site.btaDiscover Europe by Train: Two Bulgarian Stories
When you explore Europe by train, you have the chance to step out of your comfort zone, immerse yourself in the everyday atmosphere of a foreign country and in the spirit of cities that are not alike, gain a different perspective and learn important lessons about communication. Traveling is easy and comfortable, everyone gets different things out of the experience, but the common thread is that you always come out more inspired. This has been the experience, in a nutshell, of two young Bulgarian men who won a pass to travel in Europe by train within the European Commission's DiscoverEU campaign.
Nikolay Dimitrov told BTA that he joined the campaign in late 2021 - early 2022. He started his journey from the Netherlands after a concert in Germany, where he played as part of the Schleswig-Holstein Orchestra. Through DiscoverEU, he visited various cities in Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy. "The trip was quite energizing and inspiring," he told BTA.
Alexander Gekov applied for a DiscoverEU pass in the winter of 2018. He mainly travelled around the Netherlands, Germany and France, visiting a number of cities, including Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris and Cologne. Gekov said that from DiscoverEU he learned to fend for himself first and foremost. "Another lesson has to do with communicating with others, especially when you can't manage on your own, have to ask someone, meet strangers, ask for help," he added.
Being the lucky one
Nikolay Dimitrov joined DiscoverEU in late 2021 - early 2022. "I was 20 years old then and I was lucky to be able to apply," Dimitrov said. The campaign was more special as the age limit to apply had changed due to the coronavirus - it was for applicants aged 18 to 20, whereas it was usually only for 18-year-olds. The EC made an exception so that those who missed their chance due to the pandemic could explore more of Europe and see more of its cultural diversity.
Nikolay started his journey in the Netherlands and travelled to cities in Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy.
Alexander applied for a DiscoverEU pass in the winter of 2018. More people applied than the spots for participants and in March he found out that he was not approved. But then he received an email saying he was close enough to the approved applicants and had a chance for a spot , if somebody decided not to travel. In May, he was notificed that there was a spot on the programme for him as well.
Alexander travelled in late August and September. "I had already come to the Netherlands as a student and there wasn't an option where I could do a bigger tour, so I was doing short trips to nearby destinations," he explained.
Off the beaten track
"I did a lot of things, tried traditional food, went to museums, but for me the more interesting thing was to go to a city without a plan, to reach hidden places, not the central parts where everybody goes," Nikolay said. "This way I get away from the touristy things and immerse myself in the everyday atmosphere of the city, the parts that are far from the glamorous, that are more ordinary and that local residents get to experience every day."
Alexander chose cities he had never visited before, and also where he had friends so he could stayed with them overnight. "I mainly explored the cities and walked a lot," he said. On his 19th birthday, he was in Paris. "I got on the train and only paid a fee to book a seat," he remembers. He spent the whole night and part of the next day walking around Paris. "I think I walked about 40 kilometers then."
Leaving one's comfort zone
"First of all, travelling is useful in that you get to meet other cultures and to some extent you leave your comfort zone and the familiar environment," Nikolay said. He is aware that it varies from person to person what one gets out of the whole experience, "but when you meet other people, see a different way of life, different architecture, you are more or less inspired and think about where you stand".
"It's possible that if you're looking for a place to study, a trip like this could open your eyes to where you feel comfortable and where you feel at home in terms of mindset, cuisine, atmosphere," he also said. He said the main gains from the trip for him were getting inspired and being exposed to different viewpoints.
"For me, the trip was more for leisure purposes: I used it as a reward for the hard work throughout the year," Nikolay said. As a musician he gets to travel a lot, perform in different places. "For me, the journey was quite energizing and inspiring," he concluded.
One of the things that impressed Alexander during his travels is how easy and convenient it is to go to the train station and travel by train. "You don't have to plan much to go somewhere," he told BTA. "The infrastructure and trains are modern and travel is fast."
From this trip, Alexander learned to get around on his own, "especially in the context of for 18-year-olds who may not have travelled outside their own country on their own, no parents with them to help, and having to figure out lots of things alone: luggage, tickets, administrative issues". He also learned a lot about communication with others. "Very often you will not be able to find your way around, you will have to ask people, get to know strangers and they will help you," he added. He also experienced quite a bit of a culture shock because everything is different from country to country.
Nicholay's advice for future DiscoverEU travellers is to travel light. "Also, it is important to have enough time for transfer between trains. Not to make too detailed and strict plans, but let the experience surprise you."
Alexander urges young people not to be afraid to apply, and not to shy away from travelling. "There can always be something unforeseen that can make plans difficult, but it is much more satisfying afterwards when a problem is solved." "Also, they will broaden their world view, see what the situation is like in other countries and can draw personal conclusions for the future whether they want to develop in Bulgaria or abroad, Gekov added.
DiscoverEU gives 18-year-olds the chance to travel by train for free across Europe to get to know other cultures and their peers, and explore their European identity. The Commission launched DiscoverEU in June 2018 and the initiative has been formally integrated into the new Erasmus+ programme for the period 2021-2027.
On March15, the EC published the spring call for applications for DiscoverEU, which will give 35,000 young people a free train pass to explore Europe. The deadline to apply 29 March 29. Successful applicants will be able to travel in Europe for up to 30 days between June 15, 2023 and September 30, 2024.
The campaign is open to nationals or legal residents of an EU Member State or an Erasmus+ associated country: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, the Republic of North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkiye, born between July 2004 and June 2005 inclusive.
Applicants take part in a quiz with questions about the EU. Selection is made by nationality and/or country of residence according to the number of travel passes allocated to each country. The quotas are based on the proportion of the population relative to that of the EU. For Bulgaria it is 1.39%.
Almost 916,000 people from all EU Member States have applied for the 212,700 available travel passes since 2018, the EC said. According to the latest results of a post-travel survey, 72% of applicants said they were travelling by train for the first time outside their country of residence.