The Challenge: Set a new world record for visiting the most capital cities in 24 hoursFeatured November 13 Words by Sarah Warwick / Photograph By Victoria Ling
Underneath the sign for Wien HBF, the middle-aged Austrian lady is staring at us with a definite air of mistrust. Around us, commuters dart odd looks in our direction. ‘And who can blame them?' I think, as I look down at my rabbit costume and across at my sister - an incongruous lion gazing up at the departure board. We do look like we're out of our minds.
It's possible we are. After more than 16 hours of travelling, we're preparing for our sixth long-distance hop and I'm so tired I feel like my eyes have been grated. We're unwashed, unrested and distinctly crumpled. How did
we end up here - nearly 1,500km from home - dressed in animal onesies in an Austrian train station?
The simple answer is - like thousands of baked-bean bathers and chicken-nugget eaters before us - we're trying to set a world record. And as fans of Record Breakers, the long-running British TV show that brought the stars of Guinness's big book to the small screen, will remember, it's virtually de rigueur to look like a bit of a tit. Where once we just watched legions of nutters racing toilets or opening beer bottles with foreheads in the hope of getting their names in the record books, now we are, hopefully, about to join them.
I blame that television programme for this whole situation, actually. When my editor asked for volunteers to try and set a record, to tie into our ‘world's greatest issue', I thought it would be easy. As all good kids of the 80s know: “Dedication's what you need.”
Except, as it turned out, I was going to need far more. To try and visit the Most Capital Cities in 24 Hours by Scheduled Transport (ie, bus, train or plane), I'd need flights, InterRail passes, seat reservations, sustenance, entertainment, photographic and video evidence, logbooks and witness statements, a willing companion, two animal costumes and, most of all, the ability to stay on track for a full day and night of public transport. But I'm getting ahead of myself…
00.00 Leaving Paris
‘This must be what sprinters feel like', I think, my stomach knotting as we make our way through Gare du Nord towards the first leg of the mammoth 1,645km journey and clamber on to train numero uno. Dressed in loose-fitting layers for comfort, trainers for speed and bum bags for efficiency, we look more like a pair of middle-aged American tourists on a power walk than world beaters. The world's biggest losers, maybe.
Stopwatch in hand, I run through the route for the umpteenth time. Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest. Over the past weeks, it's become my mantra. Guinness had set us a minimum of six capitals and initially I'd worked out a route of seven, with the aid of various travel experts and Rail Europe's exceedingly useful web-based timetables (raileurope.co.uk). But when the guidelines came through from Guinness (23 pages!), it turned out Amsterdam (where we only had time to get to the airport) wouldn't count.
This first train, the high-speed Thalys, was a no-brainer according to rail-expert Mark Smith, who's the blogger behind The Man in Seat 61. “It's certainly the quickest way to get between Paris and Amsterdam,” he told me on the phone. “It travels at about 300km/h.” Early confidence in high-speed trains like this one was tempered by the realisation that the distance we could cover was constrained by timetabling. In the end, I found the key to devising a 24-hour plan was to use the speedy trains of western Europe, a flight to quickly connect to the east and a sleeper train to keep going overnight.
But enough about the boring bit. This sweaty-palmed moment was what I'd been waiting for. We settle into our seats, fingers poised over ‘start' on our stopwatches. Then, with a lurch of train and stomach, we're off!
01:30 A quick stop in Brussels
Our world-record attempt soon garners lots of interest. They're well used to celebrity types on this train though, according to Dutch train manager Thijs, who's happy to name drop as he signs our logbook. “We get everyone,” he says. “Lots of stars: government officials, famous singers. Even the King of Belgium takes Thalys.”
That doesn't surprise. With its purple, velveteen seats, free wi-fi and landscape-smearing speeds, it's a suitably regal way to travel. We settle back and kill our first hours with a DVD of The Wire and card games (the first of many) as the fields of France give way to Flanders and - impossibly quickly - we're in Brussels.
Guinness's guidelines state that, if we don't take an adjudicator with us (at a cost of thousands of pounds), we need video footage as well as witnesses and snaps from every stop. You could say this makes it the perfect challenge for the Facebook generation: taking a succession of international selfies. So Thijs and his colleagues look on as we throw ourselves on to the platform to take photos, even lending their hats for us to pose in. Back on the train, they point out the landmarks of Brussels as we pass - the Atomium and gold-domed Justitiepaleis (Palace of Justice) - and debate with us a crackpot scheme to ‘pop in' to Amsterdam's main station to take our total up to seven capitals. Eventually, we decide it's too risky time-wise, so we wave our friendly helpers goodbye at Schiphol station and head off towards eastern Europe.
04:43 Arrive at Amsterdam airport
As surreal moments go, our brief time at Schiphol must be up there. Going through the new, full-body security machines, my sister sets off a series of bleeps, her scan revealing a red mark on its lower abdomen. When she asks what's caused the problem, a member of airport staff jokes, “That's your penis”. Is this an example of the eccentric Dutch wit? Almost adding injury to insult, we overestimate the time we have for dinner. ‘Go to Gate' flashes up mid-meal, leaving us running for the plane, due to take off at 5.05pm, my sister munching Caesar salad from a paper bag, latte cup gripped in my teeth.
A few hours later, it's dark when we arrive in Prague, and that's not the only contrast. As we hop a local bus into town - no cabs allowed, as per The Rules - the eastern European architecture and trademark trams are unmistakable, especially as our crazed bus driver insists on swerving into the tracks of the latter. We're relieved to jump off at Praha hlavní nádraží, the main station, where we have two hours to kill. Time to stretch our transport-cramped limbs on a whistle-stop tour of the Old Town, complete with requisite Charles Bridge snapshot and a very welcome half-litre of Budvar at Café Tramvaj (32 Václavské náměstí, Nové Město), a static bar in a tram in historic Wenceslas Square. And breathe.
09:39 Pulling out of Prague
The EuroNight Metropol leaves Berlin at 6pm bound for Austria. Jumping on in Prague at one minute past midnight, midway through the journey, we're lucky to get a six-seat cabin all to ourselves for the six-hour hop to Vienna. My sister's insistence on bringing the animal onesies pays off when we clamber into them for warmth on the cold train. Our best impressions of a lion and rabbit even win a fan - a Czech 20-something asks if we've seen the Hungarian cult film Kontroll, featuring a girl on a train in a bear costume. She's keen to get one, so we tell her where to go in London (you can pay us later, Primark).
Tired, yet wired, I stare out at the dark Czech countryside, rewarded with the odd flash of floodlit Bohemian castle, until the rocking of the train lulls me into a half-sleep.
16:01 Arrival in Vienna
Waking up in a new country gives us a tiny taste of what life is like for the legion of InterRailers who hop up and down these lines each day. It's a right of passage for many people - a gap-yah staple of the past 30 years. It must be great, we agree, to jump off into fresh air and fresh adventures each day. If only we had time...
We hop off in Vienna, right on schedule, dull and sleepy at 6am. A quick change train-wise leaves no time for a quick change clothes-wise - hence the odd looks. “I guess onesies haven't got here yet,” my trend-worshipping sister says, shaking her head.
And that's where we encounter our first delay - on the train to Bratislava. Twenty toe-tapping, watch-checking minutes ensue. At the mercy of the trains, we grab a cheese toastie and watch the commuters. Our own mornings spent travelling to work feel a long way away. This is brought home as my sister remembers we've not even drunk any water since “three countries ago”.
18:07 Beyond Bratislava
Thoroughly over it by now, we've still three trains to go. The toilets get progressively worse with each one and I enter them clutching my hand-sanitiser like a nun with her rosary. One has a sign advising against drinking the water. There's no need for the sign.
We hop back into Austria to tiny Parndorf, where the only signs of life are wind farms turning peacefully in the morning light. Even on a hard bench, it's difficult not to drift off. Our final swap is at Györ, on the Hungarian border - a 10-minute dash to the Intercity Express. We're informed by the droopy-moustached guard we need to pay a €10 stipend, but by this point even counting money seems impossible. We're like a study in sleep deprivation: jangled nerves, watering eyes, aching bones.
Still, there are charming views to be enjoyed, as the sun bakes down on the Hungarian countryside. Local village stations are crowded with bright flowers. Towns flash past: brick chimneys, red roofs and Soviet-style buildings with revolutionary façades. As at dozens of points on this trip, my feet itch to get off and explore. it's frustrating, but at least now the end is nigh.
21:27 Budapest main station
We made it! A new world record is set! Six capital cities in under 22 hours, subject to verification from Guinness. We take our final photos and videos. Laugh, hug, high-five, manage not to cry - and marvel that a record that mostly required us to sit or lie on public transport could leave us feeling like we've gone six rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson.
Our names will go into the record books - alongside Gary Eccles (258 baked beans eaten with a cocktail stick in five minutes), Aaron Caissie (17 spoons balanced on the face) and Ilker Yilmaz (milk squirted 3m from the eye) - and it's been a fantastic adventure. Would we do it again? I'd love to make it seven or eight, it must be possible. But for now, more transport would be madness.
We've lunched in Paris, had coffee in Brussels, dined in Amsterdam, hit the pub in Prague, woken up in Vienna, breakfasted in Bratislava - clearly, it must be time for lunch in Budapest. With the enthusiasm of people whose task is firmly behind them, we shoulder our bags and head to our digs: Brody Residences (brodyhouse.com), a brand-new boutique apartment block in the Jewish Quarter, where we flop on the bed and think about what to do next. A shower, certainly. A nap, yes. And food. But then… Well, we've never been in Budapest before. And there is that hop-on, hop-off bus….