Can I please start my European Travel Experience that I’m about to relate to you about a little experience I had in Washington DC.
I was staying at the HI Washington DC Hostel, watching the news on TV in the common room and sitting near me was your friend, and now mine too, Mr. Jim Coppen. After a little while Jim turned to me and said, “Are you a Police Officer?”
Jim really surprised me as I had been sizing him up and down, reading his body language and I’d come to a similar conclusion about him. It was easier for me to size Jim up as he is as tall as a tree, whereas me, I’m only 5’8”.
He’d beaten me to the punch as I was about to ask him the same question, “Are you a cop?”
What a great way to start a conversation whilst just relaxing, watching TV in a hostel that resembles a hotel more than a hostel. The Washington DC HI Hostel is fairly typical of American hostels and I loved staying there. In fact, I loved staying in America. It’s an incredible, beautiful country.
Why have I told you this little story when I’m supposed to be telling you about my European Travel Experience, well, it’s about a thing called situational awareness, at least that’s what I call it, maybe you call it paranoia. Trust me, most cops and military guys have some, sure some have too much, but a little bit of paranoia or maybe you might call it street sense is how cops and soldiers survive. It’s a very important item to have in your kit when you travel, especially in Europe.
Needless to say, Jim and I have been friends since 2015 and e-mail each other often.
So, on with my story. Europe.
I spent about 2 months travelling through Europe after spending about 4 weeks travelling around England and Wales.
I arrived in Paris by means of the strangest bus trip I’d ever been on. The bus drives to a place that looks like a huge railway complex, drives onto what seems to be a railway carriage and thereafter you sit in the bus for about an hour whilst it is carried on this railway carriage underneath the English Chanel arriving at a Passport Control Point in France. This is where things change drastically from tripping around in the U.S. or Australia for that matter. There are borders everywhere and behaviour by the locals that seemed very strange to me, but then that’s what travel is all about isn’t it.
My first bit of advice is that if you’re travelling to France from England: DON’T USE THIS SYSTEM. I’m sorry, I don’t remember what it’s called, but you miss out on seeing the White Cliffs of Dover, getting some fresh air, you’re basically cramped up in a bus seat for an hour. If you suffer at all from claustrophobia hire a kayak or fly. What I did isn’t pleasant at all.
The hour we spent travelling underneath the English Chanel was painful after the first thirty minutes, but that Passport Control Point was an hour of my life that was totally wasted on their ridiculous bureaucracy and the wait there was excruciatingly painful for all of us on the bus. It never ceases to amaze me how some little men, once given a uniform, feel it is their right and duty to make life miserable for others simply because they can, and so did these police officers at the French Border crossing. It was to be my first experience of overzealousness and ineptitude by police and security in Europe.
My next bit of advice to save you some time, money and angst, if you aren’t gifted with patience and have a problem with authorities telling you what to do, sometimes at gunpoint, visit Australia, where you can ‘throw a shrimp on the barbie’ and relax. I found travelling through Europe stressful, but nevertheless enjoyable, most of the time (and I’d stood at the business end of a firearm more than once before I left Australia).
If you’re travelling throughout Europe using hostels, as I did, forget about comparing the quality of European hostels to American hostels, as I did. You’ll be disappointed.
I basically did the horseshoe around The Mediterranean. I visited 13 countries (including Vatican City) in about 8 weeks. It almost killed me and in fact, by the time I got to Krakow in Poland, I was ready to head back home. Luckily, I met an American lad from Seattle who sat me down and talked some sense into me, whereupon I revised my itinerary and revitalised my brain and continued on, thank goodness.
Another bit of advice; don’t try to do too many countries in one hit. You’ll simply burn yourself out as I nearly did. By the way, I spoke with a few other younger travellers/hostellers who also were on the verge of burnout or had revised their itinerary for that reason.
Okay, we arrive by Flixbus, (which is one of the most popular bus companies in Europe) in Paris.
The bus naturally, stops at the other end of Paris so I walk miles, and I mean many miles to find my hostel, which is the HI Hostel in Paris. I think it’s the only HI Hostel in Paris, anyway, if there are two, I’ll guarantee you that both would be as bad as each other. Don’t go there. Book a B & B, sleep in a hotel, camp under a tree in a park and make friends with a rat, yes, there are as many here as I saw in New York, but the French ones are bigger.
So, here I am walking in the direction of the hostel, but I don’t speak French, and everything here is in French, funny that!
Here it’s time for another hint. Make sure, before you leave the US that your phone will accept a European/UK sim card or that you have a detailed paper map of every place in Europe you’ll be travelling in, otherwise, Google Maps won’t work and you’ll end up being the dumb tourist who has to ask locals directions. (If you take the paper map option bring a second suitcase.) I was assured by my Australian phone carrier that my cell phone was unlocked. I asked three employees and they all said it was unlocked. Get it in writing or you’ll end up having to buy a new phone like I did. (Luckily, my carrier paid for it because I had names, dates and places of the staff I’d spoken to who assured me that my phone was unlocked, and I threatened of contacting the media when I got back to Oz.) Just a hassle you don’t need.
Paris isn’t all bad, don’t get me wrong. Every place in the world has its good points and Paris has many. The river, the trees, the cafes, the beautiful women, but the romance everyone raves on about in Paris I’m afraid I missed, perhaps it was under the rubbish. Yes, Paris isn’t a clean city but then maybe it was so dirty because ‘The Tour de France’ had just finished there the day before I arrived so the authorities hadn’t had a chance to clean up yet. They’ll probably still be cleaning up though when you go there as they certainly weren’t in too much of a hurry while I was there.
Hey, another hint; European time. It’s like African time. If you expect something in an hour, then don’t rush, add a couple of hours to the wait.
Well, I finally arrived at the HI Paris Hostel. It’s not a building that stands out, in fact, most hostels in Europe don’t stand out, they’re almost hidden. I think I know the reason why now, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide on that one. I walked up the stairs to reception which is surrounded by a solid wire grill with a security guard standing beside the reception desk. At this point of time I did a double take: Had I walked into a local remand yard by mistake? Luckily the guy on reception spoke excellent English and I had no trouble booking in but thereafter the service was miserable as were the kitchen facilities,
Here’s another hint. Every time you cross a border in Europe the chances are that the currency may not be Euros so, don’t be like me and arrive in Paris with nothing but British Pounds, American and Australian Dollars at 6 p.m. and expect to get some Euros out of the ATM which happens to be out of service, just like the one across the road. Make sure you have some cash of the appropriate type for the country you’re currently in or heading to.
Hint: If you go to the Eiffel Tower be careful of pickpockets. They’re everywhere.
Next stop Amsterdam after departure from the busiest train station in Europe, Gare du Nord in Paris.
Hint: If you’re travelling alone get there at least a couple of hours before your train departs. Why? Because if you’re a ‘people watcher’ like I am, it’s a constant performance, with the stars being gypsies, security guards, police, beggars, confused tourists and piano players. The security guards chase the beggars and gypsies out one end of the station whereupon the offenders waltz back in from the other end. This goes on and on until the police come along and lock a few of the miscreants up whilst piano players seem to walk up one after another and play all manner of tunes on the public piano located on the mezzanine floor to accompany the policing performance downstairs. Oh, and never let go of your backpack or let it out of your sight because you don’t want to become part of the show, If you enjoy piano recitals then be prepared to be surprised as some of the pianists are incredibly talented. Perhaps you should arrive four hours earlier. Oh, and if some of you chaps like women in uniform, Paris has some of the prettiest police woman I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.
Amsterdam is a quaint little place, pretty canals, historic buildings, lovely architecture, an easy to grasp tram system and friendly people.
I stayed at the Generator Hostel. It was clean, quite new and well managed.
Another hint: Whenever I get to a new city, I try to find one of the ‘free’ walking tours. They’re not exactly free as you’re asked to make a donation at the end of the tour and usually between $5 and $10 is acceptable and fair. Yes, I’m a bit of a cheapskate when I travel but I believe I’m as comfortable and satisfied as those who spend a small fortune on an ‘experience’ that they’ll soon forget because it was too easy. A lot of people decide to jump on those ‘City Sight’ Double Decker Buses but I found that in London they were a bit of a rip-off in that there were so many and they were colour coded, and ultimately, I didn’t think I got my monies worth, and you’re usually waiting in a queue to get on one. But yes, still good value.
So, I took a walking tour around Amsterdam and our guide was an English drama student. (You’ll find the tour guides are usually former university students, British, and who have studied an Arts subject. And most of them are bloody party animals, which I’m sure is another reason why they like to do tour guiding. Like, it isn’t really a job is it? Walking around town, talking about the town, having all types of philosophical conversations with members of the tour group, usually the prettiest girls if it’s a male tour guide or putting up with loser male tourists trying to chat you up if you’re a female tour guide.
So, Amsterdam being Amsterdam, our tour guide took us past the usual spots, the canals, Ann Franks House, the Red Light District and past every coffee shop where you could buy enough weed to see Amsterdam from high above the clouds, so to speak. Yes, our tour guide loved Amsterdam because he could smoke as much pot, without being arrested as he liked. See, it isn’t illegal there nor is it legal. It’s simply tolerated by the police and everyone else. He’d been there seven years and knew every good quality coffee shop and dealer where you could buy good quality pot and was happy to let everyone know these points of interest in Amsterdam including types sold, current prices and any other information a connoisseur may care to know, and yes, that was his favourite topic of conversation to the point where sometimes you had to remind him that it was a walking tour of Amsterdam, not a talking tour of the last deal he’d smoked, but an interesting and amusing gentleman he was and well worth the donation, more so to some of the younger members of the group I’m sure.
Another hint. If you’re going to partake of the stuff whilst in Europe, as it’s quite legal in some other countries too, make certain you wash your clothes or your backpack because the sniffer dogs at LAX and JFK Airports are pretty switched on and you’ll waste a lot of your time, and Customs, emptying and repacking your gear just because you smelt funny to some pooch.
My next port of call was to be Berlin where I’d booked a bed at The Good Heart Hostel I think from memory, a short walk from the main Berlin HBF train station (if your phone is working and you have Google maps!!)
Now here’s an interesting hint. Learn a little bit of German, because I found many Germans (and French and Italians) don’t like to speak English. In fact, it’s mainly the older ones who seem to have a thorough dislike of anyone speaking English. I don’t know why?
The hostel, however, was great. Lots of cheap beer, lots of pretty women, clean with a decent breakfast and yes, you could still smoke as much hooch as you could, but not on the streets as in Amsterdam. But you can walk along the street drinking beer out of a bottle at any time of the day or night. They even have it for breakfast.
Berlin is an interesting city. Lots to see. Make sure you take a walking tour. It’s a good way to meet other travellers and a lot of them will be on your wavelength, backpackers, not stuck-up 5-star hotel tourists. There’s lots to see; what’s left of the Berlin Wall, The Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and more, the stories behind these places.
Another strange thing about European hostels is that a lot of them have mixed dorms. In Berlin, I was in a six-bed dorm with three Irish lads and a 19-year old American girl who was travelling alone. Quite gutsy I thought, and I met a few of these brave young ladies on my trip. Yes, quite mad too, but very courageous. All the Irish lads wanted to do was drink beer and party and all she wanted to do was get some R & R. I know who’ll have better memories of their trip, and it won’t be the Irish lads!
From Berlin I travelled by train to Warsaw, the capitol of Poland and the country from where my parents escaped after World War II. I’m not biased here, but I found Poland a very pretty country and its people quite friendly, especially if you speak a little Polish. I was lucky because I can still speak the language and if they speak slowly enough, I can understand them and that’s always a plus if you can speak the local lingo.
Speaking of ‘speaking the local lingo’ my purchase of a train ticket at Berlin Station would have to have been my worst experience of the local inhabitants of my trip. This giant ‘ogre’ frau selling tickets simply refused to serve me because I didn’t speak German. There were two of them, but I had to strike the one from Hell. It finally came down to me telling her in no uncertain terms, in bloody English, that I wasn’t leaving until she sold me a ticket. Sometimes you just have to stand your ground. I actually had to turn her computer screen towards me so I could see it and pick out the train I wanted to catch. It’s funny, but I could interpret more or less what was on the screen, departure times, arrival times, platforms, destinations, etc. Then to top things off, I wanted to pay cash, but was only allowed to pay by card. That wasn’t her fault, but she gloated as if she’d won that point in the slanging match, which is what my transaction actually was.
I don’t know whether it was because I only spoke English, or because I was going to Warsaw or because my name is probably a common Jewish surname or the colour of my skin and hair or perhaps a combination of all these factors that she took a dislike to me, but I felt sorry for the British chap standing behind me (I could see his British passport in his hand). I wished him ‘Best of luck’ as I walked away from the counter and he responded with a roll of his eyes. I’m quite sure he would have gone through the same scenario with her as I did, poor bloke.
Now here’s an interesting hint. If you’ve travelled by train in the USA or England, then you’ve been spoilt. Railway staff in those countries treat you like a valued customer, they are well mannered, have a very good understanding of the rail network they work on and appreciate that railway passengers are their bread and butter. The railway staff in Germany treat passengers like vermin, avoid helping them, have little knowledge of their railway network, and, in my opinion are basically a waste of human skin. Unfortunately, I did not find one decent one amongst them. Have your wits about you at the station because it’s a confusing place to the point where some of the platforms have two platforms on the one platform, i.e. half of a platform may be Platform 5 and the other half maybe Platform 6. So, if you’re catching a train from Platform 5, you better not be standing on Platform 6 because the train will drive up to Platform 5 and you’ll have to run to jump on if you’re standing somewhere on Platform 6. I’ve never seen anything like it. Only in Germany!
Upon arrival in Warsaw I stayed at a hostel, about 500 yards from the main train station there, Warsaw Central. Clean, fairly priced, secure and staffed by decent, respectful people. They didn’t serve meals but there was a fantastic supermarket 200 yards away and they had a wonderful, clean, well set up kitchen. I thoroughly recommend it.
Warsaw has a pretty good bus and tram service, but I ended up walking everywhere. I tend to do that. The museums are interesting, and the parks are pretty. I found the Army Museum very interesting, maybe because I’m ex-military and a male but Poland has a long history of being invaded by everyone who ever lived next door to it, so it made for a very interesting couple of hours.
I only spent three days in Warsaw and then jumped on a train to Krakow after spending over an hour in a queue to buy a ticket.
If you’re clever enough to buy your ticket ‘on-line’ then do so, as it’ll save you standing in a line. I’m not clever enough or courageous enough so only do it when I have too.
Okay, Krakow. Now this is a beautiful city. I ended up extending from four days to eight. It is a city that thrives on tourism. I stayed at the Woodpecker Hostel, a short walk from the train station and very close to the old city. A very cheap hostel. Very friendly. Very Polish. Staffed by Polish Uni students and overseas volunteers with an excellent supermarket next door. Another hostel I thoroughly recommend.
Hint. Always visit the old city, within every city, it’s well worth it.
There is always something to do in Krakow and everything except Auschwitz and the salt mines is within walking distance. Beer and food are cheap, and I found people to be honest and helpful. No short-changing and no lies. If they don’t like something, they’ll tell you.
Hint: Poland is one of those countries that doesn’t believe in the Euro so make sure you get some Polish Zloty as soon as you arrive.
Another Hint: If you get to Krakow you have to see Auschwitz if for no other reason than to say that you’ve been to the biggest crime scene in the world. Take a few tissues because if you don’t use them you can give them to someone else who will appreciate it. It’ll cost you about $50. Don’t even think of catching a train to Oswiecim and a connection bus. It’s not worth it timewise or moneywise. Some tour companies will pick you up at your front door and drop you back, before and after the one-hour drive to get there and back. Make sure you take your passport and be prepared to wait in long queues and put up with some overzealous security measures. At the end of the day though, it’s worth it all.
While we’re on The Holocaust theme, walk to Schindlers Factory. Yes, another tear-jerker, but well worth it. You can get a free entry ticket if you’re early enough. There’s one thing The Jews are good at and that’s making people cry. The music, the photographs, the exhibit items, you’ll never forget them, trust me.
Yet another hint: Try some Pieroski (Polish dumplings), the re-fried ones are the best.
From Krakow I travelled by train to Prague in the Czech Republic.
Prague is a pretty city, full of lovely architecture and it was very busy when I was there, walking across Charles Bridge was like being in a sardine can. I’ve only ever been in a crowd like that in Times Square, New York. There are so many talented artists painting and drawing on the bridge between the statues. They’re amazing. Hostels are a little bit more expensive here, but still affordable. Lots of cafés and restaurants and lots of people.
Onto Vienna, Austria by bus this time. Vienna is very expensive, so you need to find a hostel out of town, but the train system is cheap, easy and safe. Unlike Amsterdam where you run the risk of getting run over by a bicycle, here you run the risk of being hit by a horse drawn carriage. There must be a couple of hundred of them in the city. The hostel I stayed in was a bit of a dump, about eight stations from the centre of Vienna, run by an Asian couple, but they were very friendly and helpful, and I felt safe and that’s the most important thing. I didn’t take a walking tour in Vienna. It was just too crowded, and I think all the tour guides were tied up with tourist groups from the cruise ships that had just arrived and bused people into the city centre. I tagged onto the tail end of a couple of groups, but you eventually start getting dirty looks from the tour guide as they recognise you as not being part of the tour group. I think that’s because you don’t sway in time as the people off the boats. Must practice that for next time.
Vienna is a beautiful city, but peak tourist time isn’t the best time to visit, there’s just too many people and horses. The place smells like a stable. (I don’t know whether that’s caused by the people or the horses.) And wherever you go and whatever you do costs money, big money.
Next stop, Bratislava, Slovakia. This time by bus.
Bratislava was another very pleasant surprise for me. Friendly people, cheap food, cheap drinks and reasonably priced hostels. Mine was in the old part of town and it was a mixed dorm. I thought I was in heaven. It was a six-bed dorm with five beds occupied by women, and I was the only male. The township is full of quaint, old buildings, lovely cafés and yes, beautiful women. Take a 25 mile or minute (can’t remember which) bus ride to the old castle. Well worth it.
At night, this little town comes alive. Bars, night-clubs, restaurants. Yes, a very pretty place.
Here’s another hint. Drink as much as you like, but don’t drink too much. One of the ladies in my dorm was a young 19-year-old Australian. One of the most ‘out there’ girls I’ve ever met. As soon as we discovered we were both Australians by our accents we were mates. She’d just finished high school and was taking a couple of years off travelling before taking up a scholarship at one of three prestigious universities in Australia (??). Anyway, as I said, very extroverted, very beautiful and full of life. We went on the Castle tour, hosted by two local girls from the hostel and whilst there we tasted a little bit of red wine. Now, this little party animal was tired to start off with, so the wine pretty much went straight to her head. By the time we got back to the hostel she was a write off. Straight to bed after she’d set the alarm clock, because she had a ‘pub crawl’ to attend to at 9.30 p.m. No stopping this chick. At about 11.00 p.m. there was a knock on the door of our dorm and a chap with an English accent asking,” Is this Alice’s room?”
I thought he must have been a fireman as he was carrying Alice over his left shoulder, covered in a white sheet (don’t ask). Alice had passed out and was lucky enough that this young fellow, who was actually a barman, had the decency to bring her home. Half an hour later, she was grabbing ‘Percy by the Porcelain’, ‘having a chunder’, you know, vomiting last night’s dinner up in the toilet and looking like death warmed up. Lucky one of the other girls was a Swedish nurse (remember I said I thought I was in Heaven) so we both made sure she didn’t choke on her own vomit overnight. Yes, a beautiful, intelligent girl, but not a nickel’s worth of common sense. I sometimes wonder whether she’s still alive.
Nest stop, Budapest, Hungary, means of travel, bus, ‘Flixbus’, the most common international bus company in Europe. The only problem with bus travel is that it isn’t fast, but it is reasonably safe, but bear in mind that buses stop for a few minutes at service stations so passengers can buy food, drinks, stretch their legs and pay a visit to the toilets.
Hint: Toilets: I think I saw one free toilet in all of Europe. They pretty much all charge a few cents, sometimes even up to a Euro to relieve your pain and suffering. Even the ones in McDonald’s. I rarely used them as I timed things so I used the ones on the bus or a tree. I blew my usual plan when I arrived in Bratislava though. It was about midday, people in sight everywhere and a toilet, that looked like it had taken a direct hit from a bomber in World War II, but, sure enough, there was a little old lady collecting a fee at the front door. Being desperate I paid, found a pipe in the wall, yes, really basic plumbing and did my business. Walking outside I saw a red plastic bucket set up to collect the waste from the pipe. This was at a main bus stop. It wouldn’t happen in Australia.
Budapest is another pretty city. I stayed at a really cool hostel, yes, mixed dorms again, with a really switched on receptionist named Peter. We got talking and I found that he spoke English very well and knew Budapest inside out. He booked me into a 4-bed dorm which, unknown to him, had four girls in it. One was sleeping in there because she’d been placed in another room and didn’t want to be apart from her friends. So, once I came on the scene, she had to sleep in one of the other beds with one of her friends. I did the gentlemanly thing and offered her my bed to share, but she declined, oh well, but anyway, they were hardly ever there as they were constantly out partying and clubbing. Yes, Budapest has plenty of night clubs.
Hint: Never catch a taxi in Budapest as they are run by the Mafia, or so Peter told me. You’ll see a lot of Budapest if you catch a taxi because they’ll all take the longest route they can find to get you to your destination.
The first night I arrived there was a huge firework display for the celebration of Hungary’s 50th Anniversary of Independence from communism. Incredibly huge crowd of about 200,000. Half the city was blocked off and the castle and lots of other historic buildings were beautifully lit up. Make sure to take a walking tour here. Very good value and my guide really knew her stuff.
Hint: Always take a business card from your hostel or hotel so if you get desperately lost you can show someone and hopefully they’ll point you in the right direction. Take a paper city map if they have one, your phone battery might die.
Make sure you go to Heroes Square and the Agricultural Museum and the Natural Springs nearby. It’s a 45 minute walk from the centre of town, past a lot of embassy buildings that I find interesting for some reason. Don’t forget to check out the old town on the other side of the river by walking across the link bridge, I think it’s in the part called Pest.
I caught another bus from Budapest to Venice, travelling through Slovenia. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of it as it was a night trip and it was raining.
Upon arrival in Venice, the bus stop was about 500 yards from the hostel I stayed at called ‘Wombat’. It was less than 2 years old and like a 4-star hotel. In fact, its beside a 5-star hotel and I bet you wouldn’t be able to pick the difference between them. Cheap, great service, very clean and the only one I stayed in that was on a par with American hostels.
Hint: Don’t book accommodation in Venice itself. It will cost you a fortune. I stayed at Venice Mestre, a simple 10 minute, cheap, train ride into Venice. There are plenty of hostels and hotels there and the trains run about every 20 minutes. Venice Mestre is an interesting town in itself but make sure you take a walking tour around Venice. As usual the tour guides, because they live there, will tell you much more than any guidebook and they’ll tell you the do’s and don’ts.
Another Hint: Don’t sit down for a coffee in the cafés along St. Mark’s Square, they’ll charge you around $90 for a cup of coffee. I kid you not. In fact, don’t sit down for a coffee anywhere, as you’ll pay twice the price because you’re using their table and being served. Yep, it can be one of those ‘Gotch ya’ moments and believe me, you can’t get out of paying for it. My former sister-in-law fell for it in St. Mark’s Square and couldn’t argue her way out of it and she’s an expert at arguing, just ask her husband.
Hint: You’ll sometimes come across edible fruit growing wild such as apples, figs and berries as I did by the sidewalk to the supermarket in Venice Mestre. Keep a lookout.
After 4 days in Venice it was time to move on. Next stop, by Flixbus was Rome. It’s another money earner for the Italians. Not cheap.
Hint: They say to be careful with your valuables and I don’t doubt that at all. As soon as the bus arrived at the bus station in Rome you could pick the thieves just by looking at them simply because they look at you, or more to the point what you’re wearing, watches, rings etc. You can almost feel them peeling them off you. I spotted at least six in the space of 10 minutes. Watch your valuables, better yet, don’t make them obvious.
I stayed at the Free Hostel in Rome. That just proves Italians have a sense of humour. No, it wasn’t free but was cheap with a decent breakfast thrown in and evening entertainment, free food, games, etc. A decent owner and a good place to meet people. The only problem is that it’s about eight train stations out of the centre of Rome but once you get used to that it’s only a minor problem.
I couldn’t find any free walking tours in Rome, probably because the guides were too busy making money off the tourists on the paid walking tours. They are very expensive, in fact, everything in Rome is hellishly expensive and the place is full of thieves, so always watch your stuff. Actually, the thieves become more common the further south you travel in Italy. Funny that, such a good Catholic population.
There are ruins all over Rome. So many in fact, that I lost interest in paying to walk into the Colosseum for example. I wasn’t interested in paying exorbitant amounts of money and standing in long queues to walk over what I could see from the sidewalk.
Hint: Be prepared for rude security guards at all major venues. They are ignorant oafs who simply don’t understand that tourists are their bread and butter. A lot of them speak English but pretend not to. They are basically a waste of oxygen thieves. I suppose one word to sum them up would be lazy or arrogant. Oh, that’s two words. Oh well, take your pick.
When you visit Vatican City, well that’s another experience. Over the top security and queues, always queues, except Wednesday, when the Pope says Mass to the thousands who wait in St. Peter’s Square.
Hint: If you want to go inside St. Peter’s Basilica , wait until the Mass is almost finished then move over towards the right hand side of the Square because that’s the side where the queues line up for entry which is free. But, because it’s free, thousands line up to go in, so, beat the queue by getting there before the end of the Mass when the barricades may not even be set up yet. I think they have a shortage of barricades. Ladies, don’t wear mini-skirts or shorts or tank tops. They won’t let you in. If you’re lucky they’ll lend you a sarong to wear, otherwise, they’ll just refuse you entry, and that would be a pity because St. Peter’s Basilica is really worth having a look at. You could easily spend two hours inside and that’s without saying ten Hail Mary’s and, above all, nobody rushes you, as opposed to the Sistine Chapel where during peak times you’ll be rushed through by ushers and security allowing you only ten or fifteen minutes in each section. That’s after you’ve paid a small fortune to get in.
Hint: If you want to visit a particular museum, or any other place for that matter, and the guidebook or Google says it’s open, ring up and make sure. There seems to be some sort of disconnect between places of interest and local guides. Quite often the places are simply shut when they’re supposed to be open.
I found four days in Rome plenty then I jumped on a bus and headed south to Palermo on the island of Sicily. Now if I spooked you about Rome then Palermo, the birthplace of The Mafia should really send a chill down your back. No, it isn’t that bad, before 10 p.m., after that, well…. It’s the only place outside of Africa where I’ve seen armed security guards at supermarkets, but hey,,,,
Seriously, Palermo is an interesting little town, not the tidiest or the cleanest, but interesting. I spent three days in a quaint hostel that had quaint signs in the bathrooms stating, ‘Place paper in bin. Do not place paper in toilet. Any blockages will be paid for by guests. Owner.’ I’d be interested to see them enforce that one!
It was so hot that I took a bus to Messina, which is prettier, I think, than the French Riviera and I’m sure cheaper then I took a two hour train ride to Siracuse, a pretty coastal town with a couple of tiny beaches where I spent a few days, again straightening out my head. Trust me, Europe really does your head in.
The time came to leave Italy and head to Barcelona in Spain. Now this is where my trip turned to crap and the reason why in my opinion Italy is the biggest crap country in Europe to my knowledge, but I have been told by others that there are a few other contenders.
It was all straightforward and simple enough for me but apparently not for the Italians. A bus back to Palermo then a train to Rome and thereafter another train to Citavecchia for the ferry trip to Barcelona. All this was time critical due to connections for the ferry.
First the train from Palermo was late in arriving so a bus was organised for the trip to Rome. There were only five of us, a Swedish couple, a German girl, an Italian male and me. Now the bus company should have known how many passengers were to be transported. That only makes sense, because they need to know whether to send one bus or three. So, one large bus arrived to transport five passengers. Well that was going to cost them too much, so they decided to change to a mini bus. This only took them 40 minutes to organise. Remember, the clocks ticking and remember what I said about African Time and European Time. Eventually the mini bus arrives and by this time the driver and the Italian had bonded. What followed was a trip that was unbelievable, the driver and his stupid mate were making lewd comments about the German girl to the point where the Swedish couple objected to their comments and threatened to make a complaint. So, they eased up on the insults and started singing together, in Italian, out of tune, at the same time driving at ridiculous speeds, spoiling the picturesque views from the windows. Could things get worse? Of course. We got held up by a serious crash on the highway about two miles up the road after just one hour out of Palermo. One hour later we were on our way again, finally arriving in Rome with just enough time to walk the 25 miles, well it felt like 25 miles because it was the last platform for departures to catch the train to Citavecchia, the port town where ferries depart for Spain. And so ended the bus trip from Hell!
The train trip from Rome to Citavecchia is very picturesque and was a fantastic interlude on the trip from Hell. Upon arrival it was about a two mile walk to the port office where I picked up my ticket and began my wait. I expected a six hour wait and thought I’d catch some sleep during the wait, but no, it wasn’t to be. Now began my boat trip to Hell.
I was just sitting there, minding my own business, relaxing, when right in front of me a fellow traveller decided to do a 180ᵒ swan dive straight into the floor, splitting his head open in the process.
This seems to happen to me on every overseas trip. A similar thing happened to me in Nashville but everybody there wanted to help the poor guy. Not so in Italy.
As this happened three feet from me, I had no option but to help the guy. So, I got down beside him, checked him over and eventually propped him up with my knee so he was lying on his side. By now a small crowd had gathered and were treating this as some sort of entertainment. A security guard finally came on the scene and I had to ask him at least three different ways to call an ambulance, finally getting a response.
Meanwhile the crowd had become quite excited by the show and there were a few claps when the guard called the ambulance. Next, Dr. Knownothing came out of the crowd insisting that I put the poor man on his back to make him comfortable. He even went as far as pushing the man’s backpack underneath his head as a pillow. I had to tell this fellow in no uncertain terms to go away before he killed him with kindness. Ah, the crowd appreciated my exchange with Dr. Knownothing and a round of clapping and cheers went up. I’d never seen anything like it. Finally, the ambulance crew arrived, more yelling and clapping. Seeing that I had the situation in hand the Ambos weren’t in a hurry to rush into things, first a chat and light up a cigarette with the audience, a quick check of the man’s pockets revealing a wallet and a Romanian Drivers Licence. Next problem, who speaks Romanian? I finally got sick of the show and yelled out to them to have a look at the patient. The response I got sounded, and looked like, ‘What’s your hurry?’ I couldn’t believe it and finally handed him over to the Ambos and walked away shaking my head. This circus went on for about another 15 minutes before they took him away on a gurney.
About 4 hours later I’m still at the terminal, yes, the ferry had been delayed. No words of warning, just a notice placed on the ticket office window advising a 6-hour delay. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the patient walks past me. We look each other in the eye but he doesn’t recognise me. Then later, I bump into the security guard who tells me that the man was just drunk.
Now I’ve seen thousands of drunks and this chap wasn’t drunk. I’m no doctor, but I’d say he had an epileptic fit, but didn’t have travel insurance or very much cash and was simply hit with the bridle by the hospital authorities and shown the front door. I think this type of bedside manner has now been proven in Italy with their approach to dealing with Covid19.
Anyway, the moral of the story is, make sure you have travel insurance and medical cover and some immediate way of letting people know if you have a serious medical history
So, the ferry finally arrived, and we were to board. Once on board, you were left to your own devices for the 20-hour trip. I was amazed at the state of the ferry. It was dirty, the staff were rude and never again would I travel on board a Garibaldi ship. My advice to you is use another shipping line, but stay away from Garibaldi at all costs.
Thanks to the ferry arriving 6 hours late in Barcelona, I had just enough time to jump on the last train of the day to my hostel destination station, Barcelona Sants, and another search for my lodgings, The Meeting Point Hostel, not far from the station, but at 2 a.m. everything is far away.
Luckily, I found it and it had 24-hour reception. This place was fantastic owned and operated by a decent gentleman of Romanian heritage. I spent my last two weeks of my European trip with this hostel as my base. If you want a decent, clean, safe, hostel to stay at that is reasonably priced I would recommend this one. It’s only about seven stations out of Barcelona city and the train tickets are cheap.
You can easily fill in two weeks in Barcelona. There is much to see from the Old City, where a walking tour is a must, to the beaches, the museums, the yacht marinas, restaurants and cafes. The locals treat English speaking, overseas tourists with respect and are helpful.
You’ll hear stories about thieves and criminals in Barcelona, and yes, they are there, but I saw them every where throughout Europe. If you switch on your ‘street smarts’, walk confidently, refrain from constantly looking at your phone or paper maps so that you don’t advertise the fact that you’re a tourist who hasn’t got a clue where he or she is, don’t flaunt your expensive jewellery, you’ll be fine.
After spending 2 weeks in Barcelona, I flew back to Australia with Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong a little sad at having to end my trip. It had its difficult moments and challenges, but I’d done sufficient research before I left that gave me enough basic knowledge of where I was most of the time and I saw people, things and places that gave me a completely new outlook of the world I live in, and after all, isn’t that what travel is all about?
Luckily, I beat the Covid19 virus outbreak by a couple of months, give or take a month or two and can happily say that I had no regrets whatsoever about my trip.
Just another couple of hints in conclusion. Travel light. Don’t carry a huge backpack if you don’t need to. I had a 38 kg Osprey backpack and I simply carried it on board on all my flights and that saved me waiting at the baggage carousel upon arriving at all my destinations. Always carry your passport and valuables on you, preferably underneath your clothes and out of sight.
Never try to ride trains in Europe without a valid ticket. The authorities are ruthless all over Europe and I saw many people being pulled up for ‘joyriding’ and they were made to pay for the ticket plus a fine, on the spot, with their credit cards. I saw one Asian chap, with an incorrect ticket on the wrong train, get booked and then get physically thrown off the train at the next stop. Don’t do it.
If you don’t feel confident travelling by yourself, don’t. Find a travel buddy. The idea is to enjoy your trip, not worry constantly about everything. And remember, two heads are always better than one.
So, I hope I’ve given you some useful tips and encouraged you to experience something new.
Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity to pass on some of my travel stories and tips to your travel group. I hope I’ve been of some help. If anyone wants more specific information, Jim has my e-mail address and I’d be happy to hear from you.