Peter Singh (01-09) Alex Kenndey (05-09) Patrick Costello (01-09)
With the help of the Bill Wilson Memorial Prize I set off along with two of my year, Alex Kennedy (05-09) and Patrick Costello (01-09) on an ambitious interrailing trip around Europe and to the edge of Asia. The interrailing ticket allows unlimited train travel within Europe for 30 days and we set out with the intention of making sure that the ticket was well used.
Our start point was the south of Spain where we set out for Barcelona. Travelling on the high speed Spanish railway, the AVE through Madrid, we had already peaked in speed and it was all going to be downhill from here. We arrived in Barcelona which was a fantastic place to start the trip, despite our rather optimistic attitude to find a cheap hostel on La Rambla, Barcelona's most famous street. We managed to find it in a party atmosphere, on a Saturday night, after an F.C. Barcelona win with La Rambla buzzing. Barcelona is a fantastic and beautiful city and Gaudi, the most famous of the city's architects, has made his mark across the city. The most famous of his buildings is the Sagrada Família, a Catholic Church and world heritage site which was our highlight. It is his uncompleted masterpiece which was started in 1882 and is not due to be finished until 2026 and which I can say is the most impressive building I have seen.
We left Barcelona in a different manner from which we arrived, setting off on a commuter train, rather than at 300km/hr, but three changes, three countries and a rather heroic French ticket inspector later we arrived in Monaco, where we were told the super rich principality did not have left luggage facilities for interrailers as apparently most guests don't arrive with rucksacks. Still, we had a character building climb to the Palace and an ogle at the yachts and casino but because of the lack of a budget-option and feeling decidedly un-James-Bond-esque we moved onto Nice for the night.
From Nice we travelled to Florence and Pisa on a flying visit, where the customary tourist shots were taken. From Florence we headed for Venice where again the Venetians took a Monacan attitude to budget travelling, and although I'm not sure what it can learn from its sister city of Wolverhampton, budget accommodation is certainly something (I coincidently did not see this link up advertised heavily within Venice). From here we were headed to Munich and some last minute accommodation arrangements were not forthcoming as the town was in the midst of Oktoberfest, on the Italian weekend, which happened to be also on the weekend of a rather big Champions League fixture between Munich and Juventus. Here though, a Merchistonian, Thomas Hertle, after only a few facebook messages and phone calls invited us to stay with him in Munich. I cannot think of a better advertisement for the 'Merchiston Community' than this. This however was rather far ahead of us as all the trains from Venice, where we currently were, were full on account of the mini-Italian migration to Munich. The promise of a few nights' sleep in the same place, some Merchiston company and German sausage was enough incentive to find a way around this problem however. The solution was to travel via Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and for those of you without an intimate knowledge of the region this was not exactly the direction of the final destination, but after a 7 hour overnight wait in the train station, a train arrived which would take us to Munich.
Once in Munich we had a fantastic time with Thomas and his family, exploring Munich and Oktoberfest, and even meeting up with a couple of other Merchistonians. I would like to say a massive thanks to the Hertle family for giving us a home from home for a few days in the midst of our travels. A few days in the same place, some fresh clothes and home cooked food was welcomed with open arms after visiting more cities than days we had travelled. We said goodbye to the Hertle family, persevering east towards Istanbul. We had an ambitious plan of sleeping on trains and spending all day in the cities, first up being the capital of Zagreb, followed by Sarajevo. Zagreb is a fantastic place and one of the things to take away from the whistle-stop tour of Europe was the knowledge of where to go back to and Croatia is definitely on my list. Next was Sarajevo which is rather off the main tourist routes round Europe but was an interesting stop. Signs of the Bosnian war were ever-present but it did have a brand new shopping centre which was not riddled with bullet holes unlike the rest of the city and wouldn't have felt out of place in New York or London.
From here, and passing through the sensitive Bosnian-Serb border where the border officials tried to out-do each other in assaulting our passports with stamps, we headed for Belgrade where a quick look outside and with tourist highlights being NATO bombed buildings, we headed straight for Istanbul on a rather slow sleeper train.
In Istanbul we came back to more modern and slightly less daunting surroundings. A cheap hostel overlooking the Bosphorus toward Asia on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other was another welcome place to set up for a few nights. From there we explored the capital, the famous markets and had a few kebabs.
We headed back westwards on another sleeper towards Bucharest, another less frequented place of European travel. We visited the Palace of Parliament, the second largest building in the world and the heaviest, built by Ceausescu, which was made better by an F1 road show on the long boulevard outside.
We continued to Budapest and with a fleeting look around Pest and across to Buda. We journeyed on to Prague and again had a few nights in a nice hostel from where we explored the city. We managed to catch some domestic and international football and some ice hockey, although the Czech Republic's game against Northern Ireland was not exactly a classic 0-0 draw played in below freezing temperatures. From Prague we took advantage of the last day of our interrailing pass heading for Amsterdam, from where we took the ferry back to Newcastle and headed home from there.
The Bill Wilson Memorial Prize helped me fund the trip, for which I am grateful, but it also forced me to formulate plans early whist still at school, which definitely allowed us to plan for such a great trip. We managed to get to over 15 countries in 30 days which gave me a great overview of Europe, although advice I would give to would-be interrailers would be to spend more time in each place, although the frantic travel and country bagging was enjoyable. I would like to encourage current pupils to take advantage of these great scholarships but most of all I would like to thank those who give them and say to them that they really do allow the opportunity for great experiences.