I left Geneva on November 28th to embark on a three week backpacking journey across Europe. I left with a healthy amount of fear for what the next three weeks might bring, my rail pass, backpack, boots, and my Deustch Bahn app (because the Germans know the entire rail system of Europe better than anyone else). Although I had a plan in my head I knew that I was basically winging it, terrifying and exciting.
My first stop was in Marseille, France to see Helen. I was so happy that first weekend was with her to ease into traveling and exploring alone. We had a wonderful time exploring Marseille, hiking, and even clubbing to celebrate Helen’s birthday 🙂 I even tried pastis, a Marseilles drink that had the flavor of black licorice, despite that it was still good.
We ended the most perfect weekend with hiking up to Notre Dame de la Garde to watch the sunset.
From this Monday evening I left straight to the train station to catch a train that would take me to Ventimiglia, a small town on the French/Italian border. However my first train to Nice was late and I missed the 11pm connection to Ventimiglia. This became a small sign because I was planning on just waiting in the train station at Ventimiglia until 4am. Instead I was able to book a hostel in Nice and make my way there.
My trip would’ve been exponentially different had I not had a smart phone.
This hostel in Nice was one of the seediest places I’ve ever been to. I walk up to the third floor of a grimy apartment building to find the “hostel”. I was greeted by an irate British woman, unwelcoming owners, flickering flourecent lights and an already damp pillow. I realized I was really roughing it at this moment. I surrendered my 11 euros took my one blanket and tried to sleep for the next four hours.
I ended up making friends with the man I was sharing the room with, a chef from sub Saharan Africa making his was to Montreux, Switzerland to work. He told me that the worst thing you can do for your tastebuds is to drink coffe with milk and sugar. I unfortunately ignored that advice.
Because I had missed my train connections my original plan was out the window. According to the app I could take regional trains along the coast of Italy to make may way to Florence for the night. Off I went. Starting at 5am that day I took trains from Nice, through Monaco, Genoa, and the rest of the Italian coast with a quick stop in Pisa. I finally reached Florence at 5pm and found my way to the next hostel.
Unlike the previous night this hostel was lovely, clean and bright with nice people. I couldn’t have been more relieved to see a clean bed with fresh sheets. I was planning on crashing even though it was so early but to my surprise I was greeted in the room by another backpacking girl from New Zealand. She immediately asked if I wanted to eat and thus we were friends.
Jess and I explored/wandered Florence that evening in search of Tripe sandwhiches-an apparent must have- with no avail. We settled on pizza. This pizza had special florentine sausage and made my stomach the most happy it had been in a whole day. In the morning Jess and I took our time but for instead a game plan to see all of Florence. We wondered and trapped and relied on directions from strangers. We finally had the tripe panini a and they were delicious. No regrets. Even though Jess and I only knew each other for such a short time we talked about everything, travel, life, boys, food. It was so reassuring to be able to make a friend after being and traveling alone and that I knew I wouldn’t be truly alone.
That evening I caught a train to Venice. Venice is beautiful and I only saw it for a short time but it’s an incredible city and immaculately beautiful. This night I couchsurfed. I was tired of being alone and I had been meaning to try and Couchsurf. I posted my travel and a nice-seeming- guy offered to host me! It was a really nice easy thing, he got me from the train station in Treviso and we walked to his apartment, we chatted for a little bit and then I slept on the couch. It is such a weird concept but you throw those inhibitions away pretty quickly when you need somewhere safe to sleep.
In the morning I got up early to catch another Italian regional train to the border. The Italian sense of time is almost nonexistent. There’s no real sense of urgency or timetable keeping. I haven’t been on an Italian train that was exactly on time- a huge shift from Switzerland. In any case the train I was on first was extremely late. And the plan was to get to the Italian/Slovenian border and catch the one and only train of the day from Nova Gorica to Jesence. Timing was important, especially because I realize that I had to walk from the furthest train station in Italy to the closest station in Slovenia. A good 3.5km.
I had 45 minutes to make this walk across the border with my backpack and everything important on my person. This was probably the craziest thing I realized I had to do, no escaping it. I proceeded to literally walk across the border where there was no control, my passport hadn’t been looked at once since I left Switzerland. I crossed through the seemly abandoned checkpoint and had to laugh out loud at how ridiculous it was that I was able to do such a thing.
I also realized once I crossed this border that I was no longer in Romance Language territory, we’d switch to Slavic languages and partial Cryllic. I bought what looked like pretzels and apple juice from a vending machine that looked maybe 20 years old. I hopped on the one tiny three-car train in direction Jessence. By now it’s noon and the train is passing through beautiful mountains and valleys when the conductor comes by and says. “Next stop bus”. Unclear.
I find myself and everyone on the train whisked off to take a bus to the next portion of train track. I’m assuming that they were doing rail work or didn’t want to have to run the train. After an hour or so on the bus breathing only stale cigarette air, I’m nauseous. At the second part another equally rickety train takes all of us to Jessence. At Jessence we change to an actual international train headed to Zagreb, Croatia. This is still Thursday.
At this train connection I spot three larger than mine backpacks and three people decked out in Patagonia. Americans. I find myself shuffled to the same train car as them and as if I’m 5 on the playground I ask this if they speak english, if they’re Americans, and if I can sit with them. Yes yes and yes. Nailed it. The next six hours pass by easily speaking with the three recent grads from Seattle who are traveling the whole globe in 9 months (madness). It was honestly just nice to speak outloud and in slang English. My passport was finally checked and stamped at the Slovenian/Croatian border [not schengen].
We part ways when we reach Zagreb. The first order of business as usual was to find the hostel. Hostels can be such a hit or miss based on the app. This was in between. I’m not sure if it was great or super weird. I grabbed the tourist map and locked up my things and went to go explore until I needed to sleep [still thursday].
Zagreb/ Croatia is primarily Christian so of course they have a large cathedral and squares of public space complete with European Christmas markets. Aka cheap food and hot wine. The Croatian kuna is also super weak so every USD gets 7.5 kuna and most things were 12kuna each. I had wine and a sausage in a bun with ketchup for 17 kuna, just over 2 dollars. It was amazing.
The prevalence and use of American music is also hilarious abroad. I walked around the markets and the live band started playing Highway to Hell, is unsure why, but there’s a joke there about how it’s a Christmas market. Zagreb was beautiful and I never felt unsafe, contrasted with Italy where I constantly felt unsafe. Back at the hostel I met a woman who had taken a sabattical from teaching at Arizona State which was so interedting. She was living in Europe in different places trying to pick out a place to invest in a vacation home. When I left early in the morning she looked at me and said, ” you have so much integrity, I can tell”. Which was so nice and definitely unwarranted but game me confidence for the day ahead.
The only way to get to Sarajevo is from Zagreb. At least by train. To my extreme delight the train was real. One train a day at 9:18am. I’m pretty sure this train was used in the 1980s. And hadn’t been truly cleaned since then either. I gritted my tears and got on. However just before I saw the men cleaning the train and when they got to he bathroom they sprayed some freebreeze and some disinfectant and it was done. I prayed I wouldn’t have to use the bathroom the entire 10 hour ride, unlikely. Even the nonsmoking compartments still felt so grimy and all the upholstery was limp with grime and pollution.
10 hours, many different train companions (because nobody else was taking it the whole way), another passport stamp, and the sun rising and setting I was in Sarajevo finally. I saw Sarah and I thought I couldn’t have seen anything lovelier in the old train station that was dark, damp, covered in graffiti and was definitely a vestige of communism.
Sarajevo is incredible. Even that first night I learned and experienced so much. Sarah is doing research there for a total of 10 months which builds upon the research she did for her senior thesis. Within an hour I’d had Bosnian Pita burek (meat)- the best food in the world. Rakja which is a super sweet liquor with many flavors. And a decadent dessert from Cream Shop. After my time with her I was looking up places to get Bosnian food in DC. So good.
My knowledge on the fall of Yugoslavia and the resulting conflicts at this point was embarrassingly little. Even now after spending time there I feel like I only scratched the surface of what really occurred between Bosnians Serbians and Croats after the fall. I learned an incredible about from Sarah and the amazing network of Bosnian friends that she’s developed. The history is so important and deeply embedded in the city that even the architecture shows how literally the East meets the West with buildings from Ottoman and Hapsburg eras respectively.
We also took a mini trip to another city in Bosnia, Mostar. Which is further south and to our delight was warm. Compared to huddling for warmth in Sarajevo in hats and gloves in bed. We stayed with a family there and I learned how to make the delicious pita is been eating all week. They were so welcoming it was so special to talk to them and laugh with a family even though I speak no Bosnian I picked up some phrases and words.
I left Sarah so sadly on Wednesday the 9th, making the ten hour trek back to Zagreb. I originally planned to visit another friend in Istanbul but after several angry messages from the Istanbul consulate about riots in the area, train cancellations from refugees, Sarajevo being in such a thick pollution cloud that not a lot of flights were leaving, it was too much of a sign to not go.
When I got to Zagreb I went to double check my plan for the next day with the international office. I was planning on going to Budapest but was greeted with “impossible, impossible, cannot go”. I would’ve hoped someone working at the international desk would be much better versed in English. Even a little bit more would have been helpful. However after scrambling and amending my plans I took the first train out the next morning in the direction of Prague.
Setting foot on the Austrian train was like leaving a different world and entering a new one I forgot existed. Outlets, clean floors, new seats, on time. It felt like heaven. I made may way to Prague in just over 11 hours. From Zagreb is passed again through Slovenia, on the border you could see the large banners of the UNHCR flags across a medium sized compound of white tents surrounded by police with dogs. Refugee camp. I wasn’t so close and I never got puff the train at this point but the whole issue that world leaders were debating was right in front of me on this border. I confronted this again which I switched trains in Graz, Austria and came off the platform to see maybe a few hundred refugees corralled inside a relatively small area of the station, again surrounded by police with dogs and guns- not usually seen. It was very surreal to hear the crying babies and screaming children playing and not knowing much better and the tired faces of people weary of travel, which was the same emotion displayed on my face. Through Austria and Vienna I got off the train at Prague hopped on the hinder ground and got to the stop where I was picked up by family friends. Like sliding into home plate- safe.
I’ve never slept in so late. I woke up around 1pm the next day. Some people would be proud of me for those, I was still mortified, so late. But I figured I would just embrace it and on Friday I sat. I sat and ate and watched Netflix (Sabrina 😭) and slept. I didn’t realize how wiped out I was until I got into a real bed I wasn’t sharing and room that wasn’t with strangers because I finally fully decompressed for the first time in two weeks.
I spent 5 days in Prague. I loved every minute. I stayed with the family of my dads grad school roommate and it was so fun and relaxing. I had time to explore the city by myself but also to watch dance moms and parts and rec. I was able to go to the embassy and take to more foreign service officers about their work and my (potential and distant) future- which was amazing. I also got to see Morgan and her boyfriend Thomas ❤️. Such nice days exploring- Prague is a really cool city with great food and beer.
I finally had to gear up to travel again on Tuesday. After laundry and naps I was ready. I caught the 6:52am train to Vienna and I met Austin! We are already great travel buddies and our schedules overlapped for this bit. On the first day we traipsed Vienna going to old palaces and having schnitzel. On the second day we visited the imperial Hapsburg crypts and made a little day trip to Bratislava in Slovakia. This little trip was so fun and I got to hop back into truly Eastern Europe and really compare it to the places I’d already been.
Austin left me on Thursday and I decided to do a hike out in the Austrian Alps, success. I made it to a small town called Mariazell nestled in the mountains. Nothing compares to the Swiss alps but it was gorgeous, and another Christmas market. My last day alone I spent in Salzburg, Austria. Long walks and exploring another market and another city. However, I basically lived the dream of being Maria in the Sound of Music, my truly favorite movie.
I’m now on my way back to Geneva on 12 hours worth of trains and metros and trams to get there. Passing the alps and the mountains really feels like home, plus I spy a Migros.
I loved traveling alone. I walked and read and journaled. I got to just think and breathe. I’ve always felt like I am the best possible version of myself when I travel and now I feel that always as it has just come from having th confidence in myself to go and try and do something.
I’ve had an incredible trip and I know there’s so much to say about each step but I hope I’ve hit the most important parts.