I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

How to visit 23 countries in 18 days

Even I'm getting bored of referencing the absurd reality of what GCERC was, in factual terms. There's only so many ways to slice and dice it and whatever happens it's always the same. 23 countries, 18 days, 18000+ kilometres, 48 trains, ... here, here's a map.

Let's start with the obvious: to do this, you need a well-integrated rail system spanning the entire bloody continent, connecting major cities via world class scenery across multiple countries with almost effortless ease. You need to be lucky enough to live nearby and be able to afford it, because you need it to be possible before it's feasible and feasible before you attempt it. If you have a partner you need a pass, and if you have a job you need a boss who'll let you take the time off (thanks, Ian!). And you need Ffestiniog Travel to sort out your tickets, because no other bastard can do it. Trust me. You need a passport and an interrail ticket and to assiduously write your train details on the included form lest an overzealous Dane try and kick you off a train to Hamburg. You don't need to write the actual train numbers in, especially in the Balkans, because the conductors do it for you. You need separate tickets for Eurostar and the Thalys, and reservations for sleepers. You need a credit card when you're caught ticketless near the Oberalp. You need bus reservations, or to be prepared to stand, for the bits of Europe without train tracks, like the fjords of Norway, the Adriatic Coast, the borders between countries which don't like each other much, or the bits which just don't have the money to fund railways right now.

That's the practical stuff. If the work, family, and train timetables say you can do it, and you have a ticket in your hand then the rest is fluff, fluff which I will now describe.

At the risk of sounding like a soppy bastard, what you really need to pull off a trip like this is cracking company. I'm a fairly well seasoned solo traveller... so long as I stick mostly to planes and big cities, with barely any risk of being found in the middle of an argument between two cab firms arguing over my fare while I'm standing near a narrow gauge railway in a town near the Serbia/Bosnia border. So as well as being fun, you need people who can cope with such situations.

It's easy to say after the trip and impossible to prove otherwise, but the whole thing was made not only special, but possible, by each and every person who came along. So that starts with Mark, our imperious and benevolent fuhrer, whose bloody stupid idea this whole rigmarole was in the first place and who spent two whole bloody years sorting every last little detail out. There's Dave and Mick, fellow train afficionados I mistakenly thought had known Mark for years, but in actuality had only been in touch since the last time he did something like this, around India. Dave knew where we were and on what type of machinery, without having to resort to anything that required battery power, and had the timetable mostly committed to memory. Mick has train credentials I could only dream of - I will forever be jealous that he went to Pyongyang to see steam trains in the 1980s - and was a perennial source of calm amongst the chaos. There was Jason and John, friends of Mark for years and experienced travellers on Stretch Tours International, able to cope with (and, occasionally, cause) the emotional meltdowns which always occur. Paul is a photographer par excellence who captured so much of what Lloyd and I tried to put into words in a few very well chosen pics each day, assiduously uploaded as soon as there was a sniff of wifi. A patient tutor of both the mechanics and artistry behind taking good snaps, even to those that just won't learn. Lloyd is a friend and ex-colleague of Mark and myself, now paid to write words more literary than vernacular, who could tell our watching public what was going on outside the window and what it really means to traverse the whole of Europe, beneath the superficiality of an 18-day absurdo-boozeathon. And Steve, a man who knew precisely none of us before lift-off, he'd had a 5-minute phone interview with Stretch after they met across the wires when the India trip had come to a close. Steve's forte is unusual travel, about which I think he found some kindred spirits. A good man in a crisis and someone who can build a temporary kitchen out of rucksacks and a chopping board in a Serbian vestibule. Terrible liar though.

Those are the folk who made the full distance. Temporary company was no worse, just briefer. Stoy started in London and made it as far as Bulgaria, ever the relaxed and happy guy, another with India experience and so able to provide a sense of "this will work, y'know" calm, even to Mark when he didn't believe. Albert and Mike played large cameos of 5 days and a week respectively, delivering supplies of booze, food in squeezy tubes, local knowledge, and a soundtrack on a Swedish night train which included a recording of a BBC news reporter barely flinching as Broadcasting House was bombed during the bulletin. Fernando managed to outdo the Norwegian supplies, just, and gets into this paragraph because he too joined us on a train, for fully 20 minutes.

Andy had gotten Mike, Albert and their supplies to Oslo station on time. Stockholm Paul delivered us all beer and me Guinness, for which I will forever remain grateful. He also supplied other Swedish food, including squeezy bacon cheese, all at an ungodly hour in the morning. Ellen came out for an hour or so in Barcelona, in the middle of the Spanish daytime when I assume by rights she should have been having a snooze. Steffen took 3 of us for very late night beer in Berlin, and popped back for breakfast. A guy whose name I never caught gave us supplies on the platform in Amsterdam. The bus driver in Narvik who gave us a lift for 3km was a diamond. Steve knew people in Venice, in the evening and morning (the latter a side-trip I didn't do). Paul knew friendly faces in various places, I made a new friend in Barcelona, and variously we spoke at, and occasionally to, sundry strangers in bars and on the trains. If all Swedish arc welding girls are as much fun as the one we met, you could do worse than finding one of those. Generally you can't do a thing like this by yourself, nor keep it to yourself. Find and make friends even if they are just for an hour or so.

More formal arrangements were made: each shop we'd ordered picnics from in advance came through, smorgastarta in Sweden, a preposterous amount of cheese and meats and antipasti and wine from Rome, um, ... were those the only two? It's all I can remember right now. Our accommodation, when not on trains, was all booked in advance and largely delivered on the promise of a cheap bed and place to wash and recharge personal and electrical energy - Sarajevo the only place where this almost faltered. That said, in future I would not recommend staying in venues with curfews if at all possible. If your Venice directions go wrong it'd a long night sleeping next to a canal.

You need currency and a tight rein on finances so it doesn't go out of control. We ran a whip, generally pitching in €50 each a day, on average, maybe a bit less. Take it in advance, do not rely on cash machines being available when you've got 15 minutes in Bratislava and want a diet coke. Plenty of countries take the euro, even those who don't have it as an official currency. If you need local shekels, go straight to a change counter at the station when you arrive. Use cards when you have to and make sure them that do get reimbursed. With such tight timings and a big group, it's pretty imperative you don't waste time going off-piste, umming and ahhing about who's going to eat and drink and contribute what. When you've only got 13 minutes to run around a supermarket you'd best make sure everyone likes bread, cured meats, and squeezy cheese. If you have 14 hours in a city then you can splinter off, of course, but mostly sticking together works and worked.

If you're boozing, spirits and wine are better to transport than beer, which you need/drink more of and thus weighs a fucking ton. You probably need to avoid the £7 beer in Norway and £8 beer in Zurich. You need to buy the sauce before you enter these parts and make it last until you leave.

You need to be able to buy metro tickets from unfamiliar machines, and read tube maps, even if most of the lines are "this'd be nice, eh?" (Bucharest, I'm looking at you). If you're never doubling back, you're often going to leave a city from a different station to the one where you arrived. And if you're doing this in a 45 minute window during rush hour you'd best not make any mistakes. You need to resist the temptation to solicit everyone's opinion: too many cooks really can spoil the broth, especially if that broth is written in fucking Cyrillic script.

You need a phone with GPS and maps and data and jesus christ how did people travel without that stuff back in the day? I can't even remember how a 15-strong party of us managed to do a pub crawl in 2002 which hit 10 counties in one day without smartphones. For GCERC, my iPhone was invaluable. The apps you need are:
  • Rail Planner - offline European rail timetables. had nearly everything, and could tell us where we should be at any given time. enabled us to look up alternatives when we thought we'd need a plan B. not so hot in Italy, mind, nor with trains starting in Russia. on the whole, this app had the precise timings for our trains correct.
  • MapsWithMe - offline openstreetmap maps, to show EXACTLY where we were, not merely which stations we were supposed to be between. works with only GPS, cell signal not required. OSM is much better than I expected, though I didn't see the pro-Tito sign it said was on a mountain at the Slovenia/Italy border
  • PlaceTrack - a Google latitude updater, which recorded a trail of where we went. Sadly Google Latitude is disappearing soon, but this was fantastically useful. checks in every 3-10 minutes so long as it knows where you are within 500 metres. the data enables us to relive it like nothing else.
  • Google maps - if you've got a data connection, the directions on google maps will get you back to the station or hostel. Be a slave to the blue dot on the blue line unless you have very good reason not to be.
Having data roaming on your contract is essential, despite all the offline stuff. I'm using Three, the One Plan which comes with unlimited data. They give you a hidden credit limit which it's very easy to hit, cutting you off when you're away, but you can get around this by calling up in advance and putting your account in credit. I paid £150 upfront and this just about covered my bill for July, including the fiver a day whenever we were in the EU and the £50 I spent in Switzerland because it's just so bloody pretty I couldn't wait until France to upload the pics of the Alps.

Pick your own camera app and hosting site. I mostly used the builtin app on my iPhone 5, and everything goes on flickr. Real, big boy camera stuff you will have to learn from Paul. I have a Panasonic TZ40 point and click which I barely took any snaps on. You do have to take photos though.

I updated facebook a lot from my phone - you need to get to grips with the difference between posting as yourself, and as your "page" persona - and blogged using my iPad 3. I wish I'd had a keyboard and a mini like Lloyd, though actually I really wish I'd taken my MacBook Air. There were laptops on the trip and nothing came to any harm, as far as I know. Technology seemed a safe thing to have, perhaps especially because we were such a large group, I don't know. I rarely felt threatened by anyone, but I don't want to say that it's because it didn't happen. I carried with me a sense of oblivious nonchalance and naivety too.

You need electricity. A lot of electricity. My iPhone was being caned from 100% to 10% and back up probably 3, 4, 5 times a day. I was using it simultaneously as camera, GPS logger, real time information source, and wifi hotspot for up to 5 tablets and phones. It drained it and made it very hot very often. Availability of power on trains varies widely; sometimes an individual seat had two sockets, sometimes entire carriages shared just one, and that one didn't work. So you also need a power brick, a portable USB charger which stores up to 4 or 5 full iPhone charges worth of juice. But these things take a shitload of time to charge themselves too. You need an EU charger or two and not to forget all your cables.

You need a paper pad. Well, I need a pad, and pen. With so much happening, from spectacular views to signs saying "Engeland" and snippets of conversation which made me laugh like a drain or the Hebrew writing on a can of Guinness, there's only so much I can remember without writing it down. I write and blog as much to be a memory aid for myself as I do to entertain others. Once it's on paper I can concentrate on the next new thing, and once it's on here I can recount entire days in a way I just wouldn't be able to do otherwise.

You don't need as many clothes as you might think. You need a lot of underwear. T-shirts do not smell particularly bad with 2 days wear, even 3 if you're in a cool country and doing nothing but sitting on a train all day. I took a single long-sleeved shirt and didn't wear it even in the Arctic Circle, and I only wore long trousers when I thought I'd be going to the Vatican. Four pairs of shorts were enough. I never once wore socks and only took one pair of shoes, some spectacularly hardy walking sandals which have been all over the world in the last 5 years and aren't even close to being worn out yet. You need toothpaste and a toothbrush and shower gel and you really need deodorant. This stuff should be obvious, but you also need to remember that youth hostels are not hotels and do not do the whole "if you've forgotten the shit that keeps you clean, we'll snigger at you while delivering some to your room" thing yer average Holiday Inn does. No, if you've forgotten the shit that keeps you clean then you ain't staying clean, and if you ain't staying clean you're fucking spraying yourself.

You need a micro-fleece towel because they really fold down small, and dry very quickly. You need to learn how to wash yourself and get changed in a bad loo on a train using water, soap, baby wipes, and a keen sense of balance. You need antihistamines and savlon for when the whole mosquito population of Macedonia decides to have a good ol' feed on your ankles and shins.

You need a spork and a knife and a plate and some shot glasses and a wine goblet or other plastic drinking receptacle. If you're doing it properly, you need a bread knife and chopping boards and a bunch of tupperware. Remember, I'm not recommending doing this on your lonesome. If I was on my own I'd have spent 5 times the cash, subsiding on shit food from buffet cars (or, in the Czech Republic, great food from buffet cars) and going hungry in places like Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, ... we're talking large chunks of the continent here.

Now, once you've got all that - once you've got the tickets and the companions and the accommodation and the solids and liquids and toiletries and clothes and technology and cutlery - then what you really need is to be able to withstand a mentally and physically punishing trip, a rip-roaring whirlwind ride averaging over 1000km each and every day for a two and a half weeks, with trains and boats and coaches and tube trains and funicular railways and trams and cabs and even some walking. You need to not be too stressed about what happens if you miss a train, you need the chaos of a missed connection - potential or real - to not destroy your morale, and you need to know that the strict timetable generally frees you from the tyranny of "hmm, what shall we do now?" choice. You need to submit to the plan and embrace and enjoy it wholeheartedly, even when the boss is shouting at you VERY LOUDLY.

Then, just sit back and see everything Europe has to offer, from the Arctic Circle and midnight sun to the Adriatic Coast and 8pm sunsets, from vast Bosnian countryside to rush-hour in Paris, from forests to coasts to mountains to glaciers to lakes to towns to cities to everything and everywhere. From squeeze cheese to extravagant delicatessens, from £8 a can to €1.10 a pint. Realise that Europe is an amazing place as a whole, and that travelling by train enables you to see it for what it is, a contiguous landscape, not a selection of disparate cities you fly in and out of with no appreciation for their real location, geographically or culturally or historically, in the overall scheme of things. Visit 4 countries in 7 hours, days after you spent 25 hours travelling in a single direction through a single country.

Off you go then. Tell Ffestiniog Travel that GCERC sent you...

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