Europe has long been considered as a dream destination for many travel enthusiasts. Its medieval cities, verdant meadows and diverse culture has always acted as a magnet for travelers. But it is also known to be prohibitively expensive especially for people from countries whose currency exchange rate is abysmal as compared to the Euro.
So when I was selected as an exchange student to study a term of 3 months at Toulouse Business School, France the first thing I wanted to do was to devise a plan to experience Europe on a budget as I was a student and was not earning since a year. I checked my curriculum and found out that I had 15 days to travel during the hectic term. The idea that I had in my mind was to experience Europe rather than just marking places off my bucket-list. I spoke to a lot of people, did a lot of research and came to a conclusion that one needed to spend at-least 2 days in a particular city to get the real feel of it. I had heard from my friends that the EuRail is the cheapest option to travel in Europe, but I found out that the statement is true only if you have more than a month to travel, For a shorter time and for a solo traveler (EuRail gives couple discounts) the most inexpensive option to travel is by bus, and EuroLines buses were the best and most convenient for me.
The first step in planning for a trip is deciding the itinerary and the ways to travel. I was travelling in the month of February and the ticket were comparatively cheaper as it was the low season and that really helped. I bought a 15 day EuroLines bus pass. The pass allows you to travel by any EuroLines bus across Europe in that 15 day period without any extra charge. The pass can be bought at the following rates (Youth- 26 years or Less):
One has an option of buying a Bus pass online or at any designated bus station. Once bought pass online, the next step was to decide on the places I wanted to visit. There were two specific cities I just could not leave out, Barcelona and Prague. Barcelona because I have been the lifelong fan of the city’s team, the finest football team in the world and Prague as I had heard a lot about the mystical charm of the place. I also needed to consider the availability of EuroLines buses and the timings. Based on the above factors and after numerous permutations and combinations I was able to chart the best itinerary for my 15 day Europathon. I would be covering Barcelona, Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam and Paris. 6 cities in 15 days sounded quite feasible. The route map I followed is as below:
Stay: For the stay I decided that I would stay in the traveler youth hostels. I also tried to customize the itinerary in such a way that I would be travelling during the night and exploring the cities during the day. I collected as many maps I could and also the metro rail routes and finally it was time to hit the road.
Day 0: Toulouse – Barcelona
I started my trip on a Friday afternoon after finishing the classes for the day. I took the 2 P.M. Eurolines bus in the afternoon. Some of the other options for travelling to Barcelona are
Toulouse- Barcelona Timetable
As the bus zoomed through the Pyrennes in the Franco-Catalan border the views were mesmerizing and green countryside was a treat to the eyes. The best part of the route is from Narbonne to Perpignan as the road was along the Mediterranean coast. The first stop was a beautiful Catalan town known as Girona where I had gorged on mouth-watering shwarmas in a eatery on the banks of a beautiful canal lined by colorful buildings.
I reached Barcelona late evening. The last stop was the Barcelona Sants bus station. I had already booked the Amistat Youth Hostel situated at a 5 minute walk from the Poble Nou Metro station. It was also quite close to the beach. I reached the hotel late and after a quick bite headed to the beach for a couple of hours. The best way to travel in Barcelona is to take a day pass in Barcelona using which you can use all kinds of transport.
Day 1: Barcelona
Barcelona is city that has everything a vibrant culture, beautiful beaches and high hillocks waiting to be explored. After a quick breakfast I went to the Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona. There is a beautiful football museum in the stadium. I also visited some of the other attractions like the La Rambla, Sagrada Familia and the Gothic Quarters. A 13th century church, The Barcelona Cathedral should also not be missed
Camp Nou Tunnel
Day 2: Barcelona:
I spent the next morning in the beach playing football and although I was embarrassingly schooled in the game by 14 year olds it was an enjoyable experience. After lunch I decided to visit the L’Aquariam located in Port Vell. It is home to 11000 aquatic animals representing over 500 species. For a wildlife enthusiast like me this was an experience to remember. The evening was spent in the hostel interacting with fellow travelers listening to their stories and experiences all over the world over a steaming mug of coffee
Mercado de La Boqueria
Day 3: Barcelona; Barcelona -Brussels:
I checked out of the hostel early next morning, my bus to Brussels was scheduled at 4 PM in the afternoon so I spent most part of the day roaming the streets of the city, buying a few souvenirs and talking to different people. I was amazed to hear an announcement in the metro station in Hindi/Urdu signifying the huge population of south Asian immigrants in the city. I visited the famous Mercado de La Boqueria, one of the largest food markets in Europe. In the afternoon I hopped on to the bus which would take me to the head-quarters of the European Union, Brussels. The bus timetable for this route is shown below:
Day 4: Brussels; Brussels-Berlin
After a long journey of more than 20 hours on the road I reached Brussels in the afternoon. Even though it was an extremely long journey, the bus was very comfortable and it was relatively empty so I had 2 seats to myself and was rejuvenated and energized by the time I reached Brussels. Brussels is a very small city so I had kept only 12 hours for it, but later regretted it as I missed one of the important sites, The Atomium. Nevertheless I was able to cover the other parts of the city. Some notable sites here are the Manneken Pis (seemed too over-hyped to me) and the Belgian Royal Palace which looks majestic in the evening. Once you are in Brussels you should try the amazing cafes here that serve Belgian waffles, chocolates and coffee. Although the food here is blasphemous for the calorie conscious it is sumptuous in one word.
Belgian Royal Palace
I had my bus to Berlin at 11:45 PM the same night so did not need to take a hostel and I was back on the road before midnight. The bus timetable for this route is shown below
Day 5: Berlin
I reached Berlin early next morning and this first thing that hit me was the excruciating cold. It was -8 degrees Celsius outside. I quickly reached the metro station and bought a 2 day metro pass and reached the Generator hostel in Prenzlauer Berg. The metro map in Berlin can be quite confusing and one needs to look very carefully and attentively to understand the routes. I was helped by a Sri Lankan gentleman who was staying in Berlin for the last 10 years. I think he could sense my predicament from my expressions and came forward to help. After I reached the hostel and grabbed a quick breakfast, I collected a map from the reception and ventured out. Berlin is one of the most important cities of modern history and there was the innumerable places to see. I had read about “Sandeman New Europe Walking Tours” where guides take you along the most important sites without charging a penny (you can always give a small tip if you enjoyed the walk). I reached the famous Brandenburg Gate and from there joined a walking tour group. We were taken to various monuments and were told chilling stories of the Nazi atrocities on the Jews and other minorities. Some of these sites are Reichstag building, the Humbdolt University (where the infamous book burning incident took place), The Memorial to the fallen Jews, The Checkpoint-Charlie (where Russian and American tanks stood face to face during the Cold War ready to strike) and most notably the Berlin Wall. The evening was spent with coffee and conversations with a few locals in a cozy café and witnessing the beautiful snowfall outside.
Day 6: Berlin:
I woke up early morning and went to the “Topography of Terror” museum which documented the countless unspoken atrocities on the Jews during the rule of Adolf Hitler. Letters written by children to their mothers whom they would never see again just before being carried away to the gas chambers suddenly makes you very depressed and angry. There are pictures of walls from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland where people used their bare nails to write on stone just as they were being gassed to death. Experiences like this makes you wonder how cruel can our human race be. Having said that and being an avid enthusiast of history I am sure this is just one side of the story. People like Churchill and Stalin were equally cruel. The Sachsenhausen concentration camp is also located 35 Kms from Berlin and a must visit if you are a history buff.
Day 7: Berlin; Berlin – Prague:
I had my bus to Prague at 3:00 PM, so I used the beautiful winter morning to take a break from the hectic sightseeing and chilled out in the hostel common room sipping endless cups of coffee and sharing stories with people across the globe and listening to them. After a light lunch I took the bus to Prague in the afternoon.
The road to Prague was very beautiful and really empty, quite similar to what I saw much later during my 10 day Iceland roadtrip. I reached the capital of the Czech Republic quite late in the evening as the bus had developed a technical snag mid journey and we lost a couple of hours. The first thing to do in Prague was to exchange a part of my cash to Kroners as Euros do not work in all places in Prague. I had a quick dinner at a local KFC and what struck me was that the prices here was extremely cheap as compared to other European cities. I reached my hostel Mosaic House late at night and was amazed by the beautiful architecture of the place. There was a live concert taking place in the hostel although I was too tired I managed to listen to it for half an hour.
Day 8: Prague:
Now this was a city I had in my bucket list for long and it surely did not disappoint. I woke up to beautiful morning with the snowy streets glistening in the slanted rays of the early winter sun. I decided that I did not need a metro ticket here. I just picked up a map and started walking through the thin cobbled pathways which took you back to times gone by. The old world charm here is just something else. I reached the Vitava River. The Charles Bridge here is an architectural marvel. Made famous in India by the Bollywood film Rockstar the bridges over this river are majestic. Here too I joined a Sandeman’s New Europe walking tour group and explored parts of Prague which would be difficult for me to find out alone. We started at the city center near the 600 year old Astronomical clock and went across the city till the Jewish Quarters where some of the oldest synagogues in the world still stand. We also spoke about various legends surrounding Bohemia and Gollum. We finished our tour at the world renowned Prague Castle
Day 9: Prague
The next day was all about soaking in the city and its way of life so I did not go to any tourist spot. Instead I walked about aimlessly in the city’s streets with a map in one hand and a camera in the other. I had my lunch at a Pakistani eatery near my hostel where we spoke about the architecture of Lahore and our cultural similarities. He also showed me some of his pictures which he had clicked in his last visit to his home-country and it was clear how beautiful Pakistan is, and how similar it is to my motherland India. In the evening I paid a visit to a unique museum, The Medieval Torture Museum documenting various instruments and form of torture prevalent in Europe during the middle ages.
Day 10: Prague- Amsterdam:
The tenth morning was again spent ambling through the streets and talking to a few locals. I had a glass of beer and a light lunch and waited for my bus till the evening. It was at 5. So I did not do much this day. The bus timings are shown below:
Day 11: Amsterdam:
Finally I was here the party capital of Europe, the mini Las Vegas and the moment I stepped out the bus I could feel this was unique. There was a different vibrancy about the place. One thing which struck me here were the number of people riding bicycles. I mean they were everywhere. The hostel which l had booked, The Globe Center was roughly a 5 minute walk from the bus stand. So I checked-in, kept my backpack and went on a walk. Beautiful canals filled with white and black swans adorned the city. I took a ferry ride across one of the canals to have a bird’s eye view. In the evening, it was time for the party district of town, The Red Light area at De Wallace. The colors, sights and sound of this place is something else. There were many coffee shops where you could buy an already rolled joint. Malana cream was the drug of choice here.
An Amsterdam Sunset
Day 12: Amsterdam; Amsterdam-Paris:
Although not much of an art enthusiast I always liked the paintings of Amsterdam’s favorite son Vincent Van Gogh and there was no way I would miss his art gallery. I was there early morning and had a look at some of his greatest works including the iconic “Starry Night”. After 2 fulfilling days in Amsterdam I was hopping back on the bus for my penultimate journey to the city of love, the French Capital Paris.
I was entering the city just as the Parisian skyline was turning into a crimson hue and that was a sight I will always remember as the bus drove along the majestic Siene River with the river looking just like a mirror reflecting the city skyline. I had booked a studio apartment near the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.After checking in, I had my breakfast at Mc Donalds as I was running really short on cash by now. Some of the non-clichéd Parisian attractions were the order of the day. I went to visit Père Lachaise Cemetery where the legendary poet and singer Jim Morrison is buried. I also visited the Catacombs. The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of the ancient Mines of Paris tunnel network. Located south of the former city gate "Barrière d’Enfer" (Gate of Hell) beneath Rue de la Tombe-Issoire, the ossuary was founded when city officials had two simultaneous problems: a series of cave-ins beginning 1774, and overflowing cemeteries, particularly Saint Innocents. Nightly processions of bones from 1786 to 1788 transferred remains from cemeteries to the reinforced tunnels, and more remains were added during later years. After this eerie experience I went to the Louvre Museum, one of the most iconic one is the whole world. As I had a European student card, I could buy tickets for only 12 euros instead of the regular 48 euros. I tried to cover as much as I could but I found out that 2 full days were also not enough to cover the entire museum. In the evening I sat at a famous Parisian Café having French delicacies like Macarons and croissants.
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Siene River Cruise
Day 14: Paris:
As I woke up, a sudden pang of sadness hit me, today was the last day of my own Europathon a journey that took me across 7 cities and 6 countries. As I sat on the balcony of my studio with a cup of tea, reflecting on the last 14 days I realized that I now am not the same person who started this journey and I wanted this last day to be fulfilling. I went for a walk to the Arc de Triomphe, the famous tower which honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. As evening drew close I went to the Eiffel Tower and yes it really was majestic. An evening in Paris would have been incomplete without a cruise down the Siene and I ended my European Odyssey with exactly that and selfie at the Eiffel.
Day 15: Paris-Toulouse:
I took the early morning train to Toulouse due to a clause in the Eurolines Bus pass that one cannot travel intra country using the pass. The tickets costed around 20 Euros
4. Miscellaneous: 5 euros per day average (75 euros)
5. TOTAL: 675 Euros
So I did this entire 15 day trip in 675 Euros. This too is inflated as I did not take hostel for all 15 nights and also the Hostel at Prague was only 3 Euros per night, but I have taken 15 as average as some of them were about 20 Euros per night. In INR this trip comes at less than 50K rupees and that’s how you do it when you are broke but still want to follow your dreams and travel the world.