Next stop Budapest.
We spent days and weeks planning how to get from Prague to Budapest
We had options.
We could fly, which would be quick and easy
We could get a rental car and drive. The drive would take about five hours, but we could go at our own pace and explore towns on the way. It would also allow us to drive along the banks of the Danube through some of Europe’s most beautiful scenery.
Both of those sounded like good options to me
But there was a third choice. And it was the third choice that Gordon really wanted to do, and dear reader,you might not have realised this over the years, but when Gordon really wants to do something, then that is what we do!
And so it is that you find us sitting on a train, getting ready for a journey that will take over seven hours.
Under normal circumstances I do most of the planning. But these were not normal circumstances, and so I handed over complete control to Gordon for this one day.
Are you already sensing this might not have been a good idea
Gordon makes several strong arguments for taking the train.
First of all the train tracks run along the Danube so we could relax in luxury, perhaps with a glass of wine, and enjoy the wonderful views as we chug along.
Gordon is correct – there are indeed train tracks along the banks of the Danube. Unfortunately they are not the tracks this particular train utilizes. We see no sign of the beautiful river.
Secondly there is a first class carriage and as this is a European train, Gordon assures me we will be traveling in luxury.
And I do like luxury.
In fact it was this fact that persuaded me that the train journey was a good idea. Gordon is correct; there is a first class, but he is totally wrong in the assumption that we will be traveling in luxury. We will not. We will not even be comfortable. The seats are aeroplane style, but they do not recline, nor do they offer much padding between my posterior and the chair base. My posterior has ample padding (no comment, Ed) to deal with most chairs. But seven hours on these uncomfortable seats is too much for it.
In fact I don’t feel like lowering my posterior onto the seat in the first place. The fabric is grimy with some very unpleasant looking stains. Sadly the seat looks quite at home in the first class carriage, which must have been pristine at one time, but that time was long ago. Now it is shabby and dirty and any other adjective you can think of denoting old and unclean.
We walk through the carriage with a sinking feeling of despair, cheered on only by the fact that Gordon has secured us the best seats in the carriage. He had spent hours on line poring over the seating plan deciding which seats would be the best, then anxiously waiting for the seats to be released for booking exactly one month prior to the train journey.
The plan showed two seats on one side of the carriage and single seats on the other. In the first half of the carriage the seats all face one way, and in the second half they all face the other. Then there are two rows of seats in the middle that face each other. The plan clearly shows that the two single seats facing each other have a table between them. This appears to be the only table in the entire carriage. Gordon decides these two seats will be perfect, and he grabs them at the appointed hour.
Gordon is correct. The website does indeed show us as having the only table. But sadly this is not the case. It turns out we are the only people in the entire carriage not to have a table. Everyone else has a table that pulls down from the seat in front of them. As we face each other we have nothing.
Gordon’s final and persuasive argument is that there is a pullman car next to the first class carriage, where we can book a table and have a glamorous lunch. Gordon is correct, there is a pullman car. A glamorous lunch there is not. We can sit at formica tables on hard wooden chairs and have a soup or a stew straight from the microwave
Are you beginning to feel that I am not too happy with the arrangements so far? Well, dear reader, it is about to get worse, much much worse.
With our first class ticket we get a free bottle of water. Is there no end to this luxury! The attendant comes round distributing large water bottles. But, without a table, we have absolutely nowhere to put it. I place mine on the floor, but within moments it has fallen over and rolled to the farthest corner of the carriage.
The other luxury afforded the first class customers, is a large toilet specifically for our use. Unfortunately it does not come equipped with toilet paper. I ask the attendant to bring some. He opens the storage closet and looks in. Bare shelves look back at him. He turns to me and shrugs. The lack of toilet paper is not going to bother him. But it might bother all of the passengers on the train for 7 hours.
Outside the sun is shining and the temperature is rapidly rising to the mid 90’s. Inside, the sun is beating down on the windows and the temperature is also rapidly rising. Everyone is beginning to get hot. The attendant is summoned who explains that there is a “technical fault”. We ask what that means.
“No air conditioning” comes the curt reply.
When will it be fixed asks a fellow traveler.
“Maybe at Budapest “
He leaves and doesn’t return.
Meanwhile the temperature in the carriage rises to well over 100 degrees. Women are madly fanning themselves with any piece of paper they can find. It does nothing to help. The temperature continues to rise. Soon we are all sweating and with the lack of air circulation it becomes increasingly unpleasant. All the windows are large picture windows that do not open, but there are two small windows at one end of the carriage that do . Our fellow travelers try desperately to open them, but cannot. An angry contingent of passengers searches the train for the missing attendant and finds him hiding in a closet surrounded by bottles of water.
They drag him back to our carriage where he tries to open the windows but cannot. They have been stuck for years he says. If he had shrugged he might have been put to death by the angry mob, but he recognises the fact and tries to look apologetic. He slinks back to his hiding place.
When the train stops at the next station we see him him jump off the train and run down the platform.
Somebody yells after him
“We don’t bloody well blame you. mate. We’d get off too if we could”
For seven hours we sit, and smell and swelter. It is one of the most unpleasant travel experiences we have ever had.
And did I mention it was all Gordon’s fault
Finally we arrive in Budapest. Desperate for fresh air, we jump off the train straight into a blasting 95 degree day. But never has 95 degrees felt so good. It is positively cool after the train.
After a few moments of enjoying the fresh air, we take stock of our surroundings and notice that the station is absolutely packed. We have to push and shove our way through hordes of people. We are desperate for a toilet, but there are already hundreds of people standing in line for them. We fight our way to the station entrance where the line for the ticket office snakes back and forth across the lobby. We have to cross this line to get outside, but no one will make a space for us. They are too frightened that we or someone else will push into the line.
We cannot understand what is going on.
We finally force our way out onto the forecourt where we are greeted by hundreds if not thousands of people sitting or lying on the ground. A few lucky ones have tents, some have sleeping bags and ratty suitcases, but most have nothing more than the clothes on their backs. We finally realise that we are in the midst of the migrants fleeing Syria.
As we carefully thread our way through them our discomfort of the last few hours seems totally insignificant. They would give anything to be on that train. A little discomfort would be welcomed if it meant they could get to safety and start a new life
It is a heart wrenching experience. Reading about their plight in the newspaper does nothing to prepare us for the reality of their situation. Our hearts go out to them, but we feel so helpless.
Today is August 31st 2015. We do not know that tomorrow Hungary will close the railway station and refuse to take any more passengers unless they already have tickets.
On September 2nd we are due to get on a river cruise that will take us from Budapest all the way back to Amsterdam. We have never felt so fortunate – or so guilty.
Little do we know that our plans too will be thwarted. The river is too low to take ships. Our ship has been unable to get to Budapest and is not there to greet us. The Viking River cruise becomes a bus journey for several hours as the company takes us to the nearest place a ship can reach.
It may be a disappointment, but it is nothing to the disappointment of the thousands camped out at the railway station
We are not going to complain.