«originally posted 21 April 2010»
The mood at Hlavní Nádraží, the largest train station in the Czech Republic, was foul to say the least. I felt sorry for all the people who were still queued up in that godforsaken line, probably still standing there cursing in twenty different languages, still aching for a cup of coffee or a cigarette after 3 hours of waiting and not a lot of moving. The ticket agents had their work cut out for them. Today was not the best day to work for an airline/rail service/bus service in the EU. Seventy-two hours prior, Iceland had begun spewing abrasive dust out of a hole in the Earth that nobody can pronounce (except maybe for the one ballsy CNN reporter I saw who gave it a shot), and all of Europe flew into chaos. Or didn’t fly, to be more precise.
The cloud spread like a plague, crippling Britain’s airspace first, then France, Spain, Benelux, and the rest of western Europe. By the time I realized the inevitable, Prague’s Ruzyně airport had been shut down, my flight to Amsterdam (on flight #666 – no joke) cancelled. Now I was left with a puzzle: figuring out how to get back to England for my rapidly approaching flight back to the States – without using planes. The train and coach networks of Europe could absorb some of the traffic, but how much and how fast? Would there even be tickets out of the Czech capital?
Leaving Prague was easier than I’d thought. From the monumental queue (near 3 hours for myself) came victory in the form of train tickets. The agent I saw at the station spoke English (thankfully, as my Czech is limited to about four words), and all I had to do was tell her where I needed to go.
“Amsterdam. Can I do that tomorrow?”
She typed for a few frenzied seconds, finally coming up with a solution.
“Yes, we get you there tomorrow. Change once in Berlin. This is OK?”
Taken aback, I stammered a “Yes!” and took the gift I had just been given. Despite all the intimidating queues, all the reports of overcrowded stations and packed, standing-room-only trains, despite all of the chaos caused by the Icelandic menace, I was able to get out of Prague when I wanted, go where I wanted, and for less than I paid for my ill-fated airline flight. I left the station beaming, freshly printed tickets in my hand; volcano be damned, I was going right where I needed to be.
The next morning, I showed up at Hlavni Nadrazi bleary-eyed and not quite caffienated enough for the impending 14 hour trip to the Netherlands. The station was packed again, and as the dark red-and-cream coloured Czech train arrived at the platform, the scene resembled something more reminiscent of rush hour on the Tube.
We were away. I was in a compartment with a couple from Oslo, trying to get home after their flight was grounded two days before. The stories from the travelers who joined us were the same: long lines at airport counters, frustration, finally getting out on a train, more frustration. This volcano business is enough to make anyone completely mental. Bits of the Eastern Bloc flew past us as we bantered, mapping out hypothetical routes home, long train rides and last-ditch night coaches. Every now and again, out of the quiet hills of Bohemia, a crane or smokestack would pop out, reminding the passengers of train 179 what this country had been only 20 or so years ago. The hammer and sickle left their mark on then-Czechoslovakia, and while this influence is still readily felt in the now decidedly westernized Czech Republic, it is by no means overpowering. Just sort of there, hiding around the next 13th-century alleyway corner like a stray cat. The contrast is almost goofy in a lot of ways.
At last we had scenery to contemplate as the train sped up the incredibly picturesque Elbe valley towards Germany. Ancient castles dotted the landscape, every so often popping up on a bend in the river or a hilltop. The train was comfortable; a much more civilized way of traveling, certainly, than on an airliner. The hiss of the rails was the only noise, other than the sound of the people on the train. I found a seat in the dining car and ordered up a coffee. My seat provided a fantastic view out the window – which soon proved to be quite distracting.
Eventually the signs at the stations we passed changed from Czech to German. At our midway stop, Dresden, half the train deboarded and collectively blew off some stress as the passengers of Train 179 prepared themselves for the next leg of whatever journey they were on.
Back on the train, it was business as usual. Kids ran about, clogging the narrow passageway with giggles and the occasional shriek. First class was quiet, the businessmen who had been bumped from flights now calmer, burying their noses in laptops and Blackberries trying to coordinate meetings with people who were likely still trapped hundreds of kilometers apart. The train was never full, which was surprising given the huge queue at the station in Prague the day before, but it was packed enough that ‘Excuse me’ in every language I knew constantly flowed from my mouth as I fought through the people and baggage strewn about the corridor on my way through the train.
After four hours, my train pulled into Berlin’s Spandau station to drop off passengers such as myself headed for points north…my train to Amsterdam wouldn’t be here for an hour and a half. I bade my farewells to my compartment friends and jumped off the train and on to German soil. A sleek looking German ICE train hummed into the station, and proceeded to spew forth passengers, refugees from the Great Volcano Crisis of 2010. As the doors closed, a girl moved down the platform with her bike, preparing for a journey of her own, free from the trappings of even rails. I envied her freedom, but knew that soon I would be free – free from the grip of the Icelandic menace and back in jolly ole England.
Next station: Amsterdam.