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Cycle-railing it across Europe: descent into the surreal
10 July 2007 Gośka Romanowicz

Paris - Berlin - Warsaw - Vienna - Budapest - Sofia

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Getting close to our bikes

“Taxa bicycle! Taxa bicycle!” – shouted the big fat Bulgarian train conductor. “Taxa bicycle” – echoed him the tiny Hungarian train manager. Just a few hours’ train ride from stately Vienna we seem to have crossed over into corrupt Balkan mayhem. “How much?” - we asked wearily. After much searching through official-looking papers and many operations on a calculator, they came up with a price: 39 euros to transport our bicycles in an empty train compartment. Or else they call the police. A couple of hours of negotiations later we were left only 20 euros poorer, but with a nasty headache.

Fortunately for cyclists wanting to use Europe’s railways most other countries are less of a headache - we can safely say this having crossed Europe with two trekking bikes from Paris to Istambul. Trains seem to get more bike-friendly as standards of living rise, and the rules vary widely. The only common factor seems to be the lack of communication between different countries’ train companies…

Starting our cross-Europe rail journey in Paris, the nachtzug (night train) to Berlin was a far cry from the Budapest-Sofia “express” and its corrupt staff, but when it comes to communication - almost as bad. At the Gare St Lazare in Paris we were informed (in very French style) that there is absolutely NO possibility of transporting a bicycle on the Paris-Berlin. But when we arrived on the platform German conductors showed us straight to the coach dedicated to carrying bicycles, at no extra charge. At least the rest of the journey on the nachtzug was a dream - spent drinking good, cheap German beer in the bar and then letting the tuck-tuck of the train wheels lull us to sleep in our bunks.

The German capital itself turned out to be a bike-paradise, with cycle paths everywhere and used by everyone from students to housewives to businessmen going to work. The Germans’ enthusiasm for bikes and general eco-awareness explain why they’ve made it so easy to transport bikes on the Deutsche Bahn – the best railway system for bikes in Europe?

The services don’t always come free though – on the Berlin-Warsaw train the price was 10 euro. Although it’s difficult to see why one train charges and the other doesn’t, it’s definitely preferable to have a set price than a tariff that amounts to “however much we think we can get out of you,” Bulgarian-style... as we later learned.

After a couple of days spent in Warsaw getting visas we headed for the infamous and grotty Warszawa Wschodnia (Warsaw East) station to continue our journey via Vienna. Yet again, the same story – no bikes allowed on the trains, no, not at all, not even dismounted and packed into a bag... We’d heard this before but this time there really was no bike compartment in the train. The young smiling train attendant was helpful and sympathetic though and she let us put the bikes in our own sleeping compartment. We slept with one bike balanced across the top bunks above us, the other on the floor between us. We soon realised our two bikes were a piece of cake to transport when a family of four boarded and proceeded to stuff their four bikes and then themselves into the same sized sleeping compartment. From them, we learnt a good trick - get on first, discuss later.

After a day spent in Vienna - again a very bike-friendly city - it was time to leave the safe confines of the old Europe. The Vienna-Sofia express was a rude reminder of how far the newest EU members (Bulgaria and Romania) are from reaching EU standards. As we were used to punctual, well-organised trains served by polite, professional train staff throughout France, Germany, Poland and Austria, the Vienna-Sofia was a bit of a shock. Firstly, in Vienna we learned that coach 416, which we had couchette reservations for, did not exist. It had got lost on the way somewhere in Budapest. Why? What do we do now? The answers were as many as there were train attendants. We got onto the first available coach and hoped for the best.

As soon as we crossed the border into Hungary the level of politeness plummetted. I almost had a fight with a Hungarian train conductor who said we should get out of his coach because we have no reservations (we did explain we had reservations for the phantom Coach 416 but this was "not his problem".)

The lost coach no. 416 finally materialised in Budapest, awaiting us all alone at the end of a platform. Little did we know this was not the end of our sorrows... First, we had to push past a screaming fat Romanian woman blocking the entry into the wagon with her numerous bags and children. She, too, knew the "get on first, discuss later" technique. She had no ticket, and was thrown off - just in time for us to board before the train left. The whole thing was beginning to feel like an Emir Kusturica film.

The culminating point of our cycle-train adventures was definitely the "bicycle tax" on the Budapest - Sofia train though. The whole incident was like something from deepest Stalinist Russia and, as Herve put it, made you feel like you weren’t in Europe but in some impoverished and corrupt developing country. "Bicycle taxa, bicycle taxe, no taxa polizei," the fat train attendant told us and then just repeated it. He spoke no English, only Bulgarian and a few words of Russian and German, and seemed infatigable in repeating the same thing over and over again. He was soon joined by the train manager, a tiny Hungarian woman with a big red pillbox hat. She rolled her eyes, she got angry, she explained things at length in Hungarian. Finally we paid 20 euros - half of her carefully calculated "official bicycle tax."

The night passed by quietly apart from the 2 passport controls and the time when the window fell down with a big bang and gust of wind and we couldn’t get it back up. Unfortunately the bicycle tax process started again the next day. The train manager changed - in Serbia we had to deal with a fat, one-toothed bearded giant instead of the midget woman. Following long scientific calculations (per kilometre, per kilogramme of bike...) he came up with 35 euros. We stood our ground and said we’re not paying more for transporting bikes in Serbia than we did in Germany (10 euro) and even there it was for a special bike compartment. We got away with 10 euros after hours (literally) of intermittent discussions, and a very stressful journey.

Crossing over into Turkey was like going back to civilisation. The cheerful Turkish train attendant charged us a normal price for our bikes, gave us big clean-ish compartments and even shared his wine with us later on in the evening. Once over in Turkey we felt like we were back in a civilised country - polite, helpful people, clean streets and a hostel that was very happy to take our bikes, at no extra charge of course. It’s a bit of a shame they won’t let Turkey into the EU, because it could teach some of the new EU members a thing or two about European standards...

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