By Rich Carriero
I love Europe. I have always been fascinated with the cultures, cuisine, history and topography of Europe. When I was 16 I took a trip with my high school to London and Paris for 10 days. I grew up in New Jersey and at that point I had never been further from home than Washington DC so those 10 days felt like an eternity. I would finally get to see France, a place that I had dreamed of ever since I began taking French lessons in middle school. I would get to see Paris: the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Champs Elysees and the Place de Concorde. I would get to see London: Parliament, St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and Piccadilly Circus. That trip was truly a wonderful experience-but it was not an eternity. It was just a small taste.
I went to college and after a long and arduous process, I graduated. I watched friends of mine travel abroad. I knew people who had traveled all over the world-Asia, India, Africa and even my beloved Europe. I yearned to travel like that. Ever since my first trip I vowed to go back. When it was time to graduate I saved up a few thousand dollars, which my family matched as a graduation present. I was the first one of my siblings and cousins to graduate and go on a gap year adventure. My parents had never even done it. I knew from the moment that I committed to my plan that it was different from my trip in high school. The trip in school was a very safe matter. I traveled with a large group of fellow classmates on an EF tour. Every arrangement was taken care of-from plane tickets to museum passes. All I had to do was come up with the money. When I sat down to book a flight I knew that there was a lot more to backpacking than I ever had imagined. I wasn’t even 100 percent sure what backpacking was. This was part of the attraction of it, however. The trip in high school was like seeing Europe in a museum under glass. This time the barriers would be removed and I would immerse myself in Europe.
I bought a Lonely Planet book on Europe. Since the subtitle of the book was Europe on a Shoestring, I knew it was for me. The book was a big help for many ideas. You could peruse cities of any country in Europe and find out what there was to see in that country, where to eat, sleep, have a drink and go out at night. After doing a little research with Lonely Planet and the internet I realized that my first decision was to decide how long to go. Since most people do not yet have serious commitments after college graduation, it is a unique opportunity to get away but at the same time, for someone who has never traveled for an extended period; it can also be very scary. I feared being homesick, running out of money, getting sick or being robbed. I pictured every worst case scenario. I finally settled on 3 months as the right amount of time to really enjoy Europe without making too much of a time commitment.
My second consideration was where I could feasibly travel in 3 months. One of the things that Lonely Planet advised in the foreword of their book was to not plan too much into one trip. I decided to give myself some time in the places that I really wanted to see and to be flexible and therefore not plan too ambitious a trip. England and France were not a high priority because I had already seen both so I decided that my first serious stop would be in Spain. Spain had captivated me since I first read The Sun Also Rises. I wanted to see the green hills, brown deserts and red clay roofs of Spain. I allotted 3 weeks to this most important destination. But Spain is a big country and unfortunately I could not see all of it in that time. I knew that I had to see San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona so I started with those cities in the guidebook and decided to fill in the rest as I went.
After Spain I decided to follow the Mediterranean for a while. While I had been to Paris, I never got anywhere near the Riviera so I decided to follow the Riviera through Marseille, Nice and Monaco into Italy. At that point I was stuck. I gave myself one month from the beginning of the trip to reach the Italian border and then I could not decide which way to go. I went with the tentative plan of heading into Genoa and then curving north through Milan into Switzerland. I decided from that point to keep my plans fairly tentative but I still set some requirements of places that I would visit. I wanted to see Eastern Europe so I settled on Prague, Vienna and Budapest as must see places. There I had an ally since my girlfriend is originally from Budapest so we planned on meeting up at the end of my trip in the Hungarian capital where I would meet her friends and family and then we would travel to another country together before both coming home. With these plans in mind I set about learning the process of traveling Europe.
In Europe mass transit is truly an art form. Travel between European nations is excellent by land, sea and air. After doing some research on airfares I found that flying to London was much cheaper than flying to any other European nation. From London there are several no frills carriers like Ryan Air or Sky Europe that fly out of London’s smaller satellite airports for incredibly low prices. So I decided to fly into London, stay for one night and then fly to Spain on one of these carriers. I chose Virgin Atlantic for my transatlantic flight. Virgin has excellent amenities in all areas. The flights are smooth and fast, the planes are large and comfortable, the service is prompt, professional and friendly and each seat has a hi-tech entertainment system. I booked the Virgin Flight for June 1st with a return trip set for August 31st. Since the Virgin flight was overnight, I booked a bed at the London Youth Hostel in Blackfriars for the night of June 2nd. The cheapest flight to Spain that I found was from London to a city called Santander on the northern coast in Cantabria. I had never heard of Santader but the $25 fare on Ryan Air was enough to pique my interest so after doing some research I discovered that Santander was a small fashionable city with many excellent beaches, fine seafood and very few tourists. That was enough for me. I booked my flight to Spain.
The internet makes backpacking so much less intimidating if you are willing to do the research. Between Lonely Planet, the internet and advice from friends, I found that I could so much with a little planning. There are several excellent websites for finding sleeping accommodations in any city like hostelz.com and hostelbookers.com. From my living room in New Jersey I booked sleeping accommodations in London and Santander on hostelbookers. My next task was to learn about travel around Spain. While European nations, with the exception of Russia, are generally small, Spain is still the approximate size of Texas so I wanted to be sure that I could get from city to city for relatively little money. I soon found that in Spain trains and airplanes from city to city within the country are very expensive. Buses, however, are a cheaper and relatively fast means of travel. At that point I promised myself that I would be flexible and so I did not book anymore of my itinerary whilst still in the United States.
My next task was choosing what items I would bring with me. It is extremely important to plan carefully what you will bring on a backpacking trip, since, without the load bearing and storage capacity of a car, space and weight quickly become precious commodities. The first and most important possession on a backpacking trip is, of course, the backpack itself. I did some internet shopping and decided on a large metal frame pack from LL Bean. I also bought a light sleeping bag for the contingency of camping out or sleeping in an uncomfortable bed. My next step was to choose my clothing based on utility and size. I chose two pairs of shoes; sandals and dress shoes. I picked out clothing that could be balled up or rolled up with little wear and tear. I tried to pick out as many pairs of shorts and short sleeve shirts as possible to economize space but I still brought a pair of jeans, dress pants and a dress shirt. Next came the very careful calculation of the bare minimum of underwear I would need so that I could get from laundromat to laundromat without running out. After choosing clothing I tried to consider whatever necessities I would need in three months. I decided on my LL Bean book bag for a day pack, a flashlight, combination lock, Swiss Army Knife and Leatherman tool, water bottle, notebook and pens. Once I had packed all of this in my newly arrived pack I chose a few paperback books to read. When the pack was completely filled I slung it over my shoulders, adjusted all of the harnesses and walked around for a while to get a feel for the weight. As I wandered around the house and back yard I tried to imagine carrying all of this stuff along unfamiliar roads in Europe. My pack felt awfully heavy. Still, at that point I had everything I needed and I was ready to go.
The night before I was to fly I experienced a great deal of anxiety. I was 26 years old, technically a man, but I was still going to be alone in many unfamiliar countries, the vast majority of which spoke languages that I didn’t understand. I wondered if I could make it for 3 months. I wondered if I could avoid being robbed. I wondered if I would be able to make friends. I wondered if my money would last long enough. Needless to say I didn’t sleep much that night. To make matters worse, when I woke up that morning I had the beginnings of a serious cold. My flight was at night so I wandered around the house all day. I tried to think if there was anything I was forgetting. I divided my funds into different sources; I had a credit card, debit card and travelers checks-with photocopies. I had a voltage converter with plug adapters for different countries. I had 2000 songs on my I-pod, a cell phone which had a digital camera and was a multiband phone that would work in Europe, a 35 mm camera with a dozen rolls of films. I left the keys to my car and copies of my passport with my parents. At long last they both came home from work and it was time to go to the airport.
The entire car ride to Newark Airport they kept giving me advice and trying to get me to relax. My mother, being a typical mom, loaded me up with medicine for every different kind of ailment that I could possibly get. In the months ahead I would give silent thanks for her foresight on numerous occasions. Once at the airport they saw me to check-in. I was worried that my pack would be too big, but it was fine. After many hugs and kisses it was time to say goodbye, which was a relief because I hate long goodbyes and they were making me nervous. I went through security and after a long wave goodbye I turned the corner and didn’t look back. While waiting in the airport for an hour or so I read and listened to music and tried to relax. I called everyone one last time. My girlfriend was in tears, and while I tried to comfort her, I was really sad to leave her. Once again I was relieved once the flight began boarding. At long last the moment had arrived. I took my seat on the large Boeing 767 and waited for takeoff. When they closed the doors, taxied around the runway and took off I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. Once that plane was in the air everything was out of my hands. That was the first moment when my trip began to feel like an adventure.
My first taste of Europe came in the form of the British accents of the Virgin flight attendants. I sat next to a young girl from Scotland who was returning home after a long trip around the states. We had a great conversation during which she gave me lots of advice about various European countries. It was interesting to be sitting next to someone whose journey in my home country was just ending while my journey in hers was just beginning.
Flying east across the Atlantic always seems so much longer than flying west. During an overnight, with the travel across 5 time zones the sun seems to set and then rise again only a few hours later. This effect is exacerbated by the short nights of summer in the northern hemisphere. When sun rose over the Atlantic I set my watch ahead to London time. When the plane landed at Heathrow airport I took my first look at the green grass and blue skies of Europe-a place I had not seen in a decade. After taking the train from the airport to London and then hiking to my youth hostel, I soon learned that despite my best efforts, I had still overpacked. Worse yet, my cold was at its worst and I had to drink Theraflu every few hours just to feel alright. It was an inauspicious beginning to my trip. I got the hostel too early to check in, but I was exhausted so I slept for a few hours in the lobby in a state of near delirium. When at last I could check in I dropped my pack and went promptly to take a long, hot shower. I was to discover in the months ahead that one of the best moments in any new city was the moment after checking into a new hotel or hostel when you can ditch your pack in a locker. Not only is a full hiking pack heavy, but also since you are carrying everything that you own on your own narrow shoulders, you feel so much more vulnerable to robbery. In each city I visited I would store my pack for the duration of my stay and only move around with my wallet or my day pack.
After my shower I wandered around London. I tried to remember the city that I had seen as a teenager but, with the exception of Westminster Abbey and Parliament, I found that I could not. It was nice to walk along the banks of the Thames, nonetheless, and look at people and places. I crossed the narrow steel thread of the Millennium Bridge, stopping to look back at the enormous dome of St. Paul’s. From the bridge I could see Big Ben and the bicycle wheel of the London Eye. The sky was partly sunny and pleasant breeze blew across my face. After crossing the bridge I sat on a bench and made the first entry in my journal. In it I described the trip, the misery of my cold and my hope that the trip would be a fun and safe one. As an American, when you’re in Europe, at first you constantly feel the need to keep reminding yourself that you are there, that America is an ocean away. This is scary and exhilarating feeling. My journey had just begun.