If you missed the first half of this post about Couchsurfing in Amsterdam & Prague, start there. Otherwise, welcome to Part II.
Couchsurfing Europe: Italy, Spain & France
Day 7: The Train & Bus to Italy
As smooth and easy as the first train to Prague had been, this was the opposite. We thought we had booked overnight beds, but apparently only booked normal seats, so we spent a very uncomfortable night spooning head-to-toe across bench seats and holding onto each other’s feet for balance. We had to change trains in the middle of the night somewhere between the Czech Republic and Italy and stopped in Austria the next day for lunch, where we had a very weird meal in a very beautiful place before hopping on a very long bus to reach Venice.
And while we did spend a rather large chunk of our trip riding trains, I still think it’s better than flying and having to mess with the damn airport all the time. It’s good people watching, you get to cross through (mostly) cool and scenic places on your way, and you get the lay of the land way better than out a tiny window 30,000 feet above.
Day 8-10: Venice
Holy balls, we made it. We got off the bus, which dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, and started following the people in front of us, assuming they were headed into town. It turns out that moderately wealthy people with a plan, as most people on our bus turned out to be, had booked a water taxi as their transportation into downtown Venice. Smart. After discovering that we did not have a ready-made water taxi and would not, in fact, be pity-invited onto anyone else’s, we were pointed in the opposite direction and told to get on the aptly-named “People Mover” and walk a while. Hooray.
After finding the train station and dropping our giant backpacks off, it was time for a glass of wine and a view. Finding the first place that said vino on the door, this tiny wine shop turned out to be a precious gold mine of booze and wonder. A charming Italian man told us we could have fresh, homemade Pinot Grigio directly out of the barrel (!!!) and proceeded to fill up two plastic water bottles of wine for a grand total of 3 Euro. If that’s not a win, I don’t know what is. We sat on the ground in a beautiful alley and drank and congratulated ourselves on making it to Italy in one piece. Ciao, bitches.
Venice rocks! Once you get into the heart of it, the alleys are too small for cars, so everyone walks. The parents make their kids learn how to ride a little push scooter as soon as they can walk, so there were a thousand tiny ass kids zipping around, which was seriously impressive to watch. The canals are gorgeous, the people are friendly and the food is tasty, authentic Italian. It’s as picturesque as anywhere I’ve ever been, and I’d go back in a heartbeat. That night, we took the train to a town called Padova, where our next couchsurfing host lived, and met Damiano and his girlfriend after a very exhausting day of trains, buses, people movers and wine.
The rest of our time in Venice was spent splurging on a well-worth it, albeit touristy gondola ride, consuming our weight in olive oil, partying with our host, who turned out to be an air traffic controller, and generally having a very merry time. Our last morning, we decided to do a load of laundry, but decided it was time to leave when our host turned from woohoo party-man to hungover and pouty. Since our clothes weren’t finished drying by the time we left (hardly anyone has dryers in Italy), we went to a nearby park and laid our clothes out in the sunshine for a bit. It turns out when you lay your clothes out in the sunshine people think you’re selling them. Go figure.
Our next stop was Florence, only a short train ride away, so we packed up our damp clothes and hit the train yet again.
Day 10-12: Florence
It’s not that I didn’t like Florence, but I didn’t really like Florence. It was extremely hot, everything was kind of far and there were a kajillion and a half people everywhere we went. We also had our first horrible couchsurfing experience, which didn’t help. Our first night there, we walked to the gorgeous Duomo and had pizza at a charming cafe before meeting Umar, our next couchsurfing host, who said he lived just outside of town. No biggie.
After meeting up with him at the train station and narrowly missing the train to his house by a couple of minutes, we decided to wait around for the next one, which pulled up next to us just as you’d assume the next train would do. We pointed it out to Umar, but he kept saying that it was the wrong train, and trusting the guy whose house we were supposed to go to, we missed the last train for the night. Red flag #1. Looking back, we should have left and found a hotel room right then, but he kept promising that he was going to call a friend and have us stay at his house instead, so we stuck around, hoping we wouldn’t have to venture out in a huge unknown city late at night.
Umar took us to a kabob place to eat and relax while he worked on where we’d stay for the night, so we had a beer and some gross kabob-filled dinner and waited. And waited. Finally, at 3:00am, on the steps of a church we had walked to, he got the call to come over to the house, which turned out to be the house of a guy we had met earlier at the kabob place. Red flag #2. On the walk there, the kabob guy stopped and bought some stuff from these guys on the street, which I’m pretty sure was some sort of fake weed. Red flag #3. After finally arriving at what looked like a formerly nice but currently shut down shithole of an apartment (Red flag #4), all we wanted to do was go to bed. We moved some mattresses together, closed the door and laid down.
After a few minutes, I heard the kabob guy very persistently bothering Erin to get up and help him roll his fake weed, which she very nicely declined by telling him to leave us alone, it was time for bed. Red flag #5. A little while after that, I woke up to the sound of something and opened my eyes to find this dude STANDING IN THE DOORWAY WATCHING US SLEEP. Red flag #6 – #10.
“Umm, what the HELL are you doing?! Go to bed. We’re sleeping.”
<closes door, no words>
<Erin and I exchange glances, mouth “WTF” and decide to go back to sleep because we’re exhausted and this guy weighs 113 pounds>
A little while later, I wake up to find this dude SLEEPING ON THE FLOOR NEXT TO ME. I instinctively shoved him in the face.
“Dude, what the HELL are you doing?! Get out of here! We are trying to sleep and you are NOT invited to stay in here with us. GET. OUT. NOW.”
<gets up, closes door creepily>
We put our heavy backpacks in front of the door and decided we could totally get out the window if we absolutely needed to. However, for the time being, it was extremely late, we hadn’t slept hardly at all and knew we’d be out of there in a couple of hours. Needless to say, we got little to no sleep and peaced out as fast as humanly possible the next morning. We told our couchsurfing host about the creep-level of his friend, to which he apologized, but the whole situation just seemed staged and weird and completely, utterly not cool.
We found a hostel the next day, but that experience unfortunately ruined our entire next day. We were delirious and exhausted, it was a bajillion degrees, we desperately needed showers and were running pretty much solely on caffeine and willpower. I threw up at a bus stop trying to find the David statue, got a restless night of sleep in a hostel with 4 other chicks, one of whom was grinding her teeth so loudly Erin thought they were doing construction work outside of our room, and we rightfully decided to leave the next day for Amalfi. Later, Florence. Blah.
Day 12-15: Salerno & Amalfi, Italy
After taking a quick and easy train from Florence to Salerno, giant backpacks in hand, we walked around and grabbed lunch before contacting our next couchsurfing host, Ciro, who picked us up one at a time and drove us like a bat out of hell on his motorcycle to a condo down the street. I also found the leathery old Italian man of my dreams reading by the sea shore.
Umar and Ciro could not have been more opposite. Our first night in, we chatted and drank wine and smoked cigarettes on his balcony while he practiced his awesomely hilarious English skills and let us try his homemade limoncello. Score!
The next morning, we got bus tickets to Amalfi and took the most terrifying public transportation ride in the world. To get there, and considering Amalfi is a tiny town nestled in steep Italian cliffs, the bus has to drive along said cliffs with two way traffic, even though the road is really only large enough for one. Instead of carefully turning the blind corners to make sure no one is there, the bus driver honks the horn, hauls ass and assumes the people around the corner aren’t too close to get hit and fly off the edge of the cliff. It’s tricky business. And by tricky I mean terrifying. If you must take this bus ride, get just drunk enough beforehand not to care, but sober enough not to get sick. Also don’t sit on the side of the bus where the cliff edge hangs below you. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
Once we arrived safely, we were happy to discover that Amalfi was just as charming and wonderful as we’d hoped. There are countless shops of local art, homemade limoncello, strong coffee, old Italian men playing guitar (yay!), fresh seafood and everything you’d ever want in a little Italian town. The cobblestone streets and narrow pathways are for foot-traffic only, so walking is a must. We didn’t bring bathing suits on our trip, but were determined to kayak the Mediterranean Sea anyway, so we rented a two person kayak from a man that walked straight off the pages of Italian Vogue, banana hammock and six pack included, and kayaked our way into a sea cave and around the shore, relaxing and celebrating the fact that we did not die a perilous death by public bus.
That night, Ciro invited us out to a salsa club for his friend’s birthday. None of his friends spoke more than a few words of English, so we had a blast hearing them speak to each other during dinner, which consisted of one pizza per person, a rule which I will try to live by from now on. I’m also happy to report that Italian people really do say “Mamma Mia!” in normal conversation. Awesome. One of the girls pointed to Erin’s boobs and said “mango queen”, which we were highly confused and amused by but liked anyway. Also, when they say salsa club in Italy, they mean it. It was like walking into the freaking rehearsal for Dancing with the Stars. I am a fairly confident partner dancer, but damn! These fools had it goin’ on.
The next day, we headed back to Amalfi for a relaxing day of napping on the beach, cappuccinos in the rain and an equally terrifying bus ride back to Salerno, where Ciro had cooked us a homemade Italian meal. We had octopus, the best caprese salad I’ve ever had in my life (buffalo mozzarella comes from Salerno) and he told us one particularly hilarious story of a trip to Germany when his “head met a cow” on an intoxicated bike ride home.
The next day, it was sadly time to move on, and by recommendation from Ciro, we decided to skip the flight to Barcelona and instead opt for an overnight cruise from a port city near Rome. Got to love a surprise boat trip. Before we left, however, we both suffered massive hangovers, which were not made better by a day of walking in the hot sun. We met Ciro for lunch and Erin puked over the side of a railing into the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. Kelsey: 2, Erin: 1.
Day 15: Cruising to Spain
After taking a short train ride to the boat, we were pleasantly surprised to find that 1) it was an actual cruise ship, and 2) we had our own room! There were no more than 50 people on the entire ship and we were outnumbered by Italian dudes 10:1. Most of the restaurants on the ship were closed since there was hardly anyone on board, but we had a good time walking around and drinking wine in our room anyway. We even reluctantly made a couple of Italian dude friends, all of which were fresh out of high school and on their way to Barcelona to party and get the equivalent of white-girl wasted.
Day 16-17: Barcelona
Barcelona is ginormous. Before we arrived, all I knew about it was that it was in Spain and I was not supposed to take my iPhone out because it would definitely be stolen, hence the reason I have zero pictures of Barcelona. Google it.
We arrived at our final couchsurfing host house, a nice high rise apartment in downtown Barcelona, and met our last and final host, Guigu, who we called Goo-Goo the entire time. He offered to show us around and take us out for tapas and meet up with a couchsurfing group afterwards, so we took him up on it. As expected, the tapas were delicious and the couchsurfing people were all super awesome and friendly. The bar we went to was so packed and loud that the poor souls who lived right above it would throw buckets of water down on the smokers below to get them to shut up and go back in the club, although I’m not sure that worked out any better. We stayed out till the wee hours of the morning, watching the cleaning crews come in and literally power-hose all the trash off the streets, ignoring the hundreds of wasted people having a great time they’ll never remember. Dinner didn’t start till 10:00 or 11:00pm and midday siestas were as normal as a morning cup of coffee. People in Barcelona know how to party and they know how to nap. I can respect that. The town is also really beautiful, albeit spread out and hard to navigate if you don’t know where the hell you’re supposed to be going.
The next day we went to the beach, nursed our party hangovers and got lost trying to meet up with Goo-Goo for dinner, who turned out to be sort of pushy and arrogant. After asking him about his favorite cities in Spain, we decided to jet out the next morning and head to one of the places he mentioned, a tiny town called Cadaques close to the border of France. Thanks for the tip, Goo-Goo.
Day 17-19: Cadaques, Spain
If I could go back and live in one place that we visited, I’d probably choose Cadaques. It’s the perfect mix of seaside charm, interesting history, beautiful people and baller ass food. It’s a tiny town, most well known as a favorite visiting spot and home of Salvador Dali, and its simplicity is what makes it wonderful. It’s the kind of place, even for a big city lover, that really makes you appreciate the small town way of life.
We rented a hotel room, took midday naps, enjoyed an expensive seafood dinner, limoncello, boozy coffee drinks that were set on fire, dancing, a beautiful walk to Salvador Dali’s house and nighttime relaxing on a giant boulder to watch the lights twinkle in the distance. Magical. And as much as you’d expect the nightlife in a small town to die down at 9pm, this is still Spain, and Spain still likes to party.
Before our trip, my mom had also given us a travel present: choose a night during our adventure and rent a room at a 5 star hotel on her. Snap! Since we hadn’t used that awesome travel present yet and still had 2 whole days to do so, we decided to make a last minute hop over the border into France. Fancy in France? It just makes sense!
Day 19-21: Perpignan & St. Cyprien, France
Bonjour, y’all. We done made it to France. Heyo! Since we got there late in the evening with no reservations or plan, we congratulated ourselves on a train ride well done with a private room in the first hotel we could find. And at $40/night, we welcomed ourselves to Perpignan, France, with a meal at the first restaurant we could find. One thing we had noticed about Europe was the fact that service was generally horrible. They don’t work on tips, I get it. However, France doesn’t play the bad service game. Greeted with a merry “bonjour” and polite “mademoiselle” every five feet we walked, the restaurant even stayed open late (we didn’t know they were closed) to let us finish our wine and dessert.
We headed back to our room, played cards and slept in our sleep sacks, including covering our faces, after finding more than several pube hairs in our covers. Ahh, $40/night.
The next day, we got lost a lot and researched where we could ball out the hardest at aforementioned 5 star hotel and found a great spot about an hour bus ride away, which turned out to be in the middle of nowhere in a town called St. Cyprien, France. We were dirty, possibly foreign-pube ridden, sweaty and carrying 50 pounds of luggage on our backs when we rolled into the hotel, who looked surprised when we said we wanted to rent a room for the night. A nice one. With dinner included. And breakfast. And schedule a massage. Immediately. And oh, there’s a mini bar in our room with tiny bottles of Grand Marnier? Why yes, we’ll take that one.
A hot shower and two hours later, we were getting massaged by French chicks and enjoying a nice cold glass of wine by the pool. GAME ON, FRANCE. We had a three course French dinner to die for, a fancy room all to ourselves, a view of the palm trees and a generally much-needed night in foreign heaven. The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast in bed and headed back on the bus to catch the train back to Barcelona, where our flight home was leaving the next day.
Day 21: Barcelona
We got stuck in a town on the border called Portbou for 4 hours, but if you have to be stuck somewhere, on the border of Spain and France ain’t a bad place to be. We booked a hotel room in Barcelona for our last night and decided to go out for one last crazy night of European fun and good times.
After our train ride back into the city, we found one of the only few open restaurants down the street, had dinner and went out in search of limoncello and dancing. Preferably both. After choosing a random bar based on an invitation for a free drink from a harmless looking old man, I made my way inside and was promptly handed a scotch and lemonade. Eww. I was trying to sip my way through it without having to talk to the old man, but Erin reminded me that not only did I not have to drink it, I could just walk away, too! She has the best ideas. We played a friendly game of pool with some randoms, which quickly turned into a very serious pool lesson (way to ruin the fun, bro), so we made eyes at the door and pulled a not-so-polite fast one and jet out. It was time for limoncello.
The entire time we were in Barcelona, no one could understand a damn word we were saying. And not because we didn’t speak Catalan, but because… well, I don’t know why. Limoncello should sound the same in all languages, right? LIM-UN-CHELL-OH. After five minutes of playing the repeat-what-i’m-saying-but-slightly-different game, we were given the rest of a bottle of limoncello to finish on our own. Too many shots and too many cigarettes later, we made it back to our hotel, who informed us that no, they did not have beer for sale at 4am. Good call.
Our last morning in Europe was a bad one. Hungover is an understatement. We stumbled downstairs and into the first cab we could flag down, which also happened to be the world record holder for most cigarette smoke in one vehicle. Since we had flown to Amsterdam on United Airlines, I only assumed that we were flying out on the same airline. When the cabbie handed us the list of available airlines at the Barcelona airport, however, United was nowhere to be found. The only thing I knew was that we were flying from Barcelona to Toronto. Umm… Canada Air? Is that a real thing? Sure, why not. Canada Air it is. And luckily it was.
Once on the plane, we spent the next 12 hours trying to ignore the smell of airplane salmon that was so cruelly wafting around as a meal option (who orders salmon on a plane?), and after a very long layover in Toronto and Chicago, we were home and back to reality. While I was pumped to see my sweet and lovely man, I was also sad for it to be over. Le sigh.
The only regret we had the entire time was not having enough time. I’m not sure there ever is enough time in Europe. There’s so much to see and do and learn and eat, and no country is alike. I’ll definitely be back, hopefully to live there one day. For now, all I can recommend for a backpacking slash Couchsurfing trip through Europe is making as little real plans as possible. It’s just better that way. Cheers and huge hugs to Erin Callahan, the travel partner from heaven, who is always up for anything, always speaks the truth and made this trip what it was: totally freakin’ rad.