Sunday, 22 January 2017
After I finished school, I went straight to university. I wasn't one of those students that took a year out to go travelling. It's not that I couldn't afford to,although that's true, but I was eager to get there and start studying. Yes I am that nerdy. It helps that with the subject path I took taking a break is really detrimental. With arts subjects taking time out and getting a better understanding of the world and all its intricacies can be really beneficial, but with physics and especially maths, if you aren't practicing you will forget tricks and techniques. Some people traveled during the long holiday before fresher's, and others did so between years at uni. Again, I wasn't one of those students.
But I was at least aware of interrailing. It's hard to be in that environment for a prolonged period of time and not be. I had friends from both home and university that did it. I heard of the places they visited and the memories they made, and I resolved that at some point I would do the same. The time when I felt I could finally afford to came after I had been already working several years.
Over that period, I had heard plenty of people say "you need to go here" about a variety of different cities. I had a few myself. Istanbul featured quite highly on that list, as did Budapest and Prague. I got a map of Europe, termed places as either have to go, nice to go, ora bit more indifferent towards, and started mapping out some routes. I'm lucky; my management is quite flexible and don't mind if I takes a three week break. This meant I had lots of options; you can go a lot of places in three weeks!
There's one piece of advice I was given by my friend Mat while I was planning that was really important. He was one of those guys that took a year to go travelling, so his advice was born from experience and worth listening to. Don't try to do too much.
I decided against doing a round trip, just going one way and flying home from as far as I got. It was so much easier logistically. My final route was fly to Prague, train to Bratislava, day trip to Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Zagreb, Sibiu & Bucharest, Sofia before finally Istanbul. Except its not quite that simple. As well as those cities there were some day trips planned. I love the mountains and nature too much to ignore Bohemian Switzerland, the Tatras, Plitvice lakes, Romanian mountains... That and my girlfriend was coming too for the first two weeks and she feels the same. Cities are nice, and they all have their individual feel. But after a while they get boring.
I guess I should start at the beginning. Prague. Over the years it has developed a rather mystical aura. Not the home of British stag parties, but an oasis of Eastern Europe. Oozing culture and class, the tagline of many other cities in recent times has been "the new Prague". But how does the original fare? In all honesty I didn't know much about it before this trip. I still feel that there is plenty I missed. But there are some things that you realise you've seen many times before going. The cathedral and especially its astronomical clock. The main square. The John Lennon wall. And for those sharp eyed amongst you, the Charles bridge is the one from the start of the first Mission Impossible film. But we went a bit further afield too. The cathedral at Kutna Hora is incredible, and the mountains in Bohemian Switzerland were beautiful and a fantastic first hike of the holiday. The variety we saw in the Czech Republic, the grace and style embodied by the architecture, and the *feel* of the place... Great start.
From there we went on to Bratislava. Not somewhere you think of as a holiday destination, but it is an hour on the train to Vienna, which is world renowned, and a nice little break point. Again, don't try to do too much. Vienna really is something else. We spent a day just getting a feel for the place, but I feel that we would need a week to do it justice. My knowledge of pre-20th century European history isn't the best but I know enough to know about the Austria-Hungarian empire, and how wealthy it was. And Vienna was the center of that. There was so much to see there, it definitely deserves more than the day we gave it. Definitely worth a return journey!
I must admit that I wasn't expecting a lot from Bratislava. It was more a stop off point so we could get to Vienna easily and buy a day or two before heading into the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. But it was fun, and the contrast to Vienna, so close yet a different country, culture and history, in terms of architecture and the wealth of the place was stark. Not to disparage Bratislava too much, it is nice in its own way, and the castle overlooking it is very different to British castles, and very imposing. Unfortunately it was shut so we couldn't get inside. The main highlight for Slovakia, the main reason we went there was to get out into the mountains. We spent a couple of days in the High Tatras, which were fantastic. They are definitely worth a return journey, and a few extra days exploration. We did cheat a bit; the consequence of limited time. We skipped part of a hike and took a cable car. I'm not quite as principled as some I know, who think you must earn the view at the top of the mountain. But that view... Worth it
Next on the list was another city high on my list of priorities during the planning stage. Budapest. Back to the Danube, who we were kinda following as it winds its way through Europe. We spent two days here, one looking round Buda, one for Pest. There is so much to say about it, but I will only touch on a couple of places. The parliament building is breathtaking from every angle. So grand, so ornate; both inside and out. A particular highlight is the view of it from across the river as the sun sets. The other is the baths throughout the city, the one we went to was Gellert. Spending some time relaxing and swimming was a great way to cool off from the heat of the city and unwind following a week of travel.
Following Budapest, we made our way to Croatia. We didn't make it to the coast, Split and Dubrovnik, which are apparently incredible. We spent a day in Zagreb, and visited one of the most unique museums I've been to; the museum of broken relationships. I don't want to spoil at all, but if you find yourself there, then you should consider giving it a visit. However the real reason for including Croatia was to see Plitvice Lakes. I don't think I've seen lakes so clear, water so beautiful. The fish you can see almost appear to be flying. Its magical.
Then on to Serbia! I was a little nervous about Serbia, and wasn't sure what to expect, but not very much. But Belgrade surprised me. It was great. The church was staggeringly beautiful, the city was great, and we got to see the Tesla Museum which was a real plus for me and my physics background. The only problems we really had was getting in and out of Belgrade. Getting from Belgrade to Bucharest was a nightmare, the taxi we had booked decided they didn't want to play ball, and we ended up taking an overnight train with a few hours layover in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
But Romania was worth it. We started in the Sibiu region and the mountains. And they were beautiful too. I may be biased, I've made my feelings about mountains clear in the past, but a fairly relaxed walk was just the peaceful respite we needed at this point! After Sibiu, I went on to Bucharest, and it was this point we became I as my girlfriend flew home. A day exploring Bucharest was actually quite sad. The influence of the soviet era was stark over the city. The old buildings were still there in their splendour, but new buildings had been put up between them, and it left the city feeling wrong. Some things still stuck out. Of course the People's Palace. One of the biggest buildings in the world, when you get to the road leading to it, it will take your breath away.
After this I spent some time in Bulgaria. One day in Sofia, and a day trip to the Rila Monastery. Sofia had avoided the fate that had befallen Bucharest, the old city was much more in tact. And the city was so much nicer for that. But the true highlight of Bulgaria was Rila. Up in the mountains it is a delightful setting, and the monastery itself is lovely, and aside from the other tourists was very peaceful. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for the monks before it became so filled with tourists.
My final stop was Turkey. Istanbul was as hectic as Rila would have been peaceful. The call to prayer ringing out over the city, waking you up, the buzz walking through the Grand Bazaar. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia staring across each other, equally impressive, but so hard to compare. And one final treat to myself. Day trip flight to Pamukkalae. There are so many things to see in Turkey, you can spend weeks looking around (ignoring the current political climate!), but this was my pick to see on my final day of the holiday. Go look at pictures, and you will understand why.
Having had years of people talking about their travels round Europe on the train, I'm glad I finally got round to doing it myself. Experiencing a host of iconic cities, different cultures and sights was brilliant. Trying to put it into words is far from easy. In short, if you've not spend two or three weeks exploring different countries, if you can spare the time and a bit of money (hostels and air bnb mean its not that pricey!) it is definitely worth doing! Pick some cities, pick a route and start planning for yourself.