Where Have I Traveled That I Could Live?

This post was a guest post I did for another travel blogger’s site, but I liked it so much I decided to put it up here too! 😉

When you get back home from a big adventure abroad, everyone always asks you, “What was your favorite place?” As a traveler, you and I both know this is an unanswerable question. I’d always say things like, “I like this place best for this… this one for this…” Or, “This place was most beautiful… this place was most fun,” to deflect questions like this. I almost feel guilty saying one spot is better than another, so before I dive in, let me say that all of Europe (my most recent trip) is exquisite. The food, culture, architecture, and history make it a unique and special continent. However, one country in particular that stood out to me was France, and this is because of many reasons.

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Breakfast at home

I was lucky. I got to experience the fast-paced, city-life of France, and the slow countryside, both as a tourist and as a local. I went to Paris when I was backpacking; I stayed in an outdoor community of artists and actors and slept in a tent in the dead center of the city. I got breakfast in a café, and watched people working and bustling to their destinations, Although Paris is a city; it’s different from an American city. People still take their time, are extremely friendly and respectful, and every building is so architecturally unique and detailed that you think it must be a palace before you look closer and find out it’s a McDonald’s. I loved Paris. I could picture myself working there and grabbing a morning coffee and pastry while on the job. There is no shortage of things to do in Paris, whether you like the arts, history, sports, fashion, entertainment, or natural outdoor beauty. This city has it all.

On the flipside, I was also extremely lucky to spend a weekend with some family in the rural commune of Touffailles in Southern France. If you are ever in Southern France or want to experience the slow, countryside-feel of France, I cannot recommend this place enough. I grocery shopped at a market with local vendors selling their fresh catches of seafood and homegrown melons and vegetables. I went to small cafes sprinkled alongside cobblestone paths. I hiked up tall hills that overlooked neighboring towns and communes. The unique thing about this area is that it was occupied centuries ago, so almost all of the towns are built on tops of hills because in ancient times they needed to be built high in order to ward off and better defend against attacking intruders. History is everywhere here. My first day there I got a coffee and scone at a café, that was placed casually in the same plaza as an 11th century abbey. Wow. Drinking my coffee I got to go into the abbey and see antiquated stained-glass windows and gold decorations. I remember thinking; I could totally live like this. Walk down the hill to the town’s bakery every morning, say hello to neighbors in the close knit community where everyone knows everyone, go to the market at noon, spend my Tuesday evenings eating snails and duck, drinking local sweet white wine, and dancing at the Marché Gourmands in the Lauzerte square.

Many people in France have an apartment in Paris, where they spend Monday through Friday, working and living in the real life. And then they also have a family home in the countryside where they spend leisurely weekends basking in the sun and dining out. Well, that’s pretty much my dream! I loved every city I went to in Europe, but I’ve got to say, the French really know what they’re doing.

What I learned from Backpacking in Europe

This summer I went on a backpacking adventure through Europe. I had never traveled without my parents before, and all I had was a backpack, limited Spanish, and my friend. The two of us took on multiple means of transportation, major cities, tiny towns, and proved to our families and ourselves that two, 20-year-old female college students with zero traveling experience can navigate, finance, and travel through Europe.

How to Pack

I took my brother’s camping backpack with me, which had about seven pockets, 13 zippers, and towered above my head. I sifted through numerous travel blogs before leaving on my trip, trying to find out what I needed for six weeks abroad and how I could carry it all with me. One of the best pieces of advice I found out there is to make sure every article of clothing you bring goes with everything else in your bag. In other words, if you have a shirt that is so cute but only looks good with one specific pair of jeans, don’t bring it. You’re going to be so short on luggage room, only bring items you wear often, are comfortable in, and go with each other. Also, bring little travel bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and whatever shower necessities you like. We stayed in hostels, (even tents) and discount places won’t provide essentials like these. Finally, invest in a super comfortable, durable pair of hiking sandals! I used a cheaper version of Birk’s and they worked perfectly for me. The last thing you want is to be crawling through Rome because your feet are blistered.

How to Budget

Financing your own travels as a broke college student is hard, but not impossible! We primarily used hostels.com to book our lodgings, which turned out really well. However, if you’re going to travel on the cheap, you have to truly commit yourself to it. Both my friend and I were ready to be uncomfortable, do anything to save money, and were focused on using our money to see more places rather than stay in luxurious hotels. To some people, staying over night in Paris in a tiny tent on the ground with an outdoor bathroom sounds terrible! And that’s ok. Be honest with yourself about what you want, because otherwise being less comfortable than you had intended will ruin your trip. You can also save on museums and tours by researching before you get there, to find out student discounts. In Europe, many places give discounts to under-26-year-olds. For food, we splurged on a big, authentic meal once a day. We’d eat cheap breakfasts, like fruit and bread (typical European breakfast) and then go all out for lunch or dinner. That way, we’d get a taste of every country without spending $20 three times a day on meals. You will spend the most money on transportation and lodging. Research hostel prices and determine how many nights you can afford to stay in a city, and plan accordingly with travel expenses. Flying between European countries is often cheaper (and faster) than trains, and staying in hostels outside of the city is cheaper than staying in the heart of it.

You Can’t Plan Everything

You can’t, we tried. Do plan out as much as you can control, but be ok with the fact that some of your plans are going to fall through and you will be met with obstacles. Backpacking or traveling on your own is different than a vacation; it takes some effort, planning, and you will learn as much about traveling as you do about yourself. We had some transportation issues. In Italy especially, buses and trains are usually late, and this caused as a few schedule complications. But as you go, you’ll learn to adapt to challenges and fix problems quickly. Traveling with the mindset of, “I will do the research and do my best to prevent problems for myself, but understand they will arise anyway” is the best way to go.

You Can Do It

You really can! Don’t be afraid! Our parent and friends thought we were crazy. I promise, we had absolutely ZERO traveling experience, but we were able to travel by ferry, car, bus, train, and plane. We visited seven countries. We saw historical marvels of the world, tasted authentic cuisine, played tourist and immersed ourselves with locals. I’m also someone who, before this trip, couldn’t read a map. Now, I’m confident in my abilities to get myself anywhere. It will be scary, stressful, and hard at times, but those are the times you will learn and grow the most. Our ongoing joke was that we were forced to learn “hello,” “excuse me,” and “exit,” in every language we encountered, mostly taught to us by navigating our way through the underground metros. Traveling transformed my worldview, confidence, and capabilities. It can change yours too 🙂

 

Pisa, and the last of Italia

Let me first say, the bus ride to Pisa, Italy from Rome was the most picturesque bus ride I have ever been on in my life. Traveling through Europe made me privy to many beautiful places, but there is no countryside more naturally gorgeous than the Western Coast of Italy. I highly recommend bussing or taking a train through this during the day so you can witness the vibrant blues and greens and rolling hills and remote cottages that are too stunning to be properly captured in a picture. But anyways…

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On the bus to Pisa

Pisa! We made it. The final stop before going our separate ways in Spain. After the long bus ride, we made it to the slightly isolated and quaint province of Pisa. Pisa is not a huge, booming, tourist-filled city. Besides the Leaning Tower, there isn’t much else going on. But that’s all we came to see; and frankly, a sleepy town was perfect after all of the running around in Rome. We did a lot of walking through Pisa. Transportation was fairly reliable, and we were able to use both walking and the public bus system to get around. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is cool! It’s located in a pleasantly underrated area with surprisingly just a handful of tourists. It is a huge, sparkling white tower that does look like it’s about to fall over. It costs some euros to get in and walk to the top, so we opted out of that. After taking our stereotypical Leaning Tower pics, we headed “home” for the night. Our last night in Italy, and we ate Chinese takeout! You start to get over carbs, and since the only other options in Italian food are a side salad or some meat, we needed a break from authentic cuisine. The Chines food was surprisingly delicious! This laid-back night concluded our backpacking journey and my time in Italy. It was a truly unique country that I am eager to explore again. Our hostel was walking distance form the airport, and run by an impressive German trilingual fill-in traveler just getting into the hostel-running world, who did everything he could to make us feel at home. The next morning, bright and early at 5 am, we were off to catch our planes. Mine, to Madrid, to start my Spanish adventure.

More Stories from Rome!

The Pantheon is incredible. It is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and its absolutely spectacular inside. There are lines to get in, but they didn’t take too long to get through. Once inside you will see sculptures, artwork, and, of course, the intricately designed dome ceiling. We left the Pantheon full of culture—but empty of food, and so we made our way to a nearby restaurant. Almost everywhere you go to eat will have pasta, wine, bread, salad, and pizza. It is not hard to find an authentic Italian meal in Rome, which is great because the food is delicious!

 

That night we were staying at a campground (camping for the second time this trip). However, this experience was totally different than Paris. The Parisian campsite was fun, a little different, and was in a prime location. Having that as our only European communal camping experience made this Roman campsite look like a resort. Our “tent” was a canvas room, with bunk beds and a sliding, LOCKING door. The campground was equipped with an actively used pool, even more actively used bar, and dining and grocery shopping needs. It was huge. We had been a bit uneasy at the thought of camping again, just because we had become accustomed to sleeping in beds, but this campground blew away all of our preconceived notions of camping. Everything was clean, functional, and downright luxurious!

Our last stop before saying goodbye to Rome was Vatican City. Did you know that Vatican City is actually its own country? It is, and the smallest in the world. It also takes about two hours to get into Vatican City because of lines, and since we didn’t have the time for that we opted for a paid-for guided tour that let us skip the queue.

The Vatican is amazing, as I’m sure you would have guessed. My favorite part was the Sistine Chapel and its beautiful ceiling. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in the Chapel. Also, you’ll have to wear clothes that cover your shoulders and aren’t too short. The chapel is a scene of breathtaking beauty that provokes you to wonder in amazement at how something so detailed and gorgeous could have ever even been created. I could have stood and stared at that ceiling for hours and still not memorized every figure, color, and scene captured. I recommend a tour if you’re in a rush or are interested in learning about what you’re seeing. We went through almost the whole Vatican until we had to catch our next bus. We ended up running through part of it, just so we could make sure to see the Sistine Chapel before we had to leave—which was totally worth it!

Rome is a memorizing place of history, culture, and beautiful art. I would love to go back. Next stop, and last of the backpacking, is Pisa, Italy.

Roma, My First Cappuccino, and More Camping

Rome! We had arrived. Our bus left from Venice the night before. For a moment, we thought the bus would never come and that we’d have to make frantic impromptu plans—Milan airport style. But it ended up ok, and that the bus was just two hours late. Something I learned, particularly about Italian travel, is that their polychronic time culture expands to the transportation systems. This means you can’t plan for or expect Italian travel methods to be on time, except the metro. When we got to Rome around 7 am, we still had a few hours until we could check into our hostel.

The first thing we saw, after grabbing a coffee and pastry (the croissants are different in Italy!), was the Altare della Patria. The locals call this The Wedding Cake, because it’s rectangular, white, and tall, but the name reflects a gaudy and frivolous connotation, which the Romans aim at whom the monument is for: Vittorio Emanuele II. Vittorio was the first king of unified Italy, and as our walking tour guide told us, not very embraced by the Romans. To the local, the monument symbolizes Vittorio’s love for himself instead of the promised unity and advancement of the Italian people.

The walking tour that we went on was great. Very informative, spoken in excellent English, and free! If I had known about these sooner I would have looked them up for every city we visited. They’re a great, cheap way to learn the history of what you’re looking at. Which is especially crucial in Rome. On this tour, we also saw the Spanish Steps, Campo Marzio, and the Trevi Fountain.

After our walking tour of the city we checked into our hostel. Two Ducks, it was called. Despite having almost all terrible reviews, we committed to the place because it was cheap and convenient.

It actually turned out to be ok! No hot water in the showers, which was hard to get used to, but we were only there for one night. The view of the city from our room was great and we were near a cute breakfast bar (in Europe many bars will also serve breakfast) where I ended up having my first cappuccino. European cappuccinos, unlike American as I’ve since found out, have chocolate in them, along with the coffee, steamed milk, and foam. Delicious.

Later that day, we also went to go see the Coliseum! —As well as some incredible ruins, a yummy midday meal, and the exquisite Pantheon. The Coliseum was incredible. We waited in line for a good amount of time, but definitely less than an hour. I had my British passport, and that helped me get into the speedier line, also if you have a student ID card or identification proving your under 25 years old, you can get a discounted ticket. Once inside, the structure was so cool. They built a wooden platform over some of the area that a platform would have originally covered, this showed where the platform would have been and where gladiators would have walked, and leaving some of the space uncovered showed some underground tunnels where the warriors and beasts walked under the stadium. You could really imagine where the seats would have been and could even see the big arches where fighters walked through into the platform to be enveloped by the crowd. Much of the structure has been depleted, not because of time, but unfortunately because of stone theft. When the Roman Empire was crumbling, many thieves stole this stone to be used as building materials elsewhere, but the remaining structure gives a good insight into what the Coliseum once looked like.

To keep this article at a decent length, I’ll finish the rest of Rome in the next article, Rome Part #2! Read on to experience the Pantheon, more gelato and pasta, the Vatican, and our campground.

Venice!!! In all its glory

Venice is beautiful. And unique. And touristy. The first two are better than the latter, but with the delicious food, multi-colored buildings, arching bridges, and countless boats gliding scenically on the water, it’s not hard to see why so many people go there. We walked around Venice all day, arriving around noon by bus and departing around midnight by bus, with our big packs. That’s the beauty of Venice. There are probably tours you could take, definitely gondola rides you could pay for, but the best way to experience Venice is just to walk through it. Each building is different to its neighbor. No two bridges look the same. The city is full of brightly painted shutters and walls, absolutely looming over the water, with nothing but a thin sliver of pavement to separate them. Venice truly is the floating city.

There are a few good things to know before going to Venice, especially if you are traveling to Europe for the first time or if this is the first touristy destination you visit. First, get gelato here—but don’t spend more than two euros! You can actually find it for less. We walked around to all of the shops and restaurants, and you’ll find good deals in the front but the back is less crowded. Don’t bother eating in St. Mark’s Square unless you’re willing to spend a pretty penny (more on St. Mark’s later). The best gelato I had in Italy was in Venice; it was absolutely wonderful. Nothing like American ice cream. The food in Venice, holistically, is really yummy, and if you walk around a bit like we did you’ll be able to find something affordable. We didn’t buy the three course meals; we opted for two dishes of pasta (which we shared), a glass of wine, and saved the rest for gelato. Our pasta was delicious; we ate right on the Grand Canal, and spent around eleven euros each. Best pesto I’ve ever had was in Venice, and usually prefer my own!

One thing to be wary of, and this is specifically for St. Mark’s Square, are the “vendors”. I don’t call them real vendors because they aren’t really selling anything, just trying to bully you into giving away your money. We got caught in the middle of the Square by two men who randomly came up to us and poured dried pasta into our hands. We were then swarmed by flock of pigeons that flew onto our arms, gripping their tiny talons onto our wrists, and digging their little beaks into our hands full of feed. The pigeons kept coming, some flying overhead and perching on our shoulders and backpacks. Pretty soon, we were feeding about twenty pigeons, as the “vendor” kept filling our hands with feed. We continued to refuse, until the pigeons just became too much and we dropped the noodles on the floor and started to walk away. This is when the men became angry, demanding money for their “service.” We had gotten some good pictures with the pigeons, so I reached into my money belt to give him the only coin I had, a 50-cent. The man then complained loudly that I had a five-euro bill—which I did—which his “business” deserved and that 50 p was not enough. This ended it for me and I left him with nothing. They had never asked us if we wanted to feed the birds, didn’t “sell” the noodles to us, and continue to force them into our hands even while we refused. This is not a business. Be wary of people like this; I had already dealt with the numerous merchants who will pester you with goods, or beggars asking for money, but this sneaky method was new to us.

Besides that, Venice was beautiful and safe. My favorite part was eating dinner on the Grand Canal. We were so close that when big boats, like the water taxi, would drive by we’d have to pick up our feet a little to avoid an incoming wave that rolled over some of the pavement. Sitting outside adjacent to the colorfully reflective canal, watching slow boats motor tourists through the floating city, with a glass of white wine illuminated by only a candle at our table, was the perfect way to end the day.