Southeastern & Central Europe round up 🇦🇱🇲🇪🇷🇸🇸🇮🇦🇹🇩🇪

The final leg of our journey saw us travel 3,270 km over land and sea from Corfu to London. After taking a ferry to the seaside resort of Sarandë, we made two further stops in Albania to climb Gjirokastër’s hilltop castle and explore a Cold War bunker in Tirana. We then crossed the border into Montenegro, where we swam in the Morača River in Podgorica and took a day trip to the old town of Budva. From Podgorica, we hopped aboard the Bar-Belgrade railway to enjoy one of Europe’s most spectacular railways on the way to the capital of Serbia. Next, we paused for only two nights in lovely Ljubljana en route to Austria, where we reenacted the Sound of Music in Salzburg and took a hike in the mountains above Innsbruck. We spent our last four nights in the beer gardens surrounding Munich and Cologne, before visiting Brussels for the day and taking an evening Eurostar back to London.

Carbon 🚌🚆

Our journeys from Corfu to London by ferry, bus and train emitted only 196 kgCO2e, while a direct fight for the same route would have emitted more than three times this amount of carbon. On the graph below, our carbon emissions are barely visible next to those from flights we’ve taken to cross seas and oceans, although this is partly because the total for this leg was spread across seven countries.

I’ve rounded up the total emissions from our whole trip to the nearest tonne of CO2 and purchased one last carbon offset from Gold Standard’s Climate+ Portfolio. In this case, we’ve helped fund a small scale Rural Methane Digesters Project in Guizhou Province, China. In total, we’ve now spent $210 (USD) offsetting the carbon from our travels.

Overall, our journey around the globe emitted 13.5 tCO2e. For comparison, a return flight for two people from London to Auckland via Doha would emit 11 tCO2e. Given that we were away for nearly 13 months, I think we got pretty good mileage out of a similar amount of carbon.

Although we travelled less than half our total distance in the air, our flights made up 83% of our carbon emissions. This statistic has further convinced us that the easiest way to reduce our carbon footprint from travel is by minimising flying. Almost any other form of transport is better for the climate, with the exception of cruise ships. The only way we could have further reduced our travel footprint would have been to alter our route in order to fly fewer kilometres, such as turning around before crossing the Pacific Ocean and heading back to London over land through Asia and the Middle East. Of course, this comes with its own geopolitical challenges and closed borders…

Cost 💰

The final leg of our journey added six new bars to our cost tracker and updated Greece’s total (which we also visited on the first leg of our trip). The Balkan countries (Albania, Montenegro and Serbia) were all relatively affordable despite our peak-summer timing, while Slovenia, Austria and Germany were predictably more expensive. On top of this, our visit to Cologne clashed with the annual Gamescom festival, which helped push prices up even further!

We were surprised to see France and Spain top the table of daily expenditure as they felt relatively affordable compared to New Zealand and the United States, for instance. However, a large chunk of our spending in these two countries was on transport, and indeed on closer inspection we travelled faster through France and Spain than nearly any other country. On average, we travelled about 600 km per day in both countries, making full use of their high-speed rail and long-distance coach networks. In contrast, we averaged only 285 km per day in New Zealand.

Cats 🐈

All three Balkan countries were great for cat spotting, with Montenegro swooping in to pinch the bronze medal from Malaysia right at the last minute. We had less success in Slovenia, Austria and Germany, which offered poor cat value for our Euro spend.

Time for some animal awards…

🏅Most polite breakfast companion

Just look at this chap. Wouldn’t you share your pancakes with him?

🏅Best reason for putting our entire travel day at risk

We were already a little late for our bus from Serbia to Slovenia, but these kittens still stopped us in our tracks. The more we looked, the more kittens we saw emerging from behind the fence. Cute! Thankfully, we just about caught the bus, but if we hadn’t, we could have just returned to hang out with the kittens, I suppose.

🏅Spikiest dinner guest

Sara was delighted when we found the hoggy source of all the rustling that had punctuated our dinner in Podgorica.

🏅Overall winner; worldwide cat category

After counting 1,839 cats across 27 countries, Thomas will always be our #1.

And that’s our last round up! Sara and I spent our final day of the trip in a sunny square in Brussels recounting each of our highlights of the whole trip – coming soon!

Returning to London (Thomas awaits! 🐈)

In one long travel day, we made the journey from Cologne to London by train (although when I say long travel day, I should probably clarify that most of our time was actually spent in Brussels, eating waffles 🧇 and drinking beer 🍺). We’d previously taken the Eurostar many times but had only really considered it a feasible option when our end destination was in the same country as where the Eurostar terminated, but actually, the whole journey was remarkably straightforward and I’d definitely choose this over flying to most places in Europe in the future.

⏰ 09.30: Cologne HBF to Cologne Ehrenfeld

We joyfully packed up our bags one last time, with me telling Oli that I finally felt like I’d nailed my speedy packing in the last few weeks. He brought me down a peg or two by pointing out all the things that weren’t in my already-zipped bag and I realised that actually I hadn’t got better, I’d just become more cavalier!

A quick walk to the station and a pretzel later and we were ready to board our first train: a quick hop from the central station to the out-of-town high-speed station. Here, we waited patiently while our long-distrance train was nowhere to be seen – either on the platform or any of the departure boards. At least we weren’t in a hurry – another British couple approached us for a chat and they were on edge because their Eurostar connection left them only 35 minutes between trains, and check-in closes 30 minutes before departure. We made our best attempt at sympathy, but seriously, who would book that tight a connection?!

⏰ 09.55: Cologne Ehrenfeld to Brussels Midi

The InterCity Express arrived in the end (only 10 or so minutes late) and we hopped on. We’d decided to save a few pennies by not reserving seats (this costs extra in Germany), and although the train was busier than we’d hoped, our bet still paid off when we found seats near one another. We didn’t need to chat, anyway – trains are strictly for blog writing or napping! Less than 2 hours later, we pulled into Brussels. It was such a smooth journey that there’s not much to mention other than the train’s impeccable 10/10 toilet score!

⏰ 11.35: Waffle and beer consumption

We thought we might as well give ourselves an afternoon in Brussels before boarding our final high-speed train of the trip, so we left our bags at Brussels Midi station (making sure to get an XXL locker so that we wouldn’t jam the lock with our bag straps – our debacle in Seoul still haunts us!) and hopped on a local train into the city centre. After much Googling, we think that this journey was included in our Eurostar tickets, but as no one checked we never found out for sure!

Once there, we paid a quick visit to the Grand Place (beautiful but no match for Salamanca’s amazing Plaza Mayor) before getting onto the serious business of eating and drinking.

At my request, our first stop was Le Roi de la Gaufre for a Belgian waffle. We knew we’d come to the right place when the lady asked if we had a few minutes so she could make us a fresh one, despite having a huge pile of cooked waffles in front of her. She then smothered it in dark chocolate and it was well worth the wait – as you can probably tell from the picture below, I was quite excited!

At Oli’s request, our next stop was Delirium Café, which is a Brussels classic where you can choose from a literal book of beers – over 2000 of them! Sadly, we only had time for one round so we didn’t get too far through the menu, but there’s always next time…

⏰ 18.50: Eurostar to London St Pancras

We then headed back to Brussels Midi with plenty of time to spare to wrestle our backpacks from the storage locker and find something convenient to eat on the train for dinner. Then, we headed through security (where the Swiss Army knife was scrutinised one last time but ultimately returned to us), exited the Schengen Area and passed through the UK border before hopping on the train. In less than 2 hours, and after 389 days away, we were back in London!

⏰ 19.45: Gah! A rail strike

We still needed to cross London to reach Oli’s parents’ house (aka Thomas’ billet 🐈) so we were delighted to learn that there was a rail strike in progress 😩. At least this gave us an excuse to take the Elizabeth Line, which got fully up and running while we were away, but the long and busy bus ride was less welcome.

But really, the journey was all worth it when we arrived back and were greeted by our best friend in the whole world, Thomas. He was home alone as Oli’s parents were away on holiday, and we were relieved to find he hadn’t forgotten us at all in the year we’ve been away. What a little legend!

Crossing Germany on the home straight

From the Austrian Tyrol, we took a short train north across the border into Bavaria for a couple of days in the beer capital of Germany, Munich. We’ve wanted to make a pilgrimage to Oktoberfest (which, controversially, mostly falls in September!) for a long time, but couldn’t quite make the dates fit this time. No matter, I think that visiting big beer halls is a legitimate pastime here anytime, so we made it work!

Our apartment was perfectly located next to the Englischer Garten in what was described as a student neighbourhood (as an aside, this lovely area did make us wonder what on earth international students at Southampton must think when they end up living in Portswood!), so on our first evening we headed into the park to our first beer garden. Having had very hot weather ever since we arrived in Lisbon 6 weeks ago, we didn’t realise at first how unseasonal this was for Munich, and the gardens were absolutely buzzing with people sunbathing, playing ball games, floating down a lazy river – there was even a choir rehearsing!

Once we got to the beer garden, we began our usual confusion while we tried to figure out how things work – there’s always a system but they are never the same! At length, we managed to order ourselves some food and drinks, with our only slight error that we accidentally bought three dinners between the two of us. To be honest, neither of us were that upset by this…

We chomped on our roast pork, macaroni cheese and currywurst while enjoying watching the diverse range of people spending time in the beer garden – from the groups playing cards, those having a quick catch-up, to those who were clearly many rounds deep. We loved that it is apparently perfectly legitimate to buy beers but then eat your own picnic on their tables – some people had pretty elaborate set-ups including tablecloths, crockery, serving boards and many, many tupperwares! The only downside of our evening was that the Lonely Planet had promised we would be “showered by the strained sounds of possibly the world’s drunkest oompah band,” but sadly they were nowhere to be heard while we were there.

The next day, we dutifully set out to explore the Aldstadt (old town). We saw the genuinely impressive Rathause (town hall), which looked extremely Bavarian (funny that) and the former royal palace, the Munich Residenz, before deciding that it was far too hot and decamping to another beer garden.

This time, we went to Hofbräuhaus München, which was described by the Lonely Planet as the “mothership,” which every visitor should try at least once. We enjoyed our beers under the horse-chestnut trees (these seem to be a common theme of lots of beer gardens), before deciding that it was too hot even for beer and heading back to the Englischer Garten.

We’d returned because we wanted to see for ourselves where people surfed on the Eisbach river. We’d read about this the previous day and were really sceptical until we started to notice the sheer number of people cycling around the city with surfboards tucked under their arms – this couldn’t be a coincidence! It wasn’t, and it was totally mesmerising – we watched for ages as people took turns to drop into the artificial wave and ride it back and forth as long as possible before falling off the back and being sent down the river at alarming speed. What a way to cool down on a hot day!

From Munich, we caught two trains north to our 157th and last (!) overnight stop of the trip, Cologne. The weather here finally broke, so we battled heavy rain showers on our last day – good preparation for returning to the UK! We began at Cologne’s most famous sight, its enormous cathedral. When it was completed in 1880, it was the tallest building in the world, despite having been built according to plans from 600 years previous. That’s quite some ambition!

Between rain showers, we also explored the old town – but there didn’t seem to be very much of it! A bit of reading gave us the answer: apparently Cologne was the unlucky recipient of a Nazi makeover, during which they tore down many of the oldest buildings to replace them with new stone and stucco buildings. This had been the plan for all old towns in Germany, but thankfully they didn’t get that far. After the Second World War, the old town was rebuilt again, but this time in a faux-medieval style. As a result, there was a little less atmosphere than we’ve experienced in other towns in Germany, but it’s hard to blame Cologne for this, given its history.

Our final stop was (surprise, surprise) another beer hall. This time, we wanted to try Cologne’s signature beer, Kölsch, which comes with a whole new way of ordering and keeping track of what you’ve consumed. The servers circulate with trays of narrow, 200 ml glasses, which they plonk down in front of you and mark your tally on a beer mat until you beg for mercy by popping a beer mat on top of your empty glass. At least, this is how it’s supposed to work, but somehow we ended up in a situation where every other table was being plied with beer while we were a dry little island in the middle, failing to attract anyone’s attention. Eventually, the waiters had an argument about who was supposed to be serving us (which seemed somehow our fault) and things improved, but it was a baffling experience! At least our dinner was more successful – Oli had pork knuckle (a beer hall classic) with red cabbage and roast potatoes, and I had spit-roast pork with broad beans and roast potatoes. The potatoes were SO good, it made me very excited to return home and eat a classic Sunday roast!

This concluded our time in Germany, and the following day we were truly on the final stretch, heading back to where it all began in London…