Amsterdam to Berlin

I was pretty happy to discover a direct train service from Amsterdam to Berlin, and at a reasonable price. Obviously it also operates in the other direction from Berlin to Amsterdam, four times a day.

It is fairly easy to arrive at Amsterdam Centraal station by tram, but if you’re coming from the Noord side then there’s a free ferry – it even takes bikes.

The 15th June saw the borders between Holland and Germany open. So, it was about time I completed my return to Berlin. Finally, I was on my way – this journey was originally to be completed pre-Corona, and from Málaga!

Leaving Amsterdam’s Central Station, you are quickly into countryside, with the expected number of canals, i.e. LOTS! There were a few towns we stopped at that looked like they’d be great places to live if you were commuting into Amsterdam. The train stopped at quite a few of them – confusingly, as there was a platform announcement saying it would not be stopping in Holland.

Onboard, the train attendant was very friendly and you could move from your reserved seat to an unreserved table. Upgrade! Though I wasn’t to realise there was free (working!) wifi until the last hour.

I recommend the NL International app. I used the Android version, and it helped me identify the platforms I needed at Amsterdam Centraal. If you are being met at Berlin Hbf (the central station), it shows the arrival platform for that as well. If you remember to set notifications for the train to ‘on’, it will also update you 10 minutes before the train’s departure time to show any delays. Ours was just slightly delayed leaving, but arrived on time.


I’d long been used to Berlin and Brandenburg being pretty much completely flat, but I was quite surprised to find nearly the whole of the route through Holland and northern Germany to also be as flat a (Dutch) pancake!!

Just one hill, in the distance, somewhere near Hanover. I suspect it was man-made, and built from the digging out of the canals in the area. There was also a small castle-like structure on the hill approaching Hanover.

I wasn’t sure exactly where the border crossing was, but the familiar hunting perch on the edge of a forest indicated we were now in Deutschland. Here the train’s Dutch engine was replaced with a Deutsch one.

Time for a coffee. I ended up chatting with the attendant – she seemed happy that I was spending my shrapnel and had the correct change. They had an actual restaurant carriage, but no more food until after Hanover.

Passed what turned out to be VW’s headquarters and museum.


As we arrived into Spandau, I realised that I could do some programming, as had free wifi. An in joke, it was obviously Ruby On Rails. On Rails!! Don’t worry, I’m laughing to myself – haha.

And so I arrived at Berlin Hbf. Finally. I was three months late, but here I am 🙂 WOOHOOOO! A smooth journey, direct from Amsterdam, and I could be happy that I used seven times less carbon than I would have flying that distance.


References

NL international
Deutch Bahn
NL International App

(June 2020) I paid 43.90 Euros, including the seat reservation fee for the journey, which was scheduled to be 6:52 hours long. 11:03 to 17:55

Contributing to 196 Destinations

Thank you for your interest in writing for 196 Destinations. We’re dedicated to sharing stories on overland travel, especially train travel, to help inspire people to find an alternative to flying.

With your help, we can make a difference.



To contribute:

Go to our contact form and send us a message. We’d love to know which journeys you can write about.

We’ll then add you as a contributor using your email address (which will not be made public).

You’ll be able to write a draft article and add pictures on our standard WordPress platform. 

Once the article is ready, please let our content editor, Jennie Hughes, know. She’ll be able to review it and approve it for publishing on Mondays. 

What should be in the article?

We want to encourage more people to travel overland, so any information that can help make this happen more easily is appreciated.

However, everyone likes a good story 🙂 

We want to hear about your favourite places you visited on your trip, what you enjoyed the most and any experiences that stood out to you. Did anything good happen that wouldn’t have if you’d flown?

We are happy for you to link to your own blog in the article if you have one. 

We look forward to having you on board the 196 Destinations contributor team!

Ian & Jennie

Copenhagen to Malmö

After a lovely weekend with my friend Dan at an adorable Airbnb in Copenhagen’s Meatpacking District, I wasn’t ready to go home. We’d spent the first day exploring on Donkey rental bikes picked up from outside the grand Central Station building. Cycling over to the Torvehallerne food market, we stocked up on fresh fruit, bread and cheese for the day. After returning to our bikes and loading them up with our purchases, we set off for a day’s exploring. Dan’s a lot more confident on a bike than I am, so he led the way and I wobbled along behind, hoping to avoid running anyone over and feeling hopelessly out of my depth among casually stylish Scandinavians who rode as if they’d been born on two wheels.

Our first stop was the appropriately named Round Tower, a seventeenth-century tower and observatory built by Christian IV. Climbing the sloping stone path inside brought us out on to the viewing deck at the top, where there’s a panoramic view across the city. There is also a small observatory, but that was closed the day we visited. You can also stop to peer down through a glass floor into the tower’s inner structure, which was fascinating but probably not recommended if you don’t like heights!

After the tower, we headed into the lanes and alleys of Freetown Christiania, exploring in a cloud of summer drizzle before stopping for a late but delicious lunch at Morganstedet vegetarian restaurant. After lunch, we spent a good while marvelling at the stunningly colourful work of Marios Orozco in the Christiania Art Gallery while the rain pattered down outside. Having made it safely home, we toured a few bars in the evening, sampling some of the local microbreweries’ finest.

On the Sunday, after a tasty Scandi breakfast at Bowl Market and a failed attempt to visit the temporarily-closed Carlsberg brewery attraction, it was time to check out. After getting hopelessly mired behind various legs of the Copenhagen Ironman in the pouring rain, we finally made it to Nyhavn. Dan hopped on the metro to the station, to get back to Amsterdam and his job. I checked into the quaint and welcoming Bedwood Hostel, a half-timbered building in a courtyard off the Nyhavn waterfront, and wondered what to do next. There were still a couple of weeks left of the summer holiday, and I didn’t want to spend them sitting at home, where there was a 90% likelihood I’d end up going into work whether I needed to or not.

The next day, sitting in a pavement cafe watching the boats on the canal, I opened Maps. Where to go next? Maybe I should move out into the countryside for a day or two, or start to make my way west towards Flensburg and the German border, the beginning of the way home. That was when I saw the bridge. Yes, that bridge. The Bridge, the bridge. Mind made up, I picked up my bag from the hostel’s front desk and headed for the station.

Properly named the Øresund Bridge, or Øresundsbron, the 16km bridge serves as a road and rail link between Copenhagen and Malmö. The journey between Copenhagen Central Station and Malmö Central Station takes very little time, about 40 minutes from end to end, and costs around 122 Swedish Krona, or 87 Danish Krone. Tickets were easily purchased from the machines in the station, or can be bought online at the Öresundståg website. It’s handy to know that Copenhagen Central is generally referred to as Kobenhavn H on ticket screens and the booking website, while Malmö Central will usually be shown as Malmö C.

Boarding the 029 Øresundståg train, I briefly wondered if I’d accidentally stumbled into first class, but it turned out that Scandinavian trains are just incredibly posh. Gliding out past the airport and on to the bridge itself, the view was obscured by the heavy iron girders. However, it was still possible to get a glimpse of the artificial island of Peberholm. Left undisturbed, it’s turned into a bit of an ersatz nature reserve, although we were going too fast to see much of the wildlife.

Of course, a spur of the moment decision to go to Malmö was going to involve sleeping somewhere. The first listing that came up on Airbnb was titled The Magic Bus. That was far too intriguing to pass up, so I was booked it, thinking that if it turned out to be a joke when I got there, at least it would make a funny story later.

It turned out to be an actual bus, a.k.a. camper van, sitting comfortably on a plinth in the garden of a local art gallery. Passing the plain wooden gate on an unassuming residential street in Norra Sofielund, it would be hard to guess what lies behind if it wasn’t for the sign. Galleri Tikotin, the brainchild of artist Christopher Nelson, is a wild and wonderful combination of cosy home and eccentric artist’s lair. Chris has spent a lot of time decking it out as a traditional salon, and coming back out afterwards, it was a genuine surprise to find myself in 2019 Sweden instead of 1920s Paris.

Chris was a warm and welcoming host who regaled me over coffee with stories of the artists’ salons he held in the gallery. He was kind enough to show me the main room, where there are some stunning works to be seen. The beautiful weather meant plenty of time in the garden, picking tomatoes from a huge overloaded vine under the close supervision of the resident cat, and getting a shock from suddenly catching sight of my own reflection in a half-hidden mirror among the bushes.

The next day, I walked up the coast along the Ribersborg Beach to meet a local connection from a hospitality network at the Ribersborgs Kallbadhus sauna. The men’s and women’s sides of the sauna are segregated, so we made sure to have a good chat over coffee on the outdoor patio before we went in, staring out the the glistening sea with the Øresund Bridge in the distance and occasionally warding off marauding seagulls. The contrast between lounging in the heat in the classically Scandinavian wooden steam rooms and scrambling down a ladder directly into the Oresund Strait made for a refreshing and invigorating experience.

After another couple of days of lazy beach walks, rambling round the Kungsparken and through the backstreets and squares, seeing a live band at a courtyard bar at the Folkets Park, finding an adorable baby wild rabbit in the most unlikely of spots (see photo) and eating far too much lakrits ice cream and smørrebrød, it was finally time to say goodbye and make my way back to the UK. Until next time, Scandinavia!

Armenia to Ukraine Part 4: Odessa to Lviv

“You’ll love Odessa,” my Ukrainian friend Krystyna said, when I described the trip I was planning. “You’ll wish you had more time there.” She wasn’t wrong – it’s now yet another on my list of places I have to go back to someday. She also told me that Odessa is famous for two things – the sea, and cats. Having arrived via the first, it didn’t take us long to find the second – they were everywhere, from the souvenir shop opposite our hostel to the Potemkin Stairs. After checking into cosy Hostel 51, we went to explore the city, walking down to the Potemkin Stairs to admire the view of the harbour before looping around through City Park and past Vorontsov Palace with its impressive colonnade.

By then it was getting towards dinnertime, so we stopped off at the Amsterdam Hotel and Restaurant (cue silly jokes about how we spent the afternoon in Odessa and ate dinner in Amsterdam). After a delicious dinner and a lovely couple of hours people-watching on the pavement patio, we headed back to the hostel, where I got chatting to a Canadian international relations student who had been studying in Russia. We ended up going out for drinks and sampling the vodka at the Bourbon Rock Bar just up the road.

In the morning I headed out for a quick walk round the nearby City Gardens and Cathedral Square before catching my train. Luckily I’d brought a scarf to cover my head, so I was able to go inside the imposing Spaso-Preobrazhensy Cathedral and look around the stunning gilded interior. Apart from a few locals praying silently in one of the side chapels, I had the place almost to myself. I spent a peaceful twenty minutes admiring the art and architecture in the cool of the church. Stepping back out into the already-hot sun, I headed back to the hostel to collect my bag. It was time to say goodbye to Odessa, and to Lau Kaping, and make my way to the station.

Since I’d booked last-minute, I had ended up with a more expensive Lux-class sleeper ticket despite taking a daytime train. Handily, you can see which berths have been booked on the Ukrainian Railways website when reserving tickets, and I had chosen a cabin with both beds free. No-one had booked the other bed, so I had the two-berth cabin to myself for the day. Stretching out on fresh linen, sipping tea from a traditional glass and steel mug and flipping through the complimentary magazine, I decided perhaps getting Lux ticket hadn’t been such a bad thing. A girl can treat herself, right? I lay propped up on one elbow, staring out of the window at railway markers and level crossings flicking past, until we reached Zhmerinka, where the train stopped for a break.

On the platform, women walked up and down selling freshly baked pastries and plastic cups of berries from baskets and sports bags. Hopping down to buy something for later, I spotted a couple of familiar faces further down the platform – the German couple Kaping and I had walked to the bus station with when we got off the ferry. We stood for a while catching up in the hazy sun, sharing raspberries and plans as passengers ebbed and flowed around us, until the whistle blew and we wished each other safe travels, racing back to our carriages before the train departed.

I stared out of the window again, daydreaming as the train swished past quaint villages and isolated farms along the Moldovan border. Dirt roads crossed the track, and geese pecked among lush grass on the railway verge. Occasional guards in hi-vis jackets waved at us from trackside cabins at level crossings. Gradually, the sky darkened, and I switched on the cabin light and read as the sunset faded and it got too dark to see the outside world. We slid gently into Lviv Station at 10:30pm. My friend Oksanka greeted me with a smile and a hug on the station platform.

Lviv is a beautiful city. The centre is all winding cobbled streets, dotted with pavement cafes and hanging baskets full of flowers. Over the next few days, we fell into a comfortable routine. During the day, while Oksanka worked, I went out to see the sights, including the fascinating House of Legends with its rooftop car, the Shevchenkivskyi Park Museum, where traditional Ukrainian dwellings have been gathered to create an outdoor folklore museum, and the Park High Castle, with its glorious views across the city.

Oksanka is a wonderful host, and knew all the best places to go in the city. In the evening, we’d go for dinner, or to a jazz performance at Libraria, or one of the local bars. One of the most interesting restaurants was the incredible Most Expensive Galician Restaurant, only accessible through a fake apartment. At the weekend, we went for an amazing buffet brunch at Baczewski – highly recommended! Kaping, who was planning to go hiking in the mountains south of Lviv, came to visit us on her way. We met up over cups of hot melted chocolate at the Lviv Chocolate Factory, chatting until the place closed and the wait staff politely kicked us out. One day, I took a day trip to the nearby town of Ivano-Frankivsk to visit Krystyna at the youth exchange project she was running. All too soon, it was time to get my next and last train of the trip – the sleeper to Kyiv, where my journey would end.

Read the previous post in the series here.

Shift2Rail Webinar

On the 12th May, 2020, 196Destinations attended the Shift2Rail webinar to understand more about what others thought of the future of rail. This event was to be focused more on the traveller experience. We’ll be attending another on the 14th, this time with an emphasis on service providers.

What is Shift2Rail?

Shift2Rail is an EU initiative to increase train travel under the EU Green initiative. More information at: https://shift2rail.org

Webinar: 12th May.

Juan Castro introduced the IP4 initiative, which had a series of demonstrators.

Marco Ferreira (Thales) introduced the technical architecture, and discussed the Barcelona-Madrid Corridor by way of an example of how the app could work.

A scenario by Achim von der Embse (HaCon) in Hannover was introduced.

Then we went quite futuristic with an exciting look into an LBE experience on the Hololens presented by Souheir Mili.

The Shift2MaaS demonstrator was introduced by Daria Kuzmina (UITP). It was great to see Málaga mentioned, with the corridor to Madrid. Marco Comerio (Cefriel) also presented.

My-TRAC
Introduced by Ismini Stroumpou, who displayed two multi-modal illustrations of the app’s potential usage in Lisbon and Barcelona. The app covered activities available in travel destinations, tailored to the user’s habits. My-TRAC (or at least a 2nd stage pilot) will be available at the end of June on the Play store .

Questions from the audience

During the presentation, there were several chances for a live Q&A with the presenters.

196 Destinations’ Question: Thank you for introducing the demonstrators. Which of them would cover long distance international train booking i.e. Spain to Germany? i.e. Renfe + Oui + DB.

Answer: As yet, they were not able to say as the data is not available from France yet.

Andy B’s Question: If there is an open framework, will all of the interfaces between system components be documented & published? (to allow for choices at system/component level)

Answer: The system will be proprietary software but with an open framework.

Conclusions

It’s really exciting to be part of the webinar series, and hear about this great work that is going on within the European Union.

It’s important for the health of the planet that we reduce our dependency on flying. And initiatives like Shift2Rail have huge potential as we reboot post-virus, to really make a difference, and make taking the train a much easier experience when dealing with multiple different types of transport from bus, to train, to bike.

It made me feel that I need to do some further research on the high level goals of the project. I also wanted to understand where these new apps are positioned in what is a pretty vast landscape of localised transport apps, and national initiatives, as we try to go international with them. There’s great potential to amalgamate all these apps into one super EU app. I’m not sure yet if these apps will have as many resources as Google Maps has, but perhaps in time the UX can be refined, and there’s real potential for one of these apps to become one of the 5-7 that people regularly use on their phones.

This has been a quickly put-together blog, and we welcome corrections, and additions, in the comments below. We’ll do an update, and also write up the 2nd webinar.

We see 196Destinations as part of the community of international train (and other overland) travellers, and we want to help people travel more this way. This requires a good booking and travel experience with the aid of technology. We would love to get involved and partner with others in this area.

Further Information

Home page:
shift2rail.org

There’s quite a confusing array of Twitter accounts. But here goes:
https://twitter.com/Shift2Rail_JU
https://twitter.com/S2R_CONNECTIVE
https://twitter.com/Shift2MaaS

S2R Connective Project
https://projects.shift2rail.org/s2r_ip4_n.aspx?p=CONNECTIVE

The Future Of Train Travel

March 2020 Edition: mid-quarantine, can we think past the current situation?

Will the future be shiny and fast? Or something else?

The current situation may mean there’s not much travel going on, but we’ll soon be back on the rails.

The world might be looking a little different by then, though. Many airline companies have been struggling as a result of the travel restrictions.

This could mean more trains. Different types of service will be needed to fulfil changing demands – more sleepers, perhaps, or different customer needs such as business travellers needing wifi.

What are your thoughts? We would love to hear them.

Ian/we recently got involved in conversations about this on Twitter. Here are some interesting aspects that came up.

We value your opinions and thoughts here, and would love to know what you would like to see for the future of train travel.

Please comment below with your thoughts.

Málaga Escape: To Ronda

It feels funny to escape from Málaga. After all, it’s what most people consider a tourist resort, and with good reason. I am lucky enough to think of it as Winter Home (for now)… and sometimes, you need to escape your home!

I decided to return to Ronda: a place I visited on my 2016 exploration trip to Málaga. Back then I was only there for a few hours, and felt I didn’t have enough time. The bridge is famous, and is quite amazing. I resolved to return and do a proper walk around ‘the ridge’. Four years later, then, it was time to return.

I booked a night in a fairly cheap hotel that was classically Spanish styled – especially their restaurant. The room was away from traffic noise, and had a modern bathroom. I found a coach company I had not heard of before, that took me on the 2 hour journey up. We passed through some pretty stunning countryside, allowing me to take a few more notes of places I’d like to come back to ‘one day’ – hopefully in less than four years!

I had arrived in time for a sunset view, and a wander around the old town. Then it was time for some food 🙂 But first, a craft ale and some rock tunes. A good discovery. After, we found a great tapas bar. I had a Ribera red wine, and numerous tapas that were all around the €1.50 level. Great service too. Perfect.

Then, the walk. Well, walk of my own making, as it seems there was no official path around ‘the ridge’. Going off via San Francisco Barrio I soon lost any path, and was in the middle of a field looking at the famous bridge from miles away, with just the birds for company, perched in the shade on a rocky outcrop. I ventured towards a tower back on the ‘ridge’, up through an olive grove that felt pretty ancient, then picked up the trail towards the distinctive oak trees that perched on top of the hill. This style of tree can be found atop a lot of ridges in the region, and always call to me to go and sit in their shade. On the top was a cluster of #vanlife folk, with one of the best views in the area. I proceeded onwards to a small chapel that had been built at one end of this ridge, before again having to make my own path…this time down the side of a pretty steep hillside. Not really recommended!

Picking up the road at the bottom, I was amused to find it going through a stream. With the sun out strong that day, it was actually pretty refreshing to walk through it without shoes and socks, and I dried off quickly. Sadly, the nearby winery didn’t seem to be open, and anyway it says to book in advance on their website. Probably for the best, as I had a train to catch out of town.

Arriving back in the centre of Ronda, the main square was alive with people celebrating Andalusia Day. I was just in time for a cana and a couple of small sandwiches sitting at my hotel bar, before heading out of town on the train.

Gracias Ronda, you were a good escape 🙂

Useful Information About Ronda And The Trip

More photos

Coach from Málaga to Ronda with Damas

Train from Ronda to Málaga

Tapas Bar

Craft Ale Bar

Puente Neuvo – The Bridge History

More Established Walks

Budget Hotel Accomodation

Armenia to Ukraine Part 3: Ferry, cross the Black Sea 🎶

Passenger ferry in port with lorries.
The Greifswald in port at Batumi.

Wandering through a goods yard was not exactly the way I had expected my voyage on the UkrFerry sailing to Odessa to begin, but that was precisely what I found myself doing. Picking my way across the rutted mud between truck cabs, I searched for signs for the passenger terminal. A man with a backpack passed me, striding purposefully towards the little yard I had seen from the flyover. Abandoning my search, I followed him, hoping he knew where he was going better than I did. A few minutes’ walking and a quick hop across the railway line which served the port brought us to the small yard, where an assortment of backpackers and locals sat about, reorganising their luggage or sipping coffee in paper cups from the tiny convenience store tucked into the wall. I joined a pair of Georgian truckers at the window and asked for a coffee then settled down on a wooden bench next to a grandmother surrounded by woven plastic bags, watching a couple with backpacks and dreadlocks play with a joyously panting dog.

View of the hills behind Batumi from the ferry.

After about an hour, the gate in the iron grille slid open, and we poured through it towards the ship. Passport control was a kiosk in the open air, where we queued through a turnstile as if we were waiting to go on to an amusement park ride. One by one, we held out our documents to be stamped and were nodded out on to the loading ramp with a variation on “We hope you liked us, come back soon.” Standing at the base of the loading ramp, I unsuccessfully scoured the area for the foot passenger entry. The same man I had followed through the truck yard passed me and walked straight up the main on-ramp, which I had assumed was the vehicle entry. A security guard nodded amiably at him, so I followed him once more, and soon found myself in the bowels of the ship, heading up an oil-scented staircase to the reception. 

Old-fashioned dial volume control.
Volume control for a radio that doesn’t exist.

Once at the top, I exchanged my passport for the key to my cabin. I had booked a bed in an ensuite 2-berth with a window, which I would be sharing with a fellow female traveller. The cabin bore the marks of many renovations, here a built-in control for a radio of which there was no trace, there a switch that flipped but controlled nothing. Overall, the cabin was fairly basic but comfortable. After hanging my clothes in the rack and putting my toiletries in the bathroom cabinet, I headed up on to the deck. 

After about half an hour, my watch showed 1pm, the time we had been told lunch would be served in the dining room. I went down to the reception, and found the dining room doors shut and a variety of passengers milling hungrily around. After waiting fifteen minutes, I approached the reception, where the man on the desk told me the ship ran on Ukrainian time. That was an hour behind Georgian, so I resigned my rumbling stomach to waiting and went back on deck. 

Loading the vehicles.

A fresh sea breeze was blowing, and the weather, although not as sunny as the day before, looked settled. The online horror story about the girl who got stuck in the port for five days because of a storm started to recede from my mind. I leaned on the rail with the wind flipping through my hair and looked up at the distant hills holding the church I had walked to without a plan one day. A thud from below made me look down. Lorries had started to be loaded, and one had broken loose from its moorings and started to roll backwards. Shouting, the driver scrambled into the cab and slammed on the brakes while another hurried to re-secure the wheels.

Be careful – the restaurant times are Ukrainian, even if you board in Georgia.

Walking into the dining room an hour later, I looked around for the buffet every traveller’s report online had told me would be there. However, bowls of soup and plates loaded with roast chicken and mashed potatoes sat ready-made at each place. Thankfully, when I explained the situation, the kind but extremely straightforward lady in charge of the dining room was happy to swap my plate for a buckwheat and mixed vegetable pilaf. Feeling guilty for not having known the food was table service and for causing difficulty for the ship’s staff, I sat down with my allocated table mates. Only one person on the table spoke more than rudimentary English, so we resorted to a camaraderie made almost entirely of smiles, and awkward pantomimes to communicate things like needing the pepper or asking for another bread roll. The older couple sitting next to me, also vegetarian, took great care of me, insisting that I take the spare orange left over from dessert and generally treating me like an unexpected daughter. 

Back in the cabin, I got to meet the woman I’d be sharing it with. A former government worker from Hong Kong, the riots had been the last straw that pushed her to leave on a round-the-world backpacking trip she had been dreaming of for years. She had already completed a marathon in North Korea and travelled through most of the countries in South-East Asia and India. I sat with my mouth wide open stuck halfway between envy and admiration, listening hungrily to her stories until she decided to take another look outside. 

Goodbye, Batumi!

Despite having been told to board at 10am, we were still in port at Batumi. It was now about four in the afternoon. Hanging off the back deck, we watched an elderly goods train rumble up track in the middle of the loading ramp and into the ship, followed by more lorries. At around five, there was a heave, and the ferry began to chug gently away from the dock. I watched as the shoreline receded, docks and beaches and pleasure boats fading gently into a watercolour in the twilight.

The following day dawned cloudlessly blue. After breakfast, I ordered a coffee from the bar and sat sipping espresso in the sun on the back deck, enjoying the morning breeze and chatting to a group of four German girls who were backpacking through the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The Greifswald was a small ship, without any of the amenities found on larger vessels. The only public areas were the dining room, a seating area around the reception, and the outside decks, and there was no wifi, shop or place to take out cash. It was an excellent chance to switch off, get to know the people around me, meditate, read and journal. The day passed in a lazy blur, lying on the top deck in the hot sun like a seal on a rock, or sitting with my arms crossed leaning on the rail, staring into the cloud-pictures thrown up by the churning foam beneath.

Towards sunset, there was a shout of “Dolphins!” from someone on the starboard side. Everyone rushed over to look. Amid the sparkling waters of the Black Sea, sleek dark bodies leapt from the waves, one after another. The man next to me exclaimed something excited but incomprehensible, clearly aimed at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. 

Sevastopol in the distance.

“Ah, English,” he replied cheerfully. “Beautiful, yes?” he added, pointing to the dolphins. He turned out to be a truck driver from the Ukraine, and this was a regular route for him. As the sun set into the sea, he described the cars he’d bought in Georgia, and the home he hoped to one day build for a family, and I described my life in England, my job, my friends in Manchester as the coast of Sevastopol drifted by in the hazy distance. In the end, the dinner tannoy ended the conversation, and we both headed downstairs to our respective tables. The meals on board consisted of a bowl of soup to start, followed by something of the meat, potatoes and two veg variety, and fruit for dessert. The vegetarian option was usually vegetable soup, the starch and veg without the meat, and fruit as well. I barely needed to touch the extra supplies I had brought along in case of getting stranded at sea, although I did tuck into the hazelnuts out of concern for my protein intake. 

Sunset onboard the Greifswald.

That night, standing on deck in the starlight as the ship plunged through the waves, I ran into the driver and his friend again. After chatting happily for a while, we made our way down to the cabin decks. On the back deck, another group of Ukrainians were drinking spirits. They cheerily handed us a shot each as we passed, and raised a toast. The nearest one’s eyebrows raised as I lowered my glass at the same time as they did, and he reached out to check it was actually empty. The ship tossed, the glass fell over, and the man jostled my arm and said something in jocular Ukrainian that I couldn’t understand but grinned at anyway. 

Back in the cabin, my new friend was reading on her bunk. She had tried to wash a few essentials earlier in the day, but we had been told off for opening the window, so that they were now drying on the curtain rail. After chatting for a while about travel, and life, and what waited for us back home, she revealed that after Odessa, she was planning to go to a forest park not far from Lviv.

Guess where my profile picture was taken!

“I’ll probably come to Lviv first,” she said. “I think it’s easiest for transport.” Since the reason I was going to Ukraine was to visit a friend in Lviv, I invited her to meet up with us there. It was difficult to plan much, since we had no wifi on the ship and were far out of signal range, but we would have a couple of days to discuss it when we reached Odessa. I had failed to find a couchsurfing host in the city so would be staying in a hostel, but had been reluctant to book one as I had heard so much about the possibility of the ferry getting stuck at sea in case of bad weather.

A small boat coming into Chornomorsk port.

We docked in Chornomorsk on time, at around 9:30 am. We had to check out of the cabin straight after breakfast, and spent the next couple of hours sitting next to our bags on deck, watching tugs and fishing boats hum around the harbour. I logged on to the Port of Chernomorsk wi-fi as soon as I came in range, and booked into the same hostel Kaping was staying at – we had decided to hang out together in Odessa.

Once the ship docked, everyone congregated in front of the reception for immigration. The border officials came aboard and set up shop in the dining room, calling us in one-by-one to check and stamp our passports.

Once we had been processed, we were free to disembark, although actually getting out of the ship turned out to be more of a challenge. The queue for the lift was so enormous that we tried the stairs instead, only to find that the door at the bottom was locked. The lift had started to malfunction under the strain, failing to stop at our floor several times until I found myself choking down a panic attack. If you are claustrophobic like me and find crowds frightening, you will want to prepare yourself well for this part. You may potentially want to ask someone to be there to support you, although to be fair to UkrFerry it was the only part of the voyage that was anything less than enjoyable. Fortunately, my cabin mate was very kind and kept me talking so that I made it out of the boat in one piece, if rather shaky and drenched in a cold sweat.

Chornomorsk is a bustling cargo port as well as a passenger terminal.

Once outside the boat, we were guided over to a small bus stop where we sat in the sun for what felt like an eternity, waiting for a minibus. Our bags were taken separately on an odd little vehicle that looked like an inverted snowplough. After waiting in the minibus for over an hour, it trundled us about 200m across the tarmac to a long low building, where we had to go through customs. The whole process was immensely inefficient; budget plenty of time for getting out of the port if you have a connection to make. 

From customs, we stumbled up a bank on to the main road in search of the bus. We had got chatting to a German couple on the minibus, and the group of us strolled through the highway dust until we saw a bus stop.

The information kiosk for local buses, where a kind bus worker directed us to the petrol station to change money.

A packed bus rolled to a halt – the German couple just managed to squeeze on, but Lau Kaping and I couldn’t fit. A minute after the bus had rattled off up the road to Odessa, we realised this had been a blessing in disguise. The port in Batumi had had no currency exchange facilities and neither had the ferry, so neither of us had anything on us but Georgian lari and a small reserve of dollars and euros. Fortunately, there was a petrol station across the road with an ATM and a currency exchange window, where we gratefully swapped our leftover lari for hryvnia, dashing back across the tarmac just in time to squeeze ourselves into the next minibus as it rattled to a halt. Suitcases safely placed in the boot, we squashed in through the door and found ourselves face-to-face with the kind restaurant manager from the ferry, on her way to a well-deserved break in Odessa. Swaying from the hanging straps amid the press of bodies, we jostled and bounced into Odessa bus station. Grabbing our packs from the boot, we set off in search of our hostel and lunch, eager to explore the city. 

Read the next post in the series here, or the last one here.

Armenia to Ukraine Part 2: Tbilisi to Batumi by not-quite-sleeper.

“I’ve never heard of that,” said my Georgian host, Saba, from the other side of a large khachapuri. This was not good news for my attempts to book the elusive sleeper train from Yerevan to Batumi, which supposedly stopped in Tbilisi along the way, and which I was supposed to be boarding in a couple of days’ time. I sighed and reloaded the Georgian Railways booking page. When this still failed to show any sign of the missing train 201, I gave up in disgust. With my limited time in Georgia, I had been very much planning to save a day with an overnight trip. Eternally kind, Saba offered to call the railway company for me. Apparently, since a recent upgrade to the railways, sleeper services no longer ran between the two cities as the journey no longer took enough time. Instead, my options were limited to daytime services or an overnight seat. 

Book vending machine at Tbilisi station.
The vending machine in the mall which surrounds the station was designed to feed the mind rather than the stomach – but only if you speak Georgian!

Three days later, I stood uncertainly on the dark pavement in front of what appeared to be a large shopping mall, but which Google Maps proudly proclaimed to be Tbilisi Railway Station. A pair of businessmen with neat suitcases strolled confidently through the sliding glass doors, and I followed them hopefully through the deserted mall and up to the third floor. Here, rows of seats replaced the shops, while blinking LED screens flashed out departures. The mall had become a station waiting room. Having successfully found the 801 on the board and reassured myself that, as scheduled, it wouldn’t be leaving for another two hours, I set off in search of food.

Unlike most transit hubs, the station was short of places to eat, and even the vending machine on the ground floor turned out to be selling books instead of snacks. Since I had plenty of time, I walked a couple of blocks until I spotted the welcoming lights of Shaurma Club (13 Queen Tamar Ave, Tbilisi), a late-night kebab spot. Even at that time, it was doing good business, clearly as popular with locals on a night out as with tourists waiting for the train.

Grey and white cat asleep.
Georgia has no shortage of cheeky, adorable stray moggies, like the one who tried to steal my chips and this sweetie taking a nap.

Hot bag of chips in hand, I headed back towards the station, chastising myself slightly for not having found something more authentically Georgian but comforted by the tastiness of the food and the fact I had eaten my weight in khachapuri, khinkali and ajapsandali over the previous few days. On the way, I found myself chatting to a passing Georgian student, who wanted to know if I knew any good nightclubs in the city. After getting over my surprise at the role reversal, I suggested a couple that Saba and his friends had mentioned. He disappeared down a side street with a cheery, “Thank you!”, while checking his phone for directions. I carried on until I was waylaid by a small ginger cat perching on a large bin. It mewed beseechingly until I offered it a chip, which it sniffed warily before turning its nose up in disgust and vanishing into the dumpster, clearly disapproving of my taste in food.

Interior of the high-speed train.
Spacious, comfortable airline-style seating in the new Stadler train.

A little after midnight, the LED board flashed a direction to board train 801. Following the flow of passengers down the escalator and out through the side of the mall, I found a sleek express waiting. After the mandatory ID and ticket check at the carriage door, I found my allocated place easily enough. The seats were spacious airline-style armchairs with plenty of luggage space nearby, and the train itself was clearly brand new. There was even a small free library near the door!

A box of books marked "Georgian Railways".
A free library on one of the new express trains.

After a pleasant chat about our various travels with the lady sitting next to me, we both settled down for the night. Seeing me curling up under my scarf, a kind young guard in an immaculate uniform politely offered me a blanket. Despite the lack of a bed and the bright overhead lights being left on all night, I managed to get a decent few hours’ sleep using my backpack as a pillow.

The sea front and beach near Batumi on a cloudy day.
Batumi seafront on a rather better day than the one I arrived on.

It being dark, there was not much chance to see anything from the train. However, I heard from other travellers once I arrived in Batumi that the views can be quite spectacular, so unless you’re pushed for time it might be better to travel in daylight. At about 5:15am, I woke up from my doze to find the children belonging to the family opposite staring at me curiously among the general sounds of people organizing themselves and their luggage. I was parched from the air conditioning and the water in my bottle had run out. Luckily, the carriage came equipped with a well-stocked vending machine. Being the kind of person who can’t see an unknown item of food or drink without wanting to try it, I ended up with some very refreshing pear soda from Natakhtari, and something reminiscent of a Sesame Snap with added nuts. 

View of Batumi's beach area in the rain.
A saturated Batumi seafront at 6am shortly after getting off the train.

Exactly on time, we pulled into Batumi Central Station. The sea and the sky were almost the same shade of slate-grey, fringed by a few palm trees that were near enough invisible behind a sleeting curtain of equally grey rain. It was hardly the scene I had expected from photos of bright sunshine and beaches I had seen while researching my trip. Thankfully, my host had driven to collect me, although I still ended up drenched to the skin from the short sprint between the station and his car. As we trundled off down the rain-soaked main street, I could not help thinking how generous and friendly most of the people I had come across on the trip were. The fact that he had come out at 6am to collect a virtual stranger from the station in driving rain just proved my point.

Postscript:

Two days later, I was chatting to a Spanish lady in the hostel I had checked into after my host left. She asked how I got there, so after telling her I returned the question.

“By the sleeper train from Yerevan,” she said.

“The sleeper train? The railway company said they didn’t run any more!” I exclaimed in dismay. The mystery was only solved several months later, when I idly looked it up in a moment of boredom and found a report from another traveller who had run into the same problem. As it turned out, that particular train doesn’t show up on the Georgian Railways website because it is run by the Armenian South Caucasus Railway (http://www.ukzhd.am/en.html for booking and information in English), a possibility which hadn’t occurred to me because the leg of the journey I was making took place entirely within Georgia. At least I got to try out one of the brand-new Stadler trains!

Read the next post in the series here, or the previous one here. Or check out the info below to see how to book the trip for yourself!

Practicalities:

Departs: Tbilisi railway station, 21, 19, Tsotne Dadiani St, Tbilisi, Georgia (თბილისის რკინიგზის სადგური, 21, 19, ცოტნე დადიანის ქუჩა, თბილისი in Georgian). Multiple daily departures – see http://www.railway.ge/en/traffic-general-schedule/ for details.

Arrives: 05:55, Batumi Central Station, Queen Tamar Highway, Batumi, Georgia

Journey time: approx. 5 ½ hrs 

Company: Georgian Railways

Price: 61 GEL (as of July 2019)

Tickets:  Can be booked online at www.tickets.railway.ge. Booking available in Georgian, English and Russian. Tickets can be booked up to 40 days before travel – book in good time in summer. You need your email, passport and phone number to create an account. Accepts Visa and Mastercard. Tickets also available in person from local booking offices. If you are looking for a sleeper service, you’ll need to go to the Armenian South Caucasus Railway site at http://www.ukzhd.am/en.html for booking and information in English.

Seating: Airline style.

Rest stops: None, but clean modern toilets, a vending machine and a library were available onboard.

All information correct as of August 2019. We recommend checking the latest departures before your journey.

An Interrail adventure: Berlin to Málaga….

“It’s time to escape Winter, and go south from Berlin.” … “I could fly?”… But, perhaps there’s an alternative?
“Isn’t it a bit far on the train, Ian?”
“Arn’t you lucky, to have the time to do this?” … actually, yes, I am lucky. Very lucky indeed.

Inspired by friends validating my madness, and by going on an epic adventure from Berlin in summer, to Italy, I decided that despite being in my 40s it was time for an Interrail adventure! Also, I had seen a Twitter contact using Interrail for a business trip, and felt, WHY NOT?

I wanted to explore flying less. But, like many, I found the alternative confusing.

What Is The Alternative To Flying?

My hope with doing the migration this way, and through 196destinations, is that we can talk about the alternatives to flying a bit more, and understand the challenges, and make them a little easier for everyone reading.

Leg 1 – Operation Escape Berlin

So, I planned to leave Berlin and go to Munich. But the accommodation situation in Berlin had got even crazier, so I decided that I would spend some time in Leipzig, and then perhaps see some autumnal leaves in the Alps near Munich. WHY NOT?

The optimal situation for using my 5-journey Interrail pass would be if the train ticket cost 50 Euros or more. However, my first leg would not be far, so I took a FlixBus from Berlin to Leipzig. Comfortable seats, and an on-time service.

Leipzig.


A small, clean city that was worth exploring. And it had a good tram & bus system to allow you to do so. I found an amazing AirBnB host that even picked me up from the bus station! AWESOME! A great mate also gave me a ticket to see Machine Head, which was at a fantastic small venue and super lively.

Thank you to my friend Anna for recommending the War Memorial. It was epic. And what a view from the top of the whole city.

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#leipzig

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Leg 2 – Leipzig to Munich & Garmisch.

Onwards, and time to use the first day of my Interrail pass.

I headed towards Munich, and then dived out again on the next train after arrival, to Garmisch, where I had found a few nights an affordable price. I was soo lucky with the weather. Autumn was in full effect on the trees, but it was blue skies and warm.

I had a great walk up the chucklesworth-named mountain, Wank. Then a super lecker Kaiserschmoren at sunset in a mountain gastro restaurant.

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#garmischpartenkirchenklamm

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Leg 3 – A weekend in Munich.

Then, it was time to leave Garmisch. Just a short trup to Munich on another FlixBus. I was really looking forward to seeing some friends in the city, and on the outskirts in Dachau, where we cycled around some lakes.


Leg 4 – Crossing The Alps.

I’m off across the Alps today. Not just through Austria, but all the way Italy, and to its coast. An epic journey in itself. It would be another Interrail day. A couple of nights in Genova felt like a great reward at the end of the 10 hour travel day.

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#austria #ostrich

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It was a big journey, leaving at 9am and not arriving in Genova until the evening. A journey of fantastic scenery that lived up to expectations. The undulating hills of the lower Alps leaving Munich gave way to the lower ski resorts heading into Austria.

Passing Innsbruck, the scenery became really stunning and quite dramatic, as the train would turn a corner with a steep mountain above, and reveal a valley that went off into the distance. All the while, we must have been climbing. Right on the border with Italy, it felt remote, and there were actual clouds rolling across the train track and through the station. There was a brief stop for the border check here, but my white privilege meant I was not asked for a passport.

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#ostrich | #italia

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And now, we started the descent into Italy, through the Dolomites. Really quite stunning, with more U-shaped valleys, than the classic high Alps V-shaped valleys. All along, it was like I had a widescreen view on the world, whilst I looked out the train window. I’m pretty sure I planned to read, but I didn’t even get up to go and look for the coffee that the OBB-powered train was sure to have. Such was my enthusiasm, I was like an excitable child, wondering what change in the view the next undulation would bring.

Arriving in Verona, it was time to change trains. Now I still don’t know if I’d accidentally booked a first class ticket, and the conductor let me get away with it with my regular Interrail ticket, but this train to Milano was swanky. I chatted to the French couple opposite, off for a night out in the city, whilst we tried to figure how to raise/lower/recline the ridiculously comfortable seats to the right angle. Super comfortable. And super fast. Swoosh – there goes Lake Garda, and then we’re already close to the city of Milan.

Genova had a glorious fountain.

For the last train in this epic train day, I travelled on a coastal railway across rivers and bridges during dusk, arriving in Genova after dark. I’d booked a budget hotel not far from the station. On arrival, I was surprised to find it decorated with medieval art on the ceiling, and to find myself accommodated in a massive room. It was a bit basic in other regards, but a pleasant surprise. I had a walk around the town, which felt like a pre-renovation Málaga, but found it a little quiet. Eventually I found a square with some cafe bars.

Sadly, my plan to swim in Italy, France, and Spain didn’t quite work out, as it had become a little grey, and it turned out to be the start of a storm further along the Mediterranean.


Leg 5 – Onwards to Nice.



Nice? Well, between Antibes and Nice, in Villeneuve-Loubet to be precise. I left Genova with an unannounced 1-hour delay. However, I had a great conversation with a maths teacher who’d moved to Milano to get work, and had ended up working for below minimum wage in a cafe after learning Italian for a couple of years. It made me feel privileged to have this travel option, but also wish I had got his details to introduce to online teaching!

Crossing into France, some border guards entered the train. But again, my white privilege was all the passport I needed.

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#france

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That night was the windiest night I’ve stayed on a boat, ever. It’s again a privilege, but wow, it was more like being shaken to sleep rather than gently rocked. It also turned out that part of the train line was now washed away.

Leg 6 – Viva Espania?

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#france

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NEXT….well, this is where the international connectivity got very confusing, and perhaps the information on the storm could have been a lot better. With two of us looking, we couldn’t find a train from Nice to the Barcelona area. So, I would get a local train (or two…or four?) to Perpignan. Stay the night. Explore a castle 🙂 And then get the FlixBus again to Barcelona – WIN!

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I got to visit my favourite tapas bar in Barceloneta, and catch up with a startup mate, before heading onwards – and straight through a strike in Barcelona!


Leg 7 – Finale To Málaga!


From Barcelona Sants, we were zoom through the countryside at high speed in the direction of Madrid. A short 2 hour changeover there allowed for a quick look at a city square where they had an art exhibition on sustainability, followed by a quiet tapas and beer in a more hipster neighbourhood – up a steep hill! (Cheers for the recommendation George).

We left Madrid just before dark, skirting through Cordoba in pitch black.

Arriving in Málaga late at night, to see a friendly face, I was happy to find myself at journey’s end after quite a trek indeed. I’d made it!


Made it!!


3200kms! My god! I may have sworn quite a bit about trains, tickets, supplements, and delays. But I feel accomplished. Yes, I could have flown, but I have seen a lot more of Europe this way. I have noted lots of places I could return to. And I have also used considerably less carbon up than flying. It is estimated to be 8x less infact.

Resources

Interrail Global Pass: Ian bought the 5 day pass.

Rome2rio: Gives you the rough viability of a long-distance route. But not necessarily a good guide for prices.