It begins. Train to Paddington, tube to Waterloo, Eurostar to Lille. Met Valentin, nice flat, whole thing is a loft conversion. His flatmate is away so I have a real bed rather than a couch. Had a tour of the city. Ate “Welsh”: bread, with ham on top, then put in a bowl and covered with cheese, then a fried egg on top, served with French fries. Heart disease in a bowl.
Breakfast at Tunisian café – Tomato salad, coffee. France is largely closed on Sunday. My French is terrible. Train to Kortrijk, then change at Antwerp for Rotterdam. Belgium, the west at least, is as flat and dull as I remember. Let’s get to Netherlands. Many smokers. Many pretty girls, maybe a better ratio than England. Arrive Rotterdam only slightly late. It’s raining heavily. The Netherlands, and in particular the approach to Rotterdam, is beautiful. Reading On The Road has put me in the mood, but just realised I don’t even have enough Dutch to order food.
Climbed up the Euromast, weather could be better, but views still amazing. “Euroscope” is a great idea, goes even higher. Commentary in Euroscope all about how every sight/attraction is the biggest/best/first in the Netherlands. Everyone I’ve spoken to speaks English. Explore Rotterdam for a while longer, then take a train to Amsterdam. Amsterdam is alive in a way totally apart from Rotterdam. Walked down an alley, well, a street, lined with ‘coffee shops’. Feel slightly stoned already. Found the person I was staying with, shared a bottle of wine and slept.
Spent a day exploring Amsterdam, avoiding bikes and canals, looking at the naval paintings at the Rijksmuseum, then in the evening went to a couple of bars with my host and her friends, and a Spanish guy she’ll be hosting the next night.
Bus to Copenhagen takes 14 hours, changing at Hamburg. We arrive in the centre at 4:30am, I find the central station and sleep on a bench. Wake up and I’m being poked and shouted at in Danish. Realise it’s a guard thinking he’s moving a vagrant on. Go to breakfast with a girl who receive the same wake up call: muesli with yoghurt and real maple syrup and a strawberry smoothie, yum. We do some sightseeing – including the Palace, which has been demolished by war and fire, then rebuilt, five times, “in a show of Danish power”. It strikes both my companion and I that if the Danes were so powerful they would not have to constantly rebuild their palace. Found a hostel.
Next day I get a call from my friend from yesterday suggesting we go to a festival in Malmo, Sweden. Sounds good. In the mean time, took the walking tour. It’s well designed: Copenhagen, in particular the parks and the area around the harbour, is beautiful. “The Little Mermaid” statue is small and unremarkable. There are rowdy tourists everywhere making photo-taking difficult. I try not to look like one. In shops and when talking to people I am simply foreign, and English is assumed. In France and the Netherlands, I’m an Englishman. I prefer the former. The Festival is huge, dozens of bands, dancing, theatre, films. Eat Waffle-type sticks with cinnamon.
The train from Copenhagen to Zagreb takes 23 hours. Northern Germany, naturally, looks like southern Denmark, speckled with those white electricity windmills. They are majestic. The night train into Zagreb is quite pleasant, easier to sleep on a train than I expected. Zagreb is fantastic, but then so is the weather, this helps a lot. I have nowhere to stay (yet), but I am not worried. Walked, south of the train station to a newer area of town guidebook suggests is boring. Not sure this is so, it’s different, less friendly perhaps. Met some guys at a hostel. We eat Mediterranean food (I have a HUGE anchovy pizza, which I don’t finish), then go to some bars.
Second day in Zagreb is as hot as the first. Accosted by mad old Croatia woman, convinced I’d understand her if she spoke German. I think she was offering me somewhere to stay, but who knows. Explored the town a little more, took some pics. It strikes me that with this trip, as soon as I get to know a place I’m away again.
Night train to Split arrives 6am. It’s best, I think, to arrive early, that way you arrive before the town is really open. Split is beautiful, the harbour and the hills rolling away up from it. The buildings vary in both style and quality of appearance. Maybe sometime in the past controls on what to build were lighter. I have a strong tan. Luckily I didn’t burn, maybe more by luck than judgement. Explore the town, swim in the sea, then go back to where I’m staying. Other English-speakers there, and we go out for food and drinks. Went to a bar on the beach, ended up swimming in the sea.
Following day, got on a bus at 10am (groggy from the sea and the sun, hungover from the beer), headed to Dubrovnik. 4 1/2 hour trip. On arriving, there are maybe 20 locals shouting that they have rooms. When it becomes clear that I’m in need I’m swamped with people, and commandeered by an old woman who forces me to look through a photo album of her house. Walk to the old town, easy to see what a pretty place it is (all white stone walls), especially at dusk, but it’s extremely focused on tourists.
Now in reverse: bus back to Split, then train to Zagreb. Destination Verona. Border check at Dubova (entering Slovenia from Croatia) is quite aggressive, not sure this is normal. Six armed guards, passports looked at suspiciously, and everyone’s name and other details recorded, except mine! Trains Ljubljana, to Venice, to Verona unremarkable. On the bus to the hostel (of three bus rides I paid for one), I asked the driver if this was the way to ‘Piazza Isolo’ (knowing it was), he said he’d shout when we arrived. Three Canadian girls then asked if I was going to the hostel, I was. One then announced she believed she’s picked up food poisoning in Rome, and was sick into a ‘Zara’ bag. I (gallantly) let my only towel be used as a mop. We left the bus and after some walking, found the hostel, then went for a drink. This is when I realised how unpleasant these girls were – after five days in Italy they’d picked up almost no Italian (I had to explain ‘Mi Scuzi’ to them), made no effort to communicate with the locals, and were generally not nice to be around. They complained about everything they could – the hostels, walking, the food, the fact that there were no corner shops. Then, when talking about travelling, everything was expressed so crudely: “we did this AMAZING pub crawl”. Not the sort of traveller I want to meet or be.
Explored Verona, loved the food. My passport has taken some punishment, but is actually ok. Train to Milan. Like Munich, Milan station is laid out with all the shops and facilities at one end, then the platforms stretched out at 90 degrees – resembling a comb. Easy for navigation, but annoying if you need to get from the far end of one platform to another. Journey from Milan to Marseille. I’d fallen asleep on the way to Ventimiglia, woke up to find myself on a dark, empty carriage, but the train was still moving. Frantically I grabbed my stuff and ran through the deserted carriages to find a guard, who just laughed (friendly) when he saw me and whistled for the train to stop. He then wrenched open the doors and pointed me back the way we’d come. Turns out it’s about 1/4 mile of walking on railway tracks in the dark – maybe not the best plan. When I get into Ventimiglia station lobby, there are people all over the floor. Some of them, like me, have big backpacks, but the majority appear to be local Italian homeless. Trains to Nice then Marseille uneventful.
Marseille is edgier and rougher than I tend to picture France being, but really that makes it more exciting. Wandered around all day, stopping occasionally for food/drink. Found the hostel (after figuring out the local buses), it’s a lot more intimate than others, but everyone is speaking French. I kept up for only a few moments before losing the thread. This is such a strong incentive to learn the language, but I’m sure that for a long time going forward there will be no reason to. Didn’t realise until I went to lie down how tired I was. Been walking around in sandals all day and my feet ache to the point where I’d call it painful. Didn’t notice before.
Marseille is quite different from other cities I’ve visited this trip. It’s much less focused on catering to tourists – it doesn’t need them! I could really see myself living here (assuming I spoke French), perhaps more so than anywhere else I’ve been. TGV is extremely smooth, best train I’ve been on.
30 minute delay for the train to Lille when we change at Lyon. Suits me, I have a huge delay at Lille before getting on the Eurostar. Take a walk outside the station at Lyon (it’s sunny), and am amused at realising I’m only vaguely aware of where in France Lyon is. Spent the whole journey studying maps and routes, but the TGV makes all that redundant.
London. Feels like home (even though I’ve never lived here). The underground is the best civic transport system I’ve used in the last two weeks – impressive when you consider the scale of London. Train ticket London to Evesham is my most expensive purchase of the whole trip!
Trip is over, but I think travelling is addictive – I want to go somewhere! Even though I’m exhausted I feel more vital and optimistic than ever – I think that makes the whole thing seem worth it.
Tags: Croatia, Denmark, Europe, Eurostar, France, Italy, Sweden, The Netherlands, Travel