5 reasons why I love the megabus

A wince is the normal reaction I am met with when I say I’m travelling from Bristol to London on the megabus. “But they take so long, they’re always late, and they’re pretty disgusting, aren’t they?” Of course, it’s great sometimes to hop in my car and drive the 180 miles independently; it means I can leave whenever it suits me and I can bring whatever I want. But I’ve spent far too much of the last three years gridlocked on the m25 to really look forward to a drive back East. Believe it or not, I’m a megabus convert. Here’s why

1) It’s cheap
If you want to travel around Britain on a budget, it’s the only way to do it really. No other public transport option competes with the megabus. I’ve purchased a single Bristol- London ticket for £1.70 before, but on average I pay about £5 each way. I’d say the average return train fare is about £30, so it clocks in at about a third of the price. Different routes do cost more, with fares from Bristol- Leeds being about £15, but that is still a fraction of your average train fare.

2) It cuts out the m25
Anyone who travels regularly to the London suburbs knows the woes of the m25. After passing Heathrow airport, it’s always a fun guessing game- is it going to be an hours drive from here? Or is it going to be 6? The megabus has no use for the London orbital- it just slices straight through the capital when the m4 ends. Of course, it quite often encounters traffic in West London, but it is a lot less agitating sitting in traffic in Hammersmith than it is taking half an hour to move one junction on the m25.

3) It’s scenic
Okay, not all the time, but as I write this I’m on a coach passing through Chelsea as the sun comes up, and it all looks quite pretty. You drive past a few London attractions on the way through the city; marble arch and harrods to name a few. No open topped bus tour, of course, but driving around London gives me a warm fuzzy feeling in my belly. And the megabus is to thank for that.

4) It’s easy
No faffing around with collecting tickets, as all you need to board the coach is your confirmation number which is emailed to you when booking. You don’t even need the email up, you can just have it written down somewhere. The megabus is especially easy for me as in Bristol, it stops at my university which is (just about) walking distance from my house. Plus if your destination is south of the river, it is miles easier the getting a train. If I get the Bristol- London train line I have to get a tube through the city and then an overground train. The megabus stops at London Victoria Coach Station, where it is just a short walk to the train station from which I can get a straight train back to suburbia.

5) It comes ALL THE TIME
I’ve never had any problems with availability on the Bristol- London route. There’s always a few options to choose from, and if needs be I can book the night before without it costing the earth. The prices do increase as the departure date draws nearer, but I have personally never paid over £13 for one.

Of course, I am writing this on an extremely spacious double decker megabus with five other passengers on board. I have 4 seats and a table to myself and have just left London without being stuck in any traffic. On my journey to London yesterday, I was waiting for 25 minutes in the freezing cold and when I boarded it was absolutely packed. I was sitting in front of a couple who spent the whole time giggling and across from a man who spoke angrily on his phone for about half the journey. I ended up falling asleep folded in half in the tiny seat and it took me about half an hour to fully stretch myself out and feel normal again after I disembarked. This is an example of a bad megabus journey. But for me, these are few and far between, and the benefits draw me back time and time again.

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Prague and the rise of the ‘Selfie Stick’

I first went to Prague about 9 years ago. I was 12 at the time, so can’t remember much; it’s been one of those places which i’m not sure I can put on my ‘list of countries i’ve been to’, despite having physically been there.

So when the chance arose to stop over there en route to Poland, I jumped at the chance. We arrived there at about 2pm in the afternoon, having left Nuemberg at about 10am.

It first struck me as very pretty, with lots of picturesque buildings and quaint cobbled streets. But the city was just so busy. Everywhere I looked there were fleets of tourists, and a lot of the city’s shops were completely directed at the stag do market, which looked obscenely out of place next to all the idyllic old buildings. Being a tourist myself, it was pretty unjustified to be annoyed at other tourists for being there, but regardless, there was something about Prague that didn’t tick all the boxes.

Maybe it was because I got accidentally thwarted three times by long sticks with people’s phones on the end. That’s right- these are now a thing. ‘Selfie sticks’ are handy in those circumstances when you wish you have a really long arm so you can successfully get yourself and the background in a photo. I guess they’re not a bad idea if you’re travelling on your own, but when you have to constantly duck and sidestep in Prague’s main square just to dodge the metal poles you get a strong desire to snap every one in half and throw them into the Vltava.

From the other side of the river, you can walk up to the castle and look at the rooftops. From a birds eye view, the city looks incredibly charming and fairytale-esque, but there just didn’t seem to be a massive amount of things to do in Prague other than look at quaint buildings. There is a Jewish Quarter with a museum which i’m sure I would have found interesting, but unfortunately we were there on a Saturday so they were all shut.

Prague is undoubtedly a pleasant city, but it just felt incredibly overrun with tourists. In all fairness, we were there on August bank holiday; probably the busiest weekend of the year. I would go back to Prague if the opportunity arose but I think before I’d like to visit less overrated cities, such as Bratislava in neighboring Slovakia.

Next stop- Krakow!

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The rooftops of Prague as seen from the castle

Remembering the victims of the Holocaust

The main purpose of my European trip was educational- to visit the museum and memorial at former concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland. I am writing my dissertation on Holocaust Literature so a trip to the place most associated with the Holocaust was important to give me the best knowledge about the topic.

August 26th was a suitably sombre day. We arrived at Auschwitz memorial as it was opening at 8:30, and opted for a three hour guided tour starting at 9. The tour (which is available in most European languages) guided us around both the parts of Auschwitz 1 that have been restored and made into museum rooms bearing facts and information, and the parts that have been left as they were during the concentration camp days.

The museum mainly shows pictures and information about the Holocaust, however there are some more disturbing parts. One room contains a floor to ceiling glass case that spans the room’s length, full of human hair from the victims of Auschwitz (all prisoners had their heads shaved on arrival). In the next, there is a similar case full of suitcases that were taken from the camp’s victims on arrival. It is here where the enormity of the tragedy affected me most as the tour guide pointed out that behind every suitcase was a person, a life, and a story. On each suitcase there was a name and a date of birth, and the guide drew some particular dates to our attention. One of the closest suitcases bore a 1935 date of birth. Obviously this child, who would have been deported between the ages of 4 and 10, would have been killed immediately when they arrived at Auschwitz as only those between the ages of 15-40 were considered for work. However if this child had not become a victim to the European genocide they may have well been alive now.

This was the main thought that occupied my mind as I left Auschwitz. Each lock of hair and suitcase represents a real person, somebody who could have lived a substantial and happy life. Any victim of the Holocaust may well have done something amazing to change the world. We will never know. Even if not, everybody has a right to a happy life, something that was snatched away from these 6 million Jews just because of their religion.

After visiting the museum we were shown around some parts of Auschwitz that are left standing. Our guide escorted us into the sadistic block 11, where inmates were cruelly punished for futile crimes. The guide showed us around some former barracks which contained the triple bunk beds that the prisoners had to sleep on. I have seen these bunks before in documentaries about the Holocaust and Auschwitz, but I did not expect them to be so small. We were told that up to six people had to sleep on a bunk that is much smaller than the width of a normal single bed. Only when these details are pointed out do you begin to realize the enormity of the suffering that was so commonplace in the camp. Seeing Auschwitz made me completely register how very real the event is; it has been written about so much that it is hard to remember that this is no fiction- this is a real, terrible event that wrecked the lives of millions (the horrific reality of the event and how it must be perceived as a real occurrence, not a literary phenomenon is something that I will discuss in depth in my dissertation). After being shown around the barracks, the guide took us into one of the most disturbing part of the camp; a gas chamber and a crematorium. I don’t believe that there are words that can accurately describe the feeling when standing in one of these rooms, but I am sure you can imagine the horror, nausea and repulsion one feels when they are shown a place that took the lives of so many.

After the tour of Auschwitz 1, we were taken to Auschwitz- Birkenau. This site serves more of a memorial, with the original train tracks still there connecting the front gate to a large statue which represents the victims. Underneath the statue are a row of slabs each with an inscription in a different language. The languages are the native languages of all the Holocaust victims, plus one in English. The plaque in English reads:

FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1945

The plaque illustrates how humanity must be continually made aware about the despair of the Holocaust, which makes the essentially of learning about the Holocaust very clear. Even though the Holocaust is so disturbing that it is painful to think about, it is important to learn how cruel mankind can be, and for me a visit to Auschwitz really emphasized the true enormity of the genocide.

The guided tour ended by going up to the watch tower and looking across the gloomy panorama of train tracks, memorial and half destructed barracks. It is hard to believe that just 70 years ago hundreds were being sentenced to their death here every day, just because of their religion. It certainly provokes some worrisome questions about humankind.

Road travel in the EU

You could get a taxi to the airport, check in, go through customs, go to gate number 95, board your plane, sit on a flight for two hours, get off the plane, go through immigration, come out the other side and find your way from the airport to your destination of choice.

Or you could get a ferry from Dover to Calais and drive for a grand total of 15 hours to first get to Prague, and then to Krakow.

People seem to think driving in Europe is a crazy idea. But if you drive, you get the chance to check out other places on the way (we probably wouldn’t have gone to Prague on this trip if we hadn’t drove), you can go at your own pace, and you learn lots about European motorways – did you know that there are Autobahnkirches (motorway churches) at German Service Stations?

Driving in Europe is also relatively painless- as long as you know where you are going/ have a decent sat nav. We drove through France, Belguim, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland, all of which are part of the Schengen Agreement- meaning that you don’t have to go through customs and immigration. All of these countries simply have a “welcome to…” sign as you cross the border, just like you have when you enter a town. And there seems to be no ‘rush hour’/ ‘m25 standstill hour’; the traffic was more or less completely free flowing wherever we went.

Unless you get really good flight deals, driving is more than likely to be a fair bit cheaper, especially if there is more than one of you. But of course, if you can only spare a few days, spending 2+ days getting to the location is not ideal.

There are pros and cons, but I’d say driving is definitely a good choice for longer trips. The beauty of having a car is you are completely your own boss- if you want to stop in a hamlet in Germany for lunch, you can. No other form of transport can offer you the same amount of freedom.

The Mosel Valley, Northern Germany
The Mosel Valley, Northern Germany

36 hours in Krakow

Krakow (and Poland in general) is hugely underrated. The small city seems so cheery and welcoming, so  much more personal than nearby Prague. It is a city that has been through much hardship; what with the German occupation in the war and the deportation of a large Jewish community to name a couple. But Krakow today is lively, vibrant and personable. It has not received quite as much tourist attention as nearby cities like Prague and Vienna, which makes it all the more authentic and interesting. I haven’t been to Warsaw, Poland’s capital, myself but I have heard that it is rather grey and bland. Krakow is anything but.

Just wandering along the old streets of the city reveals most of its charm. There are plenty of interesting things to see, such as the massive statue of a head (which seems to be there for no real reason) or the horses and carts that trot past in the central square. A rainless morning can be passed by just marveling at the surroundings.

Krakow is bursting with history, which is where the town seems a bit more sombre. There are numerous museums and synagogues to look round (which are all free admission on Mondays), and many of these discuss the cities most painful topic; World War Two. The Jewish museum educates about Judaism in general, and the synagogue that we looked around boasted a display of professional photographs from the war and occupation. There is also Schindler’s old factory, which has been made into a museum about the factory and war time Poland. The ghetto area, while not distinctively marked out is made clear on a map and is interesting to walk round and contrast with the rest of the city.

The food in Krakow was lovely. For dinner we stumbled upon a rustic traditional restaurant which served typical Polish food- meat, dumplings and potato. The prices didn’t break the bank either, especially coming from more expensive Prague.

Krakow was quite a rushed portion of the trip, but I could have easily spent double the time there. When considering a European city break, it is definitely overshadowed by nearby Central European cities, but it definitely has a unique charm that I have not found anywhere else.

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“The Head”/ Eros Bendato – A statue by Igor Mitoraj in the main square of Krakow
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Fancy looking horses masquerading as dalmations

Dublin on a budget (Kinda)

When I told people I’d booked an impulsive trip to Dublin after finding flights for £50 on skyscanner, everyone’s response was pretty similar… I hope you have a lot of money. Ever the optimist, I replied that as I was only going for two days (and am used to London prices) it couldn’t be that bad… Could it?

We very sleepily landed in Dublin at 7:30am, but managed to immediately jump on a bus. We bought an airport transfer plus 2 day hop on hop off bus pass as part of a deal in the airport for 20€. Not a bad deal, especially as the bus dropped us off right outside the hostel we’d booked.

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Cold but happy on an open topped bus
We stayed at Jacobs Inn, a fantastic hostel for the price we paid. The place was massive, and a 12 Bed dorm felt incredibly spacious. It wasn’t the most social hostel I’ve stayed in, but then again we were only there for 2 nights on holiday. A dorm was €12.50 a night which included a basic breakfast. The only catch was that to rent a locker was 2€ per night also. Still, for a reasonably central hostel in Dublin, we thought it was a pretty good deal.

After this, the only things we spent money on were food or drinks. We managed to pass our time quite well without having to pay for attractions, although that said, a main attraction in Dublin is drinking! We spent the morning of the first day on the hop on hop off bus- we found it pleasant enough to just sit for an hour and a half and look at the city. There’s quite a lot to see on foot in the capital too- we enjoyed a walk around trinity college and (being avid English students) went to see the Oscar Wilde statue and memorials. We also got into the little museum of Dublin for free with our bus tickets, which was very interesting and gave a real insight to Dublin in the last century.

Re. Food and drink, we managed to spend a fair bit. We did lunch on 10 euros both days- on the first day we found a good deal from a Mexican and Italian themed restaurant appropriately titled ‘Mexico to Rome’ and for dinner we spent a little more. Still, the food wasn’t ridiculously expensive. We found an authentic Irish pub serving a carvery on the first night, where we got a plate piled high with food for €11 and we had tapas on the second night. The bill for this came to €25 each, but that was with a glass of wine and a cocktail each as well.

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A traditional Irish carvery… we certainly didn’t go hungry!
It was drinking that put the biggest dent in my travel money envelope. Typically a glass of wine or a spirit and mixer will set you back 7€, and a cocktail could be anything between 10-12€. In true backpacker style we drank a small bottle of vodka each before going out to avoid spending all our money in clubs. (Which cost €5 to get in, this was on a Tuesday).

Lastly, we couldn’t make use of the bus on our return to the airport as we had to leave at the painful time of 4am… But the hostel offered a handy shuttle service for just 7€!

So, in two days I spent…
25€ on accomodation (plus 2€ locker fee)
20€ on attractions
7€ on transport
60€ on food (including tips)
50€ ish on drink and club entry

At €164, I could definitely have a cheaper couple of days. But we could have cut the costs in half by buying food (they have tesco there) for dinner and lunch and maybe just limiting yourself to the one glass of wine… You could easily spend the same amount in London.

Dublin was a great place, and I’d recommend a trip there to anyone. As always, experience counts more than money!!

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Dining in Bocas Del Toro

Mother Nature was not on our side when we visited Bocas. It rained every day, and we only saw a glimmer of sun on a couple of the days we spent on the island. I visited Bocas five years prior with my family, and it became my top place I’d ever visited, but we were much more fortunate with the weather at this trip. Unfortunately, when it rains in Bocas, there is not a huge amount to do. I attempted a boat trip one day which was fun but also horrifically wet!

Luckily, the trip was saved by the amazing food that the island had on offer. As it was the end of our trip, we treated ourselves a little too much and ate out almost every night.

The top restaurants on the island were:

1. Lilli’s Café – this restaurant is built over the sea and serves all things Caribbean, from jerk chicken to seafood and rice. The chefs inject a portion of the menu with their signature ‘Killin Me Man’ sauce- a sauce which is made on the premises, which they warn you is ‘Hot like the Caribbean!’. (I didn’t realise how hot the Caribbean actually was and put it all over my food, then much to the waitresses amusement had to request three glasses of water to be brought over. Its hot.) You can even purchase bottles of their sauce, just incase one Killin me Man hit is not enough. If you aren’t a fan of spice, then don’t worry- a lot of the food is Killin me Man sauce free. The staff are friendly and there is a real homely vibe to the place. As homely as you can get sitting on a deck above the Caribbean sea, that is!

2. La Bugita – this small restaurant is an add-on to the Buga surf school. The menu is small, but the food is all fresh and plentiful. I had a freshly caught tuna steak with a pineapple risotto- sounds like an odd combination, but it really worked! The restaurant menu changes regularly but it seemed that there was always a ‘catch of the day’ on offer. The restaurant owner was lovely and sat with us talking about the island as we sipped Cuba Libres and watched the sun go down during a rain free evening.

3.Cosmic Crab Café – we visited this restaurant on the last night of our stay in Bocas. Whether we were on a ‘last night’ high or not, the food was absolutely sensational. Ran by an American woman, we were greeted with superb hospitality as soon as we stepped off the boat (the restaurant is a short water taxi ride over to a neighbouring island). The food was not the cheapest, but the portions were huge. The crab with coconut rice and salad was absolutely delicious and the homemade cocktails were extremely refreshing. I finished my meal with a dessert made from just a banana covered in chocolate and frozen with ice cream- an interesting concoction but it tasted amazing.

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They liked us so much at Cosmic Crab Cafe that they wanted us to start working there

The food in Panama was like nothing I’ve ever tried before – as a fish lover, it must have been the fact that everything was caught within metres of the restaurants where we were eating. So if, like me, your trip to Bocas is somewhat dampened by bad weather, never fear – rain doesn’t stop the seafood’s exquisite taste!