I know I'm late to the party, but can you handle another 2016 recap?
There's been plenty of commentary on the anger-filled upheaval that was 2016, and while politically it was a pretty negative year, personally, it was an overwhelmingly positive one.
It's early January and we are back in the US for a short visit after completing our first nine months as full-time travelers. It's weirdly symbolic because it feels like I've been in a strange incubation period waiting to see how this was all going to turn out. Could I really leave the security and comfort of a real job, a house full of beautiful things and a nice car?
Spoiler Alert: YES, easily, as it turns out.
So, how did we do in our first year on the road?
Since April, we visited 24 countries across Europe and walked over 2,000 miles, each with just a 44 liter backpack. We had a lot of firsts, including participating in a language camp in Spain and petsitting in the UK. We attempted, but failed to hit our target budget of $100 per day, but it ended up at a not-too-terrible $125.
We learned a ton, including how to score a great Airbnb at a reasonable price, when is a shirt is truly dirty and more European history than this nerd ever thought possible. I discovered the kindness of people everywhere (especially Jonas in Tallinn, Francesco in Trieste and Irina in Varna) and the douchey-ness of Hungarian train guards. I lowered my expectations and became grateful for a simple cup of hot coffee or a shower where I don't have to wear flip-flops. I developed an appreciation for places that are not perfectly manicured and filled with touristic delights.
It definitely wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, and since no one really wants to read only about the amazing things that happened, I'll toss in the low points as well.
Paula's Winner: Ljubljana/Lake Bled, Slovenia
I wrote about Slovenia in a previous post and despite visiting it relatively early in our trip, it still stands in my mind as the best place we experienced. From the fairytale beauty of the lakes and mountains of Lake Bled to the friendly and charming university city of Ljubljana, Slovenia completely won me over.
Paula's Runners Up:
- Budapest, Hungary (A tourist's dream! A beautiful, romantic destination with so much to see and do (Spas, Parks, Museums, History, Nightlife). All this, plus super affordability make Budapest feel like Paris without the high prices.)
- Tallinn, Estonia (A well preserved old town plus an incredible foodie scene with the friendliest people and low prices... what are you waiting for?!)
- Bilbao, Spain (A tremendous combination of the natural beauty of N. Spain, outstanding food, the super fun party zone that is Casco Viejo AND the amazing Guggenheim. GO, immediately!)
Perry's Winner: Innsbruck, Austria
The train ride from Zurich to Innsbruck has to be the most scenic we have had the pleasure of experiencing... and that is just the beginning. When you arrive in this incredibly picturesque location, try not to gape and gawk with your mouth open as you walk through the beyond-adorable Old Town surrounded by snow-capped mountains and turquoise blue streams.
Perry's Runners Up:
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Ljubljana, Slovenia
- Zurich, Switzerland
Least Favorite Cities
Paula's Winner: Bucharest, Romania
I really tried to find the bright side here, but the city is so grimy and run-down that it was just one disappointing day after another. Ick.
Paula's Runners Up:
- Bratislava, Slovakia
- St. Petersburg, Russia
Perry's Winner: Bucharest ,Romania
Perry took the photo above which he feels summarizes Bucharest. Pressed for further comment, he was quoted saying: 'In a word? Depressing.'
Perry's Runners Up:
- Zagreb, Croatia
- Lisbon, Portugal
Winner: Sofia, Bulgaria
We stayed in 35 Airbnb apartments over the course of nine months, so it was tough to pick an overall winner because we were lucky enough to find so many nice places. Also, there are many factors that make up a 'great' stay. From the host to the location to the comfort of the beds to the cleanliness, different Airbnb's stand out for different reasons. For example, the bed we slept in in Santiago de Compostela was better than all the beds I've ever owned and even some fine hotels.
This place in Sofia ticked all the boxes for us. Located in an upscale suburb, this brand new apartment had all the bells and whistles and was definitely the nicest place we stayed, plus the bed was super comfy with nice sheets and pillows. However, it was the location with a view of Mount Vitosha outside our balcony, the grocery store directly below us and metro right on our doorstep that made it simply perfect. Oh, and did I mention the host was a super friendly guy AND it was really inexpensive?
Here are a few more great places to consider if you are visiting any of these locations.
- Budapest, Hungary (inexpensive, yet beautifully furnished and location right on Vaci Street/metro made it tourist perfection)
- Brasov, Romania (quality furnishings and comfortable bedroom with view of Mount Tampa, plus the BEST host)
- Bilbao, Spain (location in Casco Viejo was unbelievably fun and exciting)
- Lisbon, Portugal (large space with gorgeous hardwood floors and uber-modern kitchen made us never want to leave despite not loving Lisbon, the city)
Winner: Split, Croatia
Like I said earlier, we were really lucky and didn't stay in too many crappy places, but there were a few, like this one. I went against my better judgement by booking a place without reviews, and boy, did we pay the price. From the overwhelming mold smell in the kitchen to the waterlogged bathroom floor to the dirty blankets to ant infestation, this place totally sucked. The only saving grace was its location near the beach and Diocletian's Palace.
Making matters worse, our friend Alison came to visit us here, but thankfully, she was incredibly understanding.
- Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina (super nice host but damp and moldy bedroom forced us to sleep on a sectional sofa)
- Bratislava, Slovakia (ok apartment, but super run down location and a 30 minute walk to the nearest grocery store)
- Marseille, France (cute old building, but unusable kitchen and scary shower)
Winner: Diverbo Language Camp in La Alberca, Spain
Talk about gobsmacked! I expected an exciting experience, but who knew it would be so life changing?
Perry and I met 52 people (27 Spaniards and 25 English speakers from all over the world) and quickly bonded with all of them over the course of seven mind-blowing days filled with social activities (1:1 conversations, group discussions and entertainment) and many late nights with music and drinks. We volunteered to help the Spaniards improve their English and they returned the favor to the Anglos by gifting us heartfelt stories, bawdy laughter, and lifelong friendship.
Guess who ended up the bigger winners?
There are so many.. I could go on and on, but these really stand out to me.
- Toasting with Peg and Gary while overlooking the spectacular cliffs of Pwlldu Bay in Wales, then having three gentle ponies and a dog join us!
- Mountain hikes (Mt. Vitosha/Bulgaria, Cadair Idris/Wales, Mt. Tampa/Romania)
- Glamping at Lake Bled, Slovenia and riding the Alpine Slide
- Lunch with Jonas and friends at Rataskaevu 16 in Tallinn, Estonia
- Visiting Eagles Nest with Jeremy and Jennie near Salzburg, Austria
- Day trip to Brac Island with Alison in Split, Croatia
- Plovdiv, Bulgaria Folk Festival in the ancient Roman Theatre at sunset
- Strolling the Danube at sunset our first night in Budapest, Hungary
- Attending the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia
- Nordkette Cable Car to the top of the mountain in Innsbruck, Austria
- Swimming in the cold mountain runoff outside of Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Winner: Paula's panic attack walking back to our hotel late at night in St. Petersburg Russia
I wrote about this in a previous blog post and it still stands as the worst experience I had on the road. The culmination of a frustrating ordeal getting into the country, followed by being disappointed at how run down the city was, and creeped out by the nasty looks we were getting on the street when we spoke to each other in English brought about a full-on freak out that ended only after I polished off a Big Mac.
We were truly disaster free in 2016 with relatively minor issues to report. The good news is that they make for entertaining stories.
- Getting lost and stumbling into a scary Gypsy camp in Belgrade, Serbia
- Six-hour un-airconditioned train ride from Plovdiv to Varna, Bulgaria in 100F heat and having to stand in the aisle to hold the window down the entire trip because it was broken.
- Walking to the train station through the seediest part of Bucharest, Romania to buy tickets, subsequently leaving without tickets due to chaos in ticket hall and then getting ripped off by a taxi driver trying to return to our apartment.
Living on the Road: The Best
Paula: Exposure to so many different people and places has been humbling and inspiring. Plus, experiencing something new every day- whether good or bad- has really tested me mentally. Not knowing what the day will bring is exhilarating but at times can be exhausting, too.
Perry: The ability to learn an incredible amount without really trying. You are getting an education by virtue of just being there. Oh, and cat cafes.
Living on the Road: The Worst
Paula: People not sharing the sidewalk. Dirty bathrooms. Unpredictable hours for restaurants/grocery stores.
Perry: Not having regular access to a gym for working out. Continually feeling like a dumbass for not speaking the local language.
Thanks for reading everyone! I really appreciate the kind words and support you have offered over the past year. Look for lots of new and interesting posts in 2017 as we head to Asia for six months and a return to Europe later in the year.