Montpellier, France

Montpellier is a really sweet, quaint city in the south of France. It’s not a typical backpacker destination, but I had it recommended to me by a few different people (including my friend and co-podcaster Laura!), and it was the perfect place to stop to break up the long train rides from Spain to Italy, so I stopped in for a few nights. I’m happy I did, because I really enjoyed my time there! After Barcelona, it was nice to stay somewhere small, friendly, and not at all overwhelming, with good vibes. And it had a lot to offer!
I arrived (purposely) on a Friday afternoon, just in time for Les Estivales, a big street festival held every Friday in the summer on the esplanade just off the main square in Montpellier. The whole promenade is lined with food stalls and wine booths, there are a few different stages with live music or dancing, and it just gives off the most happy, summery ambience. For 5 euro, you get three wine tasting tickets and a wine glass, and you can go around and sample from different booths. 3 tickets was more than enough for me, and I was very content all night, wandering up and down the esplanade, back and forth between the stages (I especially loved the band playing fun Irish music, everyone was dancing in the crowd), eating sweet onion beignets (outstanding), taking in all the different food options on display, looking at jewellery, and walking down to the main square to watch one of the many street performances that went all night.
I found the street performance culture in Montpellier completely impressive. There seems to be a huge community of talented dancers there, and they put on shows every night in the main square. It’s such a cool atmosphere because the shows are such high energy with good music, and the dancers come to see each others shows. All of them are so talented, I’ve never experienced anything like it: there were shows all evening, barely ten minutes apart, sometimes two at once in different parts of the square. I watched them every night, and I’m guilty of watching the same show two or three times. It never got old!
The only downside to my stay in Montpellier was staying at the hostel there. It’s the only hostel in the town, the only other options being pricey hotels. It was the worst I’ve stayed in on my trip: the dirtiest, the shabbiest, the worst facilities (no lockers, for example), the least communal, the worst for meeting other travellers. Ironically, it was also the only hostel I’ve stayed at so far that is a part of Hostelling International, and they charge membership fees to stay in their hostels. You’d think the fees would mean it was a nicer place to stay, but I found that was not the case. I made the most of it by just spending most of my days out exploring, but it was a shame. I wish they’d spruce it up a bit.
I also found Montpellier strangely expensive. I guess it’s a popular vacation destination, but I was surprised at how all the restaurants seemed to be charging exorbitant prices for mediocre food. At the Estivales you could get really reasonably priced and delicious street food and drink, but less so in the town.
All in all, I had a wonderful stay. I explored, I read, I thought a lot. I visited the botanical gardens and the cathedral, and I sat in the park that had wonderful views. My last day I went to the beach and then took myself out to a movie at the theatre in the square: my first time watching a movie or TV show or anything in almost two months! I saw Now You See Me and was practically giddy with excitement the whole time. That was really fun.
Favourites:
  • Les Estivales: I’ve probably already talked it up enough, but go for a Friday! It’s absolutely worth it, my time at the Estivales made my entire trip to Montpellier worthwhile, it was that good.
  • BagelsandU: a little bagel shop right down the road from the hostel. It had a real NYC, gourmet feel to it, which was a pleasant surprise. I went twice and had the same thing each time, the Soho, a cheese bagel with with goats cheese, fried onions, fresh tomatoes, and a delicious green pesto. So, so good.

Barcelona, Spain

I loved Barcelona. It was so fun to explore because it's so vibrant and beautiful with so many things to discover down every twisty street. Wandering around in El Born or the Gothic Quarter felt like being inside a novel or a movie. And then, of course, there are all the buildings (and benches and lampposts and statues) designed by Antoni Gaudi that make the city feel like a bright, colourful fairy tale.

I loved that in Barcelona you could just wander around all day and stumble across a half dozen things that were interesting or important or cool: that's how I found the cathedral, and a few of the beautiful old churches, and the gardens of one church that had fountains and palm trees and a group of swans just hanging out. But I also loved that there were things off the beaten path as well, and I was lucky enough to have some not-so-touristy experiences while I was there. A friend of mine from Montreal invited me out a few nights, once to a great bar that is always packed full that only serves cheap (mainly pink) champagne and good, greasy sandwiches. Another night, a girl I met in the hostel invited me out to this birthday party for a guy she'd met while salsa dancing: it turned out to be at a tiny little open-air beach bar and I watched people dancing barefoot and then running off down to the water, and then tried it a little myself. My last night, we went to the festival of Gracia, a huge neighbourhood street festival, complete with insane decorations on each of the streets, live music, a ton of sparklers and a parade with huge groups of drummers. It was so much fun.

Every morning it was open, I'd go to the Marche de la Boqueria and try a different juice. There are about twenty different stands of just fresh juices and fresh cut fruit, in amongst the stands for meat, fish, candy, wine, tapas, anything you can imagine really. The juices were so tropical, everything from mango coconut to lime melon to passion fruit pineapple (so good) and everything in between. I can't even remember all the flavours I tried, but it was always cheap, delicious and refreshing (and happily, on my way home every day!).

I also absolutely loved going to the Magic Fountain show at night. I only got to go once, but if I had stayed longer, I'd have gone every night. On the weekends during the summer, there is a huge fountain show complete with lights changing colour in time with music (half the time classical music, the other half top 40s type stuff). You can watch it overlooking beautiful views of Barcelona, and its such a fun atmosphere because everyone comes out to see it: tourists, families, backpackers. I loved it.

And then the Gaudi stuff! I found the Sagrada Familia to live up 100% to its hype, it was stunning inside and out, just such an impressive feat of architecture. I was so impressed, stunned really. It's gorgeous. The Casa Batlo was another construction of his, and while less immense then the Sagrada Familia, was still fantastical and wonderful. And of course, I loved his famous Parc Guell with amazing views of Barcelona and its fascinating aqueducts and beautiful mosaics.

I had such a wonderful time in Barcelona. I was lucky enough to meet up with old friends and make lots of new ones, and I really enjoyed myself. It's a beautiful city.

Favourites:

  • Maoz: this little vegetarian falafel place is right next to the Plaza Real, just off the Ramblas. It has an amazing all you can eat salad and sauce bar, so you can just keep stuffing your pita full of veggies and it is so, so delicious. And cheap too!
  • Hostel One Paralelo: this hostel was perfect for meeting people. It was a little walk from the touristy areas, but in a really nice quiet area. Best staff, best common areas, and they have these free family dinners every night. The best hostel.

 

Thoughts On Half

Sometimes I think I was unbelievably naive to take on a trip like this without ever having done anything like it before, all alone, for three months. Sometimes, three months (or two months, or now, just under one and a half months) feels like an eternity. Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing and sometimes I miss home and sometimes I just feel overwhelmed.

But those sometimes, they're getting further apart. They're lasting less time. They're becoming easier to talk myself – or more accurately, write myself – out of. They're easier to anticipate: if I'm tired, or if its a travel day, I've learned to prepare myself for the feelings. The recognition that I'll probably get overwhelmed on a given day isn't enough to stop myself from getting overwhelmed, but when my crazy brain starts to set in, it's easier to remind myself that its ONLY the fatigue talking, that the feelings I'm having aren't because I've made a huge mistake. And some of those sometimes I still ask my mom for advice, or send out some snapchats, or write to the people I care about. All of it helps.

Travelling alone has been completely different than I imagined. It's been better and it's been worse. Mostly better. Sometimes worse. It's been better because I never believed I would meet so many great people so easily, and because I've learned I really love exploring on my own and stopping to see buildings and alleyways and street performances on a whim. Whenever it's been worse, it's because I feel far away from the people who know me best, people that I don't have to explain myself to, or it's been because I'm exhausted and I wish someone else could figure out hostel arrangements or the train schedules, just this once. But mostly, travelling on my own has just been different. It's been surreal sometimes to find myself on the beach/climbing up a hill/exploring a market/taking the bus with a handful of strangers. It's been strange to figure it all out on my own and realize (astonished, really) that I am the only one responsible for taking myself on this trip with all of its details and stops and day trips. It all seemed so much more complicated before I left than it has been in reality, but that doesn't make me any less proud of myself.

And speaking of the logistics, I've been pleasantly surprised with how much I have enjoyed creating this plan as I go. I've been really happy to find that my Eurail pass makes taking the train so easy. I've learned that I love navigating cities. I've been grateful time and time again that I'm travelling with a backpack, not a rolling suitcase, and that I can move easily and hands free wherever I need to go. My bag is about 22 pounds, which feels really heavy when its on for too long, but which is generally very manageable for me. I haven't yet regretted packing anything, and I have now packed that bag what feels like a hundred times. The packing cubes are a total lifesaver, as have been all the individual Ziplock bags breaking everything up.

I think if I was to do this trip over, knowing what I do now, I'd probably do it for two months: most of one with a friend, and then the rest on my own. That said, and I know it doesn't really make sense, but, I also wouldn't ever go back and change anything if I had the choice. Three months was a long time for my first solo trip, but even so, most of the time, I'm finding it so positive: I feel more relaxed about not having every last detail planned out, I'm taking on board more recommendations, travelling alone has made me *so* much more open to talking to people than I ever was before, and my coping skills, while still nowhere near perfect, have definitely improved. I have no doubt that this has been an incredible experience, both in terms of what I've gotten to see and do, and because of what it's taught me.

I've learned how much I love to swim far out in the ocean to think and meditate, because I always come back to shore feeling way more grounded. I've learned that I love to seek out vegetarian restaurants wherever I go and have long, long lunches alone with my book. I've learned that I'll happily watch any street dance performance, even more than once. I've learned there's nothing better than a message (or text or photo) from someone I love. I've learned small hostels are better. I've learned to sleep on the train. I've learned I can handle it.

Just past the halfway mark, I'm feeling good. I'm feeling like the end is simultaneously still far away and yet very rapidly approaching. I feel so ambivalent about finishing my trip: I want to see my loved ones, but I don't want this to end, and I don't have the answers I want about what to do next. Trying to tell myself that's normal, that's okay, that it'll all work out in the end. I'm feeling so appreciative of my friends and my wonderful family who have all been so encouraging and positive. I love you all!

Madrid, Spain

I passed a lovely few days in Madrid. It's not necessarily the most exciting city, but it is kind of lovely: clean, well-run, very lush and green, beautiful architecture, good museums, and parks everywhere. I really enjoyed my time there. I did a huge amount of walking and exploring and getting a little lost in the winding streets.
 
My hostel was in a quiet neighbourhood that felt peaceful, away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy downtown areas. The mornings were on the cool side, so I was able to explore the city a bit more by going for runs most of the mornings I was there.
 
Madrid is home to some awesome things. I particularly loved all their green spaces: the botanical gardens with its tropical greenhouse, the Parc de Retiro with its beautiful pond and “Crystal Palace” (which looks like a giant greenhouse minus the plants), and the main train station which literally is an enormous greenhouse full of tropical plants and home to a bunch of turtles! The city is also awesome about making their museums accessible to everyone: they are usually free in the evenings for the last few opening hours. I was able to see major works of art at the Prado museum and the entire Salvador Dali exhibit at the Reine Sofia for free, which is wonderful.
 
I had some cool food experiences in Madrid as well. It was my first time trying chocolate and churros, and we went to the most famous place in Madrid which happily is not even touristy. They are so generous with their servings – 6 huge churros and a big cup of dark, thick chocolate per order – and it's all so delicious, not too sweet, just perfect. I also tried paella for the first time and it won't be the last, I loved the texture. We also sought out a bar that is still serving tapas the old fashioned way: when you order a drink, you get a free (and generous I might add) plate of tapas, usually fries and little sandwiches with meat or cheese. For 5 euros, I got two delicious glasses of cider and enough to eat for dinner! Best deal going. On my last day in Madrid, I took a trip to Toledo, and we found a bar that did the same thing there as well. Score!
 
Toledo was very, very hot but a beautiful old town as well. We saw the huge, impressive cathedral, had a long lunch and wandered through the old streets. It was a good little day trip.
 
Favourites:
  • El Estragon Vegetariano: a sweet and delicious little vegetarian place in a quiet, pretty neighbourhood. I had the lunch menu which included a starter, main, dessert, bread and water for 12 euros and it felt almost wrong because the food was so incredible and so generous. I had a salad whose dressing I would do anything to acquire the recipe for, a delicious rice bowl with fried eggs, and poached pears in dark chocolate sauce. It was amazing, I had a long lunch, read my book, and was happy.
  • El Tigre: the tapas bar I was raving about that serves cheap drinks with free tapas. It's a bit of a madhouse inside, and there are no seats, but it's such a fun local atmosphere.