Trip Start May 31, 2007
72Trip End Ongoing
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Since last we wrote, we've bumbled our way through Helsingor, Copenhagen, Aachen, Brugges, Lille, Cherbourg, a ferry crossing, Rosslare, Wexford, Dublin, Cork, Killarny, Kilkenny, Sligo, Dun Laoghaire, Belfast, Stanraer and Glasgow.
To keep things shorter than 'War and Peace', we'll attempt to catch up in future updates and just mention a few places in this one. Cheers again to the folks who've sent emails and messages - as always we greatly appreciate it.
The train to Copenhagen rattled through the northern German countryside before slowly pulling in to a ferry bound for Denmark. We thought this was very novel, and spent the time the train was being loaded with our faces pressed to the glass of our carriage, terrifying several dock workers in the process.
The ferry ride itself wasn't particularly long - only about 45 minutes - but the ferry itself contained buffet restaurants, cafes, duty-free shops, etc. We spent some time on the deck looking out to sea before being blown back down the stairs with an eyeful of spray, then boarded the train for the journey into Denmark.
The rest of the ride passed through picture-perfect farmland and attractive towns before finally arriving at Copenhagen's packed central station. First order of business was to work out where to stay and what the euro was worth compared to the Danish Kroner, etc. This required coffee, so we sat down at a station cafe and spent the first of our (very cool looking) Kroner.
We ordered 2 coffees and were astonished to find that the bill came to an amount closely equivalent to the price of a small car in Australian dollars. Spooked but not yet scared off, we pressed on to the tourist info center, past the enormous Tivoli amusement park right outside the station.
Copenhagen struck us as a very appealing city as we strolled through its busy streets
At the crowded tourist office we were informed that a fashion show was on in town and that there were no more rooms available anywhere in the city, nor in the surrounding towns. The guide indicated that there might be rooms in a place called Helsingor, about an hour and a half away. Feeling a little disappointed, we left for Helsingor.
Helsingor was located in the far north of Copenhagen, a stone's throw away from Sweden. Upon exiting the station, we saw the castle used in 'Hamlet' (or so the guidebooks told us) across the water - very impressive in the fading sunlight. Helsingor had the feel of a quiet coastal village, probably because it was.
The tourist office was closed, and having no map, we decided to follow a sign that had a pictogram of a tent on it - the international symbol of youth hostels, campgrounds and tent shops. We walked for a long time through the deserted streets, swearing that "if the hostel wasn't around the next corner, we were giving up." several times.
Eventually seeing the same tent pictogram on a flag through some trees, we cut through an alley, across some train tracks and found ourselves in a caravan park by the ocean. The park seemed to be packed with elderly vacationers, but we enquired at the reception hut anyway and were informed by the owner (a Viking-looking guy about the size of a wheat silo) that he only had 1 cabin left.
This sounded okay, so we accepted and were shown to an oven-like cabin among some caravans. Exhausted we promptly bunked down for the night, but the cabin was just about hot enough to start seeing mirages, so we let some heat out by opening and closing the door really fast. This was apparently the signal that every mosquito in a 12 mile radius had been waiting for.
We spent the night alternately listening for buzzing sounds and swatting mosquitos with our footwear
Hamburg / Aachen:
We stayed 2 nights in Hamburg, a massive and impressive German city, but nothing much of note occurred there. We saw an open-air metal concert and had a chuckle at amusing German band names, avoided skin heads and hoodie guys (who seemed to always furtively glance both ways before trying to start a conversation) around our dodgy 1 star hotel, and did our laundry. Hooray!
Hamburg was a staging point for heading into France, as it was our intention to take a long ferry crossing to Ireland. Before leaving Germany, we had decided to visit a town called Aachen.
After a few major delays, the train to Aachen finally arrived at Hamburg station already packed with people. There was a period of shoving and some graceless pirouettes before we were able to get a seat with our packs on our laps. This was hugely uncomfortable, so Eb suggested we try our chances in 1st class.
More shoving and garbled apologies followed in German before we made it to 1st and found it to be almost completely empty, save for one old guy in a flat cap and a long haired 'Kraftwerk'-type guy wearing steel rimmed spectacles. We were just settling in for the long journey when a severe looking 40-something conductor came in, shouting that she needed to see tickets.
We produced our railpass (which she barely glanced at). She snatched it away. "Hello. Yes. Where are you from?" she demanded (despite the fact that this info was prominantly displayed on the pass). We told her Australia. "In Germany" she sniffed "this is first class, and THAT" she indicated with a dismissive flick of her hand "is second class!" With that, she stormed off to accost the Kraftwerk guy. This did not go well, and soon grew into a heated argument. Before long, she was on a phone located in the wall of the carriage, presumably to call security.
After the fracas had died down and the unlucky guy had departed, she returned to us angrier than before. "Hello. Yes. It is clear to me that you do not understand. THIS" she said, stomping her foot "is FIRST class." Eb told her that our pass covered first class in Germany. Something that we hoped was true.
"Yes. Okay." she said simply, then turned on her heel to attack a teenager sitting on a pile of luggage with one buttock in first class. She made him pick up his stuff and move 10cm into 2nd where he was forced to stand with 30 other people packed in like sardines. We were the only 2 people in the entire first class carriage, staring out at empty seats. Crazyness.
Aachen itself turned out to be a nice town, with many historical buildings and a unique cathedral that held the remains of Charlemagne, as well as religious relics, the strangest of which was "Christ's swaddling cloth". This stuck us as bizarre (not to mention unlikely).
Heavy restoration was underway on the massive town hall building, while other buildings had clearly been restored, giving the impression that the city was well cared for. We left Aachen feeling happy and content, and headed into Belguim.
Brugges / Lille:
We travelled to Brugges by way of Brussels, as we had heard that it was a city worth seeing - one almost entirely intact from the 14th century. We set out from the station for a long circuit around the city and eventually came to the huge town square, which was swarming with tourists.
Brugges was packed with ornate buildings and lush parks, but the sheer amount of people shuffling around was staggering. Eventually it became a chore to struggle through the crowds with our packs and Brugges started to lose it shine, feeling more and more 'fake' as we progressed.
Brugges was certainly pretty, but felt manufactured somehow. We both decided (almost simultaneously) to give it up and press on the the French city of Lille again for a potential connection to Calais.
We hadn't actually realised the scale of Lille on our last stopover - the train station was a long way from the city centre - so it came as quite a surprise. People were thronging the streets among the closely packed old buildings - even larger and more ornate than those in Brugges. It was actually very nice, and we wished we had a little more time to explore.
In order to get a bit of advice on the best way to get to Ireland, we headed to a (luckily English speaking) travel agent on the way to the hostel we had booked. I can only assume that the agent we spoke to took us as perhaps hobos or British or something, because she was as unfriendly and unhelpful as it is possible to be without producing a loaded firearm. Undaunted, we decided to stick to the original plan and proceed to Cherbourg the next day.
Paris / Cherbourg:
Getting to Cherbourg proved to be much more strenuous than we had anticipated. It was not possible to get a train directly from Lille; we had to change at Paris and head north. This seemed simple enough, and after some difficulties with the seat reservation system and a missed train, we were off to Paris.
In Paris, we learned that we needed to be at a different station to get to Cherbourg, and that we needed to take the underground to get there. We raced around the huge central station and found the underground link we needed to catch, however in my haste I had forgotten to grab my validated ticket from the machine.
"Not to worry" I thought, "I'll just go back and get it.." little realising that once you had stepped on the rapid escalator, there was no way back down without frantically sprinting the other way. This I learned after taking a bewildering amount of staircases and exits. Eventually I gave up and crossed my fingers that there wouldn't be barriers at the other end. I even picked up a discarded ticket from the station platform, hoping that it would be valid.
When we reached the correct station and ascended the escalators, my heart sank as I saw the line of barriers. I tried the ticket I had found, but the machine spat it back out contemptuously. Eb had gone through before me, and seizing the moment, had held open the barrier.
I took a run up (as much as that term can be used with a massive pack on your back) and clumsily lept the turnstyle waiting for the hand of authority to land heavily on my shoulder, but none came. In my mind, I was like an Olympic sprinter, racing up the exit stairs. In reality, I was a bearded guy awkwardly shuffling in a zig-zag pattern with the equivalent of a fridge strapped to my back. Eb was way out in front.
In the end, we managed to make the train to Cherbourg with literally 2 minutes to spare.
It was a pleasant trip through the northern French countryside - although the sky was overcast, the deep green trees, hedges and hills made for a relaxing trip after the hectic Paris shenanigans. We passed through a number of villages and towns that had seen heavy fighting after the D-Day landings, though you would never suspect it now.
We pulled into Cherbourg just as it began to pour with rain, and sprinted in the direction of the first place we saw - a B and B opposite the train station. The owner was chatty, and informed us that the town had seen a lot of visitors only recently. He had one room left, a ground floor double with a bathroom.
The bathroom turned out to be facing the street, giving passers-by the unique opportunity to see whatever you were doing in there, and the shower was so small that once you closed the curtain and turned around it would cling to you, like some sort of slimey cape.
We weren't really bothered though - it was quiet, central and out of the rain. We ate a very nice Indian meal in a restaurant with a leaking ceiling, then got an early night. The next morning, the sky had cleared, so we took an extended walk to the ferry terminal to begin the 6 hour wait for the ferry.
Ferry to Ireland:
The ferry appeared to have been designed and built in the 70's - all brown carpet and woodgrain wallpaper. We had booked the cheapest seats we could find, and learned that these placed us belowdecks in a windowless area the size of a cinema, complete with matching seats.
The captain's voice crackled to life on the intercom and mentioned that we would be in for a rough crossing from Cherbourg to Rosslare, and that the journey would take about 18 hours. We hadn't sailed before, and were curious to see if we would be violently seasick.
The trip turned out to be pretty rough indeed. I luckily escaped feeling too bad (despite being travel sick on busses), but Eb was struck down and felt pretty green. Around us were quietly moaning people splayed out on the floor and slumped over tables, as if the room had been gassed. At times the ferry swayed so violently that the windows first showed entirely sky, then entirely water, and back again. A steward was walking around the cafeteria nonchelantly handing out sickbags.
The journey ended up taking 22 hours due to rough seas, and we were extremely thankful to be on dry land again, and in Ireland.