I like travelling by train. (Well, okay, apart from commuting in London, I like travelling by train.)
Train travel has very few of the inconveniences associated with modern air travel; the stations are generally located in city centres, close to where you’re likely to want to be, there aren’t as many hidden charges when booking a cheap fare, the pre-boarding security isn’t nearly so intrusive, there’s more comfort on board; you aren’t crammed in and belted down, you don’t have to turn off your electronics, you still get phone signal and you often get Wi-Fi.
On balance, when you consider fares, taxes, airport transfers and waiting time, trains usually come out better than even budget airlines unless you’re going a very long way.
As I started writing this post (yesterday), I had my legs stretched out under the vacant seat next to me, the winter sun on my face and quaint French villages speeding-by outside the window. There was a large hot coffee and a fresh Danish pasty beside my laptop. I was already on holiday. The journey is part of the enjoyment and relaxation, not the last stress to be endured before it begins.
So, you get the idea? I like travelling by train and I’m finding European train travel especially enjoyable.
The itinerary was straightforward; I departed London’s St Pancras International station at 08:04 and arrived into Brussels’ Midi Station almost exactly two hours later at 11:05(CET). I could have gotten the onward train to Cologne within the hour, but I was being a cheapskate when I booked and opted for a three-hour layover to get a lower fare.
Brussels-Midi, it turns out, is not the most fascinating place to kill time. The food options were limited – unless I wanted to gorge on chocolate and bocadillos – and the station didn’t seem to be close to anything worth a sightseeing stroll.
The train to Cologne was quite stylish compared to the grey, blocky design of the Eurostar. There were warm wood finishes, colours and rounder corners. It was busier than the Eurostar and I had various seatmates almost all the way.
Germany was a bit more overcast than France and Belgium, but the end of the trip was brightened by a series of pop-culture murals painted on the gable ends of buildings on the approach to the station. We pulled into Cologne Hauptbahnhof at exactly 4:15pm.
Once I’d found my way off the platform, my first stop was to get my phone equipped with a local SIM card and have a coffee. The hostel where I’m staying, Pathpoint Cologne, is just a few hundred meters from the station, so it was easy enough to find.
Apart from an initial problem opening the room door, it’s all good. The hostel is modern and well-equipped. It looks, in part, like a converted church – or maybe they do actually have services in the big lounge on Sundays. I’m in a dorm of four; two Italian youths travelling together and a thirty-something German guy. The Italians don’t appear to have any English but I’m guessing they’re on a gap-year. Have only met the German guy briefly when he came in to go to bed and again this morning as he got up, so I don’t know his story.
A big advantage of the hostel is that it’s right in the centre of town; a few hundred yards from the station, which in turn sits right next to the massive Cologne Cathedral. After getting settled last night, I took a stroll back in that direction and had a brief look around the Weihnachtsmärkte in the square south of the cathedral. For a big old Grinch like me, it was quite magical (at least until it started to rain and I headed home.) Today I’m starting my tour properly, so I’ll be back there at some point to give you the full flavour.
In the meantime, I’m off out to explore Cologne a little. Bye for now.