What Time do We Get There?
Venice, Italy and Vienna, Austria
I wasnâ€™t setting out to break any records but at the end of it, the office informed me it was a new one – 23 hours to reach our destination in Austria beating the previous record of 22 held by our head tour guide.
This was in late August so I was fairly well experienced with a few of the traps and obstacles that befall a tour guide in Europe, from my preceding five eventful months. There wasnâ€™t a lot that I hadnâ€™t already had to contend with, like directionally challenged passengers, train delays, strikes, burning dining carriages and kidney stones. Here was one more to add to the list.
There had been a hiccup with the ticket issuing at out departure point in Venice, which meant I had to purchase the group tickets individually from the railway station to get us to Vienna.
By the time I had led my walking tour that morning through Venice, the ticket office was closed for reasons only known to God and the ticket master. I sent everyone off for a quick bite to eat assuring them all would be well when it opened again at 12.30, according to the sign. I returned in time to find a queue a mile long and only two windows open.
Keeping an eye on the clock, I was aware that our train left at 1:05 p.m. As far as I knew there were only two trains a day over the border to Austria, one at 6:00 a.m. and this one at 1:00 p.m. I had with me a mixed group of 12 backpackers with some Americans, Australians, English and Canadians, a few of whom had been traveling with me for a week, and four who had joined me that morning. This was their first introduction of travelling with a tour group by train in Europe.
The queue was moving slowly, even by Italian standards. With about three people to go to get to the front, we could see a sign reading no carta creditasiestas that the banks take just when you need them to be online most. I asked him politely to hold the window while we purged the cash machine.
Dashing back from the machine, which also didnâ€™t work, we asked him to try again. After several more goes, it was finally accepted. Now to make the train. Taking the tickets I headed quickly out to platform one, my group in tow, to see the back end of the train disappearing out of the terminal. I shook my head. Why me?
There were two options. The first was to head back to our old accommodation and leave very, very early the next morning, or grab the next train heading north and take our chances. There had to be something going over the border from somewhere, right? I looked around the station and spotted the platform board for Udine, leaving in 15 minutes. This was one of the last Italian stops before Austria. There had to be something going to Salzburg from there, surely.
Rounding everyone up we boarded and settled in for the ride to Udine. On arrival I found the stationmaster and asked him for the times to Salzburg, or anywhere in Austria for that matter. He kindly gave me a computer print out and highlighted the times, pointing to the stop where we would have to change trains for Salzburg.
I returned to face my group. There was good news and bad news. The good news was there was a train. The bad news was that it didnâ€™t leave until 11:30 p.m. that night. That meant a seven-hour wait in Udine. The luggage office closed at 6:30 p.m., so I landed the task of sitting with the packs for the duration of the wait. It was time to ring head office and our accommodation.
My operation manager was more than a little surprised to hear I was in Udine. Nonetheless, he was encouraged that I was trying to rectify the situation. I said Iâ€™d keep him posted. The hostel owner in Gruenau was sympathetic and said if I could make it to one of the towns close to Wels, he could send a taxi to pick us up. We were due at his hostel by 8:30 p.m. that night, a time we were obviously going to miss.
Udine is a small historical Italian town with all the usual piazzas and renaissance style buildings. The members of my group who had already been with me werenâ€™t phased by the change in plans, but happily went off in search of food and drink. The new ones were beginning to look a little annoyed. They went off with the group, anyway.
I sat outside the station with one Australian girl talking for about six hours until the group returned. They had been to a restaurant and bar after shopping so they were well fed and watered. Iâ€™d managed a panino and two bottles of beer from the station cafÃ©.
The train arrived and we got on. I explained to everyone the change came at the rather weird hour of one in the morning at a place called Villach West. Then we split up. The train was very long, about 30 carriages and packed. There were not enough empty seats around for us to sit together. Everyone assured me, though, that they knew when to get off and where.
I sat with half the group and grabbed a short nap. My alarm woke us at 10 minutes to one and we got ready to get off the train. Around one in the morning, the train began slowing down to stop, taking a long time to finally reach the station.
My small group couldnâ€™t reach the others who were all the way down the front end of the train. I hoped they had woken up in time. The door opened and I looked out. It was pitch black and there was no platform, no lights or signs indicating we were where we wanted to be.
I looked towards the front and couldnâ€™t see anyone else getting off. Maybe they were still asleep. The whistle sounded and I had to haul one girl back into the train before it lurched off. I didnâ€™t want to split my group up in the middle of Austria.
I took off my pack and ran down the train to find the rest sitting in one car, chatting. Someone asked me if that was our stop. I nodded. There were a few “I told you so”. The next stop was in five minutes at Villach central which gave us only 15 minutes to get back to Villach West and our train to Salzburg. This one was heading to Munich.
At Villach I ran out of the station to find a taxi to see one, a people carrier, pulling off down the road. Missed one again. There were no more taxis and the pay phone kept telling me I was dialing the wrong number, or words to that effect in German. I checked the timetable for the next train to Salzburg, it read 6 a.m. It was now 1.30 a.m., twleve and a half hours from when we should have left Venice. There was no option now but to bunk down on the station floor until six.
Amongst the assorted drunks and homeless, we made a circle in the middle of the station foyer. I couldnâ€™t sleep, though. I had to make sure none of the drunks got too close to any of the backpacks. Most just stared at us with out-of-focus curiosity. One tried to offer me the contents of his brown paper bag which I politely declined, and I had to shoo one away from the Texan guyâ€™s boots.
By 4 a.m. everyone, including the drunks, were asleep. I decided to stretch my legs on the platform and just see if our train was possibly there.
Miracle of miracles – the train destined for Salzburg at 6 a.m. was sitting silently by the platform. I knew the cabins had seats that could pull together to make beds, a far more comfortable set up than the station floor. I found the guard and asked him if it was okay to get on board early to sleep. He said it would be fine.
I quietly woke my group and directed them to the train showing them how to arrange the seats. The guard even turned on the heating. Some of my group had sleeping bags so everyone was tucked up in their cabins sound asleep in a matter of moments.
I raised an eyelid around 6 a.m. to check that the train was actually leaving and still destined for Salzburg before falling back to sleep for another three and a half hours. We were due in at Salzburg at 9:30 a.m. The 10 a.m. train from Salzburg to Wels West left on time, which had us catching the 11 a.m. to Gruenau for the 50-minute journey to our final destination.
The minibus for the hostel picked us up at 5 minutes to 12; the total time taken for this epic journey was 23 hours. It was with utter relief that I dumped my pack in the hallway of our hostel. Everyone, except for one girl, made the decision to stay there for a few days to recover. My ease would be short lived, however, as I had to get the train at 5 oâ€™clock back to Wels and on to Vienna to pick up my next group.
My operations manager couldnâ€™t wait to hear my story when I called him to say we had finally made it. I said I had been determined. He said it was the best adventure heâ€™d heard in a very long time, with a new company record. Our head guide had taken 22 hours from London to Gruenau and he was going by plane.
It was not your average train journey and certainly not one I would care to repeat, but it gave everyone a great story to tell at the bar later on.
Check out the author’s accommodation website at PlusVillages.com.