This is the first in a series of blog posts that I will be posting based on train journeys overseas. Fittingly I start where it all began with my debut journey of a 1987 inter-rail trip. Europe was our oyster……
We set off in mid-September on an overnight ferry to Hoek of Holland for our first ever unaccompanied trip abroad. I was with my school-years pal Poll. We were twenty-two and on a very limited budget.
We slept fitfully on the floor outside the men’s loos to avoid paying for a lounge seat so as to save a few pounds. This was followed by our first foreign train, to Amsterdam Centraal from the port.
With the timetables in Dutch, announcements in a foreign language and most spectacularly a double-decker train, we felt we had really arrived!
The terrain may have been flat and boring outside the train window, but as we sped past row upon row of cabbages, the feeling of excitement and anticipation welled up inside of us. “Look, look, a windmill,” I exclaimed.
By the time we spied Feyenoord’s football stadium on the outskirts of Rotterdam, our enthusiasm had just about reached fever pitch.
This would be a bloody fantastic trip we pledged. It would certainly be a memorable one.
Despite getting a fragmented sleep at best, the adrenalin took over. Amsterdam Centraal was our first real eye-opener as to the wits we would need about us to survive the trip intact.
The station itself was vast, with the platforms below ground level and the vertrek (departure) & bevoorrading (arrival) boards extremely hard to decipher, showing as they did unpronounceable destinations throughout the Netherlands.
The fact that major European destinations were in also in Dutch was additionally very confusing for two linguistic retards like us. For example Cologne translated to Keulen. This would all take a little getting used to.
Outside the station was also fraught with challenges. Trams zipped about all over the place, sounding their bells on a regular basis to inform pedestrians of their presence. The large & noisy trams were relatively easy to spot and avoid, the bicycles however were a different matter altogether.
Cyclists seemed to outnumber walkers, the result of being in the flattest country on earth. Several times we unwittingly wandered into one of the many cycle lanes that criss-crossed the area, to the obvious displeasure of the local pedallers.
This far outweighed the danger of being hit by a tram or bus, with bike riders having to perform emergency stops right in front of us or swerve around us at the last moment to avoid a painful collision. It was all our innocent fault of course, but the whole area was completely disorientating and more than a little intimidating.
Looking round and round like startled meerkats, we eventually managed to cross the main road to the relative sanctuary of a peripheral street. No question of us taking the tram of course – that cost money, the ticket purchasing instructions were impossible to fathom (I still had difficulty in this regard twenty-five years later) and the basic map in our Youth Hostel Association book seemed to indicate that our route to our accommodation was fairly straightforward.
Down a bit, right a bit, down a bit, left a bit, down a bit and bingo.
We eventually did find our youth hostel accommodation, situated slap-bang in the Canal (Red Light) District. What the map had not shown or we had not appreciated, were the canals, which meant that we needed to switch back and forth to avoid dead ends. Add to that the fact that all the streets looked identical and it did not take us long to get hopelessly lost in the confusing maze.
Therefore, having just about passed our first ‘Dam’ test of avoiding the deadly mix of trams and bicycles that circled Centraal Station like rats going in and out of their lair, we dismally failed our map reading challenge.
It ended up taking us ninety-minutes to locate our hostel, when it should have taken twenty tops. It didn’t help that we both possessed bundles of the male ‘I will find it without asking for help even if it kills me’ gene.
Lesson one – ignore male pride and ask in future or be prepared to get lost, hot, sweaty and irritated.
This was the one and only time we had booked ahead for the trip, having completed a booking form in our European Youth Hostel guide and posted it off some weeks before, together with a Eurocheque made out for the correct amount in Dutch Guilders.
These were way before the days of Euros of course and Eurocheques had not long since been launched as an alternative to traveller’s cheques. Essentially they were blank cheques that you could write out in the likes of Sterling, Pesetas, Lire, Deutsch Marks, Swiss and French Francs, the Scandinavian Kroners and the like, each guaranteed to about £50 each when accompanied by a Eurocheque card. You could even use the card in a foreign ATM!
It seemed remarkable to us at the time that you could pre-book foreign accommodation in this way, but the difficulty of doing so perhaps contributed to Amsterdam being our only such booking of the entire trip. It was far simpler to wing it and hope.
Amazingly our booking had been received and accepted. I had sent a ‘poste restante’ reply envelope as instructed for confirmation purposes and despite the confirmation not arriving back in the UK before our departure we were in and dormitory life beckoned for us.
Rucksacks were swiftly dumped and with our travel high still compensating for our lack of sleep, we went to explore.
We didn’t arrive back at the hostel until after dark, having witnessed our most amazing sight to date on our fledgling trip, the world renowned Red Light District. Wowzer, a real sight for youthful Devonian sore eyes!