Chugging along rolling countryside, watching green fields turn into slums, and slums grow into cities – there is hardly a more pleasant way to travel. So far, just six days into the big trip, we have already spent about 72 hours on trains.
We’ve sampled everything from posh trains with fancy buffet cars to rickety, smoke-choked carriages where even conductors are puffing away beneath the ‘No Smoking’ signs. We’ve sat, cooped up with strangers in couchettes, swigging wine from the bottle watching the world go by in Hungary, while rationing our last bottle of water meanly travelling through Bulgaria in the baking sun – and we’ve encountered many an unsmiling passport officer at borders, where the trains seemingly sit for hours on end.
Matty, the Mongoose and I will often glance up from our reading, journal writing or travel planning activities to exclaim excitement over the change in landscape, prompting all three of us to rush to the open windows and hang our heads out like panting dogs in a hot car. The phrase ‘travel is about the journey not the destination’ must have been coined by a train enthusiast.
And perhaps the best bit, for me at least, is snuggling down in my little train bed in one country, falling alseep to the reassuring chug of the train, and waking up in another country altogether.
But, there are you things you need to know before embarking on such trips. So, without further ado here are my handy tips for inter-railing across Europe on sleeper trains.
1) Shop, shop, shop! Buy all your provisions for the journey before you get to the station – you can never be guaranteed of a buffet car… as was the case on our 17 hour journey to Istanbul from Bucharest. Upon boarding a two-carriage train with just a small picnic for lunch, we realised the only facilities on the train consisted of a man in a white vest selling flat, warm fizzy water. In desperation this saw me buy Bulgarian Levs from a stranger and Matty and Donagh leg it across a random Bulgarian station mid-journey, with just five minutes to spare to get provisions.
They returned with this. And let me tell you Flirt Vodka will liven up any journey.
2) If you spy any rich-looking westerners, struggling with their over-sized suitcases, offer to help them. They will probably tip you, which will help buy those much needed drinks in the buffet car.
3) Take lots of photos…
Train photos are cool. Here’s some of me and the Mongoose taken by Matty…
And a few more snaps…
4) When you go into the sleeper car, space is tight and you’re often sharing it with six people. Get everything you need for the night out of your rucksack before putting it into the luggage shelves above the top bunks – once it’s up, it ain’t coming down. Wash bag, towel, PJs etc…
5) Once the bags are up, sit down on the lower couchette with your roomies for the night- ask if you can push the middle couchette up to avoid having to hunch. You never know, they may just give you the best tips for your next destination… and at least it will avoid the whole carraige bunking down for bed at 8pm.
6) TAKE EAR PLUGS. TAKE EAR PLUGS. TAKE EAR PLUGS. Did I mention, pack some ear plugs? The snoring can be phenomenal… personally I think snoring tests should be carried out before tickets are issued and the snorers should be made to sleep together in a tiny little couchette where they can snore in harmony like a six-piece nasal band, making the kind of music nobody else wants to hear.
8) Open your eyes and enjoy… the train will take you through communites and parts of countries you would never otherwise come across. It’s magical.