Travels by Train: Europe at a Glance
As the 7-year stint of secondary education comes to an end, most students are eagerly anticipating the freedom that summer brings, and many will have holidays planned. For a lot of students, this takes the form of a fortnight spent lying on beaches, indulging in cheap foreign booze, and nursing painful hangovers across one of the many party resorts in Europe. For anyone who has watched the aptly named ‘Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents’ series, you will know what I’m talking about; Ayia Napa, Magaluf and Zante are just a handful of the resorts that become inundated with student Brits on holiday.
For myself and a group of 6 friends, this was not however the sort of break we were after. Instead, we decided to embark on a trip across Europe, using one of the easiest means of travel- train. For £354 you can buy yourself a months ‘Youth Pass’ (for those under 25) from InterRail, which entitles you to unlimited travel between 30 European countries. For those who aren’t planning on a month long excursion, there are also options for 10 day, 15day or 22 day passes to choose from. Set up in 1972, InterRail will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and since its inception it has steadily grown in popularity, with approximately 250,000 people travelling across Europe’s railways with the pass in 2011.
Our planned route took us across 11 cities in 6 countries on a whirlwind tour of some of Europe’s most popular destinations; Amsterdam, Berlin, Krakow, Prague, Zagreb, Split, Anconca, Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. As a group of 7 girls it unsurprisingly took us some time to plan this route, as we endeavoured to avoid cities that had been visited before so as to experience a completely new side of Europe. Eventually, the route was finalised and the hostels booked so we set off on our European adventure clutching our guidebook to ‘Europe on a budget’ (the Bible for our trip) and sporting the stereotypical backpacker rucksacks.
When people ask ‘which was the best city you visited?’ it’s very hard to give a definite answer, as each place we visited offered a completely different experience. Our first destination, Amsterdam, is a hugely popular stop on the tourist route, well renowned for its welcoming and liberal atmosphere, which draws over 15.5 million tourists a year to the capital. Say ‘Amsterdam’ to anyone that’s been there and two of the first things they will say are ‘bikes’ and ‘canals’- these are two of the main characteristics of the city, and I challenge anyone to visit and not have a near miss experience involving a fast-moving Dutchman on a bicycle. The nightlife in Amsterdam is definitely something that needs to be experienced, and the ‘Extreme Party Pub Crawl’ through the infamous red light district was one of the highlights of our trip; for a mere €14 you receive a free t-shirt with the classy, but I can confirm accurate, slogan ‘a night you’ll never remember but never forget’, free entry to the bars and clubs you’re taken to, and a free drink at each stop. You’ll find yourself wandering through the surreal red light district at midnight alongside a group of fellow backpackers, thinking you’ve never had a better night, and declaring how your best friend is the random Austrian guy you met 10 minutes ago… Needless to say, waking up in your hostel the next morning and running to catch a 9am train will be considerably less fun, and for some members of our group it seemed like a physical impossibility at the time.
For the more historical and culturally interested of backpackers, Berlin and Rome both had a lot to offer. Berlin is bursting with landmarks; the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Alexanderplatz are all well worth a visit, as well as the slightly more morbid Holocaust memorial and remnants of the Berlin Wall which can be seen in the Kreuzberg district of the city. The overriding memory that sticks with me from Berlin is the sheer size of everything; all monuments in the city are built, unsurprisingly, to a monumental scale, which makes their presence all the more striking.
In contrast to Berlin, Rome offered a more classically historical perspective. To name but a few of the must see sights, there is the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain, St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican City. As well as seeing the landmarks, you have to experience the pizza (it really does live up to the hype) and I strongly recommend the Tartufo ice cream.
The most relaxing stint of our trip had to be the time spent in Split, a town along the Dalmatian coastline in Southern Croatia. With bustling streets packed with shops and restaurants, the historical Roman ruins of Diocletian’s Palace to explore in the town centre, and the fantastic beaches along the coast, there is something to satisfying everyone’s travel desires; needless to say, the sapphire waters of the Adriatic were a refreshing sight after our many city visits across the continent. Framed by a mountainous backdrop, Split had by far the most picturesque landscape of any of our destinations and it was the perfect stop before we moved onto the fast-paced life of Italian cities.
Of the 5 cities that we visited in Italy, my personal favourite would have to be Venice. This is a city unlike anywhere I have ever visited, and has an enchanting fairytale quality to it thanks to the winding streets and canals that criss-cross the city. Venice is actually built on 117 islands, has 177 canals and over 400 bridges; I can guarantee that no matter how proficient at map reading you think you are- trust me, almost half of our group went on to study Geography at university so you’d think that our navigational skills would be pretty good- you will end up getting completely disorientated and unintentionally arriving at some point in the city (probably the Piazza San Marco) as you get swept along by the relentless flow of tourists. With its beautiful architecture and connections with the artistic world, Venice is hugely popular with tourists, attracting on average over 20 million in a year; it was definitely one of the busiest cities we visited, and unsurprisingly also one of the most expensive.
From my experiences I would say that InterRail is definitely the best way to see Europe. The tickets are good value for money, and the flexibility of exploring such varied countries and cities is something you won’t get with any other means of travel. It’s definitely one of the most exciting holidays I’ve been on, and I would happily recommend it to anyone wanting to see Europe; train really is the way to travel.