When I was a kid and I heard about this thing called “backpacking through Europe,” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. I had visions of people literally just walking all over Europe with a backpack, using no transportation beyond their legs. That may have been the case decades ago, but no more.
My recent travels through central Europe included a flight from Copenhagen to Budapest, a night train to Prague, another train to Berlin and then an epic eight hour bus ride back to Copenhagen. I definitely wasn’t walking all over the place, but I did carry a stuffed-to-the-brim backpack.
If you’ve read about my experience flying into Germany, you know I keep a close eye on airport security and customs. If you want to travel somewhere you don’t have to take off your shoes or throw away oversized bottles of shampoo to get past TSA airport security, Budapest is the place for you. They don’t even check your passport there. Maybe Hungary doesn’t think they have a high enough profile as a target to warrant checking out who’s entering their country.
Budapest is an interesting place. The bus ride from the airport into the city center is like a really uncomfortable ride back in time to the Cold War. I’m talking roads lined with barbed wire, rusted over buildings, depressed looking people, etc. And just when you’re looking in shock at your travel companions, wondering if you’re even in the right city, you arrive in downtown Budapest and modernity shows its beautiful face. Restaurants! Bars! Freshly paved roads!
I don’t mean to give Budapest a hard time; it’s quite beautiful and has a very relaxed vibe to it. I’m just saying that the shadow of the Iron Curtain still looms large. One needs to look no farther than the public transportation. It’s always on time and never delayed – very Soviet – and also looks like its 50 years old and about to explode – also very Soviet.
At first glance, Budapest’s subway system looks like a smaller version of the Tube in London: modern stations and fairly clean. As you’re standing in one, you might even feel like you’re in London, waiting for an efficient train to come gliding down the tracks to take you off to your fabulous destination. And then you start to hear screeching, and it gets louder and louder. Until suddenly a train comes barreling down the tracks, a train coated in graffiti of the spray paint or knife-against-window variety. I half expected the conductor to be a certain mustachioed Soviet dictator, back from the dead to check out his satellite – that’s how old it is. But it does run efficiently — and so loudly you can’t have a conversation with the person sitting next to you.
Budapest was nice, and someone in my circle of travel companions convinced everyone it would be a good idea to take a night train from Budapest to Prague. Sleep on a train and wake up in Prague the next morning, fully refreshed. It sounded like a brilliant plan.
Matthew Grant Anson is a junior at Whittier College in Whittier, California. He is studying this semester at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark.