Much as I have enjoyed my time in Germany’s easternmost city, there has been a flaw in my planning. I have neither a plane ticket nor a train ticket back.
Görlitz is the easternmost town in Germany and I live in the far west. Four hundred miles separate me from home but I am not worried in the slightest. I have a solution, though it is not for the faint-hearted.
German trains can be overcrowded, dirty, expensive and chronically unpunctual but there are still some saving graces for those habituated to going through life without expecting too much. The Schönes Wochenende Ticket is one of them.
Frank, in his student days, always used to call it the “scruff ticket”. Like most German students, most Germans in fact, he always regarded having his own transport as an inalienable human right. Germany makes excellent provisions with regard to subsidised rail travel for students, pensioners, concert goers, sports fans and the like and can afford to do so because of the high numbers of people eligible who turn their noses up at it.
To me, the Schönes Wochenende Ticket is not only a German icon, it is the ultimate must-have accessory for anyone prepared to take a chance on life. The terms are simple. For an all-in price of forty euros you can travel anywhere in Germany on either a Saturday or Sunday.
You may take up to four people with you at no extra cost and you are not obliged to purchase the ticket any more than a few minutes before your departure. If, upon reaching your intended destination, you wish to turn round and come back, you may do so. You are also at liberty to go somewhere else — during the twenty-four hour period that the ticket is valid you may do with it as you wish.
You will not be surprised to learn that there is a catch, so here it is: You may only use regional trains. Intercity trains and high-speed trains are out-of-bounds. You must therefore change trains multiple times at railway stations that you are utterly unfamiliar with in order to get to your destination. You will not always go the direct route. If the train is late and you miss your connection, well tough luck. The other caveat is that if you decide to plump for the Wochenendticket then there will be a lot of people who have the same idea.
The journey from Görlitz to Herne will take me twelve hours and involve me changing trains six times. The snow is beginning to fall and German trains are notoriously sensitive to the wrong type of snow. It is the Christmas market season, the bete noir of every commuter, when large groups of inebriated shoppers try their hand at using public transport and thoroughly annoy the regulars with their ineptitude. The football calendar may throw up a vital fixture in any of the sixty-one railway stations we have to go through, meaning that the queue for the toilet may stretch back to the guard’s van.
If you’re prepared to take a chance then it works. I have made it as far south as Garmisch-Partenkirchen near the Austrian border, as far east as Dresden and as far north as Hamburg but I am not the record holder. That honour belongs to Peter, who made it as far south as Garmisch, sussed out that the Austrians have a similar scheme and crossed into Italy. It was he who planned the trip to Dresden, of which more later.
With a little experience and a serious disregard for comfort you will get where you want to go and today I am going to prove it to you. Here is how my journey from Germany’s farthest point east to its deepest point west unfolded.
04:00. Zgorzelec, Poland.
I awake, pack my bag and leave my hotel room keys with a slightly bemused looking receptionist. I am still in Poland and outside the temperature has reached the minus numbers for the first time this year. I stop at the 24-hour supermarket and purchase essential supplies. I cross the river separating Poland from Germany. The ducks and swans huddle into themselves for warmth. Twenty minutes’ walk takes me to Görlitz railway station. I buy the ticket and a coffee and wait on the platform away from the smell of the toilet. Bitter experience of German train toilets tells me that lavatories will be an issue all day. My train is the first out of the station, the…
05:43 Görlitz Bahnhof — Dresden Neustadt
An uneventful journey through the hills of Lusatia passes through railway stations with bilingual signs in German and Sorbian. Germany’s one and only Slavic minority is still sleeping, as is the rest of the country. The chill of the night sky permeates through the window preventing sleep.
I breakfast at Dresden before visiting the historic spot where Peter and I alighted from the regional express when we made the journey from Dortmund nine years ago. The journey took ten hours and was made bearable only by good company and sufficient quantities of alcohol. We were in Dresden to visit a friend, who assures us that by the time we stepped off at the platform we were unable to stand without each other’s assistance. I shall not make the same mistake today. Instead I take the…
07:25 Dresden Neustadt — Leipzig Hauptbahnof
The train rattles out of Dresden and into a landscape of steep cliffs and castles. Saxony proper has a real air of grandeur to it. Outside, lifeless vines regenerate for another wine season. Inside, someone has been smoking in the toilet.
The end of the line is Leipzig main station, famous for being the largest Kopfbahnhof in Germany. Kopfbahnhof means a railway station where trains do not travel through. Every one of the nineteen platforms is the end of the line. King’s Cross and Glasgow Central look miniscule by comparison and I am reminded just how big German railway stations can be. Berlin’s main station dwarfs this one. I look round the shopping centre before getting the…
09:19 Leipzig Hauptbahnof — Magdeburg Hauptbahnhof.
This is when I should start to get worried. Up until now I have been just about the only passenger on the train but now people will be up and about. Luckily, the train is reassuringly modern and not too busy. I sit alone at a table for four and am instantly content as the train shudders into action. It is only then that I discover the catch. The arrow has hit the perennial Achilles’ heel of every German train: The toilet is out-of-order.
Particularly if you are in company, a defective toilet can be fatal to your travel plans. It is for this reason that I have only once used the Wochenendticket to travel to a football match. Myself, four friends and five thousand other Borussia Dortmund fans made the six-hour trip to Kaiserslautern and the toilets were out of action within half an hour of boarding. Plastic bottles saved our lives that day I swear. Never again. I resolve to think of something else and concentrate on the bird’s nests in the bare trees and the thickening blanket of snow as we cross from Saxony into Saxony-Anhalt.
The train has filled up nicely by the time we reach Magdeburg; mostly with fans of FC Wismut Gera, who have obviously got out of bed early this Sunday to reach their current level of intoxication. Officers of the law greet them on the platform and bundle them onto the next outbound train while I am a liberty to enjoy the capital of Saxony-Anhalt for a full twenty-five minutes.
I spend most of it trying to find platform ten, which has been relocated due to building work and end up waddling around in the snow on the uncovered platforms. The scene reminds me very much of Anna Karenina as I jump on the train with seconds to spare. I am now on the…
11:33 Magdeburg Hauptbahnof — Braunschweig Hauptbahnhof
In from the cold and alone at a table for four I decide it is time to relax. I open up a bottle of Polish Belgian-style ale and a book. Some twenty minutes later I finish the chapter and move on to a porter beer which is far stronger than is probably sensible.
As we skirt around the northern edge of the Harz mountains I am reminded of the time Peter and I made the trip to Dresden and of the importance of pacing oneself with regard to alcohol. Peter likes to experiment with alternative alcohol in the way that hypochondriacs dabble in alternative medicine. Be it cider, whisky or most commonly wine, he firmly believes that — provided their virtues can be adequately extolled — such beverages lend the drinker an air of legitimacy which beer does not.
He had opted for wine on this particular trip, supplemented by ciabatta, supermarket tapas and a jar of olives. As we approached Magdeburg he was in full flow about how beer makes you fat, beer makes you aggressive, beer gives you spots. Wine on the other hand. If you want to get up the next day then wine is your best option. Wine does not give you hangovers. Wine is the blood of Christ. He says the same about cider.
“Mind you”, I remember him saying some five hours into the journey as he fished the last olive out of the jar “you were probably wise to go for beer today.”
“The good thing about beer is you can drink as much of you like and you don’t get drunk.” he continued, wagging his finger with a studious air, “I find I can go all night on beer and I’ll be fine. More or less. I’ve got to admit, just at the moment I’m a bit tipsy. That’s the problem with wine. Gets you drunk. You did well to go for beer. You’ll be much better for it when we arrive.”
By this stage I was so wasted I could have drunk the brine out of the olive jar.
Happy memories. I doze off and two hours later the train passes into Lower Saxony before arriving in Braunschweig. Another train, another state. I dine luxuriously at Burger King before taking the…
13:20 Braunschweig Hauptbahnhof — Bielefeld Hauptbahnhof
We roll across the featureless plains of Lower Saxony. Once again I am touched by how empty the middle of Germany is. Now that I am a German citizen I am thinking of starting a campaign to build a new capital city here, just as the Kazakhs have done in their country. It would surely be cheaper than trying to fix all the problems with the new Berlin airport. A bottle of east German black beer sends me to sleep and I wake up in Bielefeld.
At least I think I do. In these days of fake news you can never be too careful. Bielefeld is famous for two things: Dr Oetker frozen pizzas, also available in Britain (the thin, dry ones that nobody likes) and the Bielefeld Conspiracy.
Nobody in Germany knows anyone who comes from Bielefeld, or someone who has ever even been there. No German has ever been there themselves. It thus follows that Bielefeld does not exist and is part of a government conspiracy. I have ten minutes to change and thus cannot adequately judge if this city of 350,000 inhabitants exists or not. The British Isles equivalent is the Isle of Man. Think about it. I wait on the platform for the…
15:58 Bielefeld Hauptbahnhof — Bochum Hauptbahnof.
Regardless of whether Bielefeld exists or not, I am now in North Rhine-Westphalia. Trains in the most populous state in Germany are usually full to bursting on a Sunday afternoon and this train is no exception. I am lucky to get a seat as the aisles fill up with people.
A large lady in a fur coat plonks herself down next to me and rams me into the corner. Christmas market season brings out the most combative of commuters. No German-style Christmas market in the UK can truly match them for atmosphere because nobody in Britain has developed the equivalent of the Teutonic elbow.
I resolve to make the most of it and fall asleep in the fur, lulled by the soothing sound of bickering and moralising from my fellow passengers. I awake just before Dortmund dying to pee. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it would be for me to squeeze through to the toilet. Blessed relief comes ten minutes later when I get off and take the…
17:18 Bochum Hauptbahnhof Platform 3 — Bochum Hauptbahnhof public toilet.
I emerge from the lavatory what seems like hours later. I have made it by God. That was actually the last train of the day: I can now jump onto the underground and in ten minutes I will be home. I can’t quite believe that I’ve done it in under twelve hours without anything major going wrong.
They’ve had a good day in Bochum too. There are football and Christmas markets on and the local lads have beaten Union Berlin 2-1. The station is full of jubilant fans in the blue- and-white on the home side, nonplussed looking supporters in the red-and-white of the visitors, and heavily made up old bags in animal skins clutching Christmas gifts and stinking of rum and Chanel. The unofficial motto of the German railway company is “enjoy life in full (trains).”
I share the pain of the Berlin fans. Much as I am glad that one of my local teams has picked up a much-needed victory, I cannot but help pitying them; they are cold, miserable and clutching the same little piece of paper as I have. Losing is bearable, but it’s a long way home when you do.
“Berlin mate? Platform five. Change at Bielefeld. Hanover. Stendahl. Rathenow. The weather’s bloody awful out your way.”
Never use a Wochenendticket for football.