A Whistle Stop Tour of Central Europe

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My friend and I decided to spend two and a half weeks in Central Europe on a tight budget, with only a rough route in mind. The InterRailing ticket meant that we paid £169 for five days of train travel within ten days, with thirty countries to choose from.

After a short flight with the enthusiastically named airline, WizzAir, we arrived in Prague, with backpacks double our body weight in tow. Our first hostel was near the Old Town, just off the beautiful main square. By lunchtime we were crunching Trdelnik – a rolled sugar pastry, having already marvelled the astronomical clock that required a PhD to read, and the Old Prague Castle, where we sniggered at the changing of the stern-faced guards. A guy from our hostel recommended we visit the Jewish Quarter, where we saw the Old Jewish Cemetery. We learnt that during WWII, the Jewish people were forced to bury their dead in one limited area, and so bodies were buried in layers. We hadn’t expected to learn about the treatment of the Jewish people in Europe, and it was a pretty remarkable experience.

After just two days, we were off on a five-hour train journey. Our seats were in an old-school carriage with sliding doors and curtains. Think Hogwarts Express minus the chocolate frogs.

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest

In Vienna we decided that we’d conquer the tram system. To us, the city’s many tree-lined avenues all looked quite similar, but after talking to some reps at the hostel we set out to find Freud’s house on the first day. Half a kilo of Apfel strudel and four hours later we arrived at Berggrasse 19, the Freud Museum. The few wrong turns and strained conversations with locals in German turned out to be worth it – seeing Freud’s infamous couch and name plaque, suddenly made our Psychology A Levels feel more significant – although we’ll be taking the U-Bahn next time. We rewarded ourselves with a chill out the next day on the grassy beach by the Danube River, with a guy we’d met at our hostel bar.

N.B. Viennese O.A.P.s aren’t exactly modest when it comes to swim wear.

The two hour train journey to Budapest was gloriously air-conditioned. We caught up on the sleep we’d missed the night before at the Camera Club in Vienna (expensive beer and dodgy dancing.) We dedicated a day to the Old Town across the bridge in Buda, walking along the Fisherman’s Bastion – a great spot for panoramic views of the city even if it did mean wading through hordes of other tourists. After meeting two guys who worked for the American Embassy, we decided to accept their invitation to dinner. They made us steaming bowls of extra spicy Hungarian goulash with dumplings. Back in Pest (pronounced Pesht), we had a peek in at St Stephen’s Basilica to see a bride and groom marrying at the altar, then spent the afternoon at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, with some baths as deliciously hot as 38 degrees Celsius.

Lake Bled

We shamefully hadn’t heard of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, before, so we were hesitant to change our route after a fellow traveller had raved about it. It was the best decision we made all trip. The capital is referred to as the City of Love, and it was definitely one of the most romantic places, with the river Ljubljanice flowing underneath the many ornate stone bridges. We stumbled upon another great invitation at breakfast in our hostel (that in term time happened to be an art gallery). A Canadian traveller had rented a van, and was driving to Lake Bled. Naturally we seized the opportunity, and within ten minutes were sat happily watching the city fade into trees and mountains. Seven other travellers joined us, and after getting over the shock of how stunning the Slovenian Alps were, we decided to swim rather than canoe, to the church in the centre of the lake. We watched a fisherman pull a fish the size of a cat out of the water on the island, eliciting multiple shudders as we lowered ourselves back in the lake for the swim back.

After the trip, I thought back to the joint promises we’d made before leaving: it was definitely worth booking our hostels as we travelled – it meant we could change and adapt our plans. We did party often and, for the most part, got up everyday at eight o’clock, i.e. waved goodbye to sleep for the duration of the trip. And, we’d managed to always keep an open mind – InterRailing and hostel sharing isn’t for the faint-hearted, and you’ll need to stock up on Lucozade energy tablets and blister plasters, but it will turn out to be one of the most satisfying and exciting trips you’ll probably ever take.

http://www.interrailnet.com/?gclid=CJjYi8eyi6wCFYEZ4Qodzksgmg – official InterRail site.

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