Female Travel in Europe - A Guide by Joanne Vasey
Europe - one continent, far too many languages and countless places to go. Where do you start? First, get some money. I worked for mine and spent £1,800 in total for a six week trip. Personally I would recommend using whatever brain cells you have to create an ingenious fundraiser: I did that for my first trip in Oz and it saved at least a month's work! Next, get a plan. Look at travel books, watch holiday prorammes (Ian Wright is my choice, watch him on Discovery Travel and Adventure) and then grab a map and plot your route. Be careful though because after crossing Australia by bus I thought taking trains across Europe would be quick and easy - not so. A Barcelona to Madrid train still takes about eight hours and if you go at night you save money on accommodation but you also lose a lot of energy from not sleeping well unless you can afford couchettes or beds which is unlikely!
About rail passes
They are great to use but there are more often than not hidden supplements for fast trains, i.e. ones that go from city to city, which is generally how you will be travelling. Most trains and stations are very good and organised (excluding Italy!) and the scenery makes up for any lack of comfort unless you use night trains... As for night trains, beware of arriving somewhere in the early hours and not being able to check in somewhere until midday or later, its really not fun. The trick is to sleep well a few days before you plan to travel at night and no clubbing till 5am the previous night especially if drinking dodgy sangria. I did nine night trains and although it saved money on accommodation sometimes you just want to get a room and sleep for the day when you arrive, which wastes precious sightseeing time.
As for itineraries, everybody has a different idea of where to go and to be honest wherever you go could be good or bad depending on who you're with, what time of year you travel and where you stay. For me I wanted a mixture of everything. The beaches, mountains, cities, villages and all the different cultures. In the end I did more or less what I had planned, it really depended on train times. Me and my travel chum, another Jo (who incidentally I met on Gapyear.com messageboards - it can happen) decided to start in Spain's Olympic city (Barcelona) due to cheap flights and the good weather. We then worked our way through Madrid, Seville, Cadiz, over to Morocco briefly (and I mean briefly - bit too scary for us (one blond) girls), onto the Algarves of Portugal, through Lisbon, back over Spain on a 48-hour journey to Nice, on to Rome and Venice. After Italy came Munich, then Interlaken in Switzerland which deserves a super duper 10/10 for gappers; Paris was next, and last but not least Amsterdam, before I Easyjetted it home to good old (but bloomin soggy) Edinburgh.
To give you a brief summary of each place I have created a quick guide to Europe:
Spain summed up
It's cheap, friendly and hot. Barcelona's the top one here and a big must is staying in the Kabul youth hostel. Next fave was Seville - it's really beautiful even if you do have backpack-ripping disasters while its 34 degrees and are left homeless with the only option to sleep in the train station! Many thanks to the non-english-speaking security guard! Cadiz is a port on the coast with a nice beach and great shops for lasses
- I bought a pair of fantastic kitten heels for only £20 and had to tie them off my backpack for another five weeks, but the oohs and ahhs from my friends were worth it back home!
Lisbon is a weird place for a capital, its very olde worlde but worth a day or two. My favourite place out of the whole Mediterranean was a small town in the Algarve called Tavira. Its cheap, pretty, relatively unknown, has an island off the coast with a fantastic beach and a few good bars including British ones if you're dying for a Smirnoff Ice! Stayed here four days instead of two. Point for InterRailers - if you go to Portugal from the south of Spain you can't go by train for some odd reason, you have to get a coach but you do get a discount with your pass luckily.
Nice is not very cultural but still fun, enjoyed the food, the promenade and took day trips to Cannes and Monaco (BMW city!). Watch out for dodgy French blokes pretending to be Italian who take you to a Cuban club - strange... At the other side of the country is Paris. It's a great city for anyone, the public transport is a bit pricey but really efficient and there's loads of modern as well as old stuff to see (I don't recommend the Louvre though, it's too expensive and the Mona Lisa is disappointing). Paris has great nightlife, you can find cheap versions of the Moulin Rouge shows if you ask around. Lucky me had a friend working at Disneyland so we landed ourselves two free days of rollercoasters and candy floss!! If you can't afford the theme park just go to Disney Village, you can sneak a peek in the fancy hotels, buy groovy Disney stuff and it has cool bars and a club.
Ideas for Italy
Have to say Italy did not live up to expectations at all. They (sorry to stereotype the Italians) were rude, unhelpful, lacking in hygiene and the accommodation was expensive but having said that I only went to Rome and Venice, I was told almost everywhere else was better. Rome is manic. It must be the easiest place in the world to get run over. The sites are great if a bit touristy and the food of course is to die for. Best place in Rome was the Trevi Fountain, go during the day and at night if you can. As for Venice I nearly left after two hours because it was pants - as expensive as London, smelly, lacking in health and safety standards and there's nothing to do apart from take a look at St Mark's square. Don't even think about sitting down for a drink here unless you don't want to eat for the day. Actually it got better, we were very tired and had arrived early Sunday morning after a humid couple of days. Unpleasant was not the right word! It's worth a look to say you have been but that's about it. Oh and we paid about ?10 to do our laundry there... no dinner for us that night.
That's Germany folks. Only went to Munich because I thought after doing the language for seven years I should put it to good use and was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. Their fashion sense is a bit dodgy but they are really a nice bunch. Would recommend a stop or two in Germany.
After hearing numerous positive tales of Interlaken we decided to take a detour to the adventure capital of Switzerland. Its between two huge lakes and both these lakes are surrounded by the Alps so its really pretty cool scenery. Not as expensive as I thought it might be but after booking a paragliding trip my credit card was feeling the strain! Most people either try rafting or paragliding here but you can do practically any adventure sport going. Got picked up by the company, taken up a mountain, had essential safety instructions then jumped off the mountainside into the sky. Don't think I've ever felt anything like it. The instructors were really good, didn't feel unsafe at all and it lasted half an hour but felt so much longer. They can even take photos with a camera on a pole. Was my top moment from the trip, got to be done. Interlaken gets my vote as top backpackers' spot in Europe.
Amsterdam - this place is pretty much on every gappers' list for its reputation as a 'laid back' city, which it actually really is. Even if you're not there for the well known cafes its a great place to visit. The locals are really friendly and speak good English, there's nice food, good museums if you like that sort of thing and the nightlife is pretty interesting even if it is full of British stag parties.
Well that's Europe's basics. The best thing to do is just get out there and do it. Here's my top travel tips:
- Pack light, seems obvious but I never listened to the advice, thought that taking a bit more would be worth it but it sooo isn't. Girls - leave your fave little black dress and all those fancy tops and nice shoes behind. All you need and will actually wear are about four different outfits. Take a nice pair of flip flops (for going out in as well as during the day) and comfy Jesus sandals like the ones your dad wears. Apart from that you could take trainers and tie them to your backpack.
- Stay in cheap hotels as well as youth hostels. We used HI Hostels as well as Hostels of Europe hostels. In places like Spain the hotels are just as cheap and way nicer than youth hostels. For me the hostels got a bit much after a week or two so we booked a hotel for a few nights and it's like heaven. Europe's youth hostels are full of American backpackers who can be demanding to live with due to the fact they are so emm... American!! Oh and a tip, nick all the free soaps you can in hotels for desperate times on trains and never ever count on trains having loo paper!
- Book a bed before you leave for your first night or you risk heart failure when everywhere is full.
- If you want to go out for a meal go somewhere which is well inhabited by locals to guarantee good grub.
- Learn American slang, only because it makes them laugh when you try and use it! Oh and don't slag off the president.
- Make some time for yourself if you're in a group, you observe a lot more from taking a wander alone.
- Beware of pickpockets, the most innocent looking old grannies can be very devious. I've heard a lot of stories of people suddenly discovering their wallet is missing and silly little me got my mobile stolen in a club two days into the trip. The parents were not amused!
- Don't get your photos developed while abroad. I'm sure they charge foreigners double.
- Do take lots of photos though and never leave your camera behind one day because you'll end up meeting Claudia Schiffer/Brad Pitt.
- Go to Barcelona, Tavira and Interlaken. Big musts. Most of all, have fun, but remember that once you've left you've caught an incurable bug and will want to give up any ambitions of getting a degree or having a career and will become a 'serial gapper'!
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