By David Leiberman
Have a rudimentary itinerary to spit back to your parents and friends when they ask you what you’ll be doing in Europe over the summer. Frankly, any more detailed plans will quickly become more restricting than helpful on your backpacking trip if you’re Eurail-ing.
Our month-long journey wound up taking the beautifully simple and opportunistic shape of a fish hook originating in northern Central Europe, reaching down and eastwards, and then arcing back up and west to hit almost every city we had been throwing around our dorm room table when we first started joking last Spring about doing Europe.
We did find ourselves in some form of a routine, even though it was the summer intercession months and our biggest decision was whether to spend an extra night in Copenhagen or save it for a longer stay in Berlin. In the early afternoon of the day we wanted to move on to the next city, we would walk with our packs to the nearest Internet café, get a schedule of trains departing in the direction we were headed, and find one leaving after 7pm. At this point we would forget about it for the next couple of hours while we visited the last few sites that we had not yet seen. About 30 minutes prior to the train’s departure, one of us would glance down to his watch and mention the time, at which point we would immediately start running in the direction of the train station.
On average, we caught every train by a minute. We were proudest when the doors closed barely inches behind Tom’s pack–the indication that we had truly seen the most we could of that particular city.
Of course, we weren’t really as daring as it sounds. Our Eurail passes were good for any train (that is, within the parameters and rules of our Youth Pass, which altogether had the effect of a marvelous board game, see below), and it would often have just been a matter of waiting a few more hours for another train. Moreover, we discovered that a Eurail “day” actually starts at 7 p.m. the night before, giving us a full 29 hours to get to each destination and leaving time for sleeping on trains, missing connections, and getting off to pay short visits to locations en route.
There was that one train to Vienna, though. We were visiting the Great Synagogue in Prague and we decided we couldn’t leave without also seeing the Hotel Imperial, which according to an advertisement had a magnificent dining room with an “unpretentious, 17th-century Hapsburg atmosphere and free donuts” (my own emphasis).
So of course we had to check it out before the train, which for some reason we thought was leaving from the station right down the block from the hotel. After a donut each we had to get sundaes. Then Tom decided that the chicken looked great. Eating contently, we saw that we had 15 minutes until the train was scheduled to depart. We raced to the station, only to find that it was the wrong one.
So instead of waiting two hours for the next train to Vienna, we put Austria on hold for a few days and went to Budapest first. That turned out to be quite fortunate, because a few days later we hopped on a train for Vienna by way of Salzburg, where we got off for a few hours and hiked up a mountain to watch the sun rise. Donut binging was never such a minor problem.
There is something uniquely liberating and inherently exciting about a Eurailpass. It is in a sense like a blank check, allowing you to literally pencil in the dates that you’d like to use it to go seemingly anywhere. The first night we used the Pass, we immediately saw its potential and we decided to play, “How can we drag out our transit from Copenhagen to Berlin to maximize our time on the train and avoid having to find a place to stay for the night?”
We slowly inched our way to Eastern Germany, taking commuter trains and ultimately winding up on an hour-long ride with German businessmen traveling from a Berlin suburb into the city at 8 a.m. (Note: We wound up happily sleeping the morning away at the nearest hostel. The night of travel was less relaxing than we had planned, consumed by card-playing, 3-a.m. walks around desolate German towns, and wine-drinking.)
But our train trips were only rowdy when we wanted them to be (and when fellow passengers didn’t mind us putting on our obnoxious and annoying tourist faces). Otherwise, European trains were remarkably quiet and comfortable, with a very “business” feel to them. I had been accustomed to noisy, hardly cozy, last-century-state-of-the-art trains back home in the Tri-State. European trains, in contrast, are sleek, smooth, very high-tech and often very modern-looking.
So by our third or fourth trip we settled down and instead found solace in the quiet purr of the air-conditioning as we played some cards and experienced the European countryside by train. I still vividly recall the gorgeous views of the sun over the Czech hills and the rowing boats along the waterways as we crossed the border en route to Prague.
Prague was most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Everyone tells you that, so I expected it to be, but even so, Prague was even more beautiful than I expected. It sits along the river with the most magnificent castle in world on other side. We even rented a rowboat. Everything is so inexpensive in Prague. We visited Rabbi Lowe’s grave and synagogues in the Old Jewish district (that turned out to be the most expensive thing you can do in Prague-you buy a pass to visit five synagogues, and a separate pass for the new synagogue).
In Budapest, we did the popular thing: visited a Turkish bath. We also took a river boat cruise on the Danube on night.
Amsterdam has Europe’s largest and best-preserved historic center. It is truly one of the world’s most alluring cities with hundreds of 17th-century houses, canals and museums where masters such as van Gogh and Rembrandt are on permanent display. It has fantastic nightlife. You can get around on bicycles or waterbikes (though be prepared: it is extremely chaoic to bike, let alone walk in Amsterdam).
We’ll always remember Salzberg for the sunrise we saw from a mountaintop, when we arrived in the middle of the night and did not want to bother about getting a hostel.
We used the Eurail Selectpass Youth, that allowed for unlimited travel on the national rail networks of any 3, 4 or 5 bordering countries out of 18 European countries that are connected by train or ship (to qualify for the pass, you have to be no older than 26 on your first day of travel). It became like a board game, trying to figure the best angle to get the most places to visit out of our trip and still spend the least number of nights actually in a hotel room (thereby saving on overnights). This proved an amazing feat of planning, and well up to our intellectual abilities.
Okay, here are the game rules: The chosen countries must be bordering, and have a direct (not through another country) train or shipping line which is part of the Eurail offer (e.g.: France, all the Benelux countries and Germany are considered three bordering countries). Passes must be validated within six months of issue date and must be validated prior to first train journey and/or first use of bonuses. You validate the pass in the ticket office of the railway station prior to boarding your first train. Certain trains may transit through a country not covered by the pass. In that case an additional ticket must be purchased (we actually paid an extra fare in order to visit Czechoslovakia). If an overnight train starts after 7pm on a validated Eurail Selectpass, the passholder must enter the next day’s date on the pass, provided it falls within the validity of the pass.
The chosen countries must be bordering, or have a direct shipping line which is part of the Eurail offer; Norway and Denmark are connected by the Color Line Boat-connection Hirtshals-Kristiansand. You can add one more connecting country to your Selectpass, like Sweden or Germany. (Important! Norway and Finland are not bordering countries. They have a joint border, but to get by train from Norway to Finland clients have to travel through Sweden. Also: make sure all the countries the train is going to travel through are covered in the Eurail Selectpass. If this is not the case, you must buy a separate ticket for the trip.)
There are some cool bonuses that come with the pass-like Discounted fare on Eurostar (the Channel tunnel train between Paris and London or Brussels and London, though this still proved more expensive than taking a low-cost airline flight on Easyjet.com) and other international high speed services such as Thalys and Artesia. You also get free or discounted travel on selected ferries, lake steamers, boats and buses, such as the Brindis (Italy) to Patras (Greece) ferry and ferries form Ireland to France or Sweden to Finland. (You get a complete list of bonuses with the complimentary Eurailmap you get when you buy your ticket).
We managed to get all our traveling in by taking the Eurail SelectYouth pass good for five days of travel in four countries, plus the Prague Excursion pass. Our Eurail portion of our European itinerary started in Copenhagen and finished in Graz, Austria.
You can do most of your trip planning and booking on the Rail Europe site, www.raileurope.com. Rail Europe allows you to book all types of European travel products such as rail passes, tickets as well as flights, hotels and car rentals. Eurail passes, Euro passes , Single country passes, Point to Point Tickets, Rail ‘n Drive passes, Night trains, Special trains, High Speed trains, TGV, Eurostar (providing service between London, Paris and Brussels through the Channel Tunnel), Thalys, and more are all bookable online here. The site also features online train schedules.
Rail Europe is also the official North American representative for 60 European railroads, the latest addition being the 25 Train Operating Companies of Britain. This year, for the first time, you can book discounted Britrail tickets, as well.
Rail Europe also offers “Rail ‘n Drive” packages, which are to Europe what the fly/drive concept is to America, rental cars from Avis and Hertz, transatlantic air to Europe on major carriers for our American clients and over 1,500 hotel choices (1-877-257-2887, www.raileurope.com).
For planning purposes, here are some of the accommodations and attractions we enjoyed on our trip:
In several of the cities we visited, we took guide bike trips as a really interesting way to see the sights. In Amsterdam and Munich, we enjoyed Mike’s Tours (www.mikesbiketours.com, costing about $19 to $22, the website, alone, provides great sightseeing information). Fat Bike Tours has taken over from Mike’s Bike Tours in Paris and Barcelona, and another company, Insider Tours, offers a Berlin by Bike tour, (www.insidertour.com); this tour was particularly good, focused on World War II.
We enjoyed staying in hostels. Before we left, we purchased a hostel pass from YHA: in Berlin, we stayed at the Meininger Hostel in Berlin (nice location, right near train stop-lots of young people staying there, www.meininger-hostels.de); in Budapest, we stayed at the Hostel Marco Polo (“in the heart of Budapest”, www.youthhostel.hu); in Vienna, at Wombat’s (pretty efficient, pretty “hip” chain of hostels-give you a ticket for a free beer at the bar with your room…the bar/lounge is really crowded with lots of college-aged kids-we rented rollerblades from the desk and did our own personal tour of Vienna, www.wombats.at) and Westend City Hostel (the original was built in 1876 and the hostel was reopened after a complete renovation in 2002www.westendhostel.at).
There are hundreds of youth hostels in Europe, and they are a bargain. The International Youth Hostel Card provides access to a network of almost 4,500 hostels around the world. The card is free if you’re under 18, and $25 if you’re 18 or older. Check out American Youth Hostels at www.hiayh.com or the International Youth Hostels Foundation, http://www.iyhf.org/home_gb.html. The website offers marvelous listings of hostels all around the world. For further information, contact Hostelling International – American Youth Hostels, 733 15th Street N W Suite 840, Washington DC 20005, 202-783-6161.
David Leiberman, a college sophomore when he and two pals backpacked around Europe, just took off for a 4,000-mile bike odyssey from New Haven, Ct. to Portland, Oregon, to raise money for Habitat for Humanity; you can follow their exploits on www.yale.edu/habitat.
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