Interrail – France (the end)

This article finishes the InterRail series and follows Interrail – Germany (again).

Already on our way back home, at 09:23 AM we left Munich to Mannheim where we would change trains to finally get to Paris. The trip was really fast and calm in the German high-speed trains and we arrived at Paris Est at around 5 PM and a new adventure begun…

Given the Catholic holidays thing that the German assistant had told us back in Munich’s train station, we still didn’t know if we would have a place in the night train to Irún which meant we’d have to spend the night in Paris without any room booked. More importantly, would there be any free seats or beds the next days? How difficult would it be for us to get to Spain!?

Bad news…

In that same Paris Est train station, we asked if there were any seats left in “our” train and got the bad news, the train was full! Still, with the typical hope we got in Portuguese hearts, we decided to go the Paris Austerlitz train station where our train would departure from and ask there… should we get different results…

We hurried to the subway to get to Paris Austerlitz train station and, once there, quickly headed to the ticket sales line. Since we needed delicate information and couldn’t risk it getting lost in our rusty French, we waited in the line for the only assistant, out or 4 that had the English flag above his window; and waited, and waited… and waited. Turns out the sales assistant and the girl he was assisting were flirting like characters out of a French romance… and they took their time so, meanwhile, I had to tell everybody in the line behind me “Je necessite l’Anglais…” when they asked me why I wouldn’t take my turn. Helena got tired of and tried her luck asking about the train to another sales assistant in French but the assistant was so rude Helena didn’t really understood if we had a place in the train or not.

On our way home!

Finally we saw another assistant, a bit far away, waving at us, asking us to go there. He didn’t have the little English flag on but we went and he told us, in perfect English, that though he spoke good English, he needed to be working for a while in the company and pass some exams before he got the “right” to have the flag on his window… The bureaucratic nonsense of big companies. Anyway, his name was Pierre and he saved our day! He looked for the train’s details in his computer and told us with great surprise: “Who told you the train was full!? There are plenty of beds available and if you want I can also book the tickets from Irún to Coruña from here, do you want me to do it?” YES WE DO!

At around 11 PM we got on the train and were all happy to be alone (and not with people partying or drinking or whatever like we had seen in other compartments) in the 6 bunker bed compartment until two German girls came in and I couldn’t complain either, even Helena told me in a low voice “Oh.. how lucky you are!”. Yes, everything was going just fine when another passenger came in, a French guy on his 40s, drunk and smelling like one. He came in, closed the window shade hitting Helena’s feet hard, then seated in his bed and took out a little knife… and with the knife he took about 30 seconds to rip the plastic bag where his pillow was in. What the..!?
Anyway, we were on the train and though he was drunk and snored, it could have been worse.

We arrived at Irún at around 7:30 AM, went to the sales assistant and he told us they had been expecting us in the station because the trains to Coruña were full but they knew two people had reserved their tickets in Paris and needed the tickets. Thank you again Pierre!

After another boring 11 hour trip, we finally got home, at the beautiful city of Coruña.

This article finishes the series of articles about our InterRail trip in the summer of 2010. It took me almost a year to write these articles but I could remember a good part of it with the help of tickets, maps, postcards, etc. Helena kept and also with the photos we took.
I hope I shared the enthusiasm of traveling around Europe by train and that readers who haven’t been on an InterRail consider to do so now.

Until the next trip!

Interrail (Part 6) – Germany (again)

This article is part of the InterRail series and follows Interrail (Part 6) – Czech Republic.

It must have been around 4PM when we arrived at München Hauptbahnhof and dropped our backpacks at the A&O Hotel. The Hotel was nothing fancy but it was really nice and cheap and with the particularity that the rooms were not in the same building as the reception but rather in the street to the side of it, resembling some motels I’ve seen in movies.

We were starving so we headed to the first kebab restaurant which, as we saw in Berlin, had very similar or lower prices than the city we live in, A Coruña. Nothing exciting here except the fact that Helena still has some Portuguese habits when paying the bill at cafes or shops. Let me explain, in Portugal virtually no-one has change for you so if the bill is like 12.25 € and you give them 15 €, the waiter always says something like: would you have 2.25 €? No? … 0.25 €? No?… Hmmm…
They never have change! So, Helena usually gathers every little coin and happily gives them to the waiters and they love it in Portugal… So she did the same to the, probably from Turkish origin, waiter in Munich but with even a better touch: she gathered the whole price in coins and told me with a smile, this way not only we’ll travel lighter but they will have change here in the restaurant.
The waiter came, checked the bill again, received the coins in his hand unaware and put an expression like if we had spit in his hand: “What is this!? What do I do with this? I am not a bank! I don’t need this!” and this was enough for us to give him a 10 € bill instead 😀

(gotta love a statue of a wild boar)

We then had to go back to the train station to ask for the trains the next day. At this point we were already tired and didn’t want to risk staying more time this far from Spain and eventually let the InterRail tickets expire. Thus, our idea was to leave to Paris the next day after lunch but it seemed that many people were traveling that weekend “due to some Catholic holiday, you must know that” the assistant in the train station told us. This assistant spoke perfect English and was super nice to us; after we bought the tickets and mentioned that we were planning on leaving Paris also the next day, he checked the trains to Spain and told us that once we arrived in Paris we’d have to rush in and cross the whole city because we’d arrive at different train stations and had little time to change trains. We realized the best solution was to go in an earlier train the next morning and this meant that the assistant had to call his superior to revoke the tickets and start the whole sales process again and he did it without even a single look of annoyance in his face. Really nice guy!

(a relaxing walk by the river)

Realizing we had so little time to visit the city and the weather was rainy, we headed to the city center and then to the river. In this walk we could get a notion of how wealthy the city is. Everything seemed so neat and there were so many good cars (Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche) that we did a little game: look for the worse, as in less classy, car we could find. The winner was: a shiny new Peugeot station wagon.
I wonder if when you go to live in Munich and register at the city hall they give you a Mercedez-Benz for free or something.

(we like street performers)

When it was getting dark we headed back to the center to have dinner. It was August 12, my birthday so we wanted something more classy than yet another kebab and went to the Augustiner Restaurant in Neuhauser Straße. This Bavarian restaurant had long wooden tables, waiters dressed in traditional Bavarian clothes, everything looked cool. It must have been expensive right? I had ordered a dish from the “specials” list and it was the most expensive of the two we ordered, the price: ~12 €! I love Germany!

With our bellies filled of Bavarian food and beer and having to get up early the next morning we said good-bye to the streets of München (gotta go back some day) and headed back to the hotel…

to be continued…

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Interrail (Part 5) – Czech Republic

This article is part of the InterRail series and follows Interrail (Part 4) – Germany.

On August 10th we were waiting for the train to Prague from Berlin’s Haupbahnhof when, about 10 minutes before it arrived, we heard a warning in German and all the people waiting with us left the place. We wondered if it was possible that the train station folks would warn about a last minute change of platforms for an international train only in German… and that’s what happened. Fortunately someone confirmed it for us and we hurried for the new platform.

The train to Prague was really crowded, not crowded like those trains shown in videos of India but crowded like everybody standing in the aisle, outside the train compartments. Most of the passengers were young people like us, nobody moved for like 5 or 10 minutes and that’s too much if you’re feeling somebody’s breath on your face…
The thing is that in Germany you’re not forced to reserve a seat like it is in France, for example, and Prague is a very attractive place for young people. Still, everyone remained calm except for a German passenger, probably on his 40s, that started violently pushing everybody and screaming “I have reservation! I have reservation!”, like we were leaving the planet after the apocalypse, until he entered his compartment…
Finally we got out of that passenger car and entered the next one which was more humanly squeezable and found ourselves a seat.

It was about 5 PM when we got off the train in Prague. We exchanged some euros for Czech Korunas at the first currency exchange we found at the train station. After that, we passed by many other currency exchanges that would offer a better deal so if you go to Prague’s central train station, be sure you are patient and compare different currency exchanges before you buy your Korunas.
Outside the train station there was a park but we got a bit of a bad impression as it was full of drunk people and junkies lying in the benches.

(the photo is a bit blurred but this is inside the train station)

We were staying at Hotel Vitkov. This hotel was suggested by Tomeu Vizoso, a nice guy and great hacker who has been involved in interesting projects such as Sugar and PyGI. Tomeu had been kind enough to leave a comment to the blog post, where I announced I would be Interrailing through Europe, inviting me for a drink in Prague and I took the chance to ask him about hotels.
This 3 star hotel was a bit far from the center, 20 minutes by tram, but it was nice and very cheap: a double room for 31 € per night, with breakfast and all.

Getting to the hotel by tram was another little adventure because, even though we knew the tram number to get there, the ticket machines had several kinds of tickets and had a too vague English description in tiny letters. Since it only accepted coins, I went to a cafe to exchange the bills and had to ask someone in the tram to warn us when we passed by the hotel. Everybody was really nice and spoke good English.

“Ah, that’s because this is the worst street of Prague.”

When we finally got to the hotel, we made arrangements with Tomeu to go have dinner nearby. We went out following Google Maps’ indications and this was the second adventure. It was already night, the street was kind of dark we couldn’t see a soul outside apart from a group of drunk men walking down the street and a barechested old man screaming something at us from the other side of the street while clapping his hands. We felt like the guys from EuroTrip when they arrive at Bratislava and hurried to find the restaurant already thinking Tomeu was crazy. 🙂

We arrived a bit early at Restaurant Merenda so we sat, waiting for Tomeu to arrive. The waiter brought us the menus (that also were translated to English) but asked us what we wanted in Czech. I answer, in English, that we were waiting for our friend who was arriving very soon. He didn’t understand and just asked: “Two beers?”; “Not yet, we are waiting for a friend…”, I also pointed to my watch and to the empty third chair; “hmmm… one beer? two beers?” he replied, now getting more angrier; “Two beers, please!” I finally figured out.
When Tomeu arrived he explained us, and we would experiment it once again later, that the dynamics of someone serving you in there were different. He said that “it is like if the waiters are the school teachers and we are the pupils, they are a bit authoritarian and we need to respect them”. Indeed.
Anyway, Tomeu’s girlfriend joined us later and we had a nice, Portuguese spoken, dinner (they lived in Portugal for some years). Oh, and my goulash and beers were damned good!

After that, we went for a coffee in another place and I asked them about the scary street. He said something funny “Ah, that’s because this is the worst street of Prague.”, oh that explains it, thank you very much! “Is it as unsafe as it looks?” I asked and he replied it is not and that he didn’t know anyone who got mugged in there or anything but when he wanted confirmation from his girlfriend, she said “I’ve heard of some people who got robbed here, yes.”. After we said goodbye, with my spidey sense on full-alert, we walked back to the hotel. 🙂

The Prague of postcards

The next day, we went to the city center to do another trour with New Europe (see the Germany post to know what’s it about). This time we had a Scottish guide who kindly told us not to worry because he would do his best to be understood. Later in the trip he also mentioned that Prague was really safe and the crimes in there were basically petty crimes. On the other hand, he said it had also the highest number of deaths in crosswalks and I can imagine it, because people there drive like crazy; and I come from Portugal, I know what I am talking about.

It was a nice walk in the city center where he explained some of the most interesting things about the city. Kafka’s statues, the Old New Synagogue or the Astronomical Clock (one of the world’s most overrated tourist sights) were just some of the things the guide explained. We ended the tour near King Charles bridge. Now this is the Prague I had imagined. The most impressive part of the tour for me was when the guide talked about the Museum of Children’s Drawings which has drawings from Jewish children held in Nazi concentration camps in WW2. We couldn’t enter the museum because we didn’t feel like waiting in the long line but according to the tour guide, the drawings show pretty much the same things as today’s children’s drawings: trees, houses, families; they didn’t show destruction or chaos as it would be expected. I hope that some day I’ll be able to go back there and visit it.

(King Charles bridge)

After the trip, me and Helena crossed King Charles bridge to the other side, bought some souvenirs, visited a few things more and passed by the train station to ask for information on the trains to Munich. After about 30 minutes waiting in the line, we asked the assistant for the schedule and she said “How many tickets?”, “No, I have an InterRail pass, I just need to know the schedule.”, she made an angry face and pointed to her left and said “Information!”, “… but can’t you just tell me at what time the trains…”, “Information!”, “… but I…”, “Information!”. After confirming, with the right Information! assistant, that we would have a train to Munich, we headed to the hotel.

The dinner was in a restaurant close to the hotel. It was funny that the decoration of the restaurant and everything seemed pretty much like the average restaurants in Portugal 10 years ago.
This was the second time we experimented a waiter’s “school teacher’s kindness” when I waved to him when he was passing by (like, please come by when you can) and he pointed with his head to his hands, full of plates, and made an expression that said something like “stupid idiot tourists don’t you see I’m working here”. If after that the food had spit on it or not, I don’t know, but it was again really good.

Our conclusions to Prague is that it is a really nice place that surely deserves a second visit but we didn’t get as impressed as we think we would. Maybe our expectations were too high or we weren’t looking exactly for partying like everybody else seemed to. It was indeed a great place for drinking. When we were at the train station to leave Prague we heard a group of Spanish guys talking about how cheap it has been for them to drink and party all night.

On August 12th, at around 9 AM, we were getting on a train to our second German city of the trip.

to be continued…