A Gap Year in Central Europe
Backpacking in Central Europe; an absolute essential trip for any keen, culture hungry backpacker. This region is a melting pot for East meets West; the obvious remnants of the Soviet Empire are abundant, but with it come a sprinkling of westernised, tourist modernity. Here, we leave Paris, Barcelona and Rome and welcome the animated and historically rich cities of Sarajevo, Budapest and the Dalmatian island paradise of Hvar.
Backpacking is just as much about the journey as the destination and therefore interrailing is a great place to start. It's a one-size-fits-all model; no matter your age or your travel experience. I interrailed through Europe for seven weeks and each journey was different, each encounter distinctive and even more bizarre than the previous. Travel by train allows you to experience the true spirit of travel; absorbing the atmosphere and being motivated to venture into the great unknown.
My most recent trip backpacking in Central Europe started in Budapest and over the next two weeks I crossed borders on buses and trains and ended up on the sparkling edge of the Black Sea in Varna, Bulgaria. The revelation of the actual word 'travelling' and all that it encompasses was ignited on this journey through central Europe. It was the 11 hour bus ride through the Bosnian countryside and the night train from Belgrade to Sofia that really intoxicated my yearning to live and breathe on the road with my rucksack.
Arriving in Budapest, it was 40 degrees. That is too hot for someone who lives in a country with two seasons and one day of summer. With the romantic Danube river piercing through the eastern Buda and the westerly plain (Pest), Budapest puts up a good fight for the crown of most beautiful city in central Europe. With its unique melange of the Baroque era and contemporary design, the city equates to an architectural paradise. Be absorbed in its Roman amphitheatres, Gothic-style cathedrals and traditional Turkish baths.
That night we settled down at one of the innumerable riverside restaurants. Eating out in Central Europe is very reasonable; you can dine at fancy restaurants for a bargain price. In the centre of Budapest, along the main shopping district, the Vaci útca, a number of market halls can be found that are great for food. Be careful though, it's one of the places where you can get ripped off, so, eat before you go because it is still definitely worth a visit.
For some true Hungarian gastronomy, visit the popular garden restaurant in the leafy Huvosvolgyking. This is the place to find Hungarian home cooking with extravagant portions and reasonable prices. There's even live music too. There are only a few things better than having a hearty meal absorbing understated atmospheric delight under shady trees in the open air.
At night, Budapest really exhibits its true beauty. The atmosphere along the river holds a grandeur of intimacy; a bustling city, illuminated by speckles of golden lights... And so we left this wondrous city as a distant memory of hot baths and bridges and set off on yet another train towards Croatia.
You have to be prepared for the heat while backpacking in Central Europe in the height of the summer. And while the fancy trains of Western Europe pride themselves with the wonder of air conditioning, those of Central and Eastern Europe do not. So take light, breathable clothes that you don't mind getting ruined because no one cares what brand your clothes are. Be comfortable!
I arrived in Split, after the last ferry to Hvar had departed. This was my first time travelling alone but I revelled in the excitement of having nowhere to sleep and eventually found a room. Hvar was just as beautiful as I remembered: a watering hole for vivacious, international trend-spotters always in search of the next undiscovered hideaway. For those that have never seen pictures of this wonder, think the Caribbean made sweet love with St. Tropez and made their beautiful baby, Hvar. A melange of quaint beauty with rustic flare and luxurious sophistication makes Hvar the ideal destination for us cheap-skating backpackers and those high-flying, big-boat-owning, 79 euro caviar eating, lavish-life living toffs.
When I arrived at Hostel Villa Skansi, a large, refurbished hostel in the centre of town, I made an effort to simply sit on the deck in my own, look out at the beautifully relaxed view and smile. Then in the late afternoon, I sweated my way into town, sliding through charming white back alleys where stern locals sit on crates outside their shops, staring at you with their wrinkled faces. Along the seafront I bump into two girls I met on the ferry and we decide to rent a boat together; it was spontaneous and lovely; three friendly strangers gliding through blue, patch worked waters with no sense of day or time. This island is abundant in beauty and there are several ways to discover its secrets; rent a moped and traverse the whole island in less than a day. Or, experience the tranquillity of the island by renting a boat and drift into the solitude of the sparkling Dalmatian sea.
So after four wonderful days exploring the Croatian utopia I rose early the next morning to catch a bus to Sarajevo. It was truly the most beautifully stunning journey on public transport I had ever taken. Staring eagerly out the window, I was happy to leave the busy, young crowds of Croatia and move on to lands unknown. As we slowly meandered our way closer to the Bosnian border, a panorama of arid hills and lush valleys began to emerge. There comes a point where the tourism stops and farming begins and the day-to-day lives of the people become apparent; sustenance living - a charmingly simple life surrounded by vast, dramatic scenery and family.
See the sights in Bosnia
I arrived in Sarajevo later that evening, dumped my bag in the hostel and went for a wander. I quickly began to discover what a juxtaposed city I had found myself in. 44% of the Bosnian population are Muslim. This fact presents you with a truly effervescent melange of East meets West, while within the deepest, darkest depths of Eastern Europe. In the old part of town, pristine mosques with gold fringing can be found, intertwined with an array of cool, vibrant coves where people are sat outside in the slowly fading heat and dying light. Some socially smoking shisha and others huddled around small wooden tables drinking traditional teas.
To think what this city experienced a mere 20 years ago, the vitality that Sarajevo emits is truly inspirational and this is the element that is going to make the holiday makers in search of a historically rich and vibrant trip flock here in the coming years. Even though my visit was transitory, I was injected with a hunger to go back for more.
After my brief but igniting visit to the hidden Eastern gem of Sarajevo it was time to board the night train to Sofia. The time of 21.50 finally came around and I gulped down the rest of my water and the leftovers of my stale chocolate croissant, picked up my bag and made my way to the carriage doors. As I entered through the rickety metal frame, a wall of sticky, stale heat hit me. I found carriage 5, bed 53 which was positioned in a 6 person carriage on the middle level. I soon met my cabin gypsies; three Dutch people; a couple and a fellow solo traveller. We spent the entire evening huddled outside the cabin in the cramped but all the more breezy corridor chattering about our previous travels.
Tales from Istanbul, Krakow, Morocco and many more richly exotic places were shared. As the rest of the train started to tire, the cramped corridor gradually emptied and it was left in the company of me and my temporary Dutch companion with our heads leant out the window gazing into the dim haze of the moonlight. Time passed and as it did, more and more stars appeared in the already starry sky; it was the epitome of my contentment. The night train; a rich experience to say the least; the older the train, the more captivating the experience. Travelling at speeds of 70kmph, the blurred life that can be seen from the window escapes your vision instantaneously, giving you only a mere flash of another life, and the fact that that life will carry on even if you are not there to witness it makes the journey all the more insignificant. Still, it does not take away the beauty that we witness and feel while travelling alone on a night train through an unfamiliar and foreign space.
When I decided it was time to retire to my second storey bunk, I slid open the worn, tired doors and not-so-graciously clambered into bed. My backpack lay under my pillow, I lay on my front, with my head facing the window with the dry breeze caressing my face and was slowly sent to sleep by the rhythm of the rocking train.
If you're thinking about interrailing or backpacking in Central Europe then head over to our InterRail section for more advice and infomation. You can find out about things like popular routes and ticket information.
If you're new to the world of interrailing then a good place to start is a beginners guide to interrailing - that should ease you into the subject.
And of course, we all want to save some euros so read about interrailing on a budget - who knows, it might mean you can afford that extra beer!
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About the Author: Jen Whittingham
I definitely caught the travelling bug at a young age, with various family members living in diverse corners of the globe. Therefore, in this sense, I have been blessed with yearly summer holidays. However, as I got older, the more opulent, touristy countries started to disinterest me and I wanted something more rough and rugged. Some of my more recent trips to Morocco and the island of Carriacou were where my love for travel and culture truly started to ignite.
The next thing on my agenda was travelling without the burden of a family and this started with a seven week InterRailing trip across Europe; from sweaty trains and sleeping in airports to hammocks in Hvar and pizza diets in Italy. This trip completely intoxicated my yearning to be a globe-trotting nomad. Next, I’m hoping to venture to South and Central America where life is sweet, simple and sunny!