After a second successive night on a train, this time with a little less privacy as we shared a 6 birth compartment with 4 others (is description as a hostel on wheel was quite apt), we rolled across the Romanian/Hungarian boarder and into the Shengengn zone meaning it was the last time we would have to face passport control untill we got to the English Channel. Crossing those Eastern European boarders (as with most boarders across the world) was far from smooth and getting into Hungary was no different. Our train was delayed first leaving Romania and then again a few miles later entering Hungary. Two travellers caught the attention of the officials, one was removed by the Romanians for half an hour before being allowed to re-board and continue but only as far as the next stop where the Hungarians took them both off, with their luggage, before waving the train off without them. We were allowed to proceed without hassle though and made up time on our way into budapest in the end only arriving 30 minutes late.
After a quick turn around at our hotel, a change of clothes (I want to say clean clothes, but after 5 and a half months I cant say with any certainty that any of our clothes are clean!) and our first shower for over 48 hours, we headed towards the historic centre of Budapest. It was very apparent that all of a sudden we were closer to home. Gothic European architecture on every street and towering churches round every corner. The biggest of them all was the St Stephen’s Basilica, its huge dome was apparently (and understandably) a pain to build! After a quick look inside we continued towards th river to get a view of the famous chain bridge and Budapest castle. After walking across the bridge we climbed the hill to get a view of Pesc from Buda, the views were definitely worth the slog up the hill in the heat in flip flops (I’d underestimated the amount of walking we were about to do when we left the hotel!) It was a great vantage point to seen the beautiful city and we were happy to enjoy the European summer sun.
After enjoying the view and the sun, we made our way north along the river to another church: the Matthias, fully decked out with colourful roof tiles and high spires. Again, still above the river it afforded more good views of the Hungarian capital. We carried along the river to the next bridge where we walked back down south infront of the parliament building and back to the chain bridge where we had earlier crossed the river. After giving up waiting for the sun to set to get a snap of the bridge lit up (it was still light at 9pm) we headed off to find some traditional Hungarian goulash for dinner before ending the day in the original Budapest ruin bar for a drink. Covered in fairy lights and graffiti the bar in the ruins of a disused building was full of character with tons of rooms and alcoves to get lost in during a nights drinking, the beer was pretty cheap too. Always a bonus!
24 hours in budapest (which were completed with a morning run along the river and back to the hotel via heros square) were followed by 24 hours in Prague. We caught an afternoon train from Hungary to the Czech Republic (sans passport check) and arrived just after 9 pm. Meticulously trying to plan this leg of our trip so that we don’t have to carry our bags for too long meant we were staying in a hostel just by the station in an 18 bed dorm. The hostel was nice; clean with a modern interior and it was only 6 euros per person, but it wasn’t the most comfortable nights sleep we’ve had sharing a bedroom it’s 16 others when the temperature cant have been below 20 degrees. We survived though, and were able to leave our luggage with them all day while we explored the city before our sleeper train that evening.
Walking into Prague for the first time we were aware it was a little more rough round the edges than Budapest, but it seemed to give it a little more character. We tagged onto a free walking tour that happened to be setting off from by a few shops we were browsing. We had an unplanned and near 3 hours tour around the city, explaining a bit of its history how it has been affected by kings and presidents and the break up of different empires. More importantly the tour guide gave us the most important peice of information for exploring Prague: beer should always be cheaper than water, if its not in any establishment it is likely a tourist trap and you should get out of there at all costs! You cant buy that kind of advice!! After being left to our own devices we crossed the river and headed up to the castle. As with Budapest the view from here was incredible, a sea of terracotta rooftops punctuated by church spires and domes, distinctly European but definitely with its own style. After a pit stop in a pretty courtyard tavern, where the beer was indeed cheaper than water, we headed to Municiple House for a concert of The Classics – an hour long performance of work by composers such as Mozart and Bach. A nine peice orchestra with 7 violins a chelo and a double base. The performance was nearly as impressive as the grand hall which had glittering murals and elaborate stained glass windows. To end a really good day in Prague we went to a traditional restaurant recommended by the tour guide – an underground medieval tavern where we got 2 pints, a third of a bottle of wine, a roasted joint of pork, two sides and some schnapps for just £15! To be honest, I’m still not sure why we left the remainder of our travel budget could have lasted 4 times as long there but we have a plan and are trying our best to stick to it!!
The next morning we stepped off the train in Vienna, another day another city, although without my sleep mask which meant i was awake when the sun rose somewhere along the boarder at about 5am. Probably I left it in the bed in Prague meaning that it was the third casualty of my forgetfulness in the last 2 months. If I make it back to London with my head still on my shoulders it should probably be seen as an achievement! After dumping our bags at that nights hotel, we headed into the city for another day of exploring. Feeling much grander than either Budapest or Prague, but I didn’t think with quite as much charm, it was extremely easy on the eye. We started off by exploring the treasury of the Hofberg Palace which exhibited a few centuries worth of jewels and other precious artefacts. After a coffee stop in the palace grounds (double espresso poured over whipped cream and a slice of chocolate taught- the Europeans know how to indulge) we explored other parts of the city. We found another another Christian building named after St Stephen (must have been a popular bloke old Steve) this time a cathedral and it was huge! If St Stephen is looking down, I hope he’s impressed, but also a little embarrassed at the grandeur created in his honour.
Back towards the hotel and the station we stopped at the Belverdere Palace which was as equally as magnificent as anything else in the city. Atop a slight hill it looks over the city via its long palatial gardens expertly landscaped with fountains amongst the plants. Another country meant another traditional meal to try, this one was schnitzel, although the change from the Kroner into the Euro meant we were no longer getting as much bang for our buck!
After a welcomed comfortable and private sleep (our first in 3 nights) we set off from Vienna for Slovenia and Lake Bled. We almost didn’t get off at all though as a last minute realisation that our interrail app was sending us to a different station than we had thought. Queue a slight panick and a hurried Uber request to drive us two miles down the road. Despite worrying we arrived with plenty of time to spare only to realise that the train we were waiting for was coming from the station next to our hotel after all and that we just hadn’t quite used the app well enough for it to give us the correct info. No real harm done except that we now didn’t have a seat for the first hour as the train had filled up at the previous station where it had begun its journey. We eventually did get some seats and enjoyed the stunning Alpine views as we crossed Austria and into Slovenia.
After spending a week “city hopping” Bled was a well timed break from urban life, if only for 18 hours. We hired bikes to cycle to and around the lake as well as enjoying the later afternoon sun by the lido (complete with diving board and water slide). The scenery was spectacular with huge green hills surrounding the deep blue lake on all sides, the water is over looked by a castle on one of those hills and a large church that sits in the middle of a lake on an island. We swam in the lake and its lido for as long as the sun stayed above the hills, it wasn’t too cold and was clean and clear enough to spot fish swimming with you, and chatted to some fellow interrailers before making tracks back to our hostel for the evening.
Eastern Europe now completed, we are on board our 10th train on the week and have this morning crossed the alps and into Italy descending through mountain villages and into flatter farm lands filled with vineyard and olive trees, quite a journey!. The sun has disappeared but its still warm and much more humid although you wouldn’t think it within these air conditioned carriages, Suzanne has goosebumps and is no doubt looking forward to getting back out into the heat in Venice.