Bittersweet Memories of my Solo Backpacking Trip in Europe
It’s not everyday that dreams come true. I had always wanted to backpack in Europe, but with my financial challenges and the difficulty in getting a visa, I thought that it would remain just a dream forever. That is, until early this year.
My travel to Europe was not as straightforward as it seemed. I had been engaged to K, a Belgian, and I initially applied for a Schengen visa to visit him in the first quarter of 2012. When our relationship ended in January, I was faced with a dilemma: should I push through with my Eurotrip, or just stay at home? I thought that with my planned travel of 70 days without a sponsor, my travel fund would not be enough.
Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to decide: I would push through with my trip rather than stay home and wallow in self-pity. I had my travel fund, and I was going to find ways to travel cheaply in Europe. I can make it. I will make it.
It was easier said than done. I had no problems with money; with my strategies to travel cheaply, my travel fund was more than enough. The challenge was in mastering my feelings. I was fine when I stayed with K in Belgium; I had learned how to control my emotions.
However, at several points during my journey, I felt so dragged down emotionally by my failed relationship that instead of going out, I just stayed indoors. I got depressed in Berlin when I saw all the people going around were in pairs or with their loved ones, I didn’t like beautiful Vienna because he wasn’t there to share it with me, and I shunned Hungary for not being Belgium.
It was only when I arrived in Santorini, Greece that I learned to come to terms with my experience. Yes, I spent almost half of my backpacking trip moping, but I can’t say that my time has been wasted. I’ve seen so much, and met so many people, that despite the trip being bittersweet, I would never regret it.
I’ve been to nine countries and 25 cities in Europe. Here are some of my memories there.
When I decided to push through with my trip, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to stay with K in his hometown in Olen, so I used Couchsurfing to find my first hosts in Europe. Gerd and Pol from Herentals accepted me with open arms, and though I’m sure they were confused why I was still seeing K when I was there, they were too kind to ask me about it.
From Herentals, I spent a weekend with Hazel in Mollem-Asse, a friend I haven’t seen in over a decade, then spent a week with K. I went around Antwerp with him, ate at a beer restaurant in Mechelen, and visited Napoleon Bonaparte’s Waterloo. I spent Valentine’s Day with him in Bruges, the most romantic city in Belgium, where I pretended that everything was as it should be.
I’ve stayed the longest in Belgium, partly to be with him, and partly to enjoy the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen (yeah, okay, I’m biased). Even until now, Belgium remains my favorite!
Copenhagen, Denmark was also memorable in other ways. I stayed with a friend in his house in Christiania, a “commune” ran by what used to be called “hippies.” It used to be an abandoned military barracks which “squatters” took over in 1971. Just recently, after a long, protracted legal battle, the residents won the right to purchase the land.
My host, whom I’ve met only once in the Philippines through the organization I worked for, was a prominent person in the Danish gay movement, and thankfully for him, I got to experience what it was like to stay in Christiania. He also took me to the venue where I talked about children’s rights to a group of women—my first speaking engagement outside of Asia!
It was also in Copenhagen when I wrote Date a Girl Who Travels, a heartfelt post addressed to K. Unfortunately, it didn’t work
From Denmark, I went down to Germany. I liked the country; I liked its efficient government, clean streets, and well-organized transport system—all so different from the Philippines. I liked my host Tomke in Hamburg with whom I shared so many similar (frustrated) experiences in love; I liked quiet Bremen and Nürnberg, and I also liked beautiful and unassuming Dresden. In fact, if I were asked where I would like to live in Europe, it would be in Dresden, Germany.
Berlin, on the other hand, was not enjoyable for me. It was too big, too chaotic, too different. I saw punks drinking and fighting each other in the subway, my host warned me against going home late because of the neo-Nazis, and I got propositioned by a German guy in the train station. It was memorable, yes, but I would rather have stayed longer in Dresden than in Berlin.
If you’re planning to go to Europe, never miss out on Prague. It’s such a beautiful city that I spent my four days there just walking around, from historical Charles Bridge and the charming Old Town Square to the very interesting Zizkov. It’s easy to forget time there, lost as you are with so many things to do and so many places to see. Staying four days is definitely not enough!
Vienna is also another beautiful city, full of historical buildings and interesting places. If I didn’t use Couchsurfing, I would have looked for hotels here because they have a lot of options for good value (plus, the site seems easy to use too). As it was, my CS hosts were very nice; the husband, Peter, had been to the Philippines and couldn’t stop talking about how much he loved it. Their baby Julia was also adorable. I also met up with the Austrian friend of my colleague, and he took me around Vienna at night.
Unfortunately, though, I didn’t do justice to it, probably because I was feeling melancholic again. Too bad, I would have wanted to listen to the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Maybe someday I will get another chance to surrender to the charm of this lovely city.
Budapest is another highly recommended European city. I liked its pub ruins, the Buda castle, and the numerous remnants of its long past. I liked the fact that the city’s name is a combination of the names of two former cities separated by the river Danube: Buda and Pest. However, what I liked most was staying indoors and playing with my host’s cat, Dormi. I felt so down at that time that going around seemed pointless. It was a combination of homesickness and the sadness I felt whenever I thought of K.
It was in Budapest, though, where I learned about trust. My host, Maria, had to leave town before I arrived, and instead of just refusing my request for a place to stay, she asked a friend to give me the key to her house and let me stay there by myself, even without having met me first. It’s people like her who renew my faith in humanity!
I couldn’t wait, though, to leave Hungary for Greece. I was tired of being melancholic, and the thought of seeing the Greece I’ve only read about when I was in school filled me with so much excitement. I stayed with a CS host in his apartment in Exarcheia, a neighborhood in downtown Athens known as a den of Greek anarchists. I certainly know how to choose my hosts!
I walked my host’s dog twice daily, and unlike in Budapest, I tried to see as much as I could in Athens, from the Acropolis where the famous Parthenon is, to the Roman marketplace, Lycabettus Hill, Syntagma Square, Agora, and Plaka. I also saw a lot of cats on the streets, which lifted up my spirits considerably. I would have stayed longer, if my host didn’t encourage me to go visit Santorini.
At first, I didn’t want to go to Santorini. I thought it was expensive and a place best reserved for a honeymoon. I was glad I went, though; the island is indescribably beautiful and so peaceful. It wasn’t as expensive as I thought either, since I stayed in a hostel (found it through Hostelworld). I had the best time walking around, taking a nap on the benches, talking to the hostel owners, and most importantly, coming to terms with my loss.
Second only to Belgium, I loved Italy. I was amazed to see places I’ve only read and dreamed about. The people were very nice, too! My Roman host cooked breakfast and dinner daily, so in exchange, I bought him Belgian beer and yoghurt, and taught him a few things regarding free movies.
Because I left the house with him every morning, I had more time going around Rome. I went to the Vatican and admired Michelangelo’s work at the Sistine Chapel. I ate a lot of pasta (of course) and risotto, and met so many Filipinos who were working there.
From Rome, I went to Florence, where I met the sweetest European cat ever. Cincinna, my Firenze host’s black cat, slept beside me every night. I also went to see the leaning tower of Pisa, got lost in the streets of Venice, and paid homage to Juliet in her house in Verona. In Padova, I slept in the same room with three Pakistani guys and cooked them spaghetti with spicy sardines the next day.
Best of all, I was also in Italy when I received a call that CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg wanted to interview me. It’s certainly an honor for such an established person like him to know my blog!
Yes, 2012 was really good for me, travel-wise. Despite starting out as unfortunate, it ended up quite well, and I’m glad I took the chance of embarking on the journey that helped heal my broken heart.
Do you dream of solo backpacking in Europe? Check out my posts to guide you in preparing for your Eurotrip!
This is part of “2012: This Year In Travel,” the Blog Carnival of the Pinoy Travel Bloggers hosted by Gay Mitra-Emami of Pinay Travel Junkie.
This is also a part of Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check out the other entries there!
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Aleah Taboclaon is a freelance writer and editor. She likes running (completed one marathon, training for the next!), diving (PADI open water diver), and traveling with her Kindle. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. You can also email her; she would love to hear from you!