Here's where we'll share our daily updates from the Trans-European Race - all the beautiful places, tasty food, and funny stories we come across.
Larissa, Katy, Richard and Aileen have joined together to form team LARK (because of the initials, get it?). But LARK isn’t just an abbreviation of their names, it’s also a state of mind. They're literally larking around on trains and buses around Europe this week. See? Works on multiple levels.
Our team also benefits from having a fearless leader in Katy, our strategy Queen and the person that made JFC’s involvement in Race Across Europe possible. So we should be kept on track and make it to Istanbul for Saturday (famous last words?).
So called because they move to the beat of their own drum, the Loose Units, aka Allan (Agent 17), Fran (Agent 79) and Lauren (Agent 131), are our international young team. They've got the stamina to stay up late drinking craft beers in quirky local bars and still catch the 6am train to their next destination.
In it for the sweet views and the tasty food as opposed to the glory, Danni, Andreia and Tristan make up DAT team (again, initials). It's Danni's first time back packing, Andreia's first time doing it around Europe (but South America? Nailed it!) and Tristan is always delighted to bag a new country. At least with Danni's social media skills, you know the content's gonna be 🔥
Saturday, August 5th, 2023
LARK: Having given up on one of our team’s goals early on (try as we might, we couldn’t justify the less-than-ideal connections to make the hop to Liechtenstein worth it), we now had one mission: visit as many Balkan countries as possible on the way to Istanbul.
Shared Eurostar dramas for all JFC teams aside (gotta count on the French to protest), we arrived in Paris with a train to Strasbourg already booked for that evening. We would have had a good 2.5-hour window without the delay, but it was probably closer to 2 hours once we stepped foot on the platform. But first, we had to find Bob.
We raced down to the metro (buying a pack of 10 metro tickets on the Eurostar was our saving grace and let us bypass the others), only to find out the line wasn’t working. A quick switch to the RER took us into Jardin des Tuileries with 10 minutes to spare. Luckily we spotted him under the perfectly-manicured trees and he gave us our rather long and cryptic password that we’ll need later in the trip. Our hustling paid off, and we even had time for a selfie break before hopping back on the metro.
Once we reached Gare De L’est for our connection, there were two things in particular that I found surprising:
- The number of Paul’s bakeries in very close proximity (2)
- Surprisingly good Asian meals from the supermarket. Katy really rates the Bibimbap!
The train to Strasbourg felt like a dream after a reeeeally long day getting used to our backpacks. We rolled into the station around 10:30pm and walked through the rain to the hostel. Safe in our beds with only the sound of random strangers yelling very loudly outside the window, we all slept the minimum amount of hours to be functional. And that was Day 1, onto Germany tomorrow!
Loose Units: Agent 17 Reporting Today
And we’re off! Today, we were briefed by race director James near Trafalgar Square and had brunch with the whole team near King’s Cross Station. After getting through passport control, we sat in wait in the Eurostar lounge for our 2:30 [m train to Paris. Fran scavenged for free beers from the Eurostar and brought each team a beer that best represented their team.
We all boarded the Eurostar, arriving in Paris 40 minutes late after a delay on the tracks. We bought metro tickets at the station after queuing for quite a while. As we arrived at Gare du Nord to take the Paris Metro to the first checkpoint location, the 4 line shut down for mechanical repair so we had to take the B down to the area of the Louvre.
We made our way to the café, arriving right at 7:00 pm as Bob was about to depart. After Bob gave us the password (shh!), we invited him to have a crêpe with us at the Louvre’s café. He then proceeded to give us a brief, free-of-charge, tour of the Louvre building, the Seine, and tried his best to line us up for a view of the Eiffel Tower — easier said than done!
After a lovely hour-long stroll with Bob, we bid him adieu, making our way back to Gare du Nord for an 8:55 pm train to Brussels. We could not make our seat reservations with the app so resident francophone Fran saved the day by talking to the conductor in French and getting us on that train. Who knows what would have happened if we didn’t make the train…
But we did! We made it to Brussels at half past 10:00 pm, where Fran and her partner Felix graciously hosted us in their flat in Saint-Gilles. We dropped off our stuff and went to a local Belgian brewery, where we formulated our plan of attack for the next day. See you tomorrow.
DAT team: Danni wakes up in Brighton, most trains are cancelled–she barely makes it on time to Lupine’s event. It’s the first time she’s backpacking and you can tell. The bag she carries has a hanging pillow, and it’s legitimately more than half her size. Not that she’s tall, to be fair. Still, carrying half her weight on her back isn’t going to keep Danni from getting that JFC merch–bucket hat on her head, tote bag on her shoulders, we gather around the rest of the team to chat a bit before the race starts.
Wait, where’s Tristan? He’s the last one to arrive, though he does arrive on time, so we’ll cut him some slack.
Thirteen members of Jack’s Flight Club try to dodge the rain, hiding under a canopy just out Trafalgar Square. James, the race organizer, takes the mic and starts giving instructions I couldn’t hear. Someone from the team whispers back to me what he’s saying–the checkpoints we’ll have to hit (not for the prize, that we cannot win, but for bragging rights) are revealed: the first stop after London is Paris. We did know about that one.
The first stop was revealed to us a couple of months in advance. Not that that helped us planning much better. We had managed to book our Eurostar train from St. Pancreas a few weeks ahead, along with the rest of the team, enough time in between the start of the race at 10:00 and the departure at 13:31 to grab breakfast at Caravan. Before we head there, a reporter from the Independent approaches Katy for a quick interview, which she obviously nails with a quick JFC recap and plenty of smirky jokes in between. Our main goal is, afterall, getting Fran to try out and rate all the gelato and ice creams she can find along the way.
A long table of ten (cause not everyone we met up with was actually going on the race), and fresh pressed juice, tea, and all the brunch goodies you can imagine, spreads out between us. We’re all a bit nervous, a bit hungry, and some (Fran, again) realise they’ve forgotten both their keys and their bag at home.
We all had different dishes, and I went with my comfort fries. It wasn’t cheap (is anything cheap in London?), but it was worth it. Around us, just outside, a group of teenagers practices a K-Pop choreography, while a restless baby hangs out in its stroller just next to the door. Are the parents going for the Norwegian trick that prepares kids for the extreme cold? Wait until we get to 5-degrees-Bernina-ride and we’ll all be wishing our parents had thrown us out in the street for some ice resistance. Back to rainy London for now, though.
We all help each other get our backpacks back on our backs. It’s time to head to the station, we still have to go through security before we hop on the train, and St. Pancreas is a bit of a mess at this point. Some of us go get snacks, while the rest discuss the perks of an AmEx card when travelling in the Eurostar–the lounge access will reward you with free drinks, and we’re talking the good 13%-alchool-beer stuff.
Everyone randomly moves around, trying to find out which terminal they need to reach. We lose Fran somewhere in the middle of the station. 30 minutes later, we’ve all shown our passports to security–there are a few seats we can lounge in before having to board.
Arriving in Paris, we all split up into our teams--LARK, DAT & the Loose Units (still unnamed by then) each made their way out the train.
LARK and the Loose Units just went for a run, trying to hit their goal to get to the second checkpoint before Bob left at 7pm.
We, the DAT team, took our time. Crowds of people lining up for the train, we walked past two-story trams, and trying to assure a spot in the escalators to get out of Gare du Nord.
My first visit to Paris, I was expecting what we got--the movie-like buildings and the corner pasteries reminded me of Amélie, her Parisian quirkiness in locals' faces.
Not sure on how to get there, we loaded our digital map to let us know the way to Louvre, where we were expected. Miles of underground tunnels and tram options eventually got us there. I'd seen thousands of pictures of the glassy triangle, people pretending to hold it with the tip of their fingers. I'd never noticed the ferris wheel just behind it, the entire set of windows surrounding the landmark. What impressed me most was the detail, the feeling that I wasn't just walking on the floor, but actually just above the ceiling of a museum that held hundreds of pieces that would describe what humanity is all about better than I ever could. A violinist stood in the shadow, La Valse d'Amélie taking me back even further to those nights I'd spend planning a Paris trip with just movie sets as a visiting point.
I thought about The Dreamers, and what it must feel like to run next to paintings, almost unaware of their value.
We took pictures and silly videos of ourselves, a cloudy sky hoovering above us, while other people did the same.
Disappointed we were too late to book a visit to the Catacombs, we didn't have the time to visit The Louvre, or head to the Eiffel Tower either. Tired and carrying a lot of weight on our shoulders, we headed back to the metro line with Bastille as a destination, the thought of a bed to crash in boiling. Getting the metro should've been uneventful, if it weren't for the fact that as soon the door closed in front of us, a JFC sticker popped up on the door. Someone from the team had hopped on the same ride, on the same door as we did. It felt like seeing an old school friend--the odds working with us spruced up our mood.
By the time we checked in in the hotel (a French receptionist trying her best not to roll her eyes when we asked for instructions in English), it was way after 9. Food was the only thing in our mind, and when in Paris... have Japanese? I know, I know. All the croissants in the world wouldn't convince us to skip a hot Ramen, dumplings, and a Saké to warm us up.
Heading back to the hotel after dinner granted us views of orange and yellow lamps hanging over cafés outside, the chilly air in our faces.
It didn't take long after that to fall asleep–we were tired and a 6am train the next morning gave us enough reasons to just jump into bed and fall asleep wondering what the next few days would be like.
Sunday, August 6th, 2023
LARK: Katy reporting for duty! It was a bit of a rough night in Strasbourg. Despite the overcast skies and on-and-off-again rain, our hotel room was HOT, so we had to sleep with the window fully open. That made it pretty hard to ignore the screaming and banging noises out on the street.
Regardless, Richard was up at 6:30 and off out for a run along the river. The rest of us took our time and got ready to head out and meet up with morning arrivals, DAT team for brekkie.
After winding through the gorgeous streets and squares of central Strasbourg a little, we found the gang and headed towards the cathedral. Tummies were rumbling, so into the cute crêperie we went.
Afterwards, we all headed straight back to the station – us towards Munich and DAT towards Basel. A couple of connections later and we found ourselves in the land of Bavarian beer and checkpoint no. 3 - Marienplatz.
That one was pretty simple – take a selfie (in the pouring rain) in the square, and get a receipt from n ATM or local business. That was enough of a sign for us to head to the famous Hofbräuhaus and fill up the local produce before an early night. Prost!
Loose Units: Agent 17 Once Again
Our goal Sunday was very simple. Get as far as possible. We woke up in Brussels at 7:30 am to catch an 8:25 train to Frankfurt Airport Station. After sleeping on the train and fighting for 3 seats close to each other, we arrived and grabbed a quick lunch at the station.
Our next train to Munich was 25 minutes late, which would make our onward connection very very tight. We were hoping to arrive in Munich by 4:30, run to Marienplatz to hit the checkpoint, buy a souvenir magnet, and run back to Munich station to catch a 5:30 train to Budapest.
With that delay, we ended up at Munich-Passig station at 4:53, with only 37 minutes to get into Munich center and back to Munich Hbf. We sprinted through Passing (unnecessarily as the train was not due for 6 minutes), went straight to Marienplatz, took a selfie, and Allan ran.
He dropped his stuff in the plaza with Fran and Lauren and sprinted to Hofbrauhaus instead of going the other direction where there were plenty of souvenir shops right nearby. Nevertheless, he ran and ran, reaching Hofbrauhaus and buying the magnet, and running back just in time.
We pulled into Marienplatz at 5:12. Allan bought the magnet at 5:17. We were back at the Marienplatz station, boarding an S-Bahn at 5:22, arriving at Munich Hbf at 5:25, and making the train to Budapest at 5:27, with just a few minutes to spare.
As soon as we stepped into the train, the strong smell hit our nostrils and the overflowing cabins put fear into our hearts. We realized we weren’t on the Deutsche Bahn anymore. But we pushed on..
… all the way to First Class, where we sat and pled ignorance as “we’re just trying to eat and in no way do we want to take these seats. We did eat but then we also sat there for another 4 hours, just chit-chatting with each other, other passengers seated nearby, and several members of the train crew.
We booked our hotel, planned our next day, and enjoyed our lives in luxury. Until a new conductor boarded in Vienna and sent us back to second class. By this point, however, the train had emptied and there were plenty of seats left
So we sat for the next few chatting about ghosts, aliens, and other sleep-deprived tangents until arriving in Budapest at 12:30 am, falling asleep immediately. 16 hours on trains, 30 minutes of action. But we made it from Brussels to Budapest with a checkpoint in between in just one day
The sound of peaceful birdsong from my phone speaker woke us up at the ungodly hour of 6am.
A bargain had been made - stay the night in Paris for a stress-free soft landing into interrailing and get an early start the next day. We discover that in practice, a small but comfortable hotel room in the Bastille area of Paris does not make up for 2 or 3 hours of sleep lost from murmurs of excitement.
We didn’t mess around, getting ourselves together and ubering over to Gare Est for a 6:55 train to Strasbourg. A short and uneventful journey in carriages full of napping French and Germans gave us time to mull over that twenty two hours later we would still be on the go.
Team LARK are just leaving their hostel as we arrive and we meet up for some crepes for breakfast. We are still in France, after all. We head through the old town to meet them, wandering past houses that look like the inspiration for children’s book cover illustrations.
Nobody in either team will forget the sight of Strasbourg’s cathedral - the kind of building that makes you appreciate how ants see the world.
After a fun catch-up over crepes and learning how not to kill the R in team LARK with food we rush off for a train to Basel.
We looked at what we could do in Basel in the 50 minutes we had and spotted “Marktplatz”, a food market only 5 minutes away from the station. Tristan’s eyes light up when he sees you can get Ethiopian food there - he’d already mentioned how he wanted to try it the day before. The team split a delicious plate of lentils on injera bread. A good start on our mission to expand Andreia’s palate.
Fueled up, we rush back to get the train to Chur. Swiss trains are amazing, by the way. As clean and timely as you hear they are. Not long after leaving Basel behind we start getting glued to our window like most people are glued to their phones. Incredible views of the alps and the Walansee lake.
That was nothing compared to what was to come. Chur is the start point for the “Bernina Express” a UNESCO certified train route that’s as scenic as it gets. A windy route through the alps over hundreds of bridges, through tunnels and past a glacier.
Before we jump on that train though, we have about an hour and a half to kill. The team is overjoyed to find some lockers to stash our bags in the train station. 90 minutes turns out to be just about the perfect amount of time to get to the far side of Chur’s old town and back while taking lots of pics. It’s the kind of place that looks right at home on a postcard and surprisingly quiet considering we’re there in early August.
Words barely do the experience of riding on the Bernina Express justice. There’s a cabin with retractable windows that’s incredible for taking photos and videos without glare. The other cabins all have huge windows that give you a great view of the valleys, peaks, gorges, lakes and glaciers. The journey took around four hours and helped us forget the weight of the day we started to feel.
We arrived in Tirano, an Italian town that’s so close to the border that it took our phones an hour to switch to an Italian phone network. Our hotel is even more beautiful than the pictures made it seem. Modern rooms and decorations concealed by the stone walls of a former farmhouse. It’s now 9:30pm and we’re exhausted, but more importantly, hungry. It’s pizza time!
Monday, August 7th, 2023
LARK: Hello again! It’s Larissa back with our day 3 recap.
For the rest of the world, it was Monday. For us, it was AUSTRIA DAY. Given I’m the resident Australian in the group, I thought it was my duty to educate the rest of the team on Austria’s unofficial slogan. Our countries are tight like that. Despite that, we would actually see some kangaroos before the day was out (just in the snack form).
We rattled out of an extremely cold Munich into the beautiful Austrian alps. And of course, the hills were very much alive. Three of us in the group were also trying our hand at this whole ‘working on the go’ thing, which is difficult to do with a less than reliable internet connection, but also when you’ve got views distracting you out the train window.
We arrived in Innsbruck into the first sun we’d seen on the trip, and the stopwatch started. Before our train out (in around 5 hours), we wanted to get up the mountain and back. None of us had been to Innsbruck before, so even though we were very underdressed for the snow (some of us more than others, looking at Aileen’s snow sandals), we forged on. Luckily, Innsbruck had us covered – we were whisked up the cable car in less than an hour. And we were in for a treat.
Being the only team to touch snow in the race so far has earned us bragging rights, I think!
After a frolic on top of Innsbruck and a lunch from a café with very stressed staff, we did a little JFC merch shoot in the freezing cold. Ah, the things we do for content.
In case you were wondering, we made it out of Innsbruck on time. Haven’t missed a train yet (let's hope I didn't jusy jinx us…). From there, we shot across to the southern border of Austria and stayed the night in a small town called Villach. Beautiful town, last-minute accommodation for 4 people, not so much. The joys of Interrailling keep on giving! Would 100% recommend the Greek restaurant in town, though. Their Akropolis platter was demolished by the group.
The night was capped off by a delirious laughing session which was started when a €10 note was left on the shoe rack. Some things are better left unexplained.
Onto Slovenia next!
Loose Units: Agent 17 has a duty, and it is this.
We ended up in bed so at 2 am in Budapest so we woke up around 10 am. We hustled our stuff together and walked to a nearby cafe where we worked from 11 am to 3:30 pm Budapest time. We have day jobs after all!
The cafe was lovely – hipster and chic but also their wifi went out every hour and you had to go back up and ask for a code. Not lovely. We dropped our stuff off back at the hostel/hotel (with a private room so who knows) and went to explore Budapest. Finally, we were tourists after two long days of doing virtually nothing but sitting on trains.
We walked around aimlessly, shivering in the cold & rainy August weather of Budapest, popping into a pizza place for a small lunch and finding the large basilica in the center of the city where we took a group photo. Fran took us for gelato, as a resident Italian, and we crossed the Chain Bridge over to the Buda side of the city where we continued to explore and get some cute pictures.
We found our way to a rooftop bar/restaurant where everything was too expensive so we ordered just a drink each and sat outside to watch the most beautiful sunset so far this trip. After taking plenty of photos, we went to dinner at a friend-recommended restaurant where Allan had goulash for the first time (pretty good!) and had one of our first real meals of the trip – train free-loading excluded.
We almost missed out bus back to the area of our hotel because we were at the wrong stop. But we made it! We then tried to go to the most famous ruin bar in Budapest only to see the longest line for a Monday night you could ever imagine so we went and chilled in another bar a few meters away where the drinks were lovely even if the crowds were too lively.
After a day full of working and exploring, we went back to the hotel, ready for bed, and eager to get back on the road tomorrow.
Over and out
Tuesday, August 8th, 2023
LARK: Today is the day I, Richard, became a fruit influencer. The day started like most others on this trip, with the smell of a strong black coffee purchased from a train station bakery. Being Austria, we also had to sample some of the baked goods. Today's treat was a delicious cinnamon roll that looked just like a Yorkshire pudding, but was filled with a sweet cinnamon-y syrup.
Starting our train ride, our plan was to get to lake Bled and get the first swim of our trip. We wound our way through the plains towards the hills and through a long tunnel to Slovenia. We stopped briefly at Jesenice to change trains to Bled. After settling in on our swanky double decker train we spotted the train next to us with the sign "Bled". We had jumped on the wrong train! "Shall we switch?", "Where does this train even go?!", we were comfy and the train headed to Ljubljana, so we stayed put.
Arriving in Ljubljana, we dropped our bags at the lockers, and I rediscovered an old apple hidden away at the bottom of one of the pockets. "That's not the apple from Paris is it?!" I heard from someone in our group. "I should interview you about your plans for the apple" said Katy. "OK, but it's just an apple", I said. I was wrong.
We walked from the station until we reached the river, and a beautiful triple bridge with a dragon. The perfect backdrop for an interview. During my first moments of stardom, I attempted to piece together to story of how the apple had ended up with us. It was purchased on our first day, in Paris, as a futile attempt to counterbalance an assortment of unhealthy snacks. It had since disappeared into the depths of my rucksack. Forgotten, until today.
We determined that the apple was actually my travelling companion and vowed that he (yes "he", he has a name - it's Terry) would be taking the full journey to Istanbul with me. This interview was promptly posted on Instagram by Katy, after which I naively assumed that was the end of that. I was wrong again! 30mins later and I had become something of a fruit sensation and we're getting messages asking for regular updates on the apple situation.
Our tour around Ljubljana was the perfect place to kick-start this fruit saga. We stopped for ice-cream next to the beautiful triple bridge and then hiked to the castle on top of the hill to get a better view of the city. On the way, stopping at the market square to explore the delights of a self-service milk vending machine. At the top of the castle's tower, overlooking the city below, I recorded another apple video. This time, a beautiful view, panning to the apple. This established the format for my fruit influencing content: unexpected apple.
We wandered through the beautiful streets and sampled the local alcohol, a fantastic blueberry "Borovnic" liquer. Of course, I had to purchase a small bottle for our train to Zagreb later that evening.
We ended our tour in a rooftop bar overlooking the castle, the cocktails providing the perfect backdrop for another surprise apple photo.
We had a 6:37pm train to Zagreb and were looking for some dinner, so we thought we'd risk train station food. I approached a small Asian restaurant called Tasty Corner which looked shut. I was greeted by their lovely staff who set up a table on the platform. What followed can only be described as one of the best Asian meals of my life! Maybe I've overlooked train station culinary experiences. Between us we had: fresh gyoza, spring rolls, chicken udon noodles, pad Thai, and tofu fried rice.
On the train to Zagreb we checked the plans for the remainder of our trip, our night train to split and the beach. "How are we going to get from Split to Belgrade?", "well..." said Katy. Nothing good ever started with "well...". The plan was to cross into Bosnia on the night bus, followed by buses all day. We promptly changed plans to a night bus directly from Zagreb to Belgrade and settled in for a night of broken sleep.
Loose Units: We woke up with a clear plan in our minds: working until lunch, and then heading out for a lunch in (finally!) sunny Budapest.
After working for a few hours in the coworking part of the hostel, we headed to an outdoor food market that we noticed the previous night next to the ruins bar.
We had one mission: to see the baths, maybe take a quick dip, and head for our bus to Belgrade.
Lunch was lovely, Fran and Lauren had a prawn(less) pad thai, and Allan had a typical hungarian langos with spicy sour cream and salami on top.
With our bellies filled, we made our way to the underground station. Before we knew it, the train arrived, but we couldn’t find the ticket machine and just optimistically hopped on the train - it’s just a few stops, anyway.
All was good until we reached the penultimate stop. The doors suddently opened, and some tall, angry hungarian faces stepped on the train screaming ‘tickets!’.
Our heart stopped, we knew we were in trouble. Fran pleaded ignorance, trying all of her best tricks. But for the first time in the trip, it didn’t work - he was immune.
We got off at the following station, and the police man demanded we paid a hefty fine, on the spot. He quickly confiscated our IDs and pressured us to run to the closest ATM to pay in cash - were we being scammed? Are these even real police men?
The intimidation worked and we made our way up the stairs, until the police man screamed ‘ONLY ONE PERSON. TWO STAY’. Allan ran up the stairs and Lauren and Fran were forced to stay, with their back(pack)s against the wall.
As Allan made it up the stairs, he veered to the left, and the man screamed ‘I said, go straight!’. He had a clear ATM in mind.
We waited around five minutes for Allan to come back and scream "#%*^ you! Great business model you have here" at the man, still hurt by the awful conversion rate he was forced to accept. He thrust the exact amount of money into the man’s hand and retreived our IDs. "Let’s go, we have nothing more to do here," he whispered to us.
With a heavier heart and a lighter wallet, we arrived in front of the baths just to realise they were not visible to the public, and the entry fee was the same as the fine we just paid. Mission failed.
We arrived at the bus station and felt happy to leave Budapest, onto new horizons in Serbia.
The bus only took 5 hours instead of 6, thanks to a very efficient border control lady. Passports were stamped, and we were on route to Belgrade.
We finished the night with a couple of white russians and ‘sex with the bartender’ (a cocktail!) under our hostel, and fell asleep thinking about the cute hedgehog we saw on the way.
Wednesday, August 9th, 2023
LARK: Hello, it's Larissa! Not sure Richard mentioned in our previous day’s recap, but getting into Belgrade was a little more stressful than he let on. After we arrived at 4am, we decided none of us would be worth having around if we didn’t at least try to get some sleep in.
Katy hatched a plan that sounded brilliant at the time - we had already found a hotel within a short walk from the station that had rooms available for that night. We would sleep and shower, and, after check out, leave our bags for us to retrieve them after a morning in Belgrade.
Of course, until that hotel turned us away. Yep, apparently it was the hotel’s policy to not check in anyone after 10pm, even if they had rooms free and very sleepy paying customers. We were so numb with fatigue by this point that we just stared blindly at the man behind the counter. Katy did pipe up after a few seconds to ask him where he recommended we go. He very unhelpfully answered that we should try hostels nearby who may not have this rule.
So, back out into the night we went. We had mapped the route to a few hostels within a 10-minute radius but found them all closed. Richard at one point started joking (but becoming more serious by the second) that the loungers in the park could double as a bed for a few hours.
And then, we saw it. Like a vision. A dream: City Hotel Belgrade. Something drew us to the hotel’s door, and Katy went in to try her luck. The rest of us stayed at the door, fully expecting to be rejected like the last hotel. Katy stuck her head out the door after a few minutes and said: “Two twin rooms, €50 each. Get in here.”
We were whisked into our rooms, extremely happy. Thank you, nameless saviour at the reception desk. You saved our trip.
Once we rose at check-out time (only Richard made it down for complimentary breakfast at 10am), we cleared the Belgrade checkpoint by taking a rubbing of Nikola Tesla’s head (to varying degrees of success). Not before indulging in one of the most delicious bagels I’ve ever had in my life. And an iced Nutella latte that soothed my soul. So, if you’re in Belgrade, definitely drop in for a treat (and free wifi).
Now, onto Sofia! The 2:30pm bus from Belgrade (one of very few for the day) was full of Racers - I think we counted 24 in total. The bus station was a little weird - you had to pay for a token to enter the ‘platform’ where the buses were. And you had to pay in cash. Not ideal to get money out of the ATM when you’re about to leave the country. About 10 minutes before departure, The Loose Units rocked up and completed our little Lupine/JFC troupe.
A border crossing in the dark later, we arrived back in the EU and Bulgaria.
There’s something you need to know for context at this point. The easiest way to get to Istanbul from Plovdiv (where we were heading next) was to catch the night train. But the tickets for that train are only sold in person at the train station. So, as soon as we rolled into Sofia after 10pm, Katy and Allan made the mad dash to the ticket office for their respective teams. Unfortunately for us, the attendant wouldn’t help - we had to come back at 6:30am to try our luck.
Oh, before I sign off - we stayed in a really cool capsule hostel. As Katy said “it’s like sleeping in an alien’s womb.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Loose Units: Agent 79 and 131 reporting
After a restful night on a rock hard bed, and a refreshing shower (with cigarette smell curtesy of our neighbour), we left the hostel for a Serbian 20th century history walking tour.
The sun was out, the sky was blue, and we could finally wear shorts. The mood was high!
We met a yellow umbrella wielding tour guide in the Republic Square. As the tour started, we quickly got a vibe that was not for us, we couldn’t hold three hours of dry Serbian history talk. After a few ‘tea-toe’ (Tito) facts, and a few JFC stickers handouts, we said goodbye to our guy - Novi.
We made our way to the Tesla Museum (not the car, the Nikola) to tick off the 4th check point. After some awfully scribbled rubbings, we headed to lunch at Mortar, a local restaurant reccommended by our hostel.
A schnitzel, risotto and awkward tip moment later, we picked up our backpacks and made a bee-line towards the bus station.
After a smooth 6 hour bus ride - where we bumped into team LARK - we finally made it to Sofia’s main station.
We braved the spooky metro station, and went straight under our duvets and called it a night.
Thursday, August 10th, 2023
LARK: Larissa again! It really feels like we’re on the home stretch now. Only 1 more city to hit before we head to our final destination.
First off, I’ll put you out of our misery—the night train to Istanbul was fully-booked. Thanks again for getting up at 6am to try, Richard.
So instead we booked spots on a bus leaving the following afternoon. That meant a whole day to get to Plovdiv, which is only about 3 hours’ by train down the road. Felt like luxury to have a bit of time.
We walked to one of the only breakfast spots in Sofia, and about 20 minutes after we sat down, who walked in but the Loose Units! Spoiler alert: our two teams are pretty much now travelling buddies until Istanbul.
After a spot of sightseeing, including frolicking about in some ancient ruins and going into the Cathedral (with a very strict man who seemed to be telling people off if they even looked at the art the wrong way), we headed to the train station.
When we got there, there was something weird about the departures board. Our train was not only scheduled early, but was sharing the platform with two other trains. This made for a very high-stakes game of eeny, meeny, miny, mo. Luckily, we had the Loose Units to help us, as they’d arrived earlier. After telling us it was the red train (didn’t help), Allan came out onto the platform to help rescue us. We then found a free cabin to settle in for the ride to Plovdiv.
The Bulgarian train experience was uneventful, mostly. Except for getting kicked out of the ‘first class cabin’. The only difference being red seats instead of blue. Oh, and the mirror wasn’t cracked.
We de-trained at Plovdiv train station and trekked it to our hotel. Thanks to Katy’s Genius status on Booking.com, we bagged a couple of super cheap twin rooms right in the heart of the city. Unfortunately for us, the heart of the city is pretty far from the train station. So, off we went with our bags, trundling down the road.
The Loose Units had very kindly made a dinner reservation for all of us, so we settled in at Hemingway restaurant. Over an Aperol Spritz or two, we thought karaoke sounded like a great idea. Fast forward a couple of hours to our two teams singing our hearts out in front of a room of Bulgarian strangers. The footage will never be shared, don’t ask.
All in all, it was a really fun night, made even better by our teams meeting up and sharing our trials and tribulations.
Loose Units: Agent 17 Reporting today
Good morning from Sofia! After waking up in our hotel room and realizing check out wasn’t until noon, we decided to work from bed, in our PJs for a few hours.
Bad news hit when we realized all the seats on our dream overnight train from Plovdiv to Istanbul were sadly already booked. That would mean another unfortunate 7 hour bus ride was on the horizon…
Nevertheless, we worked from 9:30 right until check out time, when we went out to explore Sofia. Our first stop, brunch at a cute restaurant called Boho, was when we first ran into team LARK again, already halfway through their meals. We ordered our food, exchanged competitive glances with the other team, and refreshed after a hectic few days of travel.
We left the restaurant and explored Sofia for a bit, popping into the beautiful cathedral, trapezing around ruins Fran found disappointing, and once again running into LARK.
We bought some souvenirs, then returned to the hotel to catch our 4:20 train to Plovdiv. Moderate madness ensued when everything was written in Cyrillic (including the platform number) and the train was leaving 5 minutes earlier than expected, but we made the train.
3 cabins, all compartments, in an old Soviet train car. It was pretty sweet, with some stunning views of the Bulgarian countryside included. Fran and Allan napped while Lauren (bless her heart) got some work in LARK’s compartment.
After 3 hours, we arrived in Plovdiv and unwinded for 30 minutes before going to dinner with LARK. A lovely team dinner at Hemingway led to loads of gossip, new food trying, and good vibes all around. It also resulted in talks of gelato, karaoke, and a casino…
We found the only gelato place open at 10:30 in Plovdiv, where Richard and I got ice cream while Fran (sadly) refused. Plovdiv’s pedestrian centre was really nice and, importantly, really lively on this Thursday night.
We went to our next stop: karaoke! This bar (whose name is in Cyrillic otherwise I would shout it out) luckily had a karaoke night on Thursday nights, so we were all set up. We downloaded an app, submitted our songs and waited our turns.
After some locals put up on an impassioned performance of Stan by Eminem and Dido, we each belted our hearts out to our picks. Beautiful Girls, Murder on the Dance Floor, Love Machine, some Lizzo, some Italian classics…
Eventually, we ended up upstairs on the dance floor. It was a bustling Bulgarian night, with plenty of dancing and free flowing refreshments, so the memory is only half there. But a fantastic almost end to a fantastic trip. On to Istanbul soon!
Friday, August 11th, 2023
Loose Units: Agent 79 and 131 Reporting
Our eyes struggled to open as we realised we survived(ish) last night’s shenanigans.
One Loose Unit down, Allan and Fran headed to the 4th check-point of the race, in Plovdiv Old Town.
After being graced by the hostel manager, who argued that we were CLEARLY too late to complete the check-point, we ripped our three pages from Murder on the Orient Express and went for a juicy burger.
We retrieved Lauren from the hotel room and we made our way to the bus station, where we would catch the last bus of the trip: Istanbul, we’re coming for you!
Already feeling comfy and set up for the 6-hour bus ride, the conductor came on and promptly decided to re-arrange everyone with a surprise seating chart. The bus was half empty, but apparently she felt it was necessary we mingled with strangers. At least we were gifted unexpected tiny cakes and water pots!
Some border-checks and passport-stamps later, we pulled in at Istanbul Esenler Otogarı. It was time for a treat, so we hopped on a 40-minute Uber ride to our hotel in Sultanahmet, rather than figure out how to navigate the metro.
At this point, our stomachs had been complaining for a few hours and, luckily, Istanbul's food scene didn’t disappoint: we managed to have our first Turkish kebab at 11pm.
Before heading back to the hotel, Fran had a mission: to navigate the team around Fatih’s dark alleys to reach the prettiest terrace of the city: Mimar Sinan. A few cups of tea and taxi-negotiations later, our heads finally touched the pillow.
Over and out.
Saturday, August 12th, 2023
Agent 79 on duty for the last time...
Sleeping in meant no breakfast allowed this morning!
The team had to run to the Hotel Spectra before 12 not to miss James—the Race Director—for the last checkpoint.
We made it in time and chatted a bit with him, before heading to Sultanahmet Square for some well-deserved sightseeing. This was Allan and Lauren’s first time (and only full day!) in Istanbul, so visiting Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque was non-negotiable.
After queuing for 1 hour under the burning 1pm sun, we made it to the entry gate—just in time for the police to announce prayer time was starting. We would have to wait 1 extra hour before being allowed to enter as tourists.
We sighed but accepted our fate. Unfortunately, others weren't so patient. We started noticing people getting closer to the beginning of the queue, trying to sneak in— Allan was NOT happy with that. He started arguing with some of them, trying to redirect them back to the beginning of the queue.
It didn’t quite work. The police men didn’t care and when the gate suddenly opened, everyone rushed in. Lauren and Allan did love the mosques, though.
By the time we made it out of Sultanahmet Square it was already 4pm. We had planned to spend the night in an Airbnb shared with the other JFC teams, so—after a brief visit to the Grand Bazaar—we made our way to the new accommodation off Istiklal Avenue - Istanbul's busiest shopping street.
After settling in and taking a quick shower, we realised how starving we were and decided to rush to a Georgian restaurant (that team LARK had enjoyed for lunch and recommended to us!) for some khinkali and khachapuri. It had to be quick, since Lupine (the company who had organised the whole race) had planned to celebrate the end of the race on a Bosphorus sunset cruise, leaving at 7pm sharp from Eminönü’s docks.
A stressful taxi ride later, and it turned out we weren't actually late: the two other teams were! So, we sat on some comfy cushions and started a celebratory photoshoot. The two other teams made it to the cruise just in time for us to set off into the sunset.
The night ended with a second visit to our favourite terrace—we just couldn't deny that view to the others!—are some drinks at an Irish Pub: Allan really wanted a Guinness.
Fast-forward to Sunday morning? Just two words: Turkish breakfast <3