Clockwork

That’s how the German train system runs. Actually, it’s how most continental train services run, unlike the disorganised overpriced garbage with out-of-date rolling stock we’re stuck with in the UK.

I booked my ticket the day before I travelled online through www.bahn.de. Simple to use, in English and German and providing timetables, crossovers onto buses, and so on. The prices offered generally come in two flavours: very early bookers (I’ve never been able to get one of these) and usual price. On some trains there’s a first class option as well. The thing is, the regular price is always available even if you book thirty minutes before travelling.

None of this “£20 two weeks before and £120 on the day” nonsense as we have in the UK. Experience tells me this results in a carriage full of reserved seats with three people occupying any of them when the train pulls out of London. Offices just pre-book all the cheap seats in case any of their staff need them. It’s cheaper than booking when they’re required.

So armed with all my details and a credit card, I forked out €32.90 for a 3-train/1-bus 3 1/2 hour journey from Bielefeld to Weeze Airport, the budget version of Dusseldorf. Compared to an early-booking UK train, this is marginally expensive but what you have to take into account is the reliability and swiftness of the journey. The only issue I had was that the ticket must be printed out, but as long as you’re prepared for this it’s fine. The printout even includes your detailed schedule right down to the platform numbers you arrive at and depart from.

Can you imagine booking three trains over a three-hour journey with as little as ten minutes to connect at each station in the UK? You’d be lucky to get from the first to the second without missing one. Here, no problem. The busier routes are serviced by double-decker carriages so there’s more chance of a seat, and they’re clean, tidy and much quieter than almost any train I’ve been on back home.

As you approach each station a tannoy announcement and an LED screen tells you where you’re about to arrive. No more leaning against the glass trying to read the platform sign that’s 20m away and at a slight angle.

The bus I caught from Melanie’s was dot on time. It dropped me in town exactly as scheduled so I had a chance to get lunch before I reached the station. The first train was bang on time and I settled down with Nelson De Mille’s Cathedral to read. Around 90 minutes later I hopped off to make my first connection. Referring to my printout meant I didn’t have to search departure boards for the platform number, just walking around. There I got chatting to an English squaddie off to visit some friends. He’s been stationed in Germany for quite some time and is thinking of settling in the south once he leaves the army. Good luck to him.

Of course, the train was on time though a little crowded. Twenty minutes later I arrived at stop two, changed to the (on-time) third train and shortly after hopped off at Weeze station. A 100m walk got me to the airport shuttle – price included in my ticket – and exactly as scheduled on the piece of paper I had in my hand, arrived at the airport.

Good grief.

We’ve had private and public rail services. We’ve had bidding wars. We’ve fined companies for being crap and thrown money at repairs and upgrades. Yet all we have to do is look a few hundred miles away and virtually every country in Europe puts us to shame. Even the Romanian trains were more reliable than ours, including the so-called “Gypsy” service.

Anyway, I’m safely ensconced at Weeze Airport awaiting my flight to London. I’m about to spend virtually every cent I have on a sausage roll and an orange juice so that I don’t have to withdraw any more cash. As far as dinky airports go, it’s nice enough. Plain, but shiny and clean. Nothing to do, no free wi-fi (not a surprise), and one overpriced bar/cafe but I’m only here for an hour before my flight is called.

Three hours from now I’ll be cursing the immigration staff at Stansted again…

Later…

I wasn’t. Breezed through due to the flight landing early so we didn’t clash with the larger flight that followed on behind us. Even the luggage dropped off the carousel in record time. I got to the bus stop for my easybus half an hour early and was allowed onto the bus before the one I had booked. Nobody checked my ticket (bah – £7.50 wasted) and the driver shot down the M11 and through London like a bat out of Hell.

The ninety minute scheduled journey took a shade over an hour and I tumbled onto first the Victoria and then the Northern Line down to Liam’s place in darkest Croydon. I was met by my host at the Underground station and we headed for the most important building in the area – Liam’s local real ale pub. We sank a couple of pints and a devoured two bags of salt and vinegar crisps. The things you miss when you’re away from home.

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Browsing Bielefeld

Melanie had kindly dug out all the bus maps and timetables so that I could figure out how to get into the city centre for a walk about. The public transport around here is pretty good, with new buses and trains which stick to good timetables. It’s not cheap, though – around UK prices but the standards are higher.

I hopped onto the number 24 and paid my €2.10 for a ticket into town, then sat down. It took me some time before I realised that everyone else getting onto the bus was validating their ticket in a little stamping machine. I’d not known about this, so by the time I got into the centre I had a ticket still valid for the next journey. I guess the driver couldn’t be bothered explaining to me that my ticket needed stamped and assumed I’d tyrow it away after I got off. Ah well.

Bielefeld bills itself as “one of the twenty major cities in Germany” and “the principal city of Eastern Westphalia“. It’s pretty enough, though as with many places in Germany a lot of the buildings date from the late 1940’s for some reason *cough*. There is a marked line between the old and new cities with the former having nice windy roads and the latter being all straight lines.

I checked out the train station so I knew where to go when I left the next day, and walked around to the Stadhalle Bielefeld which has what looks like an enormous empty picture frame erected on the grounds. I assume that’s what it is, but I can’t find any photos of it with a cavas or anything in place. I guess it’s used for exhibitions or displays.

From there, down a beautiful street lined with yellowing trees to the Sparrenburg Castle which is perched on a little hill at the south end of the city. It’s only small as far as castles go, but it’s a pretty building and is quite popular for wedding photographs. One happy couple were being snapped in various places around the grounds as I was there.

Again, I think I’ve picked a great time of year to visit this part of Germany as the leaves on the trees covered every colour from green to red, orange and yellow. I’m rather happy with some of my photos! The view over the city from there is nice, too, though the aforementioned trees do block the best view of St Mary’s Cathedral and it’s twin spires. There is one lookout that I think would provide a decent view of it, but it’s undergoing maintenance so I couldn’t check it out.

Back nearer sea level, I checked out the cathedral a little closer up and then took a walk around the older area before struggling to get some cash out of an ATM. Germany uses “EC” (Electronic Cash, I think) and some machine will point blank refuse to accept Visa cards. Of course, they’ll let you go through the whole process of entering your PIN, choosing the amount, asking if you want a receipt… then saying that you’re card is invalid. This is also the case when buying train tickets from the machines in the station. Rather annoying.

After an expensive lunch in McD’s (it was convenient), I walked up to the Kunsthalle (art gallery) where there’s currently an exhibition of stuff from loon and ex-Beatles-hanger-on Yoko Ono. There’s a charge to get in so I didn’t bother walking around, but it’s a nice building from the outside and one of the exhibits/pieces is on display outside – a hearse, or “coffin car”. As part of the display, you can be driven around the town centre for 15 minutes in a hearse. For €5 per person.

Essentially, this means you’re paying money to advertise the gallery. Sneaky marketing and I’m sure some muppet art lovers will fall for it. After the “intellectual” comments I heard from some idiots viewing the new cathedral windows in Cologne last year I’d not put anything past them.

And finally back on the bus again out to Melanie’s. Using my *cough* “recycled” ticket.

Oh, apparently Bielefeld doesn’t exist. It’s some weird German joke that I don’t understand, but I can tell you that it does. And though it’s not as cool as Cologne or as bouncy as Bonn (or as big as Berlin from what I hear), it’s a lovely little place. Nice for a stop-off if you’re in the area.

[Update – a nice person on CouchSurfing who lives in the area has pointed me to the Bielefeld Conspiracy article on Wikipedia. Apparently the town was accidentally / deliberately missing from a map published some years ago]

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Revisiting Dusseldorf

Given the amount we put away the night before, I’m impressed we both woke at all. But we did, with an hour to spare before Melanie would have got a parking ticket. I enjoyed another hot shower (I’m appreciating the fact these things are a luxury) and we checked out.

I actually seem to know the touristy stuff in Dusseldorf better than my German companion so we set off to find the Designer Warf area near the tower. Easy, obviously, as the aforementioned tower stands like a huge pointy… tower as a landmark.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account Dusseldorf’s insane one-way system which makes Glasgow and Leeds seem positively logical by comparison. And believe me, they aren’t.

After half an hour, we’d driven within 200m of the tower twice, crossed a bridge and navigated a tunnel system then ended up somewhere from where we couldn’t even see the damn tower on the skyline. At this point, we stopped for brunch at a bakery.

One last try. And we lucked out. After spotting the correct tunnel somewhere, Melanie got us to the Warf area, we parked and got out. I’ve been here before and I didn’t have my camera on me, so check out the pics from my earlier visit. I didn’t add them to my post from last time.

After our mission was complete, it was time to head towards Bielefeld. There’s not a huge amount in the area according to my host, but one thing worth seeing was the Externsteine, so we headed there. It’s a large rock formation stuck in the middle of a nice foresty setting that’s been used by many groups of humans over the millenia, and for a variety of purposes.

For those visiting, you can get a bus there or drive up. If you drive, it costs €1 to get into the car park. Walking around the Steine themselves is free, but if you want to climb up them it’s a small fee of €1.50 for adults. There’s a pretty view from the top, and one has an interesting old chamber that’s now open to the elements. Melanie translated what a schoolteacher was telling his class.

Way back when, this chamber was used for giving sacrifices to Pagan gods. Also, one of the walls has a circular hole carved into it. On the day that Summer turns to Winter, the sun fits into this hole exactly. So essentially it’s a big one-day calendar. With added blood and guts.

A large carving nearer ground level shows Christ being taken down from the cross along with an image of a wilting tree. This, apparently, indicated the overthrowing of the old Pagan gods by Christianity and dates from a period in history when this kind of thing was going on a lot.

As a result of that, Himmler and the related branches of the SS took an interest in the site. The old Nazi government were rather interested in all things occult, Pagan, supernatural and so forth – Raiders of the Lost Ark has some small grounds in truth! The sad upshot of this is that every so often, a handful of skinheads will decide they want to celebrate something here and cause a fuss.

The Steine are quite a sight, and I love the bridge that links one rock with the sacrificial calendar room. The surrounding grounds are also quite beautiful. I think I caught it at just the right time of year as Autumn is in full swing and the trees are more orange than green.

Our touristing complete for the day, Melanie drove us to Bielefeld and gave me a quick recce by car. Back at her place (pretty much a worksite, though the rooms that are finished show this will be a wonderful place once it’s all done), we lazed for a bit and then ordered dinner in. We were both exhausted and as Melanie had work the next morning, we turned in early.

It says a lot about how tired I was that despite having free, fast internet to go wild on I was asleep by 22:30.

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Big long hop

Well, I left you at Suvarnabhumi Airport, fortunately hitting “Publish” just before the free wi-fi connection dropped. It was a long flight, but I made it.

Things to note when making a long-haul journey. In fact, primarily… make sure you have enough stuff to do. I’d left my spare novel in my hold baggage so I started to worry what would happen if I finished the one I was reading. Fortunately, between snoozing and reading newspapers I managed to spin out the time.

I flew with FinnAir and they were OK. No individual screens for the videos, so EVA Airlines still wins my prize for best long-distance flight. A shame that was way back in 2006 and I’ve not had a comparable aeroplane since. It was a moderately filled flight, so I had a lot of room and the meals were as good as in-flight meals get.

There was one upset as we neared Helsinki after almost 10 hours of flying. One Thai gentleman a few rows behind got rather ill all of a sudden. Judging by the mass exodus of people from the seats around him, I think this may have involved a degree of “splosh”. Fortunately, the cabin crew saw to it swiftly and he was OK.

Other than that, I fell asleep during the recent Indiana Jones film though managed to suffer through Kit Kittredge though I don’t know how. Bad as Crystal Skull was, Kittredge was like a feature length episode of The Red Hand Gang. With hobos. And yet I couldn’t nod off to spare myself.

With my sanity barely intact, we landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport where I had a fairly painless swap onto my connecting flight. The only slowdown was the annoyingly thorough security check. Welcome to Europe. As is not uncommon, my laptop bag went through a second scan, I assume as it’s full of cables and stuff. I’ve still never been cautioned or queried about the half-empty toothpaste tube that’s always wedged in the front pocket.

It must be the only location in Finland where you can’t get free wi-fi although there are three companies competing for your cash to use a paid-for service. As ever, I didn’t even look at the pricing and just folded up my laptop and waited. Fortunately, due to some good scheduling, I only had an hour or so to wait for my flight to Dusseldorf. As far as airports go, it was OK, but nothing special. They start to look the same after a while.

Despite it only being a 2-hour flight I was fed a meal which was good as I’ve not bought a thing foodwise since I left my hostel in the morning. I also managed to cram in an hour’s sleep, waking just before we landed.

We touched down at Dusseldorf International at around 20:15 local time and I reckon my body was at around 23:00 with all the sleep I’d managed. Hopefully this would offset some of the jet lag. I had no immigration to deal with as I’d had my passport checked at Helsinki, so it was only a short delay before I picked up my rucksack and made my way to the connecting train station.

Here’s a hint – make sure you have change before buying a train ticket. The machines will only accept EC cards, 5- and 10-Euro notes and coins. The ATMs at the airport will only dish out 20-Euro bills. Fortunately, a woman behind me had two 10’s which she helpfully swapped.

An announcement came out over the tannoy which I didn’t understand. I did, however, pick up the body language of the other passengers – delay. Thankfully it was only ten minutes and by 22:00 I was stood outside Dusseldorf Hauptbahnhof waiting for Melanie (who I met at this year’s Graspop) to come and get me. A shame that Chris – my CouchSurfing host from last year – couldn’t make it.

With no further ado, she showed me to the hotel she’d sorted, I dumped my bags and went on the very important search for the bar area. Dusseldorf claims to be “Europe’s Biggest Bar” due to the number of alehouses in one small location, though I think Norris McWhirter would have had something to say about it.

Needless to say the only problem we had was picking one out of the variety of offer. Eventually we settled on an outdoors place with a very pretty barmaid and stared sinking the first of far too many “Alt”s. Two bars and much beer (and a few shooters) later, we staggered back to the hotel and crashed out.

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Back in Belgium

I woke at a reasonable hour and made sure I was all packed up. I had time to do a quick email check and get breakfast before I had to walk over the road to the hauptbahnhof for my coach to Brussels. Hans was already there doing the tourist thing and we’d agreed to meet up for a drink in the pub with 2004 beers.

At 10:30, I was on time for check-in on the coach. Here’s a warning… Eurolines are OK. But despite booking through them, I was on a “Euro Buses” (I think) coach instead. As a result, I had to pay an extra Euro for my rucksack. When I complained, the driver got out a battered A4 sheet stapled to some card with the details of the luggage charge in three languages – none of them English.

Bizarre thing is that I swear this has happened to me before. Something similar happened when Hans and I were ripped off by a taxi driver and his mate in Mumbai (at least they’d laminated their sheet which they used to fleece us). But I have a niggly memory of being charged for luggage carriage in Europe before. Yeah, it was only a Euro but it’s the principle.

Anyhow, the journey was pleasant enough with some nice weather and scenery. I watched another Dead Zone on my PSP and read some more of my book (Elephant Song by Wilbur Smith – rather good). We passed through a couple of other cities on the way in, including a drop-off in Liége. Which I can tell you is definitely not designed for coaches. Brussels hove into view later than planned due to traffic, but it didn’t feel like I was late.

I walked down to the 2Go4 hostel where I’d stayed last time. In fact, almost exactly a year ago when Marina and I attended last year’s Graspop. As ever, the welcome was warm and the place was clean and busy. I had been lucky to get a bed as Hans had been kind enough to keep badgering them until they assured me a spot due to a cancellation. A very busy hostel and justifiably so.

After dropping my stuff we headed straight out for some food (kebab was quick and easy) and a walk around. We took in the usual touristy stuff like the town hall and the Mannequin Pis. Bizarrely when we got to the little fella having a wee, few people were looking at him. Instead, eyes were focussed on a woman trying to rescue her kitten from a window ledge.

Lowering a basket with food in only succeeded in having the cat tip the basket over, pinch the food and eat it on the ledge. D’oh. Eventually he found another open window and – I hope – would have been found by office staff the next day.

Walking back towards the town hall, Hans dropped a few cents into the hat of a human statue. “Have a photo!” he shouted, so we did. One each. Cool. Then “Give me two Euros!” resulted in a firm “no” and us walking off.

A word for anyone planning on doing the whole statue thing. If you want money for photos – ask first. Not after. It’s far more polite.

We located the Delirium Bar which serves over 2000 beers and enjoyed a cheeky one each followed by ice cream from an nearby stand. Hans was exhausted as he’d had a couple of early mornings and I wanted to catch the footie so we walked back to the hostel where I got online while he had a snooze. Spain beat Russia to go through to the final, which entailed the entire Spanish population of Brussels driving arond town beeping their damn car horns till the silly hours. Who’d have thought Brussels had so many Spaniards?

Our plans to go out again kind of tailed off when we both realised we were still tired later on. We’d need our strength the next couple of days so had a moderately early night after chatting to our roomies for a while. Tomorrow, Graspop beckoned.

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