Diarmuid MacMurchada outlines his experiences with budget travel when interrailing through Europe.
If something grisly happens and it doesn’t mess you up too much, it’ll probably be a pretty funny story in a years’ time. I learned this the hard way when I spent 31 hours bouncing from train to train and country to country as our little group of miscreants blitzed from Salzburg to Barcelona. On our last night in Salzburg, after a misunderstanding involving a naked drunkard, the Lehener Brücke and a 50-foot dive, we returned to the hostel to book our overnight train. Lying on the couch beside the hostel laptop watching the room spin, I heard a distressed-sounding “Ah” from right next to me.
“What’s up with you, Mitch?” I asked.
“You know that night train that leaves in two hours?”
“The one we absolutely, positively cannot miss?”
“Booked out months ago.”
The lobby launched into hysterics. The nightly laptop viewing ceased until they could calm down the maniacs trying to stick their heels through the computer. Only one member of our party was coherent enough to make sense of the situation; after a moment at the keyboard he announced:
“Ehhh, yeah. There’s a train to Avignon in 40 minutes. That’s on our way.”
I delight in romanticising trains - the DART going over the Loopline is a moment of euphoria for me - but this first leg of the journey was something not even I could glamourise. Ten tin cans on wheels pulled up to the platform and genital-tinged graffiti greeted us at the door. By midnight, our phones had died, and we had nothing to do but succumb to that last shot of Hausmischung and melt into the sweaty plastic seats. I couldn’t even sleep the heat was that sticky. Eventually I stopped thinking, my eyes fogged over, and purgatory stretched out her comforting arms.
We stepped out of the station nursing freshly-brewed hangovers while the French air hit us like we’d stepped behind a 747. What happened next was one of the grisliest things I’ve ever experienced. We pooled our money to rent one room to have somewhere to put our bags and charge our phones. A handful of our party wandered the town that night. They found an Irish pub and begged the Offaly man behind the counter to let them sleep on his couch. When he refused, they sat and nursed one Coke until they were kicked out into the street. They spent the rest of the night wandering the city until the station opened at six. I tell you this first because, as harrowing an ordeal as that was, the hotel was even worse.
Two of us spent the night in the room with our bags and phones - it was the sweatiest thing I have ever endured. The window in the room was jammed, and one tiny fan simply didn’t suffice. It was too hot to sleep, too hot to breathe, too hot to think. By 3am we had removed every available article of clothing and lay on the bed watching steam rise from our bodies. By morning, the baguettes we had bought for lunch had steamed themselves to mush in the corner.
Nobody spoke for the rest of that day. We were sitting in a microwave on train tracks. “Even if we manage to get to Barcelona”, I remember thinking, “I will never make it to Santiago”. I was watching my already-sparse bank account wither and die. As the sensational blue of the French coast rolled and churned, passing high sandstone cliffs with eagles soaring, I had a breakdown in Portbou station. Our phones died once more as we sped through Cerbère. If the first leg felt like the warm embrace of Purgatory, this felt like a moist descent into Hell.
We alighted the train for the penultimate time in Granollers. Our final train of the day squeaked into the station. I was close to tears. It looked just like the DART. I knew then that we were in Catalonia’s Lusk, and this noble steed would ferry us right across La Línea que Bucle.
We spent all four days in Barcelona hiding in our AirBnB. We had nothing left in the tank; too tired to wear anything but our jocks, too tired to eat anything but frozen empanadas, too tired to watch anything but a documentary on Iberian Hibiscus farmers (it was the only thing in English). It didn’t matter. Disregarding the last 26 hours, in under a week and a half we had crossed five countries and 1,368 kilometres. It reminded me of a story about a tribe of people who followed an old Irish hero in search of treasure. They travelled for weeks, crossed mountains together, until one day the tribe sat down, closed their eyes, and refused to move for six days. One morning they stood up, picked up their gear, and walked on like nothing happened. The leader of the tribe said:
“My friend, we have travelled so long in so short a time. It is important that we wait for our souls to catch up to us.”
Sometimes I fear that I am not doing enough. Sometimes I fear that ADHD is an excuse I use to avoid doing the work I need to do. But some days I wake up and, after a long time of non-stop fetch-quests and socialising, I find myself unable to get out of bed. I ask myself when was the last time that I let my soul catch up to my body? It may have been when I was sitting bare-chested in a flat in Barcelona, chewing pastry crusts, and being glad for the lessons budget travel inadvertently taught me - and the memories I can now laugh at!