Monday, June 17, 2013

Taking Our Tandem by Train Across Europe

We had struck out on our original plan to assemble our coupled tandem in Amsterdam and take it as a tandem by train to Vienna, because there was no room for a tandem on our reserved train to Berlin, nor for a bike of any kind for the second leg to Vienna.  We ended up taking our bike in its two cases to Vienna, rebuilding it there, and sending the empty cases back to Amsterdam by FedEx.  The problem arose from the fact that one can reserve train tickets for yourself on the Internet, but not for your bike -- those can only be obtained at the train station.  We had gotten the former a month before.
So we were nervous about taking our tandem, fully assembled now, by train from Budapest to Vienna.  It turned out to be remarkably simple, with only two minor glitches.  The first was that the early train had no bike places.  However, there is a train every two hours, and the next train was fine.  In fact, as you can see, we had the only bike on that train, and we had a compartment on the train to ourselves.


The second minor issue was that the Hungarian ticket-seller could sell us a ticket to Bratislava, Slovakia, where we would have to change trains, but not the next leg from there to Vienna, Austria.  Again, not a biggie, as there is a train every hour!  When we got there, we easily obtained passage for ourselves and the bike on the next train.  Once again, it was lonely.

Three days earlier, we had tried to book passage by hydrofoil boat from Budapest to Vienna (3 times as expensive, 225 vs. 75 for two people and one bike, but guaranteed to take the bike).  To our surprise, the sailings had been cancelled for the coming week because of high water.  Half-way from Budapest to Bratislava, a British couple got on our train with their bikes, and told a tale of high water.  They had been biking from Budapest to Vienna but had just quit when high water covered a section of the bike trail and forced them onto a busy road near the great cathedral of Esztergom, which we had just photographed from the train.

Whoa!  That was a trail we had ridden 5 days earlier, with no problems.  They then told us that the flooding was more serious upriver.  We looked again at another photo we took fifteen minutes earlier, which (barely) shows a section of bike trail we had been on, next to the thin black railing.  But look closely at the far shore of the river:  there are trees standing in water.  Little did we know it yet, but those trees would be entirely under water a week later, and possibly the road next to our train tracks!

We returned to our friends Cordelia and Jazz in Vienna, said our hellos, and checked the news on the TV and Internet.  Within a short time it was clear: there would be NO chance of biking the Danube this summer.  NONE!  The clincher was the report that Passau, 7-8 days' riding from Vienna, had just recorded the highest river levels since 1501! 

Nor was it just the Danube.  Trains had either stopped running or were close to stopping on the lines through Salzburg (Salzach River), Innsbruck (the Inn), Prague (the Vlatava), and Dresden (the Elbe).  Going south to Italy sounded like a plan, but trains from Vienna almost always go first to Innsbruck to take advantage of the Donner Pass tunnel, so that was a non-starter as well.

It took hours to come up with a plan: take the train northeasterly through the eastern part of the Czech Republic and Katowice, Poland to Warsaw, then head due west to Berlin, then to a place yet to be determined near the Dutch/German border.  We went with Cordelia to the train station the next day, and were able to get tickets to Warsaw for us and the bike.  It would require two trains, the first two of five we would board on our exodus.

Things did not start auspiciously.  We waited in the middle of the platform, not knowing what sort of train would take us the first hour to Breclav, Czech Republic.  It turned out to be a fairly crowded double-decker commuter train.  There was a car with space for bikes, but it was one car back from where we waited, and we didn't see it until later, when we got off in Breclav.  Not a lot of room for a long tandem, but better than what we had to do: hold the tandem in a vestibule area for the first 20 minutes, with Jeff repeatedly saying "excuse me" in German, 'til we got past a stop where almost all remaining passengers alighted and we could put the bike in the aisle.


We did have one tandem-related issue in Breclav -- dealing with stairs.  We had to move from Platform 1 to Platform 2, but the elevator was too short (Vienna and Berlin had great elevators by contrast).  So all the luggage had to come off, carried down a flight of stairs, jog back up to the bike and together carry the bike down the staircase, then repeat the dance step on the up staircase.  Another reason to pack light!

The through train to Warsaw was, by contrast, a breeze.  Once again the tandem had the bike area to itself, and we had a comfortable ride across the flat plains of Poland.  It was a modern coach with a sign at the end identical to ones in Chinese high speed trains, telling us our next destination and our speed (we topped out at 159 kph/100 mph).

Because of our last-minute plans and need to find lodging near the Warsaw train station, we had to settle for a fairly expensive place that, at least, billed itself as a glitzy boutique hotel.  It was glitzy -- but the bathroom sink didn't drain (and didn't get fixed after our call to the front desk), the bed was rock-hard, and we had no hot water for a morning shower.  We cancelled our plan to do a day of sightseeing, checked out, and headed to the train station.  The ticket agent spoke German, at least, so Jeff was able to buy us tickets straight to Berlin.  Again, a train every two hours and, again, the first one was filled.  As soon as we knew we had a train, we headed to a McDonald's in the train station to get on free wifi.  Yes!  The hotel we used a month ago, a block from the Berlin train station, had a room at an affordable price.  We locked that in and waited for our train.

We had reserved seats and a reserved bike spot in car 267.  Down on the platform we found a diagram of our train, clearly showing that car 267 is ways the car right behind the locomotive.   Bingo, another easy time of it.  At lunch time we went to the restaurant car, which was fairly quiet, so we had a private compartment in which to enjoy our pierogies, salad and soup.  That evening we walked along the Spree River, following the route of the Berlin Wall for a ways as it zig-zaged across Berlin, and had another good meal at an outdoor cafe.

As soon as we had arrived in Berlin, we had booked the final leg to Norden, Germany, where we had found a country inn that sounded like a good place to recover at from all this train travel.   Having hopped on five trains in four days with only one half-hour of awkwardness with the tandem, we were feeling like it was not such a big deal to take a tandem by train around Europe.  We were about to be re-educated.

There is one direct train each day from Berlin to Norden, but it was fully booked already.  That should have been a warning sign.   The ticket agent got us a two-step passage, changing trains in Hannover.  The train had booked more passengers than seats, but luckily fewer bikes than bike hooks.  By resting against three bike-parking spots we were able to avoid blocking all passage with our 8-foot-long bike.  We even managed to get two fold-down jumper seats and chatted with a German couple who had a Beer Bike: a bike with its own keg!




The last leg was the hardest.  Waaaay too many bikes, waaaay too many passengers, about fifty of them pre-teens returning from a school trip.  Luckily we got our bike on early so it sat against the window as others stacked up against it, and luckier still we got two seats.  It was less than four hours but felt like twice that.

But end it did, and we hopped off one station stop short of the North Sea in Ost Friesland, the most northwesterly part of Germany.  In our next blog post we'll tell you about our regeneration at the Parkhotel Phoenix, which was so wonderful our two-night stay stretched to four.

In short, it's possible to travel by train with a tandem, but sometimes awkward and always potentially unfair to other cyclists, as bike hooks and bike spaces are mostly designed for single bikes.  We were lucky because early June is not high season, and three of our four travel days were weekdays.  It may not be a coincidence that our hardest leg was on a Friday, with many people on our train heading to resorts in Ost Friesland.  On many weekends and during the entire months of July and August, a trip like ours could easily become a nightmare.

We think we have now educated ourselves enough on the possibilities and perils of taking a tandem by train across Europe.  We hope we don't have to do it again.

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