The first Europespedition was pretty much my first self-organised experience of travel and, for a so-called
Europespedition, it only actually visited one country. Me and some school friends visited Amsterdam (and Noordwijk) before heading off to begin our respective university studies; things went pretty much exactly as you can imagine.
The second Europespedition expanded on this the subsequent summer, as I toured the UK visiting friends I had made at university before WWOOFing on a farm in Normandy and working at a hostel near Amsterdam.
The past couple years haven’t been great for the travel-minded, but as of late summer 2022 most places outside of Asia had started to re-open. I had big travel plans brewing that would see me far from my home continent for the best part of a year (or perhaps longer), as well as several continental friends both old and new that I wanted to visit before I left. I was also newly unemployed, flush with free time and keen to run a couple small-scale experiments in advance of my larger trip.
Also, I had been planning an Interrailing trip before I went to university which never came to fruition, so this seemed a prime opportunity to finally dust off that idea.
Leeds, Edinburgh & Belper, GB
After pushing some last-minute tweaks to my tracker site and buying some new hiking boots, I boarded a train heading north. Astute map fans may note here that northward is not a Europeanward direction, but I wanted to start the trip by visiting a couple of UK-based friends first.
Firstly, Leeds to meet up with an old university friend for a couple pints and a catch-up many years in the waiting. Afterwards, I headed to somewhere that (at time of writing) is still part of the UK. I only went to see a couple friends, but unbeknownst to me I had managed to schedule my trip during the Fringe, as well as during a lengthy bin strike, so the city was both way more exciting and way worse-smelling than I had anticipated.
I made the most of the Fringe during my short time there, seeing several shows:
** Angel, a one-woman play about Rojava that left me cold;
** Alfie Brown, who I summarised as having
the structure of Stewart Lee with the delivery of Tim Minchin;
** The Tragedy of Macbeth, a very odd and very messy but absolutely fascinating rendition, complete with a very odd clown-based interlude;
** Jonny and the Baptists, who I’ve loved both times I’ve seen them;
** Alice Fraser, who I was intrigued to see in the flesh after years of listening to her on the Bugle.
I also managed to fit in a tour of Holyrood and a delicious haggis, as well as staying with a couple of pals, and on the way back down south I stopped in Derbyshire to visit a farming co-op.
Next stop, the continent! Having never been to Italy previously, I flew to the toe of the boot to spend a lovely week with a new friend, made only a month previously.
We swam in the sea, played card games with her father and explored the nearby areas by car and by bike. We visited the destinctive-looking clifftop town of Tropea, the Scolacium Archeological Park and the mountaintop village of Stalettì at night, where I briefly became disoriented when I looked out of the window and couldn’t determine the horizon between the black starry night and its reflection in the sea. Later, swimming in that same pitch black sea, I felt like I was floating in space before it all started to feel a bit too sublime (i.e., terrifying) and I swiftly got back out. Of course, we also had some of the finest pizza I’ve ever had and I managed to get myself wildly sunburnt. On the day I left, we hiked around Sila National Park and encountered a friendly cow.
Then it was off to Rome to reuinte with fellow Monkey Runner Paolo. Serendipitously, it turned out that his job is managing trip itineries for tourists so, after eating and drank and rolling past the Colosseum late at night, in the morning I set off alone, armed with the most efficient route for hitting all of the key tourist spots.
Amongst the Pantheon, Colosseum and others were a spot I had insisted on: the long-neglected (and feral cat-housing) Largo di Torre Argentina in which Julius Caesar was assassinated. I also took a detour to visit the Vatican and unintentionally stalked a priest bringing his shopping home before hopping on my next train.
Next I headed to Venice for a night. Arriving in the evening and leaving early in the morning I only saw the night-time Venice so familiar from hundreds of films, though that proved a minor problem when I tried to get some quick food for myself and ended up sat by a canal, having the dulcet sounds of an accordion waft over me as I ate the most romantic lasagne for one in my life.
I’d been planning a Sziget reunion shortly before the pandemic came along and ruined everything. Whilst one of my festival wives had pre-empted me by going over to Central America, my other wife was still in Zagreb, so I went to visit her. We went for drinks and pizza the first night I was there, and then the spent the next day traipsing around the city with Anna, a Dutch girl I had met on the train—my first time on a vintage one with individual compartments and suchlike! We met with Lucija again later that night for more drinks in an intriguing UV-lit bar called Alcatraz. I left the next morning, but not before trying (unsuccessfully) to visit the Što čitaš infoshop, which was shut.
I hadn’t originally put Slovenia on my itinerary, knowing it only as
that place that Slavoj Žižek is from. However, after viewing it out of the train windows on the way to Zagreb I couldn’t help myself. The heavily pedestrianised city centre was, similarly to Venice, lovely to stroll around in the evening, and I headed to a bar with my hostel roommates to watch a basketball match (a sport for which Slovenians are apparently mad). On the way back, we stumbled across some sort of sponteneous dancefloor in the middle of a plaza, and then climbed up to Ljubljana Castle to view the city below.
The next day, we joined a walking tour of the city centre, but I had to leave it early to visit a couple other sides before leaving. After a long, rainy walk I reached the National Museum of Contemporary History, which features some really interesting material on a very interesting country, as well as a massive bust of Tito’s head.
On my way to the train station I made a detour to visit Metelkova, which was interesting but I wouldn’t recommend doing without a local friend, and definitely wouldn’t recommend doing carrying a massive backpack that screams
Villach, AT & Munich, DE
I now had a few days before I had to be in Paris to meet someone, several travel days on my Interrail pass and no real plan for where to go next. I had dreams of just picking random stops for places west of me based solely on how much I liked the names, but it became pretty clear pretty quickly that the rail network in this area of the world terminates in a handful of bottlenecks, Villach being one. The town was nice enough, though seemingly designed as some sort of retiree-friendly community—I’ve never seen an outdoor stairlift before—but Villacher Brauhof made good currywurst and better beer, so I was happy.
As part of my genius plan, I decided to save money on hostels by sleeping on trains through the night. Unfortunatey, the timings were such that I never had more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep time, and several of those hours were spent in Munich Hauptbanhof around midnight: not the most pleasant venue for a nap. I did go for a short stroll around the station though, primarily to visit the Kurt Eisner memorial (the German Revolution has always interested me), but also for a beer and a currywurst.
Also, it was on my train from Munich that I messaged a friend something silly and was told to check the news: the Queen had just popped her clogs and, even more surprising and horrifying, I also learned that Liz Truss was now the Prime Minister. From this point on, every time I told someone I was from England they would ask how I was taking the sad news and I had to explain to them that me and Liz (Windsor, not Truss) had only ever had a professional relationship, and I was not particularly affected by the loss.
With minimal sleep and still a long day to go before mon amie Parisienne would be finished with work, I decided to meander down the Alsace region. Starting with Strasbourg and arriving at 5am, I wandered around La Petite France waiting for a coffee place to open whilst the city woke up around me. I also saw a charming shop window tribute to Her Maj:
Many hours and several coffees later I headed over to Colmar, after which I headed to Mulhouse, but then the heavens opened before I got a chance to explore.
Finally I arrived in Paris, one of my least favourite cities in the world, to see one of my favourite people. We admired the miserable skyline from the Place Georges Pompidor, we flâneured, strolled along the Seine and went to a stand-up show—I was interested to see how the performance was influenced by the French tradition of mime, in comparison to British stand-up which often has more of a music hall or pantomime heritage.
Then it was off to a house party where I held my own reasonably well in a philosophical discussion about my favourite Camus works, conducted (mostly) in French. Also, one girl who identified as an avid royalty stan kept playing God Save the Queen which, amidst all of the French house, led to a very idiosyncratic party playlist vibe.
Hungover the next morning and having not left enough time to traverse the Metro, I narrowly missed the coach I’d booked to Amsterdam. Luckily, I found a last-minute ride on BlaBlaCar and zoomed off regardless. Trying to talk a bit of Arabic with another Saudi passenger, I realised I’d used five different languages in the past week and my well-mashed brain was starting to lose the ability to speak English.
My final stop before heading back to the UK was the Netherlands. Firstly, I wanted to make a pilgrimage back to the Flying Pig Beach Hostel—perpetual feature of all prior Europespeditions—and see how things had changed in the seven years since I was last there; not much, as it turns out, and I couldn’t have been happier to see that.
Whilst there, I also ran into a guy called Ben: he had arrived as a guest back when I was working there, extended his stay and then started volunteering shortly before I left; it was great to see that he’s still there, and now managing the place.
After Noordwijk I headed to Amsterdam to reunite with another Monkey Runner. Along with some good beers, I also finally crossed off a bucket list item: cycling in Amsterdam.
I met a lovely Finnish girl on the flight back to the UK and then killed time in the capital for a day whilst I waited for my other favourite Frenchie to finish work. We caught up and I stayed with another friend in London before heading back home for a one-day turnaround for my next trip…