As Greta Thunberg pointed out earlier this year, we need to use planes less and trains more. So how would I get on going to Transylvania by train instead of plane?
Booking was actually a bit of a pain.
Sites like loco2 and thetrainline may have clever algorythms to show cheap or quick routes, but when travelling this far, the quality of the journey matters and that requires human judgement. This is where the Man in Seat 61 comes into his own. Based on one of his suggested routes, I split my journey into three parts.
Part 1: London to Munich – the pleasures of first class travel
For the first part I caught the Eurostar to Brussels and then German ICE to Munich changing at Stuttgart. With a price difference of £30 between first and second class, it was a no-brainer to go first class and sit with the other half spending the journey eating well, sipping chilled wine and watching Europe pass by in a bit of style.
Arriving into Munich at 9pm, I had a couple of hours to wander down Neuhauser Strasse and mix with the crowds enjoying a sultry evening out.
It had taken all day to get here and if I was on business, I would have been able to work productively for the whole journey. As for the price, I paid £169 which is a lot more than a budget airline early flight. But when you start looking to set off at a civilised hour, the prices are similar.
I can’t imagining flying this distance again – it will be the train every time.
Part 2: Munich to Budapest – a squash and a squeeze
Eager to push on further towards the Balkans, I caught the sleeper train to Budapest. After a day of first-class travel, it was now time for me to have a second-class sleep, literally and metaphorically.
I was the first to get in to the €79 couchette – a little compartment with four benches that had been flipped down to become beds. Then in came a middle-aged man. We grunted acknowledgement before doing our bedtime prep – in my case, delving to the bottom of my bag for a toothbrush.
Then the door opened and in came the biggest suitcase I had ever seen. After some puffing and panting, in popped a head followed by the rest of the body. The young guy who owned the mega-case looked around and unsurprisingly, realised it was far too big to go anywhere. Undeterred, he gave the case another shove and the room was now full. Then in came the pram, carrycot with a freshly-born baby in it and last, but by no means least, the haggard new mum.
It was at this point I realised the value of literature. The tome in question, A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson tells the tale of an old woman who complained that her house was too small. A wise man told her to bring in all her farmyard animals and then she realised how big it had been in the first place.
I had now resigned myself to sleep deprivation and just putting this journey down to experience.
However the other middle-aged man, who we’ll now call Mr Grumpy was a man of action and complained to the Hungarian train guard. He tried to explain what was wrong in German. The wife then chatted to the guard in Hungarian. He look at Mr Grumpy, shrugged and walked away.
Within a few minutes of the lights going out, I heard an odd rustling and then a thin bluish of light emanated from the opposite bunk. It was the light of a computer screen. The dad had decided to start watching a film on his laptop, while eating the remains of a Burger King meal and using a pack of Pampers as a pillow. Incredibly, the others were already asleep and Mr Grumpy was even snoring.
In the nicest possible way I told the dad that there were some seats further down the train he could go and sit in if he didn’t want to go to sleep. He shut the lid, stashed the remnants of his meal by his pampers pillow and perhaps we could all now get some sleep.
I must have dozed off but woke up feeling like I was in an airless sauna. We had stopped at Salzburg for a two hour wait and all power was off, which meant the ‘aircon’ was off. When it had been on, the baby stuff piled on top of it had limited it to a waft of not-so-hot air. Even that now would have been wonderful.
I got up and spent the two hour stop looking out of the window at a rather boring station.
At 7 o’clock Mr Grumpy left and with all hope of sleep gone, the family and I spend the rest of the journey talking about stuff.
Stuff, in their case meant talking about baby and dad meeting the grandparents/in-laws for the first time.
In my case, it meant talking about how nice it is when kids are grown up and you can leave them at home.
As the train’s brakes squeeled and we pulled into Budapest, I realised that this had been travelling. Being thrown together with other people in a smaller space than you would choose for a bit longer than you would like – and loving it? Well, at least not hating it.
One of the pleasures of train travel is being able to stop off at places on the way. I wanted to go and see Budapest’s Seventh District and and also get a good night’s sleep. So, I checked into a boat-hotel on the Danube that was moored up opposite the Parliament.
Being in Budapest also gave me a chance to learn more about Transylvania, my ultimate desination. How so?
In 1920, Hungary was carved up under the Treaty of Triannon and Transylvania was award to Romania. The complex history of this area still hits raw nerves so I used my train-free day to learn more from the other side of the border by visting a good bookshop and talking to the very nice people working there.
Part 3: Budapest to Sibiu – meeting like-minded souls
After my day in Budapest, I spent the evening sipping Tokej and watching a firework display from the boat’s deck.
Then, it was time to think about actually getting to Romania. I booked myself on to sleeper to Sibiu in Transylvania for €49.
This time, I was sharing with two other middle-aged blokes, one Swiss, the other Canadian and both teachers. They were using the free time that summer holidays (and understanding families) provide to do some exploring by themselves.
The Swiss guy had tried taking his two sons interrailing the previous year, but they preferred being at home with their friends and smartphones. So with an accommodating wife and two relieved kids at home, he was free to do some wandering through the Carpathians.
The Canadian guy was due to travel round Spain with some friends in a couple of weeks but before that he wanted to do the ‘Orient Express’ and travel to Istanbul by himself.
After a decent night’s sleep in a cool and comfortable bed, I got up and watched Transylvania slowly trundle past the window with my two new pals.
‘You know’ said the Swiss guy, ‘I had some walking routes planned, but seeing this – perhaps I’ll just set off from the station and see where I end up.’
The art of arrival?
Stepping onto the platform at Sibiu, it felt like I had come a long way, which at a Romanian train’s pace, I suppose I had. But as I walked up Strada General Magheru, I had little flashbacks of the places I had been and the people I had met.
If I had come by plane, I would have saved time and money, so why did I feel richer?
Train vs plane
Flying me to Transylvania would have put about 160 KG of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By taking the train I consumed about 30 KG. That saving had come at a quite a price.
I had spent nearly £300 as opposed to around £50 to catch a plane. Airlines are subsidised as they don’t pay tax on fuel and won’t have to pay for the environmental damage caused by the additional CO2 in the atmosphere.
But it had taken me days to get here and it wasn’t easy to plan. For all the efforts of sites like loco2, organising train travel is harder than by plane. This is in part because so many places are connected directly by plane, but also because algorithms that try to plan multi-stage journeys are good at time and cost but lousy at quality of the experience.
While tech struggles to produce high quality routes, it can help with your time on the train. Train travel to places that are several days away could be filled with films and things to pass the time but why ‘pass’ it when the journey could be one of the best bits of your time away. Technology can help with this. Eurostar’s Odyssey shows that journey’s can be contexualised. Perhaps the next big thing will be apps that guide us through rather than to places.
What train travel really offered was the ability to stop. In my case, it was seeing something in Budapest, but there were plenty of alternatives and in each case, the train would have pulled up into the heart of the town or city and not some out of the way airport.
What the train also offered was the opportunity to spend time a lot of time with other people. This could be a great experience or an ‘experience’…
But my enjoyment was in large measure down to my attitute to what fate had delivered. Poor Mr Grumpy.
In any event, I learned that travelling well is an art, and one that’s worth practising.