Last year we challenged readers of Wanderlust to take an exciting trip on a budget of £250. Here are the results...
Who? Lauren Williams, 22, copywriter
Why? Old Orient route to snow, wolves and peaks
How long? Five nights
Total spend: £240.50
Four hours and 54 games of UNO after leaving Budapest’s Keleti Station, I was tired but comfortable. The train that took us along part of the glorious old Orient Express route was shabby chic: think easyJet-orange baggage shelves, plastic curtains (the type you’d see in Gran’s old caravan) and chairs with worn leathery covers that hadn’t changed since the 1950s.
I spent a few hours on the so-called ‘express’ from Budapest to Brasov in half-conscious sleep. When I awoke, feeling grotty and groggy, I just watched the Romanian countryside roll by.
The word to describe it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing – miles and miles of not much at all. However, the nothing was oddly stunning, oddly more-ish to watch. And I watched for a good few hours, fascinated by the simplicity of the scenery unfolding as we delved deeper into the country. I lost count of how many horses and carts I spotted waiting patiently at level crossings, or how many shepherds and their dogs I saw standing motionless in the middle of nowhere.
On arrival in the Transylvanian metropolis of Brasov, I found my way to my little apartment with the help of a very friendly local. After a quick nap and a shower to wipe off the grime of no-sleep-on-an-old-train, I wrapped up and braved the freezing alpine air.
Brasov’s main thoroughfare was something out of a fairytale, with its red-tiled roofs, cobbled streets and chocolate-box buildings. Smoke poured from the doorways of underground bars and the smell of glühwein wafted temptingly on a cold breeze.
The next day I headed 30 minutes south to Bran to be greeted by two inches of fresh snow underfoot. Wolves howling all around me, I slipped and skidded up the icy hill to Bran Castle (of Dracula fame). After an hour of exploring hidden staircases, passages and imposing towers, a hearty lunch was needed to warm the cockles. However, I stayed well away from a dish called barbaia vampirului (vampire’s manhood) when it was offered...
I missed the train to Sighisoara by about three hours the next morning, so decided to spend the day hopping from bar to church to bar to tower in Brasov instead. I wandered among burnt-orange rooftops dusted with snow, through maze-like alleys sandwiched between higgledy-piggledy rows of houses and beside almost-frozen streams.
After spending that night in an underground Irish bar on Brasov high street, I took the next day easy with plenty of good food and a trip to the top of Mount Tampa, where the winds were high, the snow fresh and the views indescribable.
Time soon crept up on me. I headed back to Brasov station to hop on the train back to Budapest. It was a slight disappointment when the train pulled up – there was nothing old or rustic about it; it more resembled the six-hour choo-choo that runs from Penzance to London, with rows and rows of uncomfortable, itchy seats. Unsurprisingly, sleep eluded me once more.
I wish I’d known... There wouldn’t be enough snow to snowboard.
Getting there: easyJet flies Gatwick and Luton to Budapest (from £89 rtn; 2hrs 20mins). Sleeper train, Budapest-Brasov, costs £15 rtn (buy tickets from Budapest station).
Stay: Florin B&B Apartments, Brasov; four-person apartment from €43.
Who? Alex Mapleson, 25, accountant
Why? Eastern cities are most atmospheric (and cheapest) in winter
How long? Five nights
Total spend: £248
Travelling on night trains through Eastern Europe is quite an experience. Unbearable heat spews from the cabins and foul smells from the toilets but, once settled in your bunk with some Moldovan wine, they take on a new charm.
We started out in Bucharest, a surprisingly grand city. The main street, Calea Victoriei, is flanked by statues, museums and churches, while the medieval Old Quarter is all cobbled streets and craft markets.
However, like the Palace of Parliament, built by Ceauşescu before his execution in 1989, Bucharest lacked depth. The Palace itself is the world’s second-largest office building, after the US Pentagon. However, a tour inside showed it’s mostly an unused white elephant.
One of those memorable trains took us on to Chişinău, Moldova, a city of gridded tree-lined avenues. It lacks tourist sites, but makes up for that with some excellent microbreweries and wine bars.
The undoubted highlight, though, was stop three: Kiev. I loved the Great Patriotic War Museum and theme park of Soviet memorabilia. The whole city was buzzing, and clearly investing a lot of money for Euro 2012. The football fans will be delighted by the abundance of cheap beer; hopefully they’ll take time to explore the city, too.
I wish I’d known... To pack a Cyrillic dictionary, to help read signs.
Who? Karin Visser, 27, trainee social worker
Why? To discover the art and culture of ancient empires
How long? Eight nights
Total spend: £281.55 OVERBUDGET!
Skopje may a capital but it certainly doesn’t feel like one, yet. This Macedonian hub, where old and new are divided by the River Vardar, felt more like a town in the process of upgrading to a city, and not touristy at all.
On this, the first leg of my journey through the Balkans, I strolled through the modern section, south-west of the river, which is filled with boulevards, coffee bars and statues such as the bronze eeffigy of Alexander the Great. I then did the same in the old town, Caršija – a maze of winding streets lined with small shops. It culminates in a marketplace of Eastern European and Oriental influence, which sells everything you need – and everything you don’t.
The bus from Skopje to Sofia climbed through mist-shrouded Macedonia over the beautiful snowy mountains into Bulgaria. Approaching Sofia, Soviet concrete flats lined the road – a gift from the communists who rebuilt the city after it was severely bombed in World War II. It felt like Paris or Berlin in some places; wholly eastern European in others.
I stayed at Canapé Connection, where the very friendly hostel owner pointed me to an excellent restaurant (Ljubimoto – the best of the trip) and the free Sofia tour, which was fascinating. We had a fairly new guide, but that did not detract one bit, and I learned a lot about the city, its history and legends.
The National Archeological Museum and the National Museum of History were also excellent; the various churches and cathedrals suitably impressive. The last day in Sofia it snowed, transforming the city into a Russian fairytale.
The night train to Istanbul was eventful, with the porter’s love of soccer inciting a much welcome delivery of baklava to my carriage. We were delayed at the Turkish border but arrived after 15 hours and, as it was still early, I left my backpack in the hotel and headed out to visit the Topkapi Palace, wander the streets and sample some tasty kebabs.
I was too tired to do much more, but woke early the next morning to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque), the Basilica Cistern and my favourite, the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned museum that is the Hagia Sophia. I also paid the Grand Bazaar a visit, even though it’s a little touristy and overpriced – the Egyptian Spice Market is better for a more authentic experience.
The last day was amazing as I really got into the spirit of haggling and had fun with a shopkeeper, talking him into giving me a pillow cover for free. I was a bit shocked by how much prices had risen in only a few years; needless to say, I was struggling with my budget. Even with not much left to spend on the last day, I still had a nice dinner with great people – the ultimate close to a wonderful trip.
I wish I’d known... To cut costs I would have stayed one more night in Sofia instead of Istanbul.
Getting there: Wizz Air flies Luton-Skopje (from £25; 3hrs). Bus from Skopje to Sofia costs £14 (9hrs 30mins; www.centralnaavtogara.bg). Sleeper train from Sofia to Istanbul costs £17 (12hrs; www.tcdd.gov.tr). easyJet flies Istanbul-Luton (from £36; 3hrs).
Who? Ruth John, 29, civil servant
Why? I love travelling and I love wine
How long? Four days
Total spend: £269.50 OVERBUDGET!
I’m no wine connoisseur, but I’m certainly a fan. So I decided to track down the vineyard that makes my favourite tipple, the Bulgarian Enira red – an alternative kind of pilgrimage.
My first stop was Rila Monastery, high in the Rila Mountains, 120km south of Sofia. The Monastery was founded by a hermit in the tenth century and remains an important Eastern Orthodox site. I tried to get a room but the priest shook his head and signalled that there was a hotel nearby. However, this was meant to be a pilgrimage, so I decided to have a look around, enjoy the lovely church and frescoes – and then try again. A few hours later I think the priest realised the easiest thing would just be to say ‘yes’.
It was great fun being locked in overnight: I got to take photos with nobody else around. After a basic ‘meat and beer’ meal at the restaurant next door, I slept well. Monastic life certainly has its benefits.
Driving on across the mountains, I reached the forest-surrounded spa town of Velingrad. Another 50km north and there was the reason I’d come all the way to Bulgaria: Bessa Valley vineyard, where Enira is produced. The guard at the gates didn’t understand English but a friendly smile got me in. I drove along a track, past rows of vines: wine heaven!
The head oenologist showed me around. Despite being a bit preoccupied (it was the day before harvest), he told me all about wine production and showed me the slick facilities. Then he asked what my favourite Enira wine was. I said the 2007. He nodded, grabbed a glass, filled it from a cask and said smiling, “but I bet you would like to try the new 2008?” You bet I would!
I wish I’d known... The roads are often closed.
Who? Katie Jennings, 33, children’s book editor
Why? For a journey back in time
How long? Three nights
Total spend: £276 OVERBUDGET!
We arrived, exhausted, at the Petra Gate Hotel after a five-hour flight and a six-hour drive in a mini-van. Not much fun if, like my husband, you’re over 6ft tall. Our mission now: to explore the ‘lost city’ in just one day.
By starting out early the next morning, just as the mists were rising, we managed to steal a march on the tour groups. As the sandstone walls of the Siq narrowed around us, there was no chatter of sightseers to warn that around the next bend we would stumble upon Petra’s most legendary monument – the Treasury.
After grabbing glasses of sugary mint tea, we were ready to tackle the 800 steps leading up to the Monastery. I overcame the temptation to hire one of the donkeys that cover the route when I saw a French girl clinging on as her mount made its faltering descent. “It’s scary up and scary down,” she warned me.
High in the hills, the wind whipped around as we searched for a shelter. We tucked into a packed lunch of flatbread, cheese and boiled eggs, and marvelled at the view: the Monastery on one side and the seemingly endless desert on the other.
Visiting mid-November meant that camels outnumbered tourists: we didn’t have to venture far off the main trails to feel alone. At the High Place of Sacrifice, we had only a pipe-playing Bedouin for company. And in nine hours we covered the main sites – perhaps less achievable in summer. One risk is that, in winter, Petra can close due to flooding. Luckily, for us, the rain held off.
I wish I’d known... The visa cost (£18).
Getting there: easyJet flies Gatwick-Amman (from £118; 4hrs 50mins). Amman-Petra tour bus: £22.
Who? Sophie McGrath, 23, writer and copy-editor
Why? Berlin has long been top of my wish list
How long? Four nights
Total spend: £256.38 OVERBUDGET!
Berlin is known for its arty air and historical sites. But I hadn’t banked on its contagious Christmas spirit. I stood under trees strewn with fairylights on Unter den Linden; I passed giant baubles near Alexanderplatz; I even saw Santa on the U-Bahn. But Gendarmenmarkt square stole the show, with its twinkling tents selling festive crafts and sweet treats against a backdrop of cathedrals. It was magical, if financially unwise – I challenge anyone to resist the lure of glühwein and chocolate strawberries, however overpriced.
Another highlight was my night on the Eastern Comfort Hostel Boat on the River Spree. I got lost trying to find it (in the pouring rain). But when I finally arrived, grumpy and bedraggled, I’d been upgraded to a warm, large room overlooking the river. The location was unbeatable: metres away from the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km-long section of the Berlin Wall, covered in art.
One surprise was the cheapness of good food. I ate a fair few baguettes and kebabs, but all were tasty. I also found some bargains: on one street in Kreuzberg, a Vietnamese served huge bowls of noodles for just €6.
Another delight was the number of free and cheap attractions. I got views from the top of the cathedral and the Reichstag, and all the museums I visited were impressive. Another highlight was the free tour of ‘alternative Berlin’, a guide to the street art, squats and artists’ collectives that abound here – definitely worth more than my £5 tip.
The only downside was the weather. It was freezing, and free outdoor sites couldn’t beat warm, pricey, indoors ones. But with good weather, £250 could stretch a week.
I wish I’d known... You have to book in advance to go up the Reichstag Dome.
Getting there: easyJet flies from various UK airports to Berlin (from £41 rtn; 2hrs 30mins).
Who? Nick Ladd, 42, manager
Why? Venice has a reputation for being pricey – I wanted to debunk that myth
How long? Three days
Total spend: £245.50
Venice on a late-November evening, sea mist shrouding the city, was cold. Very cold. Walking down alleys alongside canals, we saw few people; the odd tourist, dragging their wheelie cases over the bridges, clearly wished they’d brought a backpack.
I’d imagined our two-bed apartment would be tiny, but I was pleasantly surprised. It had windows directly onto a canal and, just outside, an accordion player stamped his feet between tunes to keep warm.
The Jewish quarter, Campo Del Getto, was a quiet backwater. Immaculate parents grasped thick hot chocolates in small bars while the kids chased the cats in the square outside. Nearby, the daily traffic of plumbers, carpenters, deliveries and tourist taxis chugged by along the canals.
Nothing quite prepares you for the magnificence of St Mark’s Square and the rows of polished gondolas moored at the water’s edge. One gondolier was doing good business with the help of his mini dachshund – they wore matching stripy jumpers. Raised boardwalks along every main thoroughfare were a reminder of Venice’s precarious state; we had just missed one of the city’s frequent winter floods.
We took a 30-minute train trip to the old university town of Padua. I wanted to see the Giotto frescoes in Scrovegni Chapel, but it was closed. Nonetheless, the Basilica of St Anthony and Palazzo della Ragione were impressive – and oddly quiet.
Back in Venice, we visited the Palazzo Ducale. I have a fascination for old prisons and shivered at the thought of being held in one of the Palace’s tiny cells – cold and dark, yet so close to all that opulence and luxury.
I wish I’d known... To read up on the art and architecture, to better appreciate them.
Getting there: Various airlines fly to Venice (from £46 rtn; 2hrs 50mins; try www.ryanair.com). Venice-Padua train: €12.
Stay: Ciao Venice Guest House; from £32pppn.
Who? Liam Goucher, 25, PhD student
Why? To show you can take an interesting trip without breaking the bank
How long? Four nights
Total spend: £247
Drinking mint tea at Riad Dar Massaï, I thought about how Marrakech felt so vastly different to anywhere in Europe. From the moment I awoke to the early call to prayer, the city was a hive of activity, colour and smells.
My favourite sights – Koutoubia Mosque, Saadian Tombs, El Bahia Palace – are inside the walled Medina. And getting lost among the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, and haggling over everything from spices to teapots, is a must. However, the Djemaa el-Fna is the best place to get your bearings. This sprawling square, packed with traders and donkey carts, really comes to life at night when people flock to eat at the hastily erected food stalls offering an array of quick, traditional and cheap Moroccan food.
From Marrakech, we travelled north by night-train to the historic port of Tangier and crossed the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry.
Gibraltar is a curious place. In some ways it’s stereotypically British, with red phoneboxes and English police officers patrolling a high street of familiar shops. But it’s also hard to miss the influence of neighbouring Spain and North Africa. The highlight is the ‘Rock’, a huge, 427m limestone ridge patrolled by hundreds of free-roaming Barbary macaques (below). The road to the top is narrow, with few barriers; the cablecar is reasonably priced and offers a much less stressful ascent.
I wish I’d known... To cross from Gibraltar to Spain for cheaper food/hotel options.
Stay: Riad Dar Massaï, Marrakech; doubles from €70. Emile Hostel; beds from £17 (+350 2005 1106).
Who? Jennifer Frame, 33, yield manager
Why? You needn’t ‘go further’ to find inspiring travel
How long? Eight nights
Total spend: £254.63
The first leg of my Scottish island-hopping adventure took me to Islay in the Inner Hebrides, to a hostel in an old whisky warehouse in pretty Port Charlotte: peaceful, relaxing – perfect.
On Sundays there is no public transport, so it was a long, bracing hike to the island’s south-west tip. I was sad not to spot seals – and to get drenched walking back. What was I doing here late-September without a car? Thankfully I was offered a lift by some locals and dried out with tea and cake in a café: it was tough to stay on budget in this weather!
Port Ellen’s pretty whitewashed houses and sandy bay were a bus ride away. I hired a bike and cycled quiet roads across the countryside towards the Mull of Oa, a haven for birdlife. It was an uphill slog there, but a freewheeling downhill on the way back.
Whisky is Islay’s major attraction, so I checked out the Laphroaig distillery and joined locals for a wee dram in a cosy bar. In the morning I crossed to Lochranza, on the north tip of Arran. My loch-side hostel was beautifully refurbished and framed by mountains and castle ruins, with red deer and sheep roaming outside.
Hiking Arran’s tallest peak, Goat Fell, was a highlight. Other walks took me to Machrie Moor’s Bronze Age stone circles and King’s Cave, where Robert the Bruce is said to have hidden during his last bid to free Scotland.
Then it was back to Glasgow, a hectic hub after a peaceful week on the islands.
I wish I’d known... I needed an extra day to visit the isle of Jura.
Getting there: Overnight coach London-Glasgow (from £29; www.nationalexpress.com). Citylink bus Glasgow-Kennacraig port (£18 rtn). ‘Hopscotch’ ferry ticket, valid between mainland, Arran and Islay (from £28.25; www.calmac.co.uk).
Stay: Port Charlotte SYHA, Islay; beds from £17. Lochranza SYHA, Arran; twins from £47.50 (both www.syha.org.uk).
Who? Sandy Hodges, 35, business development manager
Why? Unique culture and great food
How long? Three nights
Total spend: £276 OVERBUDGET!
Few cities so accessible from the UK on a low budget offer as much exoticism as Istanbul. I’d been before and, after a night in a cheap hotel, decided to repeat what I’d enjoyed most last time: the Hagia Sophia; the Blue and Süleymaniye mosques; browsing the Grand Bazaar; gazing across the Golden Horn; watching the build-up to Friday prayers.
I had a train to catch later in the day, so I grabbed an early dinner: an Iskender kebab. The thinly cut lamb served on pitta bread, with yoghurt, tomato sauce and melted butter is one of the country’s most famous dishes.
I crossed the Bosphorus for Haydarpasa terminal – the gateway to Asia overland. I was headed for Konya, Central Anatolia, a city known for its Seljuk architecture and the tomb of Sufi mystic Rumi. Rumi’s beliefs – that music, poetry and dance can be used as a path to reach God – live on in the Mevlevi Order, or the Whirling Dervishes.
Every December, the Whirling Dervish Festival takes place in Konya. I joined the crowds at the Mevlâna Museum to see the tomb of Rumi and to learn more about Sufism. I then joined 3,000 people watching a show of music and singing, followed by the dance of the dervishes.
After the performance, I explored the city, ate a Konya kebab and reflected on the show. But time was limited: I had a train to catch.
Once back in Haydarpasa, I had one last morning in Istanbul. Wandering around the markets being set up on both the Asian and European sides was an excellent way to spend the morning. And lunch – a spicy kebab – from a restaurant with views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus was a great way to end my short stay in Turkey.
I wish I’d known... Trains from Istanbul were so cheap – I’d have done this years ago.
Getting there: Various airlines fly to Istanbul; returns from £115; flight time 3hrs. Sleeper train to Konya costs from £30 rtn.
Stay: Hurriyet Hotel, Istanbul; singles from €25.
Who? Gavin Fernandes, 42, self-employed
Why? To visit this isle out of season, for cliff walks and pretty bays
How long? Five nights
Total spend: £195
Rabbit burger: €7.95. Sounded interesting. I’ve always had a desire (or obsession, even) for trying a nation’s delicacies.
I’d just arrived in Valletta, Malta’s capital, and was strolling the bustling streets within the city’s ramparts, past ornate churches and palaces, restaurants and modern shopfronts.
Outside the city gate, buses congregated around the Triton Fountain, as they have done for years. But these were not the colourful old classics, loved by many. Those vintage Bedfords were replaced last July by Arriva’s modern fleet, including a number of articulated ‘bendy buses’ that, until recently, meandered the streets of London.
Travel icon or not, the Malta bus was my transport of choice for the duration of my stay. I bought a seven-day pass for a very reasonable €12.
My first trip was out to the picturesque fishing village of Marsaskala for an afternoon photographing small, brightly painted boats in front of the imposing 17th century St Thomas’ Tower. It was a pleasantly quiet little place with a handful of small bars and restaurants around the harbour. Returning by a different route, I paid a visit to the medieval walled town of Mdina, the former Maltese capital, for a wander through its narrow streets.
Changing buses at Marsa on Saturday afternoon, I discovered the Sports Club and a horse-racing meeting in full swing – only here the jockeys were being pulled along at speed on two-wheeled chariots rather than riding on the horses’ backs.
At the Sunday morning market at Marsaxlokk, I walked around the bay, passing lace and linen fluttering in the breeze and freshly caught fish and octopuses squirming in shallow trays of water, awaiting their fate on a plate. As it got to lunchtime, few seats were to be found in the local seafood restaurants.
Taking the coastal road to the ferry port, the scenery became a lot more desolate and rugged as we ventured further from the larger towns. It was a taste of what was to come on Gozo, the more rural sister island to Malta’s mainland.
The ferry took less than half an hour to reach Gozo, passing the tiny isle of Comino on the way. Summertime sees boatloads of swimmers and snorkellers come to dive in the warm waters of its Blue Lagoon, but today Comino’s waters looked rather cold and grey.
From the port I took a bus to the Gozitan capital, Victoria, and waited for a connection to Ta’ Cenc, the island’s highest point. I followed the path up onto the clifftop and continued walking back along the coast, 150m above the crashing waves.
The view of the Comino cliffs in the distance, with Malta’s late afternoon sun on the horizon, was literally breathtaking as I clambered over the rocky landscape in the blustering wind.
I made it down to port for the last ferry before dark, and was soon back in Valletta, ready to sample a few well-deserved Hopleaf ales from the local Farsons Brewery. And the rabbit? It tasted a bit like snake.
I wish I’d known... The winter climate can bring sun hot enough to burn but also heavy rain and a cold wind – I got the full range in my five days.
Getting there: Various carriers fly to Malta, (from £50 rtn; 3hrs 20mins). The ferry from Gozo to Malta costs €4.65 return (www.gozochannel.com).
Stay: Balco Harmony Hostel, Sliema; beds from €8.95.
Who? Sandra Moody, 60, retired
Why? To take an unusual journey to a remote place, in the UK
How long? Four nights
Total spend: £239.41
Perhaps most famous for shipping forecasts ad specialising in knitting, tiny Fair Isle – the UK's remotest inhabited island – is a mere dot on the map between Orkney and Shetland. Access is by mailboat or eight-seater plane from Lerwisk, on Shetland – but the weather regularly disrupts both. This unpredictability makes the journey as much of an experience as the arrival. Which was part of the attraction.
I arrived in Lerwick to find the mailboat had sailed early to avoid bad weather; my earliest means of getting to Fair Isle would be by air the next morning. Could I fly within budget? It turned out I could. However, again the weather muscled in: strong winds grounded all flights. I was so near yet so far!
Fortunately, after several hours, the winds eased and my patience was rewarded with fine aerial views of Fair Isle before we landed on the airstrip, freshly cleared of sheep.
On hearing about my £250 challenge, my hosts at the South Lighthouse B&B helped me plan how to pack everything into one night now rather than two. I climbed Malcolm’s Head for a magnificent 360° view and walked round the island’s south, where the majority of the 70-odd residents live.
My hosts had invited friends from the Bird Observatory for dinner, so as well as a great meal there was a night of lively conversation followed by an observatory tour.
After an early breakfast by torchlight (Fair Isle’s electricity is turned off overnight), my host drove me to the harbour to catch the 6am mailboat. It pitched and rolled all the way back to Lerwick – just another part of this great journey.
I wish I’d known... To research internet access points for when plans had to be altered.
Stay: South Lighthouse B&B; full board from £45pp.
Who? Lu-Hai Liang, 22, student
Why? I wanted strong sunshine and fresh air to beat the January blues.
How long? Seven days
Total spend: £267.68 OVERBUDGET!
Right off the plane I could feel the stronger sun. The air was fresh and yellow rock-roses bloomed like spring. Though nights were cold, Cyprus hit 18°C during my winter stay.
I stayed in Paphos, in the south-west (a good base for exploration), and saved money by couchsurfing with a young English/Lithuanian couple. Food and drink temptations account for my overspend!
Paphos’s ancient sights include Unescolisted Roman mosaics and the engrossing Tombs of the Kings, where I poked around underground chambers and secret rooms.
The capital, Nicosia, is divided between Turkey and Greece by a barrier, sometimes called ‘Berlin Wall Two’. It was a lively place, with a hint of danger – I saw bullet holes and scarred pillboxes. However, an elegant Byzantine church seemed to pop up on every corner. And Ledra Street, the main thoroughfare, offered gorgeous kebabs and frappés. Going into the Turkish part of the city, where shops and dress became Arabic, was like walking into a different world.
One day I joined a tour of the Troodos Mountains. We wandered sunny villages, tasted local wines, viewed vibrant frescoes at Kykkos Monastery and took in the views from 1,952m Mt Olympus, Cyprus’s highest point.
In Akamas, a wilderness area with quiet beaches and a loggerhead turtle sanctuary, I bounced over rocks, roots and cliff roads on a mountain bike.
Finally, I walked along the Paphos coast. To my right were Roman ruins, to my left the sea. Storm clouds rolled in, but then the sun burst through. I felt utterly alive.
I wish I’d known... That inter-city travel was so easy: I would love to visit Famagusta.
Getting there: easyJet flies from various UK airports to Paphos (from £97 rtn; 4hrs 20mins).
Stay: Check out www.couchsurfing.org.
I began my Irish adventure with an evening walk through Killarney National Park. The edge of Lough Leane gave sweeping views of the mountains and, as I navigated the forest track, I found myself surrounded on all sides by wild herds of red deer. A good start.
The following morning I headed south on foot towards Muckross Abbey, a spectacular ruin with many rooms to explore. Heading east, I continued to the deserted forests of the park’s Blue Pool area. And I finished that night back in Killarney, with traditional Irish music at O’Connors pub.
The bus to Cahersiveen, a town on the Ring of Kerry circuit, was interesting: at times the road clung to near-vertical hillsides that dropped away to sea. On arrival, I walked along the waterfront to the ivy-clad ruins of Ballycarbery Castle, severely damaged by Cromwell’s forces in 1652, and the two ancient stone ring forts.
The main aim of my trip was to visit Skellig Michael, a former monastic island located 15km offshore. However, adverse weather conditions dashed my plans. Bitterly disappointed, but with a few days to spare, I hopped on the ferry to Valentia Island. A day’s walk through Glanleam woods to The Grotto, a huge cavern left over from slate mining, gave incredible views.
On my final day I battled near gale-force winds to cycle 16km from Cahersiveen to Portmagee, hoping for a view across to Skellig Michael. Although I couldn’t make out the island’s jagged silhouette, the ocean was dramatic, high waves crashing onto the shore. Not what I’d hoped for – but the Irish weather obviously had its own plans for me.
I wish I’d known... The weather forecast.
Getting there: Ryanair flies from Luton and Stansted to Kerry (from £43; 1hr 30mins).
Who? Nathan Bates, 21, student
Why? Nothing beats clean mountain water and fresh air
How long? Four nights
Total spend: £220
Southern Poland has much to attract travellers, including two gems: one firmly on the tourist trail and one very much off. The former is Kraków, which I explored on the first morning, wandering the elegant streets towards Wawel Hill, the ancient political centre of Poland, with its grand cathedral and Italian-style courtyard.
Then, travelling via the hugely thought-provoking Auschwitz concentration camp, its grim past in stark contrast to the warm autumnal sun, I arrived at the latter gem: the High Tatras mountains. The odd mix of tradition and tourism in Zakopane was intriguing, but the mountains themselves were everything I could have hoped for: compact and spectacular; fresh and invigorating; utterly beautiful.
Going in early November was perhaps slightly too late for ideal hiking, as the high ground already had some snow. The upside was that the white coating made the peaks look quite formidable. Taking the cable-car up Kasprowy Wierch (1,987m) gave me a fantastic (downhill) hike past alpine lakes. Murowaniec mountain hut was packed with Poles enjoying meals.
A longer hike took me through the forested Dolina Bystrej Valley, then up to the peak of Sarnia Skala (1,377m) for sweeping views back to the town on one side, to even larger peaks on the other. After a long lunch, I returned to Zakopane via the peaceful Strazyska Valley. The trails were well marked and generally a pleasure. In fact, navigating the mountains was much easier than finding my way onto a Zakopane-bound bus in Kraków station!
I wish I’d known... A basic grasp of Polish would have helped considerably.
Who? Sam Shead, 22, journalist
Why? To explore Stockholm’s thousands of islands on the cheap
How long? Five nights
Total spend: £478.98 OVERBUDGET!
Having secured a dirt-cheap seat with Ryanair, I was feeling optimistic about keeping under budget, despite what I had heard about Sweden’s extortionate prices. We arrived on Utö, an island in the Stockholm archipelago, at 4pm and hired a single and a double kayak for three days, plus sleeping bags and mats. I’d picked up a tent on the way – from a local supermarket’s reduced aisle – so we were set.
The next day we loaded up our kayaks and launched, with difficulty, off a jetty. We were planning to kayak around Utö, via several uninhabited isles. However, as we paddled towards Ålö, the weather deteriorated. My spirits briefly lifted when we emerged through reeds to find an inquisitive beaver, metres from our kayaks. But, with the sky darkening and sea roughening, we decided to stop on Ålö, to seek refuge from the storm in our super-saver tent...
Aaah, slight hiccup – I had been sold only half the tent. The inside mesh was there; the somewhat essential waterproof outer was not. We pitched what was essentially a mosquito net underneath a pine tree but it wasn’t enough. By midnight we were lying in an inch of water and shivering violently. Stranded on a remote island in the midst of what we later found out was a Category 7 storm, I called the international emergency number. I was put through to the Swedish Coast Guard; they came to our rescue and dropped us at the hostel where we’d spent the night before; embarrassed, I waved goodbye to the coastguard – and my budget...
I wish I’d known... I was buying half a tent.
Stay: Vandrarhemmet Skärgården hostel, Uto; beds from £33.
Who? Eleanor Ross, 22, student
Why? Israel is thought unsafe and unwelcoming. I wanted to see for myself.
How long? Three nights
Total spend: £233.57
Three girls stood in front of me, buying hot chocolate; each had a machine gun. I ordered an espresso to go and fled back to Jerusalem’s Old Town, where the most military markings were bullet holes from 1967s Six Day War. For tourists, Israel has everything: access to the Dead Sea, a beautiful coast, desert, mountains, famous sights. It just has a bit of political baggage too.
After a night in Tel Aviv, I’d bussed 60km south to Jerusalem, looking out for the golden Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third-holiest site, as we wound along the cliff roads. The city’s thick walls rose above the stone walkways, rubbed smooth by pilgrims en route to the Western Wall. Here, bits of paper, scribbled with prayers, were tucked into the cracks.
The Dead Sea is a great day trip from Jerusalem, and budget travellers should alight at the public beach. Complete with palm trees, rugged desert and clear water, it’s a great place for the Dead Sea ‘experience’. I also soaked in religion – seeing ‘Rachel’s Tomb’ or ‘Sea of Galilee’ on the road signs was thrilling. For some, all this significance is too much: each year a few tourists are hospitalised with a psychosis called ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’.
Do visit Israel – and cast aside any preconceptions. The West Bank barrier divides communities in two in an attempt to stem fighting, and it’s a common assumption that Jews and Muslims live segregated lives, constantly embroiled in internal conflict.
But... “Tell your people we love each other,” laughed one Jewish woman, hugging her Muslim friend. “Most of us long for peace.”
I wish I’d known... How expensive food is.
Stay: Florentine Hostel, Tel Aviv; beds from £13. Citadel Hostel, Jerusalem; beds from £9 (+972 262852 53).
Who? Sasha Wood, 30, journalist
Why? Curiosity about a country long cut off from the world.
How long? Five nights
Total spend: £248
For most, Albania is a blank on the map, in part due to its isolation under a communist regime that ended in 1992. But that only piqued my curiosity. Flights to capital Tirana would have bust my budget, so I flew to nearby Corfu and entered by the backdoor. Sailing into the Albanian port of Saranda, it seemed like a Spanish Costa in miniature: concrete blocks around a bay. But the seafront facade is just that. Head away from the main strip and tatty markets squeeze into the gaps created by poor urban planning.
Poverty is evident. Despite being almost winter, every day felt like spring. However, it got dark at 5pm, which caught me out a few times. This was especially spooky in Butrint National Park, where I had to find my way back past ghostly Greek and Roman ruins in the near-pitch. Bus rides through the mountains were also hairy. On my way to UNESCO-listed Gjirokastra, the van sped along a winding single-lane road. I tried to focus on the view, reminiscent of the Lake District’s fells.
Gjirokastra – the ‘town of 1,000 steps’ – is all slate-roofed Ottoman houses piling down steep cobbled streets. I spent hours exploring the fortress, where rulers have been leaving their mark since the sixth century.
I saw few tourists, but on the boat back to Greece I met an Albanian who’d once worked in Windsor, Wanderlust’s hometown. It really is a small world. And Albania is no exception.
I wish I’d known... It gets chilly at night.
Who? Keith Ruffles, 29, customer service assistant
Why? To find out if it's like the USSR used to be
How long? Five nights
Total spend? £216
I’d once heard about a place where statues of Lenin still line the streets; a place notorious for weapons (and people) smuggling; a place rarely visited by outsiders. That place? Trans-Dniestr, an unrecognised breakaway state between Moldova and Ukraine.
Getting there on a budget took a bit of planning: I took a cheap flight to Bucharest, then an overnight bus to Chisinau in neighbouring Moldova. After a night there, I caught a shared taxi to Tiraspol, the capital of Trans-Dniestr. I’d heard stories about people being refused entry at the border or being shaken down for bribes, but nothing untoward happened; my passport was checked and I was issued with an entry card.
Once safely in Tiraspol I had a couple of hours checking out the sights, souvenir-hunting and taking photos. It was absolutely fascinating, with plenty of Soviet memorials of the sort that have long been torn down in other parts of the former USSR. I changed some money into Trans-Dniestr roubles – a currency that can’t be exchanged anywhere else – before heading to a rented apartment.
Later that afternoon I met up with Mila Selezneva, a trainee journalist with Dnestr TV; she had read about my trip on my blog and was keen to talk about life in the UK. That evening Mila and her friend Aleksei took me out for a traditional Russian meal and a shot of the local vodka, and they joined me for lunch again the next day.
After shaking hands and exchanging gifts I boarded a bus back to Moldova for the rest of my trip, safe in the knowledge that I’d made two very good friends.
I wish I’d known... To check my 24-hour entry card: I was two hours late leaving, and had to pay a £10 bribe to re-enter Moldova…
Getting there: Blue Air flies Luton-Bucharest (from £126 rtn; 3hrs 30mins). Bucharest-Chisinau (Moldova) by coach costs £27; taxis/buses connect to Tiraspol.
Stay: Marisha arranges beds and homestays; from £12.50.