Roaming through Europe has always been a dream for me, the magic of a borderless continent that welcomes you to explore it has always seduced me, it’s as as easy as hopping in a bus or a train and move to another country with another language, currency and culture in a matter of a couple of hours, how charming!
To a person like me who was born and raised in the Middle East where borders are strict and sacred despite the stubborn propaganda that promotes One Arab Nation day and night, the absence of borders between countries – that were all involved in horrific wars and genocides since ever – was really shocking and overwhelming, I was just under the impression of denial, the impression that it’s too good to be true, so whenever we were approaching international borders I’d prepare the passports, re-check the visa pages and get ready for at least a short questionnaire from some border security officer, but guess what! there were no border security officers, the bus/train doesn’t even stop because there are no physical borders, unless you are well tracking your location via GPS you wouldn’t even notice crossing from a country to another before you receive that SMS from your mobile network provider welcoming you in the new country, and yes it’s one sim card that you buy from any EU country and it works throughout the whole EU without any roaming charges and gives you a generous amount of 10GB of data for a reasonable pre-paid amount of less than €15, Yes it’s that simple!
Well, this is how it went, arrived at Budapest (Hungary) – Bratislava (Slovakia) – Vienna (Austria) – Brno (Czechia) – Krakow (Poland) then departed from Katowice Airport (Poland), Budapest Airport is a basic airport by the way and baggage appeared on the belt after waiting for ages, but the taxi booth outside the arrival terminal was very efficient, you name your destination and the lady gives you the estimated cost and electronically calls a taxi for you that arrives 2 minutes later, Katowice Airport is more modernized but the prices of snacks and water are crazy, security guards wouldn’t allow a single bottle of water or juice inside and then you have to buy what you need from the cafeteria at 5 times its regular price, we had there the worst coffee and pastry ever!
As much as it’s simple to roam through Europe, it’s still confusing and mind blowing as you swing between different languages and currencies, almost every country in Europe has its own language and is very proud and strict about using it, it’s quite easy and straightforward in any European city – especially with today’s technology – to get around and find what you are looking for, whether it’s tourist attractions or accommodation or transportation or even Halal food, however you’d definitely stand like a mute statue in front of a supermarket cashier while she’s reciting the value of your bill or the due change in a language you don’t understand or you don’t even know that it exists (Hungarian or Slovak for example), I failed to buy a sim card from Magyar Telekom because nobody in their shop was able to speak English with me, however a few shops away I found Vodafone whose staff were wonderful and very helpful, in all cases it’s still quite easy to deal with locals as most of them can manage to compose a few simple English phrases.
Tip: use Google Translate’s brilliant camera feature to get instant translation of text on a street sign or on a cheese package in a supermarket, it’s a life saver!
Currency is another obstacle you have to face, unlike the common myth, many European countries don’t use Euro and are still committed to their local currencies, so be prepared to get lost in mind blowing exchange rates along with the fluctuation of prices between countries, for example a can of coke would cost you 300 Forints in Hungary, 1.50 Euros in Slovakia, 2.50 Euros in Austria, 28 Korunas in Czechia and 4 Zloties in Poland, your mind would lag for a few seconds in front of the supermarket’s fridge to figure out what the hell this price means in your household currency or at least if this is cheap or expensive! Not to mention of course the maze of banknotes and coins that you are not familiar with, it would definitely take you a few more seconds than anyone else in the supermarket queue to get the required amount of cash out of your pocket, You’ll also need to get rid of any small change that you still have of the local currency before leaving it to another country that doesn’t use that currency and where it wouldn’t be possible to exchange a few euros value of a foreign currency, you’d end up with your pocket full of a rainbow of useless small coins!
The real fun part of the journey is transportation, Europe is perfectly connected with a very efficient network of public transportation that can theoretically get you from anywhere to anywhere via several options to select from, either by air, railways, bus, rideshare, boat, tram, metro or even by bicycle or on foot, you have all the options, European culture is very supportive to public transit, most people use public transit on a daily basis since cars are very costly because of the high petrol rates, parking fees, toll roads, etc. while public transit networks are efficient, rapid and reliable, cycling is another great value of the European culture, secure cyclist lanes are almost implemented in every city and distances within the cities are easy to cover on a bicycle or a skateboard anyway.
Accommodation throughout the 5 countries was arranged via Airbnb, one of the finest deliverables of the P2P (Peer to Peer) concept that the internet blessed humanity with, We stayed in ordinary people’s homes, or actually parts of homes that were modified to suite the purpose of being rent out to tourists, as an architect I could easily spot evidences that almost all flats I stayed in were originally parts of bigger homes that were very smartly separated and equipped with a bathroom, a kitchen and an individual entrance, It’s a very savvy alternative to hotels especially for families, you have endless choices that can match every budget and every traveling group, options range from a bedspace in shared room to a high-end luxurious villa with a pool, but what makes Airbnb unique is the “home” feeling you experience in a place that’s literally a home and not a hotel, a cozy warm place in an ordinary building within the city center with bedrooms, a living room and a fully-equipped kitchen, you can always read reviews from other travelers who stayed in the place and what they wrote on it and on the host before you make your decision, furthermore, the host himself on the other hand can review the guest after checking-out, so in case you break something, steal the coffee machine or disturb the neighbors your next host would know about that and you would definitely bear the consequences, I like that the platform protects both the guest and the host, mutual interest and mutual responsibility are the core values of P2P.
As a general perception, European culture and lifestyle is struggling to confront the American lifestyle that is dominating the world rapidly, thanks to its concrete and authentic culture, Europe is still doing good in this battle unlike most of the world, especially the Middle East and Eastern Asia, so although there’s a McDonald’s and a Starbucks in almost every street corner in every single European country, there’s still hundreds of local brands that are still functioning very well and are still competitive and yet more attractive to customers.
Currency: Forint (=0.0036 USD)
The Danube river is dividing the city into Buda and Pest, Danube passes by 4 capitals (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade), but it looks in its full intense in Budapest, a Danube cruise is a must so you can get familiar with the city, Inner City is charming with its bending narrow allies and historical buildings, Buda Castle lies on a perfect location overseeing the city and can be approached either on foot if you have the physical fitness to do so or by the legacy funicular, it’s a big city with wonderfully conserved architecture, the skyline of the city is still very clean, no skyscrapers, no odd buildings, just a few ugly buildings and bridges from the communist era.
Currency: Euro (=1.17 USD)
This is a little charming city, the old town is very relaxing and peaceful and is still well preserved with its medieval plazas and old town hall, it’s the cheapest city I visited in this trip and definitely one of the cheapest in the EU, however it still maintains a good quality of life, people are very nice and friendly, The Danube looks much less attractive here however.
Currency: Euro (=1.17 USD)
Vienna is the world’s most liveable city, this is based on academic researches and studies, and you can easily support this fact after a short walk or tram ride along the city centre, Vienna definitely has more open green areas and public parks than any other city I’ve been to, as per City of Vienna “Approximately 50% of Vienna (about 200 square kilometres) are green areas”, this is almost 30 times the area of Central Park ! the city has a great public transit network that you can use for unlimited rides or metro/tram/bus with the 24/48/72 hr card, children below 15 use public transit for free during school holidays (including all summer), another good bargain is the hop-on-hop-off bus that includes a river ride.
Currency: Koruna (=0.045 USD)
This is another quite and small city, although it’s officially Czechia’s second largest city but it’s not large at all comparing to cities like Vienna and Budapest, old town is lovely, the castle, the plaza and the cathedral keep the medieval character of the city, the former Czechoslovakia suffered horrific invasions in the past either by Nazi Germany or by Communist Soviet Union, the city is keeping a memory of these sad incidents in front of its main attractions so that the tragedy isn’t forgotten, The Czech countryside is very relaxing with its endlessly extrovert greenfields and small tranquil farmhouses.
Currency: złoty (=0.27 USD)
Krakow is a very vibrant and active city despite its distinct historical character, the huge plaza in the city center and the surrounding streets are rich with street performers, artists, cafes, horse carriages and music, a lot of music! People here are less friendly than Austrians or Slovaks and the city is known for its booze but it’s still safe at night, The Polish countryside is also very pleasant.
Long story short, it was a roller coaster where I swang between cities, countries, means of transportation, currency exchange rates, languages, to be honest, timezone and electrical socket type were the same in all 5 countries, but it was well worth it, and I can’t even wait till the next ride!