Looking Back On… Backpacking Europe in 2005
As I begin to plan a European capitals trip in September, I’ve been thinking back to my first international trip. My best friend Jared and I spent 85 days backpacking and riding trains around Europe in the spring and summer of 2005.
This trip is really what gave me the travel bug, and I often wish that I could go back and experience it again. Travelling was a bit different than it is now, which is also fun to look back on.
Here’s a rather lighthearted retrospective of that trip.
Taking a Year Off
After wrapping up high school, which felt like a huge accomplishment at the time, Jared and I decided to take a gap year before taking the next big step in life. I worked at a fabricating shop in Northern British Columbia doing pickups and deliveries, setting money aside for the upcoming trip.
Over the fall, Jared and I exchanged emails and phone calls to discuss where in the world we wanted to go. Some of our friends had decided to go to Southeast Asia, and others were venturing to Australia for their trips.
We both agreed that a Eurotrip was something that both wanted to do most. Jared is really into history and trains, and I was curious about venturing into the eastern part of the continent.
After settling on start and end points, we booked our flights and began counting down the days. I recall ending each email or phone call with excited references to “Europa,” which we thought sounded fancy.
A few weeks before we were set to depart, I had an unfortunate accident that through a wrench in my plans.
As per my doctor’s advice, I decided to postpone the start of my trip by two weeks, as the hostels I’d planned on staying in probably weren’t the cleanest places around. If my leg were to get infected, there was a small chance that it would have to be amputated.
Jared set off as planned, and I wound up missing out on two weeks in Greece (about which I’m still envious.) We decided to meet up in Rome, and fortunately, I was given a clear bill of health before I left.
The bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 18 year-old version of myself, with a fuller head of hair and some ill-fitting clothes, set out on what would become my first international adventure.
We had a pretty ragtag idea of where we wanted to go, but we didn’t really have a solid plan. We booked round-trip tickets from Vancouver to London with Air Canada, and then a one-way flight to Athens (Jared) and a one-way flight to Rome (T.J.) with easyJet.
We ordered Eurail passes for our trip, and brought along with us a massive book with a timetable of most trains in Europe. At the end of our 85 days, we needed to be back in London to catch our flight home, but we were otherwise free to roam wherever our hearts so desired.
Our circuitous trip took us through 17 countries in 85 days. Here’s as rough sketch of what it looked like.
Some of our stops were planned, while others were spontaneous. If we heard about a particular spot from some other people at our hostels, we were free to alter our plans accordingly.
Similarly, if we weren’t really keen on one place, we were free to leave and head to the next destination at our leisure.
For example, the hostel that we stayed at in Barcelona was particularly fun, so we wound up spending five nights there. We also extended our stays in Budapest, Nice, and Kraków.
In other places, like Venice and Seville, we opted to leave a bit earlier than planned to extend our stays elsewhere. After a full-on first month across Italy, France, and Spain, we decided to take it easy in Lagos, Portugal for five days.
I loved having this kind of flexibility, and I was happy to not be stuck to a particular itinerary.
As 18-year-olds, we had pretty low standards for accommodation. We paid more attention to the price per night than we did to the number of other people in the room or the star rating of the hostel.
We booked almost all of our stays using Hostelworld, which I’m happy to see exists to this day. Because our plans were so flexible, we only booked our next stay as soon as the departure date from our current location was planned.
The quality in hostels ranged significantly. There were some very nice places, which tended to be newly renovated buildings, and there were some absolutely horrendous places, which tended to have a more attractive price point.
We treated ourselves to a guesthouse for our extended stay in the Algarve, which was a nice break from the rowdy rooms with as many as 20 others.
The largest room that we stayed in was at a hostel in Copenhagen, with had more than 36 total beds. I couldn’t help but laugh at the snoring symphony that happened every night, which I was especially privy to as a light sleeper.
With my travel style being slightly different these days, one aspect of hostels that I miss are the dozens of conversations with strangers every day. Common rooms were great places to strike up a quick chat, make a few toasts to any occasion, or to gather a small group for a pub crawl or sightseeing.
I’m still in touch with a handful of people I met in hostels, including one whom I’ve been married to for five years (more on that later.)
We used Couchsurfing to book a few free stays with kind hosts. Not only was this a nice departure from crowded, rowdy hostels, but the hosts usually went out of their way to share their cities with us.
Our host in Lisbon made a huge welcome dinner and invited a bunch of his friends over for a gathering. During our stay, he and his friends took turns showing us around Lisbon, took us on a daytrip outside of the city, and gifted us some nice bottles of wine when it was time for us to leave.
After such pleasant experiences, I’ve done my best to pay it forward over the years.
Keep in mind that this trip happened during a time where technology wasn’t as much of a part of everyone’s lives as it is now.
I had an interesting conversation with some friends recently about how much technology has shifted the travel world.
Back in 2005, the only technology we brought with us were our mini-disc players and digital cameras, which were pretty cutting-edge at the time. I also brought a film camera with me, and part of the fun was waiting until I got home to develop the pictures.
There were a few computers stationed at each hostel, which usually came with painfully slow internet and probably a virus or two.
We kept in touch with people at home by dedicating a couple of hours every week or so to sit in internet cafés. The best ones had air conditioning, which was always a nice reprieve from the sweltering summer heat.
A few times during the trip, we picked up calling cards to let our friends and families know that we were still alive. It was pretty expensive, and Skype, which was a relatively new technology at the time, wasn’t always a reliable option.
On several occasions, we took pre-stamped postcards out to a pub and then mailed them out at some point during the evening. We would often receive puzzled emails from the recipients a few weeks later, wondering exactly what it was that we were talking about.
Without the ability to instantly message, we also had to rely on plans made in advance.
For example, when we initially met in Rome, the hostel at which we planned to meet was full. Jared was set to arrive from a ferry from Greece and a train to Rome, so there was no way of letting him know in advance.
Rather, I left a note with the reception, who directed Jared to a hostel across the street that had room. As I was sleeping through some jet lag, I awoke to Jared announcing his arrival to the entire hostel.
Looking back, it was nice to not be connected to the rest of the world as much as we are now. Without access to smartphones in our pockets, it was easy to be present in every moment.
In the absence of social media, we shared most of our pictures and stories catching up in person when we got back home. Developing the film pictures also brought back some fun memories from early on in the trip.
To me, the entire trip was a highlight. Every day, we were seeing things that we had only read about or seen on screens.
Each of the 85 days brought new, exciting sights to witness and things to do. For three months, everything was interesting and novel – we’d gaze out at the rolling countryside from the windows of trains for hours on end, or stroll the old, cobblestone streets of ancient cities.
I’ll never forget looking out the window of the airplane descending into Rome Ciampino Airport. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw the Colosseum with my very own eyes, letting me know that this trip was indeed for real.
The same feeling was true of major European landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Berlin Wall, Amsterdam’s canals, and Michelangelo’s David.
While I’ll admit that we visited more pubs than we did museums, we also managed to soak up plenty of culture and history. In particular, we were captivated by visiting Normandy and the Louvre in France, the baths in Budapest, World War II memorials in Poland, and learning about port wine in Porto.
While some of the major attractions were worthwhile, and others quite underwhelming, my favourite parts of this trip were meeting people from all over the world and the subsequent random adventures.
We’d often run into people whom we’d met at a hostel or on a pub crawl days, weeks, or even months later.
My first experience with surfing came in Portugal, which was another unexpected daytrip that we made on the recommendation of someone else staying at our guesthouse. When I thought about backpacking in Europe, surfing was probably the last thing I thought I’d be able to do.
Life was a lot less serious back then, and being surrounded by groups of other people who were just out to see the world and have fun, too, made every day a new adventure. It was so nice to meet people from all corners of the globe who would share stories about where they’re from and why we should travel to their country.
Other lasting impressions from this particular trip are a love of train travel and a fascination with Eastern Europe.
As per the former, I find trains to be such a civilized, relaxing way to travel. When planning out my current trips, one of my first considerations is how many trips I can squeeze in by train.
In regard to the latter, there was something about Eastern Europe that left me wanting to come back to experience it more and more. Since that trip, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Eastern Europe, and plan to do so for the rest of my life.
As much as the sometimes hazy memories and occasionally blurry photographs are invaluable, the most profound happening on this trip was meeting a young lady from Toronto named Ashley, to whom I’ve now been married for five years.
During a three-night stay at the now-defunct Villa Saint Exupery Hostel in Nice, France, I met and subsequently swooned over Ashley, who was on a similar backpacking trip with her best friend.
The four of us spent a few days exploring the south of France together, sharing laughs over cheap, boxed wine and whatever meal we could scrounge together for a few euros.
As they left for Italy and we left for Spain, we exchanged our embarrassing Hotmail email addresses and promised to keep in touch.
Emails turned into phone calls, phone calls turned into cross-country visits, and cross-country visits eventually turned into numerous trips across the world. At the time, I don’t think either of us could have imagined what the future would bring, but 17 years later, here we are.
Travelling has always been a big part of lives, and we plan on returning to Nice at some point in the near future to rediscover it together.
In 2005, I set out on a three-month backpacking trip around Europe with my best friend. We covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and this trip served as the inspiration for the rest of my trips.
Travel has changed significantly since then, especially with the role technology plays in our daily lives.
I often look back fondly on this trip, especially as it was during then that I met my future partner. When I return to Europe later on this year, I’ll be glad to revisit and remember some of cities I visited during my first trip.