We spoke to the Antrim gap year students who toured Europe during lockdown

Think inter-railing, but on a Nutts Corner market budget

Throughout the first national lockdown, many of us sought out the opportunity to turn crisis into rejuvenation. That may have been through finally pushing yourself to complete Couch to 5k, cracking your way through a neglected reading list or mastering the basic art of a banana loaf.

However, not all students spent their period of solitary confinement in their parent’s house or mouldy student digs. Take for example the Antrim gap year students, Declan, Evan and Jack who got innovative upon restrictions beginning to be lifted, decided to travel around Europe.

In what most may describe as inter-railing, that was the modus for the trio who embarked upon their third period of continental travel. Only this time, instead of travelling by train, they travelled in their 2004 Volkswagen Polo.

The three Antrim students spent lockdown touring Europe

Speaking to The Belfast Tab, Declan said: “Between [the three of] us we have travelled to various different countries in various different ways. Having used inter-rail passes three times now for trips around Europe, we looked towards another method of transport that would allow us to go and see the things and places we wanted to see”.

The group said that from experience they had all found that inter-rail can tend to be quite restrictive in terms of only being able to travel to cities, but described the convenience of having a car on the trip, which meant they could travel outside of the city limits.

Declan described that by taking such a trip, they were limited to a shoe-string budget and because they wanted to travel by car, they couldn’t justify a rental. So instead, they took Declan’s trusty Volkswagen Polo that he has had since he passed his driving test, five years ago.

The trip started and ended by taking the VW Polo from Dublin to France by ferry

“Before we left Ireland the car had just under 200,000 miles on it. We hit 200,000 miles in Slovenia and stopped to celebrate the milestone with two German tourists who stopped to see if we needed any help having thought we broke down!”, they said.

Whilst some may argue that 2020 was maybe not the best year for travelling, the group took an even further plunge in the dark, as two of them has lost their jobs prior to the trip.

“Petrol would have been our largest expenditure. However, as we got closer to Turkey, the cheaper it became, ranging from about £1.30 in France per litre to around 60p per litre in Turkey! All in all we each spend roughly around £1,300 pounds each for just over a month on the road”.

Despite many hotels and hostels closing up due to the lack of travellers this year, this did not deter the Antrim students. “We camped along the roadside and in forests to save money on accommodation. Our trip took us through France, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Hungry, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. On the way back we went through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France”.

Describing the gruelling drive, Declan said how he, “drove from Istanbul to France in three days involving one 14.5 hour driving day, before waiting three days in Cherbourg for the ferry from France to Ireland”.

The car hit a massive milestone on the travels

Although after such an intense journey which even covered such a milestone, the question is whether the VW Polo is still intact. Clarifying this, Declan said: “The car is still running, and I’m still using it as my day to day car. It gave us very few problems in Europe and only started playing up when we were driving back from Dublin to Belfast”.

Whilst the world was still battling coronavirus, the group were extra cautious to abide by the relevant restrictions as they crossed borders which was difficult as Declan described how, “some [countries had] more rules than others”.

Travelling at such a strange time, was going to provide some strange situations for the group: “The weirdest thing we experienced was probably how empty Venice was, during what would usually have been towards the end of their high season. We have been in Venice before and walking down the now empty streets and seeing the empty canals was a weird experience, probably one that we will never experience again in our lifetime”.

So just think, next time you’re having a moan about having to drive from Derry back to uni in Belfast, at least it isn’t a 14.5 hour journey to the Hungarian border.