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Crossing Europe by Rail – Exhilarating Exhaustion

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In the summer of 2009 I decided to fulfill a wish I had since I first discovered my love of travel. It was my hope to one day travel across Europe by rail. It took me a while to decide the direction of my journey and exactly where I wanted to start and end the trip. The other part that took some time was deciding the many possible places to visit in the middle. During the months of planning I determined that sometimes the best part of any trip is not just the travel itself, but finding where your travels should be.

In this journal I will cover the route I took and places I managed to see. I will try to keep my descriptions brief and cover each city in a separate blog entry. But I have a hard time not wanting to explain it all here so try to indulge me when I get a little verbose.

Where To Start (and Finish)

As I said, my first decision was my start and stop points. At first this appeared to be a daunting task, but in time I found an answer. Over the years I have managed to make several friends in Europe. So I decided to make this a chance to not only see new places but meet up with old friends. My first destination would be in the Netherlands to see my old friend Michael and his family. I had also chatted with a few people online who lived in Bucharest, Romania and decided this would make a good end point.

As far as where to go in between these two points I once again turned to my ledger of friends and chose Slovakia as my midpoint stop to visit with my friend Lucy. Slovakia was actually my first overseas destination and it didn’t take much thought for me to decide to see it again.

With a general path set I turned to filling the holes in my journey and see as much as possible. Now here is where I got a little over ambitious. Although I had scheduled 21 days from the time I landed in Amsterdam to when I departed in Bucharest, I found that to see all the places I wanted to see would mean spending only a day in most locations because of the time lost in travel between cities. I considered taking mostly night trains, but that would mean making large moves back and forth on the continent. This is because night trains need to be more than 8 hours long and only are available between certain cities.

I purchased an extended rail pass that would allow me to travel through almost all the countries on my path (Slovakia wasn’t on the pass plan at the moment, but has been added recently). With this I could board almost any train without any further expense. Night trains did require an additional reservation fee, but I did get 1st class accommodations.

I flew into Amsterdam, but quickly caught a train toward the German border to the town of Blerick. I spent several days there with my friends and took some time to adjust my internal clock to the different sleep schedule. They showed me around their city and even a chance to get to know some of their friends and culture.

After a few more days it was time to return to my journey. One of my friends came along with me back to Amsterdam and introduced me to another one of his friends in the city, who was generous enough to let us stay at his place. He also took us around the city to experience the night life. After a long night we all needed to sleep in a bit before one more trip around the city.

As the afternoon approached, I said my goodbyes to my old and new friend and headed to the train station. My next destination would have me on a night train. My rail pass was first class, so I had a 2 bunk cabin. Since no one else booked it, I had the room all to myself. It was my first time sleeping on a train and took a little getting used to before I could really fall asleep.

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Prague Castle viewed from the Charles Bridge

When I woke, I was getting close to my next stop, Prague. After getting off the train I managed to find my bearings and headed into the city. I had looked up various places to stay and settled on a hostel near the main post office. They offered single bed rooms. You just had to share the shower room and water closets. I had about a half day left after checking in and made a quick tour of the area. I only had the next day to see the city so I wanted to make a route plan.

My next day started early and ended late. I wanted to make the most of my short time in this beautiful city. Although I made it to a lot of places I still want to go back to hit some of the sites again and the many things I didn’t get to see. I did make an effort to stop at the restaurants serving local dishes and, especially, local beers. The Czech republic is known for some great beers and they did not disappoint. Before calling it a day, I went to the train station to book my next days travel. It was a shorter run and I wanted to make sure I got my seat reserved ahead of time.

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Prague Rail Station

In the morning I packed up and headed back to the station. It wasn’t too long of a walk from my hostel and I got there with plenty of time for my train to Vienna. It was a very comfortable train with great views of the countryside of both Czech and Austria.

After arriving in Vienna it was a little bit of and adventure to find my next residence. Yet another hostel within walking distance of the tourist areas. I had most of the afternoon left to walk around the city and have a nice dinner.

At this hostel I not only had my own room, but also my own bathroom and toilet. I didn’t have internet, so I had to use the public computers down in the lobby to figure out my next stop. Of course I also had the whole next day to travel around the city. I got to see the palace and cathedral, plus a lot in between. I didn’t go into any museums, but that’s ok. I was more interested in seeing the city than artwork.

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Trencin Castle overlooking the Town Tower

The next morning it was back to the station to catch another train. This time it was to Slovakia. If you have seen my other blog, you already know that I’m not a stranger there. So I headed to Bratislava. That was not my final destination though, so I immediately grabbed another train heading north to the city of Trencin. In Slovakia terms it’s a medium size city, located in a mountain valley along the Vah River. It’s best known for its castle perched atop a great rock overlooking the old town.

I have another great friend here and have visited the city before. It has a small old town with many little shops and cafes. There are also several hotels to choose from. I stayed at the Grand Hotel. It’s a small but well maintained hotel. It has it’s own restaurant and even a spa. I didn’t partake of the later, but I’m sure it’s nice.

I had one full day with a half day on either side to see the sites and spend some time with my friend. Since I had already been here before, I knew all the things that I wanted to see again and find a few new places to explore. Even then, I still didn’t have time to see everything in the area.

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Bratislava, Slovakia

It was time to head out again. So, it’s back on the train to Bratislava. This is also a place I have been before. I actually spent three weeks here on my first trip to Slovakia. So I already knew my way around and where I wanted to stay. When I visit this city I rent a small apartment. Not always the same one, but from the same company. They have several, all located near the old town area and it’s easy to get around the city on the rail and bus system. An apartment really gives you the feel of living in the city, especially on long stays. One of the best things about an apartment is the ability to do your laundry. I haven’t had the chance since leaving my friends home in The Netherlands.

I had another full day in the city to re-explore. Not nearly enough time for this city, but I know I will have another day in the future to see the sites. The Danube river runs through the city, so I headed down there to stroll and get my tickets for the next leg of my journey. I’ll explain that later. Unfortunately, they were in the process of reinforcing the flood walls and most of the river had construction fences along it that blocked the view. So I grabbed a bus and headed to Devin just outside of the city. There is a small castle, a great view of the river and (most importantly) a beer garden to sit and have some great brews.

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Arriving in Budapest via Danube River

The next morning I was up early to grab a quick breakfast and then back to the river for the next leg. This time I would be traveling by water. It was a small hydrofoil that would take me and the other passengers to Budapest, Hungary. I thought this would be a nice diversion from my usual rail travel. I was not disappointed. The views were amazing and pulling into Budapest and seeing the palace from that vantage was impressive. Since it was not a large boat and it was usually moving at a fast pace, we pretty much had to stay in our seats and only had a few opportunities to stick our head out a door for special photo opportunities. Still, well worth the experience.

Speaking of being worth the experience, that is Budapest. I was overwhelmed by all the beauty and wonder. Unlike other cities on this trip, the sites are not condensed into one area. The entire city is covered with places to see and explore. My first day only gave me a few hours to explore and get something to eat. So my second day would be my only time to experience this wonderful city. Also unfortunately, I had already planned to depart that evening for my last stop. This meant I spent the first part of my day checking out, getting my reservation for the train and storing my luggage at the station. This didn’t give me nearly enough time, but I made the most of it.

Budapest Palace

Budapest Palace

I ended up purchasing an On-and-Off pass for the double decker tour bus loop. It drops you off at the major sites and has headsets that describe the areas between stops. This is a must for a city like this, where the places of interest are spread all over. The city is divided by the river with the Buda region on one side and Pest on the other. The major difference between the two sides is the steep hills of Buda and the stark flatness of Pest. Other than that, there are plenty of things to do on both sides. Because of my limited time, I only managed to see the major highlights. Leaving many more things to do on a future visit.

I made my way to the train station and, after a little waiting, I boarded the night train to Bucharest. This time I had a cabin partner for the trip. A young man from Romania. He has made this trip several times so he informed me of the boarder stop procedures. They actually stop on each side of the boarder to go through everyone’s papers. The good thing about it is the stamps of each country in my passport. With the current boarder openness in Europe, you usually only get a stamp when you enter and leave the continent. Getting stamps in your passport is a major thing for most travelers. So it’s disappointing not to get one for each country you visit on a trip like this.

View from the train to Bucharest

View from the train to Bucharest

In the morning we were served breakfast. We were currently traveling through the mountains of Romania. It was a spectacular site. Once the train stopped in Brasov, my roommate departed and I had the rest of the trip to myself. I took as many pictures of the mountains as I could, but shooting through glass doesn’t always give you the best results. At some point we made our way out of the mountains and into a region of plains. It was very reminiscent of my home state of Texas. There were even the familiar rocking horse oil pumps.

The train finally arrived in Bucharest. The station is not the most pleasant place and there are many gypsy taxi drivers hounding travelers. The best bet is to just keep walking and find a real taxi driver. You might save a buck the other way, but it’s just not worth risk.

Cismigiu Gardens, Bucharest

Cismigiu Gardens, Bucharest

Once again, I had found a company that rents apartments to tourists for short term stays. They met me outside the building and took me up to my place. I might mention that this was the first place I stayed on this trip that had an air conditioner. It was also the first time I felt I needed one.

By this point in my journey, I was getting pretty exhausted. I headed out for a few exploration trips in the city. But only really saw a few places. I will admit I didn’t do a lot of pre-con on this city. So I didn’t have a set list of places to see. Then when you put the previous hectic schedule I put on myself finally catching up with me, I just didn’t have the motivation to do much. Basically, I need to give the city a second chance when I’m not so worn out.

There was a very nice park that I spent most of a day relaxing in. There was a small gazebo where a band was playing. It was a great break from the starkness of the rest of the city that I saw.

My last day started early. Very early. I had to make several transit changes to get to the airport. It included the subway, a bus and then a taxi. I finally arrived and had plenty of time for a good breakfast. Once they opened the counter for my flight, I heard several people not only speaking in English, but talking about places in Texas. Once we boarded the plane, I was seated next to someone from that group and discovered they were from Austin. So, I had someone to share experiences with.

The rest of my journey is pretty straight forward. The most important thing to mention is that this was an amazing but tiring adventure. The experience was something I would never trade anything for. But, I can’t imagine doing anything this adventurous again. My recommendation to anyone wanting to take this on is to think hard about where you want go and give yourself plenty of time to rest in the middle. But whatever you do, do it. Dream trips like this are something everyone should do. Then it’s time to work on the next one.

Alan (Travelin' Al) Stiebing

Author: Alan (Travelin' Al) Stiebing

Alan Stiebing has been traveling for over 20 years. He blogs and photographs his experiences and passions for travelinal.com and other digital and print outlets.

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