Original posted on London to New York blog, March 23, 2010
Bruges, Belgium/Heidelberg, Germany
DAY Three on the road and about 100 miles from Prague, the normality we left behind seems an awfully long way away.
The Czech Republic is our sixth country since rolling out of Cardiff and my passport has yet to be pulled out of my pocket in anger. In panic, yes, on the regular moments of worry that my camera, wallet, passport or the dorm room keys have gone walkabout, but we have yet to be stopped at any border.
Eating up the opening miles, life on the bus has already settled into a regular pattern of catching up on the sleep forsaken in exchange for another couple of drinks the night before, getting to know our travelling companions and catching up on the latest news and gossip.
At the moment, that’s trying to figure out the exchange rate we got on the border for our Czech Krone and the details of the first international incident of the trip – a rare Welsh victory over Germany.
Mike, from West Wales via Cardiff and Caerphilly, decided a bunch of German kids should not get away with throwing their McDonalds wrappers over the service station car park. An impressive mastery of the international language of waving your arms around and pointing got the message across.
Prague hovers on the horizon. It is there the trip shifts into a different gear as we pull further away from the familiar and end our opening sprint across Europe with the first two-night stay in one place.
As well as the first opportunity to properly repack my rucksack and discover the things that should have been fitted in and which ones should have been thrown into storage in my spare bedroom, it gives us a chance to draw breath.
There’s been precious little opportunity to dothat since we staggered onto The Embankment just before 7am on Sunday and began the twin jobs of rolling out to New York and getting to know our fellow passengers.
The first job lasted about 400 yards before we were yanked off the bus on Westminster Bridge for a quick team shot in front of the Houses of Parliament.
The second job will continue to do so for most, if not all, the journey.
In all, we are 16 strong, plus Phil our Kiwi guide and Latvian driver Martins, who is taking us all the way to Moscow and our rendezvous with the Trans-Siberian Railway.
That leaves plenty of room on the coach, although we are filling it with an expanding sprawl of kit, drying towels and provisions – particularly Marlo’s Pantry at the back of the bus – picked up at a giant supermarket in Liege.
It’s a fairly diverse group – not as young as predicted – which has, so far, got on very well.
Fortunately for the allocation of rooms, the 16 breaks down into eight girls and eight blokes, ranging from 18-year-old Freddie to 81-year-old Mary, with a fairly even spread of ages in between.
Among that we have one Aussie girl (Phoebe), one Irish girl (Leila), two Scots, Duncan and Barry, Marlo the Dutchman still waiting for his passport from his Russian visa application and Enrique the Spaniard.
Having escaped the clutches of the photographer and dropped him and his bike off somewhere in London, it was off to Dover, Calais – supplemented for the ferry trip by three hitchhikers from Glasgow raising money for Sport Relief – and onwards to our stop for the night in Bruges.
It’s not the biggest town – at least the old town isn’t – and gave us the opportunity to wander around the beautiful historic centre and head out for a guided bike ride or people watch with a beer in one of the impressive town squares (a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon).
The evening saw us descend on an Argentinian Steakhouse where much meat was devoured, beers were quaffed and the red wine flowed freely. Maybe too freely in one case.
By the time we took up residence in a darkened corner of a nearby bar, the survivors were on their way to getting to know each other – even those who needed a guiding hand home.
Some of the excesses of the night before – and the discovery of who does and who does not snore (I do, loudly) – were not so welcome come the early start to day two.
Sure none of us had too many regrets about missing the Belgian scenery as we went about catching up on our sleep.
The long journey was broken up by Phil getting us all up to the front of the coach and giving an introductory spiel about ourselves. Two days in, names and faces are pretty much committed to memory and most of us have had a decent chat with everybody else at some point.
Destination on Day Two was Heidelberg, Germany, the old town’s collection of commanding churches, town squares – Europe does squares much better than we do back home – sitting on the banks of the River Neckar and in the shadow of the commanding Schloss. Very pretty and a very pleasant walk around its streets.
The evening followed a very similar pattern to the one before – a cheap meal in the hostel followed by a few more beers in a bar. It could catch on.
And so to Prague, of which more next time…