It was the summer of 1991. The Cold War just came to an end and the Easter part of Europe was still bathing in the euphoria of its newly found freedom. I just completed my freshman year at college in Budapest, Hungary and was crazy in love with my boyfriend. Together with him and with my three year younger sister, we were preparing for a big adventure, a month long European trip. As excited as we were, we really had no idea what an adventure it would really turn out to be for us, three poor, woefully unprepared and inexperienced travelers.
We bought three Euro-rail passes, those favorably priced blanket tickets that are valid for a whole month for any railway throughout Europe. We packed three humongous backpacks and some smaller bags, made some rough plans ‘” yeah, we are going to go here and there, a few days in Austria, another few in Germany, quick visits with Dutch friends, a week in France, then Spain ‘” and jumped onto the Vienna-bound express in Budapest.
We were ecstatic and elated. Vienna was beautiful, we quickly crisscrossed the Southern parts of Germany, hooked up with our Dutch friends. A few days into the month-long adventure it became clear that we were somewhat underfunded for the enterprise. Currency exchanges ‘” there was no Euro back then ‘” ate into our funds, the truly delicious and super-tempting pastries, meats, fruits and other culinary delights offered everywhere seemed to have been hugely overpriced and somehow cheap accommodation was really hard ‘” or shall I say impossible? – to come by. Undeterred, we made some quick, clever plans: we would stick to one ‘full’ meal a day, survive on crackers, cheap bologna and maybe apples otherwise and would spend every second night on the train. A few days later we modified this original plan: two nights on trains in a row followed by a night in some bed. We crossed into France this way.
Organizing the nightly train rides became a challenge, but we were resourceful and came up with an ingenious solution: we would take a late evening train with a far-away destination, ride it halfway through the night, get off it somewhere towards the midpoint of its route, wait for the returning train from the opposite direction and get back to our original starting point by morning. Yes, it did break the night into two and it required a lot of train schedule studying ‘” finding the right midpoint to maximize sleep-time and minimize waiting time at a dark, train station in the middle of nowhere ‘” but it allowed us to spend several days in one place, for example Paris or the Riviera, without having to pay astronomical prices for accommodation. It had some other drawbacks and risks, too, such as sometimes finding ourselves on a jam-packed train that we boarded in the middle of the night as it was making its way from some far-away town having already picked up a full trainload of passengers. When that happened, well, we had to stand or sit in the train aisle for half of the night. Missing the midpoint was worse as it could have had the very serious consequences of having to spend an entire half night in front of an empty and locked rural railway station somewhere in Europe. At least, we traveled lightly, having figured out that for a small price we can leave our backpacks in the lockers at the departure/destination station.
Anyway, Paris and the Riviera were absolutely worth it. Unfortunately, they were also very expensive, no amount of penny-pinching seemed to stop the disastrous drain of our scarce cash reserves. So off to Spain we rushed. It should be cheaper, sunshine, beaches, plenty of things to see, wonderful cities. Barcelona turned out like a fairy tale: we found an inexpensive hostel that served free breakfast ‘” a few, mini muffins with black coffee ‘” met some great people, whiled away on the Ramblas, in Guel Park and kept returning to the magnificent Sagrada Familia.
All good things have to come to an end, so we moved on to Madrid where we found oruselves in the thick of a slow-moving horror story. After a full night standing on guard on a train choke full of passengers, we arrived into the sweltering, 100+ degree heat of the Spanish capital that seemed to have been choking in the fumes of its deadly traffic jams. We cruised the city all day in the heat, vainly searching for cheap, then for acceptable, then for ANY lodging ‘” every room, bed and even airbed in the city seemed to have been booked; conference, royal event, European event, something was going on. So we dragged ourselves and our crushingly heavy backpacks to Atocha, the station. After studying the schedules for a brief hour in the refreshingly cool waiting room, we came up with the midpoint-and-back route of the night. We were the first people to board the train and were happy to notice that it remained fairly empty all the way to its scheduled departure, thus getting an entire cabin for ourselves. All three of us fell instantly asleep, then awoke for the change-over, got lucky again with a half-empty train and promptly went back to sleep.
When we woke up again, the train was stopped in the open. No station in sight, no buildings, no sign of civilization, just the barren, empty Spanish heartland. We slept some more. The growing heat ‘” the train’s air conditioning stopped ‘” and the escalating noise woke us up again several hours later, but still at the same spot amidst dry, yellowing meadows in the sweltering sunshine. We spoke no Spanish, but somehow we came to understand what had happened: ETA, the Basque terrorist organization blew up railway sections in Spain that morning. They chose to blow up a section of the route a few hundred meters ahead of our train.
First we found this hysterically hilarious and reveled in the thought of this special adventure and the oohs and aahs that its retelling would provoke in friends and relatives back at home. The train stood there for another half a day, the conductors came and gave some apples and sticky, soggy pastries to the passengers. We were starving by then, wolfed them down. Eventually the train was pushed back to the station that it had last left behind and everybody was told to clear out. A long line formed at the lonely phone booth of the tiny rural, no-name Spanish railway station. We had no one to call for a drive. Slowly cars started showing up, picking up those lucky passengers who could ask for a drive.
By then we grew pretty silent. As most of our fellow passengers slowly disappeared, we decided to take our destiny into our hands and strike out on our own. If there is a railway station, there must be a village somewhere near, as well. Or some form of human settlement. Let’s find it. We did, after a 10 mile trek. By then dusk was filtering down from the sky, but the temperature was still in the upper 90s. The road leading to the ‘settlement’ was dusty, narrow and ruthlessly straight with no end in sight. Small apple and olive trees stood along it, we raided them for food, the apples were more sour than lemon and the olives were inedible, not yet ripe. My sister started crying a little, I pretended to be brave, my boyfriend was famished.
Exhausted and dispirited, we stumbled into the little village’s pub: tourists, terrorists, no train, Madrid. Tourists, terrorists, ETA, no train, Madrid. Madrid? Si, Madrid. Somehow ‘” we spoke no Spanish, yes, I already said that ‘” we understood or thought that we had understood that a milk truck would be leaving for Madrid from just outside of the village at 4 in the morning. That was good news, 4 in the morning, well, it is almost here, it is already evening. This one short night, oh, we can get through it squatting in some corner. Or sitting under a tree ‘” as it turned out. We were too scared to miss the mythical 4 am milk truck, so despite the bone-crushing fatigue in our bodies, we could not sleep. 4 am came and went, but the magical milk truck did not. The little pub, our haven did not reopen until 10 am. Even then, nobody remembered anything about a 4 am milk truck. Maybe 4 pm? Yes, that must be it. Except, that it was not. Hopeless and panicked, we become Spanish speakers overnight:
‘How come? Does no one ever travel from here to Madrid?’
‘Madrid? Far away from here. No cars here. No Madrid’
‘Can’t you get to Madrid from here?’
‘Si, si, two days from now, there will be a milk truck, early in the morning.’
That just did it: beaten, thirsty and hungry, we started our pathetic, sad 10-mile march back to the railway station ‘” to find that the Spanish Railroad started running buses to Madrid in lieu of the usual train traffic that was still not running due to the damage to the rails. Never before in my life had I been happier to be able to sit on a sticky, stinky, torn, faux leather bus seat! Never before had I slept so well! The heavenly peace and bliss did not last long, soon we found ourselves in the crazy beehive of Atocha, Madrid’s main railway station with its somewhat apocalyptic scene of paralyzed trains, blindly blank departure and arrival boards, confused and scared passengers, nervous and short-tempered policemen and security guards.
As I said, we traveled lightly, which meant that our backpacks were stuffed into lockers ‘” however they were expired, we only paid for 12 hours and had been away for more than 48. This caused some problems with the police and security people who suspected that we could be terrorists hiding bombs in our dilapidated backpacks. My sister’s uncontrollable sobs finally convinced them that we were just some poor, clueless sods caught up in events way beyond our control and they let us go with our sorry luggage after levying a hefty fine on us for our letting our bags ‘overstay’ their welcome in the lockers.
At that point, we did not even try to venture into the city to find a hostel, just camped out in the waiting room. A few hours later as it was getting dark and really unfriendly, we were kicked out of there. With a handful of other unlucky backpackers we found a cool little park, well, a small grassy circle ‘guarded’ by two miniature and very sorrowful looking palm trees. We divided up the little space and agreed that one person from the small group would always stay awake and be on the lookout ‘” the neighborhood did not seem exactly friendly and our little group of 10 or 12 people had all their precious belongings in their backpacks now tucked under their butts or heads. We settled down, got a surprise shower from the automatic sprinklers apparently set up to keep the ‘park’ fresh and green in the sweltering Spanish heat, joked about this a little, then went to sleep. We had our little changing of the guard ceremony every hour ‘” until around 1 am when we were all woken up: some by friendly pokes from a security guard’s stick, others by less friendly nudging at the hands ‘” or feet ‘” of some grumbling policemen. Yes, we got it, we had to clear out or face arrest. We cleared out and spent the rest of the night walking around waiting for dawn to come, although not quite believing that it eventually will.
But it did. With dawn, some train traffic was also restored so we hopped on the first available train. Obviously, it was jam packed. Obviously, we were a bit uneasy, scared of possible additional attacks. Obviously, we were very-very tired. We ended up in Toledo. We just had to find a place to sleep and stay for the night! We just had to. The place we found was unlike anything we had seen before: four, huge, barren rooms with hard, cold stone floors, originally white, but by then seriously dirty walls and 6 wooden beds in each. Eventually we chose to sleep on the floor ‘” the mattresses were swarming with bugs and had huge yellow, purple, dark brown and even reddish stains on them, some still somewhat wet. My sister threw up, I cleaned it up after her. One of our roommates from the other beds also threw up ‘” no one cleaned that up. After midnight someone threw an empty bottles into the room through the open window looking out onto a dark, deserted street. It flew into the room, hit the wall somewhere and showered tiny glass pieces all over the floor. My boyfriend suggested that we leave immediately ‘” which we would have gladly done, except that the hostel’s big entrance door was locked with no one around to unlock it for us. We took shelter in the hostel’s dining room, up on the tables as little gray mice were scurrying around on the floor. We even slept a little there. Then had breakfast there in the morning. But after breakfast we left as fast as we possibly could, train station, schedule, nevermind, first train out of here, out of Spain, now, fast, away, away….
To Portugal. We sat through the Spanish portion of this train ride as though we had swallowed a stake, frozen, terrified, prepared for the worst. Clickety-clack, choo-choo, omygod howmuchlongerhowmuchlonger ‘” all the way to OPorto. There we spent half a day lying like sacks of potatoes in an unkempt, filthy, pigeon poop and feather covered park ‘” never seen so many feathers in my life. As the sun was setting, my boyfriend pulled himself together and threatened to leave both me and sister in that park for good unless we both got up right then and followed him in the search of some accommodation.
From there, things started getting better. We rode the evening train all the way to Lisbon in search of accommodation ‘” and boy, did we find it! In Lisbon we found a bed and breakfast, right on Praca de Figueria, one of Lisbon’s most beautiful central squares, the square of the fig trees. The proprietor lady was kind enough to assign a bed ‘” on the upper level of a bunk bed ‘” for the three of us to share in exchange for us helping out with the dishes in the morning and evening. The bunk bed stood at the end of a long, spooky, drafty hallway, but God, did it have the most splendid view of the square. It was also wide enough, so we barely squashed each other. The lady also provided us with plentiful and delicious breakfast, alas, no dinner. Regardless, we stayed there for 5 nights. We spent wonderful days walking around in the magical city of Lisbon, took the local train to Cascais in the afternoons to nap, sunbathe, swim and again nap on a tiny, FREE beach we found in this posh beach suburb. One day we even bought some fancy ice cream cup there, sitting proudly on the terrace of one of the little, elegant cafes. Lisbon was paradise for us ‘” up until the last day when we ventured out into Sintra, the winter residence of the old Portuguese royal family. Sintra was a wonderful gem of a town and also turned out to be the place where I missed the last evening train back to Lisbon after making a dash for the about-to-depart silver cars whose closing doors broke two of my fingers. This way I spent my last night in Portugal in front of the dark Sintra station nursing my throbbing fingers, vowing to never ever board a train again once this trip to and around hell is over.
The trip was eventually over, of course, but not before one of our backpacks was stolen during our last train ride, on route from Rome to Budapest. Luckily it only had a few boxes of Spanish crackers that we could not even look at any more, dirty underwear, an empty wallet ‘” all our wallets were empty by then ‘” and my camera which had melted to an unrecognizable mess of metal during a train ride through the sun-beaten Spanish heartland when it was sitting on the little table right under the window filled with blindingly shiny, hot, yellow sunlight. Despite all, the next year we did it again ‘” the Euro-rail trip. For that trip we saved up more money, made smarter and more detailed plans, packed some useful dictionaries and were ready for it all: the best and the worst. The second trip turned out wonderfully, I even have all the photographic evidence of all its major stops and events. As for the first trip ‘” all we have is some haunting memories that occasionally come back as nightmares and my two crooked fingers, courtesy of the fast and furiously closing metal doors of the Sintra train.