how it all happened...
"The American dollar is strong" "If there's a time to travel to Europe - it's now!" "10 reasons you need to travel Europe... now"
We read it over and over. We heard it from parents, friends and coworkers. Now is the time to travel to Europe. It's Thanksgiving weekend, 2014, and Matt and I figured if we book the plane tickets - then it will be official - we'll be going to Europe the following Spring. So, we did just that. Two tickets from Boston Logan to Dublin, Ireland and another two from Lisbon, Portugal to Boston Logan. We used CheapoAir to get a good deal. The following months flew by as work, family and home-life infiltrated our days. Soon, it was Spring and we knew we had only a few months before departure. We bought Rough Guide's First Time Europe and read it cover to cover taking notes and placing tabs on the important pages. I've read travel help-books before and this one was perfect. It gave us the raw details on how things will really be for first-time backpackers. Within a month of take-off, and per recommendation of the book, we bought our backpacks, lightweight clothes and survival essentials. We bought our Eurail pass and made last-minute checkups at the doctor and dentist. The week we took off, we made copies of our passports, IDs and flight information amidst our busiest time of year at work. We packed the night before the flight after having gathered everything days before. We started booking the first few nights of hotels and the flight from Ireland to the mainland. But it all worked - we researched and spoke with people we knew had traveled to Europe before (one of which was a coworker who recommended a money clip after her thrilling story of an experiences in Germany soon after the fall of the Berlin wall.) If you're a planner - plan as much and as often as you can. It's worth it! If you're not - I see you. I am you! We didn't plan much and as exhilarating and spontaneous parts of the trip were, a lot of the time was spent planning. You'd rather do it at home behind your computer screen and not in a place you've never been before. Bottom line - go, go, go! Before you find one of the millions excuses to not.
Day 1 - Galway, Ireland
We arrived in Dublin around 8:00 AM local time with only a couple hours of sleep. Jazzed by
the fact that we're in Ireland (!!!), we pick up our rental car. Matt's left-handed manual skills on the left side of the road are impressive. We stopped at a local (and seemingly popular) creperie in Dublin for a bite to eat and some caffeinated beverages. Then off to Galway we went! A brown sign on the side of the highway read "somethingsomething distillery" and we hopped off the next exit at the old Kilbeggan whiskey distillery for a tour and tasting. After arriving in Galway, we checked in and headed back out. This time, for some freshly-caught local seafood from a restaurant over 110 years old - needless to say it was worth the brisk walk. Ireland is much cooler than either of us had expected, but nothing a few layers can't fix. We ended the night exhausted from a lack of sleep (and a few pops) by checking out some authentic Irish music in two nearby bars.
Day 2 - Driving Ireland
After falling asleep before 8 the night before (thank you, jet-lag), we woke up around 7 that morning. Keeping our priorities in
check, we quickly got ready and walked the streets of Galway for a coffee shop. The cafe-by-morning, bar-by-night served up some badass lattes and cappuccinos. With only a few hours before checkout, we walked along the river and toured the cathedral. On the road again! Our trek to the Cliffs of Moher might have been the most beautiful route of our trip. We pulled off to take a few scenic pics where an Irish couple a bit older than us recommended we take a different route. We turned around and happened to bump into them down the road at a gas station. Matt paid for the guy's gas and he was more than thankful. But so were we. The Irish are the most friendly, honest and helpful people. Along our amended route, we saw one of Ireland's national parks, a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean and stopped at a local bar/restaurant to grab a couple Guinness and some crab legs. All of the seafood is freshly caught and local. The bartender casually mentioned how their oysters were caught that morning. The pics of the cliffs speak for themselves - but the wind off the water was CRAZY. I caught a video of Matt leaning at a 45 degree angle as the wind held him up. Limerick was next - and anticlimactic. Just another city with no authentic identity. We drove around after grabbing a late dinner until 9 or so. The sun didn't set until after 9:30-10.
Day 3 - Limerick/Dublin, Ireland
Late wake-up in Limerick today. We were up and checked out in 15 minutes flat. Matt noticed a "milk market" on Limerick's city
map the night prior, so we decided to stop in and see what it was all about. It ended up being an all-out farmer's market with small eateries and a fish market mixed in. We sipped our coffee while tasting breads, cured meats, chocolate croissant, baklava and even some local honey. Matt snagged a package of Irish cured beef and a round loaf of fresh bread for the road. Limerick - it's been real. But we're not sad to move onward. Dublin is our last stop before departing for Belgium/Netherlands. The cured meat and bread was the perfect snack to hold us over until Dublin. About an hour and a half later, we were parking our car along Dublin's streets to check out The Porterhouse as recommended by our Dublin-born-and-raised waitress in Limerick the night before. We checked in, returned the car, chatted with our cab driver and enjoyed traditional Irish food at The Mill. The tastiest Shepard's Pie (or Cottage Pie as they call it) I've ever had (sorry, Mom and Dad).
Day 4 - the Netherlands
A day of traveling. Today's alarm awoke us around 4:15AM. By 4:37, we had packed, grabbed tea and coffee, checked out,
hopped on the shuttle and arrived at the luggage check-in. Phewf! We hopped on the 7AM flight to Belgium where we grabbed a bite to eat and round 2 for coffee. The 3.5 hour train ride from there to Amsterdam offered farm land views and the perfect opportunity to catch some z's. We arrived in Amsterdam around 2PM to find it was actually chillier and more rainy than Dublin (which means the camera isn't coming with). However, we utilized the trams and made our way to a nearby coffee shop. Though it was certainly a change of pace purchasing over-the-counter, the atmosphere was definitely chill. But sitting in a smoky room can take a toll if you don't typically partake. So we took off, grabbed a waffle with Nutella and had dinner at an Argentinian restaurant. As we learned from a buddy we met at Boston Logan, the Netherlands has quite the reputation for having good, authentic Argentinian food. It was delish (:
Day 5 - the Netherlands
Amster-daaaayummm! Amsterdam is a lovely city. Bikes outnumber cars, coffee shops outnumber cafes and virtually
everywhere is a photo op. Matt and I found ourselves mastering the tram within our first full day. And no matter what question we had for the city workers or locals, they were always very kind and helpful. We toured the Van Gogh museum (no Starry Night though..?) and stopped at the I Amsterdam sign for some cliche-tourist pics. After grabbing some food (the pic below shows how yummy the mini Dutch pancakes were) and learning the Heineken Experience closed for the day, we stopped in a local cafe for some snacks. I enjoyed the best tea I've ever had (fresh ginger chunks, mint sprigs and lemon juice) and Matt sipped a cappuccino and munched on a orange-almond tart. But the highlight of the night was Amsterdam's ice bar. It was literally freezing - 15 degrees! We enjoyed some "free" drinks and a complimentary vodka shot from the bartender served in ice glasses. We also chatted with a couple from England celebrating their two year anniversary and the girl's birthday. We walked the area afterwards and stopped at a nearby cafe for a hot beverage and some people watching as the sun set.
Day 6 - the Netherlands
If you thought New England's weather was fickle and crappy at times - move here. Yesterday was absolutely beautiful - cool
and temperate, warm in the sun. Today we woke up to the same kind of rain that greeted us the day we arrived. But no sweat - we still strolled the city in our rain gear. The sex museum was first on our list - I'll let your imagination roll with that one. The Heineken Experience was next. It was pretty badass actually... though it was less like a brewery as expected and more like a 3-story interactive bar and arcade. Either way, it was worth our time. The free beer at the end doesn't hurt either. We grabbed a bus pass and headed to Volendam about 20 minutes from the city for a change of pace. It is an old fishing town with beautiful seascape views for backyards. After dinner at a seafood restaurant in walking distance, we settled in.
Day 7 - the Netherlands
Woke up in Volendam at around 8:45. Matt took a walk and brought back pastries and coffee
while I slept in a bit and showered... such a sweetheart (:. We then checked out and headed into town for some mini Dutch pancakes and to hop on the ferry to the once-"island" of Marken. We sat on the top level for the half-hour ferry ride. It was beautiful and super windy, but between the views and the company it was very enjoyable. The island is very small. Up until 1959, the mainland had no access besides through ferry. But that year, they built a road to connect the island of Marken with Volendam. After we got back to the main land, we caught the bus back to Amsterdam for our last full day in the city. We checked in and headed out for a canal tour. It took us through a few of the 1,200 canal bridges that span the city. The canals are also home to more than 2,500 boat houses throughout Amsterdam. Some amazing, authentic Tibet food was our dinner and we snagged some pastries nighttime snacking and the next day's train ride.
Day 8 - Paris, France
Goodbye, Amsterdam! Hello, Paris! After a three hour train ride we made it to Gard Norde station in Paris. Arriving was a little
overwhelming. Barely anyone spoke English (as expected in France) and when we did find someone, we learned our hotel was a 20 minute ride away... aka a 45 minute walk. And with our backpacks and fatigue, that wasn't what we hoped to hear. But nonetheless, we grabbed a cab and after crazy turns and much unorganized congestion on the streets of Paris, we arrived. The Eiffel Tower was right behind our hotel, a beautiful sight. We soon settled in and took off for food and exploring. The best 4€ we spent was to walk the stairs up the Eiffel Tower. Fun fact (and-unknown-by-moi) I'm a little freaked by heights. Its not so much being at the top, but more watching the ground get further away and the open staircase vibrating from the hundred other people doing the same thing. But it was worth it. We later enjoyed some red wine on the Parc du Champ de Mars which is the long stretch of grass with a straight shot of the Tower. After watching the Tower's hourly light show three times and finishing a bottle of wine, we headed back to the hotel around midnight. A bubble bath topped our night before bed.
Day 9 - Paris, France
Things you should know: 1) not knowing French while visiting France sucks and will make you feel extremely ignorant. Matt and I
are even more aware of how important it is to help non-English speakers in the US as much as we can - Kindness and consideration go a long way. 2) the French typically do not wear deodorant. And even when it is 90° they wear pants and long sleeves (we think thats why they're so skinny. That and cigs replace their meals). 3) yes, women do shave. Also, both men and women are all well-dressed. 4) they take their time bringing you your drinks, food and check. 5) Contrary to what we hoped, pharmacies don't sell water...only pharmaceuticals - go figure. Recap: today was extremely hot and consisted of a lot of walking and sight seeing. But yes, the food was always good no matter where we stopped. Even our 7.90€ bottle of store-bought wine beats anything you'd find for equal price in the US. Tomorrow we take off for Italy... and we are very much looking forward to a change in scenery.
Day 10 & morning of 11 - Italy
These were traveling days. In the morning of Day 10, we grabbed snacks for our 7-hour train ride to Ventimiglia while in Paris
and ate breakfast at a local coffee and pastry shop. With only a few hours until departure, we hopped on the subway. The train ride went smoothly with only a brief delay in Nice (not a bad place stare out the window - it's beautiful). Our hotel in Ventimiglia was only a short walk from the train station. We checked in and enjoyed a late dinner by the sea while the locals watched the futbol game. It was, bar none, the best pasta dishes we enjoyed during our stay in Italy. You can't go wrong with a little ma and pop restaurant where no one speaks English and the menu is only in Italian. The following day we left for Rome at the crack of dawn (below you'll see the beautiful sunrise in Ventimiglia).
Day 11 - Rome, Italy
We checked in to the hotel only a few blocks from the train station and settled in. Unlike the other locations, we're booked for
two nights so we're able to unpack a bit more than usual - Aka make the room a hotter mess than normal. It wasn't long before the rain came and we found ourselves seeking shelter at a ristorante around the corner. Matt accompanied his ziti pomodoro with a Peroni beer (Italian). As did I, but with my gnocchi bolognese. We made a "brief" stop at the train station (if there is such a thing) to get our next travels squared away. The rain subsided, so we casually made our way towards the Colosseum. It crept up on us... All of a sudden the archways peeked from behind a street building. The pictures don't do its justice - it's incredibly large and wide. It was around dusk, so the lights just started to illuminate the many arches and crevices. We walked the area of ruins, grabbed two pizzas and a bottle of wine to wrap up the day.
Day 12 - Rome, Italy
Our day started with a complimentary breakfast located under a beautiful outdoor terrace. We soon took off for something
called the Time Elevator. It is a 4D short movie about Rome and its history. As rats crawled up the leg of the main character, the floor shot air at your feet... yeah, I jumped. Water sprayed from the ceiling and the seats we sat in jolted left and right in coordination with the screenplay. We then officially visited the Colosseum. Having purchased our tickets prior to arriving, we were able to skip the awful lines. What an incredible sight. I think Matt read almost every informational board located on the site. We walked its perimeter and even went close to where the events took place. Definitely the highlight of Rome for us. After volunteering to take a couple's photo, we learned they just finished a Mediterranean cruise and are from Atlanta! We talked a bit and soon were impressed to hear they will be completing a Fourth of July 10K as they do every year (did I mention they're in their 50s?). We had a delicious lunch, followed by happy hour food and, of course, some gelato.
Day 13 - Genoa, Italy
Woke up in Rome around 7:30/8 to revisit a pastry shop we passed the night before. We grabbed quite a few snacks and some
coffee before checking out and walking to the train station. Our train to Genoa (yes, like the salami) arrived around 15:00. The town is located on the water with beautiful hilly neighborhoods lining the coast. After checking in, we ate some happy hour food and attempted to use the hotel lobby's wifi (emphasis on attempted). Matt mentioned how our hotel is near "escalators" - some of the largest around! As vague and odd as it was, it intrigued us both. So we headed out for some city exploration. As we approached a nearing "escalator" we begin trekking up flights and flights of stairs. The steps were shallow and took us through neighborhood after neighborhood. Out of breath, we paused at the top of the 10,000th step (so it felt) and had a good laugh realizing these were the fabulous, impressive "escalators" that are so famously known! Idiots. The good news is we got a workout out of it - almost like a city hike. And the views were impressive. From left to right you can see hills meet the cityscape meet the water... so cool. We walked back and had some dinner, gelato (two rounds) and unwound back at the hotel.
Day 14 - Nice, France
Started our morning with a brief walk to the hotel's 3rd floor terrace and a complimentary breakfast. Soon we were off to the
train station. Shout out to the lovely service workers of Genoa's train station for without them we would have been wandering the halls of its maintenance department for hours looking for our terminal. Only one stop in Ventimiglia separates us from our next destination of Nice, France! There we wolfed down two large (and I mean large) slices of pizza and chatted with a young bloke from England who is at the tail end of his five month stay in Italy. He and his girlfriend are teaching English and music to children in Italy. We arrived in Nice mid-afternoon and were soon off to the beach. The city center is vivacious and full of hip little stores with local crafts and food. Everywhere you look is a public space for relaxing, sitting or walking. Every alley leads to another with more restaurants and shops than the one before. We settled on a place called where we enjoyed two salmon dishes and a pizza to top if off. And I have to say, this place did pizza better than the Italians. It was amazing! Not to mention they provide you with a bottle of chile pepper infused olive oil to drizzle to taste. Soooo good. After, we people watched on the pier (Matt gave a tip to one of the kids rollerblading on what looked like a skateboard cut in half), grabbed gelato that happened to be made out of Ventimiglia lemons and called it a night.
Day 15 - Barcelona, Spain
Woke up in Nice and quickly packed our things. Per routine of anyone's morning, we headed out in search of snacks and coffee.
We enjoyed breakfast on some church steps along the main strip and in a matter of minutes were checking out of the hotel. After a brief walk to the train station, we were sitting on our first of three trains. Destination: Barcelona. First stop was in Marseille where we grabbed some sandwiches. Second stop was in Montpellier where we marveled at one woman's lack of consideration (and her oblivion) as her stroller triggered the cafe's automatic slider doors to open... pause halfway... open again... pause halfway...open... You get the picture. She was also unaware of how this prevented the cafe's air to kick on while the peak of the day's heat sweltered on. We laughed and loaded our last train. Barcelona was a little rainy when we arrived but soon became sunny and cool. After checking in we grabbed a late dinner at La Roda where we had a salad, sangria and a grilled meat platter consisting of chicken, rabbit, two cuts of beef and sausage. Gelato and more sangria followed as we chatted with Peter, an English bloke who lost his friends that night, defaulting him to drink at the hotel's bar. They're all here on holiday for a stag do (bachelor party). We had great conversation and were joined by another English group from a different part of England than Peter. Matt and I enjoyed the sassy, blunt remarks that they threw at each other regarding where they're from and their differing opinions on Margaret Thatcher. The English are kind and chatty - a perfect combination when you're from out of town and sipping sangria.
Day 16 - Barcelona, Spain
We started our day a little later than normal (I blame the free shots from La Roda). Seeing as though the train station did not,
in fact, move closer to our hotel overnight, we got our butts out of bed and headed out. After booking our Barcelona-Madrid train tickets and the sleeper train tickets from Madrid to Lisbon, we grabbed lunch at a restaurant across from the University of Barcelona. We shared a salad and some paella with water as our drink of choice (though everyone else had sangria regardless of it being before 4PM). Without a specific destination in mind, we headed toward the hotel. We passed a group of men playing futbol and headed toward the Agbar Tower that stood tall in the distance. Right around the corner from that, we stumbled upon Barcelona's largest flea market. The three-story bazaar hosted vendors selling anything from household junk to handmade clothes. There I snagged a pair of funky patterned pants for only 5€. Later, we walked along the beach and grabbed tapas and two fish meals for dinner. To seal the deal, Matt had gelato and I had a tiger nut milk drink native to Spain called horchata. Delicious (-:
Day 17 - Madrid, Spain
Before our train to Madrid, Matt and I walked the area for some pastries, coffee and fresh fruit. Our ride to Madrid was comfor-
table and smooth, arriving early afternoon. On our walk to the hotel, we found ourselves walking beside a labor strike. The crowd of at least 1,000 marched and chanted as they slowly paced down the main road. Police and other security personnel kept things in order and directed traffic. Some roads were even blocked off specifically for this event! Crazy. We toured the area after some lunch and headed toward the city center. We walked through the beautiful, large park and ended up at the Crystal Palace to revel in color and the hippy aura. For dinner, Matt had cod stuffed peppers and I had oxtail. We walked a neighborhood busy with food trucks and communal chit chat before stopping for a quick burger and heading to bed.
Day 18 - Madrid, Spain
We placed our bags in the hotel's storage and made our way to El Rastro, a huge flea market known go locals. It takes place
every Sunday and seeing as though were only in Madrid for a couple days, we seized the opportunity to be like one of the locals. On our way, we passed through a beautiful park that had lounge chairs for sunbathing, water areas for children and a fountain that changed pressure ever 15 seconds or so. The water clapped against itself as it fell. There was also a long, wide paved walkway used by many to run, walk (with and without strollers) and bike. We've noticed the many people who enjoy working out in both Barcelona and Madrid and with the beautiful paths to explore, I can see why. I've been on a quest for churros and chocolate since arriving in Spain and we found the perfect spot - a chocolatier store/cafe! The churros were hot and the chocolate so rich and real (for those in America reading this we know this isn't always the case). Finally we arrived at El Rastro. It was crowded with thousands of people. Vendors lined the hilly street as we slowly strolled through. Matt found the flag he wanted at a cheaper price than yesterday and I got a handmade tie dye shirt, a tiny moon earring and some patterned bohemian pants (Matt liked the color). We had lunch, grabbed a cab to the train station and got ready for our overnight train to Lisbon, Portugal.
Day 19 - Lisbon, Portugal
The sleeper train to Portugal was... interesting... to say the least. I advise anyone of following criteria to avoid this option if
possible: if you are uncomfortable with small spaces, if you are uncomfortable sleeping in a cubicle with someone you don't know, if you are prone to motion sickness (seeing as though you're laying horizontal as the train juts you left to right with any speed adjustment), if you are a light sleeper or, for the ladies out there, if you're menstruating (good times). Luckily Matt and I were the only ones in our four-bed cubicle and we both had headphones handy because next to us was a family of four with one rambunctious child and one very unhappy crying baby. Moving on! We arrived at 7:20AM, had breakfast in an "ashtray" as Matt described and found ourselves fatigued with nowhere to go. Alas! Matt booked a reservation at the same place we're staying the final night so we got ourselves over there, dropped the bags off in storage and ventured out. The area we're staying in is beautiful, borderline Nice-cutesy with all the shops and cobblestone walking areas. It's along the water, so we walked to an overlook area and explored the town before check in. We relaxed a bit in lounge chairs by the water, watching ferries come in and out every few minutes as the people passed by. It was a perfect moment to reminisce on this whole experience. We later unwound at the hotel, grabbed yummy seafood kebabs at a place nearby and walked around at night for sweets and to people watch. Side note: if anyone comes up to you in Lisbon with three pairs of sunglasses in their hand or suddenly start yelping - don't look over. One glance and they're arm's length away trying to sell you "hash weed cocaine". No, thanks.
Day 20 - Lisbon, Portugal
Our last full day in Europe... weird to think about. However, we're treating it like any other day. So we took off for what we
anticipated being a funky flea market in walking distance. In reality, it was a bunch of people's junk laid out on individual towels and blankets. The pamphlet advertising the flea market appropriately titled it the "thieve's market" - now we know why. We also learned why we have seen so many knick-knacks made of cork in all the souvenir stores - cork trees are native to Portugal! Portugal doesn't supply cork internationally because they only harvest what they need domestically. Also, cork is a sustainable material! Once the cork bark is harvested and the cork is removed off the trees, it will rejuvenate back in 7-9 years. I snagged a small cork wallet and Matt grabbed a cork bookmark. Without any plans for the day, we enjoyed a couple homemade lemonades and a cherry brandy while overlooking the Tagus River and the Pont 25 de Abril Bridge. After a little afternoon siesta (probably uncommon in Portugal but we're still in Spain mode) we headed back out for some seafood and dessert. We walked to the water again and snuggled into two lounge chairs. Matt ordered a beer and me a tea and we watched the military boats anchor as the sun set. We ate some delicious gelato on our walk back and packed our things for tomorrow's departure.
Day 21 - Homeward Bound
Today, we leave for the States. As cliche as the feelings may be, its truly bittersweet. We loved Europe and loved having this
experience at our ages with no tie downs or health restrictions (for all those who also fit into this criteria - go go go! Travel before you find every excuse not to or before the excuses find you!) One last time we strolled the cobble streets and gazed into the water as pigeons attacked the crabs below. We packed our last minute items and caught a cab to the airport. Our driver, Miguel, is a Lisbon-native and spoke excellent English along with a few other languages. He said he learned a bit in school and would pick up English books and movies to learn more. We chatted on our experiences the last few weeks and how in certain areas it was difficult because of language barriers. Miguel responded with a story of his grandparents moving from Portugal to Germany without knowing a lick of German. He recalled a story from his grandmother having to motion the wings of a chicken to convey to the store clerk she was looking for chicken. Now both of his grandparents speak perfect German. It's stories like these and others we've heard that inspire us to get out there and learn as much as we can. They're also great reminders of how the universal languages of consideration and kindness can go farther than you could ever imagine. Sometimes simple gestures, like a nod, wave, smile or clucking chicken, are enough.