Wanderer

My European Top Spots.

It’s nearly April… I’ve been wondering where to spend my summer. While I’m looking at spreading my wings as far as Thailand or America (I know, completely different ideas there!) this year, I think I’ve definitely scattered my heart across different cities of Europe, including good old England. Then again… I tend to say that about pretty much every city and country I visit, so no doubt as I wander further afield, that list will just grow longer and longer.

I love the diversity of Europe; the array of cultures and languages and delicacies, the contrast of stark differences and intermingled traditions from border to border. There are some cities that I just find myself going back to again and again, and it never gets old – there are always new cafes serving coffee even more delicious than the last, more landmarks that I haven’t found the time to visit yet and beautiful little streets that are deserted but for myself and the occasional knowing local.

This wasn’t easy at all, but I managed to order my unruly top 10:

1. Paris. For years Rome held this top spot, but France’s capital has rather snuck up on me over the years – every time I go I love it more and more, even if I’m literally just passing through on a train, and somehow, it overtook Rome. Yes, the people can at times be a little snooty, but most of the time the snooty-ness that I have witnessed against tourists is purely because they are not meeting Paris’ standards – arriving in Paris in dirty clothes and Birkenstock with a tatty rucksack on your back is not going to make you the darling of the city. It’s quite like trying to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a ball. Everyone makes an effort in Paris, even if it is in that je ne sais quoi, ‘I just fell out of bed’ Parisian sense. They’re experts at putting in a lot of effort in looking effortless. Try to blend in, and that snooty-ness will disappear. Or so I find. 

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2. Rome. See, my ex-top spot has not slipped far. I love history. I love art, architecture, literature and the renaissance, all of which can be found on every corner of Rome. I feel comfortable walking around the city without getting lost – I can act as tour guide to fellow travellers. There’s no better feeling than realising that you know a foreign city. It’s not just a place that I have visited a few times anymore. I’ve always been and will continue to be lured to Rome for its history, its art, its food and its coffee. Yes, yes, yes and a very big yes from me on those fronts!

My one pet peeve when in Rome? Arrogant, metrosexual Roman guys who still live with their mothers well into their thirties. They linger around Trevi Fountain in droves. Huge, huge pet peeve of mine.

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3. Prague. When I first visited Prague, I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s just not a place that I have looked into too much before I arrived at  Hlavni Nadrazi station. Until then my Pinterest (what came before Pinterest? Good old fashioned cut-and-paste scrapbooks?) had been full of photographs of Paris, Rome, Athens, The Great Pyramids, Macchu Picchu and Buddhist Temples. I’d always planned to visit Prague, but somehow looking at what it was like never occurred to me. The beauty of the place blew me away. It’s a perfect blend of East and West European; some streets could easily pass for France or Italy – or even England, when suddenly you’re surrounded by Eastern European architecture, Czech music ringing through your ears and people drinking brands I can’t even pronounce.

Also, Prague is one of the most beautiful cities at night.

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4. Venice. Yes, it’s quite a pricey city, but then I’ve found that I can still keep my budget low – Venice is not a city teaming with museums and must-see sites with expensive ticket fares like other touristic cities. I’m also not big on souvenirs, which could prove to be super pricey if I were. Venice is the city I head to if I want to see Italy, without the hustle and bustle of Rome or Milan or – to some extent – Florence. I tend to avoid the few busy spots of the city – St Mark’s Square and Ponte di Rialto. Two or three streets from these Venetian hot-spots, and you’ll find deserted streets, a woman beating sheets over her balcony perhaps, the occasional cat, but otherwise you’re entirely alone. No cars, no noise. It’s wonderful.

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5. Florence. Yes, Paris may be my number one city, but Italy is clearly my number one country. Florence is a nice balance of everything I love about Italy. It’s not as mad as Rome, or as busy and metropolitan as Milan, and while it has that same peace as Venice, it’s gifted in sprinkles rather than spades. It is quintessential Italy in the country’s best region: Tuscany – I love taking day trips from Florence to explore the beautiful surrounding countryside.

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6. Lisbon. I tend to yo-yo between Porto and Lisbon when choosing my favourite Portuguese city, but right now, I’d choose Lisbon. It’s true what they say – ‘Porto works and Lisbon plays’. Things are much more relaxed in the south, and people seem to mysteriously work less and yet are richer. I do have one issue with Lisbon – its treacherously slippering paving stones.

Praça Duque Terceira Cais Sodré Lisboa Portugal Calçada à Portuguesa Roc2c Portuguese Pavement stone white black pedra

Seriously, I had to buy a new pair of shoes just because wearing my sandals or ballet flats was about as effective as wearing Cinderella’s glass slippers. Otherwise you pretty much have to choose between risking your life by walking in the road, or risking your life because every step could end in a broken neck.

Still, Lisbon is beautiful, not majorly touristic and yet not entirely isolated to the lone traveller who doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese – like me. Actually, that’s a lie. I can say thank you. I think thank you is the most important phrase to learn in every language. Even more so than hello.

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7. Budapest. Another city that I had little knowledge of – like Prague. I knew it to be cheap, but that’s about it. Yes, it is cheap, though as tourism grows, so do those prices. The architecture is sophisticated, the people are sophisticated – but for a few old men who linger on park benches whistling at passing women. So many people have apologized for ‘the habits of the older generation’ – honestly, it’s fine. Clearly they have never passed a building site in the UK. The famous thermal baths are wonderful. I recommend visiting the bath houses during winter – it’s instantly even better when you’re lounging in the steaming water watching the snow fall outside.

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8. Barcelona. I’m not a fan of gaudy Gaudi, but of course, his architecture makes Barcelona what it is. I find it amazing how we all flock to see a building that is not due to be finished until 2026. I mean, of course, La Sagrada Familia. However, one place where I feel Gaudi’s unique style does work within the city is Park Güell – also the spot of my favourite (yet discovered) view in Barcelona. In Park Güell you will find pianists, violinists and musicians of instruments so exotic that I don’t even know what they are. They claim a spot and play beautiful classical pieces to entertain tourists and locals alike. It’s quirky and amazing.

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9. Vienna. A haven for museum-geeks like me, my favourite being the Sisi museum; a museum dedicated to the life of Empress Elizabeth of Austria. It’s cleaner than Paris and Rome. It’s more efficiently run than England, but it’s not as frustratingly perfect as a few cities I have been to; so perfect that they no longer feel real. Also, the people who live there are unbelievably lovely.

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10. Off the beaten track. Finally, while I could go on and on about this city and that city, for me, one of the best parts of Europe is the little villages whose names I never learnt before I moved on to the next. I love the lakes, beaches, rivers and hills. I’m a country girl as well as a city girl, and I love rambling around woodland and climbing hills to see the view at sunset. So if you’re going to Europe, don’t just stick to the ‘must see cities’.

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Wanderer

Why my perspective towards RTW packing changed overnight…

I have 9 days left in England, and so I’m already well into the throws of packing, storing and selling my possessions. The memories of my aching back from last summer convinced me to buy a lovely little 1.6KG 55x40x20 suitcase to replace my quaint little 46x32x15 canvas pinstriped backpack. The only reason I upgraded in size was because I can stuff so much more into a backpack than a suitcase – do you find the same? I began by buying a suitcase that was almost identical in measurements as the backpack thinking, ‘ok, same size, just on wheels. Lovely.’ This suitcase, in fact.

Well the suitcase was almost fine, it easily fit my laptop (case and charger), my camera (lenses, cases and charger), about three outfits… and not much else.

So I went and bought the larger (but still suitable for a Ryanair flight) suitcase, and said to myself that it doesn’t matter if the case is bigger, I’ll still pack exactly what I packed last summer; as little as possible.

That was a week ago. Things have changed a little since then; I’ve realised a few things. I’ve always been a big believer that if you are travelling for three weeks, three months or three years, there is very little difference in how much you need to pack. I’ve never understood people who say ‘well I’m travelling for a whole summer, so I need 200 outfits. But then I started packing… and I realised, as much as I love backpacking, and I’ve always loved having just a tiny backpack (except for the backache) to carry all I need for a few months, I don’t want to do that for longer than a summer. I want to live out of a suitcase.

This realisation started with a skirt. This skirt, actually:

Image from here.

This is my absolute favourite skirt, bought at H&M about a year and a half ago. Every time I travel, it gets left behind simply because it’s made of 10000 layers and would take up half of my backpack. I can deal with that, it’s only a skirt, it just means I wear it as much as possibly for a few months when I come back to England to make up for it. Except that this time, it managed to sneak into my suitcase… closely followed by a pair of black kitten heels. I bought them back in March, broke my foot in April, and so I’ve never worn them besides a few times to break them in around my apartment. And they are just too beautiful to be a waste of £20. And besides, I plan to stop and teach English when I start to run out of money.. I need a suitable outfit for work.

I do need to watch myself though; it’s easy to get carried away and start finding any excuse to justify everything in my wardrobe. A New Look LBD is trying to sneak it’s way in under the same excuse as the kitten heels; work clothes, but so far I’ve been stern and said no; a LBD can be bought anywhere if necessary.

I think my suitcase wardrobe is fairly finalised.

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  1. Pink Midi Dress. H&M A/W 2011. £20
  2. Green Skater Dress. Primark. £10
  3. A trusty black tank top (with lace trim)
  4. Satin cream 3/4 blouse. New Look. £16.99
  5. Nautical Striped top (mine is 3/4 and backless)
  6. Roll sleeved dusky blue t-shirt. New Look. £4.99 (I’ve ripped up the back of mine)
  7. Baggy waterfall pink thin jumper. Vera Moda. £18
  8. White 3/4 Cardigan. H&M £6.99
  9. Black floral bralet.
  10. Brown tweed shorts.
  11. Black suede kitten heels. New Look. £6
  12. Cream/black pointed flats.
  13. Black brogues.
  14. Black waist belt.
  15. Pink scarf. New Look. £7.99

It’s all a bit more chic than my usual backpacking wardrobe, which consists of summer tea-dresses, gladiator sandals and short shorts. But then again, I’m not backpacking this time, I’ve living out of a suitcase, and so why can’t I bring one or two luxuries?

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Wanderer

The Big Luggage Dilemma…

I have this problem every time I go travelling. In fact, I think everyone has this problem before they go travelling: Backpack or suitcase?

Backpack:

Up until now, I’ve mostly always travelled with one of these:

And yes, I know I should have bought a lighter, specifically fitted to my torso measurements, women’s rucksack. Tried it, ended up with crippling back pain. So I bought this, and yes, after a month of carrying around my camera equipment, I still have back pain, but in my eyes, if my back hurts either way just from carrying around so much equipment, I may as well buy a smaller, fashionable bag than struggle with something ugly. And I hate looking like a backpacker.. like this:

I like that so many people don’t really know what I’m doing. They look at me and think ‘ok, that bag’s too small for a backpacker.. but too big for a local.. who is this girl?!’ and then they ask me, and we start talking, and then we add each other on facebook.. rather than just being another backpacker who blends in with the 1000000 others.

If I could, I’d take the canvas backpack on all of my travels, but I just can’t see my back surviving months – or more likely, years of carrying around all of my photography equipment and laptop on my back. I’m just not strong enough, in fact, I’m a teeny tiny little woman who has never set foot in a gym in my life!

However, for someone who doesn’t have to carry around bulky cameras with them, I honestly strongly recommend a small canvas backpack like that one (£20 on Amazon!) For a start, as I said before, it’s a conversation starter. And you just don’t need a huge great big backpack that is practically as tall as you are, like most backpackers seem to think they need. What could they possibly have in there that they really need?!

On my last travels, I managed to squeeze into my little 46x32x15cm rucksack:

  • Canon 5D Mark II with two lenses & charger
  • Mini polaroid camera and film
  • IPad & charger
  • Manfrotto travel tripod
  • Clothes! Two tops, one thin jumper, jeans, a dress and a maxi skirt.. and underwear!
  • Makeup and toiletries
  • The compulsory copy of On the Road that I have to take with me whenever I travel, and a journal and pen. Done!
  • And then the obvious.. passport, wallet, documents.. etc etc

I can fit all of that into a tiny rucksack, what on earth do people fill their huge ‘backpacking backpacks’ with?!

Pros

  • Literal definition of ‘backpacking’
  • Better for rugged, off-the-beaten-path travelling
  • Easier for carrying up and down stairs
  • Perfect for camping/hiking
  • Both hands are free while walking (useful for shooing away beggar children)

Cons:

  • Back pain is a common problem
  • Heavy. Can be tricky to lift onto back as well as then having to walk around wearing it.
  • Harder to organise belongings.
  • Almost impossible to stop clothes from creasing!
  • More of a target for pickpockets

Suitcase:

Nevertheless.. the backpack is being replaced this time. I don’t want to come back to England (if and when I ever do) with a hunchback. I’m going for a teeny tiny 20cm suitcase. Something similar to this:

Most of the time I can just wheel it along behind me, but there are options for carrying a suitcase when it is not possible to pull them along. Monkey straps are an option (http://www.monkeystrap.com/order.php), though I could save myself $30 and spend a few pounds making one, they’re basically just backpack straps sewn to a few adjustable buckle straps and then a separate luggage strap is used to lock it all around my suitcase.

Front View Front View

No doubt I’ll be posting a tutorial on that at some point…

Pro:

  • More accessible, you are not rummaging for things!
  • No back ache!
  • Easy to wheel around
  • Hard cased suitcases are much more durable
  • It fits better into small spaces. Or so I’ve found. Even if I had a small backpack and larger suitcase, once I’ve filled the backpack, there is always one odd little lump that means the backpack won’t quite fit into a space (usually the annoying Ryanair measuring ‘cage’), and then I therefore have to rearrange my entire backpack to try and bring it back down to an acceptable size.
  • Pickpockets are no longer an issue
  • Better structural protection of possessions & souveniers

Cons:

  • Cobbles and uneven surfaces can be a pain in the bum!
  • Carrying up and down stairs even more so..
  • Not suitable for hiking or camping (but very much suitable for glamping)
  • I’ve found if you only have one free hand, beggar/gypsy children swarm you.
  • You look more touristy and therefore you’re also swarmed by people trying to coax you into expensive hotels etc etc

Suitpack/Backcase:

I’ve never tried out one of these bad boys, but I’m frequently told that they’re the way to go. It’s just a matter of balancing out requirements that can prove tricky: if I choose a backcase/suitpack with extra light wheels, they may turn out to be flimsy and useless, but if I go for strong, sturdy wheels, how much weight will that be adding to my back when I have to carry it?

Pros:

  • Combines the pros of backpacks and suitcases
  • Avoid backache from carrying but also easy to carry if necessary

Cons:

  • Wheels tend to make the bag significantly heavier
  • Less protective than hard-cased suitcases.

Overall…..

I may be leaning towards something like this:

Cabin Max wheeled backpack. 44L Carry on size (55x40x20). It’s not as pretty as I’d like… but it looks like I’m going to have to be sensible for once and choose practically over fashion… though they do also have it in purple!

I have 50 days before I leave. 50 days to make a decision!

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