Tips for traveling around Athens, Warsaw, Belgrade & San Sebastian

 

San Sebastian © Manny Chavez

Many of the travelers who look to Rail Europe for help planning a European vacation are interested in a certain region – they want to see the beaches along the French Riviera, or they want to get off the beaten tourist track in the Balkans, or they want to see every last ancient ruin in Italy.

And then there are the people who want to see the entire continent, from the top corner of France to the southernmost coastline of Greece. And they want to do it in a week. And they want sleeping compartments.

With a rail pass, a traveler can feasibly venture from Paris to Copenhagen to Budapest and back without going completely broke or insane, provided he or she can work out the routing and opts for an overnight train every now and then.

This type of cross-continental odyssey is unique to the European continent. Traveling across the continent of Asia would obviously expose a traveler to a variety of different cultures, but the sense of romance and adventure that surrounds the cross-European train journey isn’t really there. Train travel isn’t too popular in the United States, and bus travel tends to be the most economical way to move between many South American or Asian cities. In addition to that, these other continents draw a crowd because their cities offer so much to experience for the traveler who is interested in experiencing a place in itself, not necessarily the journey from place to place. Exploring the famous sites, being surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, and trying mysterious dishes that probably came from an obscure body part of an even more obscure animal – these are the little joys that come from discovering a new city, from putting an emphasis on “place.”

Rail Europe Employee © Manny Chavez

In Europe, however, travelers have always found just as much fascination, value, and romance in the act of actually moving from place to place. In this regard, Europe seems to have the other continents beat.

One of our employees, Manny, was lucky enough to take one of these cross-continental journeys this past fall. He visited a variety of different regions and was able to experience the different cultures, geography, and histories that make each of the European countries so distinctive and yet so quintessentially European, too. Here, he offers us tips for a few of his favorite destinations:

Athens

Athens, Greece

It’s true that Greece isn’t the easiest place to reach these days. This little corner of Europe has been having a hard time, to say the least, and this has affected transportation into and out of the country by train. But once you’re in? It’s still Greece, hard times or not, and it’s been keeping us entranced for centuries, in good times and in bad.

Manny’s tips: Take the Ferry. “With limited rail service throughout the country, I decided to take the Super Ferries line from Bari, Italy. The 18 hour overnight ferry was exhausting but the views were stunning – islands coming out of the water all around you, it almost reminded me of a modern-day Jason and the Argonauts adventure.

Sightsee in the Subway! “One of the highlights was riding the subway with all of the ancient Greek relics discovered during its construction. A modern masterpiece of engineering blended with amazing structures and statues of centuries ago.”

Warsaw

Warsaw, Poland © Manny Chavez

While the lure of Paris, Rome, and the other major western cities is difficult to resist, there is a certain appeal that lies in venturing out further east, too. Poland is a popular choice because of its inexpensive lodging and shopping, its hearty food options, and the remnants of World War II that are still evident in many parts of the country.

Manny’s tips: Save money. The US dollar is strong in Poland. Prices are relatively low compared to Western Europe. A nice dinner in the Nowy Swiat district can cost about $9.00 to $20.00. There is also plenty of nightlife throughout Warsaw, particularly in the Central District. There are high end bars, low-key blue collar type bars, and also lots of great restaurants serving food from all over the world.”

Try to keep up – with the people and the city. “Warsaw is a vibrant, modern city. The people are fast-moving, fast-talkers, and very cultured. Warsaw city center has definitely changed. They are currently constructing a new subway line and a fast train connecting Chopin International Airport to central Warsaw.”

Belgrade

Belgrade, Serbia © Manny Chavez

One doesn’t usually think “Serbia!” during the planning stages of a European escape, probably because it isn’t anywhere near the beaten track and hasn’t had the most stable political history in recent years. It is nevertheless one of those places that immediately arouses interest whenever someone mentions that they actually traveled through it. Belgrade doesn’t really have any one monument as beloved as the Eiffel Tower or Sagrada Familia, but maybe that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s actually a lot of country to explore behind that one famous monument, but in Belgrade, you won’t have that one famous thing to distract you from everything else.

Manny’s tips: Focus on the important things: relaxation and good company. “The Serbian culture enjoys having a good time. With a lot of opportunities for nightlife, Serbians have a niche for spending time with friends. The traditional Kafana bars – where there is live music and everyone sings along and dances – are really wonderful.”

San Sebastian

San Sebastian, Spain © Manny Chavez

San Sebastian is a good place for those who can’t decide between Spain and France. Technically, I guess you’re choosing Spain, but the Basque Country region looks very much like a Spanish culture imposed on a backdrop of the French countryside. The unique language, food, and scenery make this region seem like a little country unto itself – and chances are, if you’re trying to travel by train between Spain and France, you’ll probably need to change trains somewhere along this region, so you might even get to visit without meaning to!

Manny’s tips: Forge a connection with someone who knows tapas, and then just keep eating. “Gastronomy turned out to be the main focus on my return to the Basque Country, with visits to at least six different tapas bars. Each visit included samples of several local dishes and drinks. I couldn’t keep up. One of my friends works with local business owners and started the “San Sebastian Passport” Program. He prints this “passport” style booklet that lists many restaurants and shops for visitors to go to. They show their passport, get a stamp, and receive discounts off their purchases. A traditional tapas bar is always steps away from your flat.”

The cross-continental European escape definitely isn’t for everyone, but for those who dream of the romantic European train ride, I’m not sure there’s anything else quite like it on any other continent. Just make sure to get a bed on an overnight train every now and then, OK? Europe is pretty large, and you’ll need to save that extra energy for eating lots of tapas.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 28th, 2012 at 10:17 pm and is filed under Traveler Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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