The Circumetnea Railway is a narrow-gauge railway that runs in a C-shape for 110km from the city of Catania around Mount Etna to Giarre-Riposto which lies on the coast some 25km north of Catania. At least it's that way round if you start where we did. It's incredible value - around 6.50 Euro - and takes you through stunning landscapes with hundreds of differing views of Etna and the mountains, countryside, towns and villages around it. We stopped in Randazzo for several hours en route and found a spot from where we could gaze up at Etna unhindered. Three hours travel up and through and round the most spectacular scenery for just a few measly Euros. My companion and I both agreed that it had been our favourite ever journey by train.
From Catania - take the short underground railway system to the last stop, Catania Borgo.
The Circumetnea station is within sight of the exit and is signposted. From Giarre-Riposto station the CR station is equally close/visible.
Back in the olden days (60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s), budget travellers - students in particular - could thumb their way around the continent, usually with a dog-eared copy of the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe stuffed in their backpack. Road junctions in/out of major cities would be full of queues of hopeful travellers, thumbs in the air, winning smiles on their faces and a slightly optimistic felt-tip-pen-scrawled destination board (saying something like "Sicily - ONO!" or more nebulously "South? please!" being brandished at each passing vehicle.
In these days of budget air travel, advance-booking websites and widespread increased 'fear of strangers'(mostly media fuelled - it's really not any more dangerous than it ever was - ie, not very dangerous at all with a bit of common sense), such scenes are sadly rare these days.
My tip is that in Italy, such budget travel is still a viable option for those on a shoestring budget. I last summer hitched from Genoa (having started in France, so coming from Nice) to Venice, via Milan, Verona and Padua, spending a couple of days in each interesting stop off. Italians seem more generous and open-minded to (ie less scared of) picking up and conversing with strangers, and if you show a bit of willingness to be friendly (a smattering of school-level Italian, or even an ATTEMPT at some basic words, really helps) you'll meet some really interesting, often very helpful people.
More than one driver offered me a meal or even a bed for the night (I stress I wasn't looking for this, but it was really nice when it happened), and nearly all had great local tips and advice, and at the very least a bit of local colour and insight.
Travel with a tent if you're doing this. Italians seem more ok with pitching up by the side of a road or in a public park for the night, than their northern European counterparts. I'm not sure if this is a legal thing, just saying they seem much more tolerant and even friendly about it.
When you get somewhere prohibitively expensive, such as Venice, you are still able (oldskool-style) to crash in the train station. Be prepared to be abruptly woken and moved on as the station starts to fill up, say from about 6.30am, so it's not perfect - but it's a place to lay your head for a few hours and see a truly beautiful city for just the cost of your food etc, rather than the literally hundreds of euros it would cost if you had to pay for accommodation/travel.
Doing this, I spent a few days each in Genoa, Milan, Verona and Venice (with the odd stop-off in between, depending on where my driver was going), and hitched back again, and the whole trip was just over a fortnight. I met some fantastic people, had lovely experiences, saw places that I could never in my wildest dreams afford if done through conventional travel means, and the whole thing cost approx 20 euros a day, give or take. And that included everything, even a couple of (supermarket-bought) beers in the evenings. There is no other transport/accommodation alternative that would have come close. Basically, without plucking up the courage to hitch/camp (which turned out to be a lovely way to do it anyway), I'd never have seen Venice and probably never would.
Obviously nice hotels, car-hires and train travel are plusher, but this really does mean that budget travellers can experience this richly fascinating country without spending the next 10 years paying off a credit card debt, and you might just meet some really interesting, often quite idiosyncratic locals along the way.
(Obviously, it suits a flexible itinerary rather than a fixed one! - but this can be an unexpected boon in itself...)
And you'll be reviving the dying art of hitching along the way, and also - perhaps - making people a little bit less unnecessarily afraid of strangers. As it should be ...
Obviously, take sensible precautions. Be clean (you're more likely to get picked up). Be friendly (you're less likely to get chucked out). Don't get in a car with someone who's clearly drunk or appears dodgy. Have an exit strategy, just in case (saying you feel car-sick and need to pull over usually works). Girls travelling alone should of course be particularly circumspect, but even then, with a bit of common sense the risks are far lower than you'd imagine. I know dozens of people who still do this, and there have been only a couple of dodgy incidents out of hundreds of rides, and even they weren't THAT serious. (For example, I've had more threatening experiences on the tube in London to be honest).
Oh, and if the local police do hassle you for camping in a lay-by or sleeping in a train station, just remember to be polite, smile and say you didn't realise - they're nearly always surprisingly helpful and understanding.
So if you're on a budget, go back to the 70s - pack a tent and stick your thumb out! It could open whole new worlds of otherwise unaffordable luxury destinations, and of all the places in Europe I've tried it, Italy is one of the most consistently friendly, safe and open to this of any I've ever been to, even today.
And all that money you save in flights/car-hire/trains/hotels, you can put towards an absurdly priced can of Coke in St Mark's Square. And it'll taste all the sweeter for knowing you hitched there for just pennies. See you there!
Everywhere! (though my Nice - Genoa - Milan - Verona - Venice - and return - trip is not a bad suggested starting route...)
DON'T whatever you do decide to walk from the coach station or the train station up into Toledo. From the train station there is an easily found bus stop; from the bus station there isn't. When you get off the bus or the train find the taxi rank asap. Ask the driver for Plaza Zocodover. At the station the rank is directly outside; at the bus station it is up the moving stairs, left though glass door, immediately right and keep straight on to the edge of the building. There are not all that many taxis. I say this because the walk up the hill to the city, especially in summer, is awful and when you get to the top is the time to start exploring. You can always walk back down! Cost of taxi 6€ - well worth it! (2013)
... and leave the train at Pisa Central. From the station walk towards the river and cross the Arno by Ponte di Mezzo. Explore the narrow streets and squares of this historic university town. Eventually you will arrive at the Leaning Tower in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Cathedral Square). Make sure that you walk back to the station exploring a different route – there’s so much more to discover than the buildings close to the Tower (which is all that you are likely to see if you book on an organised excursion).
The Train de la Fresa (Strawberry Train) is a historical, cultural and gastronomic route between Madrid and Aranjuez which runs from the end of June until mid- July and from the 1st of September until the end of October. This journey, which started in 1851, transports you to an old age of train travel on an early 20th Century coal engine train trough scenic countryside. Ideal for families or for an interesting day out to Aranjuez.
It leaves from the Museo del Ferrocarril (Train Museum) at Atocha Station (Paseo de las Delicias 61) and takes about an hour to arrive into Aranjuez. During the trip, stewardesses dressed in period costume go round the train distributing boxes of strawberries for passengers to taste. The views from the train are of the beautiful countryside outside Madrid. Travellers are then taken by coach to Aranjuez for a guided visit to the Royal Palace, its beautiful gardens and the Museo de Faluas. Travellers can choose to remain in Aranjuez and return back to Madrid on a normal service train using the same ticket.
Aranjuez has many interesting sights, including the Royal Palace with its Royal gardens and the "Casita del Labrador" (Farmer’s House) a Royal pavilion built by King Charles IV.
Tren de la Fresa (return) tickets are around €29 for adults and €21 for children between 4 and 12 years old. Children under 4 years old travel free if they sit on their parents’ lap. The ticket includes the free guided tour of the palace and museum.
While in Madrid you can take a train to Aranzuez, around an hour's trip on which they celebrate and eat strawberries each spring, served by staff in costume, stopping in Aranzuez, a charming town that was a royal residential palace. You can tour this, or if preferred go to the Aranzuez gardens, the place that inspired Rodrigos' 'In the Gardens of Aranzuez' classical piece. On the same line you can continue your day trip to Toledo, around 40 minutes train ride or so, a fascinating fortified citadel on a lovely hill with a beautiful blue river in the valley below. Toledo has a history dating back to the Visigoths. Both Aranzuez and Toledo offer lovely resaurants and caffes and children are always welcomed as is delightfully usual. The same train line will return you to Madrid central station via Aranzuez. Fares are low, a little higher on the specific strawberry train, with strawberries provided of course! Allow a longish day as the trip really is interesting for all tastes and preferences. Madrid will still be open and buzzing when you return, into the small hours.
Buy a Prague one day travel pass and rumble along on a number 22 tram from the National Theatre across the River Voltava. Then let the quaint funicular railway take the strain up Petrin Hill. Built in 1893 the Petrin Observation Tower is an Eiffel lookalike and sways slightly in the wind. You can go up by lift or climb the 299 wooden stairs on the outside to the viewing platform with its superb panorama over Prague. Stroll back to the city down through gardens and apple orchards. Two hours, all in, for a fiver.
Take a trip on one of the many river boats which take off from stops along the River Danube, cost about 600HUF about £2.00. You can either stay on, take in the history of the nine bridges each with their own story. Or you can go up to Óbudai Island or Margaret Island both with breathtaking gardens.
Along the River Danube
A company that teaches surf-kiting in the summer but runs from Brig in Switzerland in the winter specializing in snow-kiting. However, Oli, the owner, was happy to cater for us on our first ski/boarding holiday.
He knows the area well in terms of where is best to ski in which conditions, has many alternatives for a break from the piste ie 15km toboggan runs, cross-country skiing, trying out snow-kiting. He gave us skiing lessons at a very favourable rate, has deals with the hotel where he is based and a local kit hire shop. We started out with brand new boots for the week! He charged us for the "guiding" for the week. We found this invaluable having never been on a winter holiday before. We were so well looked after even to the extent of Oli telling us, while I was still investigating ski trips,about the Ski train run jointly by Eurostar and TGV Lyria. This took us all the way from St. Pancras to Brig on two very comfortable trains. Nine hours but actually equivalent in time and price to the air/hire car travel alternative. Much more pleasant than air travel, which played a big part in the choice, with bigger baggage allowances (teenage daughters!) and Big Blue Experience gave a discount for coming all the way by train.
Brig is a relatively undiscovered ski destination, particularly by Brits. Chats on the ski lifts prompted surprise to hear an English voice and questions about how I found out about the place. More experienced winter holiday takers told us it has the least busy pistes that they have been on.
In the end the holiday worked out about £100 less than the cheapest ski-package I was looking at for the same dates, in Borovets through Crystalski, and much less expensive than anything else I could find in Switzerland!
Your trip to Bulgaria will be a better and richer experience the more contact you have with its many delightfully quirky locals. We took local buses everywhere and met loads of interesting people this way, including a Roma man and his disabled son, an American Peace Corps worker and a Bulgarian-Greek philosopher. We had an especially memorable trip from Veliko Tarnovo to Plovdiv. A man arrived with a large box and, after much discussion with the driver, the box was placed in the bus aisle, while the man walked away. As we drove off, the box began to shake violently. Seeing our alarm, a friendly student explained that it contained an injured stork who had been found and was being sent to the next town to an animal hospital. We assumed the stork was more likely to be off to become a meal somewhere but, when we pulled into the bus station in the next town, a woman in surgical scrubs was waiting. She told us she was the vet. We asked if she would be paid to treat the stork. She snorted and said, "Who would pay for such a thing?" Our bus trips were an unexpected highlight of an all-around wonderful trip, and revealed Bulgaria to us in all its strange, beautiful and surprisingly bird-loving glory.
Bus depots are in most towns and cities and run regular services
They say that the best things in life free. That was certainly true for me on a visit to India earlier this year. I was a nervous first time visitor and I'd spent the overnight train trip from Goa to Kerala locked away from my fellow travellers in a first class sleeping compartment. We arrived at Kannur at 4am and all of a sudden I was face to face with the real India. In an excess of ego I had imagined that India would somehow be I interested in me - or at least in my tourist dollar. But in that bustling place I discovered that I was quite invisible, just one face in the crowd going about their daily business. We sat for nearly three hours as trains arrived and departed and brightly coloured immaculately turned out people flocked to and fro.
Google map: bit.ly/Vt15MD
When flying long distances to Australia or New Zealand from London via Singapore book a flight which has a long layover time between flights and book yourself into one of the three Transit hotels. Each terminus has one, no need to go through immigration or customs just get off the plane and check in to your quiet hotel room. Brilliant and cheaper than flying business class.
One trip I won't forget (and nor will everyone I've spoken to since I returned, who can now recite all the details of my travels too), the tourist route in south Iceland takes in stunning scenery and completely surreal surroundings. Iceland is a geography textbook come to life, with an endless supply of waterfalls, live plate boundaries and an eternally moody sky. Though the Northern Lights never made an appearance on our trip, the country illuminates itself with pure exhilaration and beauty. Make sure to take in the Kerid volcanic crater, the geysirs at Strokkur and top it off with the Blue Lagoon on the way back to Keflavik Airport. And then bore everyone senseless with telling all your stories six times over when you're back home.
Fly into Keflavik International Airport, Reykjavik. Hire a car or use one of the numerous tour companies offering Golden Circle day trips (one being Netbus: www.bustravel.is/)
To see the attractions around KL, use the free GoKL buses.
The pinkish-purple coloured buses are free (at least for now), has wifi on board and covers the KLCC, Bukit Bintang, Chinatown, KL Tower and Pasar Seni area.
Skip the taxis and use these free air-conditioned buses instead.
This "département" (county) allows you to travel anywhere on long distance bus for just 1€. So you can travel from Perpignan to the ski slopes or to visit the excellent Modern Art Museum in Ceret.
They are also running tests for local trains for 1€ as well.
Like some other cities in Western Europe, Munich offers a reduced rate on public transport if you buy a one, two or three day travel ticket, issued at the main train station and other large train stations in the city. The public transport system is excellent in Munich and consists of overground and underground trains, buses and trams. Some of these lines, such as Tram 18, give a good tour of the many interesting parts of the city and are cheaper than the commercial tour buses.
However, unlike, say, Berlin, the Munich travel ticket offers few if any reductions on entry prices to museums and galleries. By contrast the Berlin "Welcome Card" is excellent in this regard. The Munich Travel Ticket is however well worth the cost because if you are planning to "do" as many of the sights in the city in a period of a few days, the 'hop on and off' nature of the freedom given by the ticket is both convenient and economical. By the way it only needs to be validated (by inserting it into the box at the entry to platforms) once, at the start of your first journey.
Hauptbahnhof, Munchen, and other large stations in the city.
These are the most useful metro stops to tourists in Madrid. The name of the metro station and the nearest site(s) of interest it serves are all listed below:
Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, c/Mayor,
Plaza de la Villa, Casa de la Villa, Monasterio Descalzas Reales
GRAN VÍA -
Palacio Real, Catedral de la Almudena, Teatro Real, Jardines Campo del Moro
Plaza de Colón, Biblioteca Nacional,
PLAZA DE ESPAÑA -
Edificio España, Torre de Madrid,
Monumento a Cervantes, Templo de Debod, Palacio del Senado, museo Cerralbo
BANCO DE ESPAÑA -
Museo del Prado, Paseo del Prado, museo Thyssen, museo naval, iglesia San Jerónimos, Congreso de los Diputados, Fuente de Neptuno, Fuente de Cibeles, Palacio de Cibeles (the main post office is located in this building), Ayuntamiento
Puerta de Alcalá, Monumento a Alfonso XII, Palacio de Velázquez, Palacio de Cristal, Estatua del Ángel Caído
ATOCHA RENFE - Monumento victimas 11-M
Atocha train station, Reina Sofia art museum, Gta Emperador Carlos V, Caixaforum
PUERTA DE TOLEDO -
Puerta de Toledo, San Francisco el grande
LA LATINA - El Rastro market
SANTIAGO BERNABÉU -
Santiago Bernabéu football stadium
PLAZA DE CASTILLA -
Plaza de Castilla, Edificio Europa
BILBAO/IGLESIA - Anden 0
TRIBUNAL - Museo de Historia de Madrid
If you master the “louage” system of shared taxis, you can get anywhere in Tunisia at very reasonable cost and often share a cab with a friendly local who will give you useful tips. From Sousse we got to the amazing Roman city of Sufetula, with its virtually intact theatre, temples and triumphal arch, the staggeringly beautiful Kairouan – fourth holiest site in Islam - where we bought a hard wearing kilim carpet, and the glorious oasis of Nefta, with its 400,000 palm trees – where we were taken out into the desert to see a mirage.
The Weir Cafe at Whalesborough Farm now offers a 'Tramper'scooter to hire which enables wheelchair users and those with difficulty walking to the farm and Bude canal. It can go up and down slopes, over bumps and tree roots, through shallow puddles, mud and soft ground at a top speed of four miles per hour.
The cafe is in a beautiful setting and offers great food day and night.
In July I tried an alternative mode of transport into China and booked return tickets on the overnight sleeper train from Shenzhen to Guilin. Tickets can be booked in advance from a small office in Hung Hom Station, TST, Hong Kong. They will charge an extra HK$100 commission for their service and be prepared to pay cash. Even though they have a computer the ticketing system, once they’ve finished their noodles, involves hand writing receipts and keeping cash in a drawer under the desk. There is a choice of hard seat, bottom hard sleeper and bottom soft sleeper and the price varies according to the comfort you desire. I went for the soft sleeper which is approximately HK$500 one-way. The journey takes around 13 hours and the train leaves at 17.50 from Shenzhen each day.
As I had a China visa already I took the KCR to Lo Wu, passed through immigration into Shenzhen and walked to the Railway Station following signs for ‘long distance trains’.
The waiting area bustled with travellers and once the call went out to board the train we were all duly and efficiently in our designated carriage to leave on time. The soft sleeper is the first class area of the train and is a four-berth compartment with clean sheets, a pillow and a duvet. There was a chaotic buffet car which I declined to make use of.
I was pleasantly surprised as the train pulled smoothly out of the station and after a picnic and a drop of wine, which I had cunningly prepared earlier, I simply made myself comfortable, stretching out on the soft (ish) sleeper, read my book, chatted to the nice polite Dutch couple in the same compartment, before sleeping for most of the night. Certainly better than sitting up in economy class all night. No one came to ask me if I wanted the chicken or the fish, no one made me put my seat belt on and I wasn’t squashed against another human wrestling for elbow space. The toilets were better than anticipated and were even functioning and clean the next morning as we trundled into Guilin Station.
Once off the train we found a local mini bus a short walk out of station and headed for the small town of Yangshuo which is 90 minutes away from Guilin. The gorgeous limestone karst pinnacles are located right in the town of Yangshuo and surround it. The countryside is stunning and away from the main road is quiet and peaceful. It is possible to book a variety of tours from a variety of travel agents around the town and it’s also easy to hire a bicycle and explore without any prior, and more expensive arrangement. There are also options of rock climbing and kayaking for the more adventurous
As it was very hot, early morning starts seemed to be the best bet to beat the crowds We hired a couple of bikes and took them on a bamboo raft down the Li Jiang to the small village of Fuli, then to the village of Liu Gong Gu Pu where we left the raft and began a flat, easy ride back to the main town, keeping by the river, but not before sampling the freshly ground coffee at a small café offered to us by a charming waitress and her children. We just couldn’t refuse.
The town of Yangshuo has a plethora of small craft shops selling any amount of trinkets and slightly quirky items to adorn yourself and your home. There are tons of places to eat and as well as traditional Chinese food there is also a few places offering food from Italy and the USA, I’ll leave it you to guess the menu.
The return train left Guilin Railway Station at 21.40 so we ate a hearty meal before boarding and once back in Shenzhen at 10.30am we were ready for breakfast. Not as luxurious or as expensive as flying first class but the benefits are equal. All in all it was a refreshing and invigorating trip made easier by being able to sleep while travelling. Recommended.
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