Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam (Part 1)

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam

The pre-travel essentials and general tips

This summer I bought a twenty-two day global interrail pass and travelled in a disjointed horseshoe shape from Warsaw to Amsterdam, passing through (and marvelling at) Krakow, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Split, Zagreb and Ljubljana. The following paragraphs run through what I believe to be the pre-travel essentials, both literal and figurative.

Pack light – this is one of the imperatives to hold in mind if you’re thinking of going interrailing. Mind you, only a person wishing to do themselves serious back harm, or someone who is wedded to the idea that pain and discomfort are ‘part of the journey’ (they are, but come on, do yourself a favour – at least this pain is avoidable) would think of packing ‘heavy’. I bought the twenty-two day global pass, and as a rough set of guidelines I packed: just over two week’s worth of underwear, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of shorts, six or seven t-shirts, a couple of warm layers and a waterproof. Add to that: toiletries, universal adapters, a bundle of entangled chargers/wires and a few books and that should just about see you through your trip. This should all easily fit into one of those ubiquitous rucksacks that you’ll doubtless see clamped to the backs of weary youths in train stations and hostels.

1(Pack only the essentials to take you from station to station. Author’s own photo)

 Choice of reading on a trip – any trip – is also fairly important. If you’re at all yearning for a precise appreciation of a place, it does a whole chunk of good to either read about that particular city or read about how you might attain a deeper pleasure once you’re there. As my journey took me on a meandering course through Europe, I didn’t really have time to read individual pieces of writing on each area I visited – so I opted for the latter choice. My two top recommendations for those wishing to either mirror my route or travel in vaguely the same part of Europe would be Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel and Claudio Magris’ Danube. Both of these books are philosophical, historical and artistic treatises on the enriching qualities of travelling. The Art of Travel is more accessible that Magris’ work, and I would suggest that you dive into this before drowning in Danube’s elaborate poetry. If you’re feeling very adventurous and are planning on travelling round the former Yugoslavian territory, you might give Rebecca West’s elephantine masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon a go – but just to warn you, you may need to begin the book a year before you set off, it’s that thick!

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Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam (Part 2)

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam

Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz and a night-train to Vienna

The best way to extend your interrailing trip is to spend a while in your initial destination before your pass begins (if you’re opting for the continuous pass), and a while in your final destination once your pass has expired. I began in Warsaw, flying to Modlin airport, which is about an hours coach ride from the city centre (Modlin Bus runs a service for 9 zloty, which is just over £1.50).

1 old town(Wander around the brilliantly preserved Old Town Warsaw. Author’s own photo)

The city was largely destroyed by the Germans during the WW2, as retribution for the Warsaw uprising of 1944. As a result, much of the city stretching away from the Old Town is comprised of fairly unimpressive office blocks and apartment buildings – the kind of architecture that furnishes most, dull western cities. However, the Old Town itself is a startling achievement in preservation and restoration, and is brilliantly pretty. The pastel hues of the buildings nestle snugly within the modernised sprawl. The walk back towards the centre is also dotted with modestly ornate (that may seem oxymoronic, but these buildings weren’t showing off) facades and small churches. Unfortunately, my stay in Warsaw wasn’t extensive but I can say that, as well as the Old Town in its entirety, the National Museum is worth a visit and the Palace of Culture and Science offers a stark example of gargantuan Socialist architecture.

The next stop on my trip was Krakow, which is roughly a three hour train ride from Warsaw Central (Warszawa Centralna). Unlike Warsaw, this city was not so mutilated by the Germans, and so retains much of its bygone charm – this may also be the reason for many travellers enjoying Krakow more than Warsaw (I, too, belong to this bunch). The impression that you might feel visiting many of these historic cities in Eastern Europe is that there is no neurotic wish to conceal the scars of the ageing process – the skin of the weather-worn buildings peels to reveal the bricks beneath, pockmarks and chips dot their faces. That being said, Rynek Glowny Central Square is another example of unblemished history – I would highly recommend an evening wander around the streets that taper away from this square. If you set off down Grodzka Street, towards Wawel Castle (which, incidentally, looks fantastic lit up at night) you will come across Pod Temida, a wonderful Polish Milk Bar (Bar Mleczny). A long-standing Polish tradition (the first was set up in 1896), Milk Bars were especially prominent during the Communist era, providing cheap food to citizens. Prices don’t seem to have changed much – you can get large portions for a pittance!

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Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam (Part 3)

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam

Former YugoslaviaBelgrade and Sarajevo

I’m skipping a bit of the journey now, but here’s where the real meaty part of my trip (quite literally, considering the main dishes in each of the former Yugoslavian countries) bares itself. I was drawn to this area of Europe partly because many countries of the former Eastern Bloc are off the inter-rail map, but mainly because of the rich history, recent and distant, which lives within this territory.

A small mention must go to the sleeper-train from Budapest to Belgrade – a slight step down in luxury from my previous experience from Krakow to Vienna. The compartments had a strange smell; a mixture of barely-concealed body odour and greasy food. The toilet also doesn’t really merit a kind description. Nonetheless, there was some charm to the wood panelling and basic trappings of the train. One other thing that you should probably keep in mind is that border police are not so courteous here – my friend failed to keep his passport out for the two checks (at the Hungarian border and at the Serbian border), and had to suffer through the exaggerated disgruntlement of one Serbian officer.

BelgradeSunrise in Belgrade. (Author’s own photo)

Our arrival into Belgrade was varnished with an amazing sunrise that shot through the tenement blocks in Novi Beograd. There is, for me, a certain geometric attraction to these harsh, old-style Soviet apartment blocks – it was certainly the most different urban landscape I had seen thus far (not similar to the modern-ish buildings in Warsaw). Note: you might not be able to get any currency before you arrive in Serbia, and getting cash out of an ATM doesn’t offer such a bad rate, despite what you might think. A coffee on Kneza Mihaila, or any one of the side streets jutting out from this pedestrianised central district is just the thing to perk you up after nine hours of broken slumber.

Note 2: Serbia uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and so many street names will be unrecognisable – your map-reading skills will have to come to the fore. The Kalemegdan fortress offers imperious views over the new city and also gives access to the city’s most visited tourist attraction, The Pobednik, or The Victor Monument.

Coming away from the river, you can find the Bohemian Quarter down Skadarska Street, which is fully stocked with lovely, fairly inexpensive restaurants. Even further into the city, if you make your way towards St. Sava’s Cathedral (the largest Orthodox church in the world – still under construction, mind you) down Nemanjina, you will come across the decapitated facades of two buildings which were bombed during the NATO campaign in 1999. Here is an example of the suspension of time maintained by human craft – it is an intriguing and, ironically, a disarming sight. The Zemun district is also worth a visit, and, though I didn’t have time to see it, Tito’s Mausoleum should be high up on anyone’s itinerary.

sarajevoA view of Sarajevo with Sehid Cemetery in the foreground. (Author’s own)

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Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam (Part 4)

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam

Split, Zagreb and Ljubljana

I am starting off this piece with a command: if travelling from Bosnia to Croatia, go via Split. This is not so much because Split itself is an amazing place (though it does contain much in the way of nice Roman architecture), but because to make this journey, the traveller will probably have to go by train to Mostar before getting a coach to Split.

This train journey is, quite simply, the most spectacular I have ever taken; it is a fantastic revelation of nature’s magnificence. I would advise you – you must travel on this route if you have the chance – to take the morning train (there are two trains which run daily). Sometimes a good indication of aesthetic beauty is the amount of times the viewer exclaims “F***ing hell!” I was well into double figures on the expletive count, and it’s a good thing the glimpses of grandeur were punctuated by tunnels, as those intervals offered me chance to get my breath back. Once you have arrived in Mostar, you will need exit the train station and turn left immediately to purchase a bus ticket to Split (depending on which coach you get, the prices can range from around just over £10 to just over £25 – generally, the earlier coaches are cheaper).

1

An evening view of Marjan Forest Part from Split. (Author’s own)

If you’re looking for somewhere to rest-up after a period of travel, the Dalmatian coast is dotted with small Romanesque towns. This region is greatly frequented by those wishing to bronze their skin to match the colour of the terracotta roof tiles. Split is second only to Dubrovnik (or so I’m led to believe). in terms of the popularity of these coastal holiday-spots. Diocletian’s Palace is the main tourist attraction, and the area surrounding it is fettered with good (and bad) restaurants – the choicest establishment amongst these is Villa Spiza, where you might experience idiosyncratic service but always delicious food. On a good evening – they generally are pleasant in Split – you can watch the sun drape its rays over the city from the vantage point of the Marjan Forest Park; equally good views can be found by strolling along the sea-front at virtually any time of day.

The one draw-back to Split is the fact that it painfully reminds you of a resort. If this is your cup of tea, that’s fine, but there’s a tacky sweetness to much of the historic sites – as if the wave of tourism has washed the buildings with a sheen of fakery. Places do well when they’re not imitating history – Split often is. That being said, it’s an extremely nice-looking town, and is a good shout for those wishing to engage in the drink-sleep-repeat routine. It is also a few hours coach ride from the beautiful Krka National Park. My advice: get there early to capture the quietude of the place before it becomes crammed with visitors.

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Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam (Part 5)

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Interrailing from Warsaw to Amsterdam

Extras

 So, here’s me finishing up – colouring in the blank spaces. Why did I not discuss Vienna even though I had mentioned it? Or Budapest? Vienna was a part of the trip spent on the outskirts of the city, and as such I saw very little of it. Budapest I saw a great deal of, but it would’ve have been difficult to cram what I had to say about the city into any other section.

1The Parliament Building at night, Budapest. (Author’s photo)

So, we’ll begin the ending (briefly) with Budapest. It’s cheap. It’s interesting. It’s beautiful. That’d be extremely brief. I’ll go into a little more detail: it is one of those cities that does the photographer no good, because there is simply too much beauty to cram into a frame. Every time you take what you think is a nice photograph, you compare it to reality and realise you have left so much out. The view from the Parliament Building over towards the Matthias Church and Buda Castle is magnificent, and vice versa – you should not miss out on the chance to see either side of the river illuminated. Margaret Island is a peaceful sanctuary, away from the noise of the city; I am also well informed that the fountains are infinitely more impressive at night than during the day (I saw them at the latter time, and thought they were wonderful, which gives an indication of their beauty in darkness). The city is also home to the Narnia of nightlife – Szimpla Kert: a menagerie of themed rooms, all alive and all housed inside one of Pest’s famous ruined buildings. In this – the Jewish District – you will find brilliant ruin bars propped up amongst more straight-edged establishments. I’d just like to clarify that this is not at all hyperbole – I honestly fell in love with the city, so much so that I failed to book a train to Bucharest and stayed another night (doubtless I will have to give Romania a visit at a later stage). I haven’t even mentioned the cathedral! There, I’ve mentioned it now, but I mustn’t let Budapest use up all my words – time to be verbose about other things.

2(The Duisburg train station at night, Germany. Author’s photo)

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