In a stark contrast to the single week of vacation I’m used to during spring semester at the University of Maine, Tel Aviv University is quite liberal with our vacation time. Instead of just a single spring break, we have two different long vacations in the course of the spring semester during which everybody takes advantage of the proximity to Europe. For this first break, my roommates and I booked flights from Tel Aviv to Rome, from Rome to Barcelona, and from Barcelona back to Tel Aviv for a nine-day trip.
Before coming to UMaine, I took a gap year to travel around Europe a bit. I went alone, with a backpack and a train pass, and hit nine countries in Europe, in addition to spending half a month in Israel to start the trip. So unlike my roommates, this brief trip to Europe wasn’t my first rodeo.
There are many different ways to travel in Europe. You can opt to stay in hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, or even Couch Surf (an app where people offer open beds or rooms in their house to backpackers and travelers for free). I try to have the most authentic backpacker experience when I go (and I like to take it easy on my wallet), so I stay in backpacker hostels and have used the Couch Surf app twice. This style isn’t for everyone though, and traveling with people who were not used to it was something new for me. On this trip, my roommate and I stayed in hostels everywhere we went, and she, as a first-time hostel-stayer, got to see firsthand that it can be kind of hit-or-miss.
The first morning in Italy, we took a train to Florence. Florence was what I had expected in some ways, but also completely different. The streets are gorgeous and remind me of the streets that I’d seen in some other countries during my gap year: narrow and lined with very old buildings, many of them colorful with sculptures casually littered along the buildings or in a plaza. What surprised me however, was how small the city was. After one day, my roommate and I felt like we already knew our way around. We covered about 13 miles in that first day, weaving through the streets, doing some shopping, splitting a bottle of wine casually as we walked around (can’t leave that detail out as it might be the best part of Europe).
My favorite thing to do when traveling might be simply walking around a city until I feel like I know it, at least a little bit. After this first 13-mile day, that became our norm. I think museums are amazing and there’s so much to learn from them, but when traveling alone or backpacking, I find that I’d rather just explore.
I think because Florence is so small, the amount of American study abroad students is more noticeable than in larger cities. This was something I didn’t love about the city; I don’t love traveling somewhere and feeling like I’m just amongst other tourists rather than the locals, or feeling as if everything I’m partaking in is a tourist trap. I always try to choose hole-in-the-wall places to eat or places that seem to be favorites for the locals rather than places that cater to tourists, but sometimes the places with the best reviews and ratings end up being packed because of their reputation, so I just have to accept it and enjoy the food.
We spent about a day and a half in Rome before flying to Barcelona, and the contrast between Florence and Rome was astonishing. As small and quaint as Florence is, Rome is large and busy, crazy and honestly a bit dirty. I found the ruins fascinating though, as you might stumble on some incredibly old structure on any corner. The Colosseum was a must and it didn’t disappoint, nor did the Roman Forum and the Pantheon; the history there is pretty breathtaking. I did prefer the quieter, cleaner, more colorful streets of Florence to the busy and packed streets of Rome, however.
The last half of the trip we spent in Barcelona. If I could do it over again I’d flip the order, and spend the first half there instead, when I was less exhausted — it was by far my favorite city and possibly one of my favorites that I’ve been to in all of Europe so far. It reminded me of a cross between Ecuador (where I spent some time in high school), Tel Aviv and America. The Ecuador resemblance came from the outskirts of the city, where the houses seem to climb the hills and mountains that surround it. The Tel Aviv resemblance comes from the warmth, the palm trees and the beach, and the slight American resemblance came from the city center, not in looks but in modernity and variety of shops and food places (but the fact that there was a Five Guys, a Taco Bell and a KFC in the city center probably also aided this resemblance).
Traveling, as I’ve come to know, is exhausting. I’ve done it alone for months and now I’ve done a bit of it with some friends, and there are pros and cons to both. Alone, it can be lonely; there are times when all you want is to share the experience with someone. At the same time, it’s liberating to be completely on your own, with your own agenda. With friends, it involves compromise, planning and a lot of time together. I can’t say I prefer one way over the other. It can be challenging, difficult and certainly uncomfortable. Staying in hostels, having to lock up your things, showering in common showers, listening to strangers snore from a few beds away — it’s a lot, and it can have you missing home. But it’s also amazing and rewarding, and when you walk through the streets of a city you’ve never been to before but immediately love (Barcelona I’m talking to you), there are few greater feelings.
One great feeling however, was when I realized how excited I was to be home, and then immediately realized that “home” in my mind wasn’t America, but Menachem Begin 144, the Midtown Tower in Tel Aviv. On the flight home, when we flew over the city and I saw our skyscraper, where we live, from the airplane, I think I smiled out the window all the way until our plane touched the ground.