A day which, upon reflection, was as perfect an ‘Odyssey’ day as I can imagine. I arrived in Brussels in the wee small hours, just in time to catch the first train to Luxembourg. Do you want me to tell you something interesting about Brussels? Well bah! I’m not going to, I can’t, there isn’t anything. But my inter-rail pass kicked into gear and I plan to spend what it cost in the first 48 hours.
As the greatest man ever once said, Time Is Relative, that is, time runs at different speeds for different people (usually depending on the force of gravity, but bear with me). Time for me has now slowed down to a crawl. Getting just a few hours of sleep a day will do that to you. The days seem endless and night is just an obstacle to be overcome, there are miles to be had, miles to be done, miles before home. And Europe runs like clockwork.
I arrived in Luxembourg before I usually get out of bed and with nowt else to do but hop on the next available train to Hamburg, that’s what I did. Luxembourg I’m sure is lovely, but a this point, it’s not even a pit-stop. This is what I always envisaged the Odyssey to be, a non-stop race around the world. The Caribbean threw a spanner the size of Gibraltar in those works, but seriously, if I don’t visit Europe (and three African countries) in under three weeks, I’ll eat my hat.
So the sky was blue and the train was fast and before I knew it, I was stuffing my face with a hamburger in Hamburg. But that was not the end of today’s adventure, I had barely wiped the grease from my face before I was on a train heading for Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark – all in less than 24 hours. That’s what the Odyssey is all about.
The driver of the Danish train let me go in his cab and watch the sun set as we crossed the bridge from the island of Lolland to the island of Zealand (as in ‘New’). I never wanted to be a train driver (I want to be an astronaut!), but there is something marvellously appealing about pushing a lever and the train taking itself wherever the tracks dictate. It’s easy, comforting, the tracks don’t lie – they don’t swerve in front of you, they don’t pull out without looking, they don’t sit behind you and flash their lights because 90mph is just too slow, they just take you where you need to be.
But it’s not playing life on the hardest difficulty setting. I’d rather have a rocket booster attached to my back and be blown into the wild starry night on a wing and a prayer. Or at least some complicated mathematical equations. But that’s just me. Fortune favours the brave.
I split the train in Copenhagen central. There I met Christian, my Danish cousin – the bloke responsible for getting my ass across the Atlantic this month. He treated me to a beer (I should really have treated him, but he was quite insistent!) before we headed over to my Auntie and Uncle’s house to watch the end(s) of Meet Joe Black and to check out the times for tomorrow’s trains. I didn’t get to bed until after 2am, but I’m beginning to believe that sleep is just an illusion and real men don’t eat quiche. All right?
The last two blogs aren’t true. I just made them up.
Sorry, it would have ruined the surprise.
Here’s what really happened…
When I was in Cyprus last Tuesday, I discovered that it would take two weeks from the date of application for my visa for my next country (Libya) to come through. I had not been made aware of this earlier (annoyingly enough) – I thought I was just going to pick it up at the border. This meant that no matter what I did in the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t continue with my journey. I might as well pick up the visas for Libya, Algeria and Central Asia from London myself.
I might as well…
Why the hell not, eh? It’s still part of the journey, it’s still in the spirit of The Odyssey; I can’t enter the kingdom of the nightwatchers without first gaining the magic amulet of visa. If I’m going to live my life as though I’m in a 1980s text adventure game, I might as well go the whole hog.
Home… a hot bath, fresh new clothes, a Full English and a roast meal… my family, my friends. It’s just too tempting.
I cooked up a scheme which would see a bunch of my mates teaming up at the Fact cinema in Liverpool on Saturday night and my family gathering around the table for a Sunday roast – I told nobody I was coming home – and hit the road.
I did honestly go to Istanbul on the overnight coach on Tuesday night, but that’s about as far I went without telling fibs. From there, I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania (€50), and on Thursday night I headed over to Budapest, Hungary on another night train (€50).
Budapest was a bit of a headache, I arrived yesterday morning to find that the Eurolines bus to London was full and so I had to concoct some kind of plan B that wasn’t going to cost the Earth. If I got the train to Paris via Munich and Metz it would cost me in excess of €250, which is way out of my budget. Damnit – the days of buying a through-ticket from Istanbul to London are OVER. Nice to know that Europe had a better grasp of logistics back when Victoria was sitting on the throne and we all hated each other.
I headed over to the bus station to see if I could blag my way onto the London bus… no way, Jose. But there was a Paris bus that had a few seats left. That’d do – as long as I got to London before 6pm, I could get back to Liverpool in time. I got online and tried to buy myself a ticket on the Eurostar from Paris to London. Simple, eh?
It took me longer to buy the ticket than it takes to actually get from Paris to London on the damn train. Sitting on the floor of the skanky Budapest bus terminal, I came close to HULK SMASH levels of frustration. WHY DOES IT TAKE 10 DIFFERENT SCREENS TO GET YOUR DAMN TICKETS? Not everybody in the world has super-duper, fast fibre-optic asymmetrical data lines. Is there a low data-rate version for us poor souls hacking into someone else’s lousy wi-fi? Is there buggery.
I got to the final payment screen on 4 separate occasions only to be told there was a problem with the blah blah blah. I was in Budapest, it was covered in snow – I wanted to go out for a walk, see the place, do some filming, but no, the Eurostar website wouldn’t let me. It’s easier to get Glastonbury tickets.
In the end, I had to call the man of the hour, Stan Standryt, in London, blow my cover and get him to book my ticket for me (what a guy!). Eurostar, YOU SUCK. Hope you go bankrupt and the Channel Tunnel gets turned into a very long art gallery with moving walkways. Or, even better, a ROAD.
Well, my day in Budapest well and truly wasted. I scampered onto the bus to Paris and shut my eyes, hoping to open them in the land of red and white stripy shirts, black berets, old bicycles and garlic necklaces.
But the bus driver had other ideas… is it an EU regulation that buses have to stop every two hours and wake everybody up? Ha! Man, the buses in Turkey ROCK MY WORLD and the buses in the world’s two biggest economic superpowers – the US and the EU – SUCK! It’s a sad fact that public transport in Europe, while not as bad as Africa, is not much better. Having said that, at least in Africa you get what you pay for. Why does it seem to cost more to operate a European train or coach than it does an airplane?
So we stopped and started all the way through Austria, Germany and then through Strasbourg into France. By 9am on Saturday, we were passing Metz and well on our way to Paris.
The coach got in a whopping 20 minutes early (nice!) and so I had time to do a couple of things… one of which was to get a shot of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It took a good hour negotiating the Metropolitan to get there, and once I did the top was covered in cloud! Bah!
Oh well, I got the shot I wanted and then legged it to Gare du Nord, the railway station for the Eurostar, hoping against hope that they would have a shower there – after 6 days on the road and no shower, I was beginning to smell worse than a Gregg’s pasty that’s been in a tramp’s pocket for three weeks. Nice!
Luckily for me, indeed there is a shower in Gare du Nord, unluckily for me it cost €7 and (being French) it smells of effluent. What’s that joke about French plumbers again? But any port in a storm – I don’t want to be turning up in Liverpool after all these months (and two spells in jail) smelling anything less than utterly delightful..
Attention Eurostar trains: not only is your website PAINFULLY difficult to use, your trains are dirty. Clean them. If they can keep my Merseyrail carriages sparkly clean when I’m only paying £1.50 to use them for an hour, then you can totally afford to scrub your rolling stock down once in a while? Got that? Good. I wanted to film out of the window, but it would look murkier than a Mike Leigh movie and I don’t want to depress the hell out of anyone today, thanks.
Soon enough, I was whisked through the Chunnel and arrived at the rather spankingly refurbished St. Pancras station although once again was impressed that the Victorians (bless their cotton socks) saw fit to use beautiful arching cast iron and plate glass to constitute a roof whereas the lazy drunken hacks that pass for architects these days opted for what looks a lot like plastic.
At St Pancras, I met up with Dan Martin, an old chum of mine from back in the day.. He writes for the NME and has been blagging me into gigs and festivals for free for most of the past decade, the top bloke that he is. After a couple of beers and catch-ups, I went to the Euston Station concourse to play the Euston Station Concourse Game. This is where a bunch of hapless commuters stand for the best part of an hour looking up at the information board which will… at any given moment… tell them what platform to run to with all their bags.
The platform used is allocated by ERNIE, the random number generating computer from the 1950s that they used for the football pools. The platform will be allocated 5-10 minutes after the train is due to depart and will only be valid for approximately 90 seconds, after which time the train will depart leaving behind the less athletic members of the great unwashed and anyone who got bored waiting and stupidly went to WHSmith to buy a paper.
This is the Euston Station Concourse Game and it gets even more fun EVERY TIME YOU PLAY IT!
Being somewhat of a public transportation expert these days, I did manage to cadge a place on the big empty train (well, with 99% of the population priced out of this glorious British institution, what do you expect?) and in just a jiff and a jaff, I was back in my beloved Liverpool. Cyprus to Liverpool in four days – without flying. In your FACE, Palin!!
I hurried through the crisp scouse night to the Fact cinema, a architectural carbunkle in the centre of my hometown, but the wi-fi is free and the bar is always empty (perhaps because it is about as aesthetically pleasing as a concrete box) so it was a good place to spring the surprise.
I took the lift to the top floor, took out my laptop and hooked myself up to Skype. There, I got in touch with Anna, my top mate who teaches girls how to pole dance (I only hang in Bohemian circles, darling). I had told everyone that I was in Italy, but we were going to have a virtual night out with me via the internet and Anna’s webcam – the idea being that a bunch of my mates would take the laptop out with them to the streets and bars of Liverpool. Of course, I was really in Liverpool – one floor above them… giggidy…
About thirty of my wonderful mates had turned up, but Anna’s tinny little Mac speakers were not up to the task of broadcasting to so many people, so I suggested they might hear me better if I came down stairs..
It was awesome. HELLO LIVERPOOL!!
So after many, many hugs and beers, we all set out into the night in search of magic and adventure. The Merseyside Derby (that’s when Everton plays Liverpool to you Johnny Foreigners) had taken place that afternoon and so the town centre was more jam-packed than usual with drunken scousers and by Jove, I had forgotten how much I missed this place. We managed to get chucked out of the Heebie-Jeebies, went to the swanky new Studio 2 in Parr Street, got into a fight with the bouncers at Magnet and ended up in a utter dive called Ko Samui wondering where the hell we were.
So arrived at Istanbul international bus station bang on 8am and then started the usually fun (but not fun today because it was cold, damp and my feet still hadn’t dried off from the day before) process of finding me a bus goin’ en-eeee-where. Turkey has dozens of bus companies going to every corner of the country and much of Europe. Greece was quickly struck from the list as the buses only seemed to leave at night and it would take 10 hours just to get to Thessaloniki, not even half way to Igoumenitsa. The other option then was to take a bus to Germany. As I didn’t have a map with me (and there wasn’t one on the wall in the office) I figured that Düsseldorf might be a good option. The bus would take 40 hours and arrive around 7am on Friday morning. I could walk back to Liverpool by then and still make it by 2.45pm on Saturday.
I bought my ticket (an extortionate €150, but this is no time for bartering… HSBC can pay for the damn thing) and then headed over to the shopping arcade for internet and kebab. Damn Turkey does good kebabs. I sussed out by using the excellent DB Bahn website that I could easily get from Düsseldorf to Brussels and from there take the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to London. Sweet!!
So then, onto the bus which was for some reason populated only by the Turkish version of the elderly tearaways from Sigur Ros’s video for Hoppípola.
They played crap repetitive music (all featuring a non-stop kazooage… this is Turkey you know) via their tinny mobile speakers. They wanted to stop every five minutes to smoke cigarettes. They were incapable at conducting a conversation as any volume level that wasn’t set to ‘ear-splitting.’ AND they snored REALLY LOUDLY.
When you start being the grumpiest old man on a bus full of grumpy old men, it’s totally time to come the hell home. It can’t come quickly enough.
We passed into Bulgaria, having to get off the bus in the night and stand in the bitter cold (it was -1°) waiting to get stamped out of Turkey, then again waiting to get stamped into Bulgaria. Only I don’t get a stamp because Bulgaria is in the EU.
For some reason (possibly forgetting the frigmarole that Stan and I had getting from Bulgaria to Romania in our little Mazda back in 2007) I assumed that the bus would be heading up into Romania and then across to Hungary and into Germany through Austria. This would mean no more freezing cold border jaunts and it would also mean that my Turkish exit stamp would be the last stamp in my passport. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.
I was wrong.
We took the more direct, but ultimately more waking-up-and-waiting-at-the-border-in-the-freezing-cold way of getting to Germany: via Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. So then out of Bulgaria (freezing), stamped into Serbia (freezing), out of Serbia (freezing), stamped into Croatia (freezing), out of Croatia (freezing) and into Slovenia (freezing).
It was a long couple of days. Every time we stopped at a service station I would charge my crap-top as the battery on this one only lasts 30 minutes before it dies a death (I miss my old HP – on a full charge it kept going for 6 hours straight, like a rather enthusiastic whore). I couldn’t afford the extortionate prices for meals so I stuck to eating extortionately priced sandwiches instead. Luckily, we hit the Alps in the daytime, so I got to enjoy some eye candy out of the window (I like mountains, okay?) before we hit Austria and then Germany, getting into Munich around 9pm and – yay! – all the oldies got off and left the entire back-end of the bus free for me to stretch my legs and enjoy the quiet.
It was then that I thought of something. Wouldn’t it be a lot more sensibler (yes that’s a word, Word) to get off in Cologne? The bus hits there before Düsseldorf and there’s a direct train from Cologne to Brussels. The word ‘Cologne’ doesn’t translate very well as in German the place is called ‘Köln’ and Christ knows how it’s pronounced. But I somehow got my point across and the conductor said he’d wake me up when we got there. I settled in for a decent night’s kip, exceptionally excited about tomorrow: I told Casey I’d see her again at The End of the World and it looks like I’m going to make good on my promise.