Four guys with Schengen visas and no itinerary. Whatever possessed you to come up with such a footloose plan?
Well, the plan had been on the anvil for quite a while, actually. We first began toying with the idea of going backpacking three years ago, but it kept getting postponed. We also had a tough time convincing our respective wives to stay back with the kids!
Once that was done, we set about acquiring the visas. Apart from Schengen visas, we got papers for Turkey, Romania and Croatia. We applied for a Bulgarian visa, but didn’t get it, so we had to fly from Istanbul to Budapest, instead of taking the land route.
How did you go about choosing your destinations?
Four adventurers: (from left) Ramprasad, Uppin, Shilotri and Simha at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Abhijit Shilotri
That was the funniest part of all. We’d take our place in individual queues at various railway stations and figure out two important things: The longest journey, which would allow us to spend a night on the train and thus save on accommodation, and the cheapest tickets, as the fast trains are much more expensive than regular trains covering the same distance. Mostly, we would decide on the spur of the moment.
Only twice did we board TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse), high-speed trains that can touch 320km per hour (kmph). Fast trains in India move at 120kmph at the most.
And you ended up visiting 16 countries.
Yes. We ended up spending a day and a half or two days at each place. Let’s see, we started with Greece, then went to Turkey, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Poland, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Monaco and Italy. Phew!
What would you pick as your favourite places?
First, it’d be Pamukkale, a World Heritage site in Turkey. Located in the valley of the river Menderes, it would be pretty nondescript were it not for a white, terraced mountain. From what I understood, the mountain is the result of the earth’s movements and the chalk-heavy composition of the water there. Basically, the water has formed these brilliant white stalactites in some places; elsewhere, they still cascade down in hot springs.
Next, Cappadocia, also in Turkey. We arrived in Goreme, a small town in Cappadocia, famous for the fairy chimney rock formations, at around 5-6am, after an overnight bus journey. Dawn is the time when 25-30 hot-air balloons take off for a bird’s-eye view of the extensive natural formations, but at Rs10,000 a ride, we felt it would be too expensive for us backpackers. So we headed towards the caves, which the early Christians built apparently to escape invaders.
They go 18 storeys below the ground. This is a place built for adventure, actually, though there are very real chances of getting lost! So we also did a 3km jungle trek with fellow backpackers from Australia, Canada and Korea, who we are still in touch with.
Next, Rhodes and Kos island in Greece. These aren’t the typical touristy beaches you’d imagine, but tiny towns bustling with activity. Lovely places to hang up our shoes for a while.
Since you were on the road so much, did you face any danger?
The scariest experience was in Vienna. One of us is dark and big-built, and soon after he had helped a black man with directions, a plainclothes policeman came up and started asking questions, sniffed at his cash and generally gave him a real hard time. The rest of us approached a police station, where the personnel confirmed that the man was indeed a policeman working under cover in VVIP areas to nab drug dealers. We can have a good laugh about it now but at that moment we knew sheer panic.
Any low points?
Well, a trip such as this requires a great deal of camaraderie: You are thrown together for over a month under what can be trying circumstances—a sort of a Big Brother on the move! Towards the end of the trip, three of us fell out with the fourth member of our group and one of us actually left a week before we were supposed to return home. The lesson we learnt is to do such trips only with people we know and trust.
The secret to a successful road/train trip through Europe lies in first forming a basic itinerary: Every embassy where you seek a visa will require it. Once in Europe, a Eurail pass (www.eurail.com) gives you the liberty to go pretty much where you please across 25 countries.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org