I spent the last month travelling around Europe on an InterRail pass (that’s why I haven’t posted in such a while). It was a brilliant experience that I would whole heartedly recommend to everyone. I got to see a wide variety of cultures, traditions and histories. It undoubtedly broadened my horizons and I loved every minute of it. I visited Amsterdam, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Mostar, Dubrovnik, Split, Ljubljana and Prague. It was fantastic to see such a range of cities and cultures. My trip was a bit different in that I deliberatively aimed to go off the beaten track. I wanted to avoid the main tourist destinations like Spain and France, and instead head to somewhere you would never think to go, places like Serbia and Bosnia. I will post a blog about each individual city over the next coming days; this post is a general view.
I spent three days in each city which is probably the right amount. You need that amount of time to see the main sights and to get a feel for the city. Anymore and you might get bored or complacent or spend time you don’t have. I managed to see a huge number of cities in a really short time this way.
The best way to see a city is to simply walk around it. This gives you a feel for the city and allows you to see what it’s really like. Most cities do walking tours which I’d recommend. You get to see the main sights and the tours are usually free, with the option of giving a tip at the end. I would also recommend getting a guide book. I had general guide book of all Europe by Rough Guides which was very useful and helpful without going into too much detail or taking up too much space in my bag. Every city has at least one good museum and one on the history of the country. They also usually give half price discounts to students.
Before you go on the trip you must accept the fact that you will be tired a lot. It’s not going to be as comfortable as home (I’m not saying this to deter you, just so you know what you are getting yourself into). You’re constantly on the go, trying to make the most of your limited time, often sleeping on trains (piece of advice, pay for a bed, it’s worth it). I went with friends some of whom were expecting something more comfortable and were not prepared for the reality.
This brings me to my next point; choose you’re travelling companions carefully. You’re going to be around them all day every day. Make sure you definitely get on with everyone. We made the mistake of bringing along one guy the rest of the group found annoying. He drove us all mad and we ended up fighting. We ended up taking a break from each other for a couple of days before reuniting. This was for the best because you do need some time to yourself too. Travelling alone has the advantage in that you get far more done than if you are in a group. You get to see and do what you want to do, when it suits you. However after a while you do want some company and it is good to have some friends you can hang out with.
An enormous help on the trip was Hostelworld.com. It’s a website listing hundreds of hostels in each city. You can rank them by price and easily find the cheapest places. There are ratings and reviews by previous guests so you know what you’re getting yourself into. It saved me a huge amount of time, money and effort. I was able to get quality hostels for less than 10 euro a night in Eastern Europe and 15 euro a night in Western Europe. The cheapest hostel on my trip was 6 euro a night in Belgrade and it was one of the nicest hostels.
Hostels are great places to meet people. Your roommates are usually backpackers like yourself and sometimes even heading the same way as yourself. People are always open and friendly and you do get to meet great people and a few characters. Hostels are also good to find out the best places to go to and where to avoid.
Maybe I was lucky, but I didn’t have any bad experiences. There were no hostels from hell or dodgy locals. I always went for the cheapest possible hostel available yet they were all clean and the staff were always friendly and helpful. Despite travelling well off the main tourist trail, I always felt completely safe. I didn’t have a single thing stolen or meet any rough or dodgy locals. In fact most people were very friendly and helpful. The only exception to this is that service in Eastern Europe is usually (but not always) dreadful. Most employees seemed to be miserable, unfriendly and clearly wanted to be anywhere than at work. Staff at train stations were often unfriendly and with poor English. On the other hand, people on the street usually were friendly and would try to help where they could.
If you’re travelling a lot you will probably eat out a lot (though most hostels do have kitchens where you can cook your own food). In Eastern Europe, food is very cheap (roughly 4 euro for a main course) and the portions are huge. It also tastes great. Meat is the centre of the meal, which can cause trouble if you’re a vegetarian. I personally loved eating out and the local dishes were great. In the Balkans there are less restaurants and more take away places with local snacks. Bakeries are always a good place to get cheap bread that tastes great, as well as nice pastries. Most countries have great (and cheap) local beers, with the Czech Republic being the best. One thing to note is that beer is much stronger; the average beer is between 10-12% alcohol in Prague. As I was travelling so much I didn’t get to see much of the night life in the areas, though from what I did see, Berlin and Prague stood out the most.
After a while you start to notice similarities in cities. Most Eastern European cities follow the same pattern. The city centre is the Old Town, filled with beautiful historic building often dating to Medieval times. These are always the highlights of each city. Outside this is the Jewish Quarter, which after being emptied after the Second World War have since been converted into the main nightlife area of the city where most of the pubs and clubs are located. On the outskirts of the city are the massive ugly Communist apartment blocks. They are usually grey and decaying, but if you stay in the city centre you may never see them.
I will post further articles describing each individual city I visited, but let me finish by saying how I absolutely loved my trip. I would definitely do it again in a heart-beat if I had the money (it costs around 1500 euro for a month including flights and the InterRail ticket). I cannot recommend it enough and hopefully this blog will give you good ideas of where to go and what to do.
- 3 days per city
- Free walking tours
- Guide book
- Prepare yourself
- Choose your travelling companions carefully
- Bring a camera
- Use night trains and get a bed where possible
- Talk to the people in hostels with you, you’ll be surprised with the people you’ll meet
- Have access to the internet, it’s your main source of information
- Try local food and beer
- Take chances; choose random foods and places to go to. View it all as an adventure!