Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Escape To Victory

Some more tales from the EGEE/Gridtalk team about the journey back home.

The last day of any conference is usually pretty laid back, this one was a little different as it was the last "hurrah" for EGEE so the mood was bitter sweet with a few "final" farewells said. However as news came filtering in about the volcano and the subsequent delays, the mood was relatively jovial. A lot of people weren't flying till Friday so there was some gentle ribbing of the people "stranded" with expectations they'd be off on the first flight Friday, how wrong we were.

In total 5 of us headed down to Stockholm that evening, 3 knew they'd have been in Stockholm that night, 2 didn't. The mood was optimistic and it was assumed this would all blow over (hopefully literally) in a day or two. By Saturday lunchtime it became obvious this was not the case, so Gillian, Manisha and I spent 4 long hours in front of laptops. We eventually beat the internet, the train schedules and hotels into submission. We had decided we were not leaving Stockholm till we had a clear path to London and we had succeeded.

On paper the journey looked both simple and convoluted. How many trains were we going to be using? How many countries would we see (albeit one fleetingly out of the train windows)? In the end the lovely people at SJ (Swedish Railways), Deutsche Bahn and Eurostar would take us from Stockholm to The Capital in a mere 38 hours. Messers Ibis and Nebo would provide the beds (there had to be beds, I'm getting too old for sleeping in train stations). We would wind through northern Europe: Stockholm -> Malmo* -> Copenhagen** -> Hamburg* -> Hanover* -> Cologne* -> Brussels** -> London. The only problem with the plan was it wasn't going to start till Monday evening so we were "stuck" in the beautiful city of Stockholm with good food and great company. I even got to celebrate International Record Store day by seeing a friend (Gareth Smith of Victims and ex-Raging Speedhorn) do a low key DJ set at the Noise Pollution music shop. The weekend wasn't exactly the definition of one of Dante's circles of hell.

When Monday rolled around we had one last wander around Stockholm and jumped on our train just before 6pm and we had stocked up on snacks and beer for the journey to Copenhagen. I would love to say the platform was rammed and the train some kind of living hell but I have gotten rush hour trains to the 'burbs in London. Actually the train was pretty quiet, plenty of room and there was a spirit of camaraderie among the passengers (despite some having already made the trek to Stockholm from Moscow). When we got to Malmo we had to swap trains (something about safety on the Oresund bridge) but it was also the first of our impromptu meetings. Gillian's friend lives in Malmo and came to meet her on the platform for the ten minutes we waited for our new (smaller and less nice) train to take us to our first hotel and the Danish capital, Copenhagen (or Koebenhavn according to our train tickets).

This was the site of our next meeting John Kewley from NGS met us off the train as he had seen our itinerary on Facebook, was in the city (trying to get home himself) and knew where our hotel was (beside his). Once checked in we exchanged some stories of our travels (and other's plans) over beer (me), hotdogs (me again), baguettes and noodles. We bid John farewell that night, he was taking a different route to the UK, and headed to bed. During our research for our return it became obvious that Copenhagen was the gateway out of Sweden to the rest of Europe so it shouldn't have surprised us that while waiting for our train the next morning we bumped in to Ruediger from EGEE who was getting the same train as us.

Now this train was an experience, overbooked and rammed with massive suitcases (guilty), it took us an hour just to find our seats and get the interlopers in them evicted (chancers). However we got settled in and ready for the next few hours when there was an announcement in German, thankfully repeated in English. "The train will now board the ferry and once on all passengers will need to leave the train and return only when we have docked on the other side". A fair point no hanging out in the ferry hold during the crossing only one problem, what bloody ferry? OK it may seem obvious to get from Denmark to Germany you possibly need to cross some body of water and with hindsight (and Google maps) it's even more so. However we (and Ruediger when we met him on the ferry) were blissfully unaware of this. The process was painless in the end; the train rolled on to the ferry (new one on me), we wandered round the boat for 30/45mins and back on the train.

It got a tiny bit bizarre at this point though. Deutsche Bahn had organised extra carriages for the extra passengers, the one problem? You couldn't get at them by walking through the train. Cue a mass of people rushing past our window with bags, suitcases, children and a kitchen sink (I may have made that last one up). Once that was sorted we started our move to Hamburg 15 minutes late but we weren't bothered we had a long transfer time in Hamburg. This is the point where the announcement (again in German but thankfully repeated in English) over the PA says "The train is being held here as the police investigate an animal on the tracks which was hit by the train before us". Really? You couldn't make this stuff up. In the end it only held us up for 15 minutes but we were getting a touch anxious (we were carting a good few bags around).

Thankfully not only was the platform change simple at Hamburg but the train was amazing. We had been forced to get 1st class tickets for the rest of the day and this was our first taste. The train was extremely quiet so actually had our choice of seats but Gillian and I opted for the dining car where we had dinner at a real table, with real cutlery and real glasses (full of beer for me). We didn't even end up using our seats and the trip to Hanover was over way too soon. However this was our tight swap over, we had 8 minutes to get to our next train and we busted a gut through the busy Hanover train station only to realise we'd swapped platform in 2 minutes so had room to breath and time to watch the display countdown our train's arrival. This is where the journey started getting hectic, thankfully we had seat reservations (which are taken very seriously in Germany) all the way but baggage space was at a premium and our bags spent a lot of time in very different places to us. The rest of the journey was suitably uneventful, we made it to Cologne with time to spare, forced our way on to a cattle train there (so it seemed) which took us to Brussels and our final destination that day.

The dazed look on our faces in Brussels Midi said it all really. We were wiped and we could not have survived another leg that day. We had got on at Copenhagen at 9:45 and got into Brussels at 21:30, 12 hours was as much as we could take and we crashed into the Ibis across the road, stuffed some food into us and hit the hay. Tomorrow our Eurostar was at 7am ....

Despite the god awful start time Wednesday saw the three of us uber-chipper as we were one step away from The Capital and a lot closer to our beds than we had been 24 hours earlier. There were no surprises for us, the queue for the check-in, security and passport control were massive, but the train wasn't packed and we had a restful journey under the channel and through the chunnel. However when we got into London there was one more meeting with an EGEE refugee, Robin McConnell had also seen our itinerary on Facebook and came to meet us as he waited for his train to Edinburgh. He was travelling light for his last leg, his suitcase had been pinched from his coach in Victoria station. A kind of unique "Welcome to England" for him.

Well that was our story, I don't want to do any more travelling any time soon (like that's my choice) but I think we ended up doing very well and had no real mishaps. It also gave me a taste of travelling in Europe by train I may do it again this summer but I'll not to squash it all into 2 days. There are some more images from our time in Stockholm and the journey here.

Later days,

* = Change trains, ** = Overnight in hotel

1 comment:

Catherine Gater said...

Excellent account! Sounds like quite an epic trip, glad you all made it back eventually. I know of at least one ex-User Forum delegate who has already been back to Stockholm since volcanogate, and managed to fly both legs of the trip. Just like the old days of air travel pre ashcloud... ;-)