Our arrival in Vienna was a little short of smooth: bowling into the city at half eleven meant half an hour before the hostel (which was, helpfully, in an unknown location) closed check in for the night. Thankfully, after twenty five minutes of tripping over various tram rails with our bags, we managed to find it and crash out for the night: it’s amazing how tiring train travel is, and how sitting in a chair for five hours becomes exhausting!
Vienna was a short stop, but we got a chance to see a lot of the city: it’s clean, modern and full of unexpected things for the casual tourist to see. Our first day consisted of being soaked in torrential rain as we walked around the old Hofburg palace and buildings in the MuseumsQuartier of the city; such a contrast to the baking heat of Croatia. The British summer returns, then! Coming to Austria also meant going back to real prices and “real” money- it was all too easy to wantonly spend, feigning a misunderstanding of the Croatian Kuna.
We quickly found out that there are quite a few unmissable things to see in the city, despite Vienna not being one of the more obvious places in Europe to visit. Blagging our way across the baffling S-Bahn system (with, worryingly, only my broken GCSE German to help us) on our Interrail passes, we visited Prater, a huge park which is also a permanent fairground. Admittedly, eight euros is a little painful in exchange for a wooden London Eye lookalike, regardless of the view of the city, but the area is pretty amusing for a couple of hours. Vienna also boasts the Hundertwasser Haus, a crazy architectural feat built in the late eighties: we wandered for about an hour to find it, despite it being dubbed as the “most visited monument in Vienna”. Right. It is, however, astounding: a block of social housing made up of uneven floors painted in an array of bright colours, with fluid lines of metallic brick criss-crossing it, and the odd tree sprouting from a window to boot. It’s eccentric, vibrant and really worth a see! Witnessing all this artistic splendour works up an appetite; we gave into temptation and ate Schnitzel: an escalope which is suspiciously like a chicken burger, but made good preparation for the five hour train to Prague awaiting us that evening.
The Czech capital is raved about by almost everyone who has visited, and I definitely did not want to be let down by this one! Our hostel, the Old Prague Hostel, was a real find, located just a ten minute walk from the main square. It’s amazing how much public transport costs, and it was definitely the time to tighten the budget (what budget?!) three weeks in to the trip! Freed then from the burden of the rucksacks, venturing out into the old town failed to disappoint. Despite crawling with tourists (the most amusing being the large German group taking the segway tour of the city, quoted as “the coolest way to see Prague” by one naive user), the central area is truly atmospheric, and possesses a northern feel which really suits the overcast sky, much as we regretted the lost days of sun behind us.
Climbing the clock tower was an ideal way for us to witness a view of the city, which is so beautiful with terracotta tiled roofs next to sooty stone towers and spires: really evokes a sort of gothic, fairytale feel to the whole area. Prague castle and the cathedral were well worth the visit, sitting on top of a hill across the river, which we crossed via the old bridge: rows of impressive, if slightly scary, statues of saints line the sides, whilst imposing gates with spires frame each end.
Our experience in Prague at night was equally atmospheric, after a near-disaster cooking dinner in the hostel kitchen (a cheap option, granted, but not exactly easy with three groups of six trying to prepare meals at once around one stove and one work surface, with ten plates between us all). Our main focus, however, was on the beer, which was sold at the equivalent of 98p per half litre. And was, unbelievably, very good! We decided to avoid the slightly embarrassing British alcohol-tourist look by ditching the recommended bar and pub crawls which suck in hundreds of tourists each evening in the city, but after experimenting with the supposed local tradition of beating tankards on the table with each new drink it became clear that we were just as cringeworthy.
Booked onto a night train to Amsterdam, we spent our last day in Prague seeing the Communism Museum: a slightly bizarre choice, but a really interesting insight into the history of Czechoslovakia which only split a few years before we were born. The days spent before boarding a night train are always slightly like purgatory, as we were working towards a deadline: the only option we could see was to eat more filling and delicious Czech food and indulge in more of the cheap beer, before buying some additional food for the train (not that we needed it!). In true student style, we were won over by hare pÃ¢tÃ© at a French market: add a couple of cartons of red wine, and some dark chocolate, it’s the perfect range of, ahem, budget snacks. Or, the bill of fare of several wannabe eccentric academics: perhaps not the best idea of the trip!
The night train was largely uneventful, even if a six person couchette is a huge squeeze. Having never visited Germany before, it was surreal to go through Dresden and Berlin in the evening and to wake up having just left Dusseldorf in the morning, yet this was all part of why the night rail journeys are so important (although making the most of the interrail pass and booking a bed is absolutely essential!) We reached Amsterdam, groggy and hungry, at 10am, where we were escorted as the last ones off of the train by an angry guard, who began by barking “Aus” as it became apparent that we were in no way ready to get out of bed. Nevertheless we soon met another friend from Pembroke who lives in the Netherlands, with whom we would be staying for the weekend: a great opportunity to see the city without panicking over directions!
Amsterdam is picturesque with its network of canals (all of which look exactly the same): this is rather incongruous as streets open up into the red light district, with women in windows even in the morning! Equally surreal was moving on to the Anne Frank house, a completely moving exhibit of Anne Frank’s diary and the hidden annexe: despite having become a clichÃ©d destination for tourists, it was desperately sad and thought provoking. We spent some time in the Van Gogh museum, too, which shows the life of the painter through a chronological exhibiting of his works. It’s a very well thought out exhibition, in fact, as certain famous paintings such as “Sunflowers” do not stand out, whilst you find other brilliant works, such as some of Van Gogh’s oils which take influence from older Japanese artworks.
Staying with our friend’s family meant home cooked meals (heavenly after three weeks of surviving on our own) and great hospitality, but also an experience of the rural area of the Netherlands that is actually known as Holland. Canals are everywhere and the landscape is, as expected, totally flat: we witnessed a change as a huge thunderstorm moved in overnight, in which I saw the most forked lightning that I have ever seen- a really inspiring experience!
Our final leg of the journey took us to Brussels, in which we stayed in the house of one of the companions travelling with us. People have mentioned to me that Brussels is “boring”, but this certainly wasn’t the case! The city centre alternates between modern (and very dominated by the EU presence there) and historic, with the main square being made up of overwhelmingly ornate buildings. Even in September, it seemed Christmassy! The famous sights of the city such as the strange manneken-pis and the atomium pale, however, in comparison with the Delirium CafÃ©: a huge multi-story pub which stocks 2004 different types of beer. Quite an experience and a definite crash course in Belgian-beer-for-dummies!
The final visit that we made was to Bruges, an hour’s train away from the capital. The city is most like Toledo and Prague in being very preserved in a tight and quaint historic style, and we saw quite a few old churches: not necessarily the most fun way to spend an afternoon, but the Basilica of the Holy Blood in the centre of the town is really worth a look. We completed the day with a boat tour in what was, essentially, a teacup which was alarmingly tipping at the rear where I was sitting, and more draught Belgian beer in a recommended student pub (having a friend who lives locally is such an advantage!). Such a fairytale city was a fitting way for me to leave the trip, boarding the Eurostar (with a discount ticket procured through a chance last minute booking) back to Britain, home comforts, and the reality of the majority of a reading list and assorted other chores to complete before the next term begins. It’s true, however, that interrailing is an opportunity that you can really make the most of as a student, and I’m sure that the experience will seem like a beacon to me in the middle of an essay crisis next term. Any tips that I can give? Overbudget, as you will spend everything. Always book hostels with provide free breakfast. Do drink the local beer. And always, always wake up on time when on a night train!