The Lost Weekend

April 16th is with us again and it brings the anniversary of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. The joke in Britain was ‘Iceland, we asked for cash!’ but for many people the event led to many travel difficulties that meant being stranded far from home for periods of hours to days. A member of the Bucharest Expat team was caught up in the maelstrom as he was in Lausanne when the news of the eruption broke.

The original travel plan was to take the train to Geneva then fly to Bucharest via Munich. As the afternoon progressed there were conflicting news reports but as time passed there were more and more signs that some major flight disruptions would occur. Having little choice, our intrepid correspondent took the first steps homeward and took the train to the airport at Geneva. The train was as punctual as ever in Switzerland, and with his watch duly set to the correct time, our man walked through to the airport and a very contrasting atmosphere. The departures board was a mess of cancellations and the Lufthansa desk was besieged by anxious looking people from all walks of life. Being is Switzerland and waiting for a German airline meant that the queue was well ordered, polite and slow moving. This may not have been quite the same had the events been unfolding live at Otopeni or Baneasa airports….

Finally reaching the front of the line, our man was told that there were no flights to Munich and to find a hotel in the city for the night, which Lufthansa would pay for (up to CHF 180). Next stop was the queue at the tourist information desk, which was very helpful and found a room for the night within budget. One train and taxi journey later and our man was checked into a small and clean hotel not in the city centre. As Geneva is famed for low cost restaurants, the next mission was to find somewhere with decent food that did not require a second mortgage to finance it, and ideally a well priced bottle of red wine. A walk around the neighbourhood yielded the aforementioned bottle of wine (Sicilian – have a Swiss Army penknife with a corkscrew and the world can be a friendlier place) and the discovery of a cracking Thai restaurant. The food was deliciously spicy and washed down with one or two bottles of Singha. It’s a shame that the only locals in the place had Thai partners but the atmosphere was great and the staff insisted on a return for lunch the next day. The invitation was met with a smile and the promise that if there was no transport out of Geneva, lunch would be spicy soup.

The next day brought glorious sunshine, no sign of ash and no flights from Geneva. Some research (Google is your friend) indicated that flights from Munich were still OK, and that a train left in that direction soon. Having set the world record for the fasted shave and shower in history, our man sped off back to the train station, which now looked oddly similar to the airport the previous evening. The ticket queue was too long to make it the front before the train departed, so a ticket was purchased to Zurich through a machine and the train boarded.

After a very pleasant swoosh through the chocolate box countryside, the train pulled into Zurich station. It looked like half the country had also pulled into Zurich station as there were people everywhere and some of the longest queues that have ever been seen there. No chance to get a ticket so our man boarded the train to Munich rather than missing it, having been assured that it was possible to buy a ticket en route. This proved to be almost correct – travellers need to buy three tickets if they travel from Zurich to Munich to cover the needs of the Swiss, Austrian and German train services (but the process is efficient). Life was looking good with the scheduled arrival leaving plenty of time to catch the flight home. Then Romania closed down local airspace. Hurrah! A Romania friend stuck in Poland was kind enough to notify our intrepid traveller of this, which was not great news but at least allowed time to work on plan B.

By the time the train arrived at Munich train station, it was clear that going to the airport was not going to help the short term plan of getting back to Bucharest. More internet research had shown that there was a train leaving for Bucharest via Budapest much later on Saturday evening. Disembarking from the train, more scenes of chaos were revealed. Rarely, if ever, have so many people been milling around inside this train station. The peace and quiet of the train was rapidly displaced with a sense of urgency, a sense of urgency swiftly diluted by the length of the queue for train tickets. An hour later, and the front of a queue was again reached. Yes there was a train leaving that evening – good news! Yes the train is already booked – tragic news!! There was however, a train leaving late Sunday morning for Bucharest via Budapest that would take just over 24 hours and yes there were tickets. One short credit card transaction later and it’s time to find a bed for the night.

The tourist information at Munich train station was also having a busy afternoon, finding hotels for stranded flyers. There were hotels within five minutes walk of the station starting at EUR 230. Ouch! There was a nice family run hotel within 15 minutes walk for EUR 74. Booked! Our correspondent set of with map in hand, to be quickly reminded of the eclectic variety of businesses that can be found in the area of large train stations. His walk took him past an assortment of outlets linked to the sex industry (eyes averted, naturally…), fast food joints, convenience stores specialising in the produce of various nations from outside the EU plus various bars. The hotel was thankfully located at the other side of this assortment of possible temptations, on a nice leafy street. The staff were friendly and helpful and the bedroom was large and clean, so all was well.

With the possibility of an evening of German TV ahead, the map was consulted and a stroll into the city centre selected as the preferred alternative. The walk was pleasant through the suburban edge of Munich to the centre. The architecture of the city is as splendid as ever, and the prospect of a light burger at one of the famous global chains was on the agenda until the appearance of a traditional local restaurant with beer signs. One large pork knuckle (with delicious, crispy fat) and several weisse beers later our brave traveller was on his way back to get some hard earned rest.

Sunday morning arrived and it was another beautiful day. The walk back to the station was sadly not quite as interesting (the operators of the businesses clearly either enjoying their hard earned rest or at church) but passed more quickly in the absence of other pedestrians.

The first leg of the final journey home was as good as it gets. The train was modern and fast with comfortable seats and the chance to buy drinks and snacks on a regular basis. The lack of security queues, scans and pat down searches was a novelty and the speed of travel opened our writers eyes to alternatives to flying. Upon arrival in Budapest the prospect of another train journey was full of hope. Then he found the Romanian train. It looked significantly older, slower and dirtier than the high speed express that had whisked him across the middle of Europe. It was, however, moving transport. A kiosk was spotted and a sandwich and a couple of tactical beers were purchased and stashed for later. The train was now boarding, so with a slight sense of trepidation our man in Budapest boarded the sleeper train for the final leg of the journey.

The first surprise was that the other occupants of the six bed cabin were all one family, and that although it was not even 20:00, the beds were already in place. This left the choice of reclining (due to the lack of headroom sitting comfortably was not going to be possible) or standing in the corridor. With a mixture of broken English and Romanian the father was able to communicate that this was a planned trip and that the family was returning from visiting relatives in Hungary. The scope of this conversation quickly dried up, but a conversation in English could be heard in the next cabin. Seizing the opportunity, our traveller asked if he could join the group for a while, and the seats were still functional so it was possible to sit down.

The new cabin was a fascinating mix of two Czech guys on their way to an exhibition in Bucharest, an Englishman going home to Bucharest, an Austrian lady on her way to the Danube Delta and an Italian researching the train route to Istanbul from Moscow, via various capital cities. The Italian was the only member of this new crew that was actually travelling on his booked form of transport – everyone else was low flying. The missing member was the token Romanian who had gone for a walk. Everyone had acquired food and drink at the station but reserves were quickly exhausted as the conversation ranged across many topics. Facing famine and drought, this brave crew moved their base to the next carriage, which conveniently turned out to be the bar with a range of snacks and beverages. This allowed the party to continue late into the night, festivities not halting until the staff decided that enough was enough and closed the bar. Everyone slept remarkably well through the night.

The final day of the trip dawned, and several hours later our man woke up feeling mysteriously dehydrated when considering the amount of liquid consumed the night before. This was compensated by the views of mountains and the Romanian countryside passing by. The wonder was that everything was passing by so slowly. Some questions later and the explanation was that due to work to upgrade the tracks, the trains had to pass sections at a slower pace that usual. At times this was almost down to a pace that meant passengers could have walked alongside without fear of missing their lift, but the sun was shining brightly (no sign of any ash) and the mountains provided a beautiful backdrop.

After limping slowly though Sinaia, the train finally picked up a bit of speed and eventually arrived at the Gare de Nord. Goodbyes were said, numbers were exchanged and everyone went back from being united against the situation to a group of dispersed individuals. The final challenge for our weary commuter was a taxi driver in the station who seemed unable to understand the word no in any language and nearly had a suitcase rammed somewhere painful. Had he been offering competitive rates (in the region of RON 1.39 per km) then the discussion could have been happier, but this was sadly not the case. Anticipating this scenario, a taxi had been booked and was waiting outside. A relatively short hop later and the homecoming was completed.

The view of the weekend one year on is that it was fun to travel by train and meet interesting people, but not an experience that anyone would wish to repeat too quickly. Many other people were stranded all over the world for a few days, proving the vulnerability of air transport to relatively minor natural events. The good new is that apart from the car hire companies attempting to cash in on the situation and charge obscene amounts of money, most people were courteous and very helpful to each other and friends were made around the world.