The news of the paralysis in European communication thanks to the eruption of now the most famous volcano in Europe seemed as absurd as the name of it - Eyjafjallajokull. It was even more so considering I only heard the news once I'd already got to the other end of Europe, having travelled quite simply and painlessly with Czech airlines via Prague. The sky was clear and it was sunny during my four days in the Lithuanian capital. But three and a half hours before I am due to take back off for Paris through that ever blue sky, the airline's website informs me that we'd never be taking off.
What on earth did that mean!?
Hire a car for 2, 500 euros more
One colleague proposes renting a car to get back to France. He had once done the same thing for a France and Spain trip, which had cost him 600 euros (£501). Going to Paris shouldn't cost anymore than 200 euros (£167). The tourist information assistant makes the necessary call to the car hire company for us (for 1, 70 euros or £1.42). Ten minutes later we're looking at a figure to rent the car which seems to have an extra zero added onto it – 2, 000 euros (£1, 670)! We could have a driver for 500 euros (£418) more. What about the champagne?!
Back at the hostel apartment, which we have to check out from within the hour, hope reigns as we surf the Lithuanian railway sites. A train to Warsaw (the only foreign city you can reach from Lithuania by train) is leaving at 22:20. From there it surely has to be the easiest way to continue westwards to Paris. Another colleague from Madrid stays quiet – it would still be another twelve hours to reach the Spanish capital from Paris for him.
No trains to Europe
A few hours later we are slowly advancing to Vilnius central station with suitcases in tow. Once in the office of international liasions, we ask for three tickets. No trains, we're told, as the girl behind the desk utters the only words in English she seems to know – she repeats the same answer to every question we pose. Finally we get it – there'll be no trains, for the entire day. Next stop: bus agency Eurolines. There's a seven-hour bus to Warsaw at 9pm, but good luck finding places. The next one after that goes at 9am the next day. We use the wireless to double check the internet again, and pray that flights can resume instead tomorrow. No certain information on the website. Considering the situation, the best thing to do is to book a room for another night in Vilnius and go for a well-deserved drink. This turns out to be one of the best nights of all our time in Vilnius thus far.
The next morning, direction station, after making sure we could also get bus tickets. 'Three place for Warsaw at 9am please.' 'Three places for 9pm, you mean,' answers the woman with a broad smile. I sense one of my colleagues tensing up. The 9am bus didn't ever exist! The woman doesn't get us, nor do we her.
Back at the train station, we discover that there's a train for Warsaw at midday. I double-check the tickets, making sure nothing can trip us up at the last minute. Breakfast is rung in at the McDonalds around the corner. As I sip my cafe, I take a ponderous glance at how low we've fallen: one colleague, who is accustomed to cultivating onions and lemongrass at his flat in Paris, is tucking heartily into his burger with mustard. At the table next to us we spot an employee from Eurocar, the company which wanted to rent us a car for 2, 000 euros. 'Vilnius is eastern Europe,' the man explains. 'It's more expensive if you want to rent a car in this part of the continent and give it in at another.' I check this later on the internet: renting the same car in France and handing it in Spain indeed costs less than 200 euros. Welcome to a united European Union!
Warsaw: nine hours and one change later
At the information desk we're told that we won't be going anywhere from the Polish capital today. We can leave at 6am the next day for Berlin. In less than a second someone shoves a picture of a dark room under my nose, quoting a price higher than we paid for an apartment for six in Vilnius. Nothing but solidarity in times of crisis! 'Make a decision,' he snarls, 'because I am not staying here forever...'
'Nor am I!' I answer indignantly, heading towards an internet corner. The timetables tell me that a train leaves Berlin for Paris in ten hours...I don't understand anything. We get into the enormous queue for international connections. Maybe another desk will open. Of course, we've been lied to again – there are indeed tickets for 11pm, direction Berlin, arriving at 8am. Full of joy, we decide to go and eat something. The station leads directly to the shopping centre 'Złote tarasy'. Wow I didn't expect that, one of my colleagues exclaims, and suddenly our plans are beginning to look remarkably lighter. European trains have probably never been as international those few days when the volcano restricted air activity in April: we shared a train compartment with a Dane, a German and an Australian who were heading back from Tallinn and Edinburgh. And there were we complaining! Meanwhile in the corridor, English and American people were bonding over their sorrows over a bottle of whisky.
Berlin, nine hours and three changes later
Berlin central station. We're in a lamentable state, so we're delighted to see a clean interior of the station. Travel office, where a woman clearly and precisely indicates which queue we have to get in next. As we fumble our English and German to be understood by the woman, we're distracted by one of her colleagues, collar unbuttoned, who is making an effort to explain something to an Asian woman. The blond employee looks murderous behind his spectactles, regarding his victim as his voice rises higher and he tried not to scream. It reminded me of that 1993 film Falling Down when Michael Douglas has just been fired and divorced and loses his marbles, going on a rampage through the city and killing innocents as he goes. Meanwhile, we're managing to get the last few tickets for Paris. I wonder if I will have enough money to last me until the end of the month. The woman informs us that prices will go down at the weekend. Great! My Spanish colleague however can't pay the exorbitant price, and opts for 60th place on the waiting list of a bus. Another colleague, who is supposed to leave tomorrow for Nepal, has no choice, and I have to get back to Paris for work – we end up buying the tickets.
Paris, seven hours and three changes later
Finally we are able to sleep a bit and use the toilets from the restaurant wagon, which take us through to the end of our epic voyage. Thirty-six hours have passed since we left Vilnius, 54 hours since we first tried to leave Vilnius. Wow, Paris-Vilnius by train?! That must've been great! my welcome committee in Paris squeals. Yes, indeed.