Home | Short Stories | Nº 139 – Off to Portugal… by Rail?

Nº 139 – Off to Portugal… by Rail?

Saturday, the 17th of December 2022

Now, the other day I was reading in ECO123 that the town of Monchique was threatened with extinction. And the same magazine carried an online job advert. What can I say? I’ll blame coincidence for the fact that I left Leipzig, unable to resist my curiosity, and started on my way to Monchique, nestling in the mountains of the same name. I wanted that job. And here is my story.


Travelling is supposed to be fun; it should be safe, as fast as possible and cheap too of course. Now for years we were able to fulfill our wishes using cheap carriers. Now flying is getting more expensive. Furthermore, word has got around that we are generating harmful emissions with every mile we fly. In any case, more than we would if we were to cover the same distance by train. So, what has to happen for us to remain grounded willingly and happily, and change to railway tracks? In order to answer this question, our author is starting out on his journey, some 3,000 kilometres, from Leipzig in Germany, right across Europe all the way to Monchique in southern Portugal. He‘ll be travelling for six days, in four stages, with a fair amount of luggage and a set of watchful eyes.


First stage: Leipzig (Germany) to Basel (Switzerland)

The Monster

Kick-off takes place at Leipzig Main Station, apparently the largest terminal in Europe. In the years following German reunification, the interior of this colossal hundred-year-old building was completely overhauled. Now across three floors you can buy everything you need here, plus of course plenty of stuff nobody really needs. Truth be told, this train station has mutated into a shopping mall with railway connections. I’m wheeling my e-scooter towards platform 14, having booked a ticket for an Intercity Express going to Wiesbaden. Changing trains in Frankfurt/Main, it’ll take me around five-and-a-half hours to reach my first staging post. Actually, make that six hours, as the train is delayed. I’ve paid 54 euros for this first stage, without a seat reservation, as this is not mandatory on German trains.

A woman accompanies me to the platform. I’d guess she is nearing retirement. Her baggy uniform is far too large for her frame, its sleeves far too long. This lady, part of what they call “security staff”, is kind enough to offer to shoot the first photograph of this little adventure: the Traveller in front of a sign bearing the slightly boastful lettering with the trade fair credentials of my hometown: “Messestadt Leipzig”.

She doesn’t mention my vehicle. I‘d been careful enough not to enquire before starting out whether taking an electric vehicle onboard trains was even allowed: “Ask a lot and you‘ll get a lot of answers”, was something we used to say in the GDR in the olden days. The reasoning behind this was our experience that many functionaries preferred to say “NO” as they would have to take responsibility for a “YES”. The request of the person asking might be prohibited. Often you just don’t know for sure. The set of rules in Germany is just as obscure as in Portugal. This also seems to be the case for the new foldable e-scooter. The particulars of the “Deutsche Bahn AG International Conditions of Transport”, last updated on 21 September 2022, make no specific mention of the issue. Every traveller, it says, may “usually transport hand luggage of no more than three objects that might be easily carried as hand luggage, as long as they may be stowed away above and below the seat”, that’s what it says, which can be interpreted in several ways really. Folded up, my e-scooter does measure a sizable 1.20 metres. Surfboards? Not allowed; skis, musical instruments and prams are explicitly mentioned. The latter, it says, are only permitted if the train has suitable storage space. So, what may well happen is that the train staff of one of the altogether five  transport companies whose services I need to avail myself of during my trip bars me from boarding. That would be fatal, as the tickets are tied to specific trains. Flexible tickets would cost way way more. The necessary overnight stays in Basel, Girona and Seville too have been booked and paid for in advance. Even so, I take the risk, as in the absence of a driving licence I want to use the roller scooter in the mountains of Monchique. I want to be independent from the sparse yet costly bus connections in the region. So it is that I find myself lugging an 18kg pack on my back, carrying in one hand a heavy bag for laptop and papers, in the other my 21kg electric roller, up the steps to the carriage. To be on the safe side, I’d wrapped the monster into an opaque jute bag. If the ticket collector should ask, I’ll flutter my eye-lids and claim, putting on an innocent air, that this is a foldable wheelchair, without which I cannot get around really. And I’ll add, my voice near breaking-point: “I am sixty years old”…


Invisible Cities

The carriage is breaking at the seams. Passengers are jostling for space in the corridor. The idea of pushing past them into a different carriage hoping for more free seats seems doomed. Today of all days the train staff has blocked off one of the smaller carriages. One that holds only two uniformed railway staff. Just under a dozen seats are empty. Does the staff not realise how many people are travelling on this service? Or is this more something like the arrogance of power? In the larger part of the carriage, for the “non-privileged”, the scrum[U: Wooling? kenne den Begriff nicht? Gewühl, denke ich] is slowly thinning out. Im able to cadge one of the last free seats. With the help of the older lady sitting opposite me I manage to wedge my “monster” upright between a few suitcases. Too soon, at the next station the lady and myself have to give up our seats. A lively group of confident young women chase us from our seats, having reserved them beforehand. It is beginning to dawn on me that making a reservation might not have been such a bad idea after all. All four are in their early twenties and university students, as will transpire later on. As we go along one of them is reading aloud off her laptop: “The inhabitants of the town of Eusapia would like to make the transition from life to death as comfortable as possible”. Without wanting to I find myself eaves-dropping, having been offered a seat near them that had become available: “Which is why they created a mirror image of their town below ground. That’s where they take their dead…”. It’s surprising, I’m thinking to myself, what occupies the minds of young people these days. Is that a consequence of the supposed[U: ‘vermeintlich’ – meint er das wirklich?! Ich würde es lieber abmildern zu einfach ‘the pandemic’] pandemic? The fear of death? Here on the train this fear still appears to be fairly present. For masks make it visible. Nobody in this carriage is resisting the government rule that unlike in all other countries in Europe still enforces masks on public transport. I even see small children wearing, having to wear masks. I don’t, they give me claustrophobia. Of course that doesn’t count as a proper reason for being exempt from wearing a mask. I know that discussion is pointless. I’ve stopped discussing this anyway. I eat. I manage to spend the entire six hours eating. Vegetables, finely chopped, very finely chopped. And I am left in peace: “Enjoy your meal!”, says the onboard train staff heartily. At some point I start a conversation with the young women. Their degree is in urban planning, I learn. The story about death is the base of their end-of-term paper and “written by this philosopher guy.” They have to look into this as planning a city also has to take into account the ambience, feelings, not only issues of practical use. I concede that I don’t like the city described there, at all. Just imagining the stench in the underground necropolis gives me the heaves. They don’t know why they are supposed to work with this particular story, they say, but do find it fascinating in a way. The story is called “The Invisible Cities” and was written by Italo Calvino. I’ve since Googled it.


Second stage: Basel (Switzerland) via Lyon (France) to Girona (Spain)

A City named Basel

It’s in a nice little boarding house near Basel SBB train station that I wake up in pain. I never knew you could have sore muscles in the hollows of your knee. I really should have trained before lugging forty kilos of luggage all the way through Europe. Admittedly I’ve seen practically nothing of Basel, as there were only some 12 hours between my evening arrival and leaving again the following morning. Of those I wanted to use at least eight to get enough sleep to prepare for the next stage. Today I’ll have to change trains twice in France, in Mulhouse Ville and Lyon. I’d spotted this route before on the map. While it’s the shortest distance by the number of railway kilometres travelling in the direction of Portugal, it’ll take me nearly eleven hours to reach my second stage of Girona in Spain. Of course I’d tried ahead of time to buy my tickets online. However, for the online booking systems of national train companies two international frontiers are by the looks of it insuperable. While Deutsche Bahn apologises, the French SNCF will show up the connections whilst refusing to sell the relevant tickets, and the Spanish Renfe appears up in arms because a city called Basel doesn’t exist. Now the Swiss, traditionally worldliwise, would indeed sell online tickets. However, the SBB is asking for so much money for that service, nearly three-hundred Swiss francs, that I take my request, old-school style, to a Leipzig railway counter. The friendly attendant is visibly flustered. One of the reasons behind this is one of those new glass panes intended to stop the spread of the Corona virus. However, what wasn’t really factored in here is the fact that the railway station ruckus in the background makes any communication between staff and customers impossible. In an attempt to not have to read the lips of the employee I keep shifting my ear around the barrier, towards her. This appears to be illegal. A superior rushing to the scene has witnessed the event and admonishes me in a loud voice brokering no dissent. If this was to happen again I’d have to leave this space. Sheepishly I begin to understand how the deaf must feel. The whole process, involving by the way three members of staff, one after the other, in parts also all three of them, ends up taking nearly an hour. Finally there I am clutching the longed-for tickets, with a discount, too, which however is granted only in Spain to seniors under 65. For this second stretch I’ve paid 135 euros, including the mandatory seat reservations. Aboard the French TGV, a fast train actually deserving this name, tearing as it does through the landscape at a speed of nearly 300 km/h, near soundlessly by the way, and leaving you unaware of the speed. Aboard this train I enjoy a feeling I haven’t had for a long time: of not being an outsider any longer. A lone couple, probably Germans, are wearing the beak-like dust masks supposedly protecting against viruses. Later, on the train taking me to Spain, a guitar-wielding freak is sitting next to me. Every few minutes, his “atchoooo” is tearing me away from my thoughts, and on the back of my hand I can feel the spray of tiny droplets. ‘Masks don’t offer protection’, I valiantly think to myself and am glad that for blowing his nose he heads outside to the toilet. Lyon railway station does deserve a mention. What do I spot amid the ‘tristesse’ and the pushing and shoving …what is this now? A piano! Bearing the friendly invitation “It’s your turn!”. And in fact a person is sat at the piano, a traveller, as I find out. Sparkling sounds of an Etude by Chopin end up neutralising the sound pollution that’s become a feature of railway stations.


Third stage: Girona (Spain) to Seville (Spain)

A Break

In a way the Catalan city of Barcelona, hometown of famous architect Antoni Gaudi, would have made sense as the destination of the previous stage. This is where the high-speed trains leave from, heading west and south. However, a friend advised me to avoid the touristy city and instead break my journey in the smaller yet equally historic town of Girona. This time I booked two nights. I urgently needed a break. Up to this point I’d spent a total of 18 hours in more or less full train compartments, getting on and off five times. I wanted to spend one day off the railway tracks, and most of all enjoy a warm meal once again. My supplies had dwindled even though I’d stocked up on plenty of food: a lot of fresh fruit and veg, bread from the organic shop, cheese and wine. The foodstuff I found at railway stations and onboard trains ranged from the bland to the disgusting, unhealthy and expensive. A dry potato omelette the size of a child’s hand, plus a mini bag containing completely tasteless wheat biscuits  set me back 5.50 euros. The biscuits were so hard that I reckon they were  developed by the Spanish dentists’ association to boost their members’ business. So a one-day break in Girona. While this extends my journey and makes it more expensive, wandering the Old Town, exploring the market and enjoying a lunch that’s for once not wobbling across the plate to the tune of the swaying train has for the moment reconciled me with the idea of slow travel. Well rested then I wait in front of the access checkpoint for the platform. Security staff, which here do look as if they could ensure security, are eyeing me warily. Just as at an airport every one of my pieces of luggage is screened. I’d kind of legalised the “monster” before, by showing everything in the office of the Spanish Renfe company, sticking on labels with my details and receiving the friendly assurance that I’d be able to take my e-vehicle with me. The tickets too were easily booked on the Internet, in different languages even. From Barcelona I could have travelled via Madrid and Lisbon, in the direction of Faro and on to Portimão. Another two days in different trains, with four changes. A stretch of over 1500 kilometres, which of course would also be reflected in the price. Instead I chose the shorter less complicated route via Seville, even if this involves switching to a bus later on. To cover this third stretch I’ve paid out a total of 130 euros. Aboard the train comes a minor shock: just as in Germany masks are mandatory. However, in contrast, there are no admonishing tannoy announcements, no reproachful glances on the part of watchful passengers, nobody minds me, the Maskless Traveller. The rows of seats aboard the Spanish high-speed trains feature leather armchairs and plenty of leg space, even in cattle class. Eight hours later I arrive in time and just a little tired at my third stage post: Seville.


Fourth stage: Seville (Spain), via Portimão (Portugal), to Monchique (Portugal)

The Downer

From Seville there is only one bus going to Faro and Portimão. With difficulty I squeeze into my pre-booked seat on the overland bus run by the Spanish transport company “Alsa”. In so doing my knees are painfully knocking against the seat in front of me. With my height of 1,70m, weighing just under 60 kilos you could describe me as short and slim. How may this work out for the taller, mostly a lot heavier majority of passengers? Not a lot better than in the Economy Class of a plane I’m thinking to myself, glancing across to the pictograms on the window panes of the vehicle: “Extra Space” is promised here, as well as a “WC”, which forms part of the basic needs of long-distance coach travellers. When I feel the urgent need to go I realise that the toilet is locked. As our bus is already running over an hour behind schedule (an overturned truck on the motorway was blocking lanes), the driver takes pity on us and allows us a comfort stop. Compared to the more or less comfortable trains this stage represents a true downer. As the bus is starting to leave, a scream echoes through the vehicle. One of the passengers has disappeared. There had been no signal announcing the departure. The rest of us had returned to our seats as fast as possible, worried about exactly this happening to us. The search for the lost passenger begins. He is eventually located in the long queue that had formed at the only sales counter of this petrol station. At last we can continue our journey. When we arrive at Portimão bus station two-and-a-half hours behind schedule, i.e. after six-and-a-half hours, a shuttle bus takes the traveller into town and the stop for the regional trains meant to take me into the mountains to Monchique. In fact I have to wait a little but there is a bus leaving this evening still. This is how after a nine-and-a-half hour journey and two changes I eventually reach the destination of this fourth stage: Monchique, paying only some 30 euro for the privilege.

Would I do it again – or maybe not really?

There is definitely something to be said for slow travel! You can really feel the distance travelled. Yet it is incomparably more tiring than a journey by air. Adding up the train and bus tickets I’ve paid around 350 euros and spent some 35 hours travelling, not counting the overnight stays. Shared accommodation can be had from around 30 euros per night. For five nights I paid around 450 euros. In both Girona and Seville I spent a day resting. Without those breaks I’d have bridged the distance in four instead of six days, yet would have seen as little of the charming cities along my way as if I’d flown over them. To compare: at the moment I can book a flight online from Leipzig to Faro, with extra luggage, for around 300 euros. Adding the drive times to Leipzig/Halle Airport plus the distance from Faro Airport to Monchique I would be travelling for some 20 hours. This means pitting ONE travelling day through airspace against at least FOUR travelling days on the ground, as well as some 300 euros for the flight against some 800 euros, for trains, a bus and overnight stays. Can you even begin to compare these two options?


Of course you can, you have to! For if travelling overland is supposed to become a real alternative to flying, not only the means of transport themselves have to become faster, the distances have to become shorter, the changes fewer. I find myself hankering back to the time when night trains connected several European destinations, not only the capital cities. With a little luck you’d arrive at your destination well rested. Alongside the means of transport proper, the infrastructure surrounding them, such as train stations, ticketing, the collaboration of the railway companies, not least the quality of the gastronomic facilities, all this has to move up a notch. And at high speed really, please!


Argo Matthias Toying

traduções: Ruth Correia & Kathleen Becker | fotografias: Argo Matthias Toying

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