Spontaneous Summer in Europe
By now I have tried to give multiple tools via my posts relating to the technical aspect of spontaneous travel, so today I decided I would write more of a narrative…my exact thought process during one of my longest and most spontaneous summer vacations. Whether you read “Spontaneous Summer: Europe Trip” as a short story or more as a tutorial to help you plan an upcoming vacation, I truly hope you enjoy!
I was just ending the school year of a 9 month teaching program as an Auxiliar in Madrid, Spain. Basically, this program is an incredible way to be able to fully support yourself living abroad in a country as great as Spain is for a year. During that time, I made an extra 3000 Euros from all the private classes and academies I worked at on top of my job working as a teacher’s assistant at a public school. I worked my butt off 4 days a week so that I could travel on weekends and have money at the end of the program to travel with on a whim. So how did I spend that 3,000 Euros?
During my teaching career (which ironically ended up sticking with me for years once I was back in the states), I met three other phenomenal girls all doing the yearly teaching in Spain thing and we became the best of friends. One of the girls was leaving for the states on June 30th (right around the time that school ended) but from Barcelona. So what were four best friends to do? Obviously accompany her to Barcelona, go to the Champagneria, and send her on her anything but merry way back to the USA. Having taken my travel backpack with me on a bus to Barcelona, Europe was my oyster for those next two months and I had zero concrete plans, only ideas. Let the spontaneous summer truly begin!
We were down to 3 best friends now and all of us had different plans for the summer. I intended on staying in Barcelona for a few more days because a very good friend from college who also just happens to be one of the coolest people I know, lives in Barcelona with her boyfriend who she had met when we studied abroad there two years prior. At the time, she was teaching English as well, but she recently opened a very delicious and well-reviewed restaurant in Barcelona called Napa which puts a little California flair on traditional-style tapas. The food is bomb! I ended up staying with her for about a week shopping at the rebajas and visiting all my favorite places. Wow, was I nostalgic thinking back on my study abroad days and why I first fell in love with travel. While I still loved the city more than anything, it wasn’t the same as living somewhere on your own across the world for the first time.
It was on July 4th that I remembered seeing something about the running of the bulls aka San Fermin in Pamplona. Of course I had heard of it before, but since the festival was 4 days away and in a location that was very accessible by bus, I started seriously considering it. But this is the part when things got a little complicated. Remember when I said that I made zero concrete plans? That’s kinda true, kinda not. During the school year, I applied to work at a summer camp for two weeks in Leon (north of Spain) which meant I would get a free room and meals in exchange for being a counselor plus an additional 300 euros for the week. I got the job (yay) but it was during the same time as the running of the bulls festival. So I ended up negotiating with them so that I only had to work the second week of that session. With this clearance, I started doing research and found out that I could easily get to Pamplona by bus but there was no way I could sleep in any sort of accommodation without paying an exorbitant amount of money. That didn’t stop me though, I’ll just wing it I thought and I booked train tickets on the 5th from Barcelona —> Pamplona and Pamplona —->Leon. On July 8th, I headed up to Pamplona for two nights and three days, which was one night and one day too many! The whole travel mishap story is here but basically long story short, I slept in a grass field, someone’s tent in a campsite 30 kilometers away, a random sleeping bag, and outside of a bus station over that 2 night period. Oh and I smelled pretty baaaaad.
But the day must go on, and I got out of there as soon as I could that 3rd morning and took a train straight to Leon which was a few hours away. While Leon is a decently-sized town in the north of Spain, the summer camp was in a very rural pueblo (small town) with only 80 people…super remote. Also, lots of wifi struggles, but really still wonderful because I had yet to see the “small town” Spanish lifestyle having only lived in Barcelona and Madrid. That week at camp was great, I had my own room in a 3 bedroom house which was sweeet because I have always had to stay in the cabin with campers when I was a counselor in the United States. no sleep, no bueno. The kids were wonderful and the summer camp was very well run. While I was there, I knew I had to figure out my next move and conveniently, one of my closest friends was on a summer Europe trip. We were trying to coordinate and determined that the best solution was for me to meet her and her friend that she was traveling with in Berlin about 4 or 5 days after summer camp ended.
This is where being skilled at searching for flights comes in handy because I had to check all available options. Fly out from Bilbao? Barcelona? Is there a morning train that takes me from this rural village to Leon to a bus to the major city with an airport? Is it worth it to pay for a direct flight? Or can I figure out two cheap flights to get me to one of the multiple airports in Berlin? You get the gist! Sorry if you’re anxiety levels just rose. Mine did just typing it. With those few extra days, I went to San Sebastian in the way north of Spain because I had only heard the most wonderful things. And all of those wonderful things were absolutely true. The food, the beaches, the Basque people…incredible. I highly recommend! Afterward, I made it to Berlin via every kind of transport imaginable: train from San Sebastian to Zaragosa, bus from Zaragosa to Barcelona, plane to Berlin, etc. I was catching the tail end of my friend’s trip to Berlin but we had a blast. Also, super lucky…another friend from college was getting his masters in Berlin, so when my friend left after a couple of days, I was able to crash on his couch for the second half of the trip. I was fortunate to have both the tourist and local perspective from going out with a bunch of crazies to a pub crawl to eating the best falafel place in town and exploring the underground nightlife scene.
At this point, I had been in Berlin for 5 days and felt that I was kind of overstaying my welcome a bit. So morning number 5, I woke up and searched via google flights for the cheapest place to fly to that same day. And the winner was…Milan! But I don’t take a spontaneous trip to Italy lightly. I had been to Rome once prior and since my attitude is pretty much carbs = life, I wanted to make sure I had enough time for this part of the trip. Because…Italy. Also, I needed a serious logistics session because I just got word that my mom and brother were coming to meet me in Paris in 10 days! Yay family! But that meant, I had to be smart about this Italy trip. My must-sees were Venice, Florence, and Cinque Terre which is doable in 10 days…but it’s a lot.
I arrived in Milan around 8 o’clock that night and needed to find a hostel immediately. I had looked online on Hostelworld in the airport earlier to find somewhere with availability and I literally just showed up at the place praying that there would be an empty bed. That was a little too spontaneous for my liking, but it was the situation that I was currently in. If you are interested in how I book my accommodations, here’s my post on that. The next morning I got up and went straight to the train station which luckily is incredibly easy to navigate in Italy. Unlike showing up at a hostel late at night and being insanely lucky that there was exactly one bed left in the place, you can show up at the train stations in Italy and be able to get to your next domestic destination in a short period of time without issue. And that’s how I got to Venice, my first official stop on the Italy portion of the trip. As soon as I arrived, I went to the closest cafe with wifi and chose the most reasonably priced hostel I could find (that’s not saying much cuz Venice is crazy expensive) and took the vaporetti which is like a ferry to the hostel.
Small tangent about solo travel: I read so many posts from people who are nervous to travel on their own. And that is totally understandable! Here is the truth…you will have the highest highs and the lowest lows because you are forced to take yourself out of your comfort zone. But all in all, I think it is totally worth the lows for those awesome highs.
One of those highs was meeting two wonderful people on a canal in Venice. I was doing my usual brie, baguette, and wine thing which consists of me going to a supermarket, buying the above items, and plopping myself down in a park, canal, rooftop, etc. I purposely sat myself near a group of people and eventually joined the conversation. I ended up spending the rest of my time in Venice with these two girls and meeting them in Florence right after. Making new friends while traveling is truly the best. And can I just say how amazing Florence is! Immediately upon arrival, I just had this feeling. The culture and artistry is everywhere. While in Florence, I booked two days in Cinque Terre, which is another must. You should make sure you have one night in Cinque Terre so that you can wake up early to hike the 5 towns and then spend the rest of the day eating the best pesto pasta of your life out by the shore.
Luckily, this next part of the trip was already planned out for me because this whole spontaneous thing can be pre-tay exhausting. I also have this really good flair for finding people randomly in the middle of a city without much prior communication. So I flew from Florence to Paris and just showed up at the hotel that the fam was staying at. That may not sound super impressive but just wait…it gets more standout on my next leg of the trip. Anyway, we had a great 10 days or so in Paris, Aix en Provence, and Cannes. It was SO nice to stay at hotels and eat at actual restaurants and be able to purchase/splurge on audio guides at all of the tourist sights so that I could actually know some deets about the crazy, awesome historical things I was seeing.
During this family time part of the spontaneous Eurotrip, I was also planning my next stop back to Madrid to meet up with my best friend and some of his friends from high school on the end of their trip going from London –>Ibiza –> Barcelona –> Madrid. I was in Cannes so I found a flight from Nice (because that’s where the airport is) but the flight prices to Madrid were cray, so I decided I would fly into Barcelona for the afternoon meet the guys, stay up all night, and take a bus to Madrid while they flew to Madrid that same day. Did you catch all that? While Facebook messaging back and forth, I told them I would meet them at the beach at 4 o’clock. Now for anyone who has been to Barceloneta beach, if you didn’t think I was slightly insane before, then you definitely will now because it is ridiculously long and incredibly crowded in the beginning of August. Somehow, I just showed up and managed to find them. Oh and I almost forgot! The two girls who I met in Venice were also going to be in Barcelona at this time, so we all met up and went out to the beach club Opium.
That next morning was rough…zero sleep, an attempted pickpocketing situation, and I went to the wrong bus station. Even experienced travelers make stupid mistakes and this one was a total “me thinking my Spanish was better than it was” error. So I missed the bus to Madrid and had to go to the other bus station across town and pay for a new ticket. Needless to say I was not a happy camper. After a very long bus ride to Madrid, I knew that it was about time for me to go home, like real home back to the United States. I had no intention prior to this day of going because I still had about 1000 euros of my original 3000 left over, but suddenly it clicked and I knew that I was ready. I spent about a week longer in Madrid and while the guys stayed in a hostel, I stayed in my friends (one of the original 4 from the beginning of this whole story) apartment as she was gone for the summer. The guys left after a couple of days and I had a really wonderful goodbye with Madrid, my home for the past year. I explored the city on my own and went to all of my favorite places and some that I still had yet to explore. It was the perfect ending to a wonderfully spontaneous summer. I booked my flight home probably about 3 days into that final week and was lucky enough to find two one-way flights, one to Washington D.C. and then from D.C. to Los Angeles. Here’s how to book a one-way flight super last minute! I got to spend a week with my best friend who lived in D.C. and truly come full circle as I had spent the prior summer interning in Washington.
And that is my spontaneous summer in its entirety…I feel like a Carpe Diem is justifiable here. Hopefully this narrative helps out those of you who are nervous about traveling spontaneously or traveling solo. If you have any questions at all about how I did anything over this spontaneous summer, please let me know in the comments below!