I was 21 and was planning my first independent trip abroad.
It felt like everyone I knew had already been to Europe, so for me it felt like the obvious choice.
With a friend along and three weeks to spend, we decided on three destinations:
A school trip to Paris years ago made me fall in love with the city (a cliche, I know) so a stopover there was a must. Spain was next on our list and, unable to decide between Barcelona and San Sebastian, we figured porque no los dos? Greece had always been a dream of mine, so we settled on Santorini for the views and Athens for the history.
Planes booked, accommodation paid for, itinerary complete, we were ready to take on the world.
Before departing it's fair to say I was under the naive impression that everything would run perfectly and according to plan. That language wouldn't pose a barrier and any flights/trains/boats I had booked would be stress-free. I wasn't nervous – how could I be? I was going to be living the good life for a month.
But even the good life has some mediocre moments.
My trip wasn't without hiccups. But, I now realise, the things I didn't plan on happening were the things that most enriched my experience. They also taught me some lessons.
1. Planning carefully won't make things disaster-proof
We left three hours early, we mapped out our route, and somehow we still ended up sprinting through Paris in our best dresses on Bastille Day only to miss a river cruise we had booked months before. Try as you might, you can never anticipate things going wrong. But don't give up. What we lost in fine dining we gained in a good story. We also ended up having an authentic Parisian dinner (Cafe Gustave's signature steak, confited potatoes, and green beans), buying some brie and watching the fireworks right at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Not too shabby.
Adjacent to the Eiffel Tower, Cafe Gustave was our Bastille Day pick. Photo: Krisinda Merhi
2. Flying everywhere is boring
I get grumpy when I don't have food, so embarking on a nine-hour train trip with nothing but 15 grams of dark chocolate for sustenance is hardly appealing to me. But, despite this, catching a train from one coast of Spain to another was a good choice – it offered a nice break from flying everywhere. Far from cramped, train cabins have enough room for you to stretch your legs, recline your chair and read a book without hurting your neck. As train is the preferred transport for tourists travelling between Barcelona and San Sebastian, chances are you'll also meet some people along the way.
But Spain isn't the only European country with a good train system. You can catch a train from Paris to just about anywhere. Want to go to Amsterdam? Catch a high-speed train from Paris Gare du Nord Station to Amsterdam Central Station and arrive in just under three and-a-half hours. Germany also has a good train line, but international travel may require some changeovers. Sites like raileurope.com.au and Trainline.eu are good for planning train trips. They map out any train changes and expected journey times to help keep things cruisy.
3. Wandering is great
Some of our best memories while travelling were because we simply decided to go for a walk. Walking around the streets surrounding Notre Dame in Paris led us to the most beautiful (in our bias opinion) bookstore in the world – Shakespeare and Company. Similarly, our daily walks to San Sebastian's La Concha beach made us feel like locals. And our decision to brave the 10 kilometres from Fira to Oia in Santorini got us some of the best views of the caldera. If you didn't explore, you wouldn't see anything. And, let me tell you, the Santorini caldera is something worth seeing (donkey poo and all).
4. It's worth trying the local language
Best done when you're running late to a booking or find yourself hopelessly lost. Why? Because that's when all your inhibitions leave you –you're desperate so you'll try anything. Chances are, you'll be surprised at how much you've picked up along the way. You'll get a good laugh out of it, too. Travelling is all about experiences, even the most awkward ones.
5. Missing a flight isn't the end of the world
Thanks to clever me, who got the time of our flight from Santorini to Athens completely wrong, we were still in our Airbnb when our plane was leaving the airport. Even now, it's hard to see the silver lining in this situation (apart from having time to eat the fresh spanakopita our host had made us). But, let's be real, even the most seasoned travellers miss their flights. You might be €200 ($314AUD) poorer for it, but you'll still get to where you're going. We were lucky – we managed to get another flight on the same day which meant our plans were not disrupted. But luck does not grace everyone. So, if you do find yourself waiting a day or few for another flight, just think: it's more time to explore (and the extra leg-room comes free-of-charge).
6. Don't fight with your travelling companions
Living in close quarters with the same person for days on end will put a strain on anyone. What's the key to any good relationship? Compromise. Early on it's good to lay out ground rules for your time together: any pet peeves (like leaving dirty dishes in the sink) or responsibilities you need to share (like doing the washing up). Scissors-paper-rock is a sure-fire way to resolve any hard decisions. Not sure where to eat? You know the drill.
Cheers to us: making it through a trip together is no small feat. Photo: Krisinda Merhi
7. It's okay to cry
Just because you're in Europe doesn't mean you won't have your off days. Sometimes you'll be home-sick and sometimes you'll just feel overwhelmed (being surrounded by a language you don't understand is harder than you would think). For me, it was a combination of these things with a bad migraine. I had just arrived in Spain, I didn't know my way around and I just wanted to sleep. Feeling better was a three-step process for me: I let myself cry, I spoke to my friend and then we got some fresh air. Other side of the world or not, you're only human. Don't feel guilty, take the time you need.
8. It's worth splurging, at least once
Travelling is about enjoying. Don't be afraid to spend a larger amount of money on accommodation/at least one meal/experience.
For my buddy and I, the accommodation was our Santorini Airbnb ($400-$500 a night during peak times). With an authentic Greek breakfast every morning and stunning views of the Caldera right from our front door, we were living in bliss for the whole four days of our stay. There's no point staying on an island if you're going to hang back: stay right on the cliff and take it all in.
Our experience was dinner on top of the Eiffel tower ($145AUD each). From the duck to the passionfruit and lemon tart, the food was very French and very good. But what you're really paying for is a seat at a table with one of the best views in the city. If you're going to see Paris, you may as well do it from above and in style.
9. Eat until you can eat no more
Food tours are a good starting point for any travel newbie. Especially if you're looking for an interactive and immersive introduction to a culture followed by the most unique "I want to be sick" feeling because your stomach is so wonderfully full.
I recommend the evening tour run by culinary school Mimo in San Sebastián for some of the best food (they call them pintxos) you will ever have. Close-cousin to Spanish tapas, pintxos are essentially bar snacks. Typically skewered with a toothpick, pintxos can be as simple as anchovies and olives or as decadent as foie gras and quail legs. The Basque Country do food unique to all of Spain, so trying everything is must.
A sure fire way to locate a good pintxos bar? Look for the place with the most toothpicks and napkins on the ground. It's a local sign of appreciation (a sort of nod of thanks to the chef) to drop your rubbish when you're done.
10. But leave room for dessert
My only regret from my travels is not having dessert when in Athens. On our last last night, we stopped by DaVinci Artisan Gelato-Quality Chocolate where my friend got a scoop of Nutella gelato. It was possibly the best thing I have ever tasted (not including the pintxos) and, still, I did not buy some. Trust me when I say, the calories won't hurt but the regret will. Whether it's gelato, baklava or Spanish cheesecake – there is always room for dessert.
With a selection like this, how can you resist? Photo: Krisinda Merhi
My trip was a whirlwind three weeks full of many moments, some of them surprising but none of them bad. They taught me to embrace opportunities and take things in my stride.
If I gave up every time something was embarrassing, I wouldn't have been able to order dinner in Paris.
If I gave up every time something was overwhelming, I wouldn't have been able to explore the streets of Barcelona.
If I gave up every time something went wrong, I would probably still be in Santorini. Actually, that doesn't sound so bad.