Travel is only glamorous in retrospect- suggestions and opinions on transport in Europe

February 24, 2016

Up until the 17th century, the whole world travelled on the left because it was the most practical way- in the feudal and violent societies of mostly right-handed people, it was the most sensible option. In the days of fair maidens and kingdoms, knights would joust with their lances under their right arm and pass naturally on each other's right, whereas when passing a stranger on the road, one would walk on the left to ensure there was a protective sword arm between oneself and the passer-by. Perhaps the whole world would still drive on the right had some left-handed little tit called Napoleon not decided to overturn this practise and navigating my way around Europe would've been a doddle. Without the funds, patience nor faith in myself to learn how to drive on the other side of the road, I've been forced to find alternate ways of transport.

The first and most obvious- yet debatably least fun- option would be public transport. Living in the austerity-hit north of Spain, public transport is somewhat lacking. Where trains in the UK often run until midnight - if not later - and on a regular schedule, one would be hard pushed to find a train here after 22.00. Not only this, but train travel around here will make a nice dent in your wallet, also. For example, a 38 minute return train journey from Ourense to Santiago will always cost a minimum of €26.60 and you'll be lucky to find a train late enough to carry you home after dinner. Another bug about RENFE, the Spanish train operator, is that they don't release train tickets until 6 weeks before the date at the earliest and even then, you won't be able to access all train times. I'm yet to develop an understanding as to why they actually do this- just release all train times at the same bloody time! It makes booking flights and hotels a risky business. On the whole, however, trains are wonderfully spacious, modern and clean in Galicia and put the ones I travelled on in France and Holland to shame. And of course, let´s not forget that aside from flying, it's the quickest form of transport.

Buses, on the other hand, well.. perhaps the less said about those the better. France and Spain- I'm looking at you guys. In my hometown of Derby, Arriva buses uphold a fine reputation of being annoyingly tardy, irritatingly loud and clumsily time-tabled. In comparison to France and Spain's game, Arriva are a well oiled machine. Whilst they may well be overpriced, I'd trade the mañana mañana atttitude of Urbanos Ourense anyday for the clumsy organsiation of Arriva. With an air of mystery, Urbanos refuse to publish detailed time-tables and on the automatic bus stops which give you the ETA, will label any bus further than a quarter of an hour away "+15". A bus could well be 40 minutes away, but you'll have to wait around to find out- you jokers, you! I sometimes feel as if, as clients, we're being trolled. In France, the buses didn't serve the village where I lived last summer- good going, Ministry of Transport- but then, I was lucky if I ever saw another human so I understand the reasoning behind that.

There's exists a poem, "Hitcher" by Simon Armitage, which takes the form of a dramatic monologue, spoken by a man who, for reasons not made explicit, picks up a hitch-hiker before pushing him out of the moving car. My Mum, an English teacher, has in my opinion, taught and read the poem perhaps far too often and thus is never impressed to hear about my travels through medium of BlablaCar . Almost an organised hitch-hiking service, BlaBlaCar is a car-sharing service that connects lonely drivers with eager travellers; for example, if Pierre is driving from Lille to Calais and wants to make some buck, he can advertise his free seats and find some company whilst he's at it: winner winner, chicken dinner. Of course, the theory sounds wonderful, but the execution isn't always so. (Mum, stop reading now.) For example, my boyfriend and I decided to take a BlablaCar back from Santiago this week-end and ended up travelling with a complete nut job who began to tell us about his relationship problems and sex-life while laughing after every sentence. I shit you not, at one point he took his foot off the accelerator on the motorway and put it on the steering wheel. He even did hand gestures to mimic his crazy cat lady of a (now ex) girlfriend. Had I not been with somebody else, I perhaps would be in the back of Iñaki's car boot right now.

I'd been tired, under
the weather, but the ansaphone kept screaming:
One more sick-note, mister, and you're finished. Fired.
I thumbed a lift to where the car was parked.
A Vauxhall Astra. It was hired.

I picked him up in Leeds.
He was following the sun from west to east
with just a toothbrush and the good earth for a bed. The truth,
he said, was blowin' in the wind,
or round the next bend.

I let him have it
on the top road out of Harrogate - once
with the head, then six times with the krooklok
in the face - and didn't even swerve.
I dropped it into third

and leant across
to let him out, and saw him in the mirror
bouncing off the kerb, then disappearing down the verge.
We were the same age, give or take a week.
He'd said he liked the breeze

to run its fingers
through his hair. It was twelve noon.
The outlook for the day was moderate to fair.
Stitch that, I remember thinking,
you can walk from there.

Of course, I understand her concerns about her favourite daughter putting trust in the form of a complete stranger - we all know the stigma that surrounds hitch-hiking and have heard gruesome tales of kidnap, rape and ultimately murder... However, having used BlaBlaCar more times than I care to admit to my Mum, it does seem safer than it sounds. Drivers and passengers alike are reviewed once a journey has been made, thus creating a profile of recommendations/ deterrents. (Just FYI, Iñaki had a full profile of good reviews - in hindsight, maybe he had wrote them himself...) Also, the cost of travelling soon builds up, and the price of a journey via Blablacar heavily undercuts that of public transport. My other experiences on BlablaCar have ran smoothly and my American flatmate relies on them quite regularly to see Europe. (Crazy bitch.) For future Erasmus students, I do recommend this service - just have your whits about you and try to travel with a companion.
Having told my Mum about Iñaki, she sent me a link to a horror story
Another fun - and not quite so safe - way of navigating your way through a country is hitch hiking; better than BlablaCar because you don't have to pay, but you're also risking being kidnapped and sent to Columbia as a drug mule, or thrown out of a moving car after having your head battered a la Hitcher. I've only done this once, and I didn't die but I certainly didn't feel safe and I'm not going to recommend it. Plus, it takes the piss standing by the side of the road, smiling for about two hours before some kindred soul decides to take a chance on you. Soul destroying stuff, that.

Having written this, it's important to note that I'm hardly some gap year student travelling around Europe carrying my life on my back with a hiking stick in hand. I do, however, manage to find myself in the middle of nowhere more often than I would like, and have often struggled to see places I've wanted to due to a lack of transportation. Ultimately, after my latest Blabla experience and the unreliability of public transport, I think my best advice is to befriend somebody who has a car; seems a bit easier, cheaper and just generally more convenient. And the conversation perhaps won't be about bagpipes with a crazy piano restorer from Galicia.

Brucey Bonus- Here's some propaganda from BlablaCar that you might persuade you it's not all so dangerous...

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