Baroque Churches to Berlin

This time last year I’d just finished first year and so decided I needed a break. Amidst numerous other summer plans I decided to go interrailing around central Europe for two weeks with a college friend. My companion craftily attempted to fund this venture by going to college and asking for a travel grant. The college agreed to fund the trip, on the proviso that he made a full report on the history of the baroque churches of the capitals of Europe.

‘Interrailing’ refers to the practice of getting a European rail pass, allowing you travel on most trains in most European countries ( apart from your own), and thus with this in hand you can travel across Europe staying in a different city every other night for nearly a month. A pass can be sorted for just one country, or more commonly you can opt for the global pass ranging from just £161 for 5 days travel or £387 for a month. Carrying a pass also offers a number of discounts at selected tourist destinations.

Our trip began in Hamburg; where we watched the much feted fountain and lights show in the city’s park at dusk. Hamburg, as Germany’s second city, is incredibly vibrant and bustling. We spent the day before we left on a river cruise and examining the Reeperbahn by day- and in the process laughing at the creative use of innuendo on the signage of countless establishments in the Red Light district, as well the length of some questionable ‘devices’ sighted in a shop window .

Then onto Berlin. German trains are incredibly fast, efficient and reliable, and not as a ridiculously overcrowded as their British counterparts. Berlin as a city is very modern- and you get a feeling on arrival that much of it is still under construction with cranes dominating the skyline – not surprising given the devastation enacted during WW2, and the ensuing partition of nearly 50 years into West and East Berlin. The main railway station- hauptbahhof, is a huge temple of glass, with two levels of trains whizzing over and under each other. It’s a sight worth going to see in its own right.  Our day in Berlin consisted of the obligatory sightseeing of the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, before rounding the day off with a plate of sausages, sauerkraut and apple strudel and watching the sun go down over a glass of beer by the riverside ( which during the summer months is converted into a beach complete with deckchairs, palm trees and sand).

We then pressed east to Prague. The train passed through the mountainous border area of ‘Bohemian Switzerland’- famed for numerous spa towns, such as Bad Schandau. On the train we became acquainted of a raucous stag party, who by mid afternoon were nicely inebriated. The groom-to-be (clad in a pair of fake breasts) requested we cut squares from his already tattered trousers, and asked the girl in a party to cut off a label from her underwear. Being good-natured people we acquiesced. We then witnessed the sight of one of the stag party having his backside waxed by a blonde woman he’d just met, just as the train entered the Czech Republic.

Prague was the most beautiful city of all that we visited. The big attraction in Prague is the castle- site of the once capital of the Holy Roman Empire and of two ‘defenestrations’ (my favourite word in the English language- it refers to the act of throwing someone out of a window). We polished off the evening with a plate of Czech food- heavy on pork, sausage, and dumplings, in the old town square. Due to cash issues, we were unable to visit the museum of ‘sex machines’ – which despite the subject matter of its exhibits did look reasonably classy.

Into Austria we went. Our hostel in Vienna, was part of the ‘Wombats’ chain (based in Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Budapest), and easily the best one we stayed in during our trip, and fairly cheap at that. We spent a pleasant first evening playing cards in the bar, drinking and conversing with a young Australian woman. During the day we visited the magnificent cathedral, followed by kafe und kuchen in a cafe. Vienna is renowned for its cafés, so naturally we opted for an establishment opposite the Spanish riding school. With an espresso we bought slices of sachertote (chocolate cake with apricot jam), and whiled the afternoon away. That evening we decided to head off to the Schonbrunn palace, first for a stroll around the spectacular gardens, and then for a Mozart/Strauss concert in the palace’s orangerie, topped off with a glass of champagne.

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We then preceded westward through Austria. You have to like Austria. The countryside is beautiful, the towns and cities pretty, people are friendly  and it’s exceptionally clean. We spent a night in Melk- famed for its spectacular abbey. This sleepy small town in the Danube valley is a bit off the beaten track, but it made a nice change from big capital cities. Here we stayed in a national YHA hostel- basic but adequate for our needs.

Onwards to Linz. We experienced the amazing novelty of riding trams here, before visiting a hip art gallery- where one of the main exhibits was a film depicting a three-way love affair , which you watched sitting on a bed. It was later revealed that the bed in question was the bed which had seen much action in the film. Sausage-heavy cuisine starting to be a bit too much, we opted for an Italian in the town square with a cheeky prosecco on the side. We had private rooms in our hotel, so we wound up watching the Olympics and a bit of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’. Turns out the Austrians are big fans of Hyacinth Bucket.

Salzburg is famed for two things- ‘The sound of music’ and Mozart. The castle which overlooks the city is well worth a visit. We wound up that evening feeling rather tired, watching Julie Andrews sing and dance amidst the Austrian alps (screened daily apparently at the hostel).

After a train journey which alarmingly left Austria, went into Germany and then went back to Austria again, we got off at Innsbruck. This differed from anywhere else we’d visited with the conspicuous presence of mountains surrounding the city. Having tired of baroque churches, we headed for the zoo. Innsbruck is home to the Alpinezoo- which showcases a vast range of mountain fauna. Admittedly there was nothing exciting as a rare panda, but we did get to see some bears and wolves. The next morning we went to go see the famous ‘golden roof’ of Innsbruck- which was literally a building with a golden roof and not much else. We then left the EU for Switzerland, passing en route through Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein is a micro state of only 61 sq. miles, known for being a tax haven and being the world’s largest producer of false teeth. Not much else can be said about it, but hey, somewhere to tick off. The final stop for me was Zurich. Switzerland is very beautiful. Lake Zurich is incredibly clean and the water crystal clear. I even decided to go for a swim- which after a 3 hour train journey was intensely refreshing. That morning I got the train to the airport, flew back to Olympic-stuffed London, travelled thePiccadillyy line and then took a 3 hour train to Durham- all in a day. A fitting end.

Practical tips and advice:

  • Invest in a bumbag/ money belt. YES you will look like a massive shlad/shlass, but when you have to juggle a wallet, phone, keys, money, passport and tickets it does offer much security and ease of access.

  • Meininger hostels are generally well facilitated, though the rooms are small and it feels a bit souless.

  • National Youth hostels- ( as i stayed in Melk and Innsbruck) are basic, a bit spartan ( and also don’t take well to heavy boozing in the early hours) but are cheap.

  • The best in terms of traveller/studenty experience- were Vienna ( http://www.wombats-hostels.com) and Salzburg ( http://www.famoushostels.com/salzburg-hostel). Both are part of a chain so if you plan to go interrailling elsewhere in Europe- see if they have any hostels where you plan to go.

  • Buy seat reservations on busier (international) trains. You can do this a few days in advance at station ticket offices, but don’t bother with all trains- ask if unsure.

  • Make sure your phone and bank card are set up to be used abroad

  • Bring cards. Many an hour was whiled away on international trains playing blackjack. Swimming costumes are worth a shout also.

  • Get cash out in local currency before arrival just so you have money before you can reach a cash machine.

  • Have fun. Do weird and wonderful things. Go see “trabant world” in Berlin. Go to the sex machines museum in Prague ( I failed to do so). See a concert in Vienna. Go to a zoo. Go swimming. Talk to everyone you meet-whether fellow guests in the hostel, fellow passengers or just randomers in a bar. I myself learnt much about Korea over the fortnight as we met many Koreans on our travels.