Let the train take the strain

By Lesley Morrison

Lesley Morrison is an avid train-traveller, and shares tales from her journey across Europe, from Berlin to the Masurian forest.

My husband (75) and I (72) recently returned from an inter-railing trip in Europe. We left Edinburgh at the end of July and returned five weeks and twenty nine trains later. We love travelling and we love getting to know people along the way, and it’s fair to say that Joe is a train addict, so we bought our four day inter-rail pass and off we set.

Since we met, we’ve had many train adventures; the Trans-Siberian Express (eight days in a compartment with a samovar of tea and folks who spoke not a word of English), the Indian Pacific across the Nullabor Plain in western Australia (a landscape which was so empty that a cheer went up if someone spotted a cactus) and a two day train ride in southern India, drinking very sweet chai and watching immaculate school kids emerge from small village huts.

We’ve inter-railed in Europe several times, from Croatia to Krakow (learning from Hungarian fellow travellers about the impenetrability of the Hungarian language), through France and down Italy to Sicily (where the train is driven on to the ferry to cross the Messina Straits) and, in March 2020, through France and Spain to Portugal (curtailed, when we reached Lisbon, by our kids sending anxious texts…did we know about the impending lockdown?).

This time our trip took us by ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam, by train to Delft (multiple pearl earrings) and onward, via a friend in Hanover, to Berlin. Berlin is a fascinating, stimulating city, with its complicated history intertwining with the future on almost every street. We hired bikes, explored the route of the Berlin Wall and the art galleries, and pedalled over Tempelhof, the vast expanse of runway space in the centre of the city where Hitler built his airport and where Berliners now go to exercise and tend their community gardens.

We made good use of the German rain travel pass (Deutschland- ticket, forty nine euros for a month) which covers all internal German train travel, including getting to the start of a bike ride at the corner where three lands meet (the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland) and biking up an excellent bike path along the Oder Neisse River which forms the border between Germany and Poland (wonderfully flat and good beer).

Crossing backwards and forwards between Germany and Poland was fun. One evening we booked into a hotel in pretty, sedate Gorlitz, Germany, before wandering over the bridge to its Polish counterpart, Zgorzelec, and an extremely loud street music festival.

Back to Berlin for a few more arty days, then a train to Poznan in Poland, and on to the Masurian lakes in the north-east. We are members of Servas, an international exchange organisation founded in Denmark just after the Second World War to encourage international friendship, and we were hosted at the lakes by Iwona who took us swimming in the lakes and cycling through the forest, and shared insight into Poland’s traumatic and complex past, and its potential future.

Then further trains to the Bialowieza ancient forest, an extraordinary 14,000 year old forest, the largest area of ancient forest in Europe straddling Poland and Belarus. Biking through the peaceful, majestic forest, we were suddenly confronted by a high, wire-topped wall erected to keep out refugees attracted by the Belarus president’s false promise of free passage to the EU. We watched birds fly over the wall, oblivious to international borders, and the next day we were taken by a guide into the protected area of the forest. Standing in silence amidst the soaring oaks was truly humbling.

A bus took us from Bialowieza to the train station at Bialystok, a city literally decimated during and after the war and now enthusiastically embracing the future. The famous mural of a little girl watering a tree depicts that spirit. We travelled on by train from Bialystok to Warsaw, to be met by Iwona’s daughter and the following day shown round the city by her friend, a professional guide; beautiful churches and palaces, and the old city square totally reconstructed using old photographs and stones from the wartime rubble. Our last day in Poland began with a memorable breakfast of cold beetroot soup and dumplings, pierogi, in one of the iconic Warsaw milkbars, till providing basic, good food to local people since the days of the Cold War.

Everywhere there were memorials to the violent past. “How do you cope with constant reminders of history?”, we asked our young Polish breakfast companion, Basia. “We acknowledge them and then we look to the future”, she replied. A train from Warsaw Gdansk station to Berlin took long enough for us to digest a smorgasbord of impressions and perspectives and, two days later, we were finally on the train to Brussels and then Eurostar to London.

Why travel by train? Because we enjoy a journey and gradually arriving at a destination, rather than being deposited in a bleak, anonymous airport. Because the flexibility of a rail pass means that we don’t need to book ahead, we simply use the pass for the set number of days to go anywhere we want to go. Because we get to meet people and talk. Because we’re aware of the climate emergency and, although we love to travel, we don’t want to do it at the expense of pumping fossil fuel exhaust into the atmosphere. Train travel can cost more and it can take more time, and money and time are commodities which younger people may have less of. But increasingly our children’s peers are also realising that, when it comes to travel, as with other aspects of life in the era of the climate crisis, they, and we, want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

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