A thousand free rail tickets were on offer for young people in the EU. My Portuguese friend, Antonio, won one, and asked me to go with him. His ticket allowed seven days of free train travel within the EU. So I bought a Youth ticket costing €264 (£227). Adults would have had to pay twice as much. We discussed over the phone where we wanted to go. He then did the bookings.
First stop: Düsseldorf
He lives in Portugal and I live in Brussels, so he had to fly from Lisbon first on 11 July. Then we started our journey at 5:30am at the Gare de Bruxelles-Midi, a DB High Speed train to Aachen, where we changed for Düsseldorf, and changed again for the Berlin train. The trains were moderately crowded but we found seats at the front. We reached Berlin around midday and walked 35 minutes to the Youth hostel.
Settling in to Berlin
We bought supermarket food: dark German bread with sausage. We then went to the cinema to see “Mission Impossible” (with German subtitles). The cinema seats were also beds. I have never seen that before. Back at the Youth hostel we played darts with some Americans.
We went to the Berlin Wall site. It is noticeable how different the buildings are on either side. You can tell which side was richer. We didn’t get into the museums there as they need advanced booking. We were able to get into the Museum of Technology for free and found it very interesting, full of old computers, aeroplanes, boats, cars and old phones.
We then took a nap lying on the grass in the park. We went back to the hostel for showers and then out to the bars to check the nightlife. As I am only 16 (two weeks from 17) I could not go into clubs, although I am tall enough to pass. Berlin wakes up at night. There’s Techno music which I like. Many of the youth dress in black.
Next day we went to the Cold War Museum. There you put on virtual reality helmets to experience an incident when a youth jumped the Wall, from his point of view, and that of the photographer and of a guard.
We travelled around on a €9 (£7.75) 24-hour ticket on the U-bahn (Berlin’s Metro), which I found more spacious and less crowded than the London Tube, with better air-conditioning. We had a nap in a park again. In the evening we played pool at the hostel.
On day three, we took a bus to the rail station, and caught a DB high speed train to Prague (four hours). Halfway into the journey we realised we were sitting in business class, so we moved to the back coaches which were full so we had to stand. The scenery on this route is nice. We walked to the Youth Hostel in Prague which is in the old city on top of an abandoned shopping mall. We walked around the city and across the old bridge. The statues there have been cleaned up. I know Prague a little as I have been there on a school trip from Belgium.
Next day we visited the Castle, and the Golden Lane, where there is the Kafka house. We saw a torture chamber which had a chair with spikes but, as we did not pay extra for the guide, we do not know more about the people who used it. We had a nap in a lovely park which had peacocks and pear-trees.
Oops! A bonus
Then we had to change hostels. Due to a mistake in our bookings, we had to spend four days in Prague. But it was a happy mistake because we enjoyed Prague. We found Sophie’s hostel, which was cheaper than the other but better value for money, more like a hotel. We paid only €7 for brunch.
We went to the Jewish district, paying an expensive ticket of €26 each but it was worth it as there was a lot to see. The Spanish synagogue is very beautiful. There is a memorial to the Shoah (Holocaust) which is in an orphanage where Jewish children were kept before transportation. There are pictures drawn by them. Some of them drew happy pictures of fields and flowers. These were by the young ones not aware of what was happening to them. But the older ones had drawn pictures of trains, of guards with angry faces, and SS guards saluting. There was a whole wall covered with the names of those sent to the death camps.
There was also an older Jewish cemetery. People of Jewish heritage can look up their families. Antonio has some Jewish ancestors, but they were not in the lists. Probably they stayed in Portugal.
Another park, another snooze, then pancakes!
We then had a nap in a park again. In the evening we went to the hostel bar to meet new people, Swiss, Australians, Americans, Israelis. They have pancake night once a week. Next day we had brunch at Hotel Sophie before going to a thrift shop where there was a huge choice of second-hand clothes. We then sat on the terrace in the main square near the famous clock. In the evening we went for karaoke at an Irish pub.
Next day we went with others from the hostel to the Natural History Museum which was very interesting. There was a life-size huge replica of a mammoth. There were also precious stones from every country. In our group, each one found a stone from their own country, including America, Australia, Switzerland, Africa (South Africa is my mother country) and Mozambique for Antonio.
In the evening we went to a Czech Inn and had a nice meal for €17 (goulash and strudel) and then went back to the hostel for card games with some Swedes. At 10:30 pm we then took a Flixbus at €19 to Kraków in Poland.
Good morning, Kraków
We arrived there at 6:30 am in rainy weather and walked to the youth hostel in the former Soviet part of town. It was like a hostel from the horror movies: doors creak, walls of cheap wood; woman at counter dark-eyed with exhaustion; bloodstains on the mirror, hairs in the shower, my bed about to collapse. It was half empty too, with only a few Brits there. We walked to the main square. Unlike most European cities it was all straight roads. The market was a disappointment, just Chinese tat. We ate in a sandwich shop, baguette with pickles and melted cheese, but then felt ill for several hours. In the evening we went back to the Town Square and met a British group in a bar. I found Kraków streets too full of striptease and prostitutes who hassled me even though I am under-age.
Next day we began our long journey at 3 am. The problem was that, because of the mistake with the Prague bookings, we had to cut out our proposed visit to Split in Croatia. So, in order to stay within the seven days allowed on our tickets, we had to travel a lot to reach the South of France (where my family has a holiday home near Béziers) and then on from there to Lisbon where our families would be waiting for us.
We first caught a slow, half-empty train from Kraków to Katowice. From there, we went into the Czech Republic in an almost empty old diesel train with carriages from the 1950s. There were no electronic screens and the platforms were too short for the train, so we had to keep running to the front at each station to read the signs. We knew we would have only three minutes to catch the train at Bohumín and, if we missed it, we would have to wait three hours. We managed it and got to Česká Třebová where we had a 2½ hour wait on a bench, but we did not mind as it is a very pretty ski resort in the mountains. From there, we took a high speed train to Vienna, which was full so we stood for 3½ hours. At Vienna station we found the food too pricey.
Then we took another high speed train Vienna to Zürich, 8½ hours. We had seats and it was a comfortable and scenic journey. At Zürich we took the 10pm train to Berne, and were then stuck there for six hours until 5am. In 34 hours of travel we had slept only two hours. From Berne we took the slow train to Geneva (1½ hours) . Geneva station is even more expensive than Austria. There were clean toilets where we brushed our teeth.
Then we took the train to Lyons (two hours, 20 minutes). At Lyons, we found the prices normal again, so we bought croissants. Then we took the slow train Lyons-Avignon, 2½ hours. The rule in France with the Youth ticket is that you must either travel on slow trains or, if you get on a high speed train, it must be in standing room. The Avignon–Béziers train was packed so we stood for 2½ hours. At Béziers we found we had missed the bus to our holiday home, so we took a taxi.
And so to bed
There we had showers and a long sleep. I cooked a big pasta dinner and we bought fruit. We had a nice time there, cycling to the beach each day, or along the canal.
We then took the high speed train from Beziers to Barcelona. But the conductor said we were not allowed to on our tickets and there was a €240 fine each – but he was lenient with us because we were confused. He fined us €38 each and let us stand all the rest of the way.
In Barcelona we found the hostel cleaner than Kraków and very big. In the food market the prices were crazy. Barcelona is very crowded. We enjoyed the beach as the sea was warm. We went to the free Picasso museum in the afternoon but I do not understand Picasso’s art. We met a lot of Americans in the hostel. They were happy to be in Europe and would like to live here in the EU, which is better than America. When we asked them why they did not like living in the USA, they talked about healthcare and gun safety.
We had to fly to Lisbon, even though there was one day left on our rail tickets. There are now no trains from Madrid to Lisbon. There are no high speed trains in Portugal anyway.
Counting one’s blessings
What have I learned from this holiday? It was my first time away from my family, so it was good to learn about the world. I learned not to be shy and to speak to people. I am fluent in French, English, Italian, and can manage in German. In Spain, Antonio and I can chat in a mixture of Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. We found Poland less welcoming than Czechoslovakia, and that the Germans are more open than the Spaniards. I mean the Germans in Berlin, who like to show who they are, with different clothes and so on.
My advice on youth travel: book early; double check those regulations for the youth ticket on high speed trains as they seem different from country to country; be prepared for the unexpected; travel with a friend (preferably just one as a group gets more complicated). I found this first holiday on my own made me more grateful for what I have at home.