Tales from my travels

Less a blog, more a travel book! And not a very good one!

A general selection of my musings from my recent travels, not particularly well presented, organised or relevant but something attracted you to start reading this……

I was always a timid traveller. I would get anxious just before a long drive and I was convinced every time I got the train up to London for leisure there was a bomb onboard. And don’t even get me started on sea and air. I think it was a mixture of believing everything I saw in the media and reading/watching too many depressing books/TV shows. I always liked the idea of travel but was a tame tourist hence the bomb excitement over a simple train ride to London, almost a daily occurrence for lots of folk. It was only after joining the railway industry that I started to commute to London daily. I now look at the idiots who struggle with basics like finding their seats and my worries of yesteryear have long gone despite the risk of terrorism on the transport network probably more prevalent these days. Over the past couple of years I have aimed to get some sort of authenticity from my trips as opposed to run of the mill nice and easy package holidays. By authenticity I mean 3 nights without a proper bed slumped across 3 seats on night trains from Brussels to Helsinki instead of taking a three hour flight. It also means I get the moral high ground with the top dog at Greenpeace who flies from Brussels to Amsterdam because the 1 and a half hour train journey is too long for the environmental groups exec. My wife prefers the destination where as I’m for the journey which causes some conflict when it comes to planning our jollies.

My recent trip to Finland I did on my own, well I was meeting people in Helsinki who had set off 3 days after me and got there a couple of hours before me. As well as the risk of being shot down or hijacked (I don’t worry about engine malfunction because I have watched enough episodes of Air Crash Investigation to fix any mid-air scenarios that may arise) they also miss out on the rich tapestry of life you get on 96 hours of train journeys which you simply don’t get on a three hour easyJet flight.

It’s disappointing the German railways (DB) City Night Line brand is being withered away. Gone is the night train to Copenhagen replaced by an (ancient) regular train from Frankfurt to Hamburg. The train stops everywhere and takes 8 hours. Decent night trains could offer a real alternative to flying short-haul (perhaps even for Greenpeace employees) unfortunately from my experience they are far from a luxury product full of interaillers, the less affluent, ethnic minorities and drunks. Doing lots of miles in the dead of night, the fact most German stations are hives of activity all hours making them safer places to wait after hours then some of the UKs dingy affairs along with the bargain fares give the railways something to work with to compete with the airlines especially with the environmentally conscious travellers. That is assuming unlike the Greenpeace gaffer they are all for the environment signing Heathrow third runway petitions and chaining themselves to trees and not bathing for months until it comes to their own travel habits. I would love to see a selection of luxurious (but not too pricey to out price the average guy) sleepers leaving the UK every night for varied destinations in mainland Europe. Maybe I’m wishful thinking for a romantic vision of sleeper trains whose days have now passed. It’s odd to see the only sleepers getting any TLC are the UKs. I have never been on the Anglo-Scottish one but the FGW Penzance one is pointless. It sits around so much en-route it could leave Paddington a day late and still make Penzance on time. It acts as a late train from London to Exeter and an early morning commuter train for Cornwall. It’s two main cities Exeter and Plymouth have awfully unattractive pick up and arrival times!

Frankfurt to Hamburg was no difference to the norm described above. I started with 3 seats to myself so made a bed, sharing a carriage with a few women and all was well until Cologne. It was there,that a bunch of drunks got on, thinking it was hilarious to sing and bang the floors for effect. This went on for two hours. It really is a sad reflection on society that people have so little respect for each other and I have blogged before that I expect these morons are regular guys and girls who for some reason (usually alcohol) and increased confidence from being with friends seem to find it acceptable to behave like cunts. I would love to track them down when they are being normal, going to work and reading the kids bedtime story and just stand in front of their houses and make loads of noise and shout rude words to see if pisses them off! Back to Germany and I can’t help but think that Germany is like the UK in the 1980’s. I expect Angela Merkell may take offence at being called backwards but I don’t mean it as an insult. The spitting, boozing on the streets from morning until night and what seems like mandatory smoking for everyone from aged 12 don’t seem too great however it was good to see a country that doesn’t ban things for being too risky. Posters and magazines that would be slated by Mail and Express readers in the UK (like the Hovis bread advert because the girl had a short skirt) are plastered around underground stations and on proud display in newspaper stands not censored behind dark plastic wrappers so as to not cause offence or heaven forbid be seen by teenagers. Because teenagers don’t know about these things! Health and safety which apparently is a construct of the Brussels beauracrcy machine is ironically nowhere to be seen in Germany. The train doors release as the train slows down at the station not ten minutes after stopping to make sure all the people who lack the common sense not to open a moving train door are catered for. German underground trains don’t carry minute detailed instructions for boarding with prams or standing clear of the doors because people just get on with it. In fact it’s good to see a city of a decent size with good urban transport (Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham take note). It’s good to just be able to get on with your life, free of nanny state, free to make my own decisions and free to live with the consequences. The only bit of nannying I want from the state is the freedom to get on with my own life without fear of other people effecting that freedom. I like the anything goes attitude of the German’s and the Dutch too. Neither are Coca-Cola or booze companies banned from sponsoring things because they are pure evil and the reason for liver cancer and obesity, nothing to do with people’s responsibility. On a lesser note it’s also nice to see a huge selection of reasonable priced and quality food and drink at German stations, open beyond dusk. It’s a far cry from the stale, overpriced Upper Crust sandwiches and other crappy Select Service Partner offerings here in the UK.

It’s a shame the demise of European night trains. I did the Paris to Berlin one and now that’s gone, I didn’t make Copenhagen on the night train because it broke down at Hannover and now that’s gone. Although this did mean I got to do the regular ICE /DSB daytime train from Hamburg to Copenhagen which uses the ferry from Puttgardin to Rodby. What was otherwise a pleasant international journey was again marred by 7 guys sat in the seats directly in front of me. I have to hand it to them though, they broke a new record in alcohol consumption. Again they seemed like regular guys on a weekday. They started as we left Hamburg at 925 am with about five cans each of top strength beer and doing shots downing miniature spirit bottles whole. The train was shifted into the car deck of the Scandlines ferry and we had to vacate the train during the crossing. When we returned to the train they had added a bottle of duty-free Whiskey to their collection which they had finished by Denmark’s capital. How can people even be alive after so much alcohol consumption. I can’t imagine how their bodies took it in. As the booze intake increased the decibels they output also increased. One of them can’t have been as drunk as the others or his conscious didn’t abandon him after 5 pints because he kept telling them to shush, although towards the end this was as annoying as the other noise. I like a beer on the train. I like to look out of the window, to read, catch up on work, daydream, sleep, even talk when I’m travelling with company. Although usually travelling in a group usually makes it cheaper to go by car. I would be embarrassed to cause so much of a disturbance to others. I can’t see why people think that kind of behaviour is acceptable in public places!

I’m pleased to say the next leg of my journey, a five hour train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, 12 hour sleeper to Lulea and then 2 hour bus ride across the border to Kemi in Finland was drunk free and a pleasurable journey with the only thing rising through the journey being the amount of snow on the ground. In fact I was the drunk being told off. I was about to open my 330ml can of Heineken when the train manager appeared from nowhere and told me only booze purchased onboard can be consumed. Although I’m against these schemes which profit the train company at the expense of the passenger (and an illegal monopoly) it was noticeable the nicer environment. Not wanting to diss the Germans again but the Swedish are a much sexier bunch then their dowdier German near neighbours, even the Swedish men almost manage to pull off those bright colours. It seems a lot more modern then some of its European neighbours. There is a distinct lack of neon lights compared to Belguim and Germany but still a lot of heavy industry, a rarity in modern Britain. It’s also amazing to see just how much snow they have but most amazingly how it doesn’t stop everyday life. Public transport remains (very) efficient, pavements are also cleared, the UK could learn a lot.

I make it over the border into Finland at Tornio and a short bus ride to the city of Kemi where I have 4 hours to kill before my sleeper train to Helsinki. It’s like stepping into the apocalypse. There was an eyrie mist off the Baltic Sea over the town at dusk which gave it a strange glow but there were literally no people, no pedestrians, no cars. Everything was closed. Shops, restaurants and bars all closed about 5pm, even the pubs. The fact the Christmas tree was still up and lit in the main square made me seriously think some kind of Armageddon happened around Xmas and I’m the first to arrive on the scene (or that it’s a marketing ploy as it is in Lapland area). I know the urge to leave home in minus 5 temperatures amidst lashings of snow must not be tempting but for a whole city it was bizarre. You know it’s bad when you do a find your nearest McDonalds search and it comes up with one 150 KM away. I eventual found a Pizzeria on a side street and guess what? I was the only customer. The pizza and beer was good followed by a walk round a late night supermarket (9pm late night not late night by normal standards) just to pass time. All the stations I have been to on my travels so far have been huge with food and drink to while away the hours to departure. Unfortunately Kemi Central station like everything else in Kemi has nothing but a deserted waiting room. It doesn’t have many trains. My connections have all worked perfectly so far and as I wait here at Kemi station for 3 hours (not even any wi-FI) Im starting to wish I hadn’t added in extra contingency to account for delays. My journey home is much tighter connections, will be interesting to see if I make it back to West Yorkshire by Maundy Thursday as planned (read on to find out if you are that interested). As I left the pizzeria I commented to the waitress whose English was far superior then my non existent Finnish about the town being quiet and when I said I was killing time for the train, she asked where to, to which I replied Helsinki, to which she replied “naturally”. Maybe a bit of North-South divide present in Finland too. I can’t see Kemi ever being a Northern powerhouse in any sense! 

So my third night in a row of not much sleep on the train proved the worst. The train was busy. A girl was asleep in my seat when I boarded and didn’t want to wake her and claim my rightful seat like I would have in the UK owing to the potential language barrier of making my case. Although up until now I have found the Finn’s English very good which makes my complete lack of knowledge of the Finnish language a tad embarrassing. Obviously though I have never had course to learn Finnish and would struggle to remain competence owing to my little need to speak it overall. I feel like telling everyone I speak a bit of Dutch and French to highlight I’m not a complete idiot. I took another empty seat waiting for someone to kick me out of it en-route but nobody did however the guys in front decided to fully recline their seats leaving me with very little room and not much sleep. Out of the window vast landscapes of what I can only describe as Christmas tree forests whizz by, the snow had started falling thick and fast and the traditional wooden finish houses made for pleasurable window shopping en-route. A couple of quick stop offs in Tampere and Turku before onto the capital. Being from the North of England where the highlight is getting a 20 year old cattle truck over a 30 year old pacer, there is something exciting about travelling on the modern double deck trains. So far have spent all my time on battered old sleeper rolling stock somewhere on a par with the UKs mark 1 stock. It was interesting to note a short shower hose in the toilets of Finnish commuter trains which I’m guessing acts as a sort of bedae? Interesting toilet habits of the Finns. However on arrival Helsinki will have to wait. I’m checking into my hotel and catching up on 3 days missed sleep. It’s bloody tiring this authentic travel!

A week in a  Helsinki  and day trip to Tallinn taught me a number of things:

It’s bloody cold in Finland.

Everybody in Helsinki  lives in an apartment (literally didn’t see one house)

The state control all sales of spirits and wines (except pubs) through its Alko brand stores (personal freedom and monopoly issues going on here!)

The Finnish are far too keen to get naked- I’m talking Saunas.

Helsinki to Tallinn is just Dover to Calais before duty free disappeared- booze cruise time!

So it’s time to start the long trek home! My first mistake was to believe the Silja line advertising that the port of Turku was a short walk from the station. A short half hour walk although it did transpire there was a station at the terminal served at ferry times. My bed for the night was the MS Baltic, a huge ship to take me to Stockholm with a short stop in Mariehamm which I believe is for some customs loop hole so the ship can sell cheap booze or something. Despite this being my third ferry crossing of my jolly I’m feeling somewhat apprehensive about this journey across the Baltic Sea. Although the crossing actually proves relatively smooth my cabin is at the back near the engines and so the sway of the sea has been replaced by the vibrations of the engines. The journey seemed more of a river passage then a sea crossing. The Baltic between Turku and Stockholm is littered with lots of islands. 10 hours, a fine buffet,a few bottles of duty free and a bad nights sleep later and I’m in Stockholm and around 30 hours from the bright lights of West Yorkshire.

The next leg of my long journey home was Stockholm to Copenhagen by train. I have found the Swedish railways highly efficient making huge distances without losing a single minute en-route. I had pre-booked food with my reservation and received a ready meal of Chicken in white sauce I had to microwave myself on the train which was nicer then it sounds. I think I arrived in Copenhagen on the same day the entire population of Denmark were leaving by train for their Easter break. I needed to make a reservation so went to the ticket office where they have a deli-counter style system where you take a ticket and wait to be called. Not good when your train leaves in 5 minutes and you get number 519 and they have just called 226! I finally made it out of Denmark and over the border into Germany, home edging ever closer. I have covered around 1000 KM since jumping ship at Stockholm and all has been ontime that is until the penultimate train before I reach the night train in Hamburg to take me through the night towards Brussels and the Eurostar back to the UK. 

One day at home and then it’s a 300 mile drive to Cornwall with the family for the week! I need a rest!!!!!



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