Bruges & Ghent

Flanders

– friendships

– beer tasting(maatjies)

– day trip

– unfriendly waiters

Bruges & Ghent

Flanders

– friendships

– beer tasting(maatjies)

– day trip

– unfriendly waiters

Bruges & Ghent

Flanders

– friendships

– beer tasting(maatjies)

– day trip

– unfriendly waiters

Life gets in the way

I do this every time.

I start a post, or a string of posts, get extremely excited about it and then life happens. I have my moments where I feel almost guilty about it. I want to capture my thoughts and my experiences. I want to share them. Not because they are particularly unique or life-changing on their own, but because for me each of them represents something; a tiny part of the picture that is my life. Whether it is something actually life changing, like moving across the globe, or something small and seemingly insignificant like moving my bed.

If I am being honest, I do this with more than just this often-forgotten blog. I do this with laundry, buying groceries, finishing reading that incredibly long article that makes no sense. There is a list of about 35 things I need (or want) to do, but when I get home after a long day I would much rather re-watch an entire season of Brooklyn 99 (again).

Now this isn’t a moment of “self-punishment” and most definitely not a resolution to do better from here on out. The truth is I am not the only person doing this. I procrastinate – on the things that I don’t like doing, but just as much so on the things I absolutely love. Probably not a one-size-fits-all truth, but for me I think this is it: life is busy. Even when you are not busy at that moment, you have stuff to think about, plans to make, things to remember. We are so used to being busy, that we blame ourselves for taking a break. Binge watching half a season on a Friday night is a “guilty pleasure”, because I could have been productive or I should have been social or might even have worked in an exercise session.

Doing nothing is considered a synonym for being lazy. In turn we are so exhausted from always having to be busy and feeling guilty when we do nothing because “I should have been busy”, that we end up in this terrible spiral. I have friends that I love dearly but never speak to – when we text we go through about ten messages just apologising to each other for not having time to catch up. When we finally get to the how-do-you-do’s we have used up all the time we stole for this short conversation, and we end up still not really knowing what goes on in each other’s lives. At the same time I use the “free time” I could have used to catch up with some old friends on things that I don’t necessarily want to do, parties or events I didn’t particularly want to attend or sitting on my bed worrying about all the things I should be doing.

Two weeks ago I was filling out my application for a PhD position that I really wanted. It took me about a week to compile the documents for the application in a presentable manner. By Friday I was exhausted – physically, mentally and emotionally. I really wanted this position so I threw all my energy at it, but at the same time I was neglecting my friends, my health (after that I have had a cold going on three weeks now), my thesis that I am currently working on and my apartment was in an abysmal state. When it was time for 3 o’clock fika, I discussed it with a friend in the office – I said something about having 700 things (yes, obviously this was exaggerated) to do and still being busy with this application. He said to me “do you have a list?”. Obviously I have a list – it is more in the form of ragged thoughts randomly thrown into the puddle that was my Friday-brain, but I had a rough idea of what needed to be done. But in truth, no I didn’t have a list. So his advice (apart from the brilliant point of having a list) was to just focus on the most important thing – to finish this one thing, the application,  before the end of the day. In his words “it is always good to end the week with a submission”.

And that is when I realised that I do this with everything – I get swept up in my “freak out” moment and then I really don’t get anything done. So I have now once again unsubscribed from that guilt-trip-mindset (yes, this is not really a novel event, but hopefully this time it will last). Tried it several times, and I still think it is overrated.

Last week I filled out my UK visa application (which I promised a friend I would do ages ago, but it got neglected – see the pattern?) and booked a short notice trip to Stockholm for the appointment. With no plans, and very little energy because of the persistent cold, I had an amazing relaxing weekend. I have also promised myself that I am not working on weekends anymore – instead I am going to use them to explore this amazing city I live in. I still need to make my list, but I have at least narrowed down the top three things that need my attention NOW.

Perhaps I will even make a (very non-committal) resolution to block out a time now and again to add a post or three to share some of my mad rantings with whomever is willing to take the time to read them.

Hope you enjoy my “submission of the week”

xxx

E

PS. My cold is 99% gone and my room is clean – I still need to do laundry (Rome wasn’t built in a day, okay). If you were wondering, the new spot for my bed is awesome – they say change is as good as a holiday.

Oh, and I got the PhD position

Cologne – the unperfumed version

If you are not very familiar with geography, you might know cologne as something you can use to smell good (or at least better).

Fun fact: Eau de Cologne was invented in Cologne.

If you don’t know the difference between the different smell improvers: it is all about the alcohol. I know, alcohol is not the answer – except in this case. Eau de Parfum has more alcohol and a stronger smell than Eau de Toilette. And Eau de Cologne would be the lightweight of the group.

So if you still don’t know where Cologne is: it is in Western Germany. It has a rich history, and quite an interesting story when it comes to the happenings of the second World War. I promise I will not convert this into a war-stories blog. But if you do have any interest in it, google it a bit. Most significantly though for me is how the cathedral withstood the tests of time (and WW2).

Strolling through the city

I had one day (11am to 11am) in Cologne and I only one “must-do”: see the cathedral. With it being rainy on the first day, I didn’t want to go up the cathedral tower just to have no view from the top. So I decided to take a stroll through the city and see some of the other sites on my way there. I passed the Basilica of St. Cunibert on my way to the river. That is the Rhine river. A mythical river you hear of in stories and songs. In real life it is also pretty impressive. The Hohenzollern bridge that crosses it is quite a sight to behold and the entire fence between the tracks and the walk path (this is on the bridge) is covered with padlocks. By some strabge stroke I ended up taking a photo of one with my name on it. For the record: I was looking for a (any) name that I recognised, so yes I was lucky.

I spent a while sitting in the park on the river bank: Rheingarten. The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through little streets and I passed the old market and the historical city hall. Finally, I arrived at the Cologne Cathedral.

Cologne Cathedral

This Gothic style cathedral is currently the tallest twin-spired church at 157m. It is also suggested to be Germany’s most visited landmark, and for good reason. No matter from which angle you approach it, this impressive structure is bound to take your breath away. Or at least have you look twice . I’ve seen quite a few cathedrals by now, and it is definitely in the top 3. First off, I should mention that I add a photo to show you of which building I am speaking. However, no photo can do this place justice.

In the 12th century the Archbishop of Cologne acquired some valuable relics; possibly through some questionable channels. It being pretty much ancient history, we won’t give ourselves a headache about that now. Either way, these relics had to be housed in a appropriate fashion, so obviously a new cathedral had to be built. Construction started in 1248 and the eastern side was done in 1322. In the middle of the 14th century construction started on the western wing, but luckily we do have some constants through the ages. One of these are delayed construction work. So by 1473 the construction work was halted and for the next about 400 years a crane topped the western tower. It wasn’t completed until the late 1800’s.

Sixty years later the cathedral were hit by 14 aerial strikes, but it survived the war. Good thing I think, because at current rates, crane rental for another 400 years would probably not be worth it. After some repairs (good and bad ones) and more recent renovations, this magnificent building is something to have on your bucket list.

I didn’t go up the tower as it can apparently easily take 30 minutes to reach the top. Now I have been climbing a lot of stairs, but to be safe I’d rather allow 45 minutes to include breathers and moments of severe regret. Seeing that I only had about an hour to spare before I had to leave for my train, I decided to keep that on the list for another time.

Some facts about my stay

  • Days: 1
  • Budget: €84 (for accommodation, food and sightseeing).
  • Actually spent: about €60
  • B&B: DJH Youth Hostel Cologne Pathpoint. I was in a 6-bed room with a shared bathroom. Lockers require a €1 or €2 coin (whih you get back). Breakfast was included and they are very willing to let you store your luggage there (I did for a couple of hours after I checked out
  • Local food: I think this is perhaps more a Germany thing in general, but the waiter suggested I try currywurst with a curry sauce and fried potatoes. It’s good…!

  • Distance travelled so far: about 980km

Although I didn’t go up the tower, I still got to experience quite a bit of the city. The people were friendly and the atmosphere was lovely. I would definitely visit again.

Next up: Bruges

xx

E

Volkswagen trumps Hannover (or does it?)

While I was planning my trip, a major consideration was car museums. I’ve been to the Ferrari museum in Maranello and it was an experience of a lifetime. So while planning my itinerary, I had to see the birthplace of Volkswagen: Wolfsburg. As it was close enough, I decided to make my stopover in Hannover.

Now I should mention that Hannover does not advertise well – I mean, compared to other cities, this one looked rather dull on paper. Then again, for one night I didn’t really care so I could see an hour or two of the city after my adventure in Wolfsburg.

The plan was to stop in Hannover and drop off my bag in a locker before I could head off to Wolfsburg. For the most part, I actually stuck to the plan (yes, this is a noteworthy feat). The only challenge was the link between my reading and basic math skills. See, I would figure out that I locked my stuff up in a (very) short term locker only after I actually locked it. These lockers are €3 for two hours and once you open it, the session expires (large locker price, seeing that my backpack was about 7mm too big to fit through the ridiculously narrow door of the small locker). After about a five minute extremely intense inner battle, and some very basic calcualtions, I decided to go back and move my bag to a 24 hour locker – at €5 this made sense.
With about a 15 minute delay (official reported cause: baggage delays) I caught the next train to Wolfsburg. Literally. I had two minutes to get to the platform. My neighbour was a very nice German girl – well, we spoke a full 10 words. Her English was about as good as my German, so I could gather she lived in Berlin and that she was heading home. For the rest we pretty much smiled a lot, and tried to nod at the one or two words that we could figure out.

Wolfsburg

I can tell you a bit about the history, but I am convinced if you are reading a blog, you know how to Google, so I will not be boring you with that. Just in short, this is where the VW Beetle was born. Where evil genius (a.k.a. Adolf Hitler) met automotive engineering (connecting a name to this is a bit more complicated, so I leave it there) this iconic car was created: the “People’s car”.

Today, Wolfsburg is a bit more than just a Volkswagen factory. It is home to the Phaeno Science Center, which is quite an imposing building just as you exit the station.

You can also find the VW Autostadt here. After some careful research and reading a lot of reviews, it seems like this is more a place to visit when you collect your newly acquired Volkswagen. Seeing that I already paid my train ticket, I figured buying a car would be an unnecessary expense (also perhaps an unaffordable one). So I decided my visit would be spent in the AutoMuseum Volkswagen.

Being a little bit stingy, and slightly disobedient towards my GPS, I ended up walking the long way around. I would say it was the scenic route, but honestly I cannot lie to you like that. Basically I can now tell you where to go to rent a car if you ever need one in Wolfsburg. However, after about 1.8km and some very uneventful sightseeing I finally reached the museum.

AutoMuseum Volkswagen

It needed its own heading. It was that awesome. Yes, perhaps it is due to years of being influenced by my car-enthusiast brothers. Whichever way, this was worth every moment (and the €6 entrance) and I spent almost three hours here. There are various models of the beetle and the microbus, several engines and a section that looks like Friday night at the drag races.*

*Drag races: in my frame of reference this is a Friday night event (referred to as “drags”) about 40km from my home. It involves fast cars, loud music, some drinking and quite often a braai (for anyone not familiar with the term – you would probably call it a BBQ).

The museum also boasts with some race car models, some more recent Volkswagen models and a whole collection of vintage bicycles. Not entirely sure where the bicycles fit in, but it was still pretty awesome to see. Inbetween the cats and bicycles there are small displays of things like old headlamps, engines and factory models.

Hannover

Back in Hannover I got my bag from the lockers and headed out of the station to find a tram. Between the ticket attendant and myself we agreed that it would be best to buy two day tickets (if anyone needs a day ticket, you can have the second one which is not yet validated). By this time I was quite exhausted, but the day would not be complete without getting lost once more. I couldn’t find where he directed me to and ended up walking to the next station. Still, it was worth it to take the tram to the B&B.

With the idea that Hannover was not the most interesting stop, I ended up taking a nap first before heading out. Sadly Hannover is a bit misrepresented. I picked a direction and started walking and as far as I went I saw beautiful places. Even more importantly, this place had an amazing atmosphere. Everywhere people where outside having a drink or sitting and chatting with friends.

I ended up having an iced coffee and a super tasty sandwich at Teestübchen – a cafe that has tables and lawnchairs packed out on the Ballhofplatz.

To conclude (based on my title, I suppose this is necessary)

I’m torn.

If you judge Wolfsburg on what I saw alone, it would be unfair. But even just that, I really liked the city. Considering the museum alone – off course I loved it!!!

However, Hannover was a pleasant surprise and I would most definitely visit again. Personally I think I prefer it over Hamburg.

Some facts about my stay

  • Days: 1
  • Budget: €105 (for accommodation, food, sightseeing and a locker).
  • Actually spent: about €75
  • B&B: Hotel Schwarzer Bär. A basic room with a shared bathroom, but still very comfortable. They have a wonderful breakfast and it is accross the road from the tram stop.

  • Distance travelled so far: about 680km

Next up: Cologne

xx

E

Ps. I will check all the photos once I am back home and if necessary I will replace them with better ones. While I was uploading photos to my phone tonight (through my super cool new USB connector) I accidentally formatted the SD card with the first week and a half of my trip. Don’t ask how it happened – it is a very long story resulting in a “I’m not really sure”. Turns out the “super cool” connector and my extreme technological ineptitude was a very bad combination. So I will try to recover those, but for the mean time the photos on my phone will have to do.

Hamburg – where it all began

Okay maybe a bit dramatic – that is where my trip began. Still, it was pretty awesome.

First off, I was surprised by how much German I understood – don’t get me wrong, it is still extremely little. But at least I was not completely lost and confused by the world around me. The station was easy enough to navigate and it was quite easy to get on the S-bahn to Berliner Tor. This is the station closest to the hostel I stayed at.

So you get out of this little station and… well no first you need to find the right exit. So I headed back in straight through and then: …when you get out of the station you walk under this bridge which we would have typically avoided back home. I mean it looks dodgy – all graffiti and gloomy. Not the most comfortable of situations for a paranoid South African.

If by chance you don’t know a South African, let me tell you: we (I generalise yes – maybe that is just me) have this deep rooted sense of discomfort bordering on paranoia. Now I believe that is a good skill – it keeps you aware of your surroundings. By being suspicious of everyone and everything, you are more vigilant. It also ensures that you have this mini panic attack when you walk out a train station and come face to face with this particular bridge.

Then a guy with a suit and briefcase walks past you. A kid on his kick scooter and well everyone else exiting the station. So after laughing at myself for perhaps being too paranoid (in this instance) I went ahead to the hostel.

The check-in staff at the hostel did not help at all to salvage the reputation of Germans being ‘somewhat’ rude. If you are German: rest assured, I have now decided that this stereotype is not true for you all. I’ve met some super nice people up till now. I can also say that it is clear I have some German heritage. It’s like German Shepherds (haha, see what I’m doing here) – so cute and fluffy and amazing, but you do not want to be on their wrong side.

Hamburg has your typical big-city-feeling – I suppose this is to be expected from a city with around 1,7 million inhabitants. It is big and it is busy. Still there are spaces where it is so peaceful that you almost feel alone. And inbetween the concrete giants, you find these pearls from an old world that has long since been surpassed.

I spent about an hour lying in my room deciding on my next step before I headed to the train station with no specific destination in mind – I had a rough idea of the neighbourhood I wanted to find. After a bit of aimless strolling, I had one word whirling in my mind: steel. This was a city of steel – literally. Amazing steel structures everywhere.

Steel structures everywhere – street lamps on the bridge, a steel bridge at the back (to the left) and a steel tower behind the tree to right

Here I want to interrupt myself to just give you some insight into how I envisioned this trip. I will be travelling (including my time in SA) for 86 days, which is quite a while. Also, it was a rough year and I want to have a bit of a holiday – not just run around to get to see everything.

So my goal for this trip is not to see every tourist spot or landmark. That does not mean I will not go to the touristy places (you will so see posts on the Eiffel tower)! However, I was set on relaxing, experiencing, getting a bit lost and seeing things as I go.

So I followed the steel bridge, and by luck decided to go straight ahead, which lead me to this amazing tower:

Hauptkirche St. Nikolai

The information board in the ‘courtyard’ says the following: ” St. Nikolas’ Church, built on the site of a former 14th century church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1842. New building 1845 – 74 to plans by architect G. Scott. Destroyed 1943 – 44, leaving just the tower and outer walls. The ruin is maintained as a monument against war.”

This monument is intended as a place to remember the victims of war and tyranny. It also boasts with the highest church tower in Hamburg at 147.3m high. There is a glass panelled lift with which you are taken to a height of 76m with breathtaking views over the city and trust me it is worth every cent. [€5 for adults, €4 for students. Incl museum and lift]

Next stop, Miniatur Wunderland…

Described online as the largest miniature or model railway attraction in the world. If I am very honest – I was sure this was one of those model-train-nerd places (sorry!). However, a lot of internet sources rank this as the top thing to do in Hamburg, so I went despite my reservations. And oh how wrong I was in my assumptions. This was truly one of the most fascinating museum (for lack of a better category – maybe exhibit?) visits I have ever had! I was like a little kid – pressing all the buttons, getting excited about the flashing lights and taking hundreds of seemingly identical photos. You basically travel through miniature models of USA, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and Switzeland (I hope I am not forgetting any place). So if you have about 2 – 3 hours and €15 to spare: GO!

Speicherstadt

Another top listed sight is the old warehouse district in the Hamburg port. The area was built in the 1880’s and is now classified as a historical monument. Buildings with oak-pile foundations, canals that fills with the tides and steel bridges (told you it is everywhere) – it is really something to see. I wandered between the buildings the whole morning and if it wasn’t for thinking I might starve, I would have stayed longer.

Miniatur Wunderland is located in this area, so you really have no excuse to miss it.

So, was Hamburg worth it?

YES!! It did most definitely not disappoint. The city itself is busy in places, but there is something for everyone. I think for now I am happy with what I saw, but if I would ever find myself in Hamburg again I won’t be hiding out in the hotelroom either.

Some facts about my stay

  • Stop on trip: #1
  • Days: 2
  • Budget: €180 (for accommodation, food and sightseeing for 2 days).
  • Actually spent: about €143
  • Hostel: A&O City. The biggest hostel I have seen. Really nice though, with a decent breakfast and only about 300m from the S-Bahn station.
  • Local transport: I only used S-bahn because it provided easy enough access and it is included with the Eurail pass.
  • Distance walked (according to the “very credible” Samsung tracker): 11km + 13km
  • Local cuisine tried: Labskaus. It’s weird, but I like it.

Next up: Hannover

xx

E

My first Eurail train trip

As an interlude post I figured I will shortly describe the practical side of using the Eurail (or Interail for that matter) pass.

In my previous post I told the tale till where I got on the train. Now that part is hardly something that confuses anyone. What is somewhat confusing is how the rail pass works. See the websites describe how you need to get it validated and what you should fill in on your travel diary. It does not describe things like where you should sit. For a South African rather new to public transport, these are the basics you need to cover! So for anyone looking for information on the practical side of how this works – let me try to elaborate:

  • You get your pass activated before you get on the first train. Now I bought mine pre-activated, but I got it stamped anyway (just to be extra sure).
  • You look for the train on the station boards to get the right time of departure and which station. Now in my opinion this is straight forward in Italy, Sweden and Germany (at least what I have seen up till now). It was not so straight forward in Portugal – but maybe I just didn’t get the system.
  • You can check the Rail Planner app to see if reservations are required. If not explicitly required, you could get away without it. In Germany you can apparently not reserve a seat on a regional train. For the record, I asked a DB official (at the ticket office) who told me that it is not required to reserve the IC or ICE trains in Germany, even though the app said “reservation recommended”. Now I’ve never been one to spend money if it isn’t necessary – and worst that could happen is that you don’t have a seat (so you have to stand for the trip). So if you want my opinion: get a train that starts at or soon before your point of departure, and get on that train as soon as possible.
  • If you do have to reserve, like I first had to for my train between Cologne and Brussels, you can do it on the train company website. Tha Rail Planner app does offer a reservation service, but it is worth to first see if you can do it directly with the company. Why? Well for this trip through the app it was €20; the same reservation on the DB website was €4.50 (you simply look for the journey and select the “seat only” option next to the booking button).
  • As for knowing if a seat is reserved – well I can only comment on what I have seen on the five German trains I was on. Above the seats there are these digital displays that shows a name or “reserved” or something (if there is some text, take it as reserved). If the screen is blank – grab the seat!

*I will try to update this post with information from different countries as I go along.

For now, safe travels

E

The final countdown

You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way! – dr. Seuss

I love dr. Seuss, but I’m sure he left out the crucial point of preparing for your trip. Or maybe his character had better planning skills. Either way, for me the day before leaving is usually so crazy that I almost forget about the trip itself.

This is what happened to me on Monday. My ferry was set to depart at 18:45 and I wanted to be there around half past five. I only had a few things to do… like pack. Now what I haven’t told you yet is that I was packing for a three month holiday and I was set on only taking my backpack.

T-34 hours

*34 because we were out till 3am and I was too tired to get up at seven.

Early Sunday morning and I had a list as long as my arm of things that needed to be done. So I did what any reasonable person would do:

  1. Made a list
  2. Did something entirely different

I ended up booking two more hostels, made lunch and went to the park for my friend’s farewell.

T-24 hours

After a long (and some might say tearful) goodbye, I headed home just in time for my laundry slot. With it being exams, I didn’t do any the past week and a half – so I needed to do laundry before I could pack.

T-11 hours (so 8am)

I managed to only sleep 15 minutes longer than my last (of 3) alarm. With clean clothes, I could finally start packing. Now came the challenge. 1 hiking backpack. 86 days travel. Longest in one place: 7 days. Air travel that might require a maximum weight allowance of 7kg (haha, not a chance). After packing out every piece of clothing I have, carefully selecting each piece and rolling them (apparently this saves space #traveltip) I squeezed everything into my bag. And no packing session would be complete without the process of weighing, doubting, unpacking and repacking (with no change from before). So take two ended in a somewhat satisfactory result. I just needed shampoo (which by the way, I already bought months before and forgot about).

T-8 hours (11 am)

An hour later than planned, I headed to the mall with a simple threefold mission. Transfer money between accounts, buy data, buy shampoo. An hour later (record time, I should add) I had enough money in my account for rent, bought data enough to support a small village forever, bought a travel wallet and got shampoo (and a toothbrush, new hair brush, cappuccino and a lunch box). So yes, I went slightly off script there, but I was still on time.

T-4 hours (3pm already)

I only had lunch and 2 hours had passed – still not sure how that happened. But I had 4 hours before departure left , which meant 2 hours before I had to be on my bus. And I still needed to clean, pack the last things, clean a SD card (or seven) and make space on my phone.

Two hours.

If you think that seems ridiculous – you are right. I’d also have you know that I got to most of it – just not emptying my phone’s memory. That is really no big deal though. Apart from a permanent notification saying “Storage space running out; some system functions may not work” (I am sure it is nothing).

T-… oh who I am kidding? I am running late

With 15 mins left, I was still drying dishes and taking out the trash and putting away my laptop. I was more stressed than before my exam a week ago. But I made it. In fact I had to wait for the bus about two minutes. And I have not yet remembered something I left behind. Off course the connecting tram was cancelled and I waited ahout 10 minutes for the next one, but that gave me time to get a water (okay, I just realised I lied – I did forget my water).

Ferry from Gothenburg to Kiel, Germany

Best decision ever. *

*Perhaps this is a good time to inform you that I am easily excited. Everything is pretty. And a lot of decisions can (and will) be described as the best ever. Descriptive words like awesome, amazing, fantastic (etc.) will also be common – refer back to the fact that everything is pretty.

Anyway, I am really glad I decided to go with the ferry rather than, well anything else. Boarding was easy enough; finding my cabin slightly more challenging. There are a lot of cabins! So after lying on my super white bed, then lying on the couch (I was tired from running around like a beheaded chicken the past two hours, okay) I finally made my way out to the sun deck. And this is where I spent most of the evening. Two guys from Germany (father and son) shared a beer with me and I got to see an amazing sunset over the Baltic.

A bit about the ferry: I travelled with Stena Germanica going to Kiel. If memory serves, it was something like €75 for this trip with an inside cabin. Drinks were expensive, as expected. But the store was superbly cheap – well that is if you compare prices to Sweden. There was wifi onboard, which I could not connect to – in all fairness though, I think the fault was with my phone not the wifi.

The next morning I was lazy to get up, but I finally made it to the deck in time to see us arriving to Germany. Another hour and a half and we were disembarking. I was in Germany.

Kiel train station

I cannot really comment on Kiel. I saw the port and the train station. Walking between these two is quite possible – I mean I did it with a 10+kg backpack – but there is a free bus also. I only saw this when I actually crossed the road to the station…

The people working at the DB counters were super helpful and the station is quite easy to navigate. Within 20 minutes I was getting on my first train – pass validated (again), basic German skills activated and all hyped up for the trip to come.

Check back on the next post to see about my next stop.

E

The Europe trip of a lifetime

We all have that childhood dream – becoming a doctor, having a Ferrari or even just a pony. I think one of my first dreams were to visit Greece. I have been playing Zeus (a computer game where you build your own empire) and fell in love with the mythology. When I got (much) older and finally got my first opportunity to travel, I went to Italy. I know, it seems strange to dream about something for years and then not grab the chance when it comes, but I was travelling with a friend and we found the middle ground.

Another two and a half years and I am living in Sweden with a residence permit allowing me access to the Schengen area. And I still haven’t gotten to Greece. I have however just kicked off the most amazing trip you (or then me) can ever imagine.

So I will try to keep you posted as I move around. Being on trains a lot should give me a chance to jot down some ramblings. But first I’d like to tell you about the trip in general.

How it got started

When I got the opportunity to move to Sweden, I saw one huge perk: three months summer vacation with open access to Europe. I have been saving up for ages with no specific plan. So this was it. I was going to see Europe.

I started planning in January and quickly realised that three months only sounds long. If you want to visit the whole Europe that means very little time in each city. So I had to trim and skim and sadly eliminate some places until I got a rough plan of which countries I could get to.

The overall route

After a careful (and a bit sad) process of elimination, I decided I will visit Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria and Czech Republic. Yes, Portugal is in cursive – the trip was still too long, so I moved that up a bit and visited Portugal early April. I will tell you about it sometime.

And as you will notice Greece is again not on the list. For now the plan is to do that next year.

Visiting home

Inbetween all this, I wanted to make time to go home to South Africa. Now, I haven’t seen my aunt and uncle in a year, so that was a priority. I also wanted to visit the coast and I’d need to say hello back in my home town. So I picked two weeks overlapping my brother’s school holiday (so we can visit the South Coast as a family) and looked for flights from anywhere in Europe. Finally it was decided: I will be flying from Amsterdam to Cape Town to visit my aunt, then from there to Durban for our holiday and then we drive up back home (close to Johannesburg). So a mini SA tour squashed inbetween.

Planning the itinerary

Everyone has their way of planning for a trip. I like to plan for ages on random trivial things and then do the important things in the ‘final hour’. This is thanks to both my somewhat short attention span and amazing ability to procasternate. Anyway, I started by finding the top things in each country to do (sorted into cities). Then I looked at the easiest way to make a round trip around Europe.

Easy.

Okay I am lying. I wrote and edited, scrapped and rewrote, and edited again. But I finally got a plan that would have me in Amsterdam on time for my flights, Brussels to meet a friend I haven’t seen in ages, Turin for another friend’s graduation and somewhere nice* for my birthday.

*somewhere nice: this was the very specific requirement I had. I also did not want to travel too much and wanted to be able to either relax or go out and have fun. So yes, pretty much anywhere. Initially I planned for Paris, but after reconsideration I will now spend the weekend in Aix-en-Provence (France).

Rail pass

My first important step was to decide on travel mode. I took hours, days even, to weight the prices and durations. I prefer train over bus – it has more room and you can get up and walk somewhere; and it is faster. Now if you are wondering if the rail pass is worth it, let me give you the long and short of my considerations and why I decided to buy it.

  • I had the option of Eurail or Interail as I am a non-EU citizen currently living in Europe. Interail is (somewhat) cheaper if you buy anything up to a 2 month pass. There is however no 3 month continuous pass as with Eurail.
  • Youth passes are cheaper (we know that, right). The thing is, you have to be 27 or younger the day you activate the pass to utilise this. So if I would buy a three month pass, I could use the youth pass. If I would buy a shorter pass, I would probably validate it after my 28th (shhhhh) birthday.
  • I calculated costs for most of the journeys I want to take. Seeing that I want to travel a lot, this amounted to quite a huge sum.

Everything considered, the Eurail pass made a lot of sense for me. I would like to suggest that you take the time to first see what the value of your travel would be before you buy it, as it is not always cheaper to buy the pass. Offcourse I was extra lucky as there was a summer sale on and I ended up paying €780 for my 2nd class 3 months continuous youth pass (say that 3 times fast) with shipping.

Booking everything

I was writing exams until Saturday and departed Monday night. Now keep in mind it was the end of our school year, so Saturday (whole day after the exam) was dedicated to a social with the class. Sunday afternoon was spent saying goodbye to friends and laundry afterwards. So in short: I did not get to much. Up till now I have booked places for half of the trip, but I need to do the rest soon. Mostly I plan to stay in hostels – it is affordable, but I prefer to stay in them for the atmosphere. If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should! I’ve also reserved my spot on the chocolate and cheese train in Montreux (Switzerland). The rest I’ll take as it comes.

So now you know my general plan, welcome to my trip! If you follow along and want me to share something specific, give me a shout and I can add that in the upcoming posts. Same goes for any questions about my planning or itinerary in general.

As always – thanks for reading!

E