This summer I spent four weeks travelling through Europe by train, making long stays in Poland, Spain and Portugal, but also stopping off at countries en route such as Austria and Switzerland, passing through ten countries in total! I had pre-arranged to meet people in some of these places, but travelled alone in other parts and between countries, which was a new experience for me and has made me much more confident and adventurous.
To avoid writing pages detailing every pierogi I ate and every artistic street sign I photographed, I’ll describe some highlights below.
The most impressive monument I visited was the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Krakow, where we were marched 327m underground to a disused mine now decorated with ornate sculptures and even a cathedral carved entirely from the salt. Thankfully, the interior of the mine had been adapted for tourists and it was easy to forget the mass of earth above you! Poland was fascinating to visit in general, with so much to learn about the culture and history, which was surprisingly relevant to our own history and current politics.
I was also unexpectedly impressed by the Gustav Klimt exhibition at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, never having taken a particular interest in art before. Seeing the art in real life was a completely different experience from seeing copies and I made sure to see the other famous artworks in the remaining cities I visited, such as the Guernica in Madrid. (Klimt’s painting ‘The Kiss’ was certainly better than my attempt to copy it in year 8 art!).
While much of my time was spent in capital cities, some of my most memorable experiences were in the countryside. In Zurich, I met a friend and went to walk in the Alps for a day which was beautiful, and in Barcelona I made friends with some other travellers and we went on a trip to Montserrat and did a hike. I was especially pleased to have been able to do this since the original goal of my trip had been to go hiking in Spain, and to be able to go even for a short while with an interesting new group of people allowed me to appreciate the magnificence of the surroundings and has inspired me to return next year to do the full hike.
Aside from the specific attractions of the individual countries, I learned a lot from the journey as a whole. Due to concerns about the environmental impact of flying, I completed the whole journey by train. This was much more exciting than travelling by plane because you can see the surroundings change as you move between countries. The landscape changed completely on crossing from Germany into Poland, with it being much flatter and the buildings sparser. One particularly beautiful journey was from Zurich to Barcelona, which went through the Alps and Pyrenees before finishing along a stretch of coastline.
I also relished the exposure to so many languages while abroad. I had been learning Polish through Duolingo for some months, and it was satisfying to be able to put my basic knowledge to use in shops and confirm to myself that I had actually learned something! Having studied Spanish at school and studied it casually ever since, I was especially keen to put my Spanish skills to the test, although hadn’t accounted for the fact that many people in Barcelona actually speak Catalan! Despite this being a surprise, it was really fun (and educational) to try and decode the language, and when I did reach Madrid I was amazed to find that I could hold a (jerky) conversation with the South American tourists in my hostel! I ended my travels in Lisbon, where the language is somewhat similar to Spanish and it was great to spend a significant amount of time around each of the three languages to compare them and learn about how they had evolved so differently.
I would finally like to thank those who organised and donated to the Rosemary Murray Travel Exhibition, without which this trip would not have been possible. I learned so much on my trip and have come back more confident in myself and my ability to cope with difficult situations, and also more trusting of others as I realised that many such situations can be more easily solved once you accept the help of someone else.