35 trains and 15 buses (but no planes)

35 trains and 15 buses (but no planes)

Or 35 trains, 15 buses, 4 cars, 2 boats and a tram, to be exact.

That was the sum total of engine power for our flight-free return trip from Bristol, UK to Paralimni, Cyprus. And yes, that is pretty much the direct route. Cutting a backslash from North West to South East Europe. Six days in each direction and over 5,500 miles covered.

And overall, it turned out… alright. It mostly worked. Although of course there was good, bad, and very, very ugly…

There was plenty of time for reading. Like on the longest single leg, a 19-hour train trundle from Bucharest to Vienna. Or the interminable border crossing between Bulgaria and Turkey. God save the e-book!

There were sunsets, sunrises and jawdropping scenery. Budapest Keleti station. Transylvania. The glorious 2.5 hours each way winding through southern Turkey’s Taurus mountains by bus.

Beautiful Budapest Keleti station

There were awful times. Finding out you suddenly need to be somewhere 12 hours earlier than expected, mid-journey. A bus driver falling asleep at the wheel at 4 in the morning. The two-carriage, tin box train with windows that didn’t open, rolling sedately through the Romanian countryside for six hours whilst an angry sun cooked us all alive.

There was incredible food. Thank you Café Van Gogh and BioFresh in Bucharest. Parsifal in Istanbul. Veganka in Ankara. Mariposa in Nuremburg. Deniz Kizi in Taşucu. Food For Thought in London (RIP).

There was comedy. Like the slow dawning of realisation across the face of a bus driver who, at a border crossing, understands he’s failed to collect our handed-in passports at the previous control office. Cue handbrake turn. Or the border policeman waking us on the sleeper train at 2am to check our passports, looking at my photo, then my dishevelled, bleary face and smirking at the discrepancy. Or bouncing around on an overnight rail replacement bus in Bulgaria, with 20 other people trying to sleep, whilst the driver kranks up the explosive volume on a DVD movie. A disaster movie. With car crashes in it.

There was even luxury. Business class service for just a few pennies extra on brand new Turkish trains. Much appreciated free hotel room upgrades. A complimentary overnight ship cabin. Obscene breakfast buffets.

And there was the kindness of so, so many strangers. The four separate passers-by who all stopped and worked together to help us find a hidden third floor restaurant in Ankara. The Romanian train attendant who wrote down translated instructions so we could buy a ticket at the next station. The lovely restauranteur who stayed open for two late-arriving, sweaty backpackers long after her closing time. The half dozen or more different folk who stopped us in the street simply to smile, look us in the eye and utter perhaps their only word of English: welcome.

None of this romance, none of it at all, could have happened if we’d just flown out and back. I’m glad we didn’t miss out.

RESEARCH QUESTION: What funny/terrible/lovely stories do you have from your slow travel experiences?

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