Our (first) long-term trip backpacking through Europe is now over. We were on the road for just over 19 weeks, not including our pre-trip roadtrip to the east coast of Canada. There have been more amazing experiences than we can count. We’ve visited beautiful old cities, countless churches, gone on some amazing hikes, ridden camels, tasted some great (and some not so great) wines, and even watched a bit of tennis.
Our Trip in Numbers
To start, a few statistics:
Countries visited: 17 (18 if we include the Palestinian Territories of Israel)
Distance traveled: ~33,000 km
Rental cars driven: 8
Trains ridden: 9
Buses taken: 13
Flights flown: 10
Ferries Sailed: 10
It’s so hard to summarize such an amazing trip. And to be honest, if someone asked us for our favorite moment, or even city or country, we’re not sure we could give an answer. So let’s break it down a bit to share our best experiences.
We don’t travel to shop or check out the nightlife. We tend to prefer smaller towns, mountains, the ocean/lakes, and great hiking. Scenery is important to us.
- Iceland: The whole island is amazing. From fjords to volcanoes, there is an amazing view from almost anywhere in Iceland. Our favourite spots were probably the Glacier Lagoon and the nearby town of Hofn.
- Northern England and Scotland: The Lake District of England and the Scottish Highlands are amazing. If you’re lucky enough to be on the Isle of Skye on a sunny day, you won’t ever forget it.
- Slovenia: We were amazed by the diversity of Slovenia – from old cities to alpine vistas to fishing villages, we loved it all.
There wasn’t anywhere we’d say was “ugly”. The Baltics had beautiful cities and the Curonian Spit of Lithuania was cool, but many parts of those countries were a bit underwhelming from a beauty perspective. We also never really fell in love with Serbia, although we admit we didn’t have the opportunity to explore outside of the capital city. Israel wasn’t all that attractive in some areas, in part given the apparent popularity of littering by the locals (we witnessed this firsthand), although the craters in the Negev Desert gives the Grand Canyon a run for its money.
Food is also important to us, and not just from a survival standpoint. While we don’t blow our budget on high-end, fine dining experiences on the road, we do love to eat. For us, nothing is better than some amazingly tasty street food or local fast food. We’ll take an old pub over a posh restaurant with white tablecloths any day (at least when we’re paying for it!).
- England/Scotland: The stereotype of bland British food is no longer true. We had amazing meals in everything from restaurants to pubs to country cafes. Pub food was made-to-order, often with fresh-from-the-farm ingredients and was well-seasoned.
- Bosnia: Who knew, right? The Turkish influence can really be felt throughout the country with amazing food. Bosnians know how to cook their meats to perfection, they liberally use garlic and fresh herbs, and they seem to really have a knack for seasoning.
- Israel: Few things beat great chicken shawarma, and maybe a little pita bread with hummus and tahini as a snack. Too bad it was all so expensive.
- Lithuania: Fried bread with garlic and cheese. Amazing!
- Poland: Mmmm… pierogies! One of the few foods that can be eaten as appetizer, main course, or dessert!
Surprisingly, we were least impressed with food in the Balkans ex-Bosnia: Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia. We were hoping for fresh fish and seafood along the Adriatic Coast. Fish turned out to be by far the most expensive thing on most menus, despite the restaurants often being mere feet away from where the fishermen came back to port, and was almost universally bland. And the calamari always had a “funk” to it and not the good kind.
There was a lot of pasta and pizza on the menus and we ordered this often because it was the most affordable option – unfortunately it tasted nothing like in nearby Italy. Food was often overcooked, lacking in ingredients (no fresh basil on margherita pizza!) and way under-seasoned. Maybe the hordes and hordes of tourists in Croatia have resulted in restaurants not putting in the effort? We also have to mention Iceland here – since everything was so expensive, we had to settle for cold sandwiches, hot dogs, and skyr for a full week. Definitely not satisfying.
Our schedule for this trip was all about chasing summer. We’re not two beach bums by any stretch, but sometimes it’s great to just sit your butt on a beach with a drink and a book for a few hours
- Cyprus: Even in late October, the sand was soft and white, the facilities were open, the water was warm, and the crowds were having fun. The best beaches are on the East Coast near Ayia Napa and Protaras.
- Croatia: The water was so clear everywhere. We’d see a fishing boat anchored off the shore, and it honestly looked like it was floating on air. Despite our one incident of accidentally sitting down on a nude beach near Rovinj, we enjoyed beaches all the way down the Croatian coast and on the islands. The majority of beaches are rocky but we picked up a cheap pair of water shoes and we were all set.
The beaches in Montenegro, unfortunately, were a bit disappointing. We were there slightly later in September, but everything had already shut down despite the summer weather. The amount of garbage/litter laying around also really didn’t make us feel like relaxing on the sand for a few hours.
As anyone reading our blog knows, we love to hike. Since we are traveling really light with backpacks, we don’t have room for workout or running clothes, and many of our accommodations are too small to even work out. This means walking and hiking are our primary source of exercise.
- England/Scotland: Whether you go to the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Peak District or the Highlands (we did all 4!), hiking in the UK is amazing. We were lucky to get fantastic, sunny weather in Keswick and did some great hikes in the Lake District. In Scotland, the weather wasn’t quite as good, but a bit of dampness just made the hiking that much more authentically British.
- Iceland: We didn’t do any epic hikes, but the ones we did were spectacular. The scenery is just amazing. To make it even better, in many cases Iceland doesn’t charge to enter the hiking areas, giving us an affordable activity in a very expensive country. Although, we got the sense this may be changing as they realize they can gouge tourists for even more money.
- Cyprus: A reason to explore beyond the beaches of Cyprus is the hiking. We spent several days in the Troodos Mountains, staying in Kakopetria. There are plenty of hikes for all ability levels throughout the region. We really enjoyed the Persephone and Atalante trails around Mount Olympus.
- Negev Desert, Israel: The Negev Desert gives the Grand Canyon in Arizona a run for its money. The views while we hiked were amazing, and the weather was hot and dry every single day. There are a range of trails to fit any length or difficulty level.
We had been hoping for great hiking in Zakopane, Poland as well. Unfortunately, the insane crowds, even on the hike, kind of ruined it for us. The trails were well-marked and the views were great, but the experience would be better in the shoulder season (we were there in August – we recommend you go in May or September). Or take a bus across the border to Slovakia where the scenery was just as good and tourists were almost non-existent.
How’d it take us so long to get to this topic you might wonder? Well, we don’t want it to seem like this is our top priority. 😉 One of the biggest developments of our entire trip was Christine finally converting into a red wine drinker. It only took Trevor 8 years. Another 8 years and maybe she might start eating steak or bacon.
- Cyprus: We were amazed by the quality of the wines in the mountains of Cyprus. We tasted some great wines at Lambouri, Ayia Mavri, and Kyperounda. Because of the hot climate, the reds do tend to be better than the whites, and Cyprus in general is known for its dessert wines. The wineries are very welcome to visitors and we could just drop-in.
- Montenegro: Yes, we were shocked too. We drank a lot of Vranac, an indigenous red wine grape. We highly recommend Plantaze, a state-owned winery. The tasting/tour was great and the wine was better. And best of all, you can get a great bottle for as little as 5€. The only downside is that many wineries didn’t seem at all interested in having us in for tastings.
- Croatia: Croatia was a bit hit and miss, but we had a few good wines. We did a great tasting tour with Korcula Explorer on the island of Korcula. This is one place we would like to return to but, like Montenegro, visiting wineries independently seemed to be overly complicated.
Israel is also known for its wine, and there are wineries scattered throughout the country. We had an amazing tasting experience at Stern Winery in the north of the country. But with that one exception, the wine elsewhere was nothing special and incredibly expensive – not a good combination. The tasting experiences at both Assaf Winery in the Golan Heights and Carmey Avdat in the Negev Desert were disappointing. Overall, we found the wine in Israel was not worth the prices ($10+ for a tasting and $30+ per bottle? For average wine? Really?).
Best Cultural/Historical Must-See Sites
This is another list that is extremely hard to whittle down to just a few. We’ll avoid the obvious things like “See the Old City of Edinburgh”. We made a point of going to a few places off the beaten path that turned out to be real gems, worthy of a detour.
- Auschwitz, Poland: Whether you are Jewish or not, or interested in WWII history or not, this is one place that everyone should visit. As George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” In Poland, we also visited the site where WWII started (Westerplatte, outside of Gdansk), the wonderful Oskar Schindler museum in Krakow, and the site of the old Warsaw and Krakow Ghettos.
- Curonian Spit, Lithuania: This island off the coast of Klaipeda is absolutely worth a visit. At 98km long, the spit has everything from walking/biking trails to beaches to small fishing villages. Climbing a big sand dune lets you see over the border into Russia (the Spit is shared by Russia and Lithuania).
- Sarajevo: The city has such a fascinating (and sad) history. Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated here, leading to the start of WWI. During the 1990s, this was ground zero for the Bosnian war, with many reminders still visible around the city. We went on the Sarajevo Total Siege Tour with Sarajevo Funky Tours, which provided an overview of the city during the conflict and took us to the interesting Tunnel Museum. The Old Town is also fun to explore, with a real Turkish feel.
- The West Bank: Many tourists visiting Jerusalem never cross into the West Bank of Israel, except possibly for a quick stop in Bethlehem. We did a day trip to Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the Aida refugee camp that was incredibly eye-opening. Seeing the other side of the separation wall will give you a completely different perspective on the conflicts in the region. If we’d had more time, we would have loved to see Hebron and Jericho as well.
This is a bit of an all-encompassing category. In incorporates everything from quality of accommodation, food and attractions, and whether they’re all worth what you have to pay for them. When we travel, we like to get the most bang for our buck as possible.
- The Baltics: Accommodation was inexpensive and generally good quality, food was affordable, and the towns were fun to explore. With the great bus services in the Baltics, getting between cities was easy. We definitely felt we got our money’s worth throughout Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with Latvia being the least expensive.
- Bosnia: Again, who would have thought? We loved Bosnia. Rental apartments were spacious yet cheap and food was amazing and inexpensive. And there were so many things to see and do. This is definitely a country we could see coming back to.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are Iceland and Israel. Iceland, we knew going in it would be expensive. But that doesn’t make you feel any better about paying anywhere from €100-200 for a basic room, sometimes little more than an old barn subdivided into tiny rooms, with a shared bathroom. Food was also incredibly expensive, with things like a hamburger going for the equivalent of $25 at a gas station food bar. We didn’t even bother going to real restaurants. Sushi cost $25-30/roll – considering the fish is caught locally and rice isn’t exactly expensive, it felt like we were just getting ripped off.
Israel was more of a surprise to us. Accommodation was very expensive, and often not nearly as comfortable as places we’d stayed elsewhere on our trip. Value for money often just wasn’t there. And food, although really good, is also expensive, whether in a restaurant or a grocery store. Fast food chicken shawarma could easily cost $15 per person. We were in a rush once and went to McDonald’s (don’t judge us) – it cost over $30 for one basic burger meal plus one chicken sandwich. It was also frustrating that in many places, menus, signs, and prices were only in Hebrew. We often felt like we were potentially charged more because we can’t read Hebrew, especially when we shopped in local markets where prices weren’t even posted.
Where would we return?
None of the countries we disliked or wish we hadn’t gone at all. We were lucky to be able to spend enough time in several of them to really feel like we got to experience them fully. The Baltics, Poland, and Iceland all fit in that category. But there are a few where we’d really like to go back and explore more.
- United Kingdom: The UK really felt like a home away from home for us. And for such a small country, there is so much to see. Trevor lived there for almost 3 years in the early 2000s, and there are still parts of the country he has never seen. We would love to explore the south of the country, particularly Cornwall and Devon.
- Bosnia: Yeah, yeah, Bosnia has been mentioned already. But we really liked it. We’d happily spend a few days in Sarajevo again. And driving through the east of the country, the natural scenery was beautiful, so we’d love to go back in-season to do some hiking. And we didn’t have time to explore the wine regions.
- Croatia: We feel like we spent enough time on the mainland, but there are always more islands to see. If we went back, we’d check out Mljet, Vis, Brac, and probably spend a few more days on Korcula and Hvar
- Albania: We barely scratched the surface. Albania is still a bit rough around the edges, but we’d love to go hiking in the National Parks of the north, check out the capital of Tirana, and explore the “Albanian Riviera” in the south
We’ve covered this a bit in a previous post. What did we learn on this trip? The big one obviously being that we can stand being around each other 24/7. Dodged a bullet there! Our next trip is for 5+ months in Australia/SE Asia/Japan. We’ll be a bit more out of our comfort zone in Asia, so we’re taking any lessons we can from this trip to make the next trip a bit easier.
- We need to bring less stuff. We already whittled ourselves down to a 40L pack each, a small shoulder bag, and Trevor has one 25L daypack. Our original packing list is here. We’ve seen others traveling around with 60L+ bags plus daypacks. Even with our smaller packs, we still feel like we have too much stuff. Every time we pack up, we think “why is my pack still so full?”. Luckily, on the next trip we don’t need (m)any warm clothes, so we can cut out a few things off the bat.
- We need to relax. We still get frustrated at little things occasionally. It’s been a surprise how long it takes to wind down mentally from a decade in finance. We know in South-East Asia that things are not always going to work out and some things will be incredibly frustrating, so we need to do a better job of letting them roll off our backs.
- Staying in apartments is great but lacks social interaction. Just staying in a hostel in Mitzpe Ramon was refreshing, because we met several other travelers. We need to do a better job of not being in our own little bubble – we’re both a bit shy by nature and need to make a bit more effort to be outgoing and start conversations with other travelers.
It’s a Wrap!
It was an amazing trip. It didn’t go entirely according to plan, but we loved every minute of it. However, we’re not ready to stop traveling and settle down just yet. Even on the worst days, the nomadic life is #betterthanbanking.