TRAVELLING THROUGH EUROPE DURING THE SUMMER OF MY GAP YEAR
Snapshots and moments of my time travelling through Europe during the summer of my gap year.
Day 1 – Paris, France
And so it begins again. I take the plunge into unknown territory, brimming with unknown souls. Introductions and wary smiles punctuate the silence. This was going to be a life changing month with new ideas, perspectives and friends. I was again seeing the world and finding out there is still so much more.
We ate escargot, played beer pong, watched a cabaret, cruised down the Seine. I reminisced about the years I spent in French class which equipped me with a repertoire of songs to sing whilst I walked down the Champs Élysées – namely ‘Champs Élysées’. Not wanting to join the queue for the Louvre, Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame we decided to see Monet’s water lilies instead, and climbed the Arc de Triomphe to spectacular views after some delicious Nutella crepes. This was the start, to finally experience first hand the culture of continental Europe, the illumination of my mind and what better place than the city of light!
Day 3 – Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
The sleepy town within the valley under the gentle patter of the waterfall, the clock tower beckoning it out of it’s slumber. Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland – a sight to behold. With the backdrop of the Swiss Alps, I felt like I has jumped into an inspirational poster. We set up our tents for the first time, played drinking games and got told off by the local bike gang (made up of 10 year olds) for cooling our beer in their grandfather’s river. Cable cars up to Jungfrau, pretending to be James Bond, cooling off in Staubbach falls and buying swiss army knives as souvenirs. And the best part of all – skydiving!
The anticipation was making me nervous, it was always the moments before an event that made it seem scary. That instant in time, in limbo, when you can no longer back out, it somehow reminded me of my public speaking days. I met Adam, my instructor, we got in the helicopter and as I marvelled at the stunning scenery from above the feeling melted away. Before I knew it, the door opened, and I was floating above the alps and glaciers. I tumbled and turned, I fell, I flew.
Day 5 – Avignon, France
Past the lavender farms and fields of sunflowers, we were back in France and on our way to Avignon. The walled city that between the years of 1309 and 1377 was home to the papacy. It gave us a chance to have more gelato, picnic on the banks of the Rhone with wine and cheese, go on a carousel and watch street performers do backflips.
Continuing on to Spain, passing by the magnificent Pont du Gard, another reminder of the Roman Empire that spanned so much of Europe. Built in the first century AD, this magnificent bridge was part of the 50km aqueduct system, is 48.8m high and only slopes 2.5cm along its length. A feet of engineering that stood the test of time and can even be found on the 5 euro note, but all I could think about at the time was Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” “The aqueduct??”
Day 6 – Barcelona, Spain
An artist’s mind works in funny ways as it tries to recreate their own ideas in the eye of others. But the question is who is the real artist? He who designed the piece itself or those around that must observe and place their own perspectives, loves, feelings on the object at hand, making it their own?
Dali, Gaudi, Ocell, Picasso, the list of artists and architects to come out of spain is endless. The culmination of baroque and neoclassical styles from France and Italy, and the Moorish heritage of Spain makes for a very distinctive art style. Walking around Barcelona’s bustling streets from Park Guell’s mosaic gardens to the infamous Sagrada Familia, which has been in construction since 1882, you can really appreciate the work of architect Antoni Gaudi. His basilica reminded me of acidified coral, a very naturalistic and earthy feel that encased the magic of the ethereal lighting inside. You truly step into another world with his work.
Another Arc de Triomf, Olympic villages, a flamenco show, eating paella, drinking sangria, forgetting room numbers, waking up strangers and being kicked out of the laundry room in our hostel at 1am. These were the adventures I was after, the real mixed in with the picturesque.
Day 8 – Nice, France
Strolling down the Promenade des Anglais with the sun on my neck, I was reminded once again of the beauty of France and its Côte d’Azur. Pink buildings, curio shops, markets full of copies of Les Mis and street performers. We decided to take a dip in the waters at Nice to cool off as E sun baked on the pebbles. Herman Melville’s words came into my mind, “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.” Which was exactly right because before I knew it I was stung by a jellyfish on my arm and back. Ouch! After getting some nondescript cream from the lifeguards, having numerous strangers approach to offer advice (have you tried peeing on it? Are you offering??), I nursed my wounds with a large peach and kiwi slushy and forgot about it. After all, my pain was nothing compared to the horror of 2 weeks prior and as we walked back through the memorial park I shivered from the cold.
Day 12 – Rome, Italy
‘Nam et secundas res splendidiores facit amicitia et adversas partiens communicansque leviores.’ I chuckle as I gaze out at Rome, the city that underpins much of my thoughts, from which historians, orators and philosophers have flourished and inspired me. As I absorb the ancient sights of the Colosseum and Roman Forum to the more modern Trevi Fountain, my mind thinks back to the years reading Caesar and Cicero and how utterly overwhelming it was to be finally treading in their footsteps. I try not to trip over any cats.
It was high time we did something off the usual tourist trail and so we headed to the Capuchin Crypt located in the impressive Via Veneto. Apart from giving cappuccinos their name the monks have another bizarre claim to fame. Constructed circa 1732-75 are five chambers decorated in vignettes and carefully wrought patterns made entirely from the human bones and mummified corpses of over 3,700 Capuchin friars, Romans and some children. This was the history I came to see! A sign in the first room reads, ‘What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.’
A clearer memento mori I could not think of. This was a call to once again think of the brevity of life, to treasure the little moments that make it so special. From hearing the distressed call of E locked inside of his tent, meeting Germans in Italy, and being offered chips at 2am by drunk a South African, ‘For friendship makes prosperity more shining and lessens adversity by dividing and sharing it.’
Day 15 – Corfu, Greece
I hoisted up the flag I had drawn on a pillowcase and so began our 3 day journey sailing around the Greek island of Corfu on our sailing yacht, Sirocco. Our trusty crew of five was well equipped with floaties, pasta, sunscreen and blackberry Somersby. The sun was bright and the wind not so strong but we surged forward through the turbulent seas of beeping two-ways and failing engines to the clear waters of the Mediterranean where we anchored for a swim and moored for a party at night. Apart from the fun had at water sport parks it was also an opportunity to try the local seafood and local traditions of fire dancing and trying to dance with a table in your mouth.
Lying on the deck and gazing up at the past, the cool night air brushing away all memory of the heat of the day, I let out a gentle sigh and as the shooting stars cross the sky I wish all this didn’t have to end so soon.
Day 18 – Tirana, Albania
The first thing that struck me about Albania was the architecture. It was quite strange seeing buildings just randomly placed in the middle of the rocky landscape of the eastern European country but what was even stranger was their shape. What can only be described as two storey cubes with staircases attached to the sides jutted out from the hills along with mushroom like huts that reminded you this was a post communist country of great commanders (Skanderbeg) and municipal buildings.
Day 19 – Croatia
Apparently it is standard procedure to offer gifts to ensure quick passage through the Albanian border and this bribery meant we were about to have our lunch in Montenegro before heading into Croatia. Known for being the filming location of Game of Thrones we were given a tour of Old Town, Dubrovnik before partaking in the nightlife that ended in drinking buckets and consequential ice fights. We channelled Cersei Lannister as we did our own walk of shame back to the campsite. The next day saw us sea kayaking around the island of Lokrum, which unbeknownst to us happens to double as a nudist beach on the far side.
“A sunset is the sun’s fiery kiss to the night.” One must see at least one in a year and this year mine was in Zadar. Sitting beside the sea organ with its enchanting whale songs I focussed on the orange orb that floated down into the sea, that changed the colour of the sky from dulcet reds to a cool blanketing indigo. A simple everyday occurrence that let’s you glimpse into the brevity and eternity of our days.
Day 22 – Slovenia and Venice
Filling onto the little train that took us deep within a mountain of Slovenia, feeling as if we were entering Gringotts bank, we made our decent into one of Europe’s largest cave systems, Postonja. The large chambers were carved over the millennia by the Pivka River and houses many cool rock formations and interesting creatures such as the flesh coloured ‘baby dragon’ or olm which is like an axolotl or salamander.
From deep within the bowls of the earth we emerged to once again make our way back to Italy, this time to the canals and bridges of Venice. Though the water was not as pristine as one romantically imagines (and who knows how long this city will stay above water) it was still quite a picturesque experience to be pushed along in a gondola by a tattooed Italian man in a black and white striped shirt. Lunch was found in the narrow streets at the famous Dal Moro pasta shop where I sampled some black ink calamari pasta. Yum! After buying some venetian masks we headed back for a masquerade ball and a night of many new experiences.
Day 25 – Austria
Back in the alps, and another trip into the sky. This time I launched myself off the side of a mountain and went paragliding over the town of Kirchdorf in the Tirol region of Austria. This was a much more relaxed decent and my instructor after having a can of red bull – which I can only assume was to give him wings – then pointed out to me the beauties of the forest beneath us and how they were abundant with blueberries and mushrooms. A traditional dinner of schnitzel and strudel was very welcome that evening.
I decided to take a walk on my own this morning, through the Mauthesen concentration camp, through the rooms and mess halls, cellars and graveyards. There are parts of our collective history that can’t be forgotten and need to be acknowledged in order for us to move forward. Here I took a taste of another life, a gentle dip into someone else’s story that made ripples.
Day 27 – Prague, Czech Republic
With each stroke of the brush I leave my mark on history, make my own changes to the story of us all. Participate in the changes and the perpetual, here on the other side of the world. ‘Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box, they tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.’
Tick tock goes the astronomical clock, its gold face looking across the new square of Prague telling us our fates and futures. Walking over and over again across the Charles bridge and admiring the many weather beaten statues that line its sides, we come to the John Lennon café and obtain a hot chocolate before moving on to the namesake wall in order to write our own words of peace and freedom. Traverse next to the sex machines museum for some alternative entertainment before heading to the five storey club for a night of more climbing but this time up and down stairs.
Day 29 – Berlin, Germany
I let the cute ampelmann guide me across the streets in Germany from Dresden to Berlin as I finally got to see the city I had learnt so much about whilst studying Weimar and the Third Reich. But mixed in with the imposing concrete buildings was something very new and vibrant, a city raised out of the ashes to an era of rebellion and freedom of expression. Here you found the alleys littered with street art (not to mention the remains of the Berlin wall and the east side gallery), bands playing on staircases, and pink pipes that run above the roads and through the city.
Day 31 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam has a reputation and it didn’t let me down. Apart from the necessary partying and visits to coffee shops we were also scarred and slightly bemused by a sex show at the Moulin Rouge situated within the infamous red light district. By morning the city turns back into a postcard with canals and bicycles leading us to the Anne Frank Haus, the I AMSTERDAM sign, and a visit to an embryo museum that housed all sorts of diseased and malformed babies… a beautiful standout city.
What a wonderful feeling it was being awake when everyone else was asleep, their dreams floating out into the crisp chilly air. Everything felt so free, I was floating on the thoughts of others as they passed though the night sky.
Day 32 – London, UK
It was the morning of our final bus ride back to London. A goodbye to all. A final curtain call. And we walk to the hostel with our suitcases behind us like some strange mythical creatures. The wheels on the paving stones making a stampede of sound. On day 1 we were all strangers but now we are a collective, a family.
That final night, watching the Olympics with what was left of the crew. Final words, final smiles, final laughs.
I’ve done more this year than I ever thought possible but I know that this was only the beginning.
Applications for a Gap Year in the UK in 2018 will be open on October 1!