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 🙂

 

Madrid, Spain

Madrid is very much a normal city. I stayed in a business-y district, so there wasn’t a lot of cultural differences or exceptional architecture. If you go to Madrid and only Madrid, it would not be an accurate portrayal of all of Spain. However, that’s how most large cities are. My favorite part of Madrid, which was pretty awesome, was going to El Museo del Prado. This museum is home to Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, my favorite piece of artwork I saw in Europe.

My second favorite thing I saw in Madrid was the Royal Palace. I cannot explain the lavishness of these rooms… not even a picture does it justice. Each room has deeply colored walls and patterns with sparking, ornate chandeliers. The detail that blew my mind the most was the amount of gold decorated in every single room. So. Much. Gold. Each room was so decadently furnished and maintained; it was really a sight worth seeing.

Madrid is a cool city, but not my favorite place in Spain. Reflecting back I really loved the more cultural, smaller towns. Which I will divulge into! In later posts 🙂