Mums' Adventure - In The Heart of Europe
Mums Go Packpacking
A few years ago my friend and I had reached a stage in our lives where, with our children’s increasing independence, we were becoming aware of the things we didn’t do when we were their age. We both grew up in a time and a place where girls like us settled down quickly rather than striking out on adventures. But it’s never too late, is it? We decided to find out. So in early June, a few years ago, we packed our backpacks and headed for the airport. We were going to fly out to Eastern Europe and incorporate some city breaks with a train trip through three countries to make one adventure.
We wanted a part of the trip where we stepped away from the assured tourist locations for a few days so, after spending all our Hungarian forints, we trundled towards Budapest’s Keleti Railway terminal in search of the international desk and distant Poland.
St Stephen's Basilica, BudapestClick thumbnail to view full-size
Travelling in Eastern Europe
The area thought of as ‘eastern Europe’ geographically covers the Baltics, the Balkans and South Central Europe and is very diverse, some things to bear in mind:
- Unlike Western Europe, less than half east European countries are in the Euro, most have retained their own currency so check this out in advance.
- It is culturally and religiously diverse, with some mainly Islamic areas and deeply catholic areas, so be respectful of local habits and holy days.
- Don’t assume the weather will be uniformly cold. Dubrovnik rarely experiences freezing temperatures and Budapest is warm from April to September.
- Getting about is often quick and easy as many areas have good tram systems.
The Train Journey
The train to Slovakia was old and slow. It stopped constantly, at almost every house it seemed to slow down so someone could leap off. Although there were many villages and farmhouses there were very few large towns and, on the Slovakian leg of the trip, even when there was a proper station most of the stops didn’t have name signs.
After leaving Budapest we crossed a flat plain with a distant ring of mountains, eventually emerging into the pretty and peaceful Slovakian countryside. It was also very aromatic with wild flowers and had a pre-industrial air with small holdings divided into strips that that must have been how England looked under the feudal system. When we journeyed further north towards Poland the landscape became more alpine, the trains more modern and the official stops more defined but chugging through Slovakia was like a journey back in time.
The students and gap yearers that we met took the journeys from one destination to another in their stride, only expressing irritation when they couldn’t get a seat on a 10 hour trip, but we felt we had to break our journey.
Our arrival in the only possible stopover town on a 400 km trip was marked by confusion. The rather cavalier attitude to station names led to a last minute debate about the likelihood of this actually being our stop. The resultant dithering blocked the exit from the train and resulted in a whole carriage of Slovakians shouting helpful comments (at least that’s what we chose to assume they were doing). When we alighted from the train we knew we were in the right place because of the Stalinist-style tower blocks ringing the entire town like teeth marked it as a major town.
Central Eastern Europe
Cycling in Krakov's Kazimierz District, or Jewish QuarterClick thumbnail to view full-size
Hostelling For Forty Somethings
- Hostels are often in good central locations and make it easy to get to know a city without spending time travelling in and out from tourist hotels.
- They are cost effective on longer trips and you will meet lots of other independent travellers
- Although there may often be more 18-30 year olds, you will meet people of all ages and find most people friendly and ready to share experiences.
- It tends to be easy to spot the party hostels from the descriptions. Also bear in mind students and gap year kids may be well-represented in the absolute budget hostels as they are happy to balance roughing it against a limited budget.
- Be sensible and make some concessions to age by sticking to your case with wheels, a backpack with a few weeks’ worth of stuff in that has to be hauled around railway stations every few days is for strictly for those with strong backs.
A Tram Stop In Slovakia
The Buffet Car On The Train To Poland
A Stop Off Somewhere in Central Eastern Europe
One of the benefits of straying off the tourist trail is, not only the opportunity to sample real local life, but paying non-tourist prices. This didn’t apply to the taxi driver who took us to our hostel. He must have gone away to have his teeth fixed or pay for his daughter’s wedding after dropping us because what he charged was so dramatically out of proportion to the cost of everything else – it was almost more than we spent the rest of the time we were there.
We started to worry a bit when he whizzed us around the ring road and past the city. When he pulled up outside one of the huge grey tower blocks with a gaggle of down-at-heel men hanging around outside we began to suspect that this was a different understand of the term ‘hostel’ to what we had intended.
Checking in was an interesting and lively experience with us employing all our communication techniques, including me writing things down and waving them at the receptionist and my companion thrusting her ‘East European Phrase Book’ under the partition. A number of the men outside had followed us in and joined in the general confusion by shouting advice in Slovak, at least we assumed that’s what it was.
.Somehow we eventually all agreed that we had booked one twin room and were going to pay the unexpected tax without a fuss and set off to find our room. We walked up and down what should have been the right corridor about five times hoping room number 212 would magically appear. We even rattled the door of what looked like a broom cupboard before trying a few other floors.
Finally, when we had given up and were sitting on our backpacks trying to summon the energy for another conversation with the receptionist an Australian couple appeared and let us into the secret that what we had taken for a broom cupboard was actually security doors, behind which all the international rooms were locked.
Down a very dark corridor was our utilitarian room, with what appeared to be a group of street drinkers forming a welcoming committee outside our window. Despite this the Australian couple had assured us that the town was really pretty and easy to get to on the tram so we set off the find something to eat.
As we left it started to rain quite hard but the town centre was indeed lovely, with a graceful central square, lovely old buildings and a musical fountain. We found a restaurant that looked like it had potential and pitched into another challenging communication episode. However our herculean struggle with the phrase book and wild gesticulations were silenced when a menu with an English translation was produced. I think it’s safe to say that we all cheered.
In our defence I would be pleased to see anyone do better, whereas the uralic-rooted Hungarian had been at least pronounceable if you could remember it (which I couldn’t) we found the slavically-rooted Slovac physically impossible to get our tongues around. I did try to at least say ‘thank you’ each time, which was something like ‘dzcovy’ but it came out differently each time and I suspect it sounded like an amusingly random collection of consonants to the Slovakian ear.
Having said that it was certainly worth it because we both had lavish dinner and two pints of beer each for the price of a happy meal. Then we went out into pouring rain and waited for ages at the tram stop to get back to our tower block.
'Must See' Highlights Of The Region
Where To Go
The Adriatic Coast
The Gellert Thermal Baths
The Jewish Quarter and Oskar Schindler's Factory
The Charles Bridge in the heart of the city
The East Side Gallery on the remaining section of the wall
St Urban Tower in KosiceClick thumbnail to view full-size
Back To The 21st Century.
In the morning, as there wasn’t a kettle or any way of making coffee we packed up and left. In our haste to move on from the tower block experience we found ourselves at the station very early and with plenty of time to browse around the many kiosks and stalls in the station concourse. Fruit and vegetable stalls featured much more frequently than in UK train stations and we were able to put together a picnic for the journey.
The train, however, was of Polish extraction and turned out to be fast, efficient and blessed with an amazingly luxurious and formal buffet car, complete with snowy white tablecloths and silver teapots. Thus we headed towards our onward journey and back to the twenty first century, having experienced the contradictions and juxtapositions that have arisen from the hardships and turmoil suffered by this part of Europe that has given the countries their unique character.