate until I insisted it was a test and pointed out that it had the word ‘test’ written all over it. It was good also to walk much too far with a heavy bag, almost get run over through tiredness and briefly set eyes on the Alster lakes.
One more train to the airport, a fast flight home that felt more like 2018 than 2021, a wish for a journey, any journey, happily granted.