Train to Turkey - Leg 6 - Zagreb to Belgrade

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With an hour before our train we didn’t have much time to spend in Zagreb and we were very keen to make sure we don’t miss the train. We left the station and headed towards to city in search of supplies for the trip ahead. We failed, but probably went the wrong way or something. The parts of the city we did see were good, a very different Croatia to that in Dubrovnik. Giving up on our quest for food we walked back to the station and managed to find a small convenience store, there were a few other backpackers here too which was a good sign. With limited options we stocked up on beer, bread, cheese and salami.

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After a short wait on a buy platform a train turned up which looked like it could be ours, it was longer than I expected. We were waiting in the wrong part of the platform, all the rear carriages were on their way to somewhere in Austria and only the front two carriages were headed to Belgrade. We figured this out after seeing our two Canadian friends boarding there. Also boarding were a 30-strong female dance troop, much to Owen’s dismay.

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On the train we found ourselves searching for a compartment, both carriages consisted of 6-seater compartments with a sliding door - very old school. We settled into a cabin with a Slovenian guy who had bagged the best seat, facing forwards and by the window. The group of girls were frantically searching for somewhere to sit until about 10 minutes in they decided that they had reserved several of the compartments and kicked people out. Our friends who had sat in an adjacent cabin were among the victims and ended up sitting with us.

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The train set off under electric power with a big red locomotive at the front and before we knew it we were out of the city and heading across Croatia. It was quickly getting pretty warm, and we opened the window to get some air in our small compartment. The bloke who was already here wasn’t too happy and insisted that we only have a small part of the window open. Owen was pretty hot and made a bit of a cake of it, sure it was warm but it wasn’t like we were in the Sahara desert or anything. As the countryside passed us by we saw sunflower fields, corn fields and rapeseed oil plants too. It was field after field after field, the land was flat and the track felt like it was built by the romans, straight as an arrow. Thankfully this meant that the engine got some speed up and there were times where it was recalling making some pace.

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It was a long journey, we managed to enjoy it for the most part, drinking some beers, eating our sandwiches which we constructed on the train and of course smashing out some blogs too. We spent time sharing stories with Tony and Helen who we later learned had taken a similar journey in the 1980s where before they had met had even crossed paths(!). The best story they told was during a camp when a black bear had stuck his snout on their tent, which was a frightening thought!

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The train itself was good, the journey was nothing to complain about and made good headway. The toilet wasn’t ideal but we had some water so were able to wash our hands. Since it was a straightforward drop onto the track there wasn’t much to go wrong, although I wouldn’t have wanted to be a girl! Seats were comfortable and the cabins covered into three beds, the girls in the adjacent cabin had a bit of a party in theirs and were having the time of their lives! The music could be heard when the door was open but otherwise wasn’t a problem.

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At the Serbian boarder we had a ‘Papers please!’ Situation, a Croatian policeman checked passports as we left the train then moved into Serbia where we were boarded once again for another check, this time we were stamped but again a very painless process. We had accumulated late-ness on our way and arrived into Belgrade about 60mins late, which wasn’t really a problem. The last stretch into Belgrade was painful, it was slow and since we knew we were close took an extra long amount of time.

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We pulled into Belgrade Centre Station which still seems to be under construction, mostly by China Railways. This wasn’t the station I was expecting and with no mobile data proved to be a bit of a problem. Luckily there was a city map printed on the wall so we were able to find a route towards the hotel. A Hot and sweaty 4km walk later we found ourselves at the hotel. It was a pleasant sight, we were tired, hot and in need of a shower!

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This was the first decent hotel of the trip, we were staying at the Mercure Excelsior at 70 euros a night wasn’t too bad either. We dragged ourselves out in search of food and walking down the main shopping street found lots of small bistro restaurants. A beer was £1.30 the food was equally cheap and we had no complaints. We had made it to Belgrade.

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Train to Turkey - Leg 5 - Munich to Zagreb

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We were ready for a good sleep after the adventures of Munich and a day travelling across most of Germany. I have to admit, a sleeper train at this point wasn’t terribly appealing, the knowledge that we were going to end up in Croatia and that we did have a bed was fine enough to make me want to jump aboard. We waited on the platform for our train which arrived on to the platform about an hour early. The train was very long and it seemed that the carriages were all heading to different destinations, this was pretty confusing as the train information boards just said Budapest and Rijeka and not Zagreb.

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Climbing aboard we were shown to an available cabin, the whole thing was a little different to the pleasantries of Jean in Penzance. The guard explained to us that we should go to bed, lock the door and that at about 7am we would be woken for the police checkpoint when crossing from Slovenia into Croatia. The passport check was necessary since Croatia is still in the process of joining the Schengen Area. The train was filling up fast with an interesting mix of people, mostly toting backpacks but some asian tourists too, with suitcases. Bedding down the train left relatively on time and I fell asleep without any problem. There was a lot of shunting in the night, I assume where the carriages needed to be moved to different locomotives, it wasn’t the best nights’ sleep but honestly it wasn’t bad either. The bunks were reasonably comfortable and the cabin was bigger than that of the Penzance train.

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I woke about 6:30 and eager to know where we were in the world got up to scout things out. It seemed that everyone was still asleep and the only person I found awake was an elderly lady right at the front next to the toilets, she seemed to have kept her cabin door open throughout the journey and for some strange reason had a cardboard box on a trolly which was full of salad. I was surprised to see that our carriage was now directly behind the locomotive, which wasn’t the case earlier in the night, we were also travelling in a different direction too. The train was Swiss which was different to the one which brought the train into Munich. Eventually the guard saw me and explained that we are 75 minutes delayed and told that I should go back to bed. I said I’m up and in need of coffee which after an hour or so he brought to me. It was awful coffee but it was free, so I can’t really complain.

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The views from the train were fantastic, we were passing through Slovenia along the River Sava, following it’s banks for almost the whole journey. Unfortunately the carriage windows were very dirty so all of the pictures I took are pretty poor, the train was also going at a reasonable pace and my iPhone doesn’t manage that too well! I was joined in my hallway spot with our cabin neighbour, Tony who was also travelling from London to Istanbul with his wife, recreating the orient express route. He was Canadian but spoke fluent Slovenian which for him was pretty handy. We had a chat for a good few hours as our breakfast arrived and we passed through the border.

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At the border the train was stormed by police, a Slovenian and Croatian police men checked each passport and in Tony’s case stamped it as leaving the Schengen zone. We were soon on our way again and as the topography flattened out had arrived into sunny Zagreb. We were late but had an hour before the next train which Tony and his wife were also joining. We packed out bags up had a quick wash and said goodbye to our train guard. Four countries in one night, one of which we didn’t even see! Not bad.

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Train to Turkey - Leg 4 - Cologne to Munich

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Day 3 was set to be a warm up for what was to come, long days spent on trains doing nothing but relaxing and looking out the window. We started the day getting up early and leaving the Ibis, it has served us well, but we couldn’t wait to leave. The walk to Messe/Deutz station was quiet, nobody was really awake, clearly everyone had a late night partying in the streets. We hoped to find some breakfast at the station and needed something for the trip ahead and were pleased to find a McDonalds, which I’m sure won’t be the first of the trip. A beef and egg McMuffin later we were refuelled and headed to the platform.

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This is where things started to go pear-shaped. We discovered quite quickly that the train was delayed and then discovered that there was only half of the usual set of carriages, and the carriages missing were the ones where we had a seat reservation. Not good. We hung around on the platform for about 90 minutes hoping that all will be well, the increasing number of passengers congregating on the platform was also a worry.

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The 09:36 service to Munich eventually turned up and we jumped aboard and grabbed the first set of seats we came across. It seems that in Germany you can screw up half of the reservations and just pretend like nothing happened to that half, but the other half continue to remain valid. In the UK if there’s ever any kind of delay or technical screw up reservations are simply cancelled and it becomes a free for all. I think I prefer this system more, at least you know where you stand. We were safe in our seats for the time being and settled down and I pushed out the first of two blogs which I hoped to complete that day.

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Aside from it having some parts missing the ICE train really was quite lovely, the seats were very comfortable and the recline was more than I’ve ever had on a train before. Toilets were clean, easy and available and best of all the carriage was very quiet, we pushed 300Km/h and I barely even knew it was fantastic. We began to catch up to the previous schedule and were soon at Frankfurt where our squatted seats were expected to soon have their owner arrive. After a small lecture from the conductor we decided to go in search of replacement seats, we failed.

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So we squatted again and looked busy, tired and grumpy. 10 minutes after leaving Frankfurt it seemed we made the right call as no seat owner had arrived. Phew! The rest of the journey was very relaxing we sat back, enjoyed the ride and got into the groove. Managed to upload the blogs with images which while on the train has been a bit of a problem. The cellular signal and free train WiFi just don’t cut the mustard, I will say that the ICE WiFi was the best of all though, much better than Thalys and Eurostar.

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We arrived a little late into Munich but frankly it was nothing to write home about, in the end the journey was good. Munich station is HUGE we spent some time taking it all in, I have vague memories of that station from when we visited Oktoberfest in 2010 but there’s a lot of time between then and now so I had absolutely no idea where anything was. Outside it was torrential rain, which seemed to come out of nowhere because it was dry when we were on the train, we opted to hang around for a little while and threw Owen’s bag into bag locker to save carrying it around with us.

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Five minutes later and the rain had stopped so we headed into town, we had no plan except to drink beer and see some old stuff. Munich centre is very easy to navigate and everything seems to revolve around the main street which at the end of which is the train station. We first headed for the Dom which was not as impressive as the “Big Black Church” this one instead had two big nobbly bits on top, inside it was pretty impressive huge too.

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We then went in search of beer feeling like we have satisfied the historic culture requirement. The first stop was to try and find some Kellerbier and we succeeded at a small beer-restaurant where Owen had his ID checked (Ha!) . The beer was good, but wasn’t the best I’ve ever tasted so we quickly finished up and went in search of more.

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The best spot for beer in Munich it seems in the Hoffbrau House, an enormous beer hall in traditional Bavarian style with beer served properly in 1 litre steins. We sat ourselves down and strapped in for what would be a good three-hour session. My goodness - the beer here is heavenly. I love Kolsch but this is special, the atmosphere is missing in Cologne, here it is an absolute party. The first litre went down like it was nothing, crisp, cold, malty, perfect. We ordered a pretzel from the Pretzel-girl (6 Euros!) and dived into number two.

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This is where we should have stopped. The second for me was just as good as before, it was getting a little louder and we put ourselves in the corner so that I could upload the second blog of the day, which doesn’t take long provided there is good signal. Owen continued to claim that he wasn’t hungry and despite my persistent nagging that he should eat he wasn’t interested. I ordered a wienerschnitzel and coming to the end of the second (and now in the groove) ordered us one last stein because I’m sensible and measured.

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Owen decided at this point to reject the beer and filled up the empty steins with the contents of his very liquid stomach. The Irish couple who were sharing our table were not mega impressed, but persevered with their freshly served food while Owen semi-discretely blew chunks. Not ideal. My food arrived just in time for him to need to step outside for some air, seems 2.5 litres of German beer is Owen’s limit.

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We headed back to the station and got ourselves some sleeper-train snacks and waited an hour or so for our train to arrive. We enjoyed watching out across Munich station as people came and went the big Grundig logos on the back wall slowly disappeared into the black night sky. With that, we wrapped up Day 3 - thank you Munich, you did your job.

Train to Turkey - Leg 3 - Brussels to Cologne

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On to third train of this trip and after a short break in Brussels we were keen to get onboard and to Cologne for some beer and a chance to stretch our legs. We waited on the platform in Midi for our Thalys train which was right on time. This train like the Eurostar requires seat reservations so we booked them in advance, they weren’t cheap, 20 euros each but it seemed like we didn’t have much of a choice. We learned later that Deutsche Bahn also run a train from Brussels to Cologne and reservations are optional and a lot cheaper too.

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Once at our seats we found that the window was not aligned, which was a bit disappointing. We got to work updating our Internal travel diaries although the guard reached us before everything was completely filled out. We had a bit of a lecture about how important it is to fill out the details before getting on the train as he should charge us for a full ticket. Whoops. We promised to be good from now on! Once the guard left I shuffled seat so that I could see out the window.

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Most of the trip I spent blogging, which worked out well. Signal was very bad, but I managed to download pictures and upload when we stopped at intermediate stations. Owen was tired and slept in the most uncomfortable position imaginable. The trip took a long time, the train was on time but it felt like half the time it was either stopped or going very, very slowly. I think they announced that there are works on the track between Brussels and Cologne and as a result had to reverse the train in Aachen. It’s no problem sitting on a train for a long journey but it’s another thing sitting on a train for a long journey when it’s not moving. Hey ho, we arrived into Köln on time!

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Once at the station we needed to head to the hotel sharpish, we had reserved a room but hadn’t guaranteed it which meant that after 6pm it would be up for grabs. Given that literally everywhere in Cologne was booked, we didn’t want to be in that kind of situation. We walked over the bridge and towards the hotel, we underestimated the distance, it was a good 35 minute walk and didn’t take best advantage of the trams and trains which would have probably saved some time and effort off! We arrived to the luxurious Ibis Budget hot, sweaty and ready to have a beer, so we did.

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Our room was a bit of a gamble, the website showed a picture with a normal bed and a small bunk which mentions that it’s great for kids. There was every chance that Owen wouldn’t fit in the bunk given his length. The room was as basic as it gets, and for some reason the bathroom was in the room itself, and not in a separate bathroom section - with the exception of the toilet which did have it’s own room. Very confusing, not sure if it’s been designed that was to make it seem more budget than usual or if it’s genuinely cheaper to build and service. Who knows! All was fine in the end and after a quick shower we dumped anything that wasn’t worth stealing and booked an Uber to the city centre for some food and drink.

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Arriving into the city centre you couldn’t ignore the fact that it was Pride, it was very, very busy and there were more rainbow flags than on @geeklyjames’ stag do. Everyone was polite, friendly and not breaking any rules, all very civilised. We were dropped off at Heumarkt and so walked over to Malzmuhle to see if we could find a table, this was my favourite place when we came and visited Cologne in Christmas last year, it was also the chosen brew house of Anthony Bourdain when he visited. Once again it didn’t disappoint, we were given a table straight away and before I could blink the famous Kölsch had arrived in front of us.

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We were joined on our table by a Belgian man called Freddy who spoke English, he was a very polite man who shared stories of his travels around the world. Pretty hungry by this point in the day we both ordered food pretty sharpish, Owen went for a bratwurst and I had the boiled pork knuckle with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. As before, the food was spot on, good German pork-based deliciousness with enough salt to provide encouragement to drink even more beer. We stayed a while longer in the restaurant and Freddy showed us pictures of his trip to Antarctica where he somehow managed to get himself on a Chilean military ship for a week!

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With enough beer in our bellies we went off to walk around the city, we hit the main stage and caught a few classics from a tribute act. There was a lot going on, people were enjoying enormous cocktails and phallic-shaped ice lollies. Walking around as brothers we certainly had a few unusual looks, I think we needed t-shirts or something. We made it to the Dom and hung around for a few pictures, this area was less busy than during the Christmas markets which was surprising given that it was bloody freezing during the markets.

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Too early for bed we headed to the Früh brewhouse just around the corner for some desert since we’d walked the pork off. The guys here were the same as at Christmas, which I always find strange when going back to places elsewhere in the world. Our Apfelstrudel arrived and it was as delicious as before, full of sugar and in a vanilla sauce it perfect match for more beer. Even Owen liked the strudel which frankly I didn’t even expect him to!

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We sensibly took the train back to the hotel and got our heads down for the night, still exhausted from the sleeper train the night before. The mattress was not great, neither were the paper thin walls or noisy people outside but melatonin did it’s job well, day 2 was over.

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