Twenty one days meandering through Western Europe in December of 2015
This trip was inspired by literally every high school and college course mentioning anything to do with Europe. James Bond. The Italian Job. National Lampoon's European Vacation. Jealousy. Celebration.
Some background on the trip: In high school a lot of my friends and their families traveled to Europe, there was always an aire of sophistication associated to those travels. I was supposed to study abroad in Madrid in 2008, but that did not materialize. With my Spanish minor, it would have fulfilled an internship requirement and a lot of my peers went while I stayed home. Graduating in 2009 I began working full time immediately. I watched on social media as others made the journey, year by year, biding my time. I finally got my shit together and got a good job in 2012 that allowed me to relocate to California in 2014, and burned the midnight oil on a new project. Long hours, lots of overtime and showing up day-in-day-out added up. As I grabbed a foothold on adulthood I was finally able to accumulate the PTO and money to make this trip a reality. My Eurrail pass, hotels and plane tickets were booked, I was going backpacking in Europe for three weeks! Also I bought my first real camera a Nikon D3300 to document my travels.
An interactive map of my journey:
Days 1 & 2: London
I was able to get FIVE WEEKS off of work between Thanksgiving and New Years, so I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my family and landed at London Heathrow on December 1, 2015. This was definitely the longest flight I've ever been on, but not awful. Waking up to a new day in a foreign country was invigorating. I had no idea what to do or how to do it, but this was part of the adventure! My first impressions, public transportation is vastly superior in continental europe, I had no problems taking the tube to Charing Cross in Central London. It was all new, but thankfully I was able to speak the language. I checked into my hostel and began exploring.
One thing I would definitely recommend is grabbing a LondonPass. It gets you into a lot of the attractions instead of having to pay at each stop, you can simply walk in and explore. I walked around a lot of Westminster, some of the highlights were The Abbey, Big Ben, The Tower of London, and the Millenium Bridge. A lot of the buildings were ancient, the history was palpable. Seeing Chaucer's grave, and The Crown Jewels, really made me realize how young the modernized history of America is (I know the land is stolen). My feet hit the pavement of Soho and University College of London. Be careful crossing the streets, the cars come from the opposite direction and it bent my mind a little bit. Everyone was in a rush somewhere, nobody wanted to chit chat especially with an American. Granted it was a Tuesday, but the tube was abustle, mind the gap! The food was nothing special (maybe I'm spoiled in the Greater Los Angeles area). But a shoutout to The Breakfast Club in Soho, excellent.
On the second day I checked out St. Paul's Cathedral, Southwark, and The Emirates Stadium, unfortunately no games during my stay. At borough market I got some incredible bread and blue cheese, but the dullness of London was starting to wear off on me. The splendor and newness of the city wasn't the same, and I was really looking forward to something more foreign. On the morning of Day 3 I was headed to the chunnel and Paris.
Days 3 & 4: Paris
I arrived to Paris in the late afternoon/early evening - just a side note the train dumps you at Gare du Nord station and you likely have to take the subway to get to where you need to be in Paris, which can be sketchy. Luckily as a 6'2" 200lb man, nobody really messed with me during the whole trip. My hotel in Odéon - Hotel Odéon - was your prototypical Paris hotel, windows opening out to the street, just as a whole vibe, this was the adventure I was looking for.
Notre Dame & Champs-Élysées
I woke up to a beatiful morning on the fourth day of my trip, and honestly this day was one of the highlights of all of my travels to-date. I headed to Notre Dame, and just the views of the Seine and the whole city from the top of the church were unreal. The Gargoyles were awesome and provided a sweet photo op. I just waltzed and meandered my way towards The Louvre, enjoying all of the sights and sounds and smells of the city. The museum is gigantic and almost unmanangeable. Seeing the Mona Lisa and the artifacts certainly checked the boxes from my humanities classes, but I didn't want to waste the day away indoors. I just kept heading down the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe as the sun set and dusk began to roll in. Paris really had a je na sais quoi that London lacked. Also the food is magnificent! They do dinner crepes, honestly some of the most delicious things I've had in my life.
Now to the bad: first and foremost French is an impossible language to grasp. As I checked into my hotel I talked to the front desk clerk and admitted that I really only knew bonjour. He explained to me that bonjour is good morning and as I was checking in at night it was bonsoir. I came back to the hotel the next day after, and the same man was at the counter. I got excited and said, bonsoir! He again corrected me, since I was going to bed it was bonne nuit. I was curiously asked him to how you know it is time to switch from bonjour to bonsoir and he told me that it was really just a feeling, there was no set time. At this point I gave up trying to learn French, I couldn't even say hello correctly.
Secondly, the people suck! Just flat out rude, even the serving staff all tried to rush me out of the restaurants, nobody was anything remotely resembling nice to me. I get it, I am an estupid Americanne but just be prepared for everyone to be an asshole to you and you might be pleasantly surprised if someone is cordial.
Days 5, 6 & 7: Barcelona
The train to spain was a bit of a pain, I think it took about eight hours, we stopped quite a bit along the way at a bunch of small towns. However, I was excited to finally get to Spain, specifically Barcelona although I wouldn't get the chance to use much of my Castellano, this was one destination that I had circled on my calendar.
Parc Güell & La Sagrada Familia
I got in to the hotel late at night on the fifth day, checked in and was able to get some arepas at a local spot Doña Jacinta. One of the coolest things about Spain is they are very accepting of nationals from other spanish speaking countries, so you get a lot of cuisine and culture from around the mundo hispanohablante. Coincidentally this was the night of Michigan State winning the Big Ten Football Championship Game against Iowa so I was up late at night watching on my phone, fist pumping in silence as LJ Scott reached over the goal-line.
On day 6 of my trip I hit the city, wearing my favorite Michigan State T-Shirt and explored Parc Güell, a Gaudí fever dream. The architecture is quite different, his house and the gardens are filled with curves and acid trippy sculptures. I watched the sunset from on-high. On the way back to the subway I stumbled upon a game of pickup basketball and was able to jump in. I grabbed some tapas before heading back to the hotel, I highly recommend Barcelonan calamari.
Day 7 was La Sagrada Familia, and if you are going to go to one place in Barcelona, this is it! The ornate detail on the outside is other worldly. Gaudí spent his entire adult life overseeing the construction of this church. It's made of carved igneous rock, has been under constant construction since the 1880's, and is slated to be completed in 2026. I have my doubts of them finishing it on time, whats a few more years anyhow. While the outside is beautiful, the inside is perhaps even more stunning. The light hitting the stained-glass and kissing all of the surfaces inside the church. The sheer height of the columns, the geometric patterns, everything is done with a level of precision and care that that truly makes Sagrada an architectural wonder of the world.
Days 7, 8 & 9: Madrid and Toledo
A week into the trip I was finally ready to fulfill my decades long dream of seeing the Spanish capital. All of those Spanish classes, detailed discussions on Franco, Las Meninas, King Ferdinand & Isabella. They made the city seem so refined and fun. I arrived late in the day and took the metro to the Plaza Mayor near my hotel and the Christmas celebrations were in full swing. The square was packed with people shoulder to shoulder late at fiesta and I was reenergized. I would do some exploring the next day.
Central Spain and Castille-La Mancha
Madrid is very official and beauracratic. Lots of government buildings, cultivated green areas, and businesses. It kind of reminds me of Washington D.C. I first hit the Royal Palace just a gigantic struture with gilded details on the inisde. I think La Sagrada Familia spoiled acrchitectural pallate for the rest of the trip, nothing would quite compare to it. After the palace I snacked on some tapas - specifically jamo´n ibérico - a sliced hamhock from specialized pigs that only eat acorns their whole life. You can actually taste the nuttiness. As well as papas bravas - homestyle fried potatoes with a cream and hot sauce mixture. The food in Spain is really top notch.
Next I headed to the Prado museum, specifically to see the Diego Velasquez painting that had been all of the rage of my Spanish classes. Las Meninas is a neat painting, but honestly I was getting a bit burnt out on museums. I think the tenor of my trip began to change at this moment. I like art and history, don't get me wrong it was fun to see some of these things. But I was gaining a newfound desire to really get off the beaten path, and I was beginning to make a conscious effort to avoid these tourist traps for the rest of the trip and just see where the wind would blow me.
For dinner I ate at Sobrino de Botín the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world, open since 1725. The next day I took a train to Toledo (not Ohio) to get a feel for Castille-La Mancha. Toledo is super old and medieval, built completely out of stone. I checked out some of the frescos of El Greco, and got some coffee from atop the library to check out the views of the city. To me, Toledo was more impressive than Madrid. Just the history and the feeling of the Spanish countryside gave me the taste of Central Spain that I was looking for. I'm looking forward to going back and checking out the South & Valencia.
Days 10 & 11: Traveling back to France
I needed to head back east to for the next part of my trip, on day 10 spent the night in Madrid. And on day 11 I stayed in Barcelona. I needed a bit of rest and recouperation from all of the walking and train travel so I was killing two birds with one stone here.
Day 12: Montpellier
As I got back into Southern France I was able to make a stop at Montpellier. Completely off grid France at its finest. An old town with a traditional city center, lots of little shops and bakeries. Barely anyone spoke English but they didn't mind my awful French. All of the pompousness of Paris was missing from the locals here.
I spent the day wandering around Montpellier and some of the old structures in the Promenade du Peyrou a neoclassical area of town that had an almost greek feel. I got the opportunity to hone my photography skills and just take things slow in preparation for more travel over the next few days.
Days 13 & 14: The French Riviera
The real attaction of Southern France was the Côte d'Azur and that's where I headed next. Goldeneye and Formula 1 racing led me to Monaco, but I was open to adventure along the way and once again being open to adventure led me to an unexpected gem.
Nice, Monaco and Éze
As I approached the third week of my trip, I needed to do laundry badly and found a spot in Nice. Day fourteen of the trip was another magical one. I spent the morning checking out Monaco they have a bus system that will take you up and down the coast. I checked out Casino Royale and the famous S-Curve as well as the bay with megayachts.
On the way back to Nice I decided to hop off of the bus at Éze. Where you can hike up the Neitzsche path about a mile or so to a cliffside sculpture garden overlooking the Mediterranean. The views in all directions were stunning, the garden was an eden and barely anyone else was there. I snapped a bunch of pictures, and Europe was looking pretty good on me if I say so myself. I grabbed some food at a restaurant in the garden and headed back to civilization but just the tranquility and serenity of the garden reinvigorated me for the last week of my travels.
Days 15 & 16: Milan & Venice
I continued east to Italy and ended up in Milan fairly late at night. Almost every restaurant was closed but I knocked on the door of one and a doña unlocked the door and made me dinner, she exclaimed that the people in northern Italy aren't as nice as those in the south, she was from siciliy and honestly treated me like her grandchild. I will be forever grateful for her hospitality.
Milan was a more of a sidequest the real adventure was day sixteen and Venice. I did get a chance to see the Piazza del Duomo but I really wanted to experience the canals for myself. As I arrived in Venice it was really crazy to not see any cars, the streets made out of water and the main method of transportation being boats. I spent most of the day just wandering around, different sights at every turn.
St. Mark's Square was monolithic and the views of Venice from the top of the tower really give you feel for how strange this city is. As I was heading out of town on day seventeen of my trip the italian railworkers went on strike. I didn't realize this is a regular occurrence - so they had to take us by bus to Villach, Austria.
Day 17: Travel to Austria
The bus got into town very late at night and I checked into my hotel in snowy Austria. I had no way of knowing what splendor the next day had in store for me.
Day 18: Slovenia
I woke up and took the early train to Bled, Slovenia. I got a recommendation, moreso an insistion (is that a word idk?) that I had to go to Slovenia. Google images convinced me to take this diversion to Lake Bled. And boy was I glad that I listened.
Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge
As the train arrived in Slovenia the fog was covering Lake Bled. My hotel was on the lake, and they allowed me to drop some things off before check in. As the sun rose and the fog dissipated. The view of the lake came into full view. The alps in the background glistened with snow. The island church jutted out prominently from the center of the lake. Ice had formed on the trees overnight and it was beginning to melt and drip down creating the feeling of rain. It was just a majestic and unforgettable experience that morning. The google images did not do this place any justice whatsover. And I will forever be grateful for the recommendation go here. Walking around the whole lake took a couple of hours and I was able to check into my hotel.
I was completely exhausted, the trip was starting to wear on me. But I had one more sight to see in Slovenia. I walked about 5 miles from the hotel to Vintgar Gorge in the afternoon. A national park in a canyon with some of the bluest water and greenest hillsides, with an old wooden bridge making its way along the creek. As the afternoon sun kissed the hills and the mist I was given some more natural beauty to capture through my lens. Just the whole day in Slovenia was a culmination of the lessons that I learned on this trip. To get away from the cities and museums and explore more on foot for attractions that take some work to get to. Feeling at one with nature in a foreign country admiring peace, tranquility and serenity. I think this was the crescendo of my trip. I couldn't top this no matter how hard I tried, and I knew it. I still had to make my way to Frankfurt for the plane home.
Days 19, 20 & 21: Salzburg, Munich, Frankfurt
The next day I took a train to Salzburg, traversing through the Alps was beautiful but I was completely exhausted. I didn't plan on staying in Salzburg but I needed another rest day at this point. I got a hotel and just kind of chilled most of the day. I did check out the Fortress Hohensalzburg while I was there. Austria has a weird feel. There was this weird undertone, almost like the Austrians believed the wrong side won WWII, just a different vibe than some of the other countries that I visited.
I took an early train to Munich on the twentieth day. Before we entered Germany the train stopped and we all had to disembark to go through a security checkpoint where the border police check your passport. I handed the cops my passport and they looked at me and said, "Klaus!" as they called another agent over. I knew that I didn't have any contraband on me but still, my heart started racing. maybe I had forgotten to stamp my passport somewhere or I had overstayed my welcome, I'm not sure? But I felt like something wasn't quite right. Klaus came over and in the worst broken English I have every heard he said "Uhhhh. You aree... Amerikan?" All of the other cops starting dying of laughter and they excliamed that Klaus was learning English and this was a good opporutinity for him to practice. False alarm. I spent a full day in Munich, my train out of town was late at night and I didn't want to get another hotel just for the day. I was doing my best, but running on fumes at this point. I walked the English Gardens, checked out the BMW Museum and the Olympistadion. At night I was able to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in English and caught a late night train to Frankfurt.
The train to Frankfurt was miserable. I was trying to sleep, completely exhausted but there was a vagrant screaming at the top of their lungs at 3am. Every time I fell asleep they would come back into the first class car and yell some more. Finally around 6am they were removed from the train but by the time I arrived in Frankfurt I was completely spent. I thought while waiting for my flight I could sleep in the airport, but that kept getting interrupted by airport security reminding me that I couldn't sleep there. It was honestly torturuous. I finally boarded the plane and flew back stateside, I was ready to be home, and celebrate Christmas with my family.
Even with the sour ending, this trip was everything that I could or would have imagined. I had just visited 8 different countries in the span of three weeks. Learned more about my travel style, and finally acquired the ability to talk about going to Europe. It's not the museums or the history for me. It's the unexpected easter eggs along the way. The real fun happens when you call an audible.