Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

To Riga With Love (Part 1 of 2)

You probably won’t often find Chesterfield and Riga in the same sentence. Or even on the same page. But I didn’t ever want Blackpool FC’s annual trip to Latvia to become tiresome in an ‘oh no we aren’t going to Riga again’ kind of way (a similar reaction to when we play Chesterfield). So in 2008 we decided to make our annual excursion to Latvia a bit more interesting…by going on the train. And what a good idea that turned out to be.

I had considered this method of travel the previous year but, by the time the pre-season friendly dates are announced, it’s just oh-so-easy to press the button and book those cheap flights from Liverpool. I was determined that this wasn’t going to happen this year, so I started planting seeds amongst my fellow Seasiders around October along the lines of what a great adventure it would be to go by rail. And the plan worked. Come July there were six of us signed up and booked on a European adventure.

Monday, 7 July 2008

I had followed the advice of head organiser Herts and purchased a rucksack in which to transport my belongings. This apparently is the best way to carry your luggage when you are making lots of stops and starts. By the time I got to the bus stop at the bottom of my street I was struggling for breath and my back injury (sustained during goal celebrations at Hartlepool – but what a goal that was) was starting to resurface. Perhaps packing five books was not a good idea – but they were all necessary for the journey. I considered my options. Could I face the walk back home (uphill) to repack into something more easily transportable? Well, it was either up the hill or all the way across to Eastern Europe. I went home to repack into my wheelie case. Oh that was so much better!

The six of us were to make our way to spend the night Chez Bruges in Kent, where we were greeted with beer and bolognese. And a cat (Barnaby) that looked as though he had generous helpings of both around five times a day, to the clear detriment of his sister, Tigger, who had not an ounce of fat on her. 

It was not until very late in the day that we were advised by Herts that we were to be departing at 5:30AM the following day. Which meant getting up at four-something. Now that isn’t right, is it? I was to be sharing a room with Random Girl for the next few nights and, as she was rising a little earlier than me as part of the Bathroom Rota, I remarked that I hoped she had a nice gentle alarm to ease us into the morning gently.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

‘And I’m feeling (dum dum) Glad all over / yes I’m (dum dum) Glad all over / baby I’m (dum dum) Glad all over / ‘cause you’re miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine!’

It was 4:45AM. But I had to laugh. Today was the first day of our holiday and it started as it was to continue – with a smile on my face.

After breakfast of a large volume of orange juice, we piled our luggage and ourselves into the taxi taking us to join the Eurostar at Ebbsfleet to take the first leg of our journey – to Brussels.

We were almost awake by the time we boarded the train. We found our reserved seats with little trouble and I was just considering how I was going to get my suitcase into the overhead storage rack when (a) it was very heavy and (b) I was only 5’2, when I was approached by an aggressive pensioner who exclaimed: ‘These are our seats.’ I responded that, yes, that’s fine, but we had reserved the ones next to them. ‘Well…don’t expect my husband to help you with that bag – he’s got a bad heart, you know!’ Thankfully as the journey progressed (and she realised that there were six of us and she was grossly outnumbered), she became much more friendly – to the extent that, when she disembarked at Lille, she had quite an emotional and protracted farewell scene with our mascot teddy bear Dany.

We had a few hours to kill in Brussels and our Belgian correspondent (Bruges Seasider, if you hadn’t guessed) took the lead in showing off the delights of her country, where it seemed that every other shop was a chocolaterie (and yet I resisted! I still have no idea why. Perhaps I was simply overwhelmed with choice). We visited the Mannekin Pis and scoffed Belgian waffles. I managed to find a bottle of the Belgian chocolate beer (Floris Chocolat) that I had sampled and loved at The Wellington in Birmingham the previous weekend. We stopped for lunch in a Belgian restaurant (we made a point of sampling the local cuisine in each of the countries we visited) and I had a beef in beer dish that disappointingly came with a bowl of chips. Well that wasn’t very continental. I suppose they could be deemed French fries.

But that was enough of Belgium. We headed back to the railway station, reclaimed our luggage from the locker, and headed off to Cologne.

Aside from the chocolate beer (I don’t know how I managed to leave the bottle unopened for so long), the highlight of the train journey into Germany was a rare phone call from BasilRobbie, informing the travelling party that work was to commence on the South Stand immediately. Woohoo!

The highlight of Cologne was the breathtakingly beautiful Cathedral, which housed a very chilling crypt, which I left with shudder.

We strolled around the city – albeit not far, as we only had a few hours here, too. We ordered a German pastry (‘what flavour are these?’ ‘pudding flavour’ ‘yes but what flavour pudding?’ ‘pudding flavour’ ‘ok…’) and then it started to rain a little so we took shelter under a balcony outside a pub. With some German bier, of course.

Here we were approached by a passing local:

‘Are you from England or Wales?’

‘We’re from England.’

‘Ah England! Hurricanes! Spitfires!’

‘Err…’

Thankfully he was soon bustled away by the bar manager, who gave him a stern lecture on how it would be a Bad Thing if we were to go away with a bad impression of Germans. We didn’t, but it was an amusing incident all the same. He was like the German equivalent of Basil Fawlty.

Back at the station we tackled the most seemingly complicated but actually very efficient left luggage lockers and went to stock up on some food. Of course a sausage from the hot food kiosk was a must. What German delights could we find in the shop? Obviously beer for the journey… some pretzel-type nibbles… chilli flavoured chocolate (ok this was Swiss)… Fishermans Friends. Fishermans Friends? From Fleetwood? Honestly they had an entire shelf dedicated to every flavour of Fishermans Friends imaginable. I treated myself to a pack of Cherry Menthol flavour. Suitably stocked up, we boarded the train to Berlin.

This was a great train that reached speeds of 250KPH. I unplugged my MP3 player and used my headphones to listen to the on-board international radio (quite entertaining).

Several drinks later came the International Incident. Caused by the Belgian, of all people! We were treated to a once-heard-never-forgotten rendition of the Belgian National Anthem (in two languages) and then, in a bid to be Euro-friendly with our German passengers, she began a version of Deutschland Über Alles, which apparently is a big no-no and has been banned in Germany since, well, World War II. But try explaining this to a drunken Belgian. A German man tried and failed. We tried and failed. Eventually I resulted to force-feeding her Fishermans Friends and she was finally appeased by a friendly German woman, who explained the reasons for the ban and complimented her on her wonderful rendition of the Belgian National Anthem.

It was now gone 11PM and we made our weary way to our hotel in Berlin. I left the others to hit the bar, but I headed straight for bed…where I was delighted to find the most comfortable pillows I have ever had the pleasure to sink into. I would have stolen them, had there been any room in my case. After a quick scan through the TV channels (gladiator porn – why is it always porn in European hotels?) I slept.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

No alarm this morning. Wonderful. Today was to be spent wandering the streets of Berlin, doing the touristy thing.  After a few moments marvelling at the excellent German dubbing of ‘Sex and the City’, we commenced with breakfast at a café around the corner (egg salad) and headed into the city.

We saw the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag and happened upon the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum detailing the horrors of the Nazi regime. This was a very moving exhibition. Also stirring was the moment it dawned on me I had crossed the  site of the) Berlin wall without even giving it a second thought, when people had lost their lives for doing the same. The Jewish War Memorial was also a very striking work.

We took a lunch (schnitzel accompanied by a delicious mushroom sauce. And bier.) in an outdoor bar area and enjoyed resting our feet. Here I received my second and third text messages (each from different sources) informing me that Billy Dearden had returned to the club as Chief Scout. Much as it was nice that people were thinking of me and keeping me up-to-date with the BFC news from back home, was I really that interested in this particular snippet of news? Still, it raised a chuckle.

The one (and only) thing I didn’t like about Berlin was the fact that it was, in part, tacky and touristy (especially round by Checkpoint Charlie). Yes, like I can talk, hailing from Blackpool. But there were stalls selling obviously fake pieces of ‘the Berlin Wall’ and the like and it just cheapened what is actually a great city.

In the evening we decided to take a boat trip of the city in order to see as much of it as we could. This was most relaxing and enjoyable and we sat back with a bier and listened intently to the English commentary. The German tour guide seem to look at us quite pointedly each time he mentioned ’80% destroyed by bombing’, but I am sure we were imagining it, although we still sat back in a sheepish ‘but it wasn’t us’ manner.

On our circuit of the city we spotted a potential area for that evening’s dining and headed off the boat in that direction. It was raining and still a little early, so we nipped into a Van Gogh themed bar for a pre-dinner tipple. Here we were treated to a lesson in art from Bruges and she even made it seem quite interesting.

The restaurants we had earmarked (did you spot that arty pun?) turned out to be either too expensive or full. But by now we were back out in the rain, so we darted down as side street in search of an emergency restaurant. And there it was: a specialist potato restaurant called Kartoffelkeller. And what a treat this was! The restaurant was brimming with potato memorabilia, potato cartoons, potato calendars, potato ornaments…oh and the food was delicious too! With remarkably not a chip in sight. You would be amazed at what they found to make with potatoes – there was even a range of potato desserts (potato pancakes…mmm).

On referring back to the map of Berlin, it appeared we had covered not a quarter of the city on our lengthy walk today. You could certainly fill a week quite easily in Berlin – and it is well worth a visit.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

‘And I’m feeling (dum dum) Glad all over / yes I’m (dum dum) Glad all over / baby I’m (dum dum) Glad all over / ‘cause you’re miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine!’

I had discovered in the night that my roommate snored, although not to the extent that I wanted to smother her with my oh-so-comfy pillows. And this was another early start today as we were to board the early train to Warsaw. This was a six-hour journey – our longest so far. But we were enjoying the train travel–and I found I hadn’t needed those five books after all. My friends old and new provided ample entertainment. Random Girl and Shorty were particularly good value, waking themselves up snoring on a regular basis.

It was on this train that I enjoyed quite the finest breakfast I have ever taken in my whole life. Granted, I don’t eat breakfast that often, but my goodness this was a fine specimen. It was fluffy, creamy scrambled eggs mixed with ham, with tomatoes and onion on the side. And it was wonderful.

We were concerned that the language barrier was going to be a problem in Poland. We had French and German speakers amongst our party, and I was confident I could get us by in Lithuania and Latvia with my Russian and some basic Latvian. But would our English (and Angel’s international language of shout-loudly-in-Cockney-and-if-they-don’t-understand-shout-louder-in-Cockney) get us very far in the Polish capital? I had made an effort to take a Polish lesson in preparation but, when pressed as to what words I could remember, I couldn’t come up with anything more than the Polish words for ‘white’ and ‘cinema’.

So imagine my delight on exiting Warsaw station to be greeted by a whopping great big white cinema! I was thrilled to bits!

We weren’t sure what to expect of Warsaw. We knew it had been ravaged during the war but were pleasantly surprised to see it was now flourishing as a quite beautiful city.

I always take my camera on tour and particularly like to photograph cats. But here it occurred to me that we had not seen a single feline since leaving the UK (although granted Barnaby was enough cat to last several days). Was there a European cat shortage? We had seen plenty of dogs (especially in Germany) but no cats at all.

We strolled around the city and stopped for lunch at an Italian restaurant, where the menu was in Italian and Polish, so it was a case of find-the-word-you-recognise-and-order-that. Arrabbiata it was, then.

We strolled until our feet hurt and took rest at an outdoor bar in the square, where we listened to an accordion player giving a rendition of ‘que sera sera’ and then strolled on some more. But now I didn’t enjoy the city so much. Walking down a side street, I was startled by strange, tall, imposing man leaping out in front of me and babbling ten-to-the-dozen in a language I didn’t understand. It transpired he was a shoeshine man offering his services (had he looked down at my flip-flops, he would have seen he was wasting his time) and quite harmless (probably) but the incident still shook me.

Later in our walk, I took steps to veer away from a small group of young men who I noticed were approaching people in the streets wanting something. Herts, however, had ended up in their grasp and they threatened to decapitate him with an axe unless he gave them some money. And I thought the Big Issue sellers in Glasgow were aggressive! Apparently they were only ‘joking’ but we threw some coins at them as Bruges went to Herts’ rescue. The only other man in our party, Shorty, I noticed had made a sharp exit, as Dany had spotted a photo opportunity nearby. Hmph.

It wasn’t until I returned to Birmingham that I realised that our own cities are actually not that dissimilar to Warsaw in terms of scariness. I am regularly accosted in the streets by people wanting to force things on me, sell things to me, take things from me. So perhaps my judgement of Warsaw at the time was a little harsh. But still I did not feel comfortable there, as I did in every other city we visited. That just goes to show that one or two people really can give you a bad impression of a place.

That night we dined at an outdoor bar in the street, which was not unpleasant. Here we saw a solution to Dany’s delicate problem. He was suffering with piles owing to sitting on cold benches wearing no pants. We swiped a linen napkin and Shorty resolved to whip him up a pair of shorts on the longest train journey the next morning, using the complementary sewing kits we would duly take from our hotel room.

The next day would see us continue our European adventure with our arrival in the Baltic states, stopping in Vilnius and Riga, with a day as the beach to boot. Would we make it? What adventures awaited us there?

To be continued…

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