Day 1 of the Ultimate Train Challenge: Total, complete, miserable, abject failure (#utc11) 37

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São Bento train station in Porto Portugal

the trains arrive through this tunnel to São Bento train station

During the month of September, as I hope most of you that follow along with this website know, I will be joining Jeannie the Nomadic Chick and Nora the Professional Hobo on the Ultimate Train Challenge.

One month. Lisbon, Portugal to Saigon, Vietnam. All by trains, mostly by and Real Russia, U.K. Should be interesting.

The three of us are going to be updating our journeys on each of our websites and also on the blog on the Ultimate Train Challenge site. I will also be writing some brief posts on this site, but beware, as I will have very limited internet, they are destined to be quick hitters, so forgive me in advance if they aren’t the best work I’ve done.

For instance, I am posting this one up from the free wifi outside McDonald’s in the Barcelona Sants train station as my battery runs down under 10 minutes of time, since I can’t see a plug anywhere around here and there wasn’t one on the train here.

Day 1 – Lisbon to Porto, then on to Bordeaux

As I outlined on the UTC website yesterday, the route I decided to try for the first 5-6 days of the challenge was going to revolve around wine. First to Porto for some locally famous sparkling wine and a glass of port. Then up to Bordeaux, perhaps the most famous wine region in the world. Then over to Italy and back to Burgundy and up to Champagne.

Day 1 didn’t exactly go as planned.

francesinha sandwich from porto portugal

the francesinha sandwich... I didn't have

I got to Porto around 1 p.m. and made a beeline to the São Bento train station in the center of town, where I was going to buy my overnight ticket to Bordeaux, leave my big backpack in left luggage, grab a huge francesinha sandwich for lunch, as recommended by my new Portuguese foodie friend, Célia Pedroso of Eat Portugal, then walk across the river and do a quick tour of one of the many port wine cellars.

The only part of that plan I was successful on was figuring out how to leave my backpack in the lockers at São Bento station.

I got there, put my bag in the locker, waited in two very long lines for about 20 minutes that I thought might be for the train tickets I needed and then decided to just hop a quick 4 minute train back to the other station I’d arrived at earlier, since the lines there were much shorter, to buy my ticket.

When I got there, I got in the line I needed to buy an international ticket behind two groups of three people also buying tickets. It was about 1:45 p.m. at that point. An hour and a half later, I still hadn’t made it to the front of the line.

Obviously I don’t speak Portuguese, so I have no idea what took these two groups of people so long to buy their tickets. The second group took almost a full hour to buy one train ticket. At one point, the woman in the group of three was in tears – I have no idea what would drive someone to tears buying a train ticket, but she had the look in her eyes like she was going to fall into the pit of hysterics.

The only question was whether she was going to be hysterical first, or whether one of us waiting in line behind her was going to beat her to it.

murals in São Bento train station Porto Portugal

the beautiful murals in São Bento train station -- about all I got to see of Porto


Those of us in line were sighing, stomping our feet, looking over the shoulders of those three at the counter, sitting on the ground – yes, I am sure I was more than a little over the top, but seriously… were they trying to route themselves to Vietnam, all in one visit to the ticket counter?!

I’ve never experienced an hour wait for something that should be so simple.

When I finally got to the front of the line, I was told that there was no space available on the overnight train to Bordeuax, so the best I could do, in order to keep moving, was book a ticket back to Lisbon and on to Madrid, where I arrived this morning. I then took a train to Barcelona, where I am now. I think I am going to try to sneak into France on local trains and just wing it.

The new theme of my journey.

I have a lot more options of routes from here than from Portugal, so I am still going to try to make it to Bordeaux in the next 24 hours. Or I will stop in Andora and change my plan to “wine, plus small countries.” Who knows.

I was incredibly frustrated yesterday, which isn’t a good way to start a journey like this. Basically, all I got to see of Porto was the really nice train station and a quick view of part of the town and the River Douro from the train as I came in. No time for any sparking wine, no time for a sandwich, no time for any port wine.

But even in the midst of a really horrible start to this whole adventure, once I got back on the train to Lisbon, put some good music on my iPod and opened up my Kindle to read some of the Winston Churchill biography I am working on right now… a small bit of peace came back over me.

I love trains.

river duoro in porto portugal

best view I got of Porto... from the train window leaving. I will be back.

A quick mention, because I do want people to know that we are also doing this bit of craziness to raise some money for a good cause — Eurail is going to be kind enough to donate to our charity for every ticket bought through the links on the Ultimate Train Challenge site — they have been a great sponsor. Follow us on Twitter with the hashtag #utc11. We really want your feedback as we try to sort this all out, day by day.

And one other note from my brief stay in Portugal. Our fabulous sponsors, Hostelbookers, set us up in perhaps the best hostel I have ever stayed at in all my travels. Rossio Patio Hostel is a brand new hostel in Lisbon that is …. inside a train station. So damn cool.

Rossio Patio Hostel common room Lisbon Portugal

the common room of the Rossio Patio Hostel

The owner is an architect, which is obvious the moment you walk inside. It is much more on par with a quality three star hotel than the hostel environment I am more used to traveling in. Frankly, I couldn’t recommend a place more highly and since he offered Jeannie, Nora or I a chance to work there in exchange for a place to stay when we return…..

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

37 thoughts on “Day 1 of the Ultimate Train Challenge: Total, complete, miserable, abject failure (#utc11)

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      well, given that I made this challenge to be a bit crazy, I don’t suppose I should be surprised when… it is 😉

  • Kelsey

    When I was in France this summer I heard people trying to book a whole summer’s worth of travel in one visit to the desk. Truly insane! I guess some people really, really don’t like any uncertainty at all in their travels. How boring.

    • Holgs

      No, they’re the ones who’ve experienced booking French trains last minute & realise that the line up in French booking offices is *always* that long!

      • Kelsey

        I never, ever pre-booked a train in France in the almost 3 months I was there, and I never had to wait more than 15 minutes in line. I always showed up no more than an hour before the train I intended to take and never had a problem getting a ticket in a timely manner.

  • Lauren

    You’re so adorable 🙂 You should have gone INSIDE the McDonalds, had a double cheeseburger, and your day would have instantly been better 🙂

  • Célia

    I’m really sorry to read this and that you were so unlucky in Porto. But as the saying goes bad starts have happy endings…

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Celia, it was great to meet you in Lisbon. No worries about my small misfortune. It just makes for good fodder for stories. I will be back in lovely Portugal in 2012 for sure!

  • Dyanne@TravelnLass

    I think you had a perfectly FINE start on your journey. I mean, “plans” when traveling are MEANT to be broken, yes? And besides, your mishaps on day 1 – made for a perhaps a far more entertaining story.

    And that gloriously beautiful São Bento train station to dally in – simply frosting on the travel mishap cake!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      That was a truly lovely station. I should have just sat there for my 20 or so minutes I had and taken more photos, but wanted to at least PRETEND to see some of Porto by walking around a bit.

  • jenjenk

    aaahhh…what a good reminder for me that things don’t always go as planned and to roll with the punches! good job at keeping everything in perspective!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Fortunately, I live a life of rolling with the punches, so all shall work out in the end.

  • Phil

    Sounds like a rough day, but I love your attitude at the end of it, once you’re back on the train. A little reading, music, window watching – sounds good to me. Hope the 2nd day goes smoother!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Second day was better and the third day will get me to Bordeaux… so life does not suck.

  • kiwivic

    LOL, what a shame to miss Porto but the train station looks stunning! A nicely timed reality check, your trip sounds fantastic, I look forward to following it

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I suppose I need a few more life reality checks. Haven’t had a bad travel day in a while. Needed one, I bet.

  • Jack

    Bad start for you…but, forgive me for saying, enjoyable for us following.

    It’s a mystery how some queues can move slower than the proverbial snail’s pace. I once waiting 30 mins to order a coffee in Tenerife Norte airport. There were two pèople in front of me and all they bought was coffee and a cake. How can anyone stretch these things out for so long?

    Looking forward to the next chapter 🙂

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I am a fairly patient guy, but lines drive me batty. I can totally understand the term “going postal.” Then again, I think that is for the people on the other side of the counter.

  • Andrea

    That is such a shame!!! No Port wine??? I want to pound those people who take forever at the train counters as well. I never understand why European train and bus station counters don’t have a special line for refunds, problems, etc. Hope the next leg of your journey is less painful

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I know. No wine. Damn it. I shall make up for that tonight in Bordeaux. Getting a room and everything, so I can blow it out for a night and a day.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I soooooo wish you would have been there. I bet you would have said something. And then more something. And then more. 😉

  • Priscilla

    I know you feel disappointed with all the waiting in lines, but soon you will be in Bordeaux so who cares! One taste of the nectar of the Gods and you’ll forget all that stuff.

    There better be some left for my next trip to France!

    Here’s hoping the rest of your train challenge is line free…


  • Lily

    Hi Michael,

    Sounds like an awesome and zen-testing first day.

    “I have no idea what would drive someone to tears buying a train ticket, but she had the look in her eyes like she was going to fall into the pit of hysterics.” <– That cracks me up because I've seen something similar happen, except it was in Florence.

    I had no idea how complex the various train/booking systems are in the different countries in Europe until I got here.

    – Lily

  • Skott

    Although I KNOW other travellers have days like these, it is always nice to hear about them…sometimes shit just happens, and there is nothing you can do about it….love the “follow the wine route” idea….

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Well, I didn’t end of fully managing the “wine route,” but I think I did OK regardless. And if some stuff didn’t go wrong sometimes…. there wouldn’t be enough good stuff to write about, right?

  • Cathryn Cross

    I want to pound those people who take forever at the train counters as well. Well, I didn’t end of fully managing the “wine route,” but I think I did OK regardless. Things can only get better! NEVER!!

  • Ashlee Young

    Fortunately, I live a life of rolling with the punches, so all shall work out in the end. I suppose I need a few more life reality checks.

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