What follows is an opportunity for you to indulge in a little Schadenfreude, if you are so inclined.
The day started well.
Showered, packed up and breakfasted, the four of us walked into Erfurt Hauptbahnhof with a plan: From Erfurt to Wernigerode in the Harz Mountains, with one change at Halle. By mid afternoon we would be comfortable in our new lodgings. Quite simple. No complications.
The Hauptbahnhof was stirring but not yet fully up to speed. It felt a little like being back stage in a theatre on performance day: around us an unobtrusive but practised routine. It being a Sunday the main event would be the arrival of crowds of day trippers.
The day’s first surprise pulled in to the platform belching steam and sounding its whistle: A sleek black locomotive from another age pulling a selection of old carriages. Obviously a Sunday excursion train, dozens of families swarmed aboard it; children hurrying for seats and then pressing faces to windows. Our train was less exciting, gliding away under electric power, but it got us to Halle on time. We set about changing trains. What could be simpler for train travel veterans?
So we consulted the platform timetable which showed the Harz train leaving from platform 9. To platform 9 our small caravan made its way. The digital sign over the platform indicated we were in the right place and a train duly pulled in. We were the first to board. Granted it was 15 minutes early, but the platform sign said what it said. We stowed our luggage and made ourselves comfortable. And waited. The train did not move at the scheduled time but people continued to board so we continued to wait. After half an hour it moved off toward Wernigerode.
Lesson One for rail travel veterans: Always double check information. Listen to loud speaker announcements about platform changes. Granted in this case they were in German, but whenever your platform number is mentioned it may just be relevant. Not that I heard any such announcement, but I prefer to give Deutsche Bahn the benefit of the doubt.
Lesson Two: Print out a list of intermediate stops along the route. Many trains don’t display this information. If your train is stopping at places not mentioned on your list, then perhaps things are not as they should be.
The penny dropped as the scheduled arrival time at Wernigerode passed without any evidence of Wernigerode being nearby.
Lesson Three is timely: If you are not completely sure you are on the right train, ask someone. An hour and a half after leaving Halle I did, to be told the train did not go to Wernigerode, but instead to Falkenhayne.
We were pulling in to Lutherstadt Wittenberg Altstadt and needed to make a quick decision. The four of us stood watching the train disappear from a station that had no one in attendance. A lonely feeling. Luckily we had visited Wittenberg a few days previously and knew there was a Hauptbahnhof a couple of kilometres away that would likely have someone who could help.
Somewhere away in Wernigerode there would be a landlady tapping her foot, wondering why her guests were late. The thought that she might give up and go home taking the key with her, leaving us without accommodation in sub zero temperatures was a motivating one.
Adrenalin is a wonderful thing. Towing luggage, we made the Hauptbahnhof in record time. Strangely, muscle aches and shortage of breath didn’t feature.
The Reise Zentrum was open and we encountered a formidable lady in uniform who spoke absolutely no English. My foreign language ability is inversely proportional to my stress levels. Sentences that would normally flow easily become strangled, stuttering sound bites. Somehow I managed to explain our circumstances and was rewarded by a smile from a clearly amused official whose Sunday afternoon had become interesting.
It was no problem, she said, and presented us with a printout of our new route. We would not need to buy new tickets. Just explain to the ticket collector and all would be well.
That just left the small problem of explaining to each ticket collector on each leg why we were not travelling with valud tickets. A small problem. Oh, and I nearly forgot the other small matter of having to make a phone call to our hostess, explaining the delay. She spoke no English so once again I needed to do the deed in German, but this time self consciously in the middle of a crowded carriage full of German speakers listening to every word I spoke.
Well after dark we arrived at Wernigerode – only four hours late, but relieved. I guess if you equate rail kilometres travelled with money spent, all was not lost.