It has been a time-honored tradition for the North American university grad to leave his sheltered nest and seek the unknown in a distant land.
Unfortunately, tradition also lends way to cliché.
The early twenties, book smart grad are filled with an ambition to add some life experience to his new set of professional letters. He sits in a dockside café eating hometown food with French provincial names as he writes into a leather-bound booklet some deep insights that he assumes are original. He dreams of having a torrid love affair with some local peasant girl but settles instead for swapping email addresses with some Canadians doing the exact same thing. As entertaining as this prospect seems, it was not my wish. I wanted to carve out my own adventure, and in Europe there is no better way than by train.
The European rail system has been for years second-to-none for accessibility, comfort, and, with Rail Europe, affordability. There are a variety of Rail Europe passes for different prices that can get you anywhere you wish in little time and from city center to city center. North Americans must purchase the Rail Europe tickets before departing Europe (you can't get them in Europe) and well in advance of their trip, and in certain countries the passes are valid on ferries and riverboats. The passes are easy to use and, if taken advantage of fully, are cheaper than most other forms of transportation. Best of all is that trains can get you to remote areas that you would otherwise miss. For the budget-minded the night excursions or hotel trains save you hotel rooms so that you awake the next day in a new country!
I landed in Copenhagen and got immediately roped into the standard tourist sites — Tivoli Gardens, the Royal Palace, etc.
I saw an incredible exhibit of Danish design at the National Art (Kunst) Gallery, and I took a bike ride through an area called Christiania, an area started by a group of Danes in the 1960s looking for free love, free drugs, and free rent, and it hasn’t changed much since. I was here when I was thirteen years old, staying with a cousin. Since, the government has made an attempt to clean up Christiania by taking out most of the drugs but the general atmosphere remains. Old military buildings painted in bright colors are home to all sorts of the local free thinkers from vagrants to artists to very accomplished architects. The tour ended at the National Library, also called the “Diamond” because of its seemingly transparently beautiful aesthetics. It is a remarkable example of the old world class of a European city (half of the building is the original building of the National Library) and the clean lines and simple concepts of modern Danish design that act to seemingly tell a story with nothing but light.
As wonderful of a city as Copenhagen is, the tourist route begins to lose its luster and the rails are calling me East. I've been to Germany before so I wasn’t interested in staying for too long, but the food and beer would be a shame to miss — yet another perk of train travel. Local trains can always be caught if you simply feel like ending up in a small town outside Munich, ordering a heaping lunch and a few giant steins of local brew and making your way out the same day. Needless to say, between Frankfurt and the Hungarian border I was full, comfortably brewed-up, and happy as the beautiful sites of central Europe flew by.
As can be expected, this type of life can take its toll on a person’s ability to remain conscious. By chance, when my body and mind were screaming for sleep, I happened upon a rather quiet train car. In fact, at one point a person was asked to keep the noise down behind me. I thought there was going to be some sort of movie starting that necessitated such silent attention until I realized that some of the train cars are specifically designated for the lazy kind of traveler that I felt like being. They are quiet cars and I will snore my praises of them for years to come.
A city full of history, incredible architecture, and beautiful women. As you walk around the city you get a definite stench of the former socialist society coupled with an obvious existence of capitalist growth. The city sits on the banks of the Danube. The Pest side is where you would find a much more built-up city center with malls and shopping areas, not to mention the late night venues. You can imagine my desire to visit the other side of the river.
The other side of the river is the Buda part of the city (are you picking up on the basis of the name yet?). A little quieter and lush, Buda contains some beautiful homes and sites. The Gelhert Hill, marked by a statue that can be reached by hiking paths, offers an incredible view of the city. I was lucky enough to meet a lovely local named Janka and I was invited to a dinner party. Hungarians are often seen as slightly less personable than some western European counterparts. This can be chalked up to a very dry sense of humor. I can attest, however, that this is not the case at all. After a great, home-cooked meal and a few cocktails in a quaint apartment in the hills filled with great people, including Zigga (who I knew for a few days and offered me a lift to the train station), and of course the beautiful Janka; I would say that kindness and generosity are staples in the social diet of Hungarians. They also have an uncanny ability to have a good time