Des is besotted with overnight trains. Before the Moscow to Paris Express, we’d taken just two overnighters – Serco’s Caledonian Sleeper from London to Inverness, and Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Chicago. A principal requirement for this trip was to take an overnight train somewhere in Europe. When Des and I go to Europe, we usually spend a couple of days on an adventure but now that he’s a little older, it made sense to do something really special. So, sometime in March, Des and I sat around the living room with a map of Europe and attempted to put together an outline of a plan for our trip. We would start at my dad’s home, in St. Asaph, in North Wales, and end up in the south of Spain where we would finish the long trip with some relaxing days on the beach.

Our first plan had us traveling by train to London (from Prestatyn, near where my dad lives), then Paris on the Eurostar, then an overnight train, one of the few, to a small town in the Pyrenees named Andorre-L’Hospitalet. From there, we’d take a bus into Andorra, the small Pyrenean principality. It was a plan Des and I were particularly excited about yet ultimately had to scrap. It was just too much. Getting to the south of Spain from the Pyrenees is not easy since there are no trains in Andorra. We would have relied heavily on notoriously unreliable mountain buses. The overnight sleeper from Paris is configured with couchette cars and not compartments and so we’d have to share with people we didn’t know. It was a charming plan, bold, but he’s just not ready for that kind of travel, not yet. We needed alternatives but we kept running into a recurring problem. Overnight trains, particularly in Western Europe, are fewer because of the increased utilization of daytime high-speed inter-city trains. There just aren’t that many overnight trains anymore.

We were frustrated, and we were spinning our wheels, so we reverse engineered the plan a little. We knew we wanted to spend time at the beach, and we knew which day we would have to leave to come back to Massachusetts so we worked backwards from there. The gateway to the south of Spain by train from the rest of Europe is Barcelona, that’s the only option.  And, the only effective way to get to Barcelona, speedily, is from Paris. That meant we needed to be in Paris by at least 2:20pm on the Friday to make the connection with the high-speed TGV Duplex to Barcelona. Barcelona would be the perfect place for us to rest, do laundry, and of course eat, before taking the final high-speed train to Malaga, two days later. That left us searching for an overnight train, from anywhere, to Paris, that would arrive at any time on the Friday morning. You’d think that’d be easy, right?

We got rather excited about a train called the Thello which runs from Rome (and beyond) to Paris. I’d never been to Italy – it would certainly be a welcome option, a couple of days there, then catch the Thello to Paris. However, I became rather less excited when I read the reviews.

If you’re the sort of person who starts giggling when the next thing on Thello goes wrong, is missing or doesn’t work, you’ll be fine. But, if you’re the sort of person who gets indignant and writes snotty reviews on TripAdvisor, I’d stick to the daytime TGV trains and a hotel.

It’s an ‘experience’ as long as you’re prepared for the basic conditions, and maybe not something you’d want to do twice.

Well, that wasn’t promising. The reviews, of which there were many, made the Thello sound like a clown car, not a mode of transportation to be taken seriously.

So, our attention ultimately shifted to Germany because Berlin and Hamburg are hubs for overnight trains. For the most part, the trains from Germany connect with eastern Europe, through Poland or Austria or Switzerland to Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Zurich, Warsaw, and even as far as Dubrovnik and Istanbul. These are all wonderful places but maybe a little too adventurous for us. Yes, one could make an argument to go from Budapest or Vienna to Berlin, and then a fast train to Paris, but we’d burn up valuable vacation time. It’s all a zero-sum game – time on the train takes away from time on the beach. If only there was an overnighter from Berlin to Paris. There used to be, but not now – I certainly couldn’t find anything on any of the published schedules, but, The Man in Seat 61 said there was.

And there it was, hidden away deep in an international train review website – the Moscow Paris Express. is a wonderful resource for train travel around the world. I seriously recommend it.

The Moscow Paris Express runs just one day per week (that’s why I couldn’t find it in the schedules), departing Moscow’s Belorussky Station on Wednesday evenings and arrives in Paris on Friday mornings. It stops in Belarus, Poland, and Germany. It reaches Berlin on Thursdays at around 9pm then leisurely worms its way through western Germany and eastern France taking about twelve hours to get to Paris. Des and I, with maps sprawled across the living room floor, looked at the schedule, couldn’t believe our luck, and high-fived. Des jumped up and down on the couch, just like I told him not to.

I did my level best to temper our enthusiasm and excitement because I needed to read the reviews first. I didn’t want to raise our hopes as we did with the Thello. I mean seriously, how good is a Russian train?  I had absolutely no idea. I couldn’t help but think of Britain’s favorite whiner, Karl Pilkington, on An Idiot Abroad, travelling on a Russian train that resembled a rolling morgue. I would never do that to Des, or anyone else for that matter.

The thought of making this reservation reminded me of when I traveled to Russia with my parents, which was about thirty-five years ago. They hauled me aboard a rickety-old Tupolev Tu-134, a plane which NATO gave the codename Crusty. Yes, this is true. I traveled with my parents on a mode of transportation that the west saw fit to assign a code name for military targeting purposes. I remembered boarding the aircraft in Bulgaria, we were greeted (and I use that term loosely) by a troubled twitchy pilot. He said something to us in Russian, then hurriedly gestured for us all to sit down. We picked the only seats that looked firmly bolted down, and, given that our seatbelts lacked any kind of fastening mechanism, we knotted the belts around our waists as one would tie one’s shoes. Not a double knot mind you – the last thing you’d want in the midst of catastrophic failure is to pick apart a knot you can’t undo. The aircraft’s sole flight attendant, who shared the pilot’s penchant for nervous anxiety, made no safety announcements of any kind. In fact, she didn’t do much of anything other than remain firmly planted in a rear-facing jump seat while holding the main cabin door with both hands, as if it springing open mid-flight was more than just a distinct possibility. And if this is my (albeit flawed) memory of a Russian plane, then what, for Christ’s sake, would a Russian train be like?

Astonishingly, the reviews proved to be rather splendid. Thirty-five years is a long time and the Soviet Union is long gone. Russian Railways employs new trains which use the latest German Siemens rolling stock. That said, Russian trains may have improved greatly since the Soviet era but their website remains locked in 1994. Making the reservation for a Russian train via the website is a traumatic experience, even for Ksenia, my Russian speaking colleague. But she did, and it worked. And we got our ticket.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof Main Entrance

Top floor platforms

Monument outside the Hauptbahnhof

Months later we arrived at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof station, the morning of the day we were scheduled to take the train. We dropped off our luggage so we could explore Berlin a little more. We went up the TV Tower, Des had some fun on a Bungee Trampoline, and we went bowling to pass the time before the train came. At about 7pm, we came back to the station and ate at one of the station’s outside restaurants. It was a beautiful evening. Des called his mom, then we recovered our luggage, and headed down deep into the bowels of the station.

Hauptbahnhof Platform 1.

The Moscow Paris Express was due to leave platform 1 at 9:09pm. We were ready. We sat around, waiting, waiting, first it was going to be five minutes late, then ten minutes late, then thirty minutes late, then twenty minutes, then not late at all. It was as if the train was simultaneously reversing away and driving toward the station. But eventually, it arrived.

As the train pulled into the station, I noticed the passengers just kind of lazily hung their heads out of the door windows, looking miserably at the surroundings. Unfortunately for them, there wasn’t much to see because this particular platform is in the basement of the station. Now, the top level of the Hauptbahnhof, where the S-Bahn trains come in, that’s where you’d get to see an elevated view of Berlin – that’s the fancy platform, that’s the place to be, but not this one. This could be New York’s Penn Station, but without the smell of vagrants’ urine.

And it was at this precise moment when it struck me how bored these passengers must be. The Moscow Paris Express is an all sleeper train, and with the exception of the lounge car, there isn’t an awful lot to do. There’s no seating area as on the Amtrak or the Caledonian where one could socialize with other humans. And bear in mind that most of the passengers didn’t even know each other and were randomly bunked together in compartments, up to four at a time. They’d been on the train for over twenty-four hours, and the highlight of the last 60 minutes had been the delight of experiencing the grubby innards of Berlin’s main rail station.

After the train stopped, an immaculately dressed conductor in grey uniform opened the door and helped the passengers off the train. There was a conductor for every carriage. When time to board, he checked our tickets. It felt very classy, very up-market. Our conductor, sadly, looked just as miserable and bored as the passengers, and spoke only Russian and German. He told us something in Russian which we assume meant we had to wait. So, Fiona and I both said “okay” like you do when you have no idea what is being said. Then, quizzically, he gestured for us to get on. “Oh!” we both said, nodding, and then we got on the train and found our compartment.

Our compartment door was already open, the lights were on, and all the beds were down in nighttime configuration. But, to our surprise, the beds had already been slept in – our very own Goldilocks and the Three Bears moment. I assumed that we had walked into the wrong room. But a quick check of the ticket confirmed we were in the right room in the right carriage. Fiona, Des, and I, all looked at each other and, well, ugh.  This wasn’t good. The conductor appeared again and started stripping the beds. He managed to explain, I don’t remember exactly how, that the people in this compartment left the train at Berlin, and it would just take a few minutes for him to fix the room for us.

He provided us with clean bedding, showed us how to use the fancy room key (like a hotel room), then left the three of us in peace.

Now that I was settled, I breathed a sigh of relief, and Des decided ninety seconds was just about long enough to not be doing anything. “Let’s go explore!” he said, jumping up and down, as he does. So, the two of us set off for the buffet car.

As we walked along the train’s narrow corridors, the passengers, the vast majority of which were Russian, moped around not really doing much of anything. To be honest, I don’t think there was much they could do. But, surprising and shocking to me were the varying degrees of dress, or rather, undress, paraded around as we made our way to the rear of the train. As we wandered the corridors, people lay on their bunks, in very relaxed posture, chatting, reading, or watching a movie wearing clothes they slept in – PJs, shorts – all laid bare, so to speak.

The corridor through the train was narrow, and I’m anything but narrow. And so, well, it’s all a bit of a squeeze, and, you know, when you pass someone in a confined space like that, butts touch. It just can’t be helped. I tried to be social. God. I smiled and said hello whenever I past anyone but my attempt at friendliness was received with the same icy stare you’d get if you told them you’d just bludgeoned their mother to death. You can call me old-fashioned, you can call me conservative, but if our butts are about to touch, and if you’re wearing the clothes you would normally wear to bed, I’d like for us to at least exchange pleasantries first.

The train felt very long. We walked carriage to carriage. At the end of each carriage was a host, who, by now, had removed their spiffy grey uniform, hung it over the door, and sat around in their underpants and vest, drinking tea. About eight carriages down, as Des and I were exiting a carriage, an arm thrust out of a compartment and a Russian gentleman, in underpants, vest, and a conductor’s hat, said “Nyet!” My immediate thought was that he wanted a bribe. He said something in Russian. Then he said “restaurant?” and I said “Da!” and he pointed to the other end of the train.


So, Des and I walked back, back past our compartment, and to the front of the train where the buffet car was. The buffet car was swapped in at Warsaw. It’s a Polish buffet car, complete with Polish staff, who only speak Russian, and presumably Polish. You could tell that they weren’t Russian because they were smiling and happy. I led with the joke “I’ve walked here all the way from Berlin!” but Des didn’t find it funny either. And he laughs at everything.

Polish potato flavored chips.

The good thing though was that our Polish friends could count to five in German, and so I was able point at what we wanted, and specify the correct quantity. We got one big bag (eine) of Polish chips, a couple (zwei) of beers, and some dodgy candy. We took it back to the compartment and shared our bounty with Fiona.

Polish beer. Yum.

The compartment is designed for up to four people. In day mode, with the beds put away, it has two very comfortable bench seats that face each other. There’s plenty of space under the seats to put your luggage. There’s also a little table by the window suitable for playing games and eating snacks. And, you can fold it up to expose a nifty little sink so you can wash your hands and brush your teeth before bedtime. I suppose if you were using the compartment by yourself and were feeling cheeky, you could have a sneaky little pee in there too – just make sure you pull down the window blind in case the train stops in a station.

Desi all set to go to sleep

In night mode, the beds kind of swing down making two pairs of bunk beds on either side of the compartment. The top bunks have a bar that locks up and is designed to stop whomever is in the top bunk from waking up on the bottom bunk with a concussion.

Light, sounds, and host controls.

Thermostat – but did the high blue mean it was warmer or colder in the compartment?

The ride was surprisingly smooth, probably the smoothest overnighter I’ve been on. Compared to the Amtrak, where the train mainly travels on freight rails, it’s an absolute dream. That track between Buffalo and Cleveland is the worst. Against the Caledonian, I don’t know, in terms of ride, it’s pretty close, but the Moscow Paris Express feels like it travels faster. In terms of compartment, the Moscow Paris Express beats the other two, not even close. The Caledonian’s compartment was a bunk room, nothing else. If you wanted a sit on something that wasn’t a bed, you had to go to the lounge car. On the Amtrak, Des and I shared a Viewliner Roomette which is tiny – so maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges here. I hear that the full-size rooms on the Amtrak have their own bathroom, which neither the Moscow Paris Express nor the Caledonian Sleeper had.

This kid can sleep anywhere

But I never sleep well on trains or planes. I’ve even had one of those fancy beds on a plane once from Japan but I didn’t manage sleep on that either. On the train, Des slept really well though, but I think Fiona was the same as me. For some people, the gentle rocking motion is relaxing but it just makes me clench when the train goes over some points and I’m constantly worried that we’re going to hit something. If I allow myself to drowse, I have one of those weird waking dreams where I’m driving a car and trying not to fall asleep.

Desi’s morning cocoa

Between fiddling around with my phone and trying to get at least some sleep, it’s all just a frustrating mess. When 7am rolled around, the realization that I could give up on trying to sleep was actually quite liberating. Once my mind was made up, I was fine. I climbed down from the bunk and got dressed. I saw that Fiona was awake too. I wandered down the carriage (as day was breaking, in the Ardennes – it was stunning) to the bathroom and then back. By the time I was in the compartment again, Fiona was up, awake and packing her bags. Des, however, was fast asleep. When I tried to wake him, he really didn’t know where he was. Technically, none of us did because we were on a moving train. But when we opened the blind, life jumped into him and we went to get some quick breakfast.

Des had a good sleep, lucky little git.

I probably squeezed out a couple of hours of sleep on the bunk. Desmond had hot cocoa, and Fiona and I had three liters of coffee, intravenously.

The train pulled into Paris’ Gare de l’Est station about an hour late, which wasn’t too bad.

At Gare de l’Est, Paris










The trip home

The trouble with airlines

We flew with American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia. Iberia was the clear winner here. Fifteen years ago, when I flew on Iberia, I was yelled at by a flight attendant for using my portable CD player mid-flight. I was told the laser could somehow interfere with the aircraft’s navigational equipment – so I wasn’t expecting much. Both planes were awesome, comfortable, and the entertainment systems were well designed and responded quickly. There were, however, some anxious moments when departing Madrid. As we headed north west over the mountains, the aircraft rolled around in a manner to which I’m not accustomed. This was the only time I remember literally being held in my seat by my seatbelt and not gravity. The passengers were stunned into silence. And for about twenty seconds, even babies stopped crying. We were sat over the wing, and from what I understand, this is the section of the aircraft with the smoothest ride. I can’t imagine how that pitching, yawing, and rolling felt to passengers in the tail section. It only lasted about a minute, and was probably a result of high temperatures, low altitude, change in altitude, low aircraft speed (we were departing so this was normal), and mountain related turbulence.

Both Fiona and I had experiences with American Airlines that fell way short of our expectations. For me, it was their inability for them to show any compassion to Desmond’s illness before we departed. They would waive the change fee for the flight, but still insisted on $6,404 (they waived the change fee, so generously reduced from $7,004) for us to fly the next day. The rep was rude, cutting me off constantly, and desperately tried to hang up on me, and consistently refused to help me find alternatives. It took several attempts to talk to the rep’s supervisor, who, eventually, helped me find an alternative I could barely afford. We would be to pay an extra $2,020 for a one-way flight to Manchester, but then we’d obliterate our miles to come back. This option left us in Spain an extra three days (because one can never use miles when one really needs them) and we would have been routed from Malaga to Boston via Helsinki (on Finnair), Hamburg (airline uncertain) and Berlin (on Air Berlin). It felt like she was palming us off onto other airlines.  Des felt better and we made the flight. I was reminded by the rep that I should have purchased a flexible ticket. The airlines, all of them, know that the cost of flexible tickets are prohibitive for casual flyers. Insurance would have refunded the trip for us, but then we wouldn’t have had the trip.

American Airlines also dropped the ball when we checked-in at Malaga. Desmond and I checked-in without a problem, but the gate agent told us there was a problem with Fiona’s ticket – a problem with no apparent cause, and the only resolution was for American Airlines to reissue her ticket. This seems simple enough, but it took an hour of pleading from Fiona and Jose, our Iberia check-in agent, for AA to re-issue the ticket. The phone number that American Airlines provided Iberia was never answered, and Fiona had to call AA using her rewards number. The AA rep on the phone initially refused to speak to the check-in agent, just telling Fiona that there was “not a problem on our end, just tell them to check you in.” Of course, there was a f**king problem. Finally, and with much reluctance, the AA rep took Fiona out of the conversation and spoke with the gate agent directly. We could only hear one side of the discussion. Jose was a saint, and I do worry that any other agent wouldn’t have worked as hard as he did.

You have a passenger here, she is stranded in Spain. She is your customer but I am working hard to get her home and I can only fix this with your help. It’s not her fault. I can’t check her in because the ticket you gave her isn’t valid. You need to re-issue the ticket.

From our side of the conversation, it sounded like AA gave Jose ninety-nine reasons why they shouldn’t have to re-issue Fiona’s ticket – a process that would take a mere fifteen seconds. In the end, they re-issued the ticket, just like Jose told them an hour earlier.

Thank God we arrived at the airport three hours early because Des wanted to go to the Iberia lounge.

British Airways has its own problems. The flights to Berlin from Manchester for Des and me were anything but cheap, and I still had to pay for a simple glass of water. I think that’s pretty dire. However, I’ll always have a soft spot for British Airways and give them the benefit of the doubt given how they were flexible and bent fare rules to make it possible for me to visit my mum during her last year.

This is the current state of air travel. We don’t really have any choice. American Airlines flies to the places we need and they don’t physically abuse us in our seat. So that’s the low bar of airline travel and customer satisfaction. We’re didn’t die en route and we’re not physically assaulted.


Madrid Airport

It’s been a long time since I’ve flown from Madrid, maybe ten years. But in the years since, a new terminal was constructed to handle all the OneWorld flights (Iberia, British Airways, American Airlines, Qatar etc). It’s spectacularly big – it feels like you are outside. Think of one of those massive train stations you see in the 1930’s black and white films with the big arching airy ceilings – St. Pancras or Paddington in London are good examples. The terminal goes on forever, it is the biggest terminal I have been in.

Fiona took this shot!

Fiona took this shot, too!

And this!

The baggage claim is something else – imagine the love child of a Fisher-Price toy and 1970’s brutalist architecture. The drab concrete walls contrasted with industrial yellow supports, and weird air vents (I assume that’s what they are) that protrude over the carousels – Dr. Who from the Tom Baker era. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.

This was me though.

This was me, too.


And finally, the ratings.

Des loved the “Dali” lounge in Madrid. For Fiona and I, it had the most selection of food and booze. They had ice cream, sushi, fish pizza (I tried it not knowing it was fish pizza and nearly threw up in my mouth), Spanish Omelette, and great view of the apron – which is important for a seven-year-old.

Des enjoying the lounge in Madrid

View from the Dali lounge (from Fiona)

I think, for me, it was between Madrid and Manchester. Manchester didn’t have such a great selection, but the airport was crazy busy and the lounge was a rescue.  So here they are, the final ratings.

1: Dali VIP Sala, Madrid, Terminal 4 South

2: VIP Sala, Malaga international airport.

3: Terraces Lounge, Manchester International Airport

4: Admiral’s Club Lounge, Logan Airport, Boston

5: Galleries Lounge, Terminal 5 North, London Heathrow

6: Admiral’s Club Lounge, Terminal A East, Philadelphia.

La Casita Azul

And here it is.  The wonderful little AirBnB in Santa Fe de Los Boliches. We’re at the airport now, in Malaga, waiting for the flight to Madrid and then to Boston tomorrow. We entered the lounge (after an hour long dramatic ordeal of checking in – American Airlines somehow lost Fiona’s booking, but all is good now) and Des rated it all. And Des is sad, he doesn’t want to come back. He wants to stay in Spain – so do I.

But here we are in another lounge.

Eying up the olives

Free beer!

And there is a shift, an important one. Desi has re-rated some of the lounges. As it stands, the VIP lounge here in Malaga is a clear winner. To be honest, it’s a fave of mine too. It’s big, but it doesn’t feel big. Manchester is second, and Logan is third. Something happened in his little brain that he felt made a difference.

As it stands, until tomorrow, when we go to the lounge in Madrid:

1: VIP Sala, Malaga international airport.

2: Terraces Lounge, Manchester International Airport

3: Admiral’s Club Lounge, Logan Airport, Boston

4: Galleries Lounge, Terminal 5 North, London Heathrow

5: Admiral’s Club Lounge, Terminal A East, Philadelphia.


We also had access to the SNCF lounge in Paris, and it was so awful I don’t even want to talk about it. It was a hundred degrees in there, there were no bathrooms, and there seemed to be some hurricane of piss storm outside. It was bad, just awful.


Anyway, in this lounge, there is a little place to watch sports. Des saw it and wanted to watch. It was field hockey – Germany vs. Belgium. He’ll watch anything and get really into it. It’s amazing. I was never like that. My dad is very proud of him. Even field hockey.

Desi’ll watch sports anything, ANYTHING.

Anyway, here are some shots from the final day in Los Boliches.

Anchovies roasting by a fire

The C1 (Iberian Gauge)

Looking down our street

More tomorrow, hopefully.

The Full Monty

The Battle of El-Alamein is known for two things – the world’s first(ish) tank battle, and, a solid win for the allies in the second world war.  It’s a little known fact that there were two battles of El-Alamein, and, the birth of the Full Monty is also somehow associated with that remote region of North Africa.

The Full Monty was not originally a movie, it doesn’t mean being stark bollock naked. It was actually the “invention” of the then-commander of the British Eighth Army, Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law “Monty” Montgomery (a Lieutenant-Colonel back then), who, whether at home or in battle, ordered a plate full of fried food for breakfast. Fellow soldiers called it the Full Monty. Eggs, bacon, fried tomato, everything you’d expect – which morphed into what is today known as the “Full English”. There are plenty of other explanations of the origin of the Full Monty, most as implausible this one, but it makes for a good story.

Anyway, the other morning, I was Jonesin’ for a Full English. Fiona and Des obliged, and we all set out to find a good Full English. We saw a couple of restaurants advertising to British tourists – Full English Breakfast served here! but Fiona and I both concluded that if Full English shared a place on a menu with fifty varieties of paella, it probably wasn’t going to be a Full English. The bacon wouldn’t be the right bacon, and something would be a little bit off about the black pudding. We needed to find one of those grubby little English pubs, run by a married bickering couple, probably Kevin and Doris, from Grimbsy, who thought it was a good idea to come to Spain but now find themselves working twenty hours a day in a dingy back street bar without air conditioning. Now, that’d be the proper full English. And not that there’s anything wrong with an augmented Full English, per se. Any country can make it their own. Fiona and I remarked on a Full English we saw on a Spanish menu that came with fries and a Spanish Omelette. No, no, no. No judgment, it’s not for me. And to be fair, there are variations within the home nations of the UK too. In Scotland, for example – the Scotch Breakfast has been known to include haggis – basically a sheep turned inside out and smushed into its own stomach, with all the mass of a collapsing quantum singularity.  A teaspoonful of which has the same mass as the entire city of Des Moines. There’s even a Welsh version, the unpronounceable Brecwast Cymreig llawn, served with laverbread. If you’ve never had laverbread, you probably shouldn’t. It’s literally seaweed scraped from rocks, and clearly has no place as any kind of food. Anyway, we found a place near our apartment and it was perfect. No cards, cash only. Just the way I like it.

For my breakfast, I’d honestly have a Doner Kebab every single day – so I should probably keep my mouth shut.

El pato

The Spanish have clearly succeeded where the French failed. From Barcelona Sants station, we took the AVE express train to Malaga. Not to be too nerdy here, but the train, nicknamed el pato (the duck) is absolutely amazing (RENFE Series 112 trainset). If you want to know why it’s called the duck, just take a look at the thing.

Desi and the duck

Over the plains it clocks up to 330 km/h (205 mph). And unlike in France, everything works, the toilets, the water, amazing service – cellphone LTE service the entire distance. It was comfortable, quiet, smooth. The train whisks through the Spanish country – it was over 100F outside.

It’s really hot out there – it doesn’t look it, but it really is

Can’t really say anything else about it. This has to be the best in Europe – this is on par with the Beijing/Shanghai train, if not better.

Anyway, we arrived in Malaga right on time (878 km). A short stroll to the C1 urban rail and then took the short 35-minute journey to Los Boliches, which, is the last place on our trip. The total distance from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to Los Boliches is 2,743 kilometers – 1,705 miles.

Now it’s time to relax on the beach for a few days.


As expected, lots of police in Barcelona. Got Des to bed when we arrived and put the laundry in. And we needed to do laundry. I am quite proud of my packing skills. For this 2+ week trip, I managed to get all our stuff into one big backpack and two smaller ones – one of which Des can carry, and the other has my camera and laptop that I carry on my front. I planned seven days of fresh clothes for both of us and was timed to run out in Barcelona. I knew that if we got to Barcelona, we’d be good, and we wouldn’t be smelling too bad.

I got Des to bed and he was out like a light. I concentrated on the laundry, and just so you know that when AirBnB says there is a clothes dryer in the apartment, for future f**king reference it means a rusty old clothes horse, not a machine. But like Marines, we begrudgingly made do.

We all woke up late on Saturday morning and put in another load of laundry. Then we went out to explore. I can’t speak for Fiona, and I didn’t share this then, but I found myself thinking what if the unthinkable happened again? What if some crazed lunatic drove a transit van towards us – what would I do? It was hard to relax. Every thirty seconds or so I’d look for a store, or a tree, something to pull Des and Fiona into, out of harm’s way. Of course, it wasn’t going to happen, but I couldn’t help but think it.

We trundled along the marina and found a place to eat – L’Arros Arrosseria, as James Hurley correctly pointed out, the Rice Ricery.

Could there be better place to eat paella? Des had some crazy paella with fish in it because that’s his thing.

Then wandered to the local beach where Des was quick to point out the nude man sunning (no pun intended). And, Des met the Mediterranean Sea for the first time.

Des Med, Med Des.

Later the evening we went out for Tapas near the apartment. There was a playground adjacent and Des played with the other kids and spoke Spanish. The Tapas were amazing.

That tapas was probably the most wonderful thing he ever put in his mouth

Senor!  Senor!  This damn gazpacho soup is cold!

On the walk back to the apartment we noticed lots of people standing in silence, while the police had taped off some of the road. Police cars raced by followed by a car with some kind of regal insignia. The Spaniards burst into spontaneous applause – we assume the car was carrying members of the Spanish royal family.

Then bed, and up early to get the train to Malaga – thankfully, the last long train ride. We debated taking a taxi to the station or taking the metro. We opted for the metro. Our walking route took us by the memorial to those who died in the attack. Des asked what it was and I told him. (We’d had a conversation on the TGV about what had happened – and it’s always a challenge to find a happy medium – what is the appropriate amount to share with a seven-year-old?)

We arrived at the station, boarded the 8:30 train, and left Barcelona.

We’ll be back – I’m sure.

What would you do?

We were at the Berlin Bowling Center when things got weird. Fiona and I both received breaking news notifications that something awful had happened in Barcelona. We were bowling to kill time, waiting for the train to Paris. The master plan was to take trains from Berlin to Los Boliches in southern Spain. Barcelona is at the approximate two thirds point so we planned a stop there to get good sleep, eat tapas, and most importantly, do laundry. We’d spend just 30 hours there before taking the final trip to spend the rest of the vacation on the beach.

In the words of Dr. Seuss’s master philosopher, the Cat in the Hat – So, what would you do?

There’s a balance, right? One must weigh up the risk versus the reward. Someone said to me a long time ago that the safest day for air travel, ever, was September 14th, 2001 – the day planes flew again post 9/11. It was true. You weren’t allowed on a plane with anything other than the clothes you were wearing. And this is where rational thought must overcome fear.

We checked the US State Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for advisories. I was in touch with the host of the AirBnB – and my dad, who, bless, was doing nothing but digging out the lowdown for us – our very own BBC Correspondent.

In the end, the risk was minimal – it was safe to go. Any restrictions on travel had been lifted, our AirBnB host told us that things were returning to normal (or as normal as they could possibly be). We would head to Barcelona after the few hours layover in Paris. We’d keep a low profile, mitigate any risks by staying out of crowded areas, do our laundry (because we were all beginning to stink a bit), and then head to Malaga, as we’d planned months ahead, after our brief travel respite in Barcelona.

The overnight train ride to Paris was a unique experience. Our overnight train, the Moscow-Paris express, stopped at Warsaw (before we got on it) and Berlin (amongst others) on the way to Paris.

Waiting for the Moscow – Paris Express in Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof

The train was full of Russians who thought I was absolutely nuts for no other reason than I would say “hello” whenever I squeezed past on the way to another carriage.It wasn’t obvious until now that Russians, unless you’re known, refrain from any conversation, or for that matter, eye contact. And I guess a symptom of a long train journey is people become comfortable parading around in various states of undress, bored out of their minds, longing for the train to arrive in Paris. Some passengers mulled around vestibules drinking tea in underpants. An introverts’ and exhibitionists’ paradise.

Ready to sleep! Guten nacht!

Des slept well on the overnight train, he always does. However, I look forward to hearing his stories of sleepless nights on overnight trains with his children when genetics wins and he’s chubby and middle-aged.


The train pulled into Paris Gare de l’Est station only an hour late, which I think is pretty spectacular considering it came all the way from Russia. If it were the successor to British Rail, we’d still be on it.

Breakfast in the Polish dining car

Finally off the train in Paris

In Paris, we took the Metropolitan to Gare de Lyon, where our next train was due to leave. It was here we read final versions of the news and made the final go/no go decision. We contacted the AirBnB host and told her to expect us in Barcelona that evening.

We ate a couple of Croque Monsieurs while Des devoured a Pain au Chocolat. He ate it the way one would imagine a zombie would eat Donald Trump’s brain. After a couple of bathroom breaks we wandered over to the TGV Duplex high speed train.

From getting the train in Berlin to getting off in Paris and then getting on again for Barcelona, I can’t remember a time that I have traveled like this. Des and I took the overnight train to Chicago from Boston once, and the change in scenery was subtle – we noticed it when we got to Indiana because it was kinda flat. But this trip, because the train travels at three times the speed of most Amtrak trains, the scenery change is abrupt, bordering on violent.

As daylight broke this morning, we “woke” up  in the Ardennes while a beautiful mist hung over the luminous green vineyards and rain and drizzle flashed by the window. And now, the TGV pummels down the backbone of France. Somewhere south of Valance, the scenery transitions from a green to a wheaty yellow. And houses and homes turn that brilliant Mediterranean white. Far off in the distance, in the east, the unmistakable outline of the French Alps. Then, in the west, the Pyrenees. And then, the Med. All in the space of about ninety minutes.

[Even as I write this (we’re actually on the next train now, but more later), we’re somewhere between Zaragoza and Madrid on a high plain, it’s rugged harsh desert, it’s 100F outside – I just saw Fiona take a picture so I’ll try to steal it and post tomorrow. My point is that yes, you can see all this from a plane, but you’re not a part of it. You don’t experience it. Not like on a train…]

Express train travel something the French do exceptionally well, and do exceptionally badly. The French TGV is a ground-breaking train – it’s the first European train to go 300 km/h, 187mph – and it’s a double decker. A double decker train tickling 200mph – wow, just freaking wow.  But, the toilets don’t work, there’s no soap, and there’s no water for the sink, and the doors don’t open, and the air conditioning is busted. But the wine and Camembert sandwiches are to absolutely die for.

What drizzle looks like at 187mph


Drawing close to Montpellier

Anyway, we arrived in Barcelona just 15 minutes late and we were at the AirBnB a little while later.

We weren’t the only backpackers arriving in Barca. **** you, you ******** terrorist ****heads.


Imagine, if you will, a country whose government actually functions. A government, that has actually functioned for the last 25 years. That, believe it or not, is what it’s like to visit Berlin. Everything works. The parks are nice. The transit runs on time – it’s clean, convenient. The taxis have child seats ready for you to use. All around it’s so well thought through. Stereotypically, you could say that they only thing Germany lacks is a sense of humor, but that’s not true either. When we arrived at the airport, we (Des, Fiona, and I) stood in line at passport control (we all have British passports). The European Union line was ignored, so, after being beckoned by the agent we proceeded. She said, in really good English, “Why were you waiting?  You’ve got another two years. You’ve not left the EU yet!” which, undeniably, is quite funny.

Anyway, Berlin.  Love it. Fantastic place, great history – most of which (if you like geopolitical stuff) is contemporary. Loved Checkpoint Charlie and explaining it to Des. We went to the museum right there at Checkpoint Charlie and Des was actually riveted. There are lots of exhibits that show how people escaped from the East to the West – in suitcases, gas tanks, all kinds of stuff.  Well worth a visit, make sure you pay a bit extra for the audio tour. Then on the to the wall and the Brandenburg Gate.

Next day we went up the TV Tower to the rotating restaurant and had some fine German cuisine (curried sausage – don’t laugh, it was frigging amazing). Fiona had the same, and Des had Schnitzel.

Then it was off to a bowling alley and then to Hauptbahnhof (the central train station) to catch the train to Paris, because that’s what you do when you travel in Europe – you take the train to another country.

Lounge Ratings – Update

We’re in Berlin. What a wonderful city, but more of that in a couple of days.  More importantly, as Lynn Hendrickson is so eager to know, what are Desi’s ratings for the airline executive lounges?

If you remember, Desi scored the Admiral’s Club in Boston a nine, and gave the Admiral’s Club in Philadelphia a seven. He quickly came to realize that if something was much better than the club in Boston, he’d run out of numbers so he figured out (all by himself) that it would be better if he ranked them instead of rated them.


Desi enjoying his pastries

We visited two more lounges (one in Manchester and one in London), both part of the British Airways Executive Club. He was really impressed with the lounge in Manchester (the Terraces Lounge) for a couple of reasons. 1. It was a welcome break from the zoo that is Manchester’s terminal three. It was packed, you couldn’t move. 2. He loved the pastries. And all in all, the entire experience was on par with the lounge in Boston. I thought it was better than Boston because of the self-service bar, you could help yourself to anything – and it wasn’t cheap booze either. I didn’t because it was early – I was restrained, a responsible adult. But still… It was nice to know it was there if you needed it. And, for photographers, the light in that lounge was absolutely splendid. Better lighting than Chris Portal could muster up any day. 🙂

Look at that natural light!

The lounge at Heathrow was meh. It was really busy and not very clean. Desi preferred it to Philly because it had more room. It was a big lounge, rather massive, and that made it feel like the rest of the airport.


British Airways Galleries Lounge at London Heathrow, Terminal 5.

Some added data here, Fiona traveled from Boston to London and used the British Airways lounge in Logan. She was impressed, much better than the Admiral’s Club in Boston. Get this, there is special gate-hole for the fancy folk in the lounge.


View from the British Airways Executive Club Lounge, Terminal E, Boston

You get straight on the aircraft without having to mingle with the great unwashed.  Fiona actually rated this above the AA Lounge in Boston.


View from the British Airways Executive Club Lounge, Terminal E, Boston

So, Desi’s ratings

  • 1= Boston (Terminal B) Admiral’s Club
  • 1= Manchester (Terminal 3) British Airways Terraces Lounge
  • 3 London Heathrow (Terminal 5 North) British Airways Galleries Lounge
  • 4 Philadelphia (Terminal A East) Admiral’s Club

And Fiona ranks the British Airways club at Logan above all of them. But we’ll have to take her word for it.


El susurrador perro

Desi, it turns out, is a Spanish dog whisperer. El susurrador perro as it were. A talent I never knew he had. Seriously, Alfie is a rescue dog from a Spanish kill shelter, and when Des found out he yelled dame el balón and little Alfie stopped and dropped the ball. It was pretty amazing. If there was just a way to monetize it, everything would be good.

Des and “real” bacon.

Des also had some real bacon for breakfast this morning – real British bacon (you know, the Danish stuff). He had the same look in eyes as you do the first time you hear the Beatles.

All in all it was a quiet day.