FROM SLOVAKIA to FRANCE via SWEDEN by Ronny Flynn

Ronny is an intrepid traveller.  With homes in England and France she is rarely to be found for very long in one spot.  This adventure and Ronny’s use of public transport is amazing. She shares her story below: From Slovakia to France via Sweden by train: 26 trains, 4 ferries and assorted buses and trams. We were meant to spend August in Jamaica or Solomon Islands, but when both of Brian’s work contracts failed to materialise, we needed another plan. One of our home exchangers was only too happy to do a direct swap with her apartment in Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden, so we had fun planning how to get there. We decided to fly from the UK to Bratislava in Slovakia as it was the cheapest Ryanair flight we could get to Europe on the day we wanted to travel. We then planned a European train journey using a ‘seniors’ pass’ that gave us 10 days travel in 20 days.

Train Going Past Cathedral in Brno - Czech Republic
Train Going Past Cathedral in Brno – Czech Republic

We would take the train to and from Gothenburg, travelling through Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and Denmark on the way there. After our two week stay in Gothenburg we would take the ferry back to Denmark then the train through Belgium and Germany back to our home in France. Together with the final trip back to England it meant we’d be tracing a rough figure-of-eight around the continent. We expected it to be hotter than England in the Eastern interior, but cooler in Scandinavia, so packed rainwear and sweaters. We were flying to Bratislava with just hand luggage which stopped us packing the kitchen sink, and we were pleased with our efforts. We hoped to spend time walking and sightseeing as well as staring out of train windows, so packed our most comfortable shoes and plenty of digitised reading matter. We had employed a young Slovakian woman for many years first as a cleaner when she worked locally as an au pair. Later after her country joined the European Union and she settled and worked in the UK, she house sat for us and provided pet care. She came from Bratislava and had planned to return as things had not worked out for her in England. She had hoped to marry and have a family by the age of 30 and had been on the verge of marrying when she found her potential husband was violent and abusive. He continued to stalk her for years after they separated. We were reminded of the marriage dream in Bratislava, when in just the two days we spent there, we saw a number of lavish (to us) pre- wedding photo shoots, the women in traditional gowns, high heels and make-up, all in temperatures of 38 degrees centigrade. I still find it sad that for some women, finding a man and marrying is an end in itself, even in the 21st century. We loved Bratislava. It was hot, cheap and easy to get around on foot. The hotel services were excellent and we felt welcome and well fed.

Healthy Salad Lunch
Healthy Salad Lunch

Vegetarian options were available at all food outlets. The city felt depopulated and there were few cars – a joy for us, used to living on a small crowded island. There were few visible minorities, though the 1992 Constitution was very inclusive. We felt ignorant of history when we visited the castle and museum and read about the country’s continuous occupation and coercion and the Slav history of SLAVery. We made ourselves feel better by queuing at a shop called Koun for a sumptuous ice cream, which even offered a vegan option. We took a comfortable coach from Bratislava to Vienna (shamefully, to tick off another country!) where we would stay the night.

Superb Ice Cream - Bratislava
Superb Ice Cream – Bratislava

We didn’t really give Vienna a chance, arriving on a blistering hot afternoon with a long walk from the bus station where we were dropped off, to our hotel which was thankfully very close to the railway station. Rather stupidly at times, we rarely take taxis or use public transport if we can walk, but Vienna is huge and we had to negotiate acres of unattractive building and infrastructure development before reaching the more attractive centre. We stopped for a late lunch at a café in a park, an oasis in the heat and flatness but partly marred at first by a young American woman loudly complaining over her lunch about how tough life was for her in Vienna. We later walked into the old city to look at the grandness of the opera house and other buildings and ate outdoors in a night market. We will need a central home exchange to help us appreciate what Vienna has to offer.

Arsenal Building - Vienna
Arsenal Building – Vienna

Our next day started early (for us) with a 9am train and a productive shop for a carry-on breakfast and lunch at the station, as we would be travelling for most of the day. Still impressed by the normality of wholefoods, vegan and vegetarian foods, we stocked up on falafel, humous, salads and seeded breads. We travelled through the Czech Republic on a comfortable train, past rural landscapes, small cities and valleys, then into Poland where we changed trains twice for Oswiecim, from express lines to slower, older trains that were nonetheless comfortable and not full. The journey was a real education on life in Poland (albeit glimpsed briefly from several hours on a train). We passed through flat open countryside full of churches with minarets and spires. There were allotments and gardens with summer houses everywhere. We had come across these pockets of urban bliss when staying in Berlin – quarter acre plots in public ownership that can be rented and worked and played on as havens from city life. They are tended with love and care and are places of beauty. This contrasted with what we saw the further we went towards the South where the landscape became more industrial with evidence of coal mining, gas, wood and steel industries everywhere. The railways were also being modernised, the old wooden sleepers being dug out and replaced by concrete ones, and the wooden ones no doubt being sold to the UK where people like us use them in our gardens.

Iron Slabs on Train Trzebinia - Poland
Iron Slabs on Train Trzebinia – Poland

Oswiecim (formerly Auschwitz), our resting place for two nights while we visited the death camps, is not a wealthy place. The smell of coal dust hung in the air and it wasn’t a heat haze but smog that coated the sky despite temperatures of 38 degrees C. The self-catering apartment we had booked for two nights was run by a local family as a new enterprise, they were proud of what they had achieved and keen to make a good impression. That night we ate in a café in the local square, serenaded by a rock band whose singer had a waist length grey beard, then sobered up reading the holocaust memorial information in the square, which was why we had come. The next day we walked into town to visit the Jewish Museum, that charted the inhabitants of the town which had a majority Jewish population before extermination. That was very gentle preparation for what was to come later in the day and before we left we ate the best blueberry cheesecake and coconut and ginger cake on earth, at the museum café. We had compulsory timed tickets for visiting the camps without a guide. We were nevertheless unprepared for the volume of people visiting, the heat and the queues, which staff managed very well. Everyone should visit if they can. Those who deny the depths of human cruelty should be forced to go. Reading about the camps did not prepare us for the scale of the horror and the hatred. The four hours we had there was nowhere near enough and we had to be selective. The documentation of Polish experiences was so informative. We had not known that Hitler actively set out to exterminate all Polish people, as well as Jewish, Roma, disabled, lesbian and gay people and other minorities. However, this is not surprising as a majority of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. Amongst the horrors it was good to know that as a nation they never officially collaborated with their oppressors and resisted continuously, unlike other occupied countries in Europe.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz

[Our travels had taken us to Auschwitz, on a roundabout journey from the UK to a home exchange in Sweden]. The following day we took an early local train to Warsaw, changing to a faster one at Kracow. This was a comfortable but fairly uneventful journey of five hours through miles and miles of forest and open farmland, so we got some reading done. At Warsaw station we ate a lovely late lunch of vegetable stuffed pancakes and salad before finding our hotel. We had planned to visit the Old Town and the memorials to the Uprisings, where Jewish people in the Ghettos had heroically fought the Nazis on two occasions, and lost, but not their dignity, but we didn’t have time. Instead, we walked to the nearest park where we were treated to a red squirrel, rare in the UK, and to more pre-wedding photo shoots [as we had witnessed a few days earlier in Slovakia]. In the streets around the hotel, we admired the Soviet architecture – the imposing Palace of Culture and Science, and other majestic buildings in Plac Konstytucji with equal numbers of women carved into them as men. We had a drink outside a fine dining restaurant and then went downmarket to eat at a vegan burger café which was cheap, tasty and healthy. The train journey from Warsaw to Berlin the next day took us through more forests and flat grain-farmed countryside, and we arrived at our hotel in time for a long walk through the city to eat at a vegetarian and vegan fine dining restaurant called CHIPPS, where the food was delicious, reasonably priced, and only slightly pretentious. The next morning we ignored the scores of yummy pastries and cakes at the station buffet and caught our train to Malmo, with changes at Hamburg and Copenhagen. I had thought German trains to be proudly punctual, but our super high speed spacious and comfortable ICE train ran late and we missed our connection at Hamburg. However, we were very pleased to pass away the 90 minutes in a food court where once again, being vegetarian or vegan posed no problems, and we packed up a delicious lunch box.

Soviet Architecture - Warsaw
Soviet Architecture – Warsaw

We had never travelled as passengers on a train that boarded a ferry, and we did this between Germany and Denmark. The train from Copenhagen to Malmo in Sweden was truly packed and we had to stand for the short 40 minute journey, the only time on our trip we had to do so. What was interesting is how accessible the train was, with a wide open carriage that welcomed buggies, bicycles, wheelchairs and zimmer frames all at the same time. The trains we use in the UK severely limit bulky items, either needing booking in advance or limiting them to off-peak times. Yet this was a commuter train. We arrived in Malmo late but had time to buy supplies for dinner at the railway station and eat in our room. Breakfast the next morning was one of the best we have had with an extensive buffet. We also had time to wander around for an hour or so before our train left for Gothenburg, so we watched the Festival being set up in the centre and walked around the docks area. We found a fabulous place in some business units to have lunch, but it was too early so we drank coffee instead. Then we packed a huge salad for the train from the station supermarket, and were on our way.

Pink Engine on Warsaw - Berlin Express
Pink Engine on Warsaw – Berlin Express

Our two weeks in Gothenburg went all too quickly. We had expected poor weather but it was hot and sunny every day except right at the end (so time to go). The city is not expensive, spacious and not crowded, easy to walk around, clean, architecturally attractive and cycle friendly. So much so that we sometimes feared for our lives when we strayed into the path of cyclists. The quality of life felt high. I remembered the 1970s and 80s when Sweden led the way in women’s equality and it was so good to see equal numbers of men out with children. The city is also visibly multicultural, though we did not see minorities propping up the service industries in the way we are used to. Maybe the wages are high enough for white Swedish people to do the work, but we wondered where the many minority ethnic people were employed. We noticed the high levels of interaction between people on buses and trains; and not just between friends. There was a camaraderie between people we don’t experience in the UK or in France, an openness and lack of suspicion we could only put down to a high sense of security. It was also festival time so we spent a number of days at craft and food fairs, as well as visiting the many museums, cafes and restaurants where once again, vegetarians and vegans were normal. Our only complaint is with the quality of the coffee served – often stewed filtered coffee that had gone bitter. Cappuccino, freshly made from beans, was a better choice if you could get it. We took a day trip by train to Stockholm, and ferry rides to two groups of islands where we could walk around car-free.

Copenhagen - Denmark
Copenhagen – Denmark

Our final journeys to France took us to Denmark on the Gothenburg Ferry in a pleasant three hours, though we had forgotten that people can use ferries as ‘booze cruises’ and alcohol is cheaper in Denmark and on the ferry, so at 9am day trippers were already tanking up with beer and spirits – young and old alike. There was entertainment by a sea- shanty singer first in the ferry queue and then on the boat itself, which we thought a nice touch. We spent a few hours and a few trains getting to Aarhus where we were to spend the night with friends and discovered that a ‘quiet coach’ in Denmark means no talking is allowed at all. I could live with that. Our next day’s trains took us from Aarhus to Hannover, a city in Germany we only had time to eat and sleep in but perhaps return to another day. The area we stayed in near to the station was full of bars and strip clubs, but a good breakfast was included in our hotel stay, and we bought vegan and falafel wraps for lunch on the train. We travelled through Germany to Brussels on four trains noticing the graffiti everywhere – on buildings, fences, homes, public places and on some of the trains. We saw massive amounts of industry and acres of concrete, but still enough green space to avoid depression. Our apartment in Brussels was superb, clean and new with breakfast included. We ate our last meal away from home in a Moroccan restaurant in a trendy square round the corner from the apartment.

Home - Port Vendres France
Home – Port Vendres France

The final day had us on an 8am train to Montpellier, where we changed trains twice for Port Vendres and home. In the ten days we travelled by train we had clocked up 5000 kilometres and taken 26 trains, four ferries and assorted buses and trams. We had also walked an additional 230 kilometres while we were not on public transport.

Story and photographs by Ronny Flynn Feature photograph Gothenburg – Sweden