Before February of this year, I have never made a big trip entirely on my own.
I can come up with a lot of excuses why I didn’t have to. In retrospect, the hardest part is simply to set a destination.
I love trains and I find a certain charm in long-distance train travel. When I was 17, I managed to convince my mother to take the sleeper train from Hue to Hanoi with me. That journey certainly didn’t leave a good impression on my mother.
Now, I’m in Europe but the Trans-Siberian is too far-fetched so I settled with another one of my great dreams: to take the Bernina Express. Admittedly, I dread winter travel and I wanted to do the trip in spring. I wanted to see typical Swiss scenery: the happiest cows in the world grazing on green fields, chalets by glacial lakes, and snow-capped peaks looming in the distance. Then I saw that the Interrail Global Pass was 15% off and if I took the Bernina Express for just an additional €10 seat reservation fee, took some trains in Switzerland as well, the pass was already going to pay for itself. I did more calculations, made rough estimates of train journeys I might end up taking, and in five minutes of decisiveness purchased the Interrail Global Pass within a week before the departure date I was eyeing.
I’d been wanting to go interrailing ever since I saw Before Sunrise. But like a lot of things, they took a back seat to my Australia plans. My life took a big change in January and Australia was suddenly off the list. Suddenly, my savings were for nothing. Anything.
The rail pass prices had increased a little for the new year, but they finally allowed you one journey from within your country of residence and back. Initially, the rules regarding the pass can be daunting and reading it as one ponders whether to purchase a pass or not is rather discouraging. In the end, it is the indecisive soul that profits from it.
As German law insisted I had to take my vacation before the end of March, my flowering Switzerland was out of the question. I wanted my Bernina Express in a winter wonderland – but with blue skies and good visibility. The middle of February seemed to have a ray of sunshine in it, but everyday I checked the forecast was changing. I couldn’t make definite plans. I had ideas on where to go, but I couldn’t give fixed dates or trace a fixed route. My travel plans were entirely dependent on the weather and had to be extremely flexible. I didn’t want disappointment so I simply said ‘fuck it’ and improvised what places I wanted to see along the way.
It was from here on that I pinned Strasbourg as the first stop. I really didn’t care what was in Strasbourg. I had somehow just decided I had to see a new country every month this year. January was Italy. February couldn’t be just Switzerland or Italy again – I’d been there before. It had to be France for a change.
I was supposed to spend the night in Strasbourg, then head off to Basel the next day, but Strasbourg turned out to be quite small and after a few hours, my CS host and I concluded it was best for me to take the sleeper to Nice.
I arrived at the central station with twenty minutes to spare and still no reservation. I had to spend ten minutes of eternity waiting for my turn to talk to the girl at the travel center, only to have her be rude to me and tell me there was no way I could get a reservation as the train was going to leave in a few minutes. Luckily for me, the French conductors were more hospitable and in about the only French sentence I learned way back when I didn’t need it yet –Parlez–vous anglais? – I got my tired bum onboard. I ended up paying quite a lot for my top bunk on the spot, but whatever. This was the price of capriciousness. Wifi-less and windowless, when the lights went out an hour later, I had the best sleep in my entire journey: 10 unbroken hours of dead sleep.
The train breezed through the French countryside, towns at the foothills of beautiful rock mountains – deserted save for plants, then rolling hills, coast-side cities – Cannes, Antibes, a forested golf course, then finally Nice.
I loved Nice. I loved the architecture, the mild weather, the abundance of sunshine, the gentle sea breeze, the promenade, the turquoise waters, the pebble beach, the waves… just about everything.
I was wifi-less and mapless in Monaco, having taken the wrong way out the station so I missed the tourist info center. Luckily for me, I managed to get wifi just before getting on my train for Milan, so in desperation, I booked the cheapest AirBnb I could find.
I spent exactly 120 minutes in Monaco, 60 of which was spent just walking to find the Monaco they show in movies – which I did end up at by pure luck. I sat to a €6 Americano at the Cafe de Paris, and gawked at the rich and famous living their everyday lives.
I had to transit at an Italian city called Ventimiglia and when the train stopped a full 5 minutes before the station, I started getting really worried. I only had 20 minutes to get a seat reservation and get on the train to Milano. Thankfully, TrenItalia served with little fuss – I got my seat reservation for €10, less than 10 minutes before departure. No further questions.
Throughout the entire journey, my cold was trying to kill me. I felt so awful and the air circulating inside was of such poor quality that breathing it was making things worse. I managed to crack the window open for a few minutes when the Italian lady I shared the cabin with left for the washroom but she wanted to close it when she got back because it was getting chilly. That was the moment I decided I wanted to learn some Italian. The lady I was with had tried to start a conversation earlier but the languages we spoke just didn’t match. She spoke only Italian and French and I spoke only English and German.
By the time I got to Milan, I was surprisingly resigned to the unknown. Luckily, the Airbnb place accepted. For reasons that I will talk about in a different post, I ended up staying the following night in Milan too. After the weird and disturbing two nights in Milan, I crept out of the AirBnb place in the wee hours and took the train to Venice.
Travel is physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding; and by the time I got to Venice, too much physical strain and insufficient sleep had almost worn me out. Venice, in spite of the tourist crowds and bleak weather, was beautiful. But in Venice, the past caught up with me. On hindsight, it was a good thing because I managed to leave it there, and made it stay there.
In the afternoon, I set off for Florence – the original goal, Venice being something I somehow just inserted along the way because why not? I had an interrail pass and I had to make the most of it. I was so exhausted when I arrived in Florence, and I felt the whole world was against me when I couldn’t find out where to get the bus tickets. It was a horrible twenty minutes, but I found my AirBnb place and my Italian host, Stefano, was lovely.
I managed to complete my plan for the rest of the trip. I ended up spending only a day in Florence, and after beer and football with Stefano the next evening, I took the night train to Innsbruck.
I shared the cabin with an African man studying European Law and who was making his way to Geneva, and an Italian couple who were on the wrong train, but since they were locals, they were pardoned by the inspector. The African man spoke French, English, Italian, and some German as well (‘It is a nasty language’) and we spent a good couple of minutes talking before they all got off at Bologna.
I was happily getting ready to take my boots off and stretch out but a few minutes later, two Koreans and one Italian turned up to share the cabin with me. The next few hours to Innsbruck were agonisingly long. I couldn’t sleep peacefully, as there were no announcements for the stops. The scenery was dead eerie – snow upon snow upon snow in the darkness of the night.
My train was over an hour delayed so I missed my connecting train to Zürich and had to wait two hours for the next one, but I was happy. There was wifi and a warm waiting room at Innsbruck Hbf, and coffee at 4am – basically my happiness kit for much of the trip.
I found Austrians strangely endearing. Their accents sounded so cute that I found myself speaking German just to hear them answer in German. I only had to pay €3 for the Innsbruck-Zürich leg and there was wifi, comfy seats and charging sockets. Deutsche Bahn’s ICE only gives free wifi to first class passengers.
For those of you who still think of Germany as the land of efficiency, I’ll let you in on a little secret. The Deutsche Bahn is just one of Germany’s embarrassing little secrets. It’s a joke here among its closest neighbours. A little bit of snow and the rail system becomes riddled with delays. Meanwhile, Swiss and Austrian trains run perfectly on time under these conditions:
I arrived in Zürich to find that it hadn’t changed since the last time I was there in August 2014. Same old expensive Züri. I had only ever spent my time in the central and eastern part of the city – despite having stayed there for two weeks. This time, my AirBnb was in the western part and I met the most interesting host ever, AJ, who treated me to truffle oil, salami, cheese, and whiskey at 3pm. Though Zürich absolutely didn’t go as planned, I had a good time and met a couple of amazing folks. You had AJ, a man with a masters in chemistry and who completely deviated from his career path and now runs this velo-taxi business. You know how sometimes it’s so easy to connect to a stranger? After our first cup of tea, we were already talking philosophically. Oh well, he made me go buy MY mattress with him after that. On his velo-taxi. It was good publicity, I’d admit. Everyone took note of us on the street. You had Philip, a Russian guy with so much enthusiasm for life but stuck working a mundane job just for security. Then there was Darren, a Canadian dancer who had this aura that he could make it through any audition.
I set off at the crack of dawn the next day to take the regional train to Chur, from where the Bernina Express departs. It turned out to be a perfect winter day with plenty of sunshine and a clear blue sky. Having been born and raised in the Philippines, I had never in my entire life seen so much snow.
Towards the border to Italy, the scenery changed dramatically. There were suddenly palm trees in the valley. I spent two hours in Tirano, where the Bernina Express terminates, and from there took the train to Bergamo to catch my flight back home to Berlin.
It was one heck of a journey – and a type I would definitely do again for the love of trains and rail travel. The spontaneity and flexibility it offered was absolutely wonderful. As the saying goes, I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.