The long journey home
With my bags safely tucked away at the station, I cycled away to somewhere more appealing.
I just wanted to find a small café bar or bistro where I could sit for a few hours whilst I waited for a suitable hour in order to go to the train station. I would then wait there until my train came. Not really a prospect I was looking forward to but when something is so cheap, compromises have to be made.
I did find a bar though, a nice little bar and one that had a lovely little terrace, interesting people to talk to and very good burgers if I remember correctly though my memory becomes a little hazy at this point. I spent the evening with two German guys and their Dutch, yes Dutch, friend enjoying many rounds of beer and dark liquored shot’s. I do remember saying to some other people that I needed to head back to the train station around closing time but I was too inebriated to resist their asking me to join them onto a club.
Surely I cannot lose my bicycle on the last day of the trip!?
And so it was that I found myself in a German techno disco at 03:00 in the morning. I actually really didn’t want to be there as I didn’t want to miss my train and so I went outside and to my utter disbelief and regret, couldn’t for the life of me remember in which bar I had so happily consumed my weight in shot’s and so didn’t know where on earth my bicycle was parked. I say this only now, but I could have gone back inside and asked the people I was with what the name of the bar was but, alas hindsight is a great thing eh?
I could not believe the predicament I was in, I just couldn’t lose my bicycle in the last city of the trip but then again I didn’t even know where to start looking. I sat down next to two German girls who didn’t seem to understand what all the fuss was about. But then again can you imagine trying to haul seven bags from Munich to Brighton on various types of public transport? I didn’t even want to think about it. On top of this, my train was due to depart in two hours and so I really didn’t have much time to loose. With this thought, I set off back to town with the train station being my only real point of reference.
In the three hours that followed, I must have walked in eight different directions from the station trying to locate anything that looked familiar but I still didn’t come to anything that remotely resembled the street I was on. I knew vaguely in which direction I went from the station, but I was cycling and as I was now trying to walk the same distance, my sense of scale was shot to pieces. The only things I could remember were that the street was leafy, kind of narrow and prosperous and that the bar sold only burgers. This was the information I gave to people when I occasionally found someone sober enough to answer my questions. No one though could direct me to an appropriate street. 05:00 passed and with it my train but I carried on searching anyhow. There was just no way I was going to lose a bicycle that I had travelled around twelve countries on in the last city of the trip. I was determined. When 06:00 passed however, I began to realise that it was a fruitless task, how could I possibly locate one tiny bar in a city of over a million? It was hopeless and so I sat down outside a café and drank a coffee, trying to get a sense of realism in my head and maybe try to clear my mind a little too.
After twenty minutes or so, I got up and continued on my way but without much hope at all. I realised that I would now have to buy a new ticket and god knows how much that would cost on the same day.
From the bakery, I walked around the corner and down the next street when something unexpected happened. I saw a sign, a sign that I swore I had seen before. I then saw another sign declaring oranjeboom beer was sold here. The street looked pretty leafy too and as my heart perked up a little, I looked across and in the distance saw the distinctive shape of some bull horned handlebars atop a bike that was resting against a lamppost. I squinted and realised with a rush of excitement and utter, utter relief that it was my bike! I simply cannot put into words the feeling I had at that moment. I very nearly almost sank to my knees with joy. I knew it was my bike and, still clutching my coffee, ran back down the street and hugged the first people I saw, which incidentally happened to be a pretty German girl. I was over the moon.
After ten minutes, I walked back to my bike and could have kissed the seat, in fact this is precisely what I did. Although it was only a 150 euro bike, the front and back racks alone are worth a further 200 euro’s and so I was mightily pleased to be reunited with it again.
Having found my beloved possession, I headed straight back to the station two streets away and hesitantly waited outside deciding what I should do. I did think of chancing it on the next available train to Cologne with my old ticket, but this being Germany, and having spoken to two Germans outside, decided against this course of action. Instead, I walked back in and waited in line at the information desk.
Whilst the lady checked the available trains for me, I waited a little back trying not to override her senses with any stale smells of alcohol that might still be lingering. Having told her that I had cycled across the alps in order to get here, I hoped she would have a sense of compassion and invite me aboard the next available train unimpeded but it was not to be.
She gave me two choices, the first being a fast train across Germany which would get me to Cologne in under three hours but would cost the eye watering 140 euros or a slow train that would entail changing seven times but would cost a more modest 50 euros. I could not conceive changing trains seven times in a single day with all my luggage and so I reluctantly paid the money for the fast train.
With this done, I went straight to the platform but upon seeing the train, realized that I couldn’t take my bicycle aboard as it was a fast international one. I knew they didn’t allow fully assembled bicycles on these kinds of trains.
By now I was getting a little touchy and just a little angry too. The train station was packed to the rafters and I felt and smelt like anyone would do having been out and awake all night. I walked back to the information office but by now it was completely overwhelmed with people. This just could not be happening. I had just spent 140 euros on a ticket that I couldn’t even use! I was so infuriated by this point that I left my bicycle outside and walked straight over to the lady whom had served me.
Upon walking forward, I explained the situation and told her that I had said several times that I had a bicycle with me but she insisted that I had said no such thing. Seeing no point in arguing, I asked her what my other options were knowing with a sinking feeling it would be the other option she had presented to me earlier.
She told me the only option in this case would be to take a journey consisting of six trains across Germany to Cologne. This I accepted immediately knowing that at least I would get 90 euros back in the process.
With this done, I waited patiently for my train and dined on some currywurst which I know every German hates but which is actually quite nice.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about the following day as I really don’t want to be reminded of it myself but suffice to say it wasn’t the most pleasant of days. Six trains over the course of nine hours was a bit much for anyone even someone like me who actually enjoys a good train journey. I did meet some interesting people aboard them however and actually got to sleep a little too which was nice. I think the highlight of it all was being afforded the opportunity to watch a guy whom sat in the cycle carriage for one and a half hours without ever removing his cycling helmet. This perplexed me just a little and I was half tempted to ask him if he had been involved in any previous train derailments but opted instead to keep my mouth shut. A funny sight nonetheless.
Not wanting to arrive in a big city such as Cologne at half eight in the evening, I decided to get off at a small town just before it which would enable me to find somewhere safe and comfortable to camp. Having got out the train though, and upon realising just how small the station was, I knew there would be no lift to get over to the over side of the tracks and thus out of the station. Luckily a guy offered to help me carry the bicycle down and then back up the stairs on the other side which I was very pleased about.
From there I just cycled in the direction of Cologne and hoped that I would see somewhere suitable to camp. In the end I found some farmland with some trees standing between it and the main road and decided this was as good a place as anywhere and settled down for the night. Part one across Germany had been accomplished though.
In the morning, I cycled another 10km’s and reached Cologne by 10:00 at which point I decided to go into the McDonalds to get a coffee and use the internet too. Here, I rebooked my ferry across the channel for a day later thus saving me a mad dash across Belgium.
With my ferry and train now booked for the 29th rather than the 28th, I could relax a little and not go completely insane with regards to trying to make all my other connections. With my mind now at ease, I spent a pretty enjoyable day just cycling around Cologne. I had some very nice food and saw the Cathedral amongst other things.
I had gone to the station earlier to book a journey on a train from Cologne until the very last town of Aachen next to the Belgium border and at 5 pm boarded this. Within an hour, I had arrived in Aachen and as soon as I had alighted from the train, started cycling west towards the border and the Belgium town of Liege where I intended to take a train across Belgium to the very last town before the French border. This would leave me with only another 20km’s or so to Dunkirk on the French side and my prized ferry back to England.
It was an uphill battle out of Aachen and it was completely shelling it down with rain. After 10km’s, thoroughly drenched and my spirits equally down, I began to look for somewhere to camp. This being Belgium of course there was nowhere to camp. Welcome to Europe’s second most densely populated country. In the end, I decided to use a farmer’s field. Welcome to Northern Europe I thought.
I cycled the remaining 40 km’s to Liege the following day over mainly pot holed roads and with cars speeding past at every juncture and I remembered why I had hated cycling here.
Having arrived in Liege, I found my way to the station by about 4pm and I quickly bought a ticket across Belgium to the very last town before the French border at De Panne. I was quite relieved you know.
I boarded the train with no problems and I had a whole carriage to myself as it happens. The conductor on board said it would be better if I change at a smaller station rather than Brussels as that can be a bit hectic and so directed me as to which station to alight from. I had a five minute window in which to catch the next train and he assured me this would be ample time. When I got off, I used the lift to transport myself over tracks to the correct platform but found an exceptionally long train before me. I didn’t for the life of me know in which carriage to place my bike. After running up and down the platform trying to locate any sort of carriage that held the bicycles I found it at the last minute but the doors closed on me in the last instant and I was left standing there, fume erupting from my ears. Now I had missed my connection through Belgium!
Surely the worst must be over I told myself as I waited. I decided to ask the conductor at which end of the platform I should wait but he said every train was different and thus you never knew. This wasn’t much help but he did say to me that he wouldn’t let the train leave without first getting me on. Comfortably reassured that I would indeed make it to De Panne by the day’s end, I sat down and waited patiently. Surely nothing else could go wrong, surely.
When the train actually arrived, I was quite taken aback to realise that my bike had to go in the drivers waggon, behind where the driver sat. Although this necessitated me having to haul the bike one metre off the platform and onto the train, it did give me unusual chance to see inside the drivers cabin. The funny thing was, was that the driver was dressed in his own clothes complete with a trilby hat. This I liked very much as I had always imagined the train driver as a pipe smoking old man with a traditional hat. He was quite relieved when I said I was getting off at the very last stop too along with myself for that matter actually.
After a further three hour’s ride through Belgium, I finally arrived in De Panne at about half eight in the evening though I still had 20km’s to cycle in order to make it to Dunkirk. Knowing that the actual port was way outside the city, I got on my way pretty soon. Cycling away from De Panne, I found myself on a lonely stretch of road in complete darkness thus it wasn’t really advisable to be cycling but then again I really had no alternative. I had to get as close to Dunkirk as possible. About half way along, and now on the French side, I found some small roads that led to the sand dunes along the coast and decided it was the perfect time to bring the day’s events to a close. Nearly there!
The next morning, I couldn’t believe my luck when I woke up to blue skies. It had been raining on and off now for the last few days and so this brightened me up immensely. I cycled the remaining 10km’s into Dunkirk where I arrived early enough to enable me some time to sit by the small harbour, eat breakfast and absorb my surroundings in relative peace. It was still only ten and so with two hours until my ferry was to depart I had a walk around the town.
Even though I had done this exact ride before and had anticipated a long ride to the port, I just couldn’t for the life of me find the correct road. I could see signs for the car ferry absolutely everywhere but these all directed me onto the motorway. This was a no, no but I simply couldn’t find any side roads which led there and when I stopped to ask anybody about it, they would direct me all the way to Calais. It turns out not many people know that you can catch a passenger ferry from Dunkirk and that includes the local populace.
To cut a long story short and after cycling frantically for an hour through the port, I missed my ferry. The lady at the check in didn’t seem to mind though and just booked me onto the next one with no extra cost. I had a slight suspicion that it would have been a different story if I had have been in a car.
Reaching England - finally
With great anticipation, I disembarked from the ferry two hours later and found myself once again in ‘sunny’ England and back to cycling on the left, a very strange feeling after five months on the opposite side of the road.
I immediately went to the train station and printed out the ticket I had bought online and within minutes was on a train and heading to Brighton. Only another three hours to go and three more trains!
I arrived in Brighton at about half past eight that evening and met my friends down the pub for a few swift pints and of course a couple of shots. It was after all the eve of my friend’s wedding. After spending the best part of four days on twelve trains and a boat too, I had an overwhelming and joyous feeling of relief. I have done some stinking journeys in my time; thirteen hours sat on the floor of a packed-out Chinese train and four day’s on a train through Russia to name but two but the last four day’s took the gold medal for sure. It had been tortuous and frantic but It was all worth it in the end. No matter where you travel to and the exciting and fruitful times a journey brings, your family and friends are indeed the most important things in the world. Travelling can often mean fleeting relationships and moments but in the end home is where your heart lies.