It’s the spring of 2015 and classes at University College London have just broken out into a one-month Reading Break.
After several months of dreaming about our favourite destinations, planning the trip over painstaking long-distance FaceTime calls, and carefully building up a travel budget through a retail job (in her case) and taking advantage of betting companies’ free bet offers (in mine), it was finally time for Jessy and I to embark on a grand tour of Europe.
Backpacking through Europe is perhaps one of the most clichéd travel experiences among young travellers of a largely North American background, and for good reason.
Cities across Europe are relatively safe and English is widely spoken. And yet, the cobblestoned Old Town streets, bustling town squares, and hilltop castles evoke an unmistakable foreign charm, bestowing a lifelong love of travel upon many of the backpackers who roam through the continent’s storied capitals.
Jessy and I were no exception – this was undoubtedly one of the best periods of our lives at the time, and we knew that we wouldn’t get another opportunity to travel in such care-free fashion after graduating from university.
I’ll walk you through the multi-month-long itinerary and share a few highlights from our trek across the continent, in the hopes that it might inspire a few of you to undertake something similar (or to encourage your coming-of-age children to do so).
I redeemed 30,000 United MileagePlus miles – which I had mostly earned from crediting my revenue flights back to Asia over the last few years – to fly Jessy from Toronto to London on Air Canada (with no fuel surcharges, thanks to booking through United!) in late March 2015. And after a week or so exploring London, our Europe trip would begin at St. Pancras International station:
Eurostar to Paris, France; three nights
Swiss flight to Geneva, Switzerland; two nights
EasyJet flight to Nice, France; two nights
Train to Monaco for the day
Overnight train to Rome, Italy; two nights
Train to Naples, Italy; three nights
Side trip from Naples to the island of Capri
EasyJet flight to Venice, Italy; two nights
Train to Ljubljana, Slovenia; two nights
Train to Zagreb, Croatia; one night
Bus to Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia; two nights
Bus to Split, Croatia; one night
Bus to Dubrovnik; three nights
Flight to Zagreb, Croatia; one night
Train to Belgrade, Serbia; one night
Aegean Airlines flight to Athens, Greece; four nights
Ryanair flight to London
Living It Up in Paris
This was a simpler time, well before I had collected my first hotel loyalty point, and so we mainly stayed at hostels and guesthouses during this trip. Whether it was a shared room with a dozen fellow travellers or an affordable private room with an ensuite, everything was pretty basic and bare-bones.
Jessy did have one wish for her 20th birthday, though: to stay in a fancy hotel somewhere in Paris and feel extra Parisian, or something like that.
And so, on our third night in Paris, we departed our cute hostel halfway up Montmartre, affixed our love locks on Pont des Arts (shortly before they stopped letting people put up love locks), and checked into the Maison Athenée, a moody and romantic boutique hotel in Place Vendôme which ate up a good chunk of my budget.
Our 16-square-metre Superior Room was definitely on the cozy side, but we revelled in our posh surroundings for the night, drinking cheap wine from fancy glasses and snacking on beignets from the bakery across the street on our balcony.
It was only an ephemeral one night of luxury before we’d return to the shoestring budget for the rest of the trip – but little did I know that I’d be recreating the fancy Parisian hotel experience over at the Hôtel de Berri and their 95-square-metre Berri Suite only a few years later.
A Swiss Side Trip
Between the French capital and the French Riviera, we popped over to the east by a few degrees of longitude for a few days in Geneva, Switzerland.
Known for being the home of international institutions like the United Nations and the Red Cross, Geneva is eminently clean, straight-edged, and, well, expensive. With a mediocre box of sushi easily coming to 20 Swiss francs, we decided to save our funds for only the most essential purchases, like an unlimited-ride tram pass in the city and a pot of fondue overlooking Lake Geneva.
For me, the highlight of Geneva was the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, which remains to this day one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. The museum showcased the organization’s humanitarian work through a series of highly moving exhibits, all of which pushed the boundaries of creativity as well. I’d strongly recommend it if you find yourself in the region.
Where’s All the Money Going?
It was somewhere in Nice, over a dinner of moules-frites at a local brasserie overlooking the Côte d’Azur, that Jessy and I realized we had been spending money way too frivolously up until this point.
Indeed, we had already splurged on a brasserie dinner under the Eiffel Tower last week, and here we were eating at a brasserie again; if this continued, we’d find our travel budget depleted very soon.
The next evening, after climbing up to the Castle of Nice and strolling through the weekend farmer’s market at the foot of the hill, Jessy and I retreated to our hostel living room with a dinner of cheap beef kebabs, coming to terms with a stark realization: now that we had front-loaded most of our travel spending, there’d be a lot more of these types of meals over the coming month.
Monte Carlo, The Hard Way
The principality of Monaco can be quite easily explored as a day trip from Nice, but Jessy and I had inadvertently planned our visit in the most gruelling fashion possible: as a one-day stopover point along the train ride from Nice to Rome, thus forcing us to haul our luggage around through Monaco’s steep hills and winding cobblestone paths.
Nevertheless, we took to the task with enthusiasm, making our way to the Prince’s Palace, the Oceanographic Museum (it might be surprising that one of Monaco’s best attractions is its aquarium, but it’s well worth the time), and the Monte Carlo resort area over the course of the day in the blazing-hot sunshine.
I must say, the Monte Carlo Casino looked quite impressive in real life after seeing it in the movies, even though I rocked up to the casino floor in my sweaty tourist clothes looking a lot less like James Bond than I had hoped.
I’ve yet to return to Monaco since then, but I certainly hope to be more put-together when the time comes.
Mixed Feelings in Italy
Italy would be a significant part of the trip, as we’d spend about a week exploring Rome, Naples, and Venice. I must say, however, that it’s a country that left us with mixed feelings as we departed, and we haven’t been in a hurry to return since.
On one hand, Italy’s beauty is undeniable: casting my gaze upon the Colosseum, sipping espresso at the base of the Spanish Steps, and drinking in the views atop Monte Solaro on the island of Capri were all moments that I’ll never forget.
And yet, many parts of the country, such as Naples’s backstreets and the state of the train system, remain underdeveloped compared to their fellow European nations, and I can’t help but feel the country’s rustic charm is somewhat over-romanticized.
The hordes of tourists don’t help either, I suppose: the main islands of Venice were pretty hectic throughout the day, and it was only upon taking the vaporetto to the outer islands of Burano and Murano that we could enjoy our colourful surroundings at an easier pace.
I’d love to return to see more of the country one day, of course, but I just haven’t been in a hurry to do so given my indifferent impressions last time around.
Stranded at the Border
There are no direct trains from Venice to Ljubljana; instead, one must take the train to Trieste in northeastern Italy, then a rickety old tram car up to the town of Villa Opicina in the hillside, followed by a once-daily train in the afternoon to the Slovenian capital.
Our arrival into Trieste was on schedule, but somehow I decided it’d be a good idea to eat an entire rotisserie chicken for lunch at the train station (remember, we were on a tight budget these days). But that little delay meant that we’d end up arriving at the Villa Opicina train station about 10 minutes after the only train of the day had departed!
Thankfully, by a pure stroke of luck, I saw an advertisement for taxi services at the otherwise empty train station. And using a broken cell phone signal, I was able to call the number on Skype and see if a driver would be willing to bring us over the border to Sezana, the Slovenian border town, from which we’d be able to catch a regular bus to the capital.
With disaster averted, Jessy and I were able to spend a very eye-opening couple of days in Slovenia, which is truly a hidden gym among its more frequently-visited Central European neighbours. The city of Ljubljana itself is one of the cutest national capitals you’ll ever visit, the landmark Ljubljana Castle towering over an easily walkable town centre.
However, no visit to the country would be complete without a day at Lake Bled, the picture-perfect lake in the heart of the Alps that has come to symbolize Slovenia’s beauty.
In one of the more romantic moments of the trip, Jessy and I rented a rowboat and I rowed us over to the island in the middle of the lake – but after that, I spent all my energy hurriedly rowing us back to the shore so that we remained within the one-hour time limit and didn’t dip into our budget even more.
A Perfect Week in Croatia
After Slovenia, we continued east into Croatia, spending a week up and down the Adriatic Coast in what would become the inspiration for our “How to Spend a Perfect Week in Croatia” article. Make sure to check out that piece for the full recap of this stretch of the journey.
With a smaller capital of Zagreb that’s nonetheless thrumming with busy squares and illuminating museums, stunning waterfalls in the form of Plitvice Lakes National Park, the seaside resort town of Split that attracts visitors from all over Europe, and of course the distinctive Dubrovnik of Game of Thrones fame, it’s no wonder that Croatia is quickly emerging as one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Europe.
Our decision to make the journey down the Adriatic via a series of inter-city bus rides might’ve seemed ambitious from the outset – especially as the locals’ command of English tends to get weaker and weaker as you go further east in Europe – but we made it work, and we couldn’t have been happier about it.
That’s because the scenic views along this drive are truly some of the best in the world. There was one point on the approach to Dubrovnik when we emerged from the trees and the sunset upon the Adriatic Sea instantly burst into view, with the fortified rock of Dubrovnik merely a speck on the horizon.
The week in Croatia was probably the highlight of our entire trip, and I must say that even after all the new places I’ve visited in the many years since, Croatia remains near the very top of the list of places I’d like to return to sometime soon.
The process of finding one’s own way across Europe while hopping through hostels, getting around on cheap flights and trains, and surviving on kebabs and brews is a tried-and-true rite of passage in the stories of many travellers, and it’s always fun to reminisce on my own version of the journey in the spring of 2015.
While I didn’t cover everything in this article, the many highlights and mishaps along the journey taught me many things that shape the way I travel today, and I’m quite impressed with our younger selves that we managed to pull off such a wonderful trip as a pair of young twenty-somethings.
Compared to those days, my travels in the present often overlap with other obligations (including the very website that you’re reading this this on), and I must say I do feel a certain nostalgia for the carefree mode of travel that I had enjoyed as a student.
But then again, at the end of our Europe trip, I had vowed to do everything in my power to continue travelling to my heart’s content – and it’s the fulfillment of those obligations that allows me to do so. For now, then, it’s all about finding the right balance.