Serbia: I love a cafe with umbrellas!
“One August morning,” recounts Karen McCann, “I walked out of my Seville, Spain home taking nothing but a small, roll-aboard bag, a Eurail pass, and my husband. We were traveling with no fixed time limit, no reservations, and only a loose idea of our itinerary. Our goal was to see if we could still have the kind of spontaneous adventures we’d enjoyed in our youth. We spent three months on trains, mostly in Eastern Europe, and the results — often hilarious, occasionally harrowing, definitely life-changing — form the basis of my latest book.”
To whet your appetite for this entertaining, insightful journey “out there”, we present excerpts from Chapter 1 of Adventures of a Railway Nomad, How Our Journeys Guide Us Home.
The Experiment was born on a battered ferryboat off the coast of Portugal, on a rainy spring day when anyone with any sense was staying dry at home. But this was the only chance my husband and I would have to visit a beachcomber we knew who lived on the tiny island of Culatra, so there Rich and I sat, surrounded by islanders who were returning from the mainland with sacks of potatoes, tins of fuel, piles of paperbacks, and various other lumpy bundles stacked about their feet. Rain drumming on the roof made the drafty cabin almost cozy, and I was lulled by the rocking of the boat, the homey smell of damp wool sweaters, and the buzz of a dozen conversations as friends gossiped over the heads of the small children in their laps.
This colorful train was spotted at the Gorna Oryakhovitsa station on our way from Veliko Tornovo to Sofia, Bulgaria. “I miss this,” Rich said suddenly. “We need to go on the road. We need another adventure.”
Rich and I were always trying to find ways to get further “out there” — that is, off the tourist track, past the boundaries of commonly known routes, to the cultural equivalent of places where, in ancient times, the maps would have been marked, “Here there be dragons.”
“What do you think?” said Rich, his face alight with eagerness. “Asia? South America? Mongolia?” It was the kind of conversation where no dream seemed too outlandish.
“Smells wonderful, I’ll have that,” Rich said to the cook. Wasn’t he aghast to discover it was tripe soup, a dish he loathes?
“We’d have to spend a fair amount of time flying,” I pointed out. The conversation deflated for a moment as we both contemplated how much we’d come to loathe the tedium of modern air travel.
“I know,” he said, brightening. “We’ll go by train. Not to the other side of the world, but around Europe. How about Eastern Europe? You can get to some really remote areas with a Eurail pass.”
“Civilized travel to uncivilized places.” I was nodding thoughtfully.
“We could go right out our front door and walk to the train station. And from there…”
Do it yourself roof repairs in Montenegro.
I found myself grinning. “From there we could go anywhere in Europe. Hopping on and off trains, wandering like nomads…” Then my grin faded a little, and I said, “You don’t think we’re getting soft, do you? I’m wondering whether we can still have adventures if we’re traveling in a civilized manner.”
“Only one way to find out.”
“It would be a sort of experiment,” I mused. “To see if we can still get out there and have adventures while traveling in a way that makes sense at our stage of life.”
Part violin, part trumpet, traditional and very popular in the Oradea region of Romania.
When I was young, I’d thought nothing of throwing a few spare clothes in a backpack and hitting the road. I’d climbed mountains, slept rough, and eaten fried flies just to see if I could do it. Fortunately, having done all that in the past, I didn’t feel obliged to prove it all over again now. I knew sexagenarians who were still trying to keep up with twenty-somethings, often ones they’d just married, and it was rarely an edifying spectacle.
Napoli, Italy, the city everyone told us to avoid, so naturally we went. This is one nutty town. Here even the churches get their fair share of graffiti.
By the time the Portuguese ferryboat drew near the island, we’d laid out some key criteria for our upcoming trip, soon to be known as “The Experiment.”
1. We would travel in a relaxed manner, by easy stages.
2. Trains would be our principal mode of transportation, although ferries and an occasional taxi or bus would be acceptable when necessary.
Map courtesy of Travellerspoint and Google Maps
3. Our itinerary would not be fixed; we’d have a general idea of the route but leave ourselves open to diversions and detours.
4. We’d go as far out there as possible, seeking authentic experiences in remote, off-the-tourist-track places.
5. We wouldn’t make reservations far in advance but would use the Internet to book comfortable, conveniently located, affordable lodgings a day or so before our arrival in any new place.
6. Our luggage would be just one small suitcase and maybe a daypack each.
7. If at any time it got to be too much for either of us, we would give in gracefully and go home.
How does Karen and Rich’s adventure turn out? Pick up the book or ebook and you will find out. Here is a teaser of what they did in three months while visiting 13 countries: distance traveled 6,000 miles or 9,650 kilometers by rail, ferry, bus, horse-drawn cart and on foot.
“Karen’s storytelling is, if possible, even more enticing than her astonishing journey.” — Alicia Bay Laurel, author of Living on the Earth.
“Warmth, wisdom, and humor … I loved this book and laughed out loud on more than a few occasions.” — Susan Pohlman, author of Halfway to Each Other.
“A thoroughly enjoyable whistle stop tour of Europe’s roads less traveled … never a dull moment.” — David & Victoria James, authors of Going Gypsy: One Couple’s Adventure from Empty Nest to No Nest at All.
Adventures of a Railway Nomad: How Our Journeys Guide Us Home by Karen McCann. Café Society Press (2015), Paperback, 282 pages, US$10.95. ISBN-10: 0985028335; ISBN-13: 978-0985028336. Paperback version and Kindle ebook available from Amazon.
Karen McCann is a journalist, author and blogger, living in Seville, Spain since 2004. She has visited more than 45 countries including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband, Rich, volunteered as consultants to struggling microenterprises. The story of their move to Seville is chronicled in her book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. Read more at www.enjoylivingabroad.com.
Photo credit: Richard McCann.