We left Novi Sad mid-morning. It was an uneventful departure – compared to the trip to Novi Sad from Belgrade – where I had misread information online and estimated our departure time almost two hours from when it was. We frantically stuffed our bags, erroneously bought one ticket instead of two, and wasted precious minutes sorting the situation. It was the kindness of a tall Serbian man who saved us from our ticketing blunder. “I have a sister living in Montreal!” he said as our initial chatter revealed our home country. In all of our years of travel, such connections have always been what most quickly bound us with strangers. He spoke on our behalf to the ticket counter attendant and we were soon on our way. We dashed into the near-empty train car, out of breath and relieved.
In Novi Sad, with our Rail Europe passes in hand, there was no need for any commotion at the ticket office, and we instead filled the passes out while enjoying a leisurely coffee and watching the minutes tick down to our departure time. Our first class tickets afforded us a gentle ride to our destination of Budapest, a city we had fallen hard for a few years past, and that which now housed two dear friends we were eager to see.
I hid in the shade, away from the blistering Budapest sun, as we waited a few minutes for our friends to arrive. I watched as people came and went; long hugs were bestowed to both arrivers and departers. One woman in particular caught my eye as she waited by the metro ticket booths, with one nervous foot tapping that sent small ripples up her lengthy, canary yellow skirt. She clutched a small bouquet of assorted flowers and checked her watch frequently.
I knew her party had arrived before I saw them because of the smile that erupted on her face as if she was suddenly lit from within. A child ran forth, maybe 5 or 6 in years, and encircled her waist with a fierce grip. Her travel companion pulled two bags, the familiar rumble reached my ears, before they rested while she was handed flowers and gave an intense hug. Was it her sister? Girlfriend? I couldn’t know, but silently created my own story for them, as I tend to do when people-watching. Airports and train stations were among my favourite places in the world, for that exact reason.
And in the next minute my own story in Budapest was about to unfold, as I saw our friends, who we hadn’t seen in two years, walking up to us with arms outstretched.
We broke it up with a stay in Stuttgart, Germany. Given the ten-hour trip in, I was in no mood to explore the new-to-us city, and turned into bed early. We were out first thing in the morning, leaving me with no firm impression of the city except that it was rainy. All I really cared about was getting to Paris anyway.
We brought the rain with us. Water streaked across our windows as the train sped towards the capital city, one that we first visited as a surprise on our wedding anniversary. We returned to Paris a couple of times since, and always with the same fiery anticipation of romance that wowed us on our first time. This visit was a little different, dedicated to seeing clients and friends, but still under our lofty expectations of being similarly enchanted. We could not have arrived fast enough.
At the Gare du Nord station we shuttled ourselves quickly to the subway after weaving through this busiest terminal in all of Europe. From there we took two different routes, hauling our bags up and down stairs, grimacing from being so tired after two days of travel. As I have many times in the past, I cursed Pete for not giving in to an easy cab or Uber ride. (He has a perpetual disdain of paying for taxis when we have two perfectly good feet to carry us onto cheaper subways. He forgets, sometimes, that my feet are not as perfectly stable as his are these days.) We turned into our hotel in Le Marais, and in the following days we let ourselves be taken by the city again.
On the way out, we did not make that mistake again and arrived back at the Paris-Nord station with ease. And thankfully so, as our day then was about to unfold quite differently.
Arriving in Brussels with minutes to spare, we sprinted (as much as one can spring with heavy bags in tow), to catch our next train. What did that station look like? Neither of us can comment as our focus was on one foot in front of the other.
We made it just in time, and had one more stop between us and Maastricht. We had never been to Liège before and walked slowly off the train, mouths-agape, upon our arrival.
The station is a marvel. Finished less than a decade ago, it is made of steel, glass, and white concrete, contorted overhead in a giant wave that leave striking layers of shade on the platforms below. The luminous sunny day ensured we walked in a Matrix-inspired world. Below the platforms is a buzz of commercial activity; I enjoyed coffee with trains zipping over my head while Pete ran around with the camera, furiously capturing what he could with the half hour available before our next train.
From there to Maastricht, a city we had been to several years before during a self-directed tour of Netherlands. It’s not the most scenic we’ve ever been to, nor does it boast a diverse array of things-to-do, but we immediately sensed a romantic vibe and just went with it. In the fall, vibrant leaves scattered across the cobble-stone streets and patios were full of people enjoying the last balmy rays of sun before winter came. A passing boat captain had even caught us kissing on a bridge as he passed underneath – he blew his horn and playfully wagged his finger at us as we blushed. It was a very memorable stay.
Maastricht is not on many people’s ‘list’ but when sketching out our trip we both felt compelled to return. It would serve as the perfect rest-stop between friend visits.
The small train station, so many years later, was quiet and entirely familiar, but the walk down the main street to our accommodation was not. It was busier than we remembered; much more happening than we remembered. Across from our apartment, Pete procured the best Indonesian food we have had in a while, and then the best Thai the following day. (Don’t worry – snacks consisted of bitterballen and stroopwafel – we did indulge in the local cuisine as well.) It had grown in both activity and diversity, yet still felt as comfortable as it always had.
The train ride was short and once again felt very usual. I’m not sure I can even count the number of times we have been to Amsterdam but it is several. We are always brought back by the distinct charm that this city holds, and especially by the friends that live within.
From the platform at Amsterdam Centraal, we trudged down the stairs to the hallway that would bring us outside. There are only two ways to exit the station but we were suddenly trapped and confused. New (at least, new to us) barriers had been put up that only allow passengers to exit after scanning the cards that they had purchased to get on the train in the first place. With our Rail Europe passes, we had no such cards.
I sent Pete down to the other side to see if we had missed a step while I waited with the bags. We had not. Passengers weaved around us as we stood in utter confusion until I finally spotted a kiosk labeled ‘help’ in the middle of the barriers. A friendly voice greeted us, and after I explained the situation, the small doors promptly opened and we ushered out. Still shaking our heads at the sheer absurdity of this new system that doesn’t account for train passes, we walked out into the open air of Netherlands’ capital. We stopped for the obligatory selfie in front of the striking Gothic and Renaissance styled facade of the station before finding the tram that would take us to our home for a few days.
(Later, we would discover that emblazoned on the front of our Rail Europe pass is a QR code specifically to be used for exiting within the Netherlands’ train system. We’ll get this whole “travel” thing right one of these days.)
how to ride the rails in Europe
Rail Europe provided us with complimentary passes for this journey. But we have purchased them before on our own and will again!