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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Places I have stayed in Europe Part 1: Calais to Vienna

Day 2 and I've already had a request for a blog topic! It is true that request may have been from the BF and purely so he could pass on the following information to his friend who's currently embarking on his own european adventure, but it's a request nonetheless. (and one which keeps me off my default subject of food)

A little further information regarding the period of travel that myself and the BF refer to as "eurotrip" (any similarity to a major motion picture in the mid 2000s is purely conincidental): From the 16th August 2009 until the 13th October 2009 we took a train journey around mainland Europe, departing from the UK on a Dover- Calais Ferry and returning via an Easyjet airplane from Amsterdam. We visited 11 countries and stayed in a range of accomodation namely camping in our own tent (Roarie); slumming it in Backpackers hostels and living the high life in the occasional hotel. On seperate occasions we have stayed in London, Cornwall and Dublin. I'm going to give you all a short review of each place we stayed, along with a link to contact them (usually

Are you sitting comfortably? Then i shall begin!

Calais, France - Camping Municipal de Calais
Calais itself is a relatively unexciting French town, extremely jaded by the number of English speaking tourists that visit. I wouldnt suggest making the effort to go there unless you plan on using the port, however from what I remember this was a pretty good campsite, where we were given a decent sized pitch and the facilities were adequate.

Paris, France - Camping International Maisons Laffitte
We found when searching online that most French Hostels appeared to be overpriced, somewhat dodgy looking or single sex so decided to stick with the camping idea. This is a gorgeous campsite, very used to tourists, with a lot of English speaking staff. Paris itself is easily accessible by the RER and rates are very reasonable. Its like a little tranquil haven just a few minutes away from the chaos of Paris. Beware of the geese, and mosquitos as its right by a river.

Bayeux, France - Camping Municipal Du Bayeux (No website available)
Bayeux was one of my highlights of northern France, its a beautiful little old town with lots of nice old architecture and is suprisingly unspoilt by the tourists who flock to see the famous tapestry. This was another great campsite, very laidback with gorgeous pitches. There's a supermarket very nearby, although the actual town is a bit of a walk and its a decent trek from the train station.

Le Mans, France - Etap Hotel Le Mans Centre
we decided to stop in Le Mans because I remembered going there with my parents when I was younger and visiting a really good car museum, I also assumed there would be some kind of year-round buzz from the famous 24 hour race, but I was wrong. The place was a ghost town with almost noone on the streets and no atmosphere at all. The hotel was ok and in a decent location near a few good restaurants but I wouldnt suggest going to the town at all! In general wherever in Europe you are travelling (especially with a car) you will always have a reasonably priced place to stay if you search on the accor website

Bordeaux, France - Etap Hotel Bordeaux Gare St Jean
Another city I didn't much like, however we were only there for one night so didn't get much of a chance to experience it. Another win for the Accor group here, nice hotel and felt like a safe haven from the chaotic streets of Bordeaux.

Pamplona, Spain - Hostel Hemmingway
Another one night stop off, and another slight misjudgement, I thought this place might be lively when there were no bulls running through its streets. It isn't. Even more inconveniently the train station is a looooong way from the town centre and trains to Madrid from here are infrequent and at bizzare times, times when the busses tend not to be running. We had a great time trying to find a taxi at 5am whilst speaking no Spanish! The hostel, however, was lovely although difficult to find. Very homely feel and although the staff claim to speak "only a little" English, they're actually pretty much fluent and very helpful. We met some fun Austrian/German or Swiss (not sure which, it was a while back) guys here and drank a bottle of 79cent Rose Wine. It tasted like vinegar. The rooms could have done with some kind of air con or a fan, I remember being really really hot.

Madrid, Spain- Cat's Hostel
A real high point of our whole trip here. I cannot recommend Madrid or Cat's enough. The hostel is exceptionally clean and well maintained and very high tech with automatic wristbands which get you inside at nighttime and into your spacious lockers. the courtyard/common room area was stunning and there was a vending machine for beer. the bar served a litre of sangria or beer for 4 euros (making it a bit of a party hostel) unfortunately reading current reviews it sounds like it may have gone downhill slightly recently, there are a lot of comments about rude staff and noisy day long construction work. massive shame, lets hope it can return to its former glory.

Valencia, Spain- Ibis Valencia Palacio de Congresos Hotel
Now, im sure that ordinarily Valencia has heaps of space in lots of awesome lively hostels, however we were there for a particular event- La Tomatina: a giant tomato festival in the nearby town of Bunol which is basically just a giant moshpit full of drunk Ozzies and Brits covered in half rotten tomatoes. It's fantastic and yet terrifying. Hostel space is well overpriced around this time and booked out months in advance by companies like contiki. I am very glad we decided to stay in the Ibis. Prices did not seem to be effected by the event and we came back to a nice clean room with our very own shower. bliss.

Barcelona, Spain - Centric Point Hostel
This hostel is HUGE! Almost too big. It lacked the community living type feel of a lot of hostels but was in a really good central location and had an extremely well equiped kitchen.They ran lots of tours and things as well.

Cassis, France - Camping les Cigales
After the hectic time we'd spent in Spain we wanted to CHILL! Rather than staying in Marseilles, a renowned big city with a lot of action, we decided to find any small town nearby with a campsite walking distance from the train station. Cassis was our answer. Mainly frequented by wealthy yachters there was little to no backpacker scene here which was quite nice after Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona which are swarming with nomadic types. Cassis was gorgeous and we enjoyed being there but the campsite was nothing special, Campers with no cars were made to pitch their tents in a tiny gravel enclosure and i felt slightly like a refugee or a farm animal. None of the staff spoke a word of English either.

Turin, Italy - Random Hotel near the train station.
I appear to have no record at all of the name of the hotel we stayed in in Turin. We had experienced a long day of travel (although the trainline between Marseilles and Turin is truely stunning, first through Nice and then Monacco and finally a long winding journey through the Italian mountains) We left the station, walked into the first hotel we found which looked to be in our price range and accepted the price offered immediately. It was pleasant and independantly run and had a good breakfast.

Milan, Italy - Hostel Emmy
We were totally unimpressed with Milan in many ways. It was expensive, there was a massive lack of good hostels and there wasn't really a lot to do unless you were a millionaire who wanted to go shopping. This hostel was adequate, and close to a tube line but was more like someone's appartment with a bunch of lodgers than a real hostel. I remember there being no lockers and not being massively keen on that.

Venice, Italy - Camping Fusina
Really awesome campsite with an almost hostel-like feel. Just across the water from Venice, it was ideal to camp here. Prices in Venice itself are extortionate and coming into the city on the water seemed fitting. Camping Fusina was easy to reach from the train station and very international. Facilities were fantastic with a well stocked shop, pizzeria and amazing bar constantly full of contiki and top deck tour groups. We had a great time here!

Rome, Italy - Tiber Village Camping
Having been so proud of ourselves for deciding to camp in Venice, we decided to do likewise in Rome. This campsite was also well equiped with similar facilities and even a pool and free wi fi but was lacking in the atmosphere of Camping Fusina. I also remember a harrowing afternoon attemping to do laundry with all the machines malfunctioning and no help from any staff who seemed very unapologetic that the extremely overpriced machines didn't actually wash or dry your clothes. The journey into the city from here was actually quite long and the free shuttle busses that the campsite provided seemed to be less frequent than promised.

Naples, Italy - Hostel of the Sun
I fell in love with Naples. After famous tourist destinations like Rome, Venice and Milan it initially seemed busy, confusing and scary. This Hostel is one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in. the Staff were ridiculously helpful and gave you all the tools to fall in love with their own city. Pompei is one of the most incredible things i have ever seen and eating a margherita pizza in one of the first ever pizza shops, at an incredibly low price was a massive high point of the whole trip (I knew I couldn't get through this whole post without talking about food)

Athens, Greece - Zorba's Hotel
Maybe it was because the weather was bad but I really disliked Athens, it seemed like a massive let down considering all the hype that surrounds it and the ruins and old buildings paled in comparison to the amazing things we'd seen at Pompei. Despite that, this hostel was actually pretty good. It was in a good location and the staff were lovely. We spent our first night in a private room because a very strange guy who spoke barely any English (not that it stopped him from trying..) had followed us ever since we had got off of the boat in Patras and we were wary of his intentions. The rooms were nothing special but generally an ok hostel if you really want to visit Athens.

Ios, Greece - Far Out Camping
We went to Ios at the end of the summer season when things are starting to calm down. I have heard from others that what we experienced at Far out beach club is not exactly indicative of the reality of a visit at a peak time. We spent our first night in a simple but effective hut and then moved into the campsite in Roarie. We found the whole time on Ios extremely relaxing although even in september I got the worst sunburn I have ever experienced. Far out camping was a good budget option but is a part of a whole tourist resort offering a staggering range of accomodation options with everyone granted access to the bar/restaurant/pool area which is just 10 meters from the beach itself. I have fond memories of Ios and myself and the BF have even considered going to work there one summer. We shall wait and see.

Sofia, Bulgaria - Hostel Mostel
Bulgaria is kind of scary. It still has that slight Eastern Bloc, Soviet feel about it. The second I stepped off the train (wearing thongs/flip flops/jandles) I stood in sick. A lot of the roads and buildings were in a pretty bad state of disrepair. In stark contrast, this hostel was spotlessly clean, bright and friendly. Walking into the reception felt like walking into Byker Grove Youth club (non-Brits can ignore this reference...), or Cheers bar or somewhere similar where everybody knows your name. The staff were astoundingly good and started to quickly feel more like friends than staff. We were given Breakfast and Dinner for free everyday along with a glass of beer! Any backpacker knows that any hostel which serves up free beer is somewhere special. I cannot reccomend this hostel more and would probably even go back to scary Bulgaria just to stay there. High points: a bizzare night out with a random hodge-podge, extremely diverse group of fellow hostel guests, culminating in a visit to the student campus which looked like a mini Vegas. The bar we entered had an IDing system which included a rolling rate of entry fee dependant on the supposed validity of your identification.We danced the night away to live turkish music with a crowd of surly looking males who all looked like they had mafia connections whilst all the females in the room looked bored and sat on sofas....Sometimes it is the unknown which is the most fun!!

Bucharest, Romania - Butterfly Villa Hostel
We arrived in Bucharest on an overnight train at about 4am. After hearing reports about the city's feral dog problem we camped out in a Mcdonalds at the train station, savouring a shared milkshake whilst we waited for it to get light. If Bulgaria had been scary we were expecting Romania to be far, far worse. We had a quick twighlight trek to the hostel where they were extremely accomodating and had no problems with us checking in at 6am and going immediately to bed! when we finally explored we learnt that Bucharest was NOTHING like we expected. There were sprawling gardens full of families enjoying their weekends, boheumium back lanes with shisha bars and weird kooky shops and an extremely upmarket strip with 5 star hotels in which even we could afford lunch in a gorgeous courtroom restaurant with crowds of  swanky looking buisnessmen in sharp suits! This set the tone for our whole visit to Romania. Why it is percieved in the way it is as some poverty stricken, wretched country with little of interest i have no idea. There is lots of natural beauty and whilst the infastructure was somewhat shaky, it was obvious that A LOT of money was going into improvements. Every trainline we took was covered in construction workers building more lines and better stations. I've gone slightly off on a tangent here but basically the hostel was really nice, with good cooking facilities and I would strongly reccomend a stay in Romania for any European trip!

Brasov, Romania - Rolling Stone Hostel
Another great Eastern European city and another great hostel! It felt a bit like going back to live with your parents, what with it being in a refurbished house and their fantastic free laundry service (what was particularly cute was that rather than using a dryer they hung everyone's clothes up around the house to dry!) The tours they organise from this hostel are AMAZING value for money too. We visited Bran castle (off of dracula) and a peasant fortress. The guides were amazing and the subject matter very engaging. The main problem we had in Romania in general was that we coudn't find a good supermarket anywhere, there just never seemed to be any fresh meat! And if thats the worst you can say about a country with such a horrific recent history, I think they're doing pretty well!!

Budapest, Hungary - Central Backpack King
For some reason me and the BF are convinced this used to be called The Happy Chicken...we aren't really sure why but we have it written down in a notebook...but the real name does ring a bell! This hostel was pretty hard to find but once there it was worth it. Its in a good central location near a train station and a park. The staff member who greeted us did so with a shot of homemade Hungarian Schnapps, which was lethal. All of the staff here were really friendly and genuine. The rooms were nice and big and I remember a decent kitchen and more than adequate bathrom. Budapest itself is very pretty and has a distinctly Germanic feel to it. We took a really good free walking tour and went on an extremely good bar crawl. Unfortunately they supplied a few too many free drinks and finding our way back to the hostel proved extremely challenging.

Vienna, Austria- Westend City Hostel
Vienna seemed like it would be a very interesting, culturally rich travel experience, however at this point in our journey we were faced with a difficult decision; We had to drop one of the following from our itinerary to keep on schedule: Prague and the Czech republic in general, Berlin, Oktoberfest in Munich or Vienna. Unfortunately the BF didn't share my enthusiasm for going on the "Sound of Music" tour and Vienna lost out. Instead of relaxing on the beautiful hill where Maria belted out that iconic title song, we were in and out of Vienna in less than 12 hours, merely needing a place to sleep between trains. The Westend City Hostel fulfuilled this criteria perfectly, by being very close to the station, being relatively quiet, offering a free breakfast and having comfortable beds. I unfortunately have nothing else to say about Vienna or the hostel! (Vienna is often labeled as Wein on European maps. Maybe we're just thick but this caught us out for a while and we kept discussing why we'd never heard of this relatively large city in Austria!)

Keep watching for part 2: Prague to Amsterdam, plus the UK and Ireland

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