Nearly 40 years after I first considered, and opted against, an interrail trip, this week I finally jumped on board the Thameslink Express from Haywards Heath in Sussex to London St Pancras to start a two-week tour of a selection of cities across five different countries in Europe.
The London Commute
As I took the first somewhat familiar UK leg, I observed the occupants of my London bound train. A carriage full of silent, spectacled, middle-aged commuters wearing creased grey suits staring into mobile phones while periodically lifting their gaze to reconnect with the world around them.
This was the first day working back after the Easter holidays so the open-mouthed, mask-free, yawning was widespread. I recalled my five years of commuting to Central London. I had always wanted to work in the big smoke and I guess I fulfilled that dream however as this new chapter in my life kicks off, I thanked my blessings that those days were behind me.
Seamless St Pancras
Given the state of my fellow passengers, I had yet to feel that holiday vibe. However, arriving at London St Pancras that soon changed as I realized I was, at last, embarking on one of my adventures where if my last tour was anything to go by – anything could happen.
Transiting through St Pancras was a doddle. Probably not the word used by this major London station’s marketing team to describe the process but it’s my description.
Having not been interrailing before there was an element of doubt in my mind as to whether I had done everything that was required to get me aboard the train let alone get me into Belgium which was my first stop. With the Interrail app downloaded I had my itinerary available at the press of a button – Wi-Fi permitting! However, to board Eurostar, I needed a seat reservation which I had purchased in advance and printed.
In addition to that, the current requirements for entry to Belgium involved a Passenger Locator Form to be completed and downloaded as well as a QR code at hand to flash when required. Then finally there was passport control and the post Brexit, now customary stamp in your book.
Finally, with some relief, I had passed all the checks and I was ready to board
A Welcome Aboard
The last overseas trip I had taken back in 2019 involved the magical experience of the Bullet train in Japan. Today it was the Eurostar service to Brussels.
Whilst I was in some ways grateful that to ease myself back into travel I was exchanging the daunting Japanese language for the more familiar French I was amused by Giancarlo the very Italian train manager who welcomed us all onboard while in front of me were a group of immaculately turned out Spanish female students chattering incessantly like ravenous starlings in a McDonald’s car park.
Next to me was that stereotypical European businessman. Not in a creased grey suit. Not yawning. Not staring into his phone. Well turned out in a sports jacket working on his Apple Macbook, and with a tailormade facemask only removed to drink his coffee macchiato and to greet me politely in perfect English.
As the Eurostar 9116 pulled out of the station, with those starlings still chattering, I settled down for the first two hours of my inaugural interrailing adventure. What lies ahead of me, I am not entirely sure, but I rather like that – I just hope that the rest of the trip is a doddle but then again – if it’s not, then I hope it makes a good story.
Lille More Than An Hour
Just 1 hour and 15 mins after leaving St Pancras we pulled into Lille, France. Giancarlo the previously very Italian train manager seemed to have become more Gallic and after what, for all I knew, could have been a rendition of the Marseillaise, he then burst into some hearty German.
The Spanish Starlings were still chattering – goodness knows what they were discussing although I recognized the words “what’s app” on several occasions so it was clear that not only could they talk the talk but they were also keeping their friends in deepest Andalucia up to date on what was a fairly uninteresting journey.
Across from me dressed to the nines in the Edinburgh Wool Mill Spring collection was Lord and Lady Ponsonby-Bore who had made themselves known to all around by talking over every announcement and then proceeding to ask each other what time we were arriving in Brussels. No one wanted to assist and I feel as a result everyone quietly reveled in their confusion…. I certainly did.
A constant flow of people heading to the buffet car or the toilet was occasionally interrupted by a guard who, on the face of it, has a very dull job given that most of us, aside from the Spanish and the ignorant British Autocracy were well behaved and engrossed in their laptops, mobiles, and thoughts.
After passing a handful of yellow rapeseed fields and then stations riddled with graffiti, my polite neighbour burst into life and announced his luggage was “in France”. As I was about to offer my sympathy I realise I misheard him as he said his luggage was “in front”. We were pulling into Brussels.
With 30 minutes to connect onto my next train to Cologne in Germany, I was unflustered as I admired the Belgium litter bins and queued to exit the station only for my plans and my thought that the process of transitting through Brussels was going to be a “doddle” came to an abrupt halt!
An Interrail Re Route
My connecting InterCity Express (ICE) train was the only cancelled route on the board and without any information office in sight a gaggle of confused, mainly British travellers congregated outside Pret a Manger, not to eat one of their epic Club Sandwiches, but instead for a good old fashioned British rant with a few expletives thrown in.
After making considerable progress towards my weekly step goal, I spotted a queue in the distance. At the head of this queue was a bald Belgium bloke who was in effect, the lamb to the slaughter! In his defense, he knew his oignons and promptly gave me two onions – sorry options. Wait two hours for a train where I would not have a seat or take a train with a seat, changing at the never heard station of Welkenraedt for Aachen before then connecting to Cologne (Koln).
Now always up for the adventure and despite the lure of a Club Sandwich, I decided to go for the long-winded option and promptly headed for platform 8 only to find the escalators were out of order.
This interrailing lark was already wearing thin and I had only just arrived on European soil.
Hamm Then Hannover
I spent the next few hours not trainspotting but train hopping as finally, after changes in Welkenreadt and Aachen, I boarded a train in Cologne, 2 hours late, en route to tonight’s final destination – Hannover. Surely nothing else could go wrong aside from being ejected from my seat as I was on a commuter train ultimately bound for Berlin and with most seats reserved I took a gamble and did not prebook.
Thankfully no one asked for my seat however suddenly a very polite yet somewhat confused train conductor took to the airwaves and advised all passengers headed for Hannover to get off at Hamm and change onto a train for Magdeburg.
Once again the ICE network had screwed up. Some might say that given where I was in Hamm, they made a pigs breakfast of today’s interrailing travel arrangements. After a glum hour in Hamm and I was back on my merry little way contemplating the local specialty of the region – a pigs knuckle.
At Least the Beers Good
What a start to my interrail experience and I am only on day one. The good news is that despite nearly breaking my back lifting my case up that broken Belgium escalator I have also, somehow broken the back of my outbound travel plans. I arrived in Hannover just after 8:30 pm local time – a mere 10 hours after leaving London.
Tonight I will get my bearings and have a quiet and much needed refreshment close to the Central Hotel Kaiserhof where I will be getting my head down before an early morning start exploring the undiscovered German city of Hannover.
After lunch tomorrow it’s a short interrailing hop to my next destination where I can relax as I will be hosted for a few days – sounds like a doddle doesn’t it!