Cycling, cities and going round in circles: Adventures in Europe on a Brompton

Post date: 
Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Intrepid traveller Peter O’Driscoll, who is partially sighted, has written a two-part blog about his experiences interrailing and cycling around Europe.

Part 1: Paris - Verona - Innsbruck


“ It hadn't occurred to me that what I was about to do, was being done with Sight loss.”

It was 9 August 2014, when I set off for what turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime.  From the age of 18, I had always wanted to go Interrailing around Europe. I finally did it aged 43. It hadn't occurred to me that what I was about to do, was being done with Sight loss. I've had Congenital Glaucoma all my life; the Goniotomy Operations were done when I was 4 and 6 months old. But I can see well enough to ride a bicycle. 
So off I set with my Brompton Folding Bicycle in its bag. The objective was, to cover 6 cities in 7 days using Trains and Bike rides around the cities. I had packed some technology for use along the way; laptop, digital camera, and iPod. I had also bought a Kindle Fire HD 3rd Generation weeks earlier. 
It was non-stop travel the moment I left on the Saturday morning, taking the train that took me to Maylebone Station in London. I wasn't going to chance it cycling down Marylebone Road to the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. I caught the Tube as far as Baker Street, and then changed lines, which got me to King's Cross. I noted that there was a sign outside on the St Pancras side, saying RNIB! 

Stage 1 - Paris 

It was a pleasant train journey to Paris. I got chatting to a young French man, who was sitting next to me. I explained to him where I was going and that I'd never been on Eurostar before, and had always wanted to try it.
When I arrived at Gare de Nord, that side of Paris was very busy for trying to get around with my Brompton. I only had around 2 and ½ hours before an overnight Train from Gare de Lyon. I wanted to ride the bike through Paris, although the roads were busy. I met a Swiss woman, and asked her directions on how to reach the Eiffel Tower? She told me it was too far away, and on the other side of the city. She asked me, what was I trying to do? I told her about going around Europe. She looked surprised and said "it can't be done". I said with a determined voice, "Oh yes it can". What she was about to say, took me by surprise. She said to me, "you're a bloody hero". Twice she said it. Not that I think I am one. She wished me well and I went on my way.
 Eventually I thought, I need to make sure I reach Gare de Lyon in time. So I went into a Metro Station. There was a member of Staff at an Information Desk who spoke English, and helped me get my ticket. She asked me,  “where I was trying to get to?” I told her, to Gare de Lyon for my Train to Verona. She was so surprised that she gasped and said "Ooh La La". After that, I thought it was worth going to Paris, just to hear a French Woman say that to me.

"It was a rough night on the way to Verona"

I got on board the Train, and was sharing a berth with several other passengers. I was advised to book a berth, due to a high volume of thefts that occur with people who only book seats - thieves have been known to grab people’s belongings whilst they sleep. In fact the train conductor on board, asked for all passports, which they keep safe and return, just before you reach the Station you're getting off at. There have been too many cases of passports being stolen on board French Trains.
It was a rough night on the way to Verona. The train was near the Italian border, when someone who was a new member of staff, switched the light on in the Berth, and woke me up. He was looking at everyone with suspicion. I thought what was going on? The next morning, the Train arrived in Milan. It was quite a wait there. I must have reached Verona about an hour later than expected. It was only going to be a few hours in that beautiful Italian City, before a Train after 1 pm to Innsbruck, then another connection to Vienna.

Stage 2 - Verona 

Verona was enchanting. It was a quiet Sunday morning, the weather was warm, and the temperature  was rising into the mid 80's that day. It had been 24 years since I had last been to Italy, and I was happy to see that Italian women were as beautiful as I remembered aged 19 in Trieste. I found the Arena, which was magnificent inside and out. At the Ticket office, they wouldn't let me take my Bike in with me. I left it with them. After that, I found a Cafe and ordered two Cappuccinos. My Italian is rusty, yet I was able to order in Italian. It is good to be able to say a few words in another language, because it's appreciated by the locals. I sat in the cafe, watching the Sunday Market, and the people either walking through or riding bikes slowly. 
When I got on the Train bound for Innsbruck, I was sharing a compartment with 3 German Americans and a German. The 3 Americans were all family. They were great fun, as was the German passenger. The eldest American was born in Germany, and had emigrated to the United States when she was a child. The scenery was stunning, changing quickly from hills into mountains. The train was heading into Tyrol country. It looks more Austrian than Italian. It's a disputed area between Italy and Austria, ever since the end of World War One, when borders changed. We were allowed to get off and stretch our legs at the Brenner Pass. That's the border between both countries. It was magnificent, and I gazed at the mountains before me.

Stage 3 - Innsbruck 

“Watching the sun rise over the Austrian Parliament building, and tinging the historic Marble features in red, was a sight to behold” 

When I went outside the train station at Innsbruck for a few minutes, I saw a mountain towering above buildings. It looked impressive.  Back on the train, we rolled past immaculate Austrian villages and pristine countryside en route to Salzburg. I was impressed with Austria. The Train pulled into Salzburg, which I only got to see momentarily, standing on the platform for a minute or two.
I reached Vienna at 11:15 pm. It wasn't worth trying to find a place to stay overnight, because my train to Prague was after midday on the Monday. I found a locker for my bag. it cost a few Euro's. Then I set off on a night ride around the city. I had no idea where I was going. It felt like I was going around in circles. I found out months later, I was. Vienna was designed on 6 circles. My mind was fried by first light, so I went in search of coffee. Yet despite being mentally tired, watching the sun rise over the Austrian Parliament building, and tinging the historic Marble features in red, was a sight to behold. Viewing that refreshing imagery at dawn had to be the highlight for me. 
I used Wifi at the train station I'd arrived at the night before. I then had to catch the Metro to another train station for the connection to Prague. An Austrian lady saw that I was having difficulties figuring out the Metro map, and she made sure I changed lines at the right station. I thanked her in German.
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