The lessons I learnt travelling around Europe didn’t dawn on me until very recently. Fortunately, one revelation was that I should never grow a beard again.
I think it’s important to state from the beginning, that I believe if you can travel, even for a short time, you should. That said, travelling can have it’s up and downs.
Some people struggle, believing a long, intrepid adventure will help them find themselves and conquer their inner demons.
In some cases, that’s true, time spent away can help clear a clouded mind. For others it can be very stressful, anxiety at being in a strange place, in a strange bed; or maybe enjoying yourself so much that the panic of having to return to a job, where you’re tied down, is a little overwhelming. For me, the stress came from not working, I’d worked almost non-stop for years, I wasn’t cut out for relaxing, it took me weeks to chill-out and enjoy the experience.
With all of that in mind, I would say this, I have never met anyone who wished they hadn’t done it, even when the lessons were tough.
I wasn’t going to go travelling, I’m very extroverted and didn’t want to travel alone, naively I worried that I wouldn’t meet other people along the way. However, just by chance, someone who I was writing an assignment with was in the same position, so we agreed to go together. In honesty, we didn’t really know each other that well, so we’d rolled the dice before we even caught our first train; interrailing from Brussels to Croatia in four weeks. I was a workaholic, arrogant and focussed purely on ticking boxes in my life, I wanted to say “I’ve done that”. Catalysed by travelling and the twists and turns of my life since, I hope I’m not any of those things anymore. So, without further ado, this is what I learnt and a very quick summary of the five places I would return.
Don’t rush. some days we walked 20 miles, our average was around 15 miles per day, this was because we wanted to see everything, but rarely spent more than two nights in any location. It’s far better to relax, see the sights and explore the surprise locations. A big city needs at least three-to-four nights, preferably more.
Leave room for spontaneity in your plan. Having an extra two days of travel on a rail ticket, or booking tickets slightly later, allows you to go somewhere new, or divert in a crisis.
Look after your money, but don’t obsess. Yes of course you don’t want to run out of cash, but if you’ve got the budget, don’t hold back. I used to scoff when people said I should spend money rather than save it. I wish I’d learnt my lesson then, rather than since. Spend money on experiences, spend money on those you care about. Going a bit over budget is not going to ruin the rest of your life, particularly if you spend it on something memorable.
People are far more important than anything else. Meet new people, enjoy the sites with people, look after people. Having a beer in Belgium is far better with five, than one. Even if you travel alone you will meet others doing the same, in hostels, bars and attractions.
So, if I’d just met new people, where would I suggest?
The Five Places to Go
Of course, everyone has different favourites, but…
A beautiful old town square, an amazing salt mine and decent nightlife. Try some vodka if you like it and eat pierogi (Polish dumplings). We caught a bus and visited Auschwitz, it’s horrifying, but important.
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
This was the first time I really felt that I’d ‘got away from it all’. A beautiful town set on a meandering crystal-clear river. We explored the castle, gardens, lake and hills. You can rent a canoe and I would definitely suggest having dinner at one of the riverside restaurants. We stayed in a hostel that was basically someone’s house, which only added to the experience.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Hiking to die for, views galore; we also visited the Vintar Gorge, it was worth the money. One word of warning, it’s common to swim to the island in the middle of the lake. My fitness is not bad, but I almost got myself into trouble. The distance is deceptive, and the lake is 30 metres deep.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
If I had to choose one place, this would be it. Mosques, Churches, interesting food, beautiful markets… and an abandoned sniper tower that you’re not meant to climb… If you’re an adrenalin junky, there’s also a 20m bridge to jump off. The best hostels are incredible and affordable; I’m sitting here wondering why I’m not there. I found Mostar’s history incredibly rich, multiple religions and a terrible war.
A classic. We explored the ruin bars, climbed Gellért Hill, relaxed in the baths, and took in the architecture. If you get a chance, visit on Foundation Day for the markets and fireworks. Budapest has something for everyone, I visited again for NYE.
When I travel again, I will certainly be taking my time, spending my money and meeting new people. Maybe I’ll even go to the same places. Most importantly though, I’ll be relaxing this time; I’ve learnt my first set of lessons.