Sunday, September 18, 2016

GUEST POST: Taking the midnight train to Prague

When Adam and I traveled between Budapest and Prague, we elected to take an overnight train. I had mentioned here that it was, in short, a harrowing experience. After we "reminisced" about the ride several times, Adam graciously agreed to document the adventure. Here is his guest post about our experience. [Cue the Midnight Train to Georgia song, replacing "Georgia" with "Prague."] Please enjoy!

When Emily and I planned this most recent European excursion, we discovered a fearsome logistical challenge. Our great airfare itinerary did not geographically coincide with the three cities we wanted to visit in the region. Simply put, any combination of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna was going to involve at least one extra-long and circuitous train excursion.

There are worse things in life than a long train ride. But we had a limited time window on this trip and 8 hours in transit would clobber a day of touring. It seemed our options were limited, which meant, to quote Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley, "Something’s gotta give!"

And then...through the miracle of internet research plus friends with travel experience, we found the solution to satisfy all concerns. Ladies and gentlemen I give you…the overnight train.

To our delight, we discovered a train that leaves Budapest at 8:30pm and slowly winds its way to Prague, arriving at 6:43 the next morning.
For a nominal fee, we could even purchase a “sleeper car” which would provide privacy and a bed. IN THEORY, it was the perfect plan, a chance to have our cake and eat it too. And as an added bonus, we would save a hotel night.

[Note added by Emily: I had visions of glamorous overnight Eurorail trains like this:]

What could possibly go wrong?

Simply put…THIS:
Actual photo
Representative photo
Source
Now, reality can be a function of expectations. Honestly, this level of accommodation was about what I expected. As you can see, Emily developed somewhat higher expectations based on her research and perhaps the occasional old movie; both of which make evening train travel seem quite glamorous. In the end, we were both simply tired and uncomfortable… Emily was just proportionately more disappointed by it.

Let’s start with the obvious. There are six beds in this cabin; a room that is notably smaller than the closet in our bedroom. That creates the potential for very cramped conditions which somewhat frighteningly, was THE LEAST of our concerns. The greater fear was that Sasquatch from the Jack Links jerky commercials would show up as our roommate, and that Sasquatch would be messing with us (and our luggage).

Tangentially related, we actually had beef jerky with us. For any older readers, you might remember the famous Eddie Murphy beef jerky on the train scene from Trading Places in 1983. 

And yes, I found it necessary to yell "Beef jerky time!" just after the train departed.

It cost just 20 Euros for Emily and I to buy tickets in the sleeper cabin. I admit I was prepared to drop 40 more for “exclusive rights” to the cabin. To his immense credit, the conductor told me he could sell that but I PROBABLY would not need it. So kudos to him for not ripping us off.

Once we got settled in it was time to check out the bathroom. Proper decorum and good taste precludes me describing this in detail. I will simply say that this facility made me pine for the relative beauty and serenity of an airplane bathroom…and/or some hand soap. 

[Note added by Emily - I found this gratuitous and very comparable bathroom snapshot:]
Source
Thankfully Emily brought hand sanitizer. I’ve smelled worse places than the train bathroom, I just do not remember where or when.

And to quote Forrest Gump, "That's all I've gotta say about that."

After we settled in, we realized that the 2nd level mattresses could be dropped down to create a couch. This was a great feature which Emily and I happily made use of before bedtime. 
Source
Sadly and a tad embarrassingly, we could not figure out how to put it back. Oh, but had I been an engineering major in college. After ten minutes where two educated adults futilely battled to bring a mattress back to 90 degrees, we gave up and decided Emily would bunk above me. 

We were warned in no uncertain terms to lock the door of our room. Beyond the obviously disconcerting nature of said warning were further logistical troubles. Again, you had to climb to the top of the bunks (where there was no ladder) to reach a small, overhead lock. (Perhaps coincidentally, it was located right next to the emergency brake, too.) This pretty much eliminated even the slightest notion of a middle-of-the-night bathroom run. Of course, given my description of the bathroom…well, you get it.

Sleep did not come easy. The “bed” was half the width of a college dorm mattress and barely more cushioned than the floor. On top of which, you are sleeping sideways compared to the train motion, the tracks are very loud, the train jumps a lot, and stops are hard. But near midnight…sleep slowly started to wash over both of us.

UNTIL…

The train suddenly came to a complete stop. The engines shut down, and there was a pounding of a night stick on our door with a shout of “POLICE! PASSPORT CONTROL!” 
Dramatization
Given that we were both half asleep (or maybe half awake), some amount of natural confusion reigned. Normally passport checks by the Czech police would be a reasonable request to execute except that:
  • We were notably groggy.
  • The door was locked (see lock issues described above)
  • The lights were off and our cabin was in nearly complete darkness (compounding the door lock issues).
  • Neither of us had our passports handy
This lead to some frantic moments, especially when we could only crack the door open, but ultimately we complied. Of course it took more than a few minutes afterwards to settle down and return to a resting state.

I'm pleased to report that we both logged about 3 to 5 hours of constricted sleep though it was frequently interrupted. At one point in the middle of the night, the train stopped at a seemingly deserted station and a series of repeating warning announcements were loudly made in muffled German. I was hoping they were announcing our transfer to a complimentary five-star hotel for the rest of the night. Emily, who took German in high school, found them a bit more daunting.

[Note added by Emily - the scenery outside looked something like this, which was unsettling:]
Source
We woke up at 6:30am and arrived punctually in Prague. At the risk of sharing far too much information I offer this; when humans like me who are on the plus side of 40 awake, our first morning priority tends to be use of the bathroom. In this case, my priorities shifted to trying very hard to avoid the bathroom, until we could get in the train station and pay for the privilege.

and with that... welcome to Prague!
I’ve been asked many times how I would describe our train adventure and I will simply say this: It was an experience. It’s something we will always be able to say we did… once.

--
Thank you to Adam for sharing his thoughts!!!!

Later this week I will pick back up to talk about Vienna, the final stop of our trip. Although, it will be really hard for me to follow Adam's recap, eh??????

14 comments:

  1. Lol, I love Trading Places. "We are moving!" And funny enough, Some Like It Hot was on last night, with an overnight train from Chicago to Florida. Nothing as harrowing as this. It builds character, but only once, right?

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    1. Trading Places is a classic! I've never seen Some Like It Hot but based on looking up the synopsis, it sounds really raucous!!! And yes - it's all about building character... ONCE. =)

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  2. The "Some Like It Hot" train ride was quite a party if I remember correctly. Also included Marilyn Monroe, which is always a plus. Even if I'm ever "livin' in a lonely world" I don't think I'll take an "midnight train going anywhere" after reading your description!

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    1. I've never seen Some Like It Hot but I can imagine anything with Marilyn Monroe is a cult classic! Yes, if you have other options beyond the midnight train, I would say they are worth consideration. =)

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  3. Hahaha, YES. I have done overnight train travel in Europe as well, most notably Paris to Venice. I was hoping for "North by Northwest" but had pretty much the exact same experience as you except in French/Italian instead of German/Czech, and also I DID have random strangers sharing my room. Fortunately I was 20. It's a lot easier to do uncomfortable and/or sketchy things when you're 20.

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    1. Oh my goodness, Paris to Venice is a LONG train ride. I just looked it up and it said it's almost 14 hours? WOW. Just WOW. And another WOW on sharing the cabin with random strangers. That must have been really awkward (especially if both genders were involved). Definitely agree that it would have been much easier to do at age 20, though!!! Back in those days, I think we are all pretty fearless (which is both good and bad)!!!

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  4. Great job, Adam! You really captured the atmosphere, for better or for worse. I've never done a long train ride (5 hours from Chicago to St. Louis is the longest I've ever done) but my in-laws have. They said that sleeping is the hardest part since you're getting bounced all over the place. I'd almost rather sleep sitting up like on a plane!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed, Erin! Incidentally, I've also done the Amtrak ride in between Chicago and St. Louis, and that is already pretty brutal. You really do get bounced around a lot and doing so when you are laying sideways compared to the train motion is really awkward. There is definitely a lot of beauty in a forward motion, even when sitting upright!!!

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  5. Emily, your husband is hilarious! I love his writing style. Oh my, what an experience y'all had! We never did any sleeper trains, but I have no doubt that I would have been too chicken if the need ever came up. And passport checks always made me nervous when I was in Europe, even though I never had a reason to be scared. Haha!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed Adam's post, Amy!!! It's probably a good thing you didn't do any sleeper trains when you were living in Germany. Yes, passport checks always make me nervous, too! The agents always look so stern and it doesn't help that sometimes they are armed. It can be very intimidating (and it's probably set up that way by design!)

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  6. Great job by Adam! You two are quite adventurous :) I admire the roll with it attitude! make the best of it - it is just one night right. That seems like a lot of excitement in one night.
    I envisioned Emily's picture of the sleeper cart and i scared by the reality LOL

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    1. Glad you enjoyed Adam's post, Karen! Thank you so much! Yes, just one night - although, it was probably one of the longest nights of my life, LOL. Isn't it funny how much our visions can differ from reality??? Movies make life out to seem much more glamorous than it really is. =)

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  7. Wowza. And here I always thought the European train system put Amtrak to shame! My overnight train from Chicago to New Orleans was hardly the most comfortable way to travel, but it was substantially less harrowing! Glad you both survived :)

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    1. Based on my experience, the non-overnight trains were very nice! So maybe it depends which type of ride you are taking? I am glad your overnight train to New Orleans went relatively smoothly! Thanks Bethany!

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