by Andrea Madlangbayan
It was in July 2017 that we initially started planning to go backpacking in Europe. Inspired by friends who’ve done it and movies about it, we booked our round trip bound for Italy. Central to our itinerary were 3 countries – Italy, France & The Netherlands, eventually, due to their proximity, we included Spain and Belgium. From this central itinerary we were able to cover 12 cities in 22 days.
We landed in Pisa, Italy and immediately visited its most popular site, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Taking a 1-hour train, we moved from Pisa to Florence, Italy. Florence was like a trip back to the renaissance as most of the establishments were preserved from that period like the Florence Cathedral. It took us only a full day to go around Florence by foot. From the Duomo to the popular medieval stone bridge that is Ponte Vecchio (literally “Old Bridge” in Italian) we walked all the way up to Piazzale Michelangelo where you can get the best view of city and the beautiful Tuscan landscape. We were also able to experience the Italian version of “Happy Hour” or Apericena. A mix of 2 words – Aperitivo (Aperitif/Drink) + Cena (Dinner), Apericena, starts at 6pm, it is the popular Italian Pre-Dinner, where you can order an Aperitivo or a drink, relax, socialize and eat as much tapas as you can. The best part is, you only pay for the drink, the food is free. Must try while walking the streets of Florence, is the “classic Florentine sandwich”, Lampredotto. A popular street food made of Cow Stomach.
We said a temporary goodbye to Italy, as we flew to our next destination – Amsterdam. If we took Florence by foot, we took Amsterdam in wheels. Amsterdam is popular for a lot of things, one of which is its “Bicycle Culture”. You can rent a bike for 12 Euros (Around 750-780 php) for 24 hours. Enough to see the city. We biked to Vondel Park thru streets of lined-up row houses around the city center to De Wallen District. Walking along De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Popular Red Light District, was an experience, to say the least. It is a way to see the city in a different light, literally & figuratively. Amsterdam is also home to some of the best museums in the world, like the Rijks Museum, Heineken Museum, Van Gogh Museum and the MOCO Museum. Most of these museums are located in Museumplein or the Museum District. We spent 2 full days in Amsterdam, before taking a bus to embark on day trip to Belgium.
We arrived in Brussels before lunch, our day trip itinerary consisted of a visit to the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, the Royal Palace, The Grand Place and the Manneken Pis. What I was there for, though, was Belgian Chocolate in all its forms and the Belgian Waffles too. Half a day is enough to tour most of Brussels by foot. Late afternoon, that same day, we took a bus bound to Paris and by nightfall, we were already in the City of Lights.
On our first morning in Paris, while walking to Notre Dame Cathedral, snow fell for the first time in the city after 7 years. Best part of the day was having morning coffee and a croissant by a street corner café in Rue De Seine while watching the light snow fall from the window as the locals rush thru their day. We spent the rest of the day going to the popular tourist spots like the Eiffel tower, Arc de Triomphe and later having dinner at Champs Elysee. The next day prove to be even more memorable as we made our way out of the city to Versailles, to see Chateau De Versailles in all its glory. Despite, the long line to get in, Chateau De Versailles was a treat. Not only were we able to see the main palace where the Bourbon Royals Wined, Dined & Slept, we were also able to see the Pink Chateau of Marie Antoinette. Each room was a statement of the grandeur and opulence of royal family and the super power that was France, back in the day. But what we saw inside, was nothing compared to the winter wonderland that was waiting for us outside of the Palace. Most of the people who visited Versailles, said that its gardens were incomparable with 200,000 trees, 210,000 flowers, 50 fountains and a 5.57km artificial lake on 800 Hectares of land, everything preserved and tended to up to this day. During our visit, all of this was covered in snow. Truly one of the most majestic sights to see. We walked almost 22kms, to see only one thirds of the total grounds.
The next day, we went to Disneyland Paris, around 45 minutes away from the city. It was timely because Disneyland Paris was celebrating its 25th anniversary and, also, Star Wars Month. We were able to meet a 7-foot Darth Vader, see the usual parade of Princesses and characters and watch the illumination show at the end of the night. What sets this park apart besides the unique rides like Ratatouille & Pirates of the Caribbean, is its classic, almost rustic vibe versus other Disney Parks I’ve gone to. Also, it was a delight to see Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Jack Sparrow’s Ship and Poe Dameron’s X Wing Fighter covered in snow. We spent our last full day in Paris getting lost in the snowy city and going to the Louvre to see the famous painting of Leonardo Da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, among all others. While in Paris, we stayed at the Le Marais District. It is the closest you can get to living in authentic old-world Paris, with its cobblestone streets, old-fashioned boulangeries & 17th century buildings contrasted by the spewing hip new bars, modern art galleries and cafes.
From snowy Paris, we flew to sunny Barcelona, in country number 5 – Spain. Barcelona was all about Gaudi, on the 1st day, we went to Sagrada Familia & Park Guell where we climbed Carmel Hill to see the Barcelona Skyline. Sunday morning, we were able to go to mass at the Sagrada Familia. The interior of this iconic church as beautiful and unique as its exterior. La Barceloneta or Barcelona Beach, a train ride away from Sagrada Familia, was also a sight not to be missed. We spent Sunday afternoon listening to the strings of Spanish street performers, watching people dance the afternoon away, while drinking Spanish beer by the shore until sundown. We spent the evening at La Rambla. La Rambla is a 1.2km Boulevard where Barcelona night life is at. You buy drinks and tapas along a line of bars and drink it by the street, with fellow tourists, locals and tourists who loved the city so much they became locals. The food in Barcelona is exquisite, from the corner restaurants that serve all kinds of Paella, to Chicken Pollo you can buy in supermarkets, to aged steaks in La Braseria in El Nacional, everything tasted good and all for a reasonable price. During our weekend in the city, we were lucky as it was the Festival of Santa Eulalia (patron of Barcelona), we were able to see the festivities and parades, enjoy museum visits free of charge and even got to join in the dancing in the streets of Barrio Gotico with the locals.
We went back to Italy and celebrated Ash Wednesday and Valentines Day in Rome. On Ash Wednesday, the Pope holds a general audience. Thanks to some tips from Filipinos who live in Rome, we were able to attend this and got to see and greet Pope Francis in person. The general audience was filled with people from Asia, South America, Europe and the United States. Coincidentally, Valentines day fell on the same day and we were able spend Valentines Day in the city where it actually originated. Being in Rome on Valentines day, wherever you go is a romantic place. We chose to spend it by taking a bus tour around the city, walking up to the Janiculum terrace to see the sunset and watch the Eternal cities’ lights turn on one at a time. We ended the evening with wine, pasta & pizza at a quaint Italian restaurant by the streets of Via Della Maddalena near Fontana Trevi. Besides, exploring the usual spots like the Forum, the Colosseo and the Vatican City, we were able to see the city in depth as a we were toured by foot by a friend who lives in Rome and knows the city by heart. Every beautiful location has a story and every story is worth hearing, worth knowing, no matter recent or how long ago. That’s probably why it’s called the Eternal city, because its beauty and relevance lives thru time.
We spent the last few days of the trip exploring Italy. We went to the south to experience the Pizza in Naples. We ate at L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, the popular Michelin Star Pizza place where Margherita Pizza originated in the 1800s, also made more popular by Julia Roberts in the movie Eat Pray Love. We went to Pompeii to see the ruins of what was once a bustling Roman City until its demise in 79AD from the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius. Killing almost everyone in the city. Going thru the city you can still see all the roads and structures intact, in the museum, you can even see the human remains fossilized by lava of those who were slain during the eruption. Further by the Italian coast, we spent a day in Sorrento, where you can see the Bay of Naples across the sea. Unique in its own way as the city itself is perched on top of a cliff. Going down to its beaches and ports, you can ride ferries to go to Amalfi Coast and Capri. In Sorrento, we discovered Limoncello. It is a famous post-dinner Italian drink made of lemons. On our last day in Italy, we went up north, to Venice. Popular for its canals and gondolas, we took our trip further by visiting the smaller islands of Venice – Murano, popular for its Glass & Burano, a boat town popular for its colorful houses. We took on Venice via a water taxi. For 21 Euro (Around 1300-1400php) you can have unlimited rides from one island and/or location to another. You can also ride to the more popular tourist spots such as the Plaza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. A day is enough to see Venice and it was a lovely way to cap the trip. From Venice we took a train back to Pisa, flying back back to the Philippines the next day. Backpacking in Europe on a DIY Itinerary with 10 Friends wouldn’t have been something I thought we can pull off but we did and it was definitely an adventure for the books. 5 countries in 22 days, taking planes, buses, trains, boats to get to one place to another, tasting what every city has to offer and taking every beautiful experience home, that is what it’s all about.