Laurence Andrews

Travel Optimism for 2021

It’s a gorgeous sunny day outside today, which means all I can think about is summer. Since last year was a non-starter I desperately want to get back out into the world and do some travelling. I really do hope that there will be some opportunity to do so and am quietly praying that it will all be fine.

The past few weeks I’ve been thinking about a route and some of the things I’d like to see and do. The #TrainToTurkey trip in 2019 was fantastic and while I wouldn’t change much, there were a few lessons we learnt to apply to the next trip:

Know what to do It’s fair to say that we weren’t adequately prepared with ideas of what to do or where to go in certain cities, particularly Sofia and Ankara and as a result we ended up wandering without much of a clue. In Ankara we weren’t able to get an internet connection and that really hampered things, we ended up in some pretty strange bars, wandered around an abandoned theme park and along a motorway before finding something interesting and a bar that was showing the Formula 1. That and in some places we weren’t staying long enough to have time to figure things out, Sofia was an example of that. This issue is mostly solved with prep beforehand, we just didn’t really do much.

Duration We did get the duration for most places just right, staying less than a day in most cities with a little more time in the places we knew we wanted to spend time (Belgrade and Istanbul). This does against the general advice of most Interrail travel blogs to basically spend WAY less time travelling but we were probably more time-restricted than most on this kind of trip and actually didn’t feel the need to spend that long in places. We were on a bit of a mission though, rather than a holiday.

Distance We need to dial the distance back for future trips. Travelling from Penzance to Ankara was a really freaking long way, it was great but now that we’ve done that I would instead fly in and fly out allowing more time for the relevant journey or destination. in 2019 we basically ‘gunned it’ to Munich and the first part of the trip didn’t add much in the scheme of things. That said, if conserving annual leave from work weren’t an issue then I would absolutely travel on rails for the whole thing, doing a big loop would be pretty amazing.

Pack lighter This is always a top tip but I took heed and packed pretty damn light. I took the same bag I use to commute, I wore the same shoes, shorts and shirt for basically the whole trip and smelt like a foot when I got home. Foolishly though I packed a pair of jeans that I didn’t wear at all until the last day and carried around my $2,000 MacBook which I refused to let out of my sight - this was stupid. On days where we were back to back on sleeper trains this meant we carried everything in the day which was really quite shit. Slimming packing back even further and only taking things that are replaceable would have made a big difference for comfort and freedom. An iPhone, headphones, charger, toothbrush, passport and the clothes I’m wearing is all I’m taking next time.

Keep and eye on the time We very, very nearly missed the flight out of Kiev on the way home. While it all would have been fine, it would have been painfully expensive and soured the last day. We didn’t build much contingency into the schedule so a failure early on would too have totally screwed us until we got to a ‘checkpoint’ where we did have contingency. The delayed train situation from Cologne to Munich very nearly knocked the dominoes over but thankfully we get back on track.

Actually visit the country It’s bugged me a lot since we got back that we completely sailed through Slovenia and didn’t spend any time there, same with Zagreb to a degree. If the goal is to visit the country, spending the day there is kind of the minimum that I think I’m going to consider fair. I’ve noted where I’ve been in a country/state but only been in the airport, I think I’ll note something similar for when I have been there but haven’t been there.

Blog better I was lazy with this. I should have taken more photos and journalised everything I could. The blogs I did get out were pretty much me just thinking back and I know I’ve missed certain things that are interesting. Using Squarespace was the most frustrating thing and that has changed in my new setup and I would probably just publish straight to Microblog more frequently to capture things.

For the 2021 trip, as with #TrainToTurkey, the goal is to visit new countries and to get some time on the tracks. There are three clear candidates for trips when looking at what’s left for me tick off, and if I’m going to see all of Europe making all of these happen is really the fastest way to do so:

  • The Balkan states (Bosnia - Greece)
  • Central Europe (Poland travelling south to Hungary, possibly on to Moldova via Romania)
  • Nordic region (Norway, Sweden, Aland Islands, possibly travelling to Latvia too)

The Balkan States

It feels like the this is an ‘advanced’ level trip. Trains don’t operate in certain countries and where they do the connections aren’t ideal for a Northwest to Southeast route. To make it possible, it’s going to involve road transport and patience. I think we’d need to be more flexible in scheduling, prepared to operate in full backpacker mode and allocate more time. That said, these are some of the more ‘unchartered' countries in Europe and I would love to get the opportunity to visit and blog about them - one of the best parts of #TrainToTurkey was visiting cities and countries that were off the normal tourist trail. This option certainly presents the best ‘haul’ for ticking countries off the list too, there’s at least six and potentially the opportunity to cross off some of the more obscure territories based on the Century Club list. Avoiding COVID restrictions would be tricky here and not being able to enter a particular country could completely scupper the trip, so presents a big risk.

Central Europe

This would certainly be a little easier than the Balkans but still present a bit of a challenge. There’s great train connections across the board and pricing should be reasonable for ticketing. There’s night trains that could work for a number of routes and in 2019 these proved to be fantastic for keeping hotel costs down and proving an effective method for keeping on the move but visiting places during the day. There would be plenty to see with food, drink and accommodation all pretty inexpensive too. The route could be planned pretty well up front, I think something like Gdansk > Warsaw > Katowice > Bratislava > Budapest would work well. It could also be possible to include a cross-Romania trip into Moldova to make things interesting although looks as though the train on this route has been cancelled for the time being.

Nordic Region

This is the one I’m leaning to most although would certainly prove to be the most expensive. As with the other two options it would prove a little too time consuming to travel from the UK via train to start the trip so it would make sense to fly in to Stavanger or Bergen. That said a UK start would allow for the Harwich to Hook ferry which is on my unpublished list of things to do. I would expect that these counties to have a reasonable grip on the COVID situation or at least a well published policy as to whether a trip is possible or not. Food, drink and accommodation would be expensive, travel costs too would be high but there may be options to control that with a Eurail pass. I think a West to East route is the obvious approach but that doesn’t lend itself too well to night trains, although that’s probably not too much of an issue as there wouldn’t be took much ‘rail time’. North/South travel does provide sleeper options but would likely eat into trip time. There’s a lot to do, The Flam railway in Norway, visiting the famous [Vasa]( in Stockholm and it might event be possible to align the trip with the Tall Ships Races which visits the Aland Islands in July. In addition to visiting Norway, Sweden and Aland I would love to get to spend some more time in Finland. I absolutely loved being in Helsinki during 2019 and want to see more of the country. Could be possible to extend the trip by travelling from Helsinki to Riga by ferry or St Petersburg by train - both would present a great ‘final stop’.

Still seems too early to be making plans though, I’m typing this out very optimistically while under national lockdown rules. If it does look like international travel is off the cards for the summer then the opportunity would be to put in some UK travel instead, there’s a lot of domestic railway that I’ve not travelled on and a whole heap of cities I’ve yet to see. A week with an all UK Rover ticket could prove to be a lot of fun. Potentially a good chance to visit Northern Ireland too, which always seems to get bumped to the bottom of the list!

Let’s see how we go, I’m confident that something will be possible. Might start piecing together an itinerary or two.