I graduated college in 2014 and did exactly what you are “supposed” to do: I got a job, moved into a house with two friends, and enjoyed my vacation time with family and friends. About six months in, I started to feel restless. I had always loved travel but it just did not seem like an option with a job. I mean unless I quit my job… what if I did just quit and travel Europe for a few months? Could I do that? I calculated the cost and planned out my course. I had enough to go backpacking for about 3 months. My friends and parents all thought I had gone a little crazy. I had always been extremely frugal, and this seemed so out of character. Nonetheless, I planned away, hoping I could actually go through with it. A few months into the planning, I got a text from one of my college friends. “I did the math. I think I can go with you,” Shelbie said.
She and I started a Pinterest board with ideas and emailed back and forth about ticket costs, Eurail passes and hostels. When the day finally arrived to book our flights, the anticipation and excitement overwhelmed me. I called Shelbie. I would buy two tickets for our departure flights, and she would buy the two return tickets. We nervously chatted back and forth as we solidified our plans and finalized our purchases. No turning back now.
Our journey to Europe and the United Kingdom started in Berlin where, after a missed international flight on my part, Shelbie and I finally started our highly anticipated adventure. As the first country on our list, Germany did not disappoint. Out of my three main goals for this country, I accomplished every one: I drank a fair amount of the local beer, enjoyed some tasty bratwurst and found someone dressed in traditional Lederhosen.
I also experienced some unexpectedly memorable moments. Being able to touch something like the Berlin Wall and learn more about the history while standing at the site is something I will never forget. In Heidelberg, I viewed a charming village from atop a castle and meandered through quaint cobblestoned streets. And though absolutely disturbing, our tour of the Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich left me speechless, humbled and thankful.
Euro So Wanderful: Germany
As our time in Germany came to a close, we continued on to Switzerland. Like most places we visited, I felt that my time spent there was completely inadequate to see everything that I wanted to see. From the beautiful lakes and countryside, to the iconic chocolates (which we found and ate very slowly), Switzerland offered even more than I had anticipated. In Zurich, our train ride to our first Airbnb took us into the countryside where we were greeted by two musician sisters who welcomed us into their home, and supplied not only delicious food but also a lot of laughs. We also met up with a friend from the United States who gave us a tour of Zurich, complete with a ride to the top of a mountain for a panoramic view of the city. In Geneva, a cool, crisp breeze drifted off the bright blue lake where we laid out on giant rocks along the shore. As we wandered around viewing the city, we stumbled upon a seasonal festival where we enjoyed the music, the delicious treats, and met some new friends. We left refreshed and a little bit tanner…
Euro So Wanderful: Switzerland
Though we tried to be aware and conscientious of the different cultures we were cramming into one summer, we also tended to forget which day we were traveling. And for two starving, tired girls, this proved to be a problem as we searched for dinner on a Sunday afternoon in Milan, Italy. We waited as patiently as we could until 7pm rolled around but I’m not ashamed to say that the hunger consumed us—we each took down an entire pizza and carafe of wine on our own…a trend we largely continued on our two week journey through Italy. Unfortunately, we had our fare share of difficult, tear-worthy travel arrangements, but the destinations easily made up for it. The Piazza delle Erbe and Juliet’s balcony in Verona; intimate alleyways and the Piazza San Marco in Venice; snorkeling and dancing in Sorrento; pasta and the Coliseum in Rome; and gelato, leather and the Duomo in Florence. Our two day trips, one to the Amalfi Coast from Sorrento and the other to Cinque Terre from Florence, were treats I am so glad that we did not skip.
Euro So Wanderful: Italy
As we crossed into the South of France, a calm came over me; everything seemed infinitely quieter. The clean streets and beautiful beaches in Nice tempted us to spend our days wandering around the city, browsing the small shops and eventually venturing onto the beach. The cool nights drew us out to the main square where street dancers, musicians and magicians performed their acts. Nice had an almost magical effect on us, soothing and refreshing. We ventured into Monaco one evening on a whim (only a 20 minute train ride) to spend a couple of hours touring their marina filled with multi-million dollar yachts. I never wanted to leave Nice but Marseille beckoned. Our short stay included the seemingly never-ending climb to the Notre-Dame de la Garde and a visit to the harbor where we indulged in mussels and pasta.
Euro So Wanderful: South of France
Barcelona, Spain was the first place we stayed for four nights. Before, we had spent only two, maybe three nights in each city. A friend from college met us at our hostel where we agreed our goals for Spain should include tapas and a lot of sangria. Not to mention our timing in Barcelona could not have been any better since the Fiesta Major de Garcia was in full swing. We walked down the decorated streets filled with different genres of music and wide variety of cultural celebration. Our days in Barcelona were filled with sampling paella, visiting the Basilica, wandering the Nova Mar Bella beach and exploring the club scene on Passeig Maritim.
Madrid—I loved everything about this city! Our hostel sat right in the middle of town, the city was filled with a warm, sunny breeze and the shopping was unique. Our first night in Madrid could not have been any more authentic, which included a tapas tasting and a pub-crawl, completely organized by our hostel. We joined another hostel group and danced our way through 4 bars/clubs meeting people from Australia and even our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. We were amazed at the amount of beautifully branded companies, restaurants and shops throughout the city, wanting to browse every shop but finding ourselves short of time. In El Retiro Park, we visited the Crystal Palace and the paddleboat covered pond before engaging in our favorite people-watching pastimes.
Upon leaving Madrid, I had no idea what was ahead of us while in my cousin’s small village of Negara. I had never met her, and our only communication had been through email. She picked us up at the train station and drove us from the somewhat larger village of Logrono, to Negara where she and her husband fixed us our first homemade meal since the beginning of our trip, paired with their own wine named El Centimo Real. The next day, she showed us the small walled village of Laguardia where very few people spoke English and the vineyard views were impeccable. My cousin then drove us to Logrono to go bar hopping in the middle of the day. It seemed odd at first until we figured out the pattern: go to one restaurant, order pinchos and a glass of wine and move on to the next until full. Though skeptical at first, being engrossed in the small-town Spanish culture made me fall more in love with Spain than I already was by this time.
Euro So Wanderful: Spain
A nine-hour train ride delivered us to Paris, France. We had pre-purchased Paris Passes that gave us full access to all museums and even some discounts at restaurants. The passes included two days of Paris Metro use and the ability to skip lines at places like The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. Our college friend from the beginning of our trip re-joined us for a day. Together, we climbed the stairs of the Sacre Coeur, walked the Champs-Elysées, ate a delicious French meal, wandered through Notre Dame and finished off the day with a bottle of knock-off Champagne under the Eiffel Tower lights. With a newly made friend from our hostel, we waited in the half-mile long line at Versailles to see the beautiful decorated palace where we watched re-enactors answer questions about the owners and the country’s transition to Parliament. Next stop, London.
Euro So Wanderful: Paris
Though Shelbie had visited London before, this was to be my first taste of English culture. Unlike some of our previous hostels, we had chosen a well-situated hostel in South Kensington, the more posh of suburbs in London. The week we arrived was also was my birthday week and we were ready to celebrate. Trying to plan a fun week for myself, I agreed to a Champagne Experience at the London Eye which turned into one of the more hilarious episodes of our friendship since we accidentally booked a “romantic” London Eye experience with several couples enjoying romantic honeymoon/anniversary trips… and then there was Shelbie and me. We also frequented Borough Market multiple times that week to enjoy the variety of food they had to offer. We met some friends from Heidelberg for my birthday dinner and they told us we should venture down Bermondsey Street, where we found a precious little coffee shop called The Watch House and visited the hipster neighborhood of Shoreditch, where we happened upon an outdoor food court, The Dinerama.
But the end of our stay in London was not the end of our stay in England. My mom made the journey across the Atlantic to meet us in Oxford and, after settling into our hotel, we walked into town expecting to tour the iconic Oxford University but unexpectedly ran across a carnival set up along the main streets. We wandered about the different colleges and bookstores, learning more about the history of the school and town before renting a car to head to the Cotswolds. As it turned out, renting a car in England was one thing, but trusting my mom with our lives while she drives on both the opposite side of the car and the opposite side of the road is another. This was an adventure, to say the very least!
We visited the small village of Mosley where my ancestors lived before coming to the United States in the 1600s, then another small village where a friend of my mother’s has been spending half of the year for the last 30 years. We then took a train to see a friend we had made in Madrid in her hometown of St. Anne’s, near Blackpool. She took us on a short tour around St. Anne’s and then took us to Blackpool where we spent most of our day walking down the piers, playing games at the arcade, eating fish and chips at Harry Ramsden’s, and riding to the top of the Blackpool Tower as it lit up the night sky.
Euro So Wanderful: England
We were so excited to get to Edinburgh, Scotland where we were also going to visit a close family friend who lives there doing ministry at the university. She acted as a natural tour guide, who was so excited about her new city that she wanted us to experience everything. We took a tour of the Edinburgh castle, spent an afternoon on the beautiful Inchcolm Island in the Firth of Fifth (where we had a successful picnic in one of the 12th century Abbey rooms despite the rain) and toured the National Museum of Scotland before going to the Eteaket tea room and The Brass Monkey bar to finish our Scottish experience. Our day trip to the Scottish Highlands made me fall in love with Highland cows, and even allowed us to search for the Lochness monster, though we were not able to see anything definitive…
As soon as we returned from the Highlands, we took a train to Glasgow where our one full day was spent making a day trip to Stirling Castle and exploring secret rooms and huge banquet rooms that were all arranged as though the castle were still in full use. We finished up our last day in Scotland (and my mom’s last day of her trip) with a delicious Italian meal in the heart of Glasgow.
Euro So Wanderful: Scotland
We took a ferry to Belfast and then a bus down the Dublin, Ireland, where we joined a friend who we had met in our hostel in London, and we rented a car together to drive westward. Booking a hostel last minute did not give us many options to stay in Galway, but we found a room in the small village of Ennis. The main street was lined with pubs where we spent our day watching the Rugby World Cup. The Irish were so proud of their team, and we couldn’t help but feel the excitement with the posters and flags hanging along the streets of Galway. Our second full day in Ennis was rainy, but we kept our plan to visit the Cliffs of Moher. The rain did not put a damper on my excitement or the beauty of the cliffs. We were soaked and hungry when we left the Cliffs of Moher for Doolin and the famous Gus O’Connor’s Pub.
On our way back to Dublin, we stopped in County Clare to climb through the Bunratty Castle and explore the Folk Park. Once in Dublin, we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, but we were most excited to see what the Temple Bar area had to offer. Our favorite place, the Merchant’s Arch, offered great live music while the original Temple Bar and The Quay’s Bar were right behind on our list of favorites. At the Guinness factory, we enjoyed the full four-story experience that ended with a free pint over-looking the city. Shelbie and I decided to take a bus day trip to Kilkenny and Wicklow. We stopped along the way to walk around Glendelough, see Wicklow National Park, and investigate Kilkenny Castle and the town of Kilkenny. When we returned to Dublin we met our other traveling friend for Celtic Nights, a dinner and performance restaurant where singers and dancers perform Celtic music and dance.
We flew from Dublin back to NYC almost three months after our departure from the same terminal; only now we were full of new experiences, cultures and memories. But even as beautiful as all of our destinations had been, the people we met along the way were perhaps some of my favorite moments. A four-hour German train ride and nonstop conversation with a Virginian couple; a walk through a Genevan festival with two boys from New Zealand; a snorkeling trip in Sorrento with a boy from Australia; and spending a day in Madrid with a girl from England who we later visited in her hometown.
Euro So Wanderful: Ireland
The trip has had (and will continue to have) a lasting impact on my life. I cannot wait to visit some of these places again and get together with our new lifelong friends we met along the way. Shelbie and I started this journey as a means to get out and see the world but I think in some ways we surpassed even our own expectations: we met people with whom we have a lasting connection, we enjoyed great food and drink along our way, and though a bit cliche, we made unique memories that will truly last a lifetime.
Top 10 Backpacking Tips by Abigail and Shelbie:
- Download an app that has an offline GPS map option. For example, TripAdvisor allows you to track your movement without using cellular data, an invaluable commodity in an unfamiliar city.
- Learn “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Please,” etc. in the languages of the countries visiting. Even if you are not fluent, being able to say these basic phrases allows you to be more polite and culturally aware.
- If you are planning to travel by train, definitely look into a Eurail pass. You will still have to reserve trains in some countries for a small fee but they are still completely cost effective.
- CHACOS were our best friends for a variety of reasons: comfortable walking through the city, easy hiking through mountains, water shoes in rocky waters and showering in hostel showers.
- Dry bags and packing cubes make it easy to keep your pack or suitcase organized and unpacking for a weeklong stay in a hostel or hotel.
- Invest in an extra long phone charger cord for those moments your bed is really far away from the socket, a portable charger for your daypack and a convenient International plug adaptor.
- Try your best to stay HYDRATED. Traveling can take a toll on the body and keeping up with your water intake can help ease time-zone changes and the amount of walking required.
- Be sure to carry a lock for lockers in hostels that may not have them or under-bed storage drawers if you plan to leave valuables when you’re exploring a new city.
- Cross body bags are the best for day walking since you can keep your valuables fashionably close and shift the bag to your front side if you feel the need to defend against pickpockets.
- Have a way to contact home. Whether you pay for an international plan or just ensure that your hostel or hotel has consistent WiFi, the ability to “phone home” when you need is an invaluable commodity.