Backpacking Europe: My Summer Abroad
Bonjour! Guten Tag! Buongiorno! Hola!
As you may already be able to guess from my impressive bank of foreign greetings, I have just completed my European adventure, which saw me travel solo across Europe for five glorious and unforgettable weeks.
My journey included highlights such as seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time and being reduced to tears; meditating in a field in the Swiss Alps; wandering the streets of London; standing in the Colosseum; swimming in the Mediterranean Sea; partying so hard in Prague and Berlin that I could barely function as a human being the next day; visiting a coffeehouse in Amsterdam; paying my respects at Auschwitz; having my face accidentally set on fire by a bartender in Austria, and praying inside both Notre Dame and the Sistine Chapel.
Oh, and kissing lots of gorgeous men along the way. *Blush*
To say this was a trip of a lifetime would be an accurate description of my journey; it profoundly and irrevocably changed my life and the way I see myself.
The lessons I learnt, the experiences I had, the people I met, and the shenanigans I got myself into have all helped to shape who I am now, and I will freely admit to you all that I am a changed person.
I’m so grateful for each moment I had overseas – all the good, bad, scary, exciting, and everything in between.
So, without further ado, I present to you my stories, adventures, journal entries, recollections, musings, hazy memories, and life-changing realisations as collected from country to country, during my summer journey around Europe.
Get ready, ‘cause this is a big one!
Gold Coast > Sydney > Jakarta > Dubai > Amsterdam > Offenburg. 46 hours in transit. Ugh.
The Black Forest, Germany
My visit to the south of Germany was primarily to visit my dear old friends who used to live in Australia, but moved to Germany at the beginning of last year. Spending quality time with Mitch, Reg and their adorable baby boy, Elijah, in their delightful home in Lahr in the Black Forest region was such a lovely way to start my adventure. It gave me a chance to experience the everyday life of the locals in a foreign country, which I’m so grateful for.
During my four days with my friends, we visited the university town of Freiburg, where I found the world’s biggest lecture theatre and enjoyed drinking my first traditional German bier.
We also day tripped around the countryside where I climbed the remnants of a 12th century castle in Seelbach; ate amazing food in Gengenbach, a traditional German town complete with cobblestone streets; and visited Strasbourg, Alsace, where I completely fell in love with the effortless style and class of French women - even on bicycles, these women look breathtakingly chic - and visited Notre Dame’s little sister (über impressive).
I’d like to take this opportunity to once again thank Mitch, Reg and Eli for their overwhelming hospitality, kindness and generosity – they took such superb care of me and showed me a side of Germany that I never knew existed, but fell so deeply in love with once discovered.
All my love and appreciation goes out to this beautiful little family, and I can’t wait to go back and visit again.
Top moment: Taking in the breathtaking view from the top of a castle in Seelbach. simply incredible.
Holy moly, I absolutely L-O-V-E-D London; in fact, I can see why so many Aussies choose to venture over there and call it their home.
After finally finding my way to my hostel, I embarked on a three-day non-stop spree of sightseeing, shopping, picture-taking, walking, Tube-catching, drinking and laughing goodness.
Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Notting Hill, Big Ben, Leicester Square, Oxford Circus, Westminster Abbey, the Tate Modern, St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, Camden Markets, West End, The Thames….so many wonderful sights!
The three days I spent alone in London was some of the best of my life; from sun up to sun down, I was wandering the streets and catching the Underground like a pro, trying to absorb as much of the London vibe as I could.
It was such a refreshing, inspiring and amazing time for me; I’d never felt so free and independent in my life. I met some wonderful people along the way, including lovely girls in my dorm, and some top lads staying in my hostel who had me drinking, laughing and partying the nights away. Thanks for the memories, peeps!
Top moment: Unexpectedly tumbling into a free West End musical spectacular held in Trafalgar Square, showcasing all the music of current productions, and singing my heart out to the Journey anthem ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ from Rock of Ages in the middle of a giant sea of people.
Ah, the City of Lights. Please, take me back.
Paris was everything I’d ever imagined and more. I’d been waiting to go to Paris since I was seven years old and it did not disappoint me – it truly is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities of the world.
Seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time reduced me to tears and this profound moment unexpectedly helped me to cross off another huge milestone on my bucket list.
I had a ‘date’ with the city, where I spent a whole day wandering the streets of Paris, including the Champs Elysees; marveling at the Arc de Triomphe; a visit to the Louvre; eating macaroons, baguette, and crepes; photographing the lover’s lock bridge, adorned with padlocks from lovers around the world; strolling along the River Sienne; sending up a prayer inside Notre Dame; catching the Metro; practicing my French with the locals; then all topped off with an afternoon of laying on the grass under the Eiffel Tower, reading Vanity Fair while basking in the summer sun.
Paris truly stole my heart that day, and I can’t wait to visit this amazing city again soon.
Top moment: I was lucky enough to be standing on the banks of the River Sienne at 11 pm when all of a sudden the Eiffel Tower burst into a magnificent display of twinkling lights, and at that moment, I felt my heart soar with joy.
Holy moly, this place was simply ah-mazing.
It was like falling into a storybook, complete with snow capped mountains, rolling green valleys, spectacular waterfalls tumbling down sheer cliffs, and crisp fresh air. I stayed in a cabin in a gorgeous campground located deep in a valley of the Alps, and the serenity and beauty of the place took my breath away
The days were filled with a trip to the very top of Jungfrau mountain and playing in the snow; and the nights were spent drinking, singing at the top of my lungs, and dancing on the tabletops in the on site cozy bar with my new tour buddies.
Seriously, this is one place that everyone must visit in their lifetime. Simply stunning.
Top moment: Meditating in a grassy field of clover and butterflies in the valley between the Alps in the late afternoon, listening to the cracks of mini snow avalanches in the hills, breathing in the purest air I’ve ever breathed, and achieving the highest state of bliss of all time.
Nice and Monaco, French Riviera
The beautiful aqua waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the warm air, the gorgeous people…oh, how I loved Nice.
Warm, balmy nights spent dancing on tabletops in Wayne’s Bar with my newest and dearest girlfriends on tour, Lisa and Siobhan. Kissing cute French boys (ooh la la!) Jumping into the sea to cool down at 3 am. People-watching over a croissant and coffee breakfast at a trendy cafe. Strolling the seaside markets filled with fresh produce; sunbathing on pebble beaches. Swimming in the Mediterranean. Stumbling across France’s best gelato shop for a delicious afternoon treat. Creating a makeshift picnic lunch of fresh baguette, brie, figs, raspberries, olives and blueberries purchased from the markets.
An evening visit to Monaco. Grey Goose Vodka Martinis in the Grand Casino, a lá James Bond. Eating pizza and laughing with new friends at 1 am…
Top Moment: Becoming close friends with two other female solo travellers, Lisa and Siobhan (a.k.a. my soul sisters). We became the 3 Musketeers of Trouble. Awesome, amazing, inspiring women who I will always treasure and consider dear friends.
Stopped by the Leaning Tower of Pisa on the way to Florence for a photo. Yeah, there’s a tower there that doesn’t stand up straight…
That’s about it.
Unfortunately, by the time I arrived in Florence I was quite ill, and although I managed to soldier on and go out partying in a karaoke bar in the city that night, I found myself back at the hostel pretty early and in a lot of pain.
The next morning my darling girls took me to a local doctor who, upon hearing that I refused to go to hospital because I had to leave for Rome in 4 hours, cheerfully administered two injections to my derrière so that I could indeed make it to Rome. Ouch.
The rest of the morning is a bit of a blur. My memories of Florence are a bit hazy due to the painkillers (wow, those Italians sure know how to make you feel better), although I was told that I was a delight to be around and was quite entertaining...*ahem*.
So, I don’t have much to report about Florence, except to say that the bars are cool, the architecture is beautiful - watching the sunset over The Duomo is guaranteed to take your breath away - and the doctors are awesome. Consider yourself educated.
Top moment: Watching the sunset over Florence from the rooftop of the hostel. The Duomo glowing at sunset is spectacular.
Rome and Vatican City, Italy
Roma… Ah, say no more.
The history, the architecture, the people, the food, the language, the gestures…the gelato *drool.*
Rome is everything you think it will be, and then some. Every step you take, around every corner you turn, there is an abundance of history and culture just waiting for you.
The Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Santa Maria del a Popola, the Roman Forum, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Castle St Angelo, Vatican City…
All of it is simply spectacular.
And the food? Oh, drool-worthy.
Pizza, pasta, tiramisu, Caprese salad, and the gelato…Oh, the gelato! My record was six cones of gelato in one day (over-indulge much?), but I can justify this because the temperature peaked at 42 degrees while I was there.
Add in cheap drinks, cool swimming pools, and an impromptu, out-of-control Toga Party to this setting and you have yourself an unforgettable time, filled with shenanigans. Once again, there was a cute boy for me to kiss and my night was complete.
As they say, 'When in Rome…'
Top Moment: Oh, that’s a hard one. It's a toss-up between standing inside the Colosseum + making a wish at the Trevi Fountain + visiting Vatican City + and having a cute young ‘Roman’ come up and sweep me off my feet on the dance floor at the Toga Party. Bellissimo.
Verona and Venice, Italy
I was very sad leaving for Venice because our dear friend Lisa, left the tour as we departed from Rome. There were tears, I will admit.
But alas, we were off to Venice, with a quick stop in Verona to visit Juliet’s Balcony. Sigh, the romance of it all...
Venice was cool, although, very touristy, very crowded, and very busy. I bought a beautiful black lace/wire Venetian mask which I absolutely adore, ate fantastic food, watched a glass-blowing demonstration, visited a traditional Venetian lace-maker, took a ride in a gondola, walked across the Rialto Bridge, and had a great time laughing and getting lost in the alleyways and dead-ends of the streets with Siobhan – Venice really is a maze!
Top moment: Running into my mates, Robert and Joel, whom I met in the hostel in London, and partying with them masquerade-style all night. Oh, and busting my knee showing off my goalkeeping skills in an impromptu soccer game with the boys in a giant sandpit. The lads were impressed.
Austria. Home of schnitzel, classical music, Sacher torte, schnapps, and Europe’s oldest amusement park, Prater Park.
My ‘tour bro’, Conan, and I spent the night running around this park like two giddy children, screaming and sprinting from ride to ride, jumping on the biggest, fastest, scariest rollercoasters we could find - and boy, did we find them!
Have you ever seen the lights of Vienna while hanging upside down, 10 storeys in the air, with fireworks going off? I have. It’s awesome.
While in Vienna, I also took myself out for another ‘date’, which was basically code for time out for myself to be an independent traveller again, which I craved more than Vegemite.
I took myself out for dinner, wandered the streets of Vienna, ate delicious gelato (again with the gelato, I know), talked to the locals, then came back to my room and gave myself a mini pamper session, which you need once in a while when living out of a backpack and wearing Havaianas all day, every day.
I then proceeded to take our tour group out to an Aussie/backpacker pub I had found the previous night. I had made a deal with the bartenders that if I brought a crew in, the shots would be on the house.
It was great fun until I decided to do a flaming shot, which ended in the bartender accidentally setting my whole face on fire.
Yeah, that happened. It's a long story. Let’s just say it was like the ultimate chemical peel…
Anyways, after the flames were put out and the smell of burnt hair stopped filling the room, I splashed some water on my face, assured Sevon, the culprit of this unfortunate event, that I was ok, assured Conan and Siobhan, who had witnessed the whole ordeal, that I was fine (which was met with a resounding, “Your face was on FIRE!” and heads shaking in disbelief), and continued to party on for another hour.
Obviously, I had a tremendous amount of adrenalin pumping through my system at the time because I stayed remarkably calm through it all.
I finally went back to the hostel where Siobhan took excellent care of me and fixed me up. Thank goodness she works in a hospital; I think the Universe paired us up as tour buddies for a reason. I was very lucky; I only had a couple of burn patches on my face, some blisters on my nose and throat, singed eyelashes, and some burnt eyebrows and hairline. It could have been a lot worse.
But I learnt my lesson: Alcohol + Fire = BAD IDEA.
Top Moment: Um, setting my face on fire is pretty hard to beat….
Yeah, so, I was still recovering from last night's incident and was feeling a tad sore by the time we arrived in Bratislava, so I didn't really get to truly appreciate Slovakia for the two hours I was here.
Took some photographs of this quirky little city. Walked through town.
Ate some very interesting food covered with what I thought was capsicum, but turned out to be chillies (which is a Slovakian thing, apparently).
Got back on the bus. Watched the scenery pass me by. That was about it.
Okay, I have to admit something to you all: I didn’t actually care about going to Budapest, or Hungary, for that matter.
It was not a city I had ever given much thought about; even the books I had read about the place hadn’t really inspired me very much. I just assumed this would be the stop on the trip where I would finally just do my laundry and nothing else.
How wrong I was…
I will eat some humble pie now and tell you all something very important:
Budapest is FREAKING AMAZING.
This city was the golden gem, the dark horse, the surprise you never saw coming, and believe me, I can’t wait to go back for more. I can’t quite put my finger on what makes it so cool, but I think that’s what makes it so cool. It. Just. Is.
You want architecture and history? You got it.
You want markets and trendy shopping? Tick, tick.
You want amazing cafes, awesome (read: massive) meals, great beer, fantastic nightlife, a spacious double room in the best hostel in Europe, all at rock-bottom prices? Then this is the place for you.
My favourite day in Budapest was spent on a little date with Siobhan and my tour bros, Conan and Andrew. The four of us enjoyed amazing coffee at cafes, awesome shopping, an amazing traditional Hungarian lunch in the market hall, sharing giant Hungarian donuts the size of my head, and lots of laughing together.
That night we headed out to an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet which cost only twenty Euro each (yep, I told you it was cheap), followed by a night of dancing and drinking in a few random outdoor pubs found in little side streets just down from our amazing hostel.
Seriously, take me back there. Pronto.
Top Moment: Spending a lazy afternoon with Conan, filled with laughter and meaningful conversation while drinking beers at a sidewalk pub together. Oh, and Siobhan knows what the other highlight was, but she’s not talking…
Hmmm, what can one say about Poland? It is very cheap; one Polish Zloty is worth about 28 Australian cents at the moment, which is great for us poor backpackers. It is full of history and interesting architecture, but for me, I only went to Poland so I could go to Auschwitz and pay my respects.
I won’t go more into my Auschwitz experience here, as I’ve already done so, but visiting Krakow after such an emotional and distressing experience was a nice way to lift my spirits a bit.
The town itself is pretty standard, and my mates and I pretty much just chilled out in restaurants eating Polish cuisine, wandering the streets, and stopping for coffee in an excellent coffee house just off the main square.
There was a random little adventure to McDonalds later that evening - ordering a cheeseburger meal in Poland when you don’t speak the language is surprisingly difficult - followed by some shady shenanigans in a giant Polish supermarket where the language barrier and difficult currency conversion really became an issue.
Sorry, I’m sworn to secrecy on that one.
Top Moment: Besides visiting Auschwitz? Movie night in our dorm. To cheer ourselves up after a tiring and emotional day, my mates and I indulged in some chocolate, chips and Revenge.
Prague, Czech Republic
Oh. My. God. Prague, you are amazing. ‘Nuff said.
Okay, so there’s more to it than that, but seriously, that's how good Prague is: there aren’t enough words to describe its coolness. Even though it is not as cheap as everyone makes it out to be - don’t be fooled, it can be pricey - there are some awesome bonuses.
Like, the fact that it is cheaper to buy beer - which happens to be the best Pilsner in the world - than it is to buy water. True story.
The architecture is breathtaking, the food is delicious, the markets are cool, the shopping is great, the streets are so pretty, the history is interesting, and the people are lovely.
But the nightlife. Oh, the freakin' nightlife..!
What do you get when you mix cheap drinks + dancing on a pole on a bar tabletop + awesome underground pubs with free shots + and a five level nightclub, complete with ice bar?
The best night of my life ever, that’s what.
Throw in great music, lots of drinks (did I mention the cheap drinks?!), and a very handsome British stockbroker named George who literally swept me off my feet on the dance floor, and there you have it – I was in heaven.
I’m not usually the type of person who goes out on benders - I’m too much of a control freak for that - but this trip has taught me to let go, embrace every opportunity and just have some irresponsible, guilt-free fun once in a while. Let’s just say that when I climbed into bed at 5 am, I was a very happy woman – I haven’t partied that hard in a looong time!
Big love to you, Prague. You’ll be in my heart, and my liver, forever.
Top Moment: Dancing my butt off on a light-up disco dance floor on the third level of the nightclub, singing “I Will Survive” at the top of my lungs with my best tour mates. And being swept off my feet and receiving one of the best kisses of my life from a handsome British stockbroker. Hells *yeah* that happened.
Same country. Completely different city/culture/experience.
Berlin is an amazing, eclectic, interesting melting pot of diversity that embraces and celebrates individuality. This seems interesting when considering the fact that this city was not so long ago divided in half by a giant concrete wall, separating and segregating people and families.
Maybe that’s why Berlin is so rad now - trying to make up for the past perhaps? I don't know. Either way, it is a freaking cool city. So much history, so many touching memorials, and lots of amazing people to talk to.
This was another city where I chose to go my own way and leave the tour for the day so I could spend some quality independent traveller time with myself – and I’m so glad that I did. I met some amazing locals who gave me some sobering perspectives about the city’s history. I indulged in several coffees, stopping at cafes along my journey to people-watch and absorb the energy of the city.
I paid my respects at the Holocaust Memorial; I sampled local cuisine at my own pace; walked along the remnants of the Berlin Wall; and finished up at Checkpoint Charlie, where I met up with a mate and together we tackled the impossible train system of Berlin.
That night we went on a pub-crawl through the city, followed by a hilarious train ride back to a nightclub across from our hostel, cleverly planned so that we could literally crawl back to our rooms at the end. I won’t go into the details of that night - they are a bit blurry, I’ll admit - but needless to say, it was another epic and rowdy night filled with shenanigans and laughter.
I only got an hour of sleep that night, so that is a clear indicator of the fun that was had on my behalf. Once again, big props go out to Siobhan for being the best roomie that a crazy girl like me could ever ask for.
Top Moment: Spending the day on my own in Berlin and coming to the realisation that, just like the city, I’m a fierce individual and different from others. I will never be the kind of girl who always says the right thing; wears impeccable makeup like an Estee Lauder model; who can pull off ballet flats, a cardigan, and pearls; and be the darling that every girl loves and every boy wants to be with. I’m more of a Havaianas/skinny jeans/black t-shirt/glasses girl who suffers from a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease, is one of the lads, swears too much, and is ridiculously straightforward. I will never be like everyone else, and instead of beating myself up about it I should just own it, be proud of myself, and rock out the way I was made to. Fuck YEAH!
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
What a city to end my adventure in.
Amsterdam has it all: history, culture, shopping, architecture, amazing food, great nightlife, the friendliest people on the continent, a thriving sex industry, and enough legal dope to make any stoner think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
Amsterdam is also the gay capital of Europe and was the first place to legalize same-sex marriage. Pay attention, Australia; you could learn something here...
The beautiful canals; the endless parade of bicycles; the crooked houses; and the fantastic cafes, which are not to be confused with coffeehouses, which serve something completely different.
Honestly, Amsterdam is simply awesome. In fact, I loved it so much that if I had to move to any city in Europe, it would be here. I love how, like Berlin, Amsterdam is so open and welcoming of individuality. I just think that Amsterdam wears its craziness and inhibitions on the outside a bit more.
Amsterdam was my big au revoir to Europe, so I indulged in everything: pancakes, hot chips with mayonnaise (it's so delicious, don’t knock it till you try it), coffee, omelette, poffertjes, tea, chocolate, cheese...the whole shebang.
Siobhan and I spent our last day and night together going from cafe to cafe, sampling everything on offer, and laughing and reminiscing about our trip. We saw Anne Frank’s house, walked through the Red Light district, saw a live sex show (*side note: not really that impressive, to be honest), got caught in the rain, shopped, ate, ate some more, stayed up late laughing, took a canal cruise with the rest of our tour group, and then partied and danced the night away in a nightclub.
All in all, it was a great send off to a fantastic trip.
Top Moment: Haha, wouldn't you like to know...
My Final Musings
Although I wasn’t fazed to leave some people at the end of the tour, I found I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to the people who had, quite accidentally, become my closest friends.
I embarked on this trip with the mantra of “It’s me against the world” and an I-don’t-need-to-make-friends-this-is-all-about-me attitude. So it came as a shock when I realised that I had indeed made friends and would miss them very much.
As my dear (and shockingly observant) friend Conan remarked to me in Budapest, “When I look at you, I see someone who has had some walls pulled down lately”. How right he was...
Saying goodbye to the people who had played an active part in making my dreams come true, who had witnessed or participated in helping me cross milestones off my list, who had supported me and cheered me on at every juncture of my adventure – those were the ones I struggled to farewell, and I even found myself holding back tears. I know I have made some amazing friends along this journey and I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank them for being a part of my adventure and for all their kindness and support.
An especially huge thank you and shout-out to Siobhan, Lisa, Conan, Andrew, Valentina, Paige, Katie, Chris, Tim, Charli, Nays, Marti, and Colin. I give you all the deepest gratitude from the bottom of my heart for being a huge part of my journey and for all your continued support and encouragement along the way. Without you, my journey would not have been as epic or meaningful; you truly put the sunshine into my tour life.
To the other random buddies I made along the way, outside of my tour: Denille, Mel, Robert, Joel, Dana, Manzil. Thank you all for being such cool people and for adding lots of laughter and good times to my travels. You are all legends, and it was a true pleasure to meet you all and spend time with you in different cities. Travel safe, and never stop being the amazing individuals you all are.
To every person I kissed in every country I visited: thank you for playing a part in helping me achieve another of my goals. I have not yet finished this milestone - I still have the USA and Canada to cross off - but all your efforts and willingness to participate in my little experiment is greatly appreciated and will be forever cherished. You were all superb!
Finally, I’d like to thank myself for having the guts to make this journey alone and not succumbing to the ever-present fear that used to occupy my life. I can safely and confidently say that this experience has changed me for the better forever, and that fear is no longer a companion in my life. I am a strong, confident, proud, brave and capable woman who knows that she can handle absolutely anything that may come, no matter what.
It's true what they say: Travel is the only thing you will ever buy that actually makes you richer. My world has now opened up exponentially, and I know with a certainty that goes down deep into my bones that I will continue to travel, explore and have adventures for the rest of my life.
This is only the beginning…