Inter-railing is such a great way to visit Europe. It is surprisingly cheap, and there is no better feeling than to wake up wondering which country you’ll be falling asleep in next. The Inter-rail pass comes in different price bands, according to how long it’s for and how many travel days you require. Seeing Europe by train is also a rather charming thing to do, as you can get stunning views of Europe through the window, and avoid the stress of check-ins and security controls and all the exhausting waiting that goes with airports and flying. There is something quite sophisticated in saying you are touring Europe by train, too.
Of course, it does have its disadvantages, the obvious one being that trains can sometimes be slower than planes, and it is easy to get angry just at the mention of another train after too long on one. I, however, got to quite enjoy the train journeys, seeing different types of trains and cynically comparing their cleanliness and efficiency to other countries. But these are all trivial, insignificant whines when you realise how much freedom and adventure can be gained by inter-railing.
To finally convince you to think about going for it, I will relate our own tale, broken into two scintillating, rip-roaring parts. Should you decide to do something similar, hopefully our tale can lead you to a few ideas of where to go, what to do and hopefully avoiding the silly mistakes we occasionally (okay regularly) made.
First though I should give a brief introduction before getting to the story proper. We settled on a holiday like this because we couldn’t agree on a particular place to go, so ingeniously decided to incorporate everyone’s ideas into one big trip. The rail pass we opted for was 10 travel days within 22 days.
Travel arrangements made, our next thing to consider was accommodation. You can usually romp up to a place and find any free room, but, being slightly cautious, we used a hotel and hostel comparison site to book all our rooms in advance. The site had the advantage of having numerous user reviews for each place, so you had a vague idea what you were walking into, which proved a major advantage, and each place required a small deposit, the rest to be paid upon arrival. Our criteria for choosing places was essentially price, location and if possible security, in that order, and, give or take a few examples, we largely succeeded in fulfilling these.
Our final consideration was our overall budget. Having gone for the cheapest travel and accommodation options, we had a rough starting point for a budget. After much wrangling we agreed to aim within the vicinity of £800 for everything. This seems quite low for 23 days of travelling, but we were determined to be extremely budget-conscious in order to prolong our trip as much as possible. And with all that worked out, we headed off.
PART ONE: THE WAY OUT
The trip began inauspiciously with an alarm screaming inches from my ear at a time of day I didn’t even know existed. From there we journeyed on a train, the Underground and eventually a bus, which then proceeded to put itself on a ferry. The start of a trip is always the most aggravating, and this was no exception. Our aim was to get to Amsterdam in the cheapest way possible, which led us to the Megabus, which cost a startling £4 from the centre of London, and was almost cheaper than walking. This seemed a great idea at the time. It did, however, take 14 hours to get there in some very cramped, rickety and uncomfortable conditions. But at that price it would be churlish to complain too much; not that it stopped us at the time of course. We eventually reached Amsterdam, in a condition not too much worse than when we left, to begin our journey.
After a solid day of travel we immediately decided to get lost. The optimistically named Hostel Utopia succeeded in eluding us for a good 45 minutes. It was typical of most of the buildings in Amsterdam; tall and narrow, with worryingly steep staircases. These proved quite a challenge, especially when carrying a bulging, bloated bag. One thing I learnt is that it is better to fall backwards rather than forwards, as you usually land on something soft; probably the person following you up the stairs. Otherwise you crash face first into a step, then slide unceremoniously down until you reach a turn or the floor, whichever is sooner. The room was sparse and rather undecorated, with someone’s kitchen looking straight into the room, but at least we had eight beds between the three of us, which was probably beneficial in some way.
Amsterdam was a bit of a disappointment in the end as we ran out of things to do, despite only being there for a night and a day. This way mainly down to the fact we were on a budgie’s budget, but entertainment, particularly during the day, seemed to be thin on the ground. There was the unique architecture to enjoy, a result of property being taxed according to the area of land used rather than size, and several very busy art galleries and museums we didn’t really have time to queue for. We also went on a boat tour of the canals, which was good, although Budgie Alan succeeded in sleeping through all of it. The prices were familiarly high and the weather, an annoyingly persistent drizzle, was equally familiar. What was unfamiliar and alien though was the madness of bikes; every fence, lamppost and spare space had a dozen bikes leant against it. It makes sense for a narrow city with few streets wide enough to accommodate cars, but I didn’t see too many people actually cycling, which was strange. It must be said that Amsterdam has lost a bit of its sophistication for such a historic city, as it has morphed into a place for two things; the famous red-light district and the equally famous “coffee” houses. If neither of these things interest you there are more interesting cities in Europe to go.
Overall though Amsterdam served its purpose as a gateway into the rest of Europe, as well as offering some amusing moments and interesting surroundings. We dashed to the station as the sun crept below the horizon to retrieve our bags, deposited in lockers there earlier (a top tip, as it beats lugging them round all day) and discovered that our sleeper train to Warsaw was cancelled. After a few, very brief moments of hysteria, followed by a longer moment of dejection, we made our way to Utrecht, caught a different train (although I have my suspicions it was the same one that had apparently been cancelled) and settled down for a long night.
A quick sentence or two is needed regarding sleeper trains. They are quite a good idea to travel significant distances in some comfort, and sleeping is a commendable way to pass the time. But they do have some drawbacks, chiefly being that you do have to pay a bit extra to reserve a place, even with an Inter-rail pass. It also depends on what sort of berth you go for. For the Amsterdam to Warsaw train we chose couchettes; small, narrow things stacked three on top of each other, with another three on the other side. Other people coming and going can be quite disruptive, and the trains constantly shake, which I found quite comforting but others may find annoying. There are more comfortable ones available but predictably the price increases, though it’s worth checking because the prices vary considerably from country to country.
Amsterdam boat tour
Bikes and canals
Warsaw, our stopping point for a few hours until our next train, was a remarkable change and quite a surprise. Having heard some negative things about the region in the news prior to our journey I was slightly anxious about what it would actually be like. We emerged from the carriage to discover a modern and vibrant city. The sun burned over a scene of large, modern buildings, affluent people and American shops and brands (globalisation grrrr). I had, a bit stupidly, half-expected to find a city in the grip of a slight post-communist hangover, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself mistaken. Poland was geared up for Euro 2012, which did mean that many of the beauty spots had been cordoned off for the fans later in the day, but that didn’t detract from the charm of the place. Unfortunately we had to move on quickly, but it certainly left a positive impression for the time we were there. The weather was also astonishing; I hadn’t realised Poland was so warm in summer. Trekking round in jeans was a sweltering experience to punish me for not checking weather reports first.
Another train journey brought us to the magnificent Krakow, which proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. It has the ingenious and oddly pleasing layout that many medieval European cities would once have had: it is all built around a large central plaza, which is the centre and hub of the city, and made navigating a foreign place perfectly simple; need food, drink, a night out, something to do, or a train, simply head to the plaza and follow the signs from there. The plaza itself is a beacon for tourism, and is crammed with restaurants, cafes and shops.
Krakow also boasts an impressive and picturesque castle, just outside the city centre, commanding great views over the river Vistula, which is definitely worth visiting. As it is a city rich in history, there is a lot to do there in the day. The night is also quite entertaining, with a variety of bars and drinking holes, from modern trendy bars to quirky basements. The local beers are delightfully diverse as well as cheap.
We found our next resting place, Hostel Deco, to be the best of the trip: spacious rooms, comfortable beds, showers you could go in without having to scare off the marauding packs of bacteria and little creatures. It also had good character, sturdy lockers and friendly staff, as well as free breakfast, all for a pretty low price: Ideal, in other words. On the topic of prices Poland is excellent for those on stringent budgets. The food and drink was very cheap, especially the beer, and your money goes a lot further than it does in euro countries.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is situated nearby, so on our second day we elected to go on an excursion to the infamous former death camp. A short and perilous journey with a reckless minibus driver brought us to the site of one of the most notorious events in human history.
Auschwitz was absolutely teeming with people from all over the world. The tour groups were quite large, but our guide was extremely well informed and interesting. The press of people on such a hot day made a significant impression on everyone there; we all struggled simply walking round clutching bottles of water, so thinking about what it must have been like in the same conditions for malnourished people forced to work was quite a shock. The other lasting impression was of the scale of everything there. The two remaining camps were vast, requiring another short bus hop to traverse them. The exhibits also helped to hammer home the sense of scale; banks of human hair, collections of personal possessions and walls of photos of those incarcerated there were all huge and deeply disturbing. The absolute cruelty and scale of the whole thing was unequivocally realised when looking round, and, while I cannot say it was a good day out, it was certainly worthwhile. The surviving camps are well maintained and the place is impeccably run, so I implore you to visit if you are near.
Overall Poland was a pleasant surprise. We went during the Euros, and the media had been running stories of gangs roaming the streets, and of police worse than the gangs. But instead we found organised, friendly, clean cities geared up for the football and very welcoming to tourists. This, combined with great weather, natural beauty, inexpensive food and drink, and a rich history and culture, went a long way to endearing the place to us.
Euro 2012 Warsaw
Auschwitz camp B
We took our second sleeper train to Hungary. This was a better experience than the last; due to the difference in currency we could easily afford some more salubrious berths this time, meaning more space, no outside disturbances and complimentary food and drink.
First impressions perhaps weren’t the best. I drew back the blind to find what could be diplomatically be described as tenements. It is probably fair to say that the outskirts of Budapest are not the wealthiest in the world. Numerous concrete buildings that were squat, ugly beasts, started to loom as we neared the station, and we had to work hard to allay any pessimism.
The train station was no more promising, so we bravely decided to find a shopping centre, and plan our move from a Starbucks (yay globalisation). This, obviously, is not a great thing to do when in a new, exciting and different city, but in our defence we were tired and had seen some pretty worrying things since waking up, such as a woman relieving herself in full view in the middle of the train station and no one batting an eyelid. But a coffee and some cake later and we were back to our usual intrepid selves. We briefly stocked up with the local currency, which was a thrill since I was almost a millionaire there, and set out.
Having thoroughly explored the metro and tram networks we reached our hostel, which turned out to be an abandoned school, complete with desks and lockers, with a few beds in the corner and on a mezzanine. I actually found this all great; it was quirky and different, quiet and very spacious, since our room was a whole classroom. That is until I realised the showers were the horrible type you find in any school, stained and needing a button to be pressed every ten seconds to get the boiling water to slam into your face. But you can’t have everything, and it was cheap and fun.
The centre of Budapest painted an affluent, buzzing scene, with green areas, grand buildings and statues adorning every corner. We were unfortunately only there for a short time, so we couldn’t fully appreciate the differences of Buda and Pest in depth, but the nightlife was thriving and during the day there seemed to be a lot of things to do, which is a great combination. Plus the weather was beautiful, and even the centre was cheap for food and drink, which is always an endearing feature.
However, the problem that most will inevitably experience at some point chose to happen here, and that is of friends becoming aggravated by each other’s incessant company and falling out. It is sad that my overriding memory of such a great place is sitting at a table watching my two budgie friends glare and swear at one another for hours on end, over some trivial matter of what was said on twitter. I soon found I could get along fine by leaving them to it and walking off to drink and sulk on my own. However, those two always argue, and continued to do so, and an apology on twitter later made it all fine, although it ruined what promised to be a good evening. But never mind, no one fell out with me at least. I suppose I can be proud of that.
Our visit to Zagreb was also fleeting, but was another place that seemed pleasant, especially in the centre. The people were friendly, particularly the hostel owner, who very insistently told me to visit the Museum of Broken Relationships (why just me I don’t know), and we enjoyed our all too brief stay there. The weather was outrageously hot at noon, so we hastily took shelter and spent a lot of time at a restaurant, eating and sampling the local beers. The sun did limit the amount we could visit, but it was a nice change of pace from the more hectic charging around the other cities we’d been to so far. The buildings were elegant with their terracotta tiles, and I was impressed by the amount of green areas dotted around; how anything managed to stay green in that heat I have no idea. I also have an indecipherable love for any city with trams, and Zagreb had loads, so I was happy. Plus the hostel owner told me no one can make you pay for them and they are free to access, which is nice.
The hostel, a little out of the way, was clean and sufficient, although the night was awful; the temperature was insultingly high, my pillow felt like a decaying cat and Alan decided, no doubt delirious from the heat, to talk in his sleep, so it was not the most revitalising night I’ve ever had. Fortunately I had a long train ride to try, and fail, to sleep through the next day.
Our journey to the Croatian coastal city of Rijeka was a great example of the beauty of train travel, as the scenery flying by the window often defied any superlatives I can think of. From crystal lakes to the sun setting behind the mountains and then slipping beneath the sea, it was startlingly beautiful. It was also a little fraught, as the train inexplicably split in half at one point, and we had no idea which half we needed to be in. I encouraged the others to take a different half to me, so at least someone would get there and I would be guaranteed a little peace, but to no avail. There are a few things some of the trains have which I really like, too; the use of old fashioned compartments or berths, essentially little private boxes, is fantastically charming. I know some people will say it’s an inefficient use of space but who cares, and who likes people who care about efficient use of space anyway? Also, the windows open half way down so you can stick your head and most of your torso out are equally fantastic. Okay, probably someone once in a while will get killed (so don’t do it just because I did), but it really cools you down and you can appreciate the scenery better when most of you is no longer in the train (thinking back it does sound dangerous, so obviously try and remain in the train at all times etc.).
After such a great journey, we were quite worried when we stumbled into what appeared to be a cargo port, undoubtedly because of Matt’s poor planning. I wanted to get straight back on the train and leave, as did Alan, but Matt, ever the optimist, declared Rijeka the best place he’d ever been and skipped off happily. Optimists are very annoying most of the time but occasionally they have their uses, and I grudgingly followed. We spent the next few minutes lost, but finally found our hostel, which was at the top of a concrete block of flats, and boasted 14 beds in one room which was definitely not designed for 14 beds. If I thought I was hot in Zagreb, I was in for an eye opener. At least there were a few fans going nearby, to move the boiling air around. Luckily I was too exhausted from my earlier sleep deprivation to survive much of the night, and comatosely slept regardless of the oven-like conditions.
During our stay we did locate a nice rocky inlet to bathe in the warm sea, which was good, and the scenery, of blue seas and rolling mountains, was great, once you could see past the container ships. We did come across the legacy of the region’s recent history, the break-up of Yugoslavia. We found a plaza, with crosses and concrete blocks scattered across it, and the number 49 sprayed ominously across the floor. There was no other explanation or markings offered.
On our final day, using our ingenuity, we came across an old castle, situated high above the city and commanding sweeping views over the buildings and the Adriatic, onto the mountains opposite. It was a stunning spectacle, which even the hideous concrete tenements, littered over the hillside, could not detract from. The castle and the views it offered were the highlight of Croatia for us. The tranquillity, the warmth and the natural beauty left a lasting impression. Once we had broken away from the city to the hilltops above, Rijeka transformed into a lovely destination. My overriding memory of Rijeka is of steps, as we had to scale a ridiculous number in order to reach our castle haven. But it was worth it.
View from the train
castle and tenements
Steps. So many steps
Next week will be Part Two and the Way Back.