First time in Europe: a South African’s first impressions

I had little idea what to expect from my first serious trip to Europe. I’d bought a ticket to Budapest on a whim, decided I wanted to get around by train, and then let everything else take care of itself.

Living on the very tip of the African continent meant that I’d gained my knowledge of Europe from the odd high school history class I’d managed to stay awake in, a smattering of mediocre movies, and bar-side small talk with the foreigners who frequently visit Cape Town’s shores.

Until that first trip, Europe to me was little more than a strange amalgamation of good wine, tranquil canals, cobbled streets, crumbling castles, great pizza, famous artworks, and snow-capped Alps.

Depending on your level of engagement, many preconceived ideas and stereotypes you have before a trip turn out to be true. You leave with an impression of a city, country, or continent that’s most likely simplified, but forever entrenched in your memories. As a naive first-time visitor to Europe, these were my (often embarrassingly obvious) impressions of the continent.

1. Europe is massively diverse

I stepped off the airport bus in the middle of Budapest and looked up at a style of architecture I’d never before seen. Days later I stood on the walls of a Slovenian the castle and marveled at a small church on an island in the middle of an emerald blue lake. 6 weeks later I stumbled into a bustling Berlin coffee shop silent but for the tip-tap of laptop keyboards and the occasional hiss of an espresso machine. In between it all, I’d eaten an overpriced pizza on a vineyard in the heart of Tuscany as the sun slipped behind the rolling hills.

Of course, it’s obvious that Europe is not a country. It’s obvious that it’s a diverse, multi-cultural land that’s pleasingly diverse. But when you’re glancing at the continent from above courtesy of a Google Maps projection, it’s easy to forget just how unique each region really is.

2. Europeans are often fiercely, and infectiously, proud

There’s a palpable sense of pride floating through most European cities. That overpriced pizza on a Tuscan wine farm also happened to be overcooked, but our host and cook, Paolo, could not have been more proud. The same was true for the Spaniards I met in Barcelona (“Madrid? Why would you want to go to Madrid?”), the Dutch couple I met on a train in Switzerland (“It’s nice here, but we’re still happier in the Netherlands”), and the Germans I met in Austria (“This beer tastes a bit like water compared to ours”). European pride crosses many topics and traditions, and though it seldom appears as anything more than a good mannered jibe, it becomes almost impossible not to appreciate the love and passion.

3. There’s a train to get you almost everywhere

My decision to take trains around Europe was initially an uninformed one. I’d stumbled across Eurail and determined that it’d be a fun way to get around. What I didn’t realize was just how comprehensive the continent’s rail network really is. In fact, in some cases this became more of a hindrance than a convenience – I’d spend hours poring over a creased Eurail map in coffee shops agonizing over where to head next. Which in hindsight is a pretty good problem to have.

4. Your route isn’t as unique, or adventurous, as you think

I thought I was being incredibly adventurous taking a detour from my planned route from Vienna to Venice in order to spontaneously visit a town called Ljubljana. So did Ewan, an Australian I’d met in the hostel, and who I met up with again in the Slovenian capital. It was nice to see a familiar face in a new city, but a part of me was frustrated that my trip wasn’t as unique or adventurous as I’d thought. We parted ways, and I slowly made my way to Poland over several weeks. For no particular reason I decided to see how his travels were going. “In Warsaw at the moment, mate,” he said. “Travels are going well. Where are you?”

Though my first impressions of Europe were that I’d be out there adventuring and Eurailing on my own, the reality is that the famous cities and most convenient rail routes tend to shepherd a lot of people along similar routes. Embrace it, and you’ll have friends to meet up with in many new cities along the way.

5. You’ll meet plenty of friendly locals, but you have to make the effort

A lot of travelers set off to foreign lands to try and pick up a bit of foreign slang, “embrace new cultures,” or at the very least, meet a few locals. People who actually live in a city have better insights and make for more interesting companions while traveling, but they’re harder to meet.

Unfortunately, many of us travel to other sides of the world only to hang out with other people who’ve also traveled from other sides of the world. My initial impression was that I’d meet loads of local citizens along the way, but it was only when I put in real effort – with hostel staff, at obscure bars, or by getting in touch with distant friends of friends, that I met people who weren’t predictable travelers like me.

6. It really is as spectacular as the movies

More than once on my multiple trips to Europe I’ve stood looking at a panoramic view, or an ancient castle, or stumbled down a cobbled street and felt as if I was in a movie. I knew Europe would be fascinating and beautiful, but nothing prepared me for quite how spectacular the sights and sounds of this continent really are.

7. There’s a lifetime of things to see and do

It’s easy to think of Europe as a single-trip destination. Or a once-in-a-life time holiday. And before I departed on my first trip I thought three months on the tracks would get the continent out of my system. How wrong I was. Cliched as it may sound, there’s a lifetime of things to see and do on the continent, and three epic trips later, all I can think about is when I’ll next be able to head back.

Loved this story? Here are some more highlights from Andrew’s Eurail trips: