18th June 2009
All aboard the slow train from London to Athens
Tired of airports? Want to lighten your carbon footprint? You need some time on your hands, but Gilly Cameron Cooper discovers that slow travel by train to Greece is an adventure holiday in itself.
Greece is about as far as you can go before dropping the edge of Europe. The flight from London to Athens is only 3 1/2 hours but I’m taking three days to travel there by train.
Not for me the distractions of fine dining and plush glamour of the Oriental Express. In the 3,000-mile trans-continental journey, I’ll change trains six times and go well beyond the high-speed train comfort zone. But hey, I’m in this for the adventure: solo mission by middle-aged walking tour operator to test a greener way to get to Greece and savour slow travel. The Greeks have a word for it – nostalgia, a blend of return journey (to travel as it used to be) tinged with pain…
I will jostle for space on the rush-our commuter train to Zurich yet be the only apparent passenger in Transylvania. I’ll have 58 hours of travelling time, but never be lonely or bored. The long-haul journey turns out to be an adventure holiday in itself, and it clocks up greenie points, too. Just on Eurostar to Paris, I save 90 percent carbon emissions by not flying, though the eco-efficiency of an empty hand-me-down train in Romania is not documented.
RailEurope take the strain of planning and booking the journey as far as Bucharest. They can’t book a ticket into Greece, because Greece can’t or won’t buy into the international reservation network.
My husband Robin’s parting gift is a body-hugging pouch for passport and fat wad of tickets. He worries that I’ll leave a trail of belongings across central Europe and be mugged in a six-couchette carriage in Eastern Europe. I wonder how my 7 1/2 stone frame will cope with two wheelie-bin cases stuffed with books and all-weather clothes.
Retired couples on low-season city breaks sit in amiable silence on the first-class Eurostar to Paris. Complimentary champagne barely tilts in the glass as the train glides past the gloomy tidal marshes of the Thames. I paint my nails and luxuriate in time and private space with no distractions. Across the Channel the landscape irons out into broad bands of spring green and earth brown farmland, sliced by a ruler-straight gleam of canal.
Anxiety knots my stomach at the prospect of the first changeover, a feeling that returns, like chronic indigestion, before every train change on route. At Gare du Nord, carriage doors remain inexplicably closed, peeling an agonising 10 minutes off the 29 I have before the TGV for Zurich departs from Gare de l’Est ‘around the corner’ (how far is that?). The good-looking cross-channel commuter I’ve cornered knows his stuff, and not only directs me to a queueless taxi rank outside the station but carries my bags.
As luggage and I lurch onto the platform, whistles blow, doors slam and the TGV throbs into life. It’s a very long train and my seat is at the other end of it. A guard levers me into Car 12, where bags remain while I negotiate overspills of euro-commuters and students to Car 17.
The sun sets over the wide horizons of north-east France. There’s to be a lot of empty countryside on this journey. I’ve brought a library of classics and photocopied Rough Guide pages for each country and plan a crash course in the creation and history of Europe as it passes by. Barbarian tribes, Roman legions, the footsoldiers of Charlemagne and medieval Crusaders took years to tramp over this very landscape in the untamed past.
No-one’s in the bar-buffet. Is it the lime green and purple Perspex décor or the tough resistance of the boeuf bourgignonne to plastic cutlery. Digesting le boeuf keeps me lively and reading until midnight arrival at Zurich. We’re 15 minutes late, and the overnight train to Vienna leaves in 10 minutes. Fortunately, it’s on the next platform.
Three trains and 10 hours from St Pancras, I’m in no mood for sharing a second-class sleeper and upgrade to a cosy first-class cabin on the top of the double-decker train. It’s tricky hauling bags up the near-vertical steps, but 30 euros is nothing to pay for peace of mind and a good night’s sleep. There’s a four-beat backing rhythm to my dreams as the train passes through the unseen low hills and industrial north of Switzerland. A change in tempo as the train labours uphill is the only sense I have of reaching Austria and the most spectacular scenery of the journey. The Tyrol, Innsbruck, Salzburg are lost in darkness. Dawn breaks in lower Austria, where small-is-beautiful agricultural towns lie among hills brushed with winter woodland.
What I miss in scenery, I make up for in reading, as the story of a continent gathers momentum. Vienna lies at the physical, cultural and political watershed of Europe. I have no time to explore the city but raise a symbolic cup of coffee to its inhabitants, who reinvented the beverage after discovering a sack of coffee beans left behind by 17th-C Ottoman invaders. An armoured bear of ribbed steel locomotive hauls a sorry show of passengers across the Marchfeld Plain, soaked with the blood of Vandals, Visigoths, Huns and Magyars, into Eastern Europe.
The train is officially non-smoking (like me). But rules relax over the Hungarian border. Train manager and guards gather for a smoke in the buffet car with their only passenger. The Danube flows alongside, even mightier than I’d expected, on its 1,770-mile journey from chilly Baltic to exotic Orient. I imagine 9th-century Vikings sailing into the heart of Europe to trade furs and walrus ivory and cause trouble in Constantinople.
With four hours in Bucharest before my next connection, I have a chance to explore off-rail. I cram in a whistle-stop walk to the palaces and medieval town atop Castle Hill and look down to the Danube meandering brown and broad through the rest of Hungary. Chill, windblown squares send me scurrying into a café for a paprika-spicy gulyas with floating islands of beef. A tantalizing taste of the country to whet my appetite for a return visit.
I’m booked into a second-hand sleeper on the Romanian night train, but swarthy locals wielding bottles of rust-coloured alcohol prompt me to upgrade to first class where I’m Florin the guard’s only protégé. Ageing train hurtles over ageing tracks at breakneck speed; inter-carriage doors are dislocatingly heavy to open; metal plates separate above a chasm of track then clash deafeningly together. It’s like an escape scene in an old movie.
The dining car is unheated, the loo doesn’t flush and the shared shower is stained. But my vintage cabin’s a treat: rich red-gold veneer and crisp white linen, and warm. “Built 1917, bought from the Germans, upgraded in the 1970s,” says Florin, old-fashioned and charming with hairbrush moustache and faded Thomas the Tank Engine uniform.
Christian is bartender, cook, waiter and washer-upper. He prepares the entire menu – chicken, pork and Romanian sausage – for me. “I’m do the work of five people,” he complains. “It was better in the Ceaucescu days; many people could afford to travel by train.”
At least now, there’s the freedom to have a national rail strike, which is what happens the next morning, for two hours in a sleet-driven gorge in the heart of Dracula country. I have Bram Stoker’s classic with me, of course, as well as very unpleasant tales of Vlad the Impaler.
The night had stolen views of the Transylvanian Alps., but travel vicariously over them with Nicolas Crane onhis 506-day walk across the mountains of Europe in Clear Waters Rising. By comparison, my adventure is a high-speed cop-out.
Romania’s poverty is brutally apparent in grubby urban wastelands, in the broken yellow-brick platform and rusty girders of Bucharest Station. There are mountains of red, russet and golden apples in the nearby market, but I see nothing of the gardens that produce them as the train pulls out of the grim suburbs. The drab monotony of wild Wallachian steppe is broken by forests of oil pumps like ancient Egyptian shadufs. An old man and a goose shamble past an oily pond at the edge of a single-storey prefab village.
Night falls. Two passengers enter the buffet car, An English couple training to Istanbul. Amazingly, they’re from Tooting, London, like me. Martin and Erica are eco-warriors, 1960s vintage: “We always travel by train,” they say, “we planned this route via Germany using Seat61.com, and Ffestiniog Travel did the rest.”
It takes several minutes to cross the brown flood of the River Danube that forms the northern boundary of most of Bulgaria. There’s a physical lift of landscape and distant forested mynds. Broad-topped hills split open like a sliced chicken breast into deep valleys; a river snakes to a major town with a proper balance of buildings big and small.
After another overnight haul to Greece, my last train, with no seat booked, leaves from Thessaloniki. Greek kids are stacked into the corridors like souvlaki and shouting a lot as Greek kids do. It’s a national holiday and they’re all heading for Athens. I earn a seat in the buffet car by ordering a spaghetti Bolognese lunch at 10am…and make it last the seven-hour journey. Reading switches to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Roumeli as the train pulls up through craggy rock cuttings above tablecloth plains that disappear into infinity. The ghosts of distant mountains enshrouded in mist complete a mythological landscape where centaurs cantered and Spartans clashed with Persians: a fitting image to close my odyssey.
I arrive in Athens, no jet lag, no deep vein thrombosis and better informed. I’ve watched the moving picture of Europe pass by instead of being packaged and delivered on a cut-price flight. It may only be a film clip view of the countries I passed through, but each one is embedded in my personal experience rather than the subject of a skipped-over news item.