05 August 2019

Trains (and boats and cars)

In the seven weeks of our trip we travel on 20 trains, using two 5-journey rail passes each. There shouldn't be quite that many trains, but two of our journeys are significantly disrupted. In fact on only one trip do we arrive at the scheduled time, and that trip was the longest one, about four hours from Villach to Vienna.

Since we are not on a time schedule delays of 5 to 20 minutes don't bother us when they occur on our first trips to and from Budapest (track maintenance). We make idiots of ourselves in Cesky Budejovice looking for platform 10 when there are only four platforms, until we learn to distinguish between the Czech for "Platform" and the Czech for "Delay" (shown in minutes).

Having learnt this, we are very dismayed when we walk into the station at the end of our day in Jindrichuv Hradec and see 90 under the word for Delay. Really? An hour and a half? The lady in Information and I struggle to communicate in German, since she has no English and we have no Czech. She confirms the delay time, and says that something is kaput. That's the best she can do by way of explanation. There is a train in the station and it looks like the right train, and after about 30 minute we are instructed to board it. We are relieved, and Peter's decision to hang around the station rather than go and find food seems vindicated. But after another 10 minutes we are ordered off again. Long announcements in Czech follow, which we don't understand.  A Czech guy with good English realises we are Anglophone, and tells us that we are being advised to take a local train that leaves about an hour after our original departure time, then change at Viseli to the intercity from Prague. We are then joined by another English speaker, a bloke from Manchester who is trying to get to Munich. He seems to know a lot more about what is actually going on. He explains that the overhead electric cable is down between here and further east. Czech trains are all badged Cesky Drahy, but in fact there are a number of private operators running trains in different areas, rather like the current system in the UK. The operator in this area doesn't own any diesel locomotives, so without the overhead power, the train is stuck in Jindrichuv Hradec. The passengers have been taken onward by bus, and the driver has gone with them. He will return by bus with westbound passengers, some time later (however long it all takes). Hence we have our train, the one we have been told to get on and then get off again, but no driver. When we ask him how he knows all this, he explains that he doesn't speak Czech, but that as a railway worker himself, he knows the systems and has been able to work out what has happened. We discover he works for Northern Rail in the UK, and his idea of a holiday is to travel around Europe on trains.

About this time the little local train arrives and we and most of the people waiting board it to get to Viseli. Our helpful trainspotting friend tells us which train we will need to catch in Viseli to get back to Ceske Budejovice, what time it leaves, and even which platform it will leave from. Which is just as well, as the local train stops all stations, getting later all the way, and we have only a couple of minutes to change platforms for the intercity from Prague that will take us onward. It's all part of the adventure, but the serious downside is that by the time we finally get back to Ceske Budejovice, all eateries are closed, and we have to settle for Mexican takeaway, warmed up the microwave in our apartment.

Our other major disruption occurs between Ceske Budejovice and Salzburg. Our Austian OBB train develops a technical problem in Summerau and we are told to absteigen and wait for another train. It is not very long before a very new, very sleek Siemens train arrives and we reboard. We are told this is their spare train, for use in emergencies. but it can only take as to Pregarten. There we have to change again to a slow train to Linz. There is a long wait in Pregarten and we only just have time in Linz to change to the train to Salzburg (this is an expected change), by which time we are starving as none of the earlier trains have food. We are very pleased to find a dining car at last.

We feel we got our money's worth from our First Class passes. I'm sure if you book the cheapest fare for all of the trips you make, you would do it for less, but it works out at €26.6 each per travel day. The advantages of the Eurail passes is that you don't have to book a particular train, so if you miss a train or change your mind it isn't critical, and with First Class we never need to make reservations, there are always plenty of seats. There are only two occasions when things aren't perfectly smooth. I have read the ticket conditions which say that you have to have the ticket authorised before the first use - this involves taking it to an information counter with your ID, and telling them the date you plan to start using it. They duly update the ticket with passport number and date. On both occasions it is easy to do this the day before we first use the passes, so there is no last-minute panic. Our first journey proceeds without incident, the OBB conductor stamping the first of the five little slots on the ticket with the date. Not so our second journey, where the conductor on the Czech train (probably a Hungarian as we were leaving Budapest) tells us that we are up for a €200 fine because we haven't filled in the date for the second journey. We explain that we thought that is his job, with his date stamp, and that there is nothing in the ticket about writing in the date. Fortunately he doesn't read English, so can't point to the bit of fine print that I find much later that does indeed say that you have to fill in the date (in blue or black pen) before boarding, and that failure to do so will attract a large fine. We must sound very sure of ourselves, because he backs off, I fill in the date on both passes (blue pen), he stamps them, and nothing more is said. We are very careful about filling in dates for each of our subsequent journeys.

The other time our Eurail passes don't work smoothly is on the little local train that takes you from Ceske Budejovice to Cesky Krumlov. We have already travelled to Ceske Budejovice to Prague, so we expect to just wave our already-date-stamped tickets at the conductress, a young and energetic girl. But no. She explains that this train is run by a new company and they are not part of the consortium that accepts railpasses. Peter points out that the tickets say all regional trains, she patiently repeats that their company is not included. P decides to give her a short lecture on the fact that this is misleading and bad for tourism, but she is unmoved.

When they both pause for breath, I ask, "How much?"
"Twenty crowns" she replies.
"Each?" as I sort through Czech coins.
"Ten each, as you are seniors."

Twenty Czech crowns is nothing. We are in danger of having an international incident over less than $1.50. We pay up and shut up.

We find that first class carriages are often quite empty, rarely more than half full, and our fellow passengers usually quiet. We make the mistake of sitting in Business Class once, which is even quieter, until a conductor tactfully informs us that Business Class is more expensive than First, but we are welcome to pay the extra and stay where we were. We don't need the quiet and the very comfortable seats that badly, so we move. On one occasion when we find ourselves sharing an old-fashioned six-seater compartment with three other people and a dog, but we don't have to feel cramped for long as two of the travellers (and the dog) have only second-class tickets, and are duly moved on.

Another person we suspect of not having a first class ticket (or maybe any ticket) stays in our carriage for one stop, during which she tries to sell me perfume. Odd and unexpected, and the only such incident we experience.

Our most enjoyable trip was the journey from Salzburg to Spittal. Renate has told us to sit on the right to get the best view, but as usual we are confused about which way the train is going, so when it starts we have to relocate from facing backwards on the left to facing forward on the right. Fortunately there are still a pair of vacant seats, although I have to wait a moment until the person in the seat behind removes sock-clad feet from my armrests.. And it's worth the move because the views are truly splendid. And much better viewed from a train than from a car, as the train runs right alongside the Salzach. After eating the lunch we brought with us, we decide to take a walk to the dining car for a coffee. Serendipitously we choose to do this just as the side the view is on changes, as the restaurant car seating is on the other side. Then when we finish our coffee and move back to our seats, the view returns to the right hand side.

We are amused in the dining car by three ageing Englishmen swapping notes on their train journeys. It seems that English trainspotters spend their summers travelling around Europe by rail. The first thing we hear is the man behind us talking about his “oppo” who isn’t with him because he “coom down with noo-monia”. He has a really thick Manchester accent (are all Mancunians train spotters?). The conversation goes on about health issues of one sort or another, someone with a oolcer, and one of the others relates what his GP said about his heart, and finally they compare ages. Each also talks about where he’s been and where to next – they clearly aren’t travelling together but have found common interests in train travel and beer (I think the conductor makes them pay extra because they are sitting in the dining car but don’t have first class tickets.) One of them is carrying two substantial paper volumes, one of which has diagrams of train routes. The other appears to be a complete timetable, the modern Bradshaw. They seem unaware or unconcerned that anyone might be listening to them, just as well as Peter and I get the giggles during the organ recital and are at risk of laughing aloud.

Almost all our major journeys are made by train,but we make two short journeys on the Danube: from Szentendre back to Budapest, and one from Melk to Krems, both lovely trips. We catch public ferries in Budapest. We go on tourist cruises: one on the Danube in Budapest, one on the Vltava in Prague and one round Millstättersee in Austria. We row on Königsee, and paddle down the Vltava in an inflatable in Cesky Krumlov. We even take out a pedalo in a park in Budapest. Can't keep a couple of sailors off boats.

We pre-book a taxi from the airport in Vienna, which we later realise is a mistake - the train is faster and easy. In Prague we are planning to taxi to and from the hotel because it is a long way from the train station, and on the other side of the river, but the prices quoted by the taxi drivers at the station push us into signing up for Bolt on the spot, and we use them for both journeys for a fraction of the cost of a taxi.

When we arrive in Cesky Krumlov by train, we find ourselves at a station which is locked up in a rather unappetising street, and no indication of how to get to the old town, or how far it is. Fortunately a taxi turns up and takes us to our apartment for a reasonable price. When we leave we toss up between taking the train, which would require another taxi trip, or walking to the bus station. We decide that's also too far to walk, and when we find a taxi to take us there we ask for a price to go all the way to Ceske Budejovice, our next destination, and it's so reasonable we go the whole way by taxi.

So very little car travel at all, until we get to Salzburg and Seeboden, where Renate and David do a wonderful job of driving us about through spectacular scenery and to places of great interest. We are very pleased that they are driving - we are really feeling that we are too old to tackle driving strange cars on the wrong side of the road, especially in any city or town.

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