For my Letter M, I chose Maribor in the then Yugoslavia in the late ’80s, which is now part of Slovenia. I told the story of how we were refused entry and escorted back under armed-guard across the border into Austria. Could can read that account here.
The backdoor to the station was locked – oh no, you don’t say, surely not………
Thankfully the front door was open – we turned on the light to reveal two benches, a timetable and a closed ticket window.
The timetable confirmed our fears, eight hours until the first train out of there. We then eyed the benches again, resignedly imagining them as our uncomfortable beds for the night.
Poll had noticed some lights up the hill so we headed that way hoping to find a bar open. After a ten-minute struggle up the steep incline with our rucksacks seemingly gaining in weight as we strained, we reached our goal. There was indeed a bar, right in the middle of a number of houses. Hallelujah!
In fact the bar was a converted house and the drinking area was clearly once a lounge. We gratefully ordered a beer & pickled egg each and slumped onto the sofa.
It was nice and warm, so we hoped that it was one of these stay open until the last man leaves type bars you get on the continent. The sofa was infinitely preferable to the station benches after all.
Sadly our hopes were soon dashed as the surly bar lady tersely informed us that we had to drink up and leave. She resembled an East German discus thrower from the ‘70s and was clearly not open to negotiation, let alone a sneaky after hours half.
We played it out for as long as we could whilst the owner tapped her fingers on the bar tutting loudly. We had outstayed our ‘welcome’ by some stretch, soon having no choice but to load ourselves back up once more to head downhill to our ‘accommodation’.
It was now raining, but thankfully it didn’t take long to get into the dry once more, the heavy rucksacks giving us forward momentum down the hill.
We clambered into our sleeping bags and Poll placed an empty drinks can against the door, supposedly to act as an alarm if anybody else should have the temerity to enter our bedroom.
This alarm was sadly not required as only a couple of moments later we heard voices that grew louder as they approached.
Even though they were Germanic voices, we could tell that they were the slurred voices of drunks and by the sounds of it there were at least three of them…..
The first grubby bearded tramp peered through the window and was soon joined by his three almost identical mates.
The pair of us were clearly on their manor; uninvited guests who would not as it happened, spoil their party. Poll and I looked at each other. Blast, there goes any notion of sleep!
The tramp troupe entered the dry fray each clutching a bottle of schnapps. The stink was almost unbearable, making both of us instantly nauseous and regretting having a second pickled egg!
The obnoxious quartet chose to totally ignore us, lost in their own inebriated world. A noisy, dirty, smelly, drunken world.
We could no longer chance sleep for fear of being robbed blind or worse. Poll stood to his full six-foot plus frame, as if to show he was not to be messed with.
Hurriedly we hatched a plan for a one-hour watch followed by a one-hour kip in rotation. The plan was fatally flawed due to A) a rock hard bench that was not long enough to take a whole body unless you happened to be a flat race jockey & B) the stink and noise coming from the vagrants.
It was gone four by the time the last of the bums fell into a snoring drunken stupor and by that time we were both wide awake, all chance of sleep long since gone.
Instead we viewed the snoring heap of failure before us. As if in uniform, they all had filthy thick grey overcoats, sturdy but well-worn steel-capped black boots, stained jeans, ripped V-neck jumpers, worn out shirts and thick black beards.
We could only wonder what state their underwear must have been in, a thought that was hard to dispel with the smells and involuntary noises emanating from their sweating bodies. Disgusting.
The whole place would probably need fumigating; we surmised that the station staff would need to use a whole aerosol can of air freshener spray at least!
Eventually after three excruciatingly boring & uncomfortable hours and despite there still being over an hour until the train was due, we decided to venture outside, the sub-zero cold being preferable to gas poisoning – at least it had stopped raining.
We soon had the entertainment of the station staff arriving to kick out the unwelcome visitors. This was clearly a daily ritual.
Prodded with a stick, enticed to stand with the offer of a bread roll before eventually after ten-minutes of waking up grunts and stretches, the tramps staggered out once more into their daily routine.
Cue mop, water and the predicted air freshener!
I asked one station-worker why they did not lock at night and he explained that cleaning products were cheaper than repairing broken glass and door frames!
The sight of the early morning train to Graz was one of the most welcome sights I have ever seen. Right on time our escape arrived. Our reward for our endurance was the wonderful luxury of a heated train, takeaway coffee & croissant and ninety-minutes sleep in a compartment all to ourselves. Bliss!
This episode and hundreds more are all contained in my book, On The Beaten Track – Travels In Eastern Europe, available now as ebook or paperback from Amazon.