I spent the middle seventeen days of October backpacking around Europe, and am finally settled back into things here in Northern Virginia. I took the trip with my good friend, Jason, and it was one of the more epic adventures I've partaken in during my life, to say the least.
While I generally prefer to write about topics concerning the reason all of you visit this site daily - you know, subject matters like athletic performance enhancement, picking heavy things, getting faster and stronger, or anything involving The Lord of the Rings - I didn't think most of you would mind if I took today to share a few highlights from my trip. I thought it may help/interest some of you reading who have traveled to Europe, will travel to Europe, or maybe just simply enjoy reading this sort of thing.
I possess a certain affinity for lists and bullet points so, what follows is, in list format, some notes and tidbits from a few of the locations we visited. I can't promise to part company with prolixity during this synopsis (it's over 1,000 words), but I hope at least some of you get something out of it!
Switzerland (Interlaken, Grindelwald, and Murren)
- Talk about a decent view for a morning cup of coffee, huh? The photo above is from our stay in Grindelwald.
- Switzerland is, in a word: majestic, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, and paralyzingly-beautiful. Ok, maybe a few words.
- This was my favorite country of all the places we visited. Don't get me wrong, Ireland and Italy were incredible in their own right, but there's something about being surrounded by a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps no matter where you go. The very air you breathe is pure and crisp, the skies are perpetually blue, and the "menu items" for outdoor activities are virtually innumerable.
- I think it goes without saying, but the hikes in Switzerland are unreal. Extremely difficult (think 3,000 of elevation in a single short hike), yet euphoric. Imagine walking along, breathing in the sharp tang of pine needles mingled with the earthy scent of rotting leaves, feeling the cool mountain air blow on your face and filter through your lungs, and everywhere you look you see something like this:
During the mountain hikes we experienced, I felt as if I was slapped awake from a long, deep, fuzzy slumber that had encapsulated me for years in the cities and suburbs of Washington DC.
- CANYONING!!! This was arguably the coolest experience I had the entire trip. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we decided to do it twice while in Switzerland. What exactly is canyoning, you ask? Aside from forcing you to abandon caution and question your sanity, canyoning is where you cliff jump, rock slide (yes, you go sliding down ROCKS), and repel, all within a water-carved canyon. We were taken right up into the heart of the alps, and then submersed ourselves into the beautiful canyon of Chli Schliere, in which we remained for 4+ hours.
To any of you who will travel to Switzerland, and are perhaps slightly mental: DO IT. You won't regret it, it's literally the experience of a lifetime.
Below is a video I threw together of a few of the jumps and slides my buddy Jason and I completed. The most asinine, what-would-Kelsey-do-to-me-if-she-saw-me-doing-this jumps where the ones where we had to jump off a cliff, then rotate in midair and back into a rock wall, sliding down the 30ft sheer drop into the water; you can see one of the ones we did at the 1:00 mark. Unbelievable. Keep in mind, I completely loathe heights, so this was a major step in quelling that fear, along with the reason for the occasional dubious expressions thrown in the video:
- The chocolate in Switzerland really is to die for. I'm not talking about chocolate from Switzerland, imported into the U.S. or wherever else you may be, but actually consumed in Switzerland. You know when cows who produce the milk for the chocolate are grass-fed from the lands of the Alps, it's gotta be good.
- My last recommendation for any of you who may travel to Switzerland is to head wayyy up to Schilthorn. Some of you may recognize it from the old James Bond movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where part of the film was set. It's a revolving restaurant and viewing platform situated right up at 10,000 feet above sea level, and provides the most spectacular view I've EVER seen. You're literally on level with the highest peaks in Europe, and able to look down upon some of the mountains that appeared huge from the Swiss train station.
What was also really sweet was that I was the only one up there when I went, so I had a full hour and half by myself to relax, read, and take in the view. Yes, a complete dream for an introvert like me.
Pictures and video can't quite capture what it's like in person, but here's a video I shot while up there that I hope gives you a decent idea:
And yes, I pronounced "Schilthorn" incorrectly.
- Expensive, expensive, expensive. Switzerland's only downfall is that it's the most expensive country in Europe. It cost an average of 19 CHF (Swiss francs) for a BURGER - no, the burger wasn't made out of gold, or even filet mignon - and 4+ CHF for a simple shot of espresso. Oh, and by the way, the US dollar is valued less than a franc, so that's over twenty bucks for a burger and over four bucks for a simple coffee. Let's not even go into the cost of a full course dinner. I even had to pay 2 francs to use a public restroom, and 15 francs to do a load of laundry! So yes, very expensive.
- Did I mention Switzerland is expensive?
Hint: Switzerland is expensive.
Galway, Western Ireland
- Amazing town that has tons of live music (awesome!) in most of the local pubs, every single night of the week. There's also a bunch of small restaurants & coffee shops, each unique in their own way.
- I was pleasantly surprised how many locals we saw and were able to interact with here. Maybe it was because we traveled in October, but the town didn't feel very touristy, and there were loads of local college students here.
- The Irish accent isn't very hard to understand so long as they speak slowly. If they get going fast though, heaven help you to try and understand them; they may as well be speaking Japanese.
- In general, the west coast of Ireland is much more scenic than the East side (where Dublin is). In contrast to the ragged, roaring splendor of Switzerland, the hills and landscape of Ireland possess a very gentle beauty that I've never quite experienced before. From Galway we would drive (we were brave or stupid enough, depending how you look at it, to rent a car in Ireland) north and south along the coast, stopping at random castles we found and enjoying the many rolling green hills and "midevil-like" countryside. The two most notable spots we visited were the Cliffs of Moher and Kylemore Abbey. The next three pics are from are from taken at these two locations, respectively; I think it'll be self-evident which is which.
- Sheep are ubiquitous in Ireland. This was a surprise to me. Makes for some pretty good lamb stew, though.
- Going back to that whole renting the car thing. Many of the roads are laughably narrow and windy, and the Irish drive extremely fast. You're also on the left side of the road, and the driver's seat is on the right side of the car. Fortunately for us, the drivers there are much better than Americans, so we walked away unscathed.
- The people of Galway, and Ireland in general, definitely know how to enjoy life, and take moments to "step back and smell the roses" during their work week. Such a stark contrast from the Northern Va mindset. I didn't hear a single car honk/beep, the restaurant servers never (even passively) rushed you out from your meal, people would take two-hour lunch breaks if they felt like it, and still finish their workday around 3pm, and while waiting in line for coffee or food, people would, *gasp*, actually talk to one another rather than remain glued to their iphones. Not to mention, the bartenders would spend a full two minutes to perfectly craft each and every pint of Guinness they served.
- Yes, the legends are true: Guinness straight from a true Irish pub tastes better than it does in the U.S.
- I saw a 45 y/o man in a business suit run up and give an unsuspecting older gentleman, who was clearly a friend or co-worker, a firm butt slap as he danced past along the town streets of Galway, gleefully laughing as he continued to prance on down the road in the middle of his workday. That was entertaining.
Cinque Terre, Italy
- Cinque Terre, or "The Five Lands," is an 8-mile stretch along the coast in which the five little villages are situated, each with their own unique feel.
- You can hike along the coast from village to village, enjoying a plethora of fine Italian cuisine. There seafood is especially good, no surprise due to their location right on the Mediterranean. When I ordered a sea bass, I was literally handed a full sea bass, head, bones, tail, and all. It was (wild) caught that very day however, and grilled to perfection, so who am I to complain.
- Many of the restaurants are right on the water, and since Cinque Terre is on the west coast this gives you quite the sunset view for dinner.
- I ordered an Americano in one of the caffes, and the picture below shows what I was provided. I thought it very cool how they served me the hot water in a separate container from the espresso, so that I could dilute it to my individual preference.
- Despite the "must sees" in Italy like Rome and Florence, I'll call you a fool if you travel to Italy and don't take a couple days to enjoy Cinque Terre. (Hint: Go there.)
- I've never missed Metamucil so much as I did while backpacking Europe. Yes, it can lend itself to quite the horror stories/memories, but boy was I glad to use it again upon returning home. 'Nuff said there.
- Minimalism was key for this trip. I normally pack wayyy WAY too much for even a weekend getaway (just ask my wife...), so I was quite proud of myself for not packing more than necessary for the first time in Stevo's autobiography*. I only packed 2 pairs of underwear**, 3 t-shirts, 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of hiking pants, 1 rain jacket, 3 pairs of smartwool socks, and 1 pullover jacket. Score.
- All the photos in this article were uploaded straight from our cameras.
- America needs to take a few notes from Europe's public transportation system.
- I dreamed of going to Ireland in 6th grade. I then started saving for this trip in high school, putting $5-$20 away into a separate account whenever I could from paychecks, Christmas cash, etc. This money wasn't allowed to be used for anything but traveling to Ireland.
By the time I left for my trip, I had over $4,000 saved up which allowed me to do things like travel to other countries as well, enjoy fine food each evening, go canyoning in Switzerland for two separate days (heck, just surviving the Swiss costs in general), or anything I wanted while I was over there, really. So to those of you youngsters who may be reading, you'd be surprised at what you can accomplish if you start saving, even a little bit, now.
- I really can't thank my wife, Kelsey, and co-workers (Sarah, Ryan, Tadashi) enough for allowing me to take this trip. Without you all, it wouldn't have been possible, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you did before and during my trip.
*Soon to be a bestseller.
**I can't recommend Ex Officio highly enough for travel. I'd wash them with me in the shower at night and they're quick-dry so they'd be good to go by morning.