Sometimes considered the quintessential rite of passage, the summer InterRail backpacking trip through Europe is a dream for some, a long-lasting cultural tradition for others, and a romantic idea for most. For me, it started as a thought, quickly developed into a consuming passion and eventually became a reality. During my second year of high school, I started bouncing the idea off of a few friends, and the ensuing three years became witness to dozens of different iterations of itinerary, group size, trip duration and so on. New ideas flourished every day. Countries were added, weeks were dropped, but nothing was really set in stone.
As this trip was four years ago, I’ll highlight some of the memorable moments from the adventure, broken up into three posts.
Strategically planned for the summer following graduation and before university, this 1-month trip also happened to coincide with the 2010 World Cup. This was an exciting addition to our plans, but realizing that we would be traveling during peak season with the added influx of football fans from around the globe, pre-departure planning promised to be a stressful process. However, thanks to good teamwork and timely preparation, everything developed relatively smoothly. A few months before taking off, the final roster was set (myself and three close friends from school), plane and InterRail tickets were purchased, and a rough itinerary was finalized. Two months before taking off, hostels were booked using an intricately devised course of action: over the course of two days, “Cheapest Hostel in **Insert European City** ” was Googled, the cheapest hostel was found, and without too much thought, reservations were booked.
The rough itinerary shown below was planned as follows: Paris (5 days) -> Amsterdam (3 days) -> Berlin (3 days) -> Prague (3 days) -> Munich (10 hours) -> Florence (3 days) -> Chianti (4 days) -> Rome (4 days), and approximately 5-6 days dedicated to travel and unplanned excursions. One of my travel buddies and closest friends, Evan Hofberg, and I decided to break off from the group after Rome and extend our travels to Turkey for a vacation in the Aegean city of Bodrum and a few weeks in Istanbul.
After stuffing our 70+ liter backpacks and saying our goodbyes, we were off!
A fifth friend of ours, Andy, would be joining the gang for the first stop of our trip. Arriving a few hours before the rest of us, Andy made his way to our hostel in the 2e arrondissement to check us in.
Upon our arrival, finding the hostel was a bit of a struggle, as there was a small sign for the hostel on the building but no sign of an entrance. With no way of getting in touch with Andy, we started wandering around and noticed a small alley near the sign. After a few minutes of looking around, Andy finally stepped out of one of the back doors in the alley. He led us up a surprisingly steep spiral staircase and through an unlabeled door into a tiny apartment kitchen. We probably shouldn’t have been too surprised, as this was the “Cheapest Hostel in Paris”. Passing a few guests in the kitchen, we walked by a corridor of 2€ shower stalls that we would soon be intimately acquainted with, and met the owner of the hostel. The owner kindly explained to us in broken English that the room we had booked for our stay wouldn’t be available until the following night, and our first night would be spent in the only other room in the apartment/hostel. Entering said room, walking space quickly disappeared as we were met with an intricately Tetris-esque arrangement of several bunk beds. The path to our beds, which were conveniently situated in the opposite corner of the room, required hopping through three lower bunks and climbing over who we still refer to today as the “Battlestar Galactica guy”, an unkempt American “traveler” who spent the better half of the week immobilized in his lower bunk watching the sci-fi series on his laptop. Embracing the atmosphere, we dropped off our bags and threw ourselves into the streets of Paris.
The remainder of our first evening set the stage for the rest of our time in Paris. Our days consisted of hours of aimless, hypnotized wandering, lounging in street corner cafés, experimenting across the gamut of French cuisine and making the occasional stop at museums and other attractions.
A few days before departing for Amsterdam, we needed to purchase train tickets. I seized this opportunity to put my years of French language education to good use and attempt to organize the tickets for the four of use. Despite speaking decent French with Parisians around the city during our first few days, I was upset to find that, regardless of my insistence, most preferred to reply in English. Hoping this wouldn’t be the case at the train station, I adamantly made my way to the “French-speaking” counter and began describing (pretty well, if I may say so) our itinerary and requests to the booking clerk. After nodding affirmatively to a few questions I didn’t quite understand, I ended up with a total of 12 tickets for the 4 of us. When my friends asked for an explanation, I confidently pointed out that there were no direct trains for the times we wanted, and we would have two transfers in Belgium. What I failed to mention, or rather what was lost in my brain’s translation as I desperately tried to understand the booking clerk, was a slight detail that we discovered later that night after double-checking our tickets: we would have a total of 12 seconds for our transfer in Brussels!
As much as I tried to reassure everyone that it wouldn’t be a problem, I had a hard time convincing them (and myself), and was forced to make the hike back to the train station the following day to sort the problem out. I begrudgingly made my way to the same booking clerk, with my pride straggling on the floor behind me, and politely asked in English for clarification. With a smile, and in perfect English, she explained that the two trains would be located on the same platform across from each other, and that the second wouldn’t depart if the first were to be delayed. Letting out a sigh of relief, I made my way back to the hostel.
Our last night in Paris, we were lucky enough to experience the annual “Fête de la Musique”, also known as “World Music Day” during which professional and amateur musicians alike take to the streets and perform from dusk to dawn. Sidewalks, parks, the river bank, practically every street overflows with festivity, from soloists to bands, acoustic performances to intricate speaker systems, classical to metal. With a very early departure time the following day, we enjoyed the musical, jubilant energy until the early hours of the morning.
For those who are gastronomically inclined, the first thought that comes to mind when Amsterdam is mentioned is “Chipsy King”. Bombarding initially unsuspecting pedestrians every 200 meters with a simple yet brilliant olfactory concoction of grease and aioli aromas, this local heaven supplies mountains of french fries swimming in your choice of endless unique and delicious sauces. After stopping by at least twice a day and experimenting with numerous combinations, I can comfortably declare that these were the best fries I have ever eaten. Most fellow travelers who have similarly indulged hold this fine institution to equivalently high regard.
Unfortunately, there is no photographic evidence, so the photo below of other Amsterdam snacks will have to do for now!
Following a late final night in Paris and a relatively sleepless train journey, we began our time in Amsterdam with a nice nap on one of the tours through the canals. Waking up better rested, we had the chance to enjoy the second half of the tour..
..and check in to the “Cheapest Hostel in Amsterdam”:
Our activities in Amsterdam more or less embodied the quintessential Amsterdam experience, with a walk through the Red Light District, visits to a few coffee shops, and a trip to Anne Frank House. However, the Amsterdam experience isn’t complete with the “Heineken Experience”.
By far one of the best museums I have been to, the Heineken Experience takes visitors through the history of Heineken, including the development of the company and the beer, and the art behind brewing, with interactive “exhibits” that enlighten all of the senses. First, we take a walk through rooms of Heineken memorabilia:
Which leads to the brewing area, a large room filled with fermentation containers that exposes you to the the different stages of the brewing process, with an opportunity to taste some of the intermediate products such as barley malt and wort.
And on to the “Brew You Ride”, an actual ride in the museum that takes you on a semi-animated journey through the brewing process, occasionally splashing you with beer!
After that refreshing surprise, we make our way to the first bar, where a gregarious bartender expertly teaches everyone how to pour the perfect head and serve a complimentary Heineken pint.
With our minds educated and thirst temporarily quenched, the experience continues with a maze of lounges, history of advertisements and other attractions, rounding off with the bar. At the entrance, each visitor is given a bracelet with two small chips, each equating to a complementary, ice cold Heineken served through one of the many frozen taps located at the end of the tour.
I have to admit, it was a very well thought out structure. The whole “experience” flowed quite smoothly and provided a good combination of enjoyment and education. The most well-calculated aspect, however, was the placement of the bar right before the gift shop. After having a few beers, everything among the incredibly wide ranging display of Heineken products, from pillows to speedos, seems like a must-buy! And as I’m sure most visitors do, we fell into this trap and bought a bunch of cool stuff.
On our last night in Amsterdam, there was a Netherlands – Cameroon group match which we decided to watch at a bar on the corner of Dam Square, right in the center of the city. Apart from the nice location, this venue had an offer that was tough to turn down: a free beer for every Dutch goal. After ordering a round of drinks, we quickly made a few friends and had a large group gather around one of the flat screens near our spot at the bar. As we were finishing our first drinks, a roar burst through the bar and beers were being passed around to everyone. The first goal had been scored! Starting the second half with a Cameroon goal to tie the game, the energy and fervor of the Dutch fans didn’t wane; on the contrary, the cheering got louder! And once the 2nd Dutch goal came in the last ten minutes to seal the deal, what started as another free round turned into an open bar for the rest of the night. Maybe it was this passion that propelled the Netherlands through to the finals. In any case, we were lucky to be a part of it, having another memorable last night wandering along the canals until it was time to head to the train station.
Although brief, our visit to Amsterdam was long enough to appreciate the effervescence of the city, the charm of the old, exceptionally narrow houses sprinkled along the lengths of the canals, and the laid-back, warm, inviting nature of the locals. This is definitely a city that I immediately felt at home in, and I could sense myself easily adapting to the routine of the daily life and energy by our last day.