6. Europe – like it or not ?
Belgium, France and Spain
With no reason in the immediate future for me to return home, I decided to embark upon a world trip. Firstly Europe, because it has a well travelled budget travellers route – America, the country I would always love – New Zealand, because of its reputation for extreme sports – Australia, because of the weather, easy going lifestyle and all travellers from England seem to go there.
My plan was to go all around Europe visiting a bulk of European countries before returning to England for a matter of days before flying to the United States.
A new trip but the same early start. I had to buy an Inter-rail pass from one station then get across London to catch the Euro star train at a different station. Again, as with many train situations, I arrived with moments to spare. For the second time, I was seated in 1st class, this time with carriage empty bar me and ate prawns, salmon, strawberries and cream. I arrived in Brussels, Belgium at 2:30pm and immediately made a reservation for Koln, Germany.
I checked-in and paid for the hostel on my VISA card. 20 Minutes later my card had disappeared, after an hour of frantic searching, I phoned the bank to cancel the card and order a replacement.
I went out later and my previous expectations of Brussels were correct – it was a cold wet city with little or nothing to do. What made it worse was that the hostel was in an area known for riots. The rain made the entire atmosphere depressing.
To end a not so perfect day, I had a stomach upset, probably due to the Euro star prawns.
The next day I stayed in bed till 3pm, not feeling so good from the previous days, not so 1st class, prawns. I managed to venture down the road to buy some ‘iced gems’ which I ‘scoffed’ while watching Wimbledon on the BBC.
At 9:30 the next morning a courier arrived with my new visa card, which gave me the chance to check-out and leave this cold and wet hell hole. At the train station decided to enquire about a train going south to Barcelona to escape the rain of central Europe. I took a train to Paris hoping there might be a seat on a train going south to Barcelona. I hurriedly boarded a high speed Thalys train to Paris, mistakenly in first class, being first class of a high speed train, the ticket shouldn’t have been free with my inter-rail pass – but I refused to pay. I had a 6 hour wait and changed stations in Paris but then got a sleeper train to Barcelona.
Early next morning, as the sun rose over the Pyranesemountains, We had to change trains at the Spanish border. As we approached the top of one of the mountains the train got slower and slower and then stopped, the reason being that the train couldn’t get traction dew to the due on the track. Everyone got off the train, onto a bus to go by road over the mountain crest, then board another train to get to Barcelona.
Barcelona – an old friend !. To welcome me back I fell, unceremoniously, out of my wheelchair onto the busiest road in Barcelona. I returned to the renovated monastery hostel where I stayed 2 months ago and I headed for the disabled shower as I mentioned before, this is the most relaxing, hot, massaging, power shower I have ever had the privilege to use !.
The next day I took the bus into the centre, sat ‘people watching’ at Place Catalunya then went down Les Rumbles. An unforeseen disaster then happened, it started to rain, heavily. My initial reason to come to Barcelona was to escape the rain, it had followed me, so I returned to the hostel depressed and dejected.
The following day the weather had improved. I took the bus and then the metro, first in the wrong direction then back to the mountain, where I took a tram up the mountain and a cable car to get a great view of Barcelona. I took another bus to the station to enquire about trains to Marseille in Southern France, Outside the station I saw a huge, and, to be honest, scary 100ft puppet suspended in a scaffold frame being paraded down the road while crowds amassed, very strange !.
Despite the depression and dejection of the heavy rain 2 days ago, it was another sunny day. I headed to enjoy the beach for the day.
I needed to get on my ‘travelling way’ so took a bus to the station to book the following day’s train to Marseille in France. Somewhere and somehow I lost an all important glove meaning my hands would be unprotected from friction burns caused by hills and within minutes they would be black with dirt, which put me in a bad mood from the outset.
Then deciding to make the most of the warm weather so decided to get another bus to the beach, now with one very dirty hand, I boarded the bus. As was normal, I didn’t pay, I think the drivers expected me to have a free disabled pass, but of course I didn’t. This time an official looking conductor boarded, I had seen the large red signs, warning of a hefty fine, I expected the worst. Surprisingly and very thankfully I only had to pay the regular price for a ticket.
I then proceeded to get very sunburnt on the beach and pier before returning to the hostel for a fantastic massage shower.
An early check-out and bus ride to the station to catch the train to Montpellier then transfer to a 1st class train to Marseille. Marseille was cold and wet, it looked ‘drab and dreary’ not as I had expected the south of France.
The cheapest way to get to the hostel was on the Metro, which had no lifts just stairs and escalators. But being a budget traveller I wasn’t about to let it beat me. I got people to carry me and my wheelchair down flights of stairs, down escalators and onto the train – then up again at the other end – all in broken English !.
I got a Mercedes 600 taxi to the hostel, a supposedly wheelchair accessible hostel, which had no access to the toilet or bathroom.
As my European travels weren’t going well, the weather was and it wasn’t fun or exciting, so I decided to return home the following day.
I checked out, took a taxi to the metro where I caused the same amount of havoc as the previous day. Getting people to carry me up and down stairs and escalators, this time I was told off by an official who told me I couldn’t use the Metro unaccompanied – Simple, get a lift and there would be no problem !.
I got a high speed TGV train back to Paris, 1st class, changed stations in Paris and got the Euro star back to London, 1st class, again.
I only spent 11 days in Europe, visiting only a fraction of the countries I intended.
For many of my train journeys I travelled 1st class. I paid no more than the regular fare (in fact the tickets were free, I bought a cheap student inter-rail pass). It is a policy of all European train companies to put wheelchair passengers in 1st class. 1st class for free – a budget travellers dream !.
Europe – like it or loathe it ?. – Loathe it, Unfortunately Europe was too cold & wet, it wasn’t fun, I was spending too much money, it wasn’t exciting but worst of all I wasn’t meeting and interacting with people which always has been my main reason for travel.
My European travels ended prematurely allowing my 3rd trip to the United States to begin earlier than I predicted.