Europe by Train
From Oxford to Las Ramblas
By Calum Hill
My friend Matt and I recently graduated from university in Southampton and parted our separate ways. I studied journalism and Matt studied film and television. Three months later, I was working in a brassiere in Oxford. It was closing down for refurbishment during January, so I decided I wanted to spend the month travelling. Matt was working in Notting Hill Theatre in London and January was a quiet month as there weren’t many shows on. I contacted him to discuss a possible week away. During our internet scour we stumbled across interrailing and discovered it was rather cheap for a month long ticket during January.
Our inspiration was to see a vast array of European countries. We were still young and wanted to see as much of the world as we could. Visiting six countries in one month wasn’t bad . As neither of us drives we spend a lot of time on trains, so it was second nature as a form of travel, making the navigation much easier. The idea of sleeping on night trains also meant we’d have more time to travel and spend less money on rooms.
The Dream Becomes Reality…
“You come to France and you don’t speak French?”, said the taxi driver.
“We’re travelling around Europe, we can’t learn every language”, I replied humorously.
“Oh mon dieu, je nele croire, bonne chance.”
I was unsure what the taxi driver had said so I remained quiet for the proceeding journey. It’s an oddity conveniently favouring the English, most countries speak English and most Europeans are happy to converse that way, however, the cantankerous folk still exist.
Paris was alert after the recent terror attacks. Armed police roamed the streets, and memorials lay to rest on the statue at the Place de la Republique. Though unfazed, the capital city shined bright, flourishing its romantic cuisines and artsy boulevards. Traveling cheap doesn’t really happen in places like Paris, so it was a short stay for us, as we continued on.
Belgium was off limits due to a recent train strike, so we had to travel by coach from Lille. Oddly our first human encounter in Brussels was a Liverpudlian bartender.
“What can I get for you boys? Something local yeah, I’ve got just the thing.” He answered himself.
A glass chalice full to the top with lively beer, called Oval if I remember correctly, certainly did justice. We moved on to a bar called Delirium Cafe later that night. The bar had over 3,162 beers to choose from and one of them was pink.
It costs an extra twenty Euros to reserve a cabin in most European countries, even with an interrail pass. Thankfully, you can travel at night. The seven hours to Amsterdam flew by and we managed to rest well. Honestly, we didn’t explore Amsterdam enough, so it’s hard to explain it unlike anyone else would. Ladies behind glass doors attempted to leer us towards them, the cafes and bars looked like giant incense sticks. Other than that, bikes covered the walls and beautifully designed buildings excited the creatives.
I like to think of myself as a creative person, I lived with a graphic design artist, two film students and a journalist at university, I felt comfortable in Berlin. Most buildings outside the city centre were drawn on, including sections of the Berlin wall. You often see artists queuing for the opportunity to fill construction site fencing or bare red brick walls; I couldn’t imagine the waiting list for this.
A night train to Venice passing through the Austrian alpine was nothing short of beautiful. Snowy mountain passes reflected from the moon’s rays. It was exactly what I’d imagined it to be like. However, it did provide the entertainment of a midnight passport check.
“TICKETS PLEASE!”, was accompanied by the sound of rattling machinery and squeaking iron wheels. Our journey carried further mystery when a fellow passenger entered our cabin, apologised and left, several times. At the time, we were too tired to question the creepy nature of his intentions. On the border of Austria, police entered the train and roamed the cabins. The man didn’t appear again.
Moving further south, Venice was beautiful, but the gondolas cost a fortune and we couldn’t go inside any buildings as we’d opted to wear shorts because it was somewhat sunny. Rome was thwarted by reconstruction and the coliseum was no longer a ruin, half of it was newer than the pizza joint we ate in. The chariot racing arena (Circus Maximus) was unrecognizable. Thankfully, the Vatican City, The Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon were as beautiful as ever.
After spending a fortnight playing cards and drinking beer with Spanish truckers, we caught a ferry from Civitavecchia, a province of Rome in the region of Lazio, and arrived in Barcelona.
My expectations of the Catalan avenue Las Ramblas were caught between George Orwell’s civil war journal ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and our tourist guide that described the street as, “A beautiful boulevard cutting through the heart of the city”. Neither fantasy appeared to be on display, although it was midnight in the middle of January. During my late night sojourn, I lost a single shoe in Las Ramblas, a victim to the inevitable separation of a pair of shoes tied to the outside of my bag.
It appeared much easier to stumble across beer than to find a place to shack up, so we decided to buy some beer from a souvenir shop, which seemed to be open all night. We stopped for a rest by the Passeig de Joan de Borbó on the East coast, next to a small fishing harbour. Only to find street sellers bickering among each other. We assumed one of them had wandered into another’s patch. We ignored the argument and left, soon finding a hotel a few streets down.
A strange old place, I think we woke the concierge from a comfortable sleep. We were placed next door to a person that couldn’t work the volume on their T.V. During a short wander to the hotel lobby, in search of a local map, I’d stumbled across a very helpful criada (meaning female servant in Spanish).
The lady had a tendency to speak English, pause and finish in Spanish, which I was finding hard to keep up with. I translated that Gaudi’s famously designed Sagrada Familia was: “Cerca del hospital” (close to the hospital) and FC Barcelona’s Nou Camp was, “al Sur de Parc de Pedralbes” (South of Parc de Pedralbes). Things became more confusing after I said, “But we don’t know where the hospital or Parc de Pedralbes are?”. She opened a map, pointed and said, “Okay, you are here!” “and you go here, okay?” She pointed to a small image of a cathedral labelled Sagrada Familia.
I returned to the hotel room to find Matt, my travelling partner, peering out the window.
He whispered, “They’re outside.”
“Who?” I replied.
“The beer people.”
In a small alleyway just beside our room were the beer sellers. It all seemed a little strange, so we popped out to the shop for a Cornetto. On our way back, a drunken man appeared, shouting down the street. We turned to witness the man punch a bush and shout, “BEER!” Remarkably one of the beer sellers appeared, as if from nowhere, and gave the man a beer, later inspiring the phrase “punching a bush in Barcelona”.
Our final trip was a six-hour train ride to the South of Spain. We missed the Barcelona football team play. They won the game 5-1 and the locals said it was a cracker. A Suarez hat-trick settled the game. Fortunately, their next game was going to be against Malaga, and taking place in Malaga, therefore picking our next destination.
The perfect get away, modern, great food and peaceful, is how I’d describe Malaga. While visiting, we scaled El Chorro Damn, lapped La Rosaleda Stadium, and from afar soaked in the historical castle of Gibralfaro. Just looking at the castle’s many steps exhausted my mind. In fact, our Euro rail trip was coming to a close. With Italy as a backdrop for an evening feast of Argentinean food, our trip came to an end with a belly full of grilled meat and great memories.
Photos © Barcelona Tourism, Malaga Tourism, Italy Tourism, Eurorail, Delirium Cafe, Visit Britain