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Sleeping around (Europe on trains and ferries)

My sister sent me a text last week saying “they’ve just announced a new sleeper train service from Paris to Berlin”. “Shitting bloody WOW!” I responded, naturally. And in the split second after reading that text it was decided in my mind that I would be getting on that train. The first one out of Paris (or indeed Berlin, depending on which city it started from) if I possibly could, and if not the very first then at the very earliest opportunity.


I’ve just found out that I’m autistic. In a nutshell this has meant living my life up to now in a state of permanent and total bamboozlement. Being flabbergasted most of time by the ability of most people to do most normal things, seemingly naturally and easily. I struggle with everything. I can only describe it as feeling like my brain doesn’t work a lot of the time, because often I simply cannot work out what or how to do things, no matter how hard I try. These things include doing the washing, shopping, holding down a job and a whole host of other normal things. Also my way of seeing the world is very different to other people, I notice everything and want to know about everything, it’s wonderful but also exhausting. Being the way I am has made me feel, and indeed still does make me feel isolated, and I feel like a great big square peg in a very small round hole trying to live like other people. This said however, the thing that most autistic people have in common is having a special interest. It took me a long time to realise that brown signing and research around museums and tourist attractions, especially uncovering their human stories, the starting of collections and often inspiring journeys to open their doors to the public was my special interest. My special interest turned out to be other peoples’ special interests! I have a permanent desire to dive in to the world and discover it the only way I know how, by getting out there and engaging with it, truly doing and seeing everything I possibly can; but over the last 8 years this urge (and my special interest) has been forcibly quashed by the appearance of my children. I’ve made a big effort to be a good mum and have tried to build a happy stable environment for them at home. I’m proud of myself for this because it has not come at all naturally to me, but having also acquired a chronic cancerous illness during this time and becoming completely burnt out, well, for these reasons and more I am no longer working, or researching or writing and no longer doing the thing I always loved the most, spontaneously travelling and adventuring whenever the mood took me; that was until Easter last year…
On a whim that could not be quashed I booked my children and I on the cheapest one way flight I’ve ever seen (£17) out of Bristol to Mykonos at the beginning of the Easter holidays (it turned out to the first ever flight from Bristol to Mykonos) without booking a return. I began my research into the Greek islands and decided our adventure would be guided by overland travel options within my time frame and budget, and as much packing in stuff as possible of course. My children were 4 and 7, and in my opinion old enough to travel, properly travel. Old enough to carry their own backpacks (our luggage allowance included only an under seat bag each), staying in different places over the time we were away, putting up with reliance on potentially unreliable public transport, having some long train/bus/ferry journeys and finding their own ways to deal with discomfort and boredom (no iPads were packed) as well as experiencing some fantastic things that would make this trip different to any holiday they had ever been on.
We ended up starting in Mykonos for a few days, bouncing around on busses across the island, playing on deserted beaches and swimming in the freezing sea (turns out the Greek islands really are dead until after Easter, which was a huge win), then took a ferry over to Syros (with it’s jaw droppingly beautiful approach from the sea) for another 3 nights and exploring every single inch of the island. Then finally onto Kos (which turned out is in a totally different island group) by overnight ferry, exploring from the minute we stepped off the ferry, and let me tell you the whole experience was wonderful (I could post the intricacies of the trip but maybe that’s for a different blog!). What I realised after that trip was that travelling was possible with my children and I never wanted to go on another normal holiday again, and honestly I don’t think I ever will. This summer I took them to Paris and onto Lisbon, travelling up the Portuguese coast and eventually ending our 2 week adventure in Porto, they loved it and and do you know what, I began feeling a little bit more like the old me again.
Back to The Mose’s text… she knows not only that I love travelling but really overland travel is what I truly love. Flying never makes me feel at all connected to any places I go and I have to make a big effort when I’m there to try and understand and work out where I am (I often look for brown tourist signs to help me with that, you won’t be surprised to hear). But if I can draw a line on a map to where a train runs on tracks or where a ferry crosses the sea I feel I really know where I’ve come from and where I’m going, at a sort of reasonable human pace that I can get my head around. I love crossing borders and have written before about this indescribable feeling of excitement I get when I cross a border, be it a bridge across a river that forms a frontier between two counties or trundling across a border in a bus that may not even be actually marked, but it’s there and somehow you can feel you’ve crossed it. I am eternally fascinated by people, cultures and lands and seeing all those things with my own eyes as I pass through, not over, holds so much romance and joy for me. In 2006 me and my then boyfriend, Chris, set off on a big trip travelling around the world with nothing but a Eurostar out of London to Brussels booked. We wanted to travel only overland and were open to going wherever we could get to, provided we didn’t fly. We journeyed through Europe; Belgium, Germany, Poland, Belarus and Russia, slowing making our way into Asia, we got as far across as Japan through Mongolia and China and down to Malaysia through Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and seeing all these different lands unfold through dirty bus or train windows was a very special experience.
It was on this trip that I fell in love with sleeper trains (and indeed overnight ferries and busses). On the Trans-Siberian railway you kind of had to, a full week (if you don’t stop along the way) to get from Moscow to Beijing through Mongolia in a carriage with 4 other people you don’t know was both wildly brutal and also one of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life. We took one of the first (controversial) trains out of Beijing to Lhasa, capital of Tibet which was so high at points that train attendants distributed oxygen masks for passengers to plug into specially designed oxygen sockets in the train wall to prevent altitude sickness.
So, you can see why The Mose’s text only went to fuel my already burning desire to get travelling again and I hastily began my research into the sleeper trains of Europe. A few years ago, while planning a no fly Euro/Scandi adventure I consulted The Man in Seat 61’s fantastic website (detailing overland train and a lot of ferry travel in intricate detail across the world) and was disappointed to see that many European sleeper train services had been cancelled, sometimes pulled due to Covid then simply not reinstated and some simply because demand was dwindling and the companies deemed them too cost inefficient to run. I was really sad to see it happening but assumed given the difficult-to-resist-cheap-flights that abound nowadays that the era of people getting on sleeper trains to get to their holiday destinations was gone. Well…. what a difference a few years can make though, eh?! To my great joy the announcement by the Austrian train operator OBB that the sleeper train service that once connected Paris to Berlin would run again after a hiatus of 9 years was just a small part of the jigsaw in a rapidly expanding network of high speed trains and sleeper services across Europe. Many are run by OBB, with their sleeper services romantically named the NightJet (all their routes are here and include services connecting Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic and Italy, and many of those are car carrying too, meaning you could drive your car onto a train after dinner in Vienna, then go to sleep in your private cabin, wake up have breakfast in the restaurant carriage and drive your own car off the train in Split, Croatia in the morning, which I find totally and utterly wonderfully awesome). The innovative European Sleeper is a newly formed Dutch/Belgian operator running trains from The Netherlands to Berlin and, I was heartened to learn, is actually a cooperative born in 2021 after an initial share sale which raised 50,000 euros of seed capital in just 15 minutes. With their second successful share sale in 2022 they raised another 2 million euros for more sleeper carriages and they continue to look optimistically at the future of sleeper train travel with the addition of new routes coming soon, including to Stockholm and Barcelona (which as you can imagine makes me nearly wee myself with excitement).
As I poured over the timetables, maps, routes, connections and prices of all these services I started looking beyond my narrow original search of simply how I could get to Berlin and back from Paris after completing my journey on the new Berlin/Paris sleeper and I started seeing the potential of everywhere else I could go. As much as this new train excited me I also have a weird aversion to going to places I’ve already been, no matter how wonderful they were and how much I’d actually like to go back. Having just been to Paris with my kids on our mini euro summer adventure and as I’ve been to Berlin many times before I started paying much more attention to the connections out of these cities, to places I hadn’t ever been to, like Wroclaw in Poland for example and it filled me with such longing that I knew I needed to start planning a whole new adventure.
So I’ve started hatching my plan… I’m going to take a “cities break” over the course of a long weekend, Thursday through to Monday in mid December travelling to and through as many counties as I can, on as tight a budget as I can, with my only sleeping accommodation being in a bunk on an overnight train or ferry. I’ll spend the day in each city after arriving in early on the train, following brown signs and generally packing in a whistle stop tour of each one, then I’ll hop back on the next sleeper train to my next destination. At the moment this crazy ass trip is looking like this:
Thursday – Pick the kids up from school, hang out for a few hours with them until my husband finishes work when I’ll chuck him the childcare baton and run like the wind. I’ll leave from Bristol to Harwich by train late afternoon, from Harwich to the Hook of Holland on the wonderful overnight ferry run by Stena Line
Friday – Arrive into the Hook of Holland and get metro train to Rotterdam, day in Rotterdam, then take European Sleeper to Berlin
Saturday – Arrive in to Berlin Haubthahnhof early morning, get S-Bahn to Berlin Ostkreuz and get on train to Wroclaw in Poland (4.5hrs), arrive 12.35pm. Have afternoon in Wroclaw (drinking loads of mulled wine at the Christmas market no doubt), stumble back to station in the evening and anti-socially snore my way to Vienna overnight.
Sunday – Arrive Vienna in the morning, then have day in Vienna, get sleeper train to Zurich or Basel (undecided as yet and probably depends on connections to somewhere I can get the Eurostar from), then evening get sleeper train to (probably) The Netherlands), Amsterdam or Utrecht (as yet undecided and depends on connections and costs)
Monday – Wake up, probably in the Netherlands, maybe Belgium somewhere and head back the UK via Eurostar to London, then train to Bristol to arrive back at the school gates for 3.10pm pretending I’m just a normal mum
That would make it 6 countries in 5 days sleeping my way around Europe, and I can’t wait. There is a way to make it 7 country stops but it all depends on the minutiae of the timetabling and as OBB don’t release their train times for mid December until early/mid October I will just have to wait and see if I can work it. Of course If I can make this trip more far fetched I will…. Until the next update my friends please mind the gap between the train and platform 🫡