Have you ever wanted to drop everything you were doing, jump on a plane, and see what you could find? Frequently, such a notion is extremely difficult to actually carry out. Jobs, family, pets, the word RESPONSIBILITY (whatever the reason may be) often prevents people from venturing to the unknown on a whim. But right before I went to law school, I did just that.
A good friend of mine from college, Jenna, called me up a week before she was leaving and said, “I’ve been laid off, but they gave me a severance package. I’m going to Europe for a few months.” At first I thought, you’re crazy to travel over to Europe, without an itinerary or plan, by yourself as a young, attractive, clearly American, blonde woman. But then I thought why not? I’m coming too. I had nothing tying me down, except for a job that was extremely accommodating, and I was leaving for law school in two months.
I quickly researched flights and by pure chance found a roundtrip ticket from Seattle to London for $515.00, leaving in exactly two weeks from the date of purchase. Not too shabby so I booked it. I then bought a 3-day France Rail Europe pass. I was all set to go aside from buying a handy Osprey traveling pack, which had wheels but could transform into a backpack. Oh yeah! Still the best suitcase/backpack I’ve bought to this day.
Although I couldn’t travel for the whole summer like my traveling confidant, I had a good two weeks to see as much as I could. I had no solid plans, a flimsy itinerary and no sure guarantee Jenna would actually show up at our scheduled rendevous point. The only thing we had decided prior to leaving is that I would meet her in London in two weeks. I plugged what meager travel details I had into TripIt and sent it off to family and friends.
Up until the day I left, my nerves were on high alert. I hadn’t heard from Jenna in a couple of days, and I wasn’t quite sure where she actually was. Would she make it to London in time to meet up? Although we planned to travel as frugally as possible to make every last dollar count by staying in hostels and the like, I booked a hotel for the first couple of nights in London, just to have a fail safe place to start in case she didn’t show up. I was beginning to wonder if I’d be traveling on my own.
I had been to Europe once before when I was 16. I traveled with my family for a house exchange in the northern Catalonia region of Spain. We spent a couple of weeks staying in a countryside villa outside the town of Borreda above a cheese factory, a few days on the Spanish coast in the town of Cadaques, famous for its connection to Salvador Dali, and a couple days in a flat in Barcelona. But I had never traveled around Europe by myself.
On this trip to Europe, I was confident that I’d be able to find my way around. I was starting off in London for goodness sakes; not quite the international maze of language barriers that some countries present. But, nonetheless, I was still a little uneasy.
|Big Ben, London, England|
I boarded the plane bound for London and arrived bright and early the next morning to the sun shining over the city. I hopped on the Tube and headed over to the Shaftsbury Kensington Hotel off of the Earl’s Court tube stop. It was still early so I had time to kill. I decided to see what I could find downtown, so I walked around Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, down to Parliament Square and Westminster Abby. I arrived at Westminster just as an Evensong Service was about to start and I decided to sit in. How often would I have the opportunity right? It was a neat way to start the trip, to sit in a very iconic building in London and observe. By late afternoon, I went back to the hotel and there, Jenna sat, patiently in the lobby. I was definitely glad to see her. Our adventure had officially begun.
We spent the next couple of days touring London; riding up in the London Eye, watching a play at the Shakespeare Globe Theater, walking around the Tower Bridge, Notting Hill and Hyde Park, and touring the British and Natural History Museums and Kensington Gardens. We also dabbled in the nightlife and met some locals along the way.
|Tower Bridge, London, England|
At the end of the three days, we decided to hop on a bus to Glasglow, Scotland. After it seemed like tireless research the night before, we decided to stay at the Euro Hostel once we arrived. At that point, I was not very familiar with hostels, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but Jenna had no qualms about it whatsoever and so we were off. We sat on a bus for eight hours and arrived in Glasglow just in time for dinner. The hostel turned out to be decent enough, like a giant ten floor dormitory with vending machines, a rec room and all. Neon lights glowed outside the windows.
Over the next two days we traveled around Glasglow and over to Edinburgh, Scotland, touring the Edinburgh Castle in the pouring rain, searching for Scottish wool scarves and enjoying the pubs.
|Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland|
Next stop was Paris, France. We took the train to the Glasglow (Prestwick) airport and boarded a Ryanair flight to Beauvais outside of Paris. (Side note: If you’ve never experienced the wonder of Ryanair or Easyjet Airlines, albeit meager amenities, those two airlines are usually by far the cheapest air travel you will find in many parts of Europe.) Once we arrived in Paris after taking an hour bus ride from Beauvais, we hopped on the crowded Metro, luggage in tow and headed towards our hotel.
|Eiffel Tower, Paris, France|
By now, finding a place to stay (and an internet cafe) every time we were moving cities was starting to take its toll, and particularly this time it seemed impossible to find a decently priced place to stay, even a hostel, at the last minute. After much debate, we opted to stay at a Comfort Hotel just on the outskirts of the Clichy district of Paris. We of course didn’t know this at the time, but if you’ve ever seen the movie Taken, where Liam Neeson attempts to track down his daughter by talking to one of the call girls on the street… yeah, we were staying just a couple blocks down from there. Oh well! C’est la vie! We spent the next three days touring the city; the Eiffle Tower, the Louve, Norte Dame, eating fresh baked baguettes and gorging on crepes. We walked the streets, explored the Parisian City of Lights in all its glory, and then it was time to move on.
|The Louve, Paris, France|
|Norte Dame, Paris, France|
We decided our next stop would be Bordeaux so we took a high speed train towards the south of France. This time we weren’t so lucky. We arrived late after the buses had stopped running and were forced to take a $40 dollar cab ride to the hotel on the outskirts of town. But on the flip side, just in case we were feeling homesick for American fare, there was a Buffalo Grill right next to our hotel. Our hotel, itself, was themed like a giant sailboat, portholes and all. The room was also the size of a boat cabin but really what could we expect on our budget.
The next day made it well worth going to Bordeaux. The narrow streets were filled with storefronts and people roaming about. Macroons were pilled high in the windows of little pastry shops. We took a tour out to the Chauteau Larmande in Saint-Emilion, a little village in the countryside. It was beautiful. The vineyards stretched over the rolling hillsides, and the cobbled streets wove through the village. It was everything I would imagine the wine country of France would be.
Unfortunately, my tour with Jenna was drawing to an end, so we decided to make our way to Nice, France by sleeping on an overnight train. All I can say is riding on the overnight train was probably the closest I will ever come to riding in a full fledge cattle car. The bunks were three to a side, and it was a toss up as to who would be above and below us. I drifted off to sleep with the help of a trusty sleeping pill and awoke as the light was just beginning to break. I stumbled out to the hallway and struck up a conversation with a young French boy who spoke little English. Later, we met up with the boy and his friends from the train at a McDonalds nonetheless (their choice of course) and we learned that they were studying art in Nice. They showed us around the town, we swapped stories of the U.S. and France, and then we went on our way.
Happily, the hostel we stayed at turned out to be the best one of the whole trip, the Hotel Pastoral. The next few days we wandered around the streets of Nice, down to the waterfront, the beach, through an Italian cheese and meat market while enjoying the Mediterranean weather. Meanwhile, I had to figure out a way to get back to London to fly home and wasn’t too keen on taking another overnight train, so I booked a flight back to Paris and then over to London.
Two weeks had passed and it was time for me to head home. I sadly left Jenna sitting at the train station. She was continuing on as planned unsure of where she would go next, looking a little uneasy to be on her own again, but I had a flight to catch. So in an instant, just as our adventure began, we went our separate ways. I traveled back to London and stayed at a Holiday Inn by the airport, a familiar place to spend my last night. I walked down the street and found an English pub, craving one last adventure, but my spirit had weakened. I was alone now, exhausted and not as courageous as I had been at the start, so I trudged back to the hotel and said goodnight. It was time to travel home.
I returned home with a new appreciation for travel. I ventured out on my own, experienced a little piece of the world and came home with a stronger desire to travel more than ever. That’s really all you can ask for after a great trip. I felt alive and exhilarated, but tired. Between spending a considerable amount of time planning our next step in internet cafes i.e. where we were going, where we would stay, how we would get there and seeing all we could in the short time we were there, I was worn out. But, it wouldn’t be long until I would return again. The craving to travel was too strong to ignore. This time around, though, I’d be better prepared and perhaps, just maybe, have some sort of plan.