By Andy Christian Castillo
There’s something about trees passing by the window, that makes me forget about yesterday, and live entirely in the moment. Something about the rumble of wheels over track, that lulls me into a dazed stupor of nostalgic thoughts. Or maybe it’s sleep that sweeps over me like a phantom.
I’m somewhere in England, racing through green countryside on a high-speed train. I took a ferry over from Calais earlier this morning; the Cliffs of Dover sprung up out of the haze almost immediately, as the ferry passed out of port. The white rock, which starkly contrasted against the drizzle, served as a shining beacon from across the sea.
I’ve been traveling through Europe for over a week by train; and my brain is slowing down the faster I move. Traveling as quickly as I have, takes focus and effort: by the end of the trip, I’ll have covered ten countries in about two weeks. That’s a lot.
When I left Bradley Airport in Connecticut, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into; I had never traveled on my own before, so I was ignorant. I was overpacked, and under prepared.
Looking back, the best decision I made in preparation was to book Eurail. I purchased a Global Pass for fifteen continuous days; I have certainly received my money’s worth so far. Although they do charge additional fees for some of the more popular routes, I’ve been able to meander my way on the slower, local routes, for free. I haven’t paid anything extra up to this point – besides England of course, because they’re not covered by Eurail.
Arriving in Austria
About a week ago I flew into Vienna, Austria, and stayed with a friend for a few days. What struck me immediately about the city, was how clean it is compared to the United States, and how quiet people were while riding public transportation.
In Boston or New York, the subways are a bustle of conversation; and there’s trash everywhere. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself think in all the noise. In Vienna, the subways seemed more like tombs. It felt taboo to break the sacred silence. But that might have been nervousness too, because I didn’t speak the language.
I was able to see all the tourist sites: St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with her imposing steeples, and the cursed tree across the street; the stretching lawns of Schonbrunn Palace, which overlooks the city; and the banks of the Wien River, in all her graffiti covered glory.
The train into Germany from Austria, was my first experience traveling through a foreign country on my own – and without the benefit of knowing the language. I switched trains by mistake but found my way again eventually, albeit behind schedule.
I stayed with my Aunt in Halver for three days, and explored the surrounding area, including the Cologne Cathedral and The Rhine, before heading to Holland.
The Pulse of a Thriving City: Amsterdam
Amsterdam: I felt the pulse of the city immediately after stepping off of the train. It was a throbbing heartbeat of fresh scents, unique sounds, and old architecture.
I was carried away by a teeming mass of pedestrians into a melting pot of languages and culture. The streets are narrow, and act as funnels for sunlight and people. Flags snapped in the wind, and the smell of pot was pervasive.
I stopped in the square to feed the pigeons, and saw a man steal a woman’s purse. She screamed, but no one listened; everyone had something better to do.
I found my hostel, St. Christopher’s, about a two minute walk from the red light district. On a whim, I got a tattoo at a parlor down the road; before venturing down the scarlet alleyways. Businessmen entered and exited the gloomy rooms; mothers walked their children carelessly by, and no one seemed to notice.
At dusk, the vermin emerged from the underworld; brown-paper-bottles materialized out of thin air, and drugs passed freely. The entire district transformed into nightlife, but I went to bed. I left early the next morning, passing the previous nights remnants, who stumbled back to where they came from; and street cleaners, who power-washed the stench off of buildings.
I had planned to fly to London from Amsterdam, but the airlines mixed it up; instead, I hopped on a train destined for Calais, to catch a ferry over to England.
I pulled into Brussels, Belgium at around 10 p.m. at night. Because of the improv nature of this section of my trip, I hadn’t booked a hostel for the night, or planned for any other accommodations. Inside of the train station, I caught limited Wi-Fi; I found a hostel on Google Maps, and ventured out into the city. The night air was crisp, and my backpack felt heavy; I was tired, but happy.
My phone didn’t work in Europe – and I didn’t turn on roaming; I was on a digital island, by myself. I find a lot of freedom, traveling alone; no one to tell you where to go, or what to do. No one to talk to, just your own thoughts to wander through. There’s something beautiful about experiencing life by yourself; no one can take away or tarnish the memories. The experiences are exclusive; they’re yours, and only yours.
After walking about two miles, and finding nothing, I turned around and headed back to the train station. I was in a bad section of the city, and was wary of wandering too far off-the-beaten-trail without a map.
About half way back, two youths, one of whom carried a handgun, walked out from under the awning of a tucked-away restaurant. They sauntered to another open doorway and aimed the gun inside. I held my cool and walked steadily past; fearing that if I made a sudden movement, it would draw attention to myself. They turned and stepped in behind me – I half expected my brains to be spilled onto the street; or to be robbed at gunpoint. But at the last minute, they turned into another store, and I continued on my way.
Eventually, I found a rundown hostel that was too expensive. A gaping hole in the community bathroom overlooked a four story free fall; another hole was knocked into the tile, and a garden hose was draped through to serve as a shower. It was terrible; but I was happy to get off of the streets.
I left the next morning at 5 a.m. and made the French border by mid-morning.
My first experience of London was the Underground. I was ushered into a bustling coach by the surging evening commuter crowd, and quickly learned that everyone runs in the subway, it doesn’t matter if they don’t have anywhere to be. I emerged a short walk from Buckingham Palace, just in time to see a motorcade of blacked-out, official looking vehicles race in through the gates.
I move quickly, and see a lot of the city, before finding to a hostel to crash in for the night.
The next few days passed in a blur: it was raining when I woke up the next morning, but I explored more of London anyways, and caught a train and a ferry to Dublin, Ireland in the afternoon.
I made friends with a group of Americans passing through – enjoyed a Guinness and heard traditional Irish music in an out-of-the-way bar, flew to Madrid, Spain; wandered aimlessly through an open air market, inhaled the musk of the oldest restaurant in the world, and stood in an elegant, old cathedral – with angelic voices ringing through the rafters, on Sunday morning.
That’s what it was.
The City of Lights
Spain was nice, but Paris was better. It was raining again when I arrived in the City of Lights – at the top of the Eiffel Tower, I realized where it gets its name. The city stretched out flat below me; the buildings were uniform in height, and everything seemed to have a purpose.
The next day, I joined a tour group, and saw the popular spots in the city, before boarding another train bound for Switzerland.
The temperature dropped the further into the the Alps I traveled; snow gently fell, covering the ground in white; sheer rock face pervaded my window view, interspaced by scenic vistas of quaint villages, nestled on sweeping landscapes. The train moved through the mountains like a goat; clinging to the edge and sending rocks skipping down into oblivion.
It’s the most beautiful place I’d ever seen – if only for a brief moment.
I had decided in London that I was going to see Rome no matter what.
The train stopped in a small town somewhere in Italy; it was the end of the local line for the night. The next train out didn’t leave until 7 a.m. I found a curbside pizzeria, bought a slice, and watched the evening turn into night.
There were a few overnight trains leaving a little past midnight (they weren’t covered by the Eurorail pass), but the ticket machine in the train station wasn’t working. I set an alarm for 1 a.m., and passed out uncomfortably on a bench.
I woke up to the harsh cold of Italian winter; propped crudely on a metal bench, reeking of travel and poor hygiene. On the platform, I convinced an attendant to let me on without a ticket, ‘because the machine was busted’.
She showed me to a small isle with a foldout bench seat (it’s about a foot square), where I could endure the six hour ride to Rome. I fell asleep on the floor in the isle, which was no more than three feet wide – with the rumble of wheels beneath my head, and and the promise of a new adventure in the morning.
I awoke to feet shuffling past me; I was grateful to be curled up and facing the wall. The train was stopped. Passengers exited, the brakes hissed, and sunlight streamed in through the windows.
I had arrived in Rome.
Andy Christian Castillo is the Founder of Ver・ism(s). He is a military veteran and student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, pursuing a degree in English. In his free time, he plays music, writes poetry, gallivants around the world, climbs mountains and runs through the pouring rain.