We slept under the stars, were chased out of a train in Serbia at 4am, saw the Julian Alps in Slovenia, got on three wrong trams in the middle of the night in Zagreb in a row (I blame the excellent Croatian wine!), and wandered around a deserted warehouse in Budapest. We cried when taking the first steps in Ljubljana (it’s stunning like that), skipped every other night for two weeks (fear not, your body gets used to it), had local ice cream and beer in every city (investigative journalism that is), and were taken on a little cruise through a Macedonian national park.

Phew, Miss Caroline, that’s a pretty high density of adventures. How did that come about?

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Interrail is the buzzword. For those who don’t know how it works: It’s basically a universal train ticket that allows you to get on any train in Europe. You select a time frame, number of countries you want to travel to, the class, and they’ll send you the ticket. You’re not allowed to use the pass in your home country which is a bit annoying, so make sure to book a train or bus to the border until you’re good to use it.

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 16.52.59 Map via Roadtrippers

My best friend and I decided to explore Eastern Europe this summer. Taking trains there isn’t quite a walk in the park and it’s not a spa vacation either. Think no air con in 35°C trains, train breakages in the middle of the night that force you to sleep on the hallway of the next train and then getting woken up by moody border officers every two hours. But, and this point rules them all out, it’s pretty damn fun and you’ll collect a bunch of great stories. Here are some of ours.

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Getting started

Here is a list of useful stuff that I’ve prepared specifically for this trip. In a nutshell: Don’t take more than you can carry, and then take half of that. Try and get your accommodation sorted for the first couple of nights and a draft itinerary to keep an overview. I used Roadtrippers for that, and used the map throughout the trip.

Apps that feature hotels/hostels, flights (for emergencies), currency converters, dictionaries etc will make your life much easier, just don’t spend too much time on your phone. I also got apps for audiobooks, offline podcasts and music (guess which one that is…), so that even if there are little kids shouting or partying (no joke, that happened between Budapest and Belgrade) and you prefer to do some sleeping at 4am, these will help!

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Finding trains – thanks to the Interrail App which works offline too – is pretty hassle-free, except for reservations. I’m not gonna lie, the “reservation compulsory” line on almost every mid- to long-distance connection shown annoyed me every time. But you know what? Apart from one time (a night train from Ljubljana to Vienna), we ignored it and got away with it. At €3.50 for a second-class seat, most reservations aren’t even that expensive, but it’s still limiting especially if you get on at a station that doesn’t have a ticket office or if it’s late at night. Not sure how that would be in Scandinavia, and I know that you must reserve seats on the TGV or the Eurostar, but most old ticket inspectors in Eastern Europe couldn’t care less.

Sleeper Trains are a luxury that is worth it occasionally. Although most of time we slept on regular trains seats, I paid €28 for a real bed from Vienna to Warsaw, had a full eight hours of sleep, arrived well-rested (well, as rested as you can be after two weeks of backpacking, ahem) and ready to kick off the last day of exploring.

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If all else fails, take a bus

We took a bus from Sofia to Skopje, and back from Skopje to Belgrade because train connections were a disaster (46 hours, 3 changes, when the distance between both cities was five car hours. Thanks, but no thanks). Buses are a very cheap and fast alternative, and as most are operated by private companies, they are that bit more efficient than old trains. When we told locals in the Balkans what we’re doing, they laughed and said something along the lines of: “Haha, you lovely idiots! Nobody takes trains here, all experts travel by buses.” Oh well whatever, never mind, je ne regrette rien.

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With all the serious talk about practicalities, I feel like this deserves an extra – albeit random – point. The beer in Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia has been nothing but beautiful. This summer I finally understood what the buzz about beer is all about, I probably just drank the ‘wrong’ brews my whole life… but maybe German beer just sucks. Anyway, consider me converted and screw dat white wine! I’ll be the first to try and find Hungarian beer on the next night out in Berlin. The Museum of Hitchhiking (!) in Ljubljana by the way features a collection of pretty much every national … er, alcoholic cultural heritage.

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Must stops

And this is what you’ve been waiting for. Here are our favourite stops in brief, there will be more location-specific posts and recommendations coming soon, so keep an eye out for these guides.

Budapest, Hungary

I knew I would love Budapest, I just didn’t know it’d be that perfect. The whole town is a “shabby chic” wonderland with incredibly cool outdoor bars (big love!), coffee shops, thermal baths and just an all-round relaxed feel to. We initially only wanted to stay for two days but then just couldn’t leave.

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Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade really moved me because of all its contradictions. The train station is an absolute mess, so many woman and child refugees are left to camp on the parks that surround it – and then there’s the hipster part of town near the river with Berlin-style bars, party boats and graffiti. Talk about diversity. An old friend of mine lives there and it was so lovely having her show us around and introducing us to the ‘real’ Belgrade.

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Sofia, Bulgaria

Initially, we didn’t have any intentions of stopping by in Sofia, but then it was conveniently on the way to Skopje – and why not stop by in Bulgaria!? We didn’t have high expectations, and on the first glance it didn’t look as cool as Budapest or as lively as Belgrade. Once we got lost a bit and explored neighbourhoods out of the center however, there were wild gardens, a lot of cheeky street dogs and cats, stunning architecture – and awesome pancakes!

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Skopje & Matka, Macedonia

Macedonia has been mindblowing. The capital, Skopje, is a funny one because most of the “historic” buildings were built in the last five years, so many locals aren’t very fond of them (“they look like cakes!”), and then there’s the Grand Bazaar with delicious food and authentic street culture. Our favourite has been Canyon Matka though. It’s a 30-minute ride outside of Skopje and gives you a taste of Macedonian countryside – lakes, mountains and lots of greens. There is so much we haven’t yet explored (like Lake Ohrid), I promise I’ll return!

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Zagreb & Rijeka, Croatia

Initially we wanted to go to Sarajevo, but as buses from Macedonia only go there twice a week (!), we decided to go back to Belgrade and then head straight to Croatia. After a day at the market in Zagreb we hopped on a train to Rijeka and slept on the “beach” that was really more like a collection of really uncomfortable stones. Everything else is history. I have a deep, deep love for Croatia!

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Ljubljana and Bled, Slovenia

Ljubljana was possibly my favourite urban stop on this journey. The city with its indie quarter, scenic river and its Brooklynesque is so, so, so cute and stunning. When my colleague said we’d also absolutely have to go to Bled, a national park one hour outside of Ljubljana, I marked it on Google Maps and didn’t think much of it. Although quite touristy, the swim was much needed after days spent in 35°… sLOVEenia, it’s been fab!

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Warsaw, Poland

After an afternoon in Vienna of sipping coffee, strolling through the market and relaxing a bit, it was time to head to Warsaw. Warsaw is a fascinating place because its history is still so visible. You’ll get so much great museums, architecture, culture – and awesome food (I had the best hummus of my entire life on that last night). I wish there would have been enough time to check out Krakow because everyone said it’s “so much nicer and the people are less weird” (not my words!). Haha.

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Lakes, mountains, villages

A general note: Get out into the countryside, don’t just stay in cities. It’s impossible to get a real feel for life in a specific country if you stay in urban centres. Our favourite days were the ones we spent out in nature, on lakes or beaches or in the woods. Maybe we’re just nature kids, but it’s easy to forget how beautiful this part of the world is when just rushing from capital to capital. So try and fit two or three day trips to the middle of nowhere in. And bring a sleeping bag! No tent, no problem.

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We only stayed in Vienna for eight hours which worked out great. Most train stations have lockers, so classic day trips are a very attractive idea if you don’t want to spend too much time in one place. See the best of the city during the day (with places like Sofia or Skopje, one day is enough!) and have a beer or two to help you fall asleep on the train later. Any excuse for beer, I should probably think about sticking to water for a while now…

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If you’re heading to multiple countries, I wouldn’t (and didn’t) bother with exchanging money beforehand, that was way too confusing (eight currencies in one purse… no thanks!). Most countries we visited accepted credit and debit cards pretty hassle-free or you can just take out cash at an ATM. We calculated about 30€ per day for food, bus tickets, museums, and then 10-15€ per night (often it was less though) if it’s two of you.

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× plan too much. In Croatia, we ended up sleeping on a “beach”, if you know Croatia you’ll know there a no beaches, so that was a rather rocky and sleepless business. But we had a excellent view onto the stars and the most magical of sunrise swims, so it was all good. Even the comfiest of beds couldn’t compete with that!

× stress out. There’ll always be a next train. We were pretty exhausted when we got to Ljubljana and decided to take it easy before heading to Bled.

× have FOMO. If you like one place, just stay there for a while. You don’t need to see everything at once. You’ve got a lifetime of travels ahead of you. We would have loved to see Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, but there just wasn’t enough time.

× don’t let recommendations slip through. Equally, if locals recommend places to you (which they will, because they love their country and it’s always a thousand times cooler than whatever your next stop is!) and you have no time to check them out (which will also happen), just take a note for next time. Focus on the now and then plan your next trip.

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What it comes down to

Seriously though, we had a blast and it wasn’t nearly as exhausting as we imagined. Interrailing is a fabulously unglamorous way of accumulating a bunch of colourful memories in a pace that is almost dizzying. Eight countries in 14 days… that’s crazy. We occasionally forgot what country we’re in or what day of the week it is, but there are clearly more important things in life. You’re constantly on the move, grabbing all impressions you can get your hands on and forever heading back to the train station. “Departure is in two minutes, run, Forest, run!”

Backpacking is a beautiful lifestyle, and getting back into a routine that doesn’t involve running after trains, trying to understand people without using any words, or soaking up the wisdom of fellow travellers you will never see again once you get off, will be pretty tough. But there’ll always be a next summer, and I will be getting back on these annoying and awesome and annoyingly awesome Bulgarian night trains one day too.

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Thank you Interrail for supporting our trip. Opinions are my own.

All photographs taken by Caroline Schmitt