My Backpacking Memoirs

Hints and Recommendations; my backpacking stories; travel photos; etc...

Thursday, February 11, 2010



Buy a Eurail pass. With the expense of travel, having bought the necessary rail pass(es) alleviates the added cost while on the trail. Use the pass accordingly, but don't use it, for example, on a trip to Kutna Hora from Prague unless you'll use it again the same day or you have an extra day on your pass. Some ferries and metro passes ARE covered with a Eurail Pass, ask your travel agent for details. There are various passes available and MUST be purchased before leaving North America. Europeans have their own passes, see your travel agent first, they can sometime issue them the same day.

Hostels. While usually overlooked, hostels can be a good place to save money, meet new people, plan the next leg of your journey, or a helpful start to getting around a new city. Most hostels have dorm rooms that have 4 to 20+ beds per room, private rooms, clean facilities, Internet access, phones, and laundry for a fraction of the cost of a hotel room. For example, in late spring of 2009, a hostel in Warsaw, Poland (Nathan's Hostel) was 55 zty or approx. $17CDN./night including breakfast. In Dublin, a similar hostel (The Ashfield House) was 14 Euros per night or approx. $22CDN. Prices were in the shoulder season. Considering you'll arrive in a city, see the sights, come back for a snooze, and go out for a night on the town, you aren't even there for 12-16 hours anyway! A hostel is still a bargain. Hosteling and International Student Identity Cards (ISIC) sometimes offer a small discount to its members if affiliated with a specific organization.

*NOTE-bring earplugs for loud nights and flip flops for the showers

Meals. Going out to eat can be very rewarding, not only for your taste-buds, but also for your mind. Cabbage rolls that might be better than your mom's (shhh), Irish Stew (mmmm), seafood dishes, and vegetarian plates are only a few of the savoury meals you could come across on your journey. Countless pastries and desserts you'll find with your nose in busy markets and while sightseeing. Also to save money, don't forget about the Tescos or Spars (supermarkets) or the delis and bakeries. You may come across a few North American fast food restaurants too.

Don't try to do too much all at once. You don't have to listen to me on this, but trust me, my first trip to Europe, rail pass in hand, was for 15 days. I wanted to see all 17 countries on the pass in those 15 days! You'll get more out of your holiday, take less out of your wallet, and avoid taking a vacation from your vacation when you come home; less is more. I was naive in thinking I could see so much in so little time. Reality quickly set in, and I ended up visiting only Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Salzburg, and Munich before returning to Amsterdam, and wanting to experience more of Europe.

Backpack v. Suitcase. Backpacks are great when boarding a crowded tram, navigating through busy train stations, or walking down the narrow aisle of a bus. The suitcase?....nope. Cobblestone streets and curbs are 'backpack' friendly. Those fancy roller suitcases?....nope. Backpacks are perfect for shoving into those lockers. Suitcases?....only if you can locate one of those hard-to-find 3/20 oversize lockers vacant. Besides, that flag your mom bought you before you left home sews on nicely to a backpack.

SAFETY. Most of Europe is relatively safe. Watch for pick pockets and touts, otherwise use big city smarts and you'll be fine.

** IF you don't want to experience the different cultures or traditions of local areas; if don't like to stay up late, or wake up early; don't like to meet new people or try new and unique foods; can't handle sleeping on the train; don't want to go leprechaun hunting or dance at a town festival; wouldn't listen to an accordion or laugh even when you don't understand; won't eat a Belgian waffle or give yodelling a try; don't pack lightly or have patience...Well, you'll never find a leprechaun. Chances are you'll be chasing the train. There will be plenty of opportunities to sing your iPod songs in the shower. Probably visiting places you'll only find tourists, taking the same pictures as everyone else, speaking to the man who lives three towns from you AND watching Friend's reruns in your hotel room.


for information on hosteling international visit:
for information on Eurail Passes visit:


A Heinz 57 Omnibus

Thus begins my procrastinated memoirs of a journey. My highs, lows, triumphs, defeats, struggles, the world around me. I'd say my journey began in the summer of 1997, when my cousin Greg and his girlfriend, now wife, Liz, had returned from a backpacking trip to Europe. They had come to visit my grandparents and shared their pictures and stories of the adventure. My girlfriend and I viewed with amazement, the stunning landscapes of Germany, ancient architecture of Greece and Cyprus, and the many faces of fellow travellers along the way. I knew that I wanted to see the world prior to their stories, but this definitely confirmed what I previously dreamed. I just had to convince my girlfriend that an adventure is what we needed.

I didn't speak of travelling again until 1999 when I got a new job working for a company that both of my grandfathers worked at previously, a brighter future, and an engagement to Tina. We were planning a wedding for July 1st of 2000, Canada Day and our wedding day, convenient for the out of town guests. Random places came up for a honeymoon destination. Jamaica, California, Paris, and Florida were the few I recall. I figured what better place to celebrate our new beginning than Paris, France? But Tina would have no part of it. She didn't want to fly anywhere. We ultimately decided to drive to Florida for the two weeks over the Christmas holiday.

The invitations were never sent, though all of the arrangements were made and cancelled. In March, Tina and I went our separate ways.

I began speaking to a friend who was in Holland and suddenly I was planning a trip to Amsterdam for a visit. First stop? Travel agency. July 1st. "Forget the wedding, I'm going to Amsterdam", was what I was thinking. After a teary goodbye from my mom, I put my backpack and a duffel bag in the car, double checked to make sure I had my passport, airline tickets, and rail pass and was headed up the 401 to Toronto. I was leaving the routines and stresses of everyday life behind. I was going to see 17 countries in 15 days. Europe here I come!

During my younger years I was a boyscout, enjoyed the outdoors, was fascinated with geography class, met an exchange student from Sao Paulo, Brazil another from Heredia, Costa Rica, and yearning a new adventure. A backpacking trip would be perfect.

I drove to my aunt and uncle's home just outside of Toronto for a visit before my early evening flight. My aunt had asked me if I had everything I needed for the trip and then asked where I was planning to go? Can you tell she a mother of three boys? I told her Europe. First stop Amsterdam. She then loaned me a copy of Greg's Lonely Planet: Europe on a Shoestring. They dropped me off at the airport with plenty of time before my flight. I was given a farewell hug and a handshake. Soon after departing Toronto's Pearson Airport, I quickly realized I wouldn't be sticking to my plan of 17 countries in 15 days. In fact, I wasn't sure fifteen days was enough time to see even a fraction of what I was expecting after getting into the Lonely Planet guidebook. I would've picked up a copy of the book a few weeks earlier.

July 2nd. I arrived at Schipol Airport and quickly made my way to Amsterdam often dubbed "the City of Bicycles" for her mass population of bicycles that lined her streets and sidewalks and "Venice of the North" for her canals and waterways. Tessa and I wouldn't meet for a few hours which gave me time to get acquainted with this beautiful city. Young and naive I quickly learned that there was more to Amsterdam than 'Coffee Shops', the 'Red Light District', and Heineken. My theory for this trip was "When in Rome..." which I still practice today.

I wandered around with too much luggage searching the winding streets for a hostel. The renowned 'Flying Pig' was long since booked up. I wound up finding a bed at the Cosmos just up the Dam and back a few blocks. A great central location. I walked around the bustling central part of the city before meeting Tessa. Arriving early, I blended in drinking a Heineken and smoking a doobie. I noticed a cop who was no older than me and I stated, "I can't believe this is legal" referring to the beer I was drinking and the grass I was smoking.

He then looked at me and said "it isn't, it is only tolerated." I near took off running when he smiled and told me most people drink cans of beer as to not have broken glass on the street and left me to wonder about the pot smoking.

Tessa arrived with her ambitious enthusiasm and we both toured the city. Having been there a few months already she showed me around the notorious "Red Light" district, which I had imagined to be crowded with perverts and young people, wound up to be a fun place the young and old, couples and tour groups stretched their legs after a long day. The district was approximately 16 blocks of bustling bars, busy restaurants, and plenty of people, and no trip to Amsterdam would be complete without a visit to the 'Sex' or the 'Marijuana' Museums. For dinner we shared our lamb and chicken plates, then had some great conversation over a few drinks before I walked her back to the train station so that she could catch a train to West Zaan (where her dad lived and she stayed.) I thought my night was over but soon after returning to the hostel, I met some Aussies and an American. The night had just begun, again. We swam through a sea of orange to support the Dutch in the Euro Cup semi-finals vs France and joined the excitement. The group of us went into a pub which played Euro beats and had a great atmosphere, despite Holland's eventual loss. I loved Europe already and I hadn't been there a full day yet!

I woke in the morning before five to jackhammers and the sun shining. I had the city to myself for a few moments as I ate breakfast and watch Amsterdam slowly come alive. I stored my luggage and took in a tour of the city while I was waiting for Tessa to finish work.

A few things I noticed in Amsterdam: The older buildings were tall and narrow, the stairs were steep. An iron pulley system perched out above the windows. This was used to move large objects into the buildings via the windows.

I didn't have a problem using only English in Amsterdam, though my attempt to use a few polite phrases made people smile.

Tonight was going to bring me to the Dutch countryside and the town of West Zaan. We ate at a patio restaurant before going to her dad's place to talk about our days in the backyard. I posed the question about the canal that ran along the back of his property and he was quick to respond say that when it freezes they used to skate as a mode of transportation. No wonder the Dutch are great speed skaters.

July 3rd. The next day I repacked some of my luggage and left the rest behind before departing for Centraal Station again, this time boarding a train going to Berlin. The train trip to Berlin was my first rail adventure. One that I couldn't begin to describe or imagine as the landscape unfolded before my eyes. I passed villages that were unknown to me before and others I may have read about in history class. As I rolled in and out of station on that stretch of track that led to Berlin, I could see beautiful, old buildings, rolling hills and fields, and German pubs that popped up as the towns grew near and faded away.

And then historic Berlin. Although the wall came down in 1989 there is still the unofficial designation for East and West Berlin for geographic position. As the train click clacked through West Berlin, I noticed a modern business sector and the further east we got there was scaffolding on the structures that silhouetted the overcast sky.

I read my Lonely Planet to see which hostel to stay at. Berlin was bustling and most of the hostels were booked due to the 'Love Parade' that upcoming weekend. I soon found a place with vacancy, but only for two days. Good enough for me. I didn't put my bag on the floor before I was chatting away with Rachael, a University of California student. She was on a 3 month backpacking trip around Europe and was a month into it. We wandered around a few blocks before picking up some German beers from a local market. We sat in a park to enjoy our new brew when it started to rain. Perfect timing though. It was time to get some dinner. After dinner we went back to the hostel to check on our gear and see if there were any new roommates to go out and have a few drinks with. Rachael and I changed to go out to a place I remember being called 'Delicious Donuts' and Vodka lounge a few blocks away. We were both tired so we didn't want to go too far. We picked up a British straggler just getting into town. We talked about our past and future travels and watched a Smirnoff spotlight that was a contortion type show, then called it a night.

A notable note about my first day in Berlin. On my way to the hostel that I phoned about, I got lost. To try and find my way I had asked a woman “sprechen sie deutsch?” (Do you speak German) which I later realised I should’ve asked “sprechen sie Englisch? She then muttered a few words in German which to me sounded like she was angry with me, with the crisp, pronounced syllables. I showed her the place I needed to get to in my guidebook and she pointed me in the correct direction. I was two hundred metres from the Hostel entrance but it was difficult to find the door. It was down an ally with a gate, then stairs, then the entrance.

July 4th. A new day in Berlin. Today was an early to rise with plenty on our agenda. After grabbing some food for breakfast we tried to figure out the U and S Bahn grid pattern. It was simple. The U-Bahn was the underground trains and the S-Bahn was the above ground trains, or was it one was east/west and the other was north/south, either way it didn’t take us that long to figure it out.

We made our way to the Brandenburg Gate. Built in 1788 and completed in 1791 by Carl Gotthard Langhan, the gate was one of many entrances to the city of Berlin. On August 13th 1961 the Berlin Wall was built and people could no longer walk or drive freely through the gate. Brandenburg survived WWII and was one of only a few buildings that remained intact. It remains one of the most prominent historic symbols in Europe.

One block north of Brandenburg was the Reichstag building (parliament building) which was undergoing renovations at the time I was there. During the period 1933-45 the Third Reich assembled there. A dome on the top offers a 360 degree view of the city and is open to the public.

Enough of the history lesson. We did a lot of walking through a park lined with trees in front of the Reichstag which had a few Soviet tanks which were described to me as symbols of Russian involvement in the area.

Checkpoint Charlie was the major crossing point from east Germany to west Germany during the Cold War. Today a museum is open to the public showing graphic pictures and telling horrific tales of the days of the Berlin Wall. It was definitely a worthwhile eye opener. I remember one this in particular about this museum. A Volkswagen Beetle that carried 16 people from one side to the other. How I have no idea, but they did have the display there.

Club Tresor was our venue that night. The oldest discothèque in Europe was housed in a three floor apartment building and had various music playing on each level. Our new friend from the United States, Bruce joined us. Talk of the night was Prague since the three of us, Rachael, Andrew, and myself were headed there next. Bruce was just coming from there and had given us a few key phrases to get us by and told us there were plenty of hostels in the downtown area. We talked over a few beers, tried a few Jagermeister shots, and watched other people dance.
July 5th. Rachael, Andrew, and I woke up early to catch the train to Prague. Rachael went to checkout and found that one person had cancelled a reservation resulting in another night’s stay for her. With rumours of more than 700 000 people descending on Berlin for the ‘Love Parade’ I decided to leave assuming I wouldn’t see much more of Berlin anyway on that trip. Andrew agreed and also jumped on the train with me to Prague.

Mid afternoon the train arrived in Prague.

After reading many ‘NO VACANCY’ signs and being turned away by full hostels, Andrew and I tried a Tourist Information booth for accommodations. They found us accommodations a few blocks from the museum. It was a new building with new everything inside. There were three bunks and no one else in the room. I laid out my sleeping bag and went for a shower. The place was virtually empty yet the receptionist told us we had to checkout in the morning. We went to grab some street food, sausage and sauerkraut. Andrew wanted to get some shut eye and I wanted to see a bit of the nightlife in Prague. I didn’t go far from the hostel. I wound up at a pub where the neighbourhood locals chilled at night. I had a Budvar and was recommended by a few people there some local beers before calling it a night.

July 6th. We found some beds at Hotel Villa Flamingo This place had an awesome feel to it as soon as I walked in. I was bunked up with some Americans, Andy, and another Canuck. The perfect day. None of us had visited any of Prague’s sights and all of us were off to visit what we could in this medieval city that we were all fascinated with, known for her charm, her character, and her beauty. We wandered her winding, cobble stoned streets passed bakeries, souvenir shops, restaurants, and pubs on our way to St. Charles bridge and the gothic Bridge Tower. Complete in the early 15th century, the St Charles bridge was the only crossing of the Vltava River until 1870, making it a major trade route between east and west Europe, and Old Town Prague. Baroque style lanterns and sculptures of saints line the 510m X 10 meter bridge that is crowded with painters, kiosks, musicians, and tourists during the daylight hours.

Dinner was at a terrace restaurant until we got told to leave by police who taped off the area for a bomb scare. The night went uneventful of bombs thankfully, and dinner went uninterrupted on our second go of it. We walked around that evening talked, enjoyed each others company, and tried to find a disco to have a few adult beverages in. The place we ultimately ended up at was a basement pub that had no tables, load thumping beats of electronic music, and was made of stone. This place was great. Beautiful European women danced the night away, and the American women from the hostel also took part in the fun.

I decided to leave the club early, probably @ 2:30 ish because I had an early morning train to Salzburg via Vienna. I found a phone booth, or better yet, the John Lennon Peace Wall and phoned my mom to let her know I was safe and also that I was lost in Prague! "Good Night Prague, I'll see you again" I told her as I made my way back to the hostel. It took me a while but I got there.

July 7th. Bright and early, I woke, packed up my gear, and headed for the Praha Central Station. It was a pleasant day. Sunny, blue skies, and soon I'd be in Salzburg, Austria. The only thing about this trip thus far that was getting to me was time. I met a few people and travel was the topic. I remember talking to Rachael about two places I new I'd be skipping this trip. She also mentioned a few places, Cesky Krumlov and Krakow. Knowing I was 8 days into my trip and on the furthest possible from my comfort zone of Amsterdam. I figured I'd make my way back to Amsterdam with a few stops along the way.

My first actual stop was is the town of Breclav. I hadn't heard of it before and was quite a pleasant stop, even though I hadn't left the train station. It wasn't quite like Prague where English was spoken in most restaurants and tourist attractions. I didn't speak louder hoping they would understand, and I didn't point or get frustrated. I turned to the back of my Lonely Planet guide and used the language section for a helping hand and received a smile from the woman I asked about when the next train for Vienna was leaving. I bought a sandwich and an orange Fanta, people watched and waited patiently for the train. I half wanted to ask when the next train was going to Vienna so I could have a pleasant side trip off the beaten path, the other half wanted to get to Salzburg before dark, get accomodations, and see the town. The latter prevailed though I did want to go quite yet. Then the train rolled in. I'd be in Vienna soon, before catching another train to Salzburg. One thing I did learn already was to ask the ticket person which platform such and such a train was leaving from. It saves time asking at a ticket counter, they might know if the platform has been changed or there is a delay, and your connection may not even be at that train station in a particular city.

After a few minutes in a Vienna train station, I was soon on my way through the outer buroughs of the city and into the countryside of sunflower fields and what I had always imagined a Austrian/Swiss home to look like. Cedar shakes on the rooves, a white exterior in most cases, cedar trim, doors, and shutters, accented with fresh flowers in window boxes. It wasn't long before before I was in the Austrian Alps. I took some pictures during the train ride looking forward to visiting Salzburg.

After a few hours, which didn't seem like that long, I was there. Salzburg Central Station. I walked out of the station a few hundred feet stopped and turned around.
Close your eyes. Imagine the most beautiful, picturesque train station you've ever seen. Open your eyes. There it is in the foreground with some hills off in the distance. Clamoring with people going to and fro.

The hostel I went to first was fully booked so I went in the general direction of the city center. I stop in at a Pension which is at a similar price to an Motel in North America but a bit higher in quality. There was a sink in my room and two shared showers and two toilets for the floor consisting of maybe 6 rooms. The place was clean, tiled in marble, and cozy, but dimly lit.

After getting settled I got a city map and hit the town, visiting the Mozart Museum, Schloss Mirabelle and the Mirabelle Garden amongst other attractions from the film “The Sound of Music”, and crossed over the Salzach River to Salzburg’s picturesque Old Town walked amongst the shops and restaurants to climb the steps up the Hohensalzburg, a castle (you’ve seen it in the Sound of Music) overlooking the city.

I booked a tour to Lake Konigsee and the Salt Mines in nearby Bavaria, Germany for the next day and grabbed a bite to eat, schnitzel and potatoes before calling it a night.

July 8th. Running late for the tour but thankfully they had hotel pickup.

The tour took us to nearby Berchtesgaden, Germany and and portion of Southern Bavaria, including a sight of Hitler's 'Eagle's Nest' where he and the Third Reich had their hideout. The elevator shaft was built of brass because Hitler was clausterphobic. I didn't go to the top, only viewed it from the bottom of the mountain. Lake Konigsee was a storybook setting, and probably one of the main highlights of the trip. The tourguide was full of humour and knowledge of the region has spent most of his life in and around the area. I could see why he'd want to stay there. I grabbed an orange Fanta and took some time to appreciate one of the wonders southern Germany had to offer. If you've ever gotten a postcard from a beautiful place that you've never seen, a place that you try to envision, but it all seems like a fantasy world or a fairytale setting, this is the place! AND IT'S REAL!

Later that afternoon, I was back in Salzburg eating schnitzel and boiled potatoes, mmmm probably my favourite meal and then exploring the city lit up at night.

If I haven't said so already, Europe is full of history. North America is a relatively young group of countries, where as Europe has some structures that were built pre 1400's, cobblestone avenues, elegant stained-glass churches and cathedrals, and alluring country sides.

July 9th. I hit the streets in the morning in search of some fresh eats at a market before jumping on the train to Munich. I hopped on and couldn't find a seat in two or three of the cars but wound up sitting in the bicycle car. When the ticket man came to check my ticket, he laughed, most likely because I was sitting in the bicycle car. Moments later what seemed like a grade 6 class joined me. They were having fun laughing and speaking German. After about an hour or so, a girl walked up to me to ask where I was from and where I was travelling to. When her teacher came into the car to check up on them, the girl told her teacher where I was from, and spoke for a few minutes, then the teacher left. The girl came back to ask me questions for the group of them, and when she rejoined her classmates, the said somethings in German that were probably to the effect that she had found a new boyfriend or something of the sort.

Munchen, Munich. For whatever reason, I can't remember where I stayed. I believe it was a hostel walking distance to a train station. I just walked around the city centre that evening. I did stumble upon a 'caberet'. I felt like a sleeze walking in there with video machines on either side, but in the back, behind a curtain was a bar with a stage for dancers. I was approached by one of the dancers after she had danced, made small-talk, and I headed for the door.

July 10th. I went to the train station where I was to meet a woman from Saskatoon for a tour of a concentration camp in Dachau. While I was waiting, someone had some up to me and asked me to walk in front of a video camera. They began shooting a scene from a movie right there at the train station. For the second take, it was a full on shoot. The scene went something like this:

Two bad guys bolted out of some doors being chased by two police officers, just after I passed the camera. All the while a train had just come into the station and was unloading passengers who were none the wiser of what was going on. Their reactions would've been exactly what the director expected. I did't catch the name of the film, sadly enough. It was a German movie, filmed at a train station circa 2000, if anyone has an idea of what the name of it is, I'd be greatly appreciative.

Now I was headed to Dachau with a handful of people and my friends for the day, a couple from Texas. We walked the grounds, or what was left of it, to see how a 'prisoner' would've spent his life at the facility, saw the barracks, the 'gas chambers' that weren't used, and a gate that read "Work Brings Freedom" in German, which was the entrance to the grounds. I had an eerie feeling while I was there. Shot some black and white photos.

I went back to Munich to do some more sight seeing and beer tasting of course, before calling it a night.

July 11th. I just hit the sidewalks and viewed what I could before my night train to Amsterdam. I stopped by a McDonald’s restaurant to use the facilities and buy a beer (hint, the beer tastes better out of a glass mug at a pub). I again caught a night train to save on accomodations, this time headed to Koln/Cologne.

July 12th. I woke up in the morning looking out the window, somewhere along the Rhine. I had to change trains in Frankfurt before going to Koln. I got a sore throat overnight and was helped out at a pharmacy just outside of the train station. I shot a picture of the Dome and decided to go back to Amsterdam and get rid of the sore throat.

I enjoyed the German scenery, and the Dutch model I was sitting with on the train.

July 13th-15th. Were spent in Amsterdam. I opted not to call Tessa after arriving just after the dinner hour. I tried to get accomodations at a few of the hostels on the Dam with no luck. It also began to rain. Just when I was going to give up and stay at a high end hotel for the night I heard a "HEY STEVE!" Knowing I only knew Tessa in Holland, I kept walking. Then I hear "Hey Steve" again and a hand on my shoulder. It was Bruce from NYC whom I met in Berlin. He asked where I was staying and I told him about my luck. He told me I could stay at his aunt's house just outside of the city center. We grabbed a few pints of Amstel at a small pub,checked out the nightlife and chatted about various places we'd visited since Berlin.

I slept on the floor, but hey, I was out of the rain and didn't bother Tessa late at night.

I left early the next day, thanking Bruce's aunt before going back to the Cosmos Hostel and do laundry.

I just relaxed the remaining days and met up with Tessa one more time before leaving for home. After returning home I realized my film was missing. I only had pics from Amsterdam that were in my camera.

In conclusion to my 15 days of European adventure, I'd have to say more time would've made a rushed trip, a bit more relaxed. As well, I didn't use public transportation too often to get around the cities so that I wouldn't miss out on something that wasn't in a guidebook or on a map. I felt this was just the tip of the iceberg so-to-speak for my adventures of backpacking.


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