OK, so it’s not the most daring of overland journeys ever undertaken but then it’s not a journey most people would ever have to do overland. The Ryanair flight should’ve taken 135 minutes and cost £80, we did it in exactly 48 hours at a cost of £500 per person.
We’d been in Stockholm for the final CARBO-North meeting and by Thursday lunchtime it was becoming apparent that there was something of a crisis developing for European air traffic due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. My flight was due back late Friday and so I just booked another night in the hotel and assumed I’d be able to travel back over the weekend. By Saturday Ryanair had cancelled all flights until Monday and we were starting to get twitchy – jobs and families to get back to etc. Saturday was spent researching possible routes home to the UK, the crux being getting across the channel. At one point we were considering the lesser-known DFDS crossing from Cuxhaven to Immingham as a passenger on a freight ferry – they had spaces (only 12 in total) but couldn’t confirm until Monday morning which was too late. Sea France and P&O weren’t able to sell online tickets for foot passengers, but were operating a first come first serve service … not ideal, we didn’t want to be stranded at the port with no ferry to get on.
After much permutations then, and with trains getting booked out, we decided on the following route home and were able to book most of it from our hotel room by phone or internet.
Stockholm -> Malmö: Flygbussarna coach
Malmö -> Trelleborg: Local bus
Trelleborg -> Travemünde: TT Lines Peter Pan Ferry
Travemünde -> Lübeck: Local bus
Lübeck -> Brussels: DB Bahn
Brussels -> London: Eurostar
5 of us departed our hotels at 10am on Sunday 18th April and arrived home 48 hours later. I’m not going to do a step-by-step blog about the journey, mostly it was pretty mundane, but I’d like to recount some thoughts I had about the meaning of travel.
Travel these days has become about the destination and not the journey. OK, fair enough, time is precious, flights are cheap and there are lots of great places to see. But before air travel, to get anywhere, you had to travel overland/oversea and I think we were better for it. Something I often feel flying in to some country for a meeting / weekend break / holiday is a disconnect with where I’ve come from. Travelling overland puts that connection back. I was able to observe the changing landscape, sometimes gradual, sometimes abrupt, as I passed down through Sweden, from north to west Germany and across Belgium. From the coach/train window you see so much stuff that tells you about the places you are passing through, albeit at a pretty fast pace. Not only that, but downgrade to local services and you are rubbing shoulders with the people who live in this landscape (school children, students, pensioners) and, of course, fellow travellers.
On the train from Hamburg to Duisburg we had no reservations and the train was packed. After several abortive attempts at settling down 3 of us finally ended up sharing a 5 person compartment with an elderly German couple. At first they seemed surly, no chance of a chat – not least because of the probable language barrier (none of us could speak much German). I’m not sure what eventually broke the ice but we gradually started trying to communicate some basic facts – where we were going and why, our ages and family situation etc. Turns out they were on their way home to southern Germany, both octogenarians, him an ex-police trainer and heart surgery survivor, her (Elizabeth) a keen knitter and clearly the boss! I actually found the conversation in stilted English/German quite stressful but we were rewarded with gifts of hand-knitted items (pot holders and egg cosies!) and hard-boiled eggs. This kind of thing doesn’t happen on Ryanair!
After a full day on German trains we arrived in a rather seedy-looking Brussels Midi, booked on to the 8am Eurostar the next day. We headed to the centre for obligatory moules & frites & beer – actually the mussels were OK but after the first 20 they get a bit boring! Arriving home in London the next morning I was met by Susie and my daughter Sylvia (they don’t normally come to meet me) but it felt like the end of a journey. There’s something quite romantic about the idea of ‘coming home’ against the odds on relatively old forms of transport. Plane travel has become so utilitarian, bogged down in bureaucracy and frankly unexciting that I was really grateful for the chance to experience the alternative.