Brecken Donelson


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Tourism overseas is at an all time low. With the economic decline felt all over the world and the fear of terrorism threatening our travels, no one is venturing outside of the States. This is a big mistake. Never have I experienced such hospitality and gratitude in a foreign tourist city as I have this year in Athens.

I have recently traveled to Greece where this summer the Olympics are going to return to their birthplace. There is much anticipation for the long awaited games, but for now it is the calm before the storm. Normally this time of year there are queues lined up for miles to all the ancient attractions. This year it is different.

11eec4840My two traveling companions and myself climbed to the top of the ancient Acropolis where the Parthenon and many other ruins still remain after two thousand years. In the past this is where the line would start its mile long procession, but not this sunny afternoon. We had failed to heed our guidebooks’ warnings and arrived midday on a Monday. This is right when the crowds would be at their peak, but we found no line at all. We paid our 6 euros (student price) and walked right through the gate. There were
approximately 40 other tourists scouring the ruins along with us. This time pictures did not have to wait until a 50-plus-person tour group moved onto
the next temple. With less Americans traveling to these ruins, you have the opportunity to meet the locals and dive into their culture.

11f07ebe0In Greece the locals are more than nice. They are helpful, patient, curious and generous. While in Athens, we had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of many of the locals. Stavros, a young Greek man, found us struggling with a map and offered to take us to our destination. This one offer of kindness turned into two days of exploring restaurants and bars only the locals frequent. On most trips I’ve been on we naturally gravitate towards Canadians or Americans because that is who we are familiar and comfortable with. We encountered very few of our countrymen during this trip. Instead we were able to meet more of the locals. When anyone asks me what my favorite part of my trip was I always say the people.

11f2a06b0The Euro has gone up, making it slightly more expensive for Americans to travel to Europe, but with the price of food and accommodations so low, it more than makes up for the rising Euro. A hotel on the island of Naxos, in the Aegean Sea, advertised a three-person room on the Agios Georgios Beach with amenities boasting a veranda, TV, hairdryer, plenty of room and an adorable ensemble of ocean blue furniture. All of this was 45 euros or 15 euros apiece. For only three extra euros you could have a breakfast that consisted of a hard boiled egg, four pieces of sesame bread, butter, jam, English tea, orange juice, teacake and a biscuit, all brought up to your terrace. Talk about hospitality. They even threw in a few little perks like transportation to and from the port and free Internet use. For three young, female backpackers free rides and Internet are like free nose jobs to aspiring actresses.

Since there aren’t as many tourists traveling this year the locals gave us a lot of attention. Everyone wants you to come and eat at their restaurant, sleep at their hotel or dance in their bar. You may have heard of free wine tasting to promote a winery, but have you ever heard of free wine with your dinner? Some waiters are grateful that you stepped in to sample their cuisine. Others are desperate to get you into their restaurant. Both offer free wine. In Greece you have to pay for the water that you order, but the wine is complimentary. You can save yourself about 18 euros a meal by accepting this offer of free wine. Sometimes it even comes with dessert.

11f473ab0These incentives should persuade you to take that well-deserved vacation in Europe. Statistics say that only one in 8 million will die in an airline accident, and only one in 9 million will die in a terrorist attack. The locals are not interested in harassing or harming you. In fact they did not even talk about the war with us. Do not let rumors and exaggerated stories scare you away from your dream vacation in Europe. If you are still hesitant to buy those plane tickets to Europe (Greece), don’t be. This is the best year to travel.

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The Italians are famous for their siestas. When traveling don’t be
surprised to see shops or restaurants closed in the middle of the day, while
the owners sit across the street, chatting with their friends about the
weather or the local football team. The conductors and train workers are no
exception. They are known to go on strike at any time they please, much to
the tourist’s dismay. My trip to Italy was no different. We were traveling
along the Italian coast, from Italy’s tourist capital, Rome, to the quieter
fishing villages of Cinque Terra with a stop in La Spezia to switch trains.
While on the train, whispers of a strike circled the room. Unbeknownst to
us, it was scheduled for the next night. Luckily, we would not be traveling
that night.

Lesson Learned: In Italy strikes are a common occurrence. Check with the
information booth at the train stations or talk to fellow passengers to see
if there is a strike planned. If you are traveling into Italy it helps to
ask the bordering countries if they have heard any news. You do not want to
find yourself stuck in Italy, forced to eat seafood and pasta, soaking up
the sun and drinking wine. You can see how this would be a terrible thing.
After deboarding the train in La Spezia, I grabbed my 30-pound backpack and
hoisted it up onto my shoulders. The doors quickly closed behind me and the
train started to pull away from the platform. Glancing around I spotted two
of my traveling companions, but the third was nowhere to be seen. Turning
back to the departing train I could see Kelly frantically banging on the
closed doors of the train. Her eyes were as big as golf balls, her face
tight with panic and her mouth forming inaudible words. There was no one on
the platform to help us. Melissa and Robyn, the other two companions, were
running around the platform not knowing what to do. There was nothing I
could do but laugh. We had learned the number one rule of the railways: the
trains wait for no one.

We collected ourselves and went to the information booth to find out where
Kelly’s train was headed, what time she would get there, and if there was a
train back to La Spezia. After confirming that she would be headed to
Genoa, (about an hour west of La Spezia) we decided that the best thing to
do was to wait for her at the train station. Finally, three hours later
Kelly arrived at La Spezia with a relieved smile on her face.

Lesson Learned: The trains give you a certain amount of time (usually four
minutes or less) to get on and off the train. If you take longer than this
you are on your own, because the conductor will not stop the train. Before
traveling, your group should discuss what they would do in a similar
situation if someone did not get on the right train. This will relieve a
little anxiety if the mistake happens. The Rail System prides itself on its
punctuality; therefore, be on time for your train because it will leave when
specified and not a minute later.

Another lesson I learned the hard way is that even if you are just
traveling through a country that you are not stopping in, you still have to
pay to travel through that country. The Eurail Pass that we had, included
travel through France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Italy. We were
traveling from Cinque Terra, Italy to Munich, Germany and had purchased a
couchette so that we could sleep through the train ride. Sleeping on a
train is not that easy but at least you are able to lie down in a private
compartment. All of us were sound asleep, rocked by the steady sway of the
train accompanied by the familiar sounds of tree lines blurring past the
windows. At about 3:00 in the morning a man with a heavy German accent
disturbed our dreams. Confused by what the man was saying, we tried to
clear the fog in our heads. He informed us that our Eurail pass did not
cover Austria, the country we were presently traveling through, and that we
would have to pay $15 to continue on the train. We did not understand why
we had to pay to travel through a country we were not visiting. Grumbling,
we all paid the fee and continued on. A friendly German woman in the bunk
below us, also disturbed by the harsh wake-up call, informed us that if we
had not paid then we would have been kicked off of the train at the next
station. I could just picture it: four tired Americans standing in their
polka dotted pajamas on an Austrian train platform.

Lesson Learned: Make sure that your rail pass covers all the countries that
you will be traveling through. Ask an employee what route the train takes
if you are unsure and check a map to make sure that you will not travel
through any countries that your rail pass does not include. If unavoidable,
pay up front so that you are not woken up in the middle of the night.
Our rail passes had eight squares along the bottom of the ticket. Whenever
we boarded a train we were required to write the current date down in one of
the boxes. A conductor would come by and usually check our passes to make
sure we had paid for the date we were traveling on. Traveling from
Interlaken, Switzerland to Paris, France we were on the last day of our rail
pass. We started our trip at 10:00pm on September 30th and would be
arriving the next day in Paris. Once on the train to Paris, we started to
get ready for bed when a conductor knocked on our door and informed us that
we did not have any more days left on our passes and that we would have to
pay for an extra day to get to Paris. Since we had written down September
30th our October 1st train was not paid for. We had to pay another $30 to
continue onto Paris.

Lesson Learned: Trains give you a leeway of a few hours when traveling
overnight, meaning that if you are starting your trip sometime after 7:00pm
(19:00 European time) and you will be continuing on this train past
midnight, then you should write down the next day on your pass. This will
hopefully keep you from receiving a fine.

For four young women backpacking across Europe, a train ride is a welcomed
break from endless sightseeing and crowded hostels. We played Harry Potter
Uno, wrote postcards for expectant friends and family, and most importantly,
we would write our thoughts and experiences down in our travel journals. I
had some of my most memorable times traveling on trains. It was a time for
us to relax and reflect upon the lessons we had learned.