On Margate Sands. 

Today I am off to Margate to meet my Nan who is visiting there on a coach trip with her social club. Whilst she is travelling several hours to get here, I’m just popping a little along the coast on the train for a few quid return. So. My question here is: Is Margate worth a visit? Either for £3.80 return, or a few hours stuck in a coach enduring (though she seems to enjoy it) bingo. 

The title comes from T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘the wasteland’ where:

“On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect

Nothing.”

 

I’m not going to go into an analysis of this here, but even for someone who hasn’t taught lectures on it and seminars and spoken to reading groups (yes. I know. I’m very cool) it’s probably clear that this isn’t an overly positive happy reference. ‘Nothing with nothing. ‘Dirty hands’ etc. 
Well, does this have a resonance with Margate today? Others seem to think so. Or, at least, did think so.

Take this article for example: 

https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/09/ts-eliot-waste-land-margate

Boarded up windows and a complete lack of inspiration. Since then, however, the town has seen lots of money pumped into it and a regeneration. The (new) old town is quaint with (new) old English pubs where sawdust strategically adorns the stools and floor and the local guest ales scream tradition and greatness. However; this alone is enough to scare me off entering today as well as the fact that antique shops in this area are selling simple old deck chairs for 45 pounds(!!!!) making me question the cost of lunch… and lunch is on me. So. Onwards we go… 

… To the pier! The pier is full of eateries and bars with the great added bonus of having communal seating – meaning one of the group can get a salad from one end, another can get cheese smothered fries from a different shop and the third person can get a local ale (or two) from the pub and skip the wasted carbs of solids. Then of course there’s the view out from this seating. It’s lovely. It’s sand, it’s sea, it’s little boats, its sunsets, its birds soaring. It’s the coast. You can sit here for hours of relaxation with a pint connecting nothing with nothing as you simply enjoy your surroundings and detach yourself from the world’s stresses. See what I did there? I twisted the words and made them positive. Isn’t English literature fun? 

If you want to laze on golden sand and enjoy the sun and go for a refreshing, invigorating, English swim and have ice cream or fish and chips whilst stared at intimidatingly by seagulls then be my guest. Margate appears the perfect destination for this and there hundreds doing just this today. 

This isn’t for me though. I’m more likely to be up on the pier with the raised up view and the pint wondering after a while if there is anything more to see as I get a little bored. And now that I’ve had lunch up here with my Nan I am wondering just this. Should I just go home now? Or is there other stuff to see whilst I’m here? 

Well, there is other stuff! Of a sort. There are footpaths that seem to stretch all along the Kent coast meaning I could get from here along to other haunts like Ramsgate or Whitstable. But it’s half 4 and I only have 12% battery. So not today. There’s also the Turner Contemporary gallery which has a fabulous view out to sea from the safety of its inside cafe. Fully recommended for a winter’s day. All the food is local. And the delightfully camp chap behind the counter is always a charmer. The gallery itself can also be wandered around for free with rotating exhibitions occasionally worth looking at. Sadly, today they are not worth looking at. And I’m out of here by 4:36 – Which included a stop at the toilets and a perusal of the gift shop. 

There are also a few quaint streets around the old town worth a stroll with nice old buildings and the like and coffee shops etc away from the coast. 

So maybe this is indeed a destination centred on the beach and its views. But then, it’s the seaside… so I guess this is in fact ok! The beach is clean, the water is the colour English coastal water should be – greeny bluey brown, and there are plenty of places to eat and drink with coastal views. For my £3.80 I am more than pleased! 👍🏻. For the price and access from Canterbury I’d give it a 4/5. Travelling from further afield for a day trip then I’d say there are better places. But if you’re already holidaying nearby or if you’re in London and want a day at the coast then here is perfectly good. 3.5/5. 

HOWEVER if you are fortunate enough to come on a day with a gorgeous sunset then this is a 5/5 star destination! Check this out! 

So there we have it :). Next month I’ll be having a similar day meeting Nan for her coach trip to Ramsgate. So keep your eyes peeled for a similar post of there. 

Peace out, 

Matt. 

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Ibiza: an island with a lot to offer

Whenever the Spanish island of Ibiza is mentioned, it is difficult to dissociate it with images of hordes of drunken, drugged up young people jumping around in clubs and sprawling on the beach in all their pink sunburnt youthfulness. Ibiza is of course famed for its clubs, of which it has several world-renowned ones, like Pacha, and for the excess which goes with it. But since reaching the lofty age of 25, clubs and all that stuff have lost any appeal they once had with me (if they ever did, I’ve never been too sure about them).

As my girlfriend is from Ibiza I have visited the island several times now, in all the seasons, and I’ve made an effort to see the other side to the island that is so often ignored, and discovered that this hot, humid, pleasingly green island is rich in history and blessed with great natural beauty (which everyone, from tourists to developers seems fairly determined to destroy). It has a lot to offer a traveller who is interested in an experience that won’t leave your head ringing like it had been used to chime the bells of a cathedral.

First of all, exploring Ibiza off-season is quite a strange experience. From June until September the island, and especially the towns of Ibiza and San Antonio, burst into life, but in the other months many of the shops, restaurants, bars and hotels shut up shop and curl up into blissful hibernation. The streets are pretty empty and the atmosphere is sleepy, and it offers a great opportunity to explore the towns and countryside unmolested. From my experiences, late September or mid-spring are ideal times to visit, as the crowds have dissipated but it is warm enough to enjoy the beaches and sea, and most of the places are still open. Take a walking or cycling tour of the hills in the island’s interior in spring to enjoy the lovely blossom colours, while the ground is carpeted in striking yellow flowers. It’s a good time to explore as there are very few cars, and most of the reckless rental cars with drivers unaccustomed to driving in the right hand side that plague the summer have moved on.

Ibiza’s rich history is also there to be appreciated. It has passed through the hands of, among others, the Phoenecians, the Romans, the Muslims, Catalans, and Castilian Spanish, and they have all in some way left their mark. The town of Ibiza has a Phoenician necropolis which can be explored: there is always something to be gleaned about a civilisation by seeing how they treated their dead, so it’s worth visiting. Meanwhile, the necropolis sits in the shadow of Dalt Vila, with its large defensive structures sprawling high over the town, and can be seen from all around. Its streets and structures take you through some of the story of Ibiza. Developed by the Muslims who ruled the island, it was conquered by the Catalans, whose breach through the walls has been saved and preserved. They, and later the Spanish, built the battlements and bastions which today stand to offer exceptional views to us pink, crisping tourists. The streets are steep, cramped and deliciously atmospheric, and exploring the warren of white buildings and old facades is certainly worthy of your time. There is also a large medieval market in May, which is fun.

Aside from history and walking, there are of course the beaches, and there are many to choose from. I shall here give a very quick review of the ones I’ve been to, having visited purely for research (I know, I know, the sacrifices I make for you, dearest readers):

Playa D’en Bossa is where all the drunk people go on the south-east side of the island

Talamanca, which is quite peaceful, in the south

Figueretas, which is ok but not the most luxurious location

Las Salinas, by a natural park, and one of the more pristine beaches. Nice place to walk too

Benirras, which is quite small and secluded, and has utterly breathtaking water that is so clear the boats look like they’re levitating

Sa Caleta, which is surrounded by orangey cliffs and very secluded. Small and a bit stony though

D’hort, a lovely beach with views out to a rocky island jutting from the sea. Go early as parking is a challenge

Of course, there are many others, and I shall in the name of research try and add to this list in the future.

 

From many of the beaches and towns you can get boat rides, a thoroughly relaxing way of spending time. There is something so intoxicating about boats and gliding effortlessly over the waves, and the boat slipping its way through the swelling, sparkling sea (I really want a boat, ugh why is this Budgetbudgie and not Mega-rich budgie?). One nice option is to hop on a sea bus that takes you from Ibiza town to some of the nearby beaches. It’s a good way to get around, and you get the views of the coastline while you go (and you get to be on a boat, the best thing in the world. Yay boats). Or take a boat to Formentera for the day.

Now, for the night, should you wish to do the sensible thing and refrain from clubs, food is a perfect alternative. Ibiza, being an island, does seafood very well, and of course try paella (a few places will even do vegetarian ones). One place I would also recommend is Can Bass, near San Jose (the sans, or saints, are everywhere in town names in Ibiza; it’s exhausting and confusing, and also kind of endearing). The atmosphere there is so relaxed, and the place is beautifully designed. It’s a little pricey, but to spend an evening outside in pleasant surroundings it’s worth it. Also, in Ibiza town, try the pincho and tapas bar Can Terra Ibiza. It gives you a bit of a taste of Basque cuisine, and the wine is excellently cheap (so cheap I could save enough money for that boat in maybe 500 years instead of 1000, which isn’t so bad). Wherever you go, make sure you have some bread and ali oli, a garlicy sauce which is very typical of the Balearic islands.

Ibiza really has a lot to offer, and isn’t just a summer island for clubbing. Its beaches are diverse and beautiful, it has history to explore, and beautiful countryside to roam. The food isn’t bad either, and there’s the bountiful joys of the sea to enjoy too. Maybe it’s time to take back this island from the young club people, and appreciate the many other pleasures it has to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

Florence: The Cultural Capital of Tuscany

By Al

Florence: the birth place of Gucci, the home of Michelangelo’s David and the first city in Europe to have paved streets (in 1339!). Florence is one of the most stunning cities I have visited. The historic city centre is a Unesco World Heritage site, featuring an impressive collection of art galleries, designer shops and the iconic Duomo (cathedral).

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The Uffizi Gallery

I will hold my hands up and admit that I am not a very cultural individual; I’d much rather listen to Drum & Bass over Classical music. Football match > Opera. Cinema > Theatre. When my girlfriend decided to drag me to the Uffizi Gallery, a prominent art museum with priceless Renaissance works,  I was reluctant. Upon exiting the Uffizi I wouldn’t have said I was a cultural convert. However, you cannot help but admire the historical and sociological magnitude of the works contained therein, and its impact on shaping modern day society.

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Piazzale Michelangelo

If you are tight on time in Florence, I would prioritise visiting Piazzale Michelangelo, a square with a panoramic view of the city and its surrounding countryside. The views are truly breath-taking. In the foreground is the Arno river. To your left is Ponte Vecchio (discussed below). In front of you is the city centre, with the iconic Duomo capturing the eye. To your right are the Apennine mountains. Whilst I don’t advocate using such labels, this is definitely the number 1 ‘Instagram’ photo-spot in the city.

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Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge)

Ponte Vecchio is a wonderfully charming and unique bridge lined with a number of trendy shops. You feel like you are back in Renaissance Italy, a world away from the concrete, brick and glass structures I am used to in the UK.

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Summary

Even if you are not particularly cultural, or interested in history, there’s still plenty of reasons to visit Florence. The city’s architecture, and landscape is captivating, and truly iconic. Spend a day here exploring, punctuated by nice pizza, ice cream and coffee, and you will not be disappointed.

BB Al Rating: 4.5/5*

 

 

Corfu: The Emerald Island

By Jamie

As we are fast-approaching summer and minds start to turn towards where to escape to this year, I thought it would be the perfect moment to review one of my favourite summer destinations. A few summers ago I had the pleasure of going to the Greek island of Corfu, a hot but surprisingly green island snuggled up against the shores of Albania in the Ionian Sea. Corfu has traditionally been an escape of the mega-rich, and still caters for people with outrageous wealth to the north of the island. However, if you are not among the ultra-wealthy (and as you’re reading Budget Budgie we can safely assume this) there is also a wealth of options for a more palatable budget.
Before I begin my praise of Corfu’s serene landscapes, exquisite food and general excellence, I shall come in quick and hard with my big complaint, and that is with the airport. While I accept that all airports are similarly boring, involve queuing and waiting, and are not exactly the kind of place you voluntarily spend vast amounts of time, Corfu Airport is frankly awful. It is tiny, old and completely unfit for dealing with the number of people that head to the island. My personal experience is of being told to queue outside in the sun with no shade, to then join a queue for check-in, witness a poor woman in her first day in the job do everything wrong, to then join a queue for security, again outside at first, then join another line of happiness and love to have your passport checked, realise how pointless it was when the person behind you gets through holding the wrong passport, and then see the plane is delayed and have nowhere to sit for the next five hours. And, finally, your flight almost leaves without any passengers because the announcement system is broken. Do bear in mind I’m an inherently unlucky person, the kind of person who hangs his washing outside after three months of no rain to then witness a deluge, so maybe your experience will be better. The airport, however, is awful.

Aside from the airport, Corfu is a real island gem; a glistening, starry jewel surrounded by warm azure seas. I went in August and the weather was perfect: hot, but not so oppressive that you can’t do things during the day. There is a refreshing sea breeze that provides moments of coolness and the evenings, though humid, are not unbearable. Despite the constant sun the island is a luscious dark green and is covered with 3 million olive trees, many of which were planted during Venetian rule of the island 400 years ago. They are left to grow to their full height, and create a welcome canopy of shade. The island is beautiful, with rolling mountains, a turquoise coastline, with idyllic golden beaches dotted with rocky inlets. The colours of this island are really something: it is like an eccentric artist simply threw some paints at an olive-green canvas. Sunrises and sunsets should not be missed either (you can nap in the day if you find yourself missing sleep to see them, it’s worth the effort). It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.

Besides the climate and the natural beauty, the food is very impressive. I have found that islands have a very understandable tendency to have mainly fish and seafood, and Corfu has a noble range of former sea life for your pleasure. It also offers a delicious range of typical Greek cuisine, like meat kebabs, moussaka (my favourite), pitas, cheeses and everything a person could want. I happily ate my way into the night and, after an excruciating waddle up the hill to get home, eagerly anticipated repeating the meal the next day. Travel should involve sampling good local food, and I took this belief to heart (and to my stomach). This was the first time I had tried Greek food, and I was an instant convert.

On the subject of delicious food, I also came to the realisation that I am utterly irresistible. Well, when I say that, I do of course mean irresistible to the mosquitoes that unfortunately plague the nights. The various buzzing things were generally annoying, some were quite frightening, like the hornet that I watched attacking a swarm of wasps, successfully, and of course my mosquito chums, who took quite a liking to me. Insects come with the warm territory, but I found they were more belligerently bitey and brave than anywhere else I’ve been. I honestly think it’s because I tasted better as a result of the amazing food I’d been having, but for whatever reason they were a pain, so if you go there try and find a way of scaring them off, like burning anti-mosquito incense or standing next to me to be safe.

Generally speaking, the north of the island is where the mega-rich congregate to trade gossip and compare the size of their enormous, cosmetically-stretched super-yachts (and whatever else they do), while the south is more focussed upon package holidays and modestly-priced hotels. I stayed somewhere between the two, in a small village called Nissaki. it was a basic place, with a small shop, a local beach and some tavernas of various quality. It was quite a peaceful place, although you need a car to get there (and it is probably advisable to have one to get around the whole island to appreciate it fully).

The main lure of the island is the beach, of which there are mainly delightful ones, and the sea, which is warm, calm and lovely to soak in. There are, however, many other things to do, thanks partly to its tumultuous history, and partly because of its natural beauty. Taking a drive to the centre of the island, where life has remained relatively untouched by tourism, is a great experience (as is picking up a friendly hitchhiker and having no idea what he says to you or where he wants you to take him.), and the old villages and surrounding olive groves are serene. There is also Pantorcrator (great name) the highest point on the island. You can drive or hike up to it to enjoy the sensational panoramic views from the top. Perched right at the summit is an old monastery which still has a solitary monk living there, but, right next to and actually in the grounds of the peaceful monastery is an array of masts and pylons which give the island communication signals. There is even one that stretches high above the monastery, and looks strangely reminiscent of an Eiffel Tower that has been built by someone who has never seen it but had it described to them by a child: similar, bit at the same time really missing something. Depending on your viewpoint, these communication masts either ruin the monastery or add something quite unique and memorable. I’m undecided whether I liked it or not. It had a weird cold-war, Bond-villain feel to it, and is probably more memorable than it would otherwise have been. It’s worth going to just for the views.

Another thing to do is to explore Corfu Town, the capital. Corfu has a rich history of invasion, occupation and cultural upheaval, and as a result there are several forts, ruins and museums to visit. The Old Fort, built on a rock right on the seafront, is good, exhibiting military buildings and fortifications, as well as an old lighthouse right at the peak of the rock, which provides great views across the town and the coast. There is also the New Fort, which, despite being the newer of the two is also the more decrepit. It has decent views at the top although it is mainly empty, but is free so worth visiting. There are also several local museums, such as the museum of Asian Art. Corfu Town also has bustling shops and narrow streets, and it is fun to get lost in the labyrinthine network.

You can also find several other forts, towns and castles scattered around the island. There are byzantine castles, venetian buildings, palaces and ancient ruins to be found and explored, so culturally there is a whole history to explore. The sea also provides entertainment if you wish to scuba dive, take a boat trip, water ski or any other of the usual activities.

Overall I loved Corfu, despite the airport and the mosquitoes. It was beautiful, warm, delicious, interesting and very relaxed. It was an ideal place to escape for summer, and offers so many different things for different people. I would highly recommend.

Torre del Lago: My Second Home

By Al

You probably have not heard of the small Tuscan beach town of Torre del Lago Puccini. Settled between Lake Massciuccoli and the Mediterranean, I would call Torre del Lago my second home. Every summer since I was 3 months old, I have spent time here, staying with my grandparents in their summer house, enjoying home cooking and being a little bit spoilt. Though this is technically cheating, it certainly is budget friendly!

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From June – September each year, Torre del Lago comes alive with tourists. August, and particularly during the public holiday of Ferragosto*,  sees the town’s numbers swell, as Florentines, Pisans  and other city-dwellers flood the town. Whilst nearby Viareggio offers more in terms of night-life and entertainment, Torre del Lago is very popular with the LGBT community, with the highly regarded beachfront nightclub ‘Mamma Mia’ packed to the rim throughout August.

DCIM101GOPRO

As a child I would have told you that Torre del Lago was quite boring, with limited activities for children available. However, as a young adult, it offers a fantastic break from work. My recommended itinerary would be as follows.

10.30: After a lie in, cycle languidly to the beach. If you’re staying in the centre of town, this is just a 10 minute cycle ride away. Beware Italian drivers, they are notorious for good reason.

10:45: Arrive at the seafront. If you’re on a strict budget, then you can head to one of the free beaches. Otherwise head to one of the privately owned beaches where you can hire a sun lounger for the day. Either way you get golden sands, and views of the Mediterranean stretching beyond the horizon.

13:00: After a dip in the pleasantly warm sea, and gently cooking in the sun (please do wear suncream – you will burn) head to the restaurants lining the beachfront. For a traditional lunch, I highly recommend Fritto Misto**  with a bottle of Peroni lager.

14:00: Head back to the beach with a full belly, and smile on your face. You won’t find many Italians being active during the hottest part of the day, so follow their lead and find some shade to read a good book or for a pisolino (nap).

17:00: With the sea lapping around your ankles, the beach will stretch far in the distance to your left and right. Pick a direction, and go for a nice stroll and another dip in the sea. On your return treat yourself to a strong Italian coffee.

20:00: Having left the beach at a leisurely pace, head to La Rotonda, the town’s best place for pizza (in my opinion!). Head to the restaurant’s rooftop to enjoy your dinner whilst watching the sun set into the Mediterranean.

22:00: My favourite way to end the day is always with an ice-cream and drink. You will find lots of ice cream parlours, offering a multitude of flavours. Be brave and treat yourself to 5 scoops of 5 different flavours, for a truly mouth-watering experience. That diet can wait until the end of your holiday.

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Summary

Torre del Lago is not as glamorous or well known as its neighbour Viareggio. However, if you want reliably warm weather, golden beaches, and good food then you can’t go wrong.

If you are the kind of person who cannot stand the idea of lying on a beach for 7 days, then Torre del Lago is also an ideal base for visiting a number of Tuscany’s gems. Lucca, Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre, amongst many other areas are easily accessible by a surprisingly reliable train network.

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Whilst unfortunately my grandmother cannot provide you all with free accommodation, don’t let this stop you visiting Torre del Lago and the surrounding Tuscan localities, as it is a truly beautiful part of the world.

4.5/5 Budget Budgie Al rating

*Ferragosto – an Italian public holiday celebrated on 15 August, coinciding with the major Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary. By metonymy, it is also the summer vacation period around mid-August, which may be a long weekend (ponte di ferragosto) or most of August.

**Fritto Misto – fish, squid and prawns deep-fried in a crisp batter.

Inter-railing Europe: Part One

By Jamie

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.

Amsterdam

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.

 

Warsaw

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.

Krakow

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.

Budapest

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.

 

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Zagreb

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.

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Rijeka

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.

 

Next week will be Part Two and the Way Back.