72 days with a backpack: Solo Travel in Europe

After two and a half months gallivanting around Europe, I am finally back home in Santa Barbara. Over the course of 72 days, I visited Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Prague (The Czech Republic), Freiburg (Germany), Las Palmas (Spain), Casablanca (Morocco), Washington DC, and Vegas. Check out an interactive map of where I went in Europe below or click here!

As I’m now reflecting on my trip, I feel so grateful for all of the kind souls who I met along the way, who made my trip more interesting and more affordable. I was hosted by 15 people – 7 from the couchsurfing website, one who I met randomly, and 7 old friends. Here’s an overview of my adventure!

My first stop was in Geneva, Switzerland! All I had with me was this 32 liter backpack!

On August 27, I took the Santa Barbara Airbus to LAX and flew to Geneva, Switzerland, where I and stayed with Alex, my first couchsurfing host, and explored by myself. When asking for directions from a woman sitting on a bench, I made friends with Katia, a Swiss lady who had relocated to live in Uruguay. We spent the morning together walking by the Rhone river, and we later visited a contemporary arts museum. She invited me to stay with her in Uruguay – which I might do next spring!  Alex, Katia and I had dinner together at a restaurant (the only time I ate out in Switzerland as it is notoriously expensive) and I had a €30 veggie burger. (Ridiculous!!!)

Then I used one day of my 3-day train pass (about €300, but it’s not consecutive – you select the days within a month) to meet my father in Kandersteg, a small mountain village with epic hiking and climbing. Our plan was to do a few via ferratas – or “iron way” in Italian (see my previous blog post about via ferratas) – which are climbing routes enhanced with extra protection like ladders and steel cables. We did the longest via ferrata in Switzerland which took 5 hours to climb plus 2 hours to walk back to the start – along a glacier!

Then we started an 8 day trek in the Italian Dolomites from Dobbiacho to Belluno (with a 4-day break in Cortina) along with Greg and Bill, two of his friends from elementary school. So it was me and three 60-something year olds sharing tiny dorm rooms in mountain huts – despite the snoring, the scenery was spectacular! Thanks to my dad for planning (and paying for!) most of this part of my trip!

Ready for some solo adventuring, I set off alone on a tour of Italy. Traveling by train, I visited Florence, Siena, Pisa, Venice, Verona, Lavis, San Vigilio, and Merano – trying to visit both places urban and rural, couchsurfing when I could to save on accommodation and make new friends. I met a big group of Americans traveling who had rented a villa in Siena, and I asked if I could tag along for a few days – and so I found myself in a gorgeous vineyard in Siena for my birthday! They rented a big van and I was invited with them to visit Pisa and some hot springs.

 So you see, even when I travel alone, I usually find myself surrounded by people! I’m quite extraverted and I enjoy meeting new friends from different countries. However, there are times when I feel tired of being around new people – I get a feeling that I’ve had too much input and not enough time to process. When I start to feel this way, I get myself a private room in a youth hostel or cheap hotel to decompress for a few days.

I was in awe at the Duomo in Florence, although I avoided museums and crowded indoor places because of the virus. Thanks to my German friend Melissa, who I met when I played on the ultimate frisbee team in Malaga, Spain, I played in an beach ultimate frisbee tournament in Bibione, Italy. I met some very generous players there who offered to host me later in Vienna.

After about three weeks in Italy, on October 9, I took a train to Innsbruck where I joined my couchsurfing host Christian for an epic snow hike. My next stop was Salzburg, where I sang the Sound of Music songs in the informative and fun free walking tour. In Salzburg, I stayed at Wolfgang’s hostel, which was industrial, expensive (€25 for a dorm, €70 for a private room), and not too cozy – luckily I made some new friends while doing my laundry (in the outrageously overpriced laundry machine, €10 for wash and dry. Mostly I washed my clothes in the sink.)

Then I had to visit my new frisbee friends Ting Ting and Leon in Vienna – I met them at the ultimate frisbee tournament in Italy, and they had generously invited me to stay with them! They had an extra room in their apartment. Leon gave me his old cleats that were too small for him – which I dangled off my backpack all the way to California – so I was able to join 2 turf field ultimate frisbee practices. Ting Ting loaned me her bike so I could get there easily. We had a make-your-own sushi night, and we watched the USA Ultimate Frisbee Nationals – they knew more of the pro frisbee players names than I did! What amazing hosts!

While they were working, I took some time to rest in their apartment – travel can be exhausting!! – and when I had finally gathered up the strength, I visited the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. I was in tears while looking at some of the art, especially when I found a painting that I remembered from a high school history textbook. I felt such a strong sense of gratitude for being where I was.

I am often hit with this magical, powerful feeling when I am solo traveling – that I’m here alone, in the right place, at the right time, somewhere very far away from home, and it’s meant to be. In contrast, I sometimes feel waves of loneliness and solitude and homesickness. But like everything in life, these moments pass, and the journey continues.

Sometimes on these longer trips I feel exhausted from planning and moving. On days like that, I honor my feelings and try not to do anything too ambitious that day – maybe just take a walk, and I’ll take my book to read in a sunny place, and that’s it. In my 20’s, I felt the need to be doing, moving, accomplishing, and if I missed a day and wasn’t productive, I felt like a failure. Only in the recent years have I learned how to embrace and honor rest. I’m still working on not feeling guilty about it.

I visited Prague for 5 days, and was mesmerized by the cobblestone streets and detailed and colorful architecture – I felt like I was walking through a fairy tale. I found another ultimate frisbee team there (we practiced indoors on a handball court as it was freezing outside) as well as swing dancing – two of my favorite hobbies! I enjoyed cooking for my friendly couchsurfing host Juraj.

Some hosts prefer to cook for me to showcase some of their local cuisine -like Hannes in Italy who made a spectacular knodel, or potato dumplings, and Dario in Lavis who made a kind of pumpkin pasta from scratch – but oftentimes I’ll try to cook for them to show my appreciation for their generosity. My signature dishes are baked sweet potato with greens or a big veggie stir fry.

Then I took an uncomfortable overnight bus where I had to change seats at 3AM to spend Halloween weekend with my good friend Ganga and his Turkish fiancée Pinar in Freiburg, Germany. I had been bugging Ganga since I had first got to Europe, asking if there was any good time for me to visit. I also sent him some postcards reminding him that I was in Europe – and voila! One day he sent a message inviting me to stay for Halloween weekend. Thanks, Ganga!!

I met Ganga when we were both teaching English in Malaga, Spain – he is from Florida but has decided to try to live in Germany permanently. Both he and Pinar are in graduate school in Freiburg studying renewable energy engineering. They loaned me their landlord’s rusty extra bike and I trailed them around the city. We visited a lake surrounded by red, yellow, and orange trees as well as a free, public zoo. Even though my tourist’s view is limited, I observed that society seems fairer and more equitable in Germany, as zoos and other public services are accessible for all.

Next I visited Anne Claude, a good family friend whose mother met my dad 35 years ago while running a 5k in Switzerland. Anne Claude was an au pair for my aunt in the 80’s. Anne Claude lives in Zug, a beautiful lake town in Switzerland near Zürich, so of course I had to stop by for a few days. I had visited her a few years previously and am always amazed by her energy – we hiked up Zugerberg mountain (that she sometimes runs up) and on the way down it started pouring rain. So we jogged, soaked, back to her house!  

She also took me on a day trip to a glass blowing factory and to see the famous bridges in Lucerne. Thanks Anne Claude!

Then I flew from Basil to Las Palmas, the Canary Islands, to visit my friend Jessica, who I had met four years ago in Almendralejo, Spain where we were both teaching English. It was my second time visiting Jessica – she lived in Tenerife last year. I’m so proud of her for living her dream life – she has been living in Spain for the past 4 and a half years! Check out her youtube channel!

We explored the island by car (thanks to her Spanish boyfriend Nestor who drove us) and went on a hike to Roque Nublo, an outer-space-like rocky landscape in the middle of the island. The food there was cheap and delicious compared to the rest of the places I visited in Europe.

Soon my 90 day tourist visa was running out, so I booked a cheap flight for only €300, the caveat being a 24 hour layover in Casablanca, Morocco. Luckily I had already traveled solo in Morocco and made a lot of friends, so I knew someone who I could stay with! I visited Ali two years ago when he lived in Rabat – we met through the couchsurfing app. 

Since Ali had to go to work early the next day – he is a math teacher at a high school – and I had an afternoon flight, I went on a long walk in his neighborhood in the morning. I almost made it to a forest he recommended, but a scary barking dog prompted me to turn around and head back. His neighborhood was overrun with stray dogs and cats, and as a shortcut to get to his apartment from the train station, I had to climb through a small hole in a wall.

As it’s an Arabic country, I’m more cautious about how I dress and wear long sleeves and pants when I visit, although I don’t wear a headscarf. Many women don’t – in fact, I made friends with a very friendly girl named Hafsa on the train who helped me find my stop who wasn’t wearing one. Most people in Morocco speak Arabic and French, although the younger people tend to speak English, too. But when buying my train ticket, the employee didn’t speak English, so I attempted to speak French so I could understand the correct time of departure – I guess my French numbers are good enough! Merci beaucoup! 

Finally I made it to Washington DC, and after a $60 uber ride from the airport with a really grumpy driver, I spent a week with my sister and her kids, biking to see the memorials and museums in my non-babysitting hours. I rented an electric bike using LIME – it was expensive but fun – about $12 for a 20 minute ride. My favorite memorial is the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial which has so many inspiring quotes from him. Here are a few of my favorites:

“We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” 

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” 

Travel is oftentimes not comfortable or convenient, and is often challenging, and I find myself knowing myself and trusting myself more deeply as I am faced with different obstacles. The best advice I have for solo travelers is to be outgoing, make new friends, but to also trust your intuition. Rest when you need to. 

My favorite museums in DC are the National Art Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, so I visited both – and I was particularly impressed by the paintings and photographs of Hung Liu, a Chinese American artist who portrays underrepresented groups like immigrants and working class women. She paints on huge canvas prints of old photographs and adds drips and shadows, creating realistic yet spooky images. Thanks to my friend Rebecca (who I met while teaching English in Japan) for inviting me to the exhibit!

Finally I flew to my cousin’s wedding in Las Vegas before finally hitching a ride home with my parents (who were also at the wedding) back to Santa Barbara.

It all felt like a whirlwind, and it feels like a miracle that I made it home! Traveling alone gives me a lot of self-efficacy and appreciation for my freedom. I can’t believe that I did all of that – wow! But somehow even though I’ve been here for only 3 weeks, I managed to get a holiday job at the Yes store, a seasonal shop selling handmade products like ceramics and art made by local artists.

My life feels like a never-ending adventure with so much movement, and I am really grateful to be home – I’m trying to ground myself for a few months. However, my wanderlust has not expired! I plan to visit a Spanish-speaking country (somewhere safe and south of California) next year in March, April, and May. Any recommendations or connections appreciated! I would love to do an intensive Spanish language school and a yoga teacher training. 

Then I hope to work at a summer school or summer camp here in Santa Barbara in June, perhaps. In fall of 2022, I hope to have found a job at an international school so I can continue to pursue my teaching career overseas. 

If you made it to the end, thank you so much for reading (or skimming)! As always, feedback and advice is always appreciated. Have you been to any of these places? Can you relate to any part of my adventures? Sending love and joy to all. Happy holidays everyone!