Thursday, 23 February 2012

From A to B

I wasn’t expecting much of a view from an Aachen hotel window, so to throw open the curtains to be greeted with the imposing sight of the Marschiertor was a welcome bonus. The Germans do mediaeval quite well, and this imposing edifice – once the southern gate of the city walls – has survived in amazingly good condition from its construction in the late 13th century.

Originally built to keep out the Belgians and Dutch, the natives eventually stumbled upon a far cleverer way of controlling their international neighbours. Allowing their cross-border cousins to believe that they had seduced the Aacheners with the tantalising combination of beer and cheese, the locals dismantled the wall and replaced it with a stunningly mediocre line of dismal concrete office blocks and hotels, in which Belgian and Dutch visitors are imprisoned on a daily basis.

The Marschiertor itself was retained to provide an attractive backdrop for visiting transport enthusiasts to use in their photos, and as we emerged from the Ibis Aachen Marschiertor and sank ankle deep into the three inches of snow that had coated the ground overnight, the three of us entertained the locals with our synchronised camera-pointing.

Each choosing our own vantage point in the snow a few metres apart from each other, so that each of our pictures would be truly unique and not in any way almost identical, our excitement at capturing a good shot of a bus passing in front of the ancient gate would be superseded by the excited yelp of one us announcing “there’s one coming the other way”, whereupon three lenses would swing round in unison, occasionally to be followed by the hysterical cry of “it’s a Belgian one!”

During the fifteen minutes of live cabaret it became clear that the overnight snowfall and arctic temperatures had not caused the transport system to break sweat and all was clearly running normally. We duly set off up the road to the main railway station, our mission today to explore the Rhineland and bordering Hunsrück hills, ending up in the riverside city of Mainz.

One of the most amazing bargains you will find anywhere on the European railway system is the Schönes Wochenende Ticket – literally the “nice weekend ticket”. It allows unlimited travel on either a Saturday or Sunday for up to five people on local and regional rail services throughout the whole of Germany for 40 Euros – essentially unlimited travel throughout the country for as little as 8 Euros (roughly £7) each. In our case there were three of us, which pushed the cost to a whopping £10 each!

I can remember travelling in Germany when the Schönes Wochenende Ticket was first introduced and the local trains were packed with people taking advantage of the incredible value. These days I guess it has become part of normal life and people don’t go out of their way as much to benefit, so we were able to kick back and relax with almost an entire coach to ourselves on a glorious sunny morning, as we pulled out of Aachen Hauptbahnhof on the 09:51 Regional Express to Cologne.

The ticket does not allow travel on InterCity, EuroCity or InterCity Express trains and this does discourage longer distance journeys, although it is still possible to cover vast swathes of the country on regional services. Our plan for today was to use a series of such trains to cover the trip to Mainz, with a side trip on a branch line I have always been curious about, but never found the opportunity to sample – the Hunsrückbahn from Boppard to Emmelshausen.

However, whereas our instincts were to make it up as we went along, the frequency of the Hunsrückbahn is now only every ninety minutes at weekends and this meant that we couldn’t afford to leave things entirely to chance. Neither terminus is a particularly big place, Saturday afternoons are pretty quiet in most German towns and we didn’t want to run the risk of being becalmed for a lengthy period somewhere with nothing useful to do. We also fancied mixing buses and trains and this meant some planning of connections, especially as wanted to enjoy daylight for as much of the journey as possible.

So while the others stared out of the window at the beautiful snowy landscape, I was running endless journey options through the DB Journey Planner on my phone. Indeed so engrossed was I that I completely failed to notice when the snow ran out and normal scenery resumed – a point that escaped me until we were leaving Cologne on our next train almost an hour later!

I had however worked out that our travel options would be optimised if we were to take the train from Cologne to Koblenz, the bus from Koblenz to Emmelshausen and then the train from there down to Boppard, and this meant being in Koblenz by 12:30 at the latest. Unfortunately, because of our leisurely start to the day, the earliest possible arrival in Koblenz by regional train was 12:42!

The only way to avoid the itinerary dragging slowly through the afternoon was to cheat and catch an InterCity train from Cologne to Koblenz which would have us there by around 11:45, but this in turn required a fairly tight connection at Colgone. So, while the others ran outside the main station to take arty photos of the city’s imposing cathedral, I worked the ticket machine and trebled the cost of our day’s travel buying three singles for the next leg of our journey.

However for me the chance to travel on an InterCity was well worth the money. They are without doubt my favourite German trains for all the wrong reasons. Once the pinnacle of continental rail travel, they are now the epitome of faded glory. While the regional services are generally neat, compact and efficient, and the streamlined ICEs storm across the nation in a purposeful and businesslike fashion, the InterCity trains meander across the country on long and improbable itineraries, not going fast or directly enough to compete with the ICEs for genuine long distance customers, but priced and marketed to make them unattractive for local journeys.

Some InterCity trains that happen to cross international boundaries enjoy an enhanced status, being branded as EuroCity. This branding was first used in 1987, just in time for the teenaged me to burst onto the scene of European train travel. With each pair of trains being named, usually I recall for famous individuals, and with the possibility of coaches being provided by any of the national railways through whose countries the train passed (and often a mixture within the same train), this heightened the sense of occasion and drama, and there was nothing more thrilling than to stand on a continental platform and watch a EuroCity pull out heading for a remote city in a distant land.

These days the EuroCity brand just means the train has an even longer and more improbably itinerary than a normal InterCity, and our conveyance for the fifty minute hop to Koblenz was EC101, which had left Hamburg at 06:30 that morning and would eventually arrive at Chur, in a remote corner of the Swiss Alps, over twelve hours later at 18:43 that evening. To complete the magic, it was a Swiss Railways (SBB) coach that conveyed us for our short trip up the Rhine Valley.

I was reluctant to leave the train at Koblenz – I could have quite happily stayed on board until Switzerland – but it was now over two hours since my travelling companions had last taken a photo of a bus and they were getting restless. Luckily for them, Koblenz has a new, gleaming bus station in front of the main railway station, and while I sat at the departure stand guarding the bags, my compatriot nutters had a photographic orgy, sprinting the length and breadth of the station capturing vehicles of all colours, and bemusing at least one local driver in the process.

The ride out of Koblenz to Emmelshausen proved to be a scenic triumph, and where better to enjoy it than aboard the most lurid of all European bus porn, the Citaro LE. This variant of one of Europe’s most popular bus designs is one of the best examples of interurban bus designs you will encounter, solving the traditional Citaro problem of a very messy back end, with a raised rear section allowing all forward facing seats, while keeping the refined qualities of the marque.

I was hoping that the view would be pleasant, but the reality surpassed my expectations. The route out of Koblenz enjoys a vertiginous climb into the hills, such that barely five minutes after leaving the bus station you have a panoramic view over the majestic Rhine river, the roads and railways snaking along the riverbanks and the steep slopes behind on the right bank.

Eventually the steep ascent gives way to more gentle, rolling terrain, often with views miles into the distance, occasionally surrounded by forest. The ride to Emmelshausen was one of the most pleasant hours of bus travelling I can recall, on a gorgeous bus with such great scenery being beamed in through the windows. Not for the first time that day, it was a chore to have to disembark.

Emmelshausen was a lot more industrial than I had expected, albeit there was not much happening on this Saturday afternoon. A small town of around 5,000 inhabitants, it took only a few minutes for us to walk the length of the main street, leaving us around an hour to kill until the departure of the train to Boppard.

The large number of eating establishments – ranging from kebab shops to an upmarket Italian restaurant – surely reflects the weekday industrial population, as a community of this size would never support such a quantity. We picked an unprepossessing but welcoming cafe, where the Gulaschsuppe was warm and wholesome, an ideal antidote to the biting cold outside.

Our departure from Emmelshausen was aboard the Hunsrückbahn, a privately operated railway run by the Rhenus Veniro company. Many regional services in Germany have been contracted to private companies, bringing colour, variety and interest to the local railway scene, and our plan was to travel on as many as we reasonably could. This was the first, and was notable for the driver greeting all the passengers as he walked through the train before departure – not an unusual event as were to discover.

This line makes a precipitous descent through yet more stunning landscape, clinging to the side of a hill with a sheer drop on one side of the train. The line is so steep that the train feels as though it is crawling along, trying to keep its footing, and it is only sad that the line is so short. After barely twenty minutes we had arrived in the riverside town of Boppard, scene of my first ever visit to Germany on a school trip in 1986, and gateway to some of the most spectacular scenery Germany has to offer!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Terminus Hopping and Country Hopping

Picture the scene: It’s a Friday morning at a main line rail station, and the platform is full of expectant travellers waiting for the 0845 InterCity departure, reassured by the screens showing it is on time. But 0845 comes and goes, no sign of any train, nor any explanation of a delay. 0850 approaches and the screens stubbornly maintain the fiction of “0845 on time”. The crowd grows restless; a few sullen looking platform staff stroll up and down but don’t engage with anyone. 0855 comes and goes and still no train.

Finally at 0857, a train appears and the grateful throng swarms aboard, so pleased to be on their way that they disregard the faded, tatty interior. Departure in the end is 14 minutes late, with the screens outside still insisting that we are on time. The announcement from the train manager welcomes us aboard but makes no reference to the delay.

Many cynics would identify this as a familiar scene from stations the length and breadth of the British rail network, unlike our continental neighbours who – they assure us – routinely achieve perfection in the delivery of public transport.

But this scene was played out in Amsterdam Centraal Station, and the train was no insignificant backwater branch line, but a flagship InterCity Benelux express to Rotterdam, Antwerp and Brussels. The coaches had no further to come than from the carriage sidings a mile or so to the east.

I was already cross with Nederlandse Spoorwegen - the main Dutch rail operator. My previous trips had encouraged me to place them on a pedestal of excellence, and among their many perceived attributes was a virtually endless supply of trains between Amsterdam Centraal and Schiphol, so that in order to be at the airport by 9am to meet my friends, I could expect to present myself at the station by 0830 and enjoy a choice of departures for the fifteen minute journey.

I was also cross with myself. I had been running ahead of schedule, but while crossing the tram tracks to reach the station I had noticed a tram with the linguistically confusing destination of “Sorry Geen Dienst” – literally “Sorry Not in Service”, but why with the word “sorry” in English? So obsessed was I with capturing a picture of this destination that I had wasted a good ten minutes chasing two separate trams through the snow, only to fail in both cases to achieve my objective.

It was therefore heading for 0825 when I marched into the station and was aghast to learn that the next train to the airport was not for twenty minutes, and certainly would not have me there by nine. I whiled away a few minutes with a bonus visit to the Secret Bus Station, but soon enough found myself on the platform waiting for the elusive 0845.

My colleagues had texted me to let me know they had landed, and given that I am generally seen as being the most well organised of the trio – a concept that would make my true work colleagues fall about with laughter – I was concerned that my credibility would plunge right at the outset, if I was not there to greet them as they emerged from customs.

Eventually underway on the late running 0845, I felt a bit self-conscious to be travelling such a short distance surrounded by all these international travellers, apparently settled in for the three hour trip to the Belgian capital. It seemed like cheating to get off the Benelux Express at the very first stop, and I almost felt like apologising as I got up to wait by the door. I had little to fear – seconds later the vast majority of my fellow passengers got up too, and I estimate that around 70% of passengers on the InterCity to Brussels travelled no further than the suburbs of Amsterdam!

I sprinted up the steps to the airport terminal and hurried to International Arrivals, reaching the exit barrier at exactly the same moment as my colleagues. Doing my best to display an air of nonchalance, keen to convey the illusion that I had enjoyed a relaxed trip to the airport and a leisurely wait for their arrival, we set off back to the station concourse that I had passed through in a blur, just seconds earlier.

Now my colleagues – both experienced bus industry professionals – are really good company for this kind of trip, equally good at providing market leading bus services back home and well ahead of the game in the field of smart ticketing solutions, but only one had remembered to bring his OV-Chipkaart, that essential tool for anyone seeking to drift aimlessly around the Dutch transport system. Our attempts to buy a new card from NS’s slightly truculent self-service machines failed, but luckily a short queue at the ticket counter took us quickly to an extremely jolly and helpful ticket clerk, and in no time at all the three of us were armed and ready for action.

We were now officially at large, and ready to tackle our two missions of the day – in order of importance, uitsmijters and Maastricht!

The uitsmijter had been one of the most exciting discoveries of our previous Dutch tour. While the ingredients may seem unremarkable in their own right, the particular combination of ham, cheese, fried eggs and bread, cooked together to make an uitsmijter, makes for a mouthwatering breakfast proposition. And since this was to be our only morning in the Netherlands, we could not let it pass without an uitsmijter stop.

Breakfast notwithstanding, our main destination for the day was the town of Maastricht. This community occupies a very unusual geographic position, at the foot of a narrow strip of land dangling precariously from the rest of Holland, hemmed in at close quarters by Belgium and Germany. I had always been curious to visit, imagining a fascinating mix of international cultures.

It is also fascinating for being the home of Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre – an air traffic control centre managing the flow of aircraft through the Single European Sky, and therefore an object of great interest to me given my little known but worryingly geekish obsession with air traffic control. Sadly, my colleagues fail to share this particular interest, so the delights of MUAC would not be on the agenda for this trip and will have to be left for another day (any suitably connected readers of this blog are – of course – entirely welcome to invite me for a tour of this, or indeed any other, ATC facility should they feel inclined to do so!)

The railway line from Schiphol to Maastricht passes through the cities of Utrecht, ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Eindhoven. The first and last of these had been ticked off on our previous trip, but having avoided the middle option last time on the basis of it being unpronounceable, we could no longer suppress our curiosity and ‘s-Hertogenbosch became the nominated destination for uitsmijter consumption.

It is a curious feature of the Amsterdam region, that the location and status of Schiphol Airport as a world gateway, and the belt of corporate office parks around the southern ring, means that the rail network is at least as well orientated for orbital trips around the south of the city as it is for trips to and from the city centre, and a huge volume of trains from all parts of the country reach Schiphol without ever passing through the city centre at all. One such train whisked us from Schiphol to Utrecht in barely half an hour and within six minutes a cross-platform connection saw us making rapid onward progress.

Den Bosch – as we were relieved to discover it is colloquially known – is reportedly a very attractive walled city with a strong mediaeval heritage, but I am unable to confirm this as our interest was confined purely to the pursuit of uitsmijters and buses. The station itself presents an unusual contrast, with very traditional-looking platform canopies contrasting with a much more recently developed station square.

The square offered the choice of two apparently suitable venues for our uitsmijter stop. We marched into the first of these, changed our table three times, eventually arranged ourselves and all our stuff around a big corner table and then discovered the kitchen didn’t open for another hour! The second establishment proved more welcoming and in the perfect location, providing us with the ideal of a traditional Dutch breakfast from a vantage point overlooking the bus station.

We quickly decided that bus operations in the area were divided between Arriva and Veolia and my camera-happy companions set off on their habitual breakneck run round the square, photographing everything with six wheels and windows. I confined my pictorial efforts to this interesting contrast of destinations, which hopefully is not a commentary on the state of the two companies..!

...and finally a chance to capture what had eluded me in Amsterdam, the curious bilingual apology...

In the same spirit, I am minded to reprogramme Velvet destinations to show “Entschuldigung, not in service” or “Désolé, private charter”, except of course that I won’t because I don’t believe in the whole patronising insincere concept of the bus being sorry. It’s not in service, deal with it!

Back on the train after an enjoyable hour, we eventually made it to our main destination for the day, Maastricht. This wasn’t to be our overnight stop – surprisingly given the city’s location it takes quite a long time to head east by public transport into Germany and we didn’t want to waste too much time on the Saturday morning, so our hotel accommodation was booked over the border in Aachen. But Maastricht was the main town of interest and we intended to carry out a detailed exploration – which in our case meant spending more than an hour there!

Initial signs were very unpromising. Despite the attraction of a modest bus station directly outside the railway station – a normal feature of Dutch towns – the immediate vicinity of the station appeared pretty run down and undistinguished. Furthermore, if we wished to proceed by train to Aachen this would involve catching a Veolia service to Heerlen and changing there. The only problem was that – according to the departure screens – all the trains to Heerlen were cancelled!

A brief raid on the Veolia enquiry office opposite the station and perusal of the timetable boards revealed that we had another option to travel to Aachen – Veolia bus number 50 – running every fifteen minutes with a journey time of an hour, so the absence of trains stopped being an issue.

Although the unimpressive surroundings of the railway station caused us briefly to ponder the notion of getting straight out of town, we decided to persevere, and the best thing to do was to jump on a bus and go somewhere. The beauty of OV-Chipkaart is that you don’t have to decide anything in advance – you just touch your smartcard on the reader when you board the bus and touch off when you decide you’ve had enough, and the smartcard reader does the rest.

So we decided to indulge in the bus geek sport of ‘terminus hopping’. This is a game that involves catching a bus route to the outer terminus, walking to the terminus of the nearest adjacent route, catching the bus back into town and then – if time and enthusiasm permits – repeating the process ad nauseam. That way you can cover an entire network without every retracing your steps.

Successful terminus hopping requires a map, a certain amount of intuition and a certain amount of luck. You have to be able to work out from the map when a road is really a road, whether you’ll be able to cross a river at a particular point and whether indeed the buses stop where they say they do.

In previous jobs I have carried out professional terminus hopping as part of my work, and I well remember in the French town of Quimper presenting myself at the rural outer terminus of one of the town routes, in an unlikely location where the driver had clearly never encountered a passenger before – especially not one covered head to toe in mud because I’d had to trudge across a field because there wasn’t a road where the map said there would be one, and needless to say I had managed to fall over. I seem to remember I also had a migraine. Nevertheless, I wiped some mud from my face, looked the driver in the eye, wished him a cheery “bonjour”, stamped my ticket in the validator and sat down. Unabashed, the driver raised an eyebrow, and with a true gallic shrug threw the bus into gear and off we went.

We didn’t have time to cover the whole of the Maastricht network but terminus hopping is a great way to get to see quite a lot of a town very quickly. Based mainly on the fact that it was there loading, we elected to catch a 3 to its western terminus at Wolder, walk to the terminus of the 5 and 6 at Daalhof and return to the city centre from there.

Our decision to persevere with Maastricht was rewarded almost as soon as we turned the corner from the railway station and set forth across the wide and majestic River Maas, then wound our way through the very picturesque city centre, through narrow cobbled streets and big elegant squares.

The 3 turned out to be quite an upmarket route – though busy – with the city centre soon giving way to the university, and relatively upscale housing all the way to the terminus. On arrival at the terminus, my colleagues did their usual trick of running like loons to the other side of the road to take pictures of the bus before it left to go back to town, while I plotted our route across the river to the next terminus – a route that took us within quarter of a mile of the Belgian border.

As we approached the Daalhof terminus, a 5 pulled into the stop and my colleagues once again scared the driver by taking photos of his bus from every conceivable angle before we set off. This route was much more reminiscent of what we in this country would call “good bus territory”, with block after block of high density housing and flats, and provided a complete contrast to the 3. As we approached the centre we could increasingly detect evidence of where tram tracks must have previously been located.

Alighting in the Market Square – sadly ruined, I felt, by the presence of a market – we retired to a bar for our first beer of the day. Challenged to come up with Dutch beer, the waitress failed but did manage to produce a Belgian beer that slightly oddly came with a lump of cheese each! Subsequent research has revealed that this is a fairly normal thing in Belgium, so the fact that we were in Holland gives me sufficient proof that Maastricht is indeed a truly international multicultural city!

My hypothesis having been proven correct, our work in the Netherlands was done and it was time to go to Germany. Arrival back at the station revealed that the trains to Heerlen were now running again, but by that time we had decided to take the bus, and were soon on our way on the 50.

This, like our journey on the 5, was operated by a VDL Ambassador, very much a ubiquitous Dutch bus coming from the DAF stable. At home I am increasingly unimpressed by the fragile, lightweight products such as the Dennis Dart and by the time we were on the 50 I had resolved that from now on I will only ever buy heavyweight vehicles that have that solid, robust, reassuring feel of the vehicles we used during our travels.

An effortless hour later and we were in Aachen. Most West European countries don’t really do borders, and to many Brits it would be quite an alien notion that a bus from one country could routinely travel to another country, on a normal stopping service every fifteen minutes without there being any evidence of a border having been crossed other than a change in the registration plates of the passing cars.

It’s not just a Schengen thing either – on a recent journey from Switzerland to Italy on a local mountain train, the only evidence of being in a different country was the presence of Italian flags rather than Swiss flags on the station building.

So here’s the evidence of a Dutch bus stopped at Aachen railway station, with the traditional “H” sign of the standard German bus stop. Being around 5pm it was picking up a very heavy load for its return journey, implying that there is nothing at all untoward about living in Holland, working in Germany and commuting across the border every morning and evening.

Having dumped our bags at our hotel, we went off to explore Aachen. During our journey across the non-existent border, it had been snowing with increasing intensity and there was plenty of snow and ice underfoot as we wandered through the city centre. Needless to say everything was carrying on as normal, and the evening rush hour was well underway.

After a long walk round the ring road we eventually found the travel office of the local bus operator ASEAG, where the customer service staff revealed to me that we had to pay for a map of the network – an unbelievable concept!

One Euro lighter, and with a map that required most of the office floor space to unfold, we decided we had time for one more terminus hop before dinner. To our immense excitement we had seen double articulated Citaros, and we decided to ride one on the 5 from the bus station (Bushof) to the outer terminus at Brand Schulzentrum.

This trip yielded the first of several grumpy bus drivers. He had just taken over the bus from one of his colleagues, and we boarded with me at the front of the line clutching our money. We then had to wait while he pointedly adjusted everything in his cab that he could possibly adjust, all the while avoiding any eye contact or acknowledgement of me, despite being stood right next to him. The seat went up, down and back up again; then forward then back; the steering wheel was taken through all its available planes of motion; both mirrors were adjusted; the ticket machine was programmed at length.

Eventually the activity stopped and the driver just sat there looking straight ahead. I took this as my cue to speak. I asked for three singles. The driver interrogated me about where we were going without once making eye contact, didn’t tell me the price and just waited for me to put the money down. Luckily I had worked it out while we were waiting, but the ignorance was breathtaking. The tickets were issued without a further word and we were off on the long walk to the back of the three-piece bus.

By now it was completely dark and we had no idea where we were, we were just enjoying being on the back seat of a bus that seemed to stretch most of the way to the terminus without even moving. Once the standing load had subsided we got the map out – an activity that required two of us to sit in opposite window seats and hold the map outstretched between us – and kept track of where we were.

Luckily it is standard in Holland and Germany for buses to have “next stop” screens – surely the “must have” accessory for British operators for the future and we managed to keep track by following the stops on the map.

On arrival at Brand we slithered through the snow and ice to the main road, where a 35 duly turned up with just a normal articulated Citaro to take us the direct route back to the city centre. Such a contrast with the driver – we had a very helpful (if rather gruff) female, and she was very concerned to know if we would be travelling back on the bus, in which case she would have sold us a mini group ticket – which is what we should have been advised to do on the outbound 5.

Despite the upturn in customer service, there was no sentiment. On arrival back at Bushof there was a driver change, and she was off the bus and gone virtually before any passenger had even set foot on the pavement!

A leisurely walk through the old town centre eventually brought us to the Rose am Dom restaurant, which proved to be uninspiring. The now familiar Germanic abruptness was much in evidence here too – we had made the fatal mistake of putting the cameras and a couple of timetable leaflets on the table, to be greeted with the stern reprimand “you will clear now” as the waitress arrived with the food.

By the time we were walking back to the hotel the temperature had dropped to around -10 degrees and shortly after I got into my room it started snowing very heavily, huge snowflakes that were clearly settling thickly on every visible surface. My excitement at being in a country I love was tempered with the nagging concern of whether we’d be able to get out of there in the morning!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Going Dutch

A recent free weekend gave the opportunity for an escape to the continent. Along with a couple of bus industry colleagues, the plan was to make our way across the Netherlands, into Germany, up the Rhine, across to the Harz Mountains then finally to Berlin for the plane home. The rules were fairly simple – public transport all the way, sampling as many different operators using as many different modes as possible. We tend not to dwell anywhere too long – you can learn an awful lot about somewhere in very little time – so this seemed like a reasonable adventure for four days.

The collective agreement was to start at Schiphol Airport on Friday morning and head straight off to the south of the country, the rest of the Netherlands having been decisively covered in a previous trip. However I have never spent any time in Amsterdam before, so decided to travel the evening before and explore the city on my own, before linking up with my colleagues on Friday morning.

The Teutonic theme to the trip started before I even left the UK however, as complex domestic arrangements meant I had to break the rules right at the start and drive my car to Gatwick Airport, to endure the misery of long-stay parking. What more appropriate carriage could be waiting to whisk me to the terminal than the first of many Citaros! With Britain in the grip of arctic temperatures, it at least offered the attraction of being warm!

In no time at all I was in the airport, where my holiday was rudely interrupted by a final dose of real life. Having earlier had the office phone diverted to my mobile, I had forgotten to cancel the diversion before leaving work, with the result that Velvet Enquiries were briefly handled from a bench outside Starbucks in Gatwick North Terminal. My final moments before exiting the UK were spent remotely reuniting two Thornden School parents with their offspring’s lost PE kits!

The most impressive feature of Gatwick Airport is the world’s largest air passenger bridge – a walkway that takes you thirty two metres above the ground and over the top of one of the taxiways, allowing travellers the highly unusual sight of aircraft taxying beneath them! It was with childlike excitement that I discovered that my plane’s departure gate required me to cross this bridge and I lingered for as long as I dare, until finally an obliging British Airways plane turned and passed beneath my feet.

Unfortunately I had lingered so long that most of the rest of the passengers had overtaken me, and with Easyjet operating a “first come first shoved” approach to seat allocation I was alarmed to reach the back of the boarding queue with the departure gate still a distant speck on the horizon! Luckily I was able to board just in time to nab the last remaining window seat and in good time we were aloft, on course for the Dutch capital.

Having left Gatwick in temperatures some way below zero, it was a faint hope that the continent would be enduring a heatwave, but nevertheless my hopes that things might warm up a bit were soon dashed by the Dutch captain’s brief announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, the weather in Amsterdam is the same as in London, only more cold!”

My regression into childhood continued throughout the flight as I sat with face pressed to the window on a beautifully clear night, taking in such panoramic scenes as Southdown PSV’s depot on the outskirts of Crawley, the elegant seaside metropolis of Southend-on-Sea, bustling Europoort and an accident scene on the A4 motorway, before finally settling down bang on time on the north-east facing runway at Schiphol.

Having revived my treasured OV-Chipkaart with credit, I was soon enjoying the smooth comfort of a double-deck train ride into the capital city, where I emerged from Central Station to find it snowing. Luckily my hotel was only a short walk and I was soon ensconsed in my top floor hotel room at the surprisingly characterful Tulip Inn Amsterdam Centre.

Having dumped my bag and with not a moment to lose, I launched myself once more into the sub-zero temperatures outside and immediately realised my hotel was right in the middle of the city’s infamous red light district! Being of faint heart and prudish manner, I of course kept my eyes straight ahead as I wandered along street after street lined with establishments of dubious virtue.

I couldn’t help but be amused at the sight of a shop apparently selling nothing but vibrators, although it was not so much the store’s contents that amused me as its name – “Na Na, The Most Vibrating Shop”. I would have taken a photo but frankly, I wasn’t brave enough to stand in the middle of a busy red light district aiming my camera at a shop window full of sex toys!

My progress into the heart of the city’s seedy underbelly was marked by escalating fruit references. What started with a shop a few doors from the hotel selling “banana toys”, gave way a few yards later to a club advertising (among other attractions) a “banana show” before finally climaxing a block further on with the proudly named “Banana Bar – Live F***ing”!

I had heard many tales from friends in the UK of Amsterdam’s notorious attractions and had always assumed them to be grossly exaggerated. What I had imagined would be maybe one or two streets turned into block after block of lurid establishments.

Given that the majority of voices I heard as I wandered the streets were British males hunting in packs, I can only imagine that this side to what is probably otherwise a charming city delivers significant tourist income. Otherwise, why would a country as ordered and efficient as the Netherlands tolerate such a sordid centrepiece to its capital city?

I’d love to remember Amsterdam for its elegant buildings, graceful canals and bustling precincts, but in fact my abiding memory will be of scantily dressed ladies writhing behind red-hued glass doors, tapping on the windows to attract the attention of passers by, about as unerotic scene as it is possible to imagine on that freezing night!

It was with some relief that I finally emerged from a side street to be confronted with the impressive facade of Centraal Station, and decided that the only late night activity that I needed was some serious train watching, so I spent a pleasant half an hour dodging the drug dealers on the station platforms.

For me the romance of train travel is no better summed up than by a departing sleeper train, conveying its weary occupants on life-changing journeys to distant cities many hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Whenever I’m in a foreign city I love to watch such trains heading on their way, and as the City Night Line to Zurich drew out of the platform, I imagined the destinies of those whose faces peered at me through the windows. For some maybe only a short vacation, but for many their last glimpse of familiar comforts, knowing they would wake up the following morning to a different existence, with all the uncertainty and excitement that entailed!

As I explored further, my melancholy musings were soon banished by the most exciting of all possible discoveries – a secret bus station! Hidden at first floor level at the back of Centraal Station, this vibrant terminal hummed with life even at 10 o’clock at night, despatching buses into the outskirts and surrounding regions well loaded with Friday night travellers.

The most exciting feature of Amsterdam’s Secret Bus Station however has to be its amazing Control Room. Quite unlike any similar facility I have encountered anywhere on my travels, I will be making a point of sending a picture to the architects employed by Sainsbury’s on the proposed redevelopment of Eastleigh Bus Station, and making it a condition of my support that the town’s future transport interchange enjoys such a space aged centrepiece!

Finally exhausted, I returned to my room and lay down to sleep, only to wake up later feeling quite disorientated and dizzy – quite amazing given that I had (unusually for me) consumed no alcohol at all! It was only after sitting for a few moments to regain my bearings that I realised the entire hotel room sloped from right to left, with the top of the bed several inches lower than the foot! How ironic that of all the things that I had seen in the Dutch capital that could have caused a rush of blood to my head, in the event it was a wonky hotel room that did so!

The following morning dawned colder still and snowier, and after a brief farewell visit to the secret bus station I was on a train back to Schiphol Airport, ready to meet my colleagues and continue the adventure...