Overland to Eastern Europe: Zurich to Budapest

Day 2: Zurich-Budapest via the Arlberg Pass, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna

Back in the UK, ‘Maggie’ May has called a snap election and it seems my best hope is for a coalition of chaos. The world is shifting direction, going forwards but travelling backwards.

I’m travelling backwards, as instructed by Seat61.com. I’m also in second class until Innsbruck when I can get a cheap upgrade to first class; dirty windows the length of the train know no such divisions. At Buchs, the train reverses and I’m looking forwards at last.

Soon after we start to climb, and climb, into the snowy treeline towards the Arlberg Pass. Sun on snow is blinding, firs sag, black rocks are frosted, snowmelt cascades here and there into the valley. Winter-spring is surprisingly vivacious here. I see the cold everywhere around but cannot feel it, only view it through the glass like a high-speed Lady of Shallot.

Skiers join the train at St Anton am Arlberg, letting in fresh cold Alpine air and piling up the overhead racks with oversized kit bags. Luggage – the most mundane icon of the journey, carriers of things, our precious little transporters.

Night falls. I’ve been on the OBB (“Erbaybay”) Railjet for nearly 10 hours. There is little to see once through the Tirol except for a few snow flurries as we pass through Vienna. I watch a vampire comedy on the iPad and fall asleep.

The train is late – again. Gabor, my Hungarian apartment manager, meets me from the train at Budapest Keleti station so I don’t have to find my way late at night on my own. He briefs me for nearly 45 minutes but lends me money for dinner. I venture out into Erzsébetváros in search of a midnight feast.

Day 3-4: Budapest

Overland to Eastern Europe: Birmingham to Zurich

18 April 2017: Birmingham-London-Paris-Zurich (everybody talk about pop muzik)

It feels great to have the world in my backpack again and leave all responsibilities behind. Leaving is, as usual, hell. I feel a huge sense of lightness and relief to be on Bournville’s Dairy Milk purple platform.

Staring out of the window. Why do so many English people have a ‘fear of foreigners’? Travel is about crossing boundaries and meeting ‘the other’. Who we meet (or don’t meet) is what defines how we feel about a place. Travelling inevitably makes us feel more united than divided.

Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon – a recursive mirror, a steamship fresco, olives so plump they are almost sweet, couples with luggage and leg-age. A mother and two daughters request my spare chair and I suffer the lot of the solo traveller: to be endlessly exposed as alone. In defence, I write in my book. I fulfil my role of being a solo-travelling, diary-writing cliché.

From Paris to Zurich, each landscape unfolds more beautiful than the last. Vivid yellow rapeseed farmland, golden herds of cow drinking in sunset glades, hills start to roll in homage to future Alps which arrive in darkness. Paris is full but France itself is strangely empty; not a single soul anywhere with villages seemingly under curfew. It is only at Dijonville once darkness falls that there are signs of life: a light in a house, some tail-lights in the distance.

The train is running late and you wonder what the fuck you are doing on this empty last train to nowhere, blackness out of the window, a tired reflection and an anxious midnight walk through unknown Zurich still to come. You even wish yourself back home with all those obligations you so loved shrugging off earlier. This is the bore of travel.

Switzerland arrives – a new country! – despite the dark aloneness, this is somehow something to celebrate.

Day 2: Zurich to Budapest


Balkans overland trip brings introspection

Well, at least I went to the Balkans…

Despite bemoaning the lack of a big tickbox item on my sabbatical last month, I have actually been planning a small ‘big trip’ since January and last month it happened – a two-week, snow-to-sun, mountain-to-sea, 2,000-mile overland trip via eight countries to Eastern Europe. It featured stops in Zurich, Budapest, Belgrade, Podgorica, Kotor and Dubrovnik and finally fulfilled the promise to meet Pete in Belgrade after his fourth Resonate Festival.

‘What did you learn, what did you gain?’ an old friend used to ask of such experiences.

The short answer is to use a travel currency card when your Visa card fails on the Austrian OBB trains site.

The long answer is… that this was a test. A test of my love of travel, and being older with a backpack, and something around what happens to a solo traveller once they settle down.

How is it, for example, that I still dream of big adventures but find myself yearning for home, my boy and my rabbits when away? What is this almost overwhelming tension between pleasure at going to new places and anxiety over the unknown? And what would ‘not going’ on new travels mean for my identity, which is so bound up in getting away? I’m not a huge adventurer but I have travelled – a lot – so without it, who am I?

This trip was short but one of the great overland adventures and there shall be photo/diary extracts to come. But where does this ambivalence about travelling leave me? Not necessarily wanting more. Which feels very, very strange and, with a big birthday coming in 2018, I’m left questioning my ideas about going to Nicaragua or back to Indonesia.

Perhaps this lifestyle change process of reassessment is going to affect me more deeply than I planned.

There shall be more blogging about this.

Update: on a more positive note, I did get damn pretty fit on this trip. So many hills, mountains, cliff sides, train platforms…

Sabbatical in full swing of lying in, coffee dates, protests and trip planning

Stirchley Lidl protest at the Council House. Pic: Neil Elkes?

I am finally relaxing into this screen break, sabbatical, time-out thing. Work decisions have been made (will be picking up freelance work again from April) and I’m not beating myself up about having lie-ins until lunchtime occasionally. Although there are a lot of things listed below, I’ve generally been living a bit more slowly and less stressfully after realising the main point of having a break is to actually have a break.

Ironically, planning a future holiday – a big overland train trip to Eastern Europe taking in eight countries – has seen me back on the computer for hours and days, trying to sort out the route options, pricing and accommodations. (I have shared some travel tips at the end of this post.) But I’m very excited to have finally sorted out the bulk of it and I’m looking forward to staring out of a train window for hours come spring. If anyone wants help  or advice with this kind of trip, I am now a semi-pro and free to be taken for coffee in February.

So here’s what happened in January:

  • Practical – starting to realise the admin never ends but my head is feeling calmer as the financial situation clears.
  • Learning – complete weeks 5-7 of OU Introduction to Cybersecurity course (cryptography basics, protecting your data on the network, what’s the worst that can happen?); still plugging slowly away at Indonesian vocab (up to 280 words out of 2000).
  • Helping – helped a young couple understand mortgages (randomly); waved a banner at a protest outside the council house against Stirchley/Lidl planning application; lent an ear a few times (being there for friends and family is a lot easier now); babysat for six hours for my super-cute five-month-old great nephew (changed my first nappy, made my first milk bottle up, dealt with my first tantrum).
  • Writing – finished processing a big three-year diary book and started a beat-style extract around London life in the early 1990s.
  • Books – ‘Love and Rockets X’ graphic novel, and made a list of some classic ones I haven’t yet read.
  • Health – weekly Scottish country dance class, weekly tai chi in the park, Millisons Wood to Meriden walk with big bro, yoga training from big sis, one gym session.
  • Events – Scottish Dance New Year Social, Stirchley Baths 1st Birthday, Roger Hiorns Ikon show, Justin Wiggins’ BOM show, Exploring Photomontage ‘Made at Mac’ show, birthday lunch for niece at the Mailbox, another school reunion wineathon, Pete’s talk on Cityscapes at the Kings Norton Photo Club.
  • People – many coffee shops have been visited this month. I finally booked in travel chats with Ruth, coffee with former work colleague Jo, catchups with the Kings Heath coffee crew, B30 brunch massive and London-Brummies curry meet-up.
  • Something new – mixed media textiles taster at the Mac made me realise it’s not for me; conversely, I found Pete’s new Art Show & Tell at the P-Cafe very inspiring and full of interesting artists/creatives talking about their work – and work barriers. Next one is on 16 Feb at 3pm (info here).
  • Somewhere new – Pitstop Cafe, Cotteridge (a gem, best mugs of tea); Gorilla Coffee Cafe, Kings Heath (nice enough).
  • Holiday – spent the best part of a week, researching and booking an overland train trip across Europe and trying to arrange a bodyboard holiday (postponed).

Some tips from my hours of travel research:

– You can get return flights to Bali in March/April for just £340 return on Qatar/Emirates. I’ve never seen them so cheap and on such good airlines. Check out latest prices on Skyscanner.

– Follow Seat61.com for overlanding by train; it really is a fantastic resource for telling you how to get there (cheap, express, scenic) and how exactly to book your tickets.

Bodyboard Holidays, run by UK bodyboard senior champ Rob Barber, offers bodyboard tuition in some very sexy winter sun places, from Morocco’s southern beaches to Costa Rica/Nicaragua to Indonesia. (They also do Newquay, Wales and Ireland.) Bodyboarding is a low-impact fun sport although all-round fitness is required for swimming out I discovered last summer at their Cornwall Bodyboard Camp. Check out the calendar.

And, yes, I’m ignoring the whole despicable Donald Trump thing.

Day 24: Florence, Fat Fluffs and a farewell

I think I fell a little bit in love with Italy last week despite its October chills. Florence, the Cinque Terre and Pisa photos are to be uploaded but here are three of them, starting with the classic shot of Vernazza, which only those walking the steep trails from Monterosso get to take. (My calves still hurt five days on.)

One of my favourite snaps from Florence – amid the Renaissance sculptures and statues – was this golden man casually riding a giant golden sea turtle. Well played Flo! Perfectly positioned amusing incongruity.

Finally, there’s only one shot you need to take in Pisa, and we just about made it after a storm stuffed up our train back from Monterosso to Pisa Airport. It’s not the greatest shot but it’s a shot. Conclusion: it’s very leany.

It’s good to be back and get on with life though. Today was part work and part checking up on our bunnies who are going through a bonding with other rabbits at Fat Fluffs rescue and sanctuary. There was a quad, now down to a trio after Bert at the back there started pushing his weight around. Hopefully we can pick them up on Wednesday. Bunminster and Joy grooming each other is a massive breakthrough; new bun Hayley is obviously providing the right balance for harmony. (That or Bert stress-bonded them all together.)

A carvery lunch with the family was next as we wished bon voyage to my niece Hannah who is jetting off to Australia in a couple of weeks to start her working holiday visa year. This is something that I did back in 1999 and I have to say it changed my life. It’s great to see her stepping out into her own big adventure.

Finally I had an hour-long feed and cuddle with my new great nephew Matthew, who we are still counting in weeks-old. Yes, he chucked milk down me and yes it was great.

There are always many things in the world to worry about, particularly right now, but these are the lovely things and I have many reasons to feel blessed today.

Day 15: Trip prep

Get diazepam repeat prescription and load up hypnotherapy help on phone for fear of flying, borrow map and phrasebook from neighbours, double-check cheap airlines small print on bag policies, print maps from airport to hotels, and train times for onward travel, pack accordingly to list made in 1994, write note to self for the early morning to bring chargers, quick brag on social media, and I’m off.


Day 8: First panic and a trip to Barmouth

Last night I felt homesick and just wanted to go home to our bunnies and get back to work. Which is kind of unexpected as I don’t think I have ever come to the end of a holiday eager to get back to the daily grind. Maybe it’s because I have no structure to go back to? Now that my free time is here, maybe I’m rueing the annoying 9-5.30 framework that made sense of my day and gave me things like school nights and weekends and the Christmas break to look forward to.

I also had the anxious realisation that I may finally have to more than just talk about my own ideas and dreams down the pub. Rejection and failure is not something I’m used to in my job of 30 years but I can surely expect a fair bit of that when building stuff of my own.

So there was a sleepless night and I’m sure there will be many more as things start, change, and bring both new horizons and new risks.

It rained through the night and all the way to lunchtime so I finished my book. (I wonder if I subconsciously took The Snowden Files because of our Snowdonia trip.) Given assumed NSA/CGHQ surveillance of Jo Public’s comms, it’s definitely given me an appetite to look more into cyber security if only to regain some sense of self-control and to brush up on information/data literacy.

This afternoon we drove down the valley to Barmouth. I remember vividly going on the waltzers there as a child of nine or 10. I remember thinking: “Wow! A funfair and it’s at the seaside. Best thing ever!” Amazingly the waltzers ride is still there. These days I’d rather jump in a quarry lake than go on a sick-making centrifugal fun ride, but walking along the Barmouth Bridge viaduct was cool. That’s your 40s for you.

Day 7: A wild swim and a very long walk


A tunnel to the Blue Lake
Dripping wet tunnel to the Blue Lake

Switchover day as we shifted to Dolgellau, taking in a wild swim in the Blue Lake (aka Golwern Slate Quarry). I’ve never done a wild swim in the UK but I have read some of Roger Deakin’s inspiring Waterlog and the idea of navigating through an old mining tunnel to get to the lake was too Indiana Jones to resist. So in I jumped. Pete, of course, had the camera…

Fi swims!

A post shared by Pete Ashton (@peteashton) on

The water temperature was as breathtaking as the vivid blue lake with vertical walls all around but I managed to swim across, trying not to think of the rumoured 90ft depth. Once out, my skin started to burn, not unpleasantly. I’m adding this to my #microadventures list. A challenge for me but nothing compared with those people who jump from high ledges 50ft down into the deep.

On a different kind of high, I set out to walk part of the 10-mile Mawddach Trail, along the wide estuary from Dolgellau down to Barmouth. The legs gave up around 6.5 miles in but I’m quite chuffed I made it that far and really enjoyed the changing estuary scenery, which was almost lunar in the sunshine.

Mawddach Estuary

Mawddach Trail at Arthog
The trail was converted from an old railway track that was closed down after nationalisation

Now chilling with a sauvignon and a pie. Stay classy Dolgellau.

Day 6: A lake, a pitch and a ponder

The main thing I want to do on this sabbatical break is get fit. I’ve tried to deal with my sedentary ills by variously using a stand-up desk, a stepper at my stand-up desk and a rebounder on screen breaks but, in short (and excuse my French), I’m f*^ked if I spend the next 10 years sitting and typing for eight hours a day. As the physio said about my tech neck: “You need to look at lifestyle change.” Which is a real bummer when you love what you do.

So today was a bit of a fitness test. We walked six miles on a round trip to the Bearded Lake, near Aberdovey, but it was a hard six miles of ranging Welsh hills. The views kept me going but today was a 22,500-step day according to my Fitbit surveillance. I’m always amazed that our hills and mountains are full of superfit oldies by the way. I hope to become one of them some day. In the meantime, here was the end prize…

The Bearded Lake
The Bearded Lake (is a long way away)

Accompanied by a slightly pained expression…

Me at Bearded Lake
So happy to be sitting down

In other sab-news, I applied for author Jojo Moyes writer’s retreat, using her Suffolk cottage for a week to kick-start a writing project. I’m 99% sure I won’t get an offer as she’ll be swamped but here was my application, subject line “A pitch from a procrastinator”:

Hi Jojo

I’m sure you’ll be inundated with entries so to get straight to the point, I’m a journalist-turned-blogger with 50+ travel diaries that I would like to see if I can turn into ‘something’.

I started doing this in January and produced a single chapter before RSI got the better of me – it’s impossible to edit all day and write all night when you have physical limitations and sore arms. Last week, however, I was let go from a long contract and I’m now free to write for myself.

I can do this at home, of course, but the big advantage for me personally in getting away is that I’m answerable to someone (you)! All my creative writing has been done when I am producing a piece of work for a reason – a course, a teacher, a deadline. Otherwise life, DIY, our two bunnies, and other procrastination opportunities get in the way.

I’d also love to talk to you about how to go from a 1000-word feature journalist or 600-word blogger to 80,000 words. I’m not sure I have the mentality. And how do you switch off the editing instinct to rewrite before you’ve barely started?

So those are my weaknesses and my hopes.

Thank you for offering your cottage.

So that happened today. We’ll see. Those travel diaries aren’t going to transform themselves.

In other news – oh the irony of sabbatical leave – I received another work offer involving online sub-editing training. This is based on a course I ran a few years ago. Thanks SEO from 2012. Now what to do? I’m supposed to be on a break.

looking ahead
Thinking, thinking…