At the ripe old age of 20-something and in the midst of some major life changes, I decided to do my first ever backpacking trip to Europe with a few girlfriends. I hadn’t done much traveling at that point, so I was a bit nervous but excited to my core.
The next thing you know, I’m on a plane to Spain to spend a few days solo before my friends were meeting up with me. I remember that first day, sitting on the balcony at the Washington Motel in downtown Madrid, looking out at all of the terracotta rooftops in the hot sun, drenched in sweat and optimism at what the summer would hold for me, which led to some major introspection about what my life would hold for me. Thinking back on it now, this was the beginning of the end of sorts, an end to a life without travel.
We spent a stifling few days in Madrid and Seville, the highlight being the Cathedral of Seville. It was the first church that I stepped into where my knees buckled, not from anything to do with religion but rather the architecture, the history, the magnitude of it all.
That church visit was pivotal as it triggered my obsession with churches that I still have today. I think I embrace a bit more of the spiritual aspect as I age, but I’m still blown away by the size and scale of these magnificent marvels of architecture, the stained glass, the light, the smell.
Our next stop was Portugal. I regret not seeing much of Lisbon, but I’m very glad we visited the lesser known Sintra that I hear is tourist central these days. The 19th century Romantic architecture, mountainous landscape and close proximity to the ocean made this place one of the highlights of my trip.
This was also my very first dorm room hostel experience, which was memorable to say the least. The four of us just happen to bunk with a whacky lady and her young daughter, who was probably about five years old, although the diapers she wore said she was much younger. This woman was weeeeird with a capital W, but I remember kind of liking her too. Perhaps I felt a little sorry for her; perhaps I was hell bent on getting her back story; perhaps I was just scared to death she’d put a spell on me if I was unfriendly. Whatever the reason, I talked to her as much as I could put up with, let her read my palm and didn’t even punch her lights out when I woke up in the middle of the night to find her hovering over my bed, looking down at me.
After another few days in Faro, located in the Algarve region of Portugal, we made our way back into Spain and down to Almeria for a week on the beach. Nothing but sun tanning (and in my case sun burning), drinking and relaxing.
Our plan was to take a train up to France and then into Belgium, but there was some kind of a train strike, of course on the very day WE decide to take it, so we were stuck on a bus. I forget exactly how many hours it took but it was something ridiculous like a day and a half to get from Almeria, Spain up to France and then into Belgium.
I remember at one point waking up after a night of neck kinks and numb limbs with the sun shining in my eyes. As I awoke, I looked out the window and saw a field of sunflowers. When I say a field I mean a whole damn countryside full. Being my favourite flower, and in a bit of delirium anyway, I remember thinking it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and was glad I had it to myself as the bus slept.
Next up was Belgium and the picturesque, little town of Bruges. We visited every museum, square and terrace imaginable and shovelled in enough waffles, chocolate and beer to ruin a person. This place is not for those with vices, that’s for sure.
For my 20-something birthday a week later we ended up in Amsterdam which I couldn’t wait to get to and couldn’t wait to leave. The red light district is no joke although the sex show that my fabulous (and horrible) friends took me to definitely was. We should have known it would be ridiculous by the giant penis fountain out front, but we lingered in anyway.
It looked like a small movie theatre with a dimly lit stage up front and packed with boisterous and highly inebriated tourists. The “show” featured different couples in various costumes and skits gettin’ busy on stage in front of a stunned yet extremely amused audience. We found it all so mechanical and gross; there was nothing really even funny about it. There was a second ‘act’ to the show where one of the ladies brought different tourists up on stage to participate in numerous parts of her act that I won’t even get into. Those guys, who are presumably adults now, if by nothing more than age, should be counting their lucky stars that their shenanigans occurred before the era of cell phones and YouTube videos. It was that bad.
Nevertheless, as crazy as Amsterdam was, I’m glad I went. It was kind of a rite of passive of sorts….go to Amsterdam, cruise the Red Light district, spend too much time in cafes in a weed-induced coma, eating enough hash brownies to make you sick. Can’t say I’d go back and do it again, even if I was paid to, but no regrets that it was a part of my youth.
Denmark was a quick stop, and I remember feeling I could have stayed there forever. The architecture of Copenhagen was stunning as were the people. I mean it…everyone we saw was stunning, gorgeous, friendly. It was almost annoying after a while…everyone was so good-looking, the men, women, old people, even the pets looked fresh-faced and delighted to live there.
A highlight of Copenhagen was Cristiana, which is a semi-autonomous, hippie commune that had about 1000 residents back then, not sure now. It used to be an old military base that was taken over in the early 1970’s by squatters who never left. Since then, it’s become its own little city and even had some semblance of governance despite its free for all peace, love and drug allowances.
I had heard about it beforehand but was told it was not on any city maps. We had a rough idea of where it was and began asking people as we approached the area. It didn’t take us long to follow the dreadlocked Rastafarians which led us right to the front gates, which boasted a no camera sign right out front. I’d love to know how they’d handle the quest for privacy in the cell phone era, but I’m happy I was there before it. Once inside, it was surreal. It was so peaceful and organized and very much rooted in community. After we purchased our “stuff” from the various stalls lining the road, we settled in to partake in a small park, next to hippies and businessmen and moms and teenagers alike. I remember thinking that this is what a progressive and open society looked like, and I remember I loved it. Not sure how it would look today but from what I’ve heard over the years, it’s much stricter on various levels. Hope there is at least some semblance of its former self.
Doubling back brought us to England and France which meant so much to me as my family is from England. We saw the changing of the guards, visited St. James Park, the Canada High Commission and Piccadilly Circus – all amazing and a great source of pride.
In Paris, we saw the Church of Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, and the Champs Elysees. We went to the Louvre, but it was closed the day that we went. The kicker is that I’ve been back to Paris twice since then and both times it was closed too….guess I’m not meant to go. It’s to the point that even if it is open the next time I’m there, I kind of like the idea of never having been inside and never having seen the Mona Lisa. From what I’ve been told, I’m not missing out on much.
This trip was, for me, such a lesson in self discovery. I found my love for travel and adventure and a desire to learn as much as I could about different people and cultures and the world in general.
However, I also discovered a few little nuggets about my personality which I think was important to take me down a few notches. Apparently, I’m not perfect. I’m a super annoying picky eater; I am prone to motion sickness of epic proportions, be it in a car, bus, train or plane, and I am moody, sometimes for no reason. I’m strangely OCD about some things. I am a chronic list maker. I hate a ton of different smells. And I have an almost phobia of eggs. Yes, people, eggs.
I discovered that I can stoop pretty damn low in terms of personal hygiene. For example, I had no problem wearing underwear one day, turning them inside out the second day and chucking them the third day. It became a running joke that I had left underwear all over Europe. I also learned that as long as my teeth are brushed, I’m good to go if I have to.
I will forever mark that trip as one of the most pivotal of my life and can’t begin to thank my girlfriends for all the laughs and experiences along the way. I’ve been back to Europe a few times since, and thankfully recreate that first travel high every time.