18 May Update #3: 9 Countries in 18 Days
As I write, I’m enjoying the sunset over a meadow while listening to birds chirping and goats bleating through the open windows of La Tortue Blanche. We’re here on a farm in southern Slovakia, where we’re volunteering 3-4 hours a day for a week in exchange for a free place to park the van and three meals a day. It’s been a great deal for the most part, although my left hand is tingling and struggling to hit the right keys today after I became acquainted with “stinging nettles” while clearing brush this morning. I could only find one work glove, so my left hand is nearing temporary numbness this afternoon… The joys of “really getting to know a place…”
Yes, I know. You’re probably wondering how the heck we’ve ended up in Slovakia working on a farm when the last time I posted an article we had just finished dancing across the U.K. for nearly three months. Long story short, we’ve done it with three weeks volunteering near Tours, France, 5 days in Paris, an incredible few days driving through Switzerland (twice), Austria (also twice), and Southern Germany, a week and a half acting like tourists across Italy, adding Vatican City and San Marino to the ever-growing list of countries visited, chasing waterfalls across Slovenia, driving across Hungary to catch a sunset in Budapest, and then landing here for a week in rural Slovakia for a time of relaxation, writing, reading, and general mental and physical health boosts (less those confounded stinging nettles…).
While we traveled much faster than originally planned due to staying an extra week in France, this part of the trip has been unreal, as we’ve awoken each day to incredible new places, experiences, and adventures. Fair warning, this will likely become a 2500 word post on everything we’ve done, but I’ll try to spare a lot of details and let pictures do most of the talking. Ask me in the comments section for more details on anything if you’re curious!
We arrived from the U.K. on April 1st, knowing we had five days before we needed to arrive in Brehemont, France to begin our Workaway. We thought Paris would be hard with the van, and that it may be cheaper to do by train from Tours on one of our upcoming weekends off. More on this later, but that was a GREAT choice! We consulted Pinterest and Google Maps, deciding that we’d instead mosey down through Normandy for a few days. Highlights included: visiting Rouen, where I first successfully ordered pastries in French and where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake; The beaches of Normandy, including the American Memorial Museum and Cemetery; The Cliffs d’Etretat; and Mont Saint Michel both virtually alone at night and again in daylight the next day.
Workaway in Brehemont, France:
Sometime in February, sitting in a cafe in the Scottish highlands, we realized that due to a withholding issue in conjunction with the joys of being freelancers for most of the year, our tax bill would be significantly higher than in the previous years, resulting in our Europe budget getting squeezed even tighter than it already was. We knew we had the camper paid for through June 3, so after a lot of stress and creativity, we altered course, tightened our spending, and continued on our journey. Initially, we planned to spend 3 weeks touring all over France, 2 weeks in Italy, 2 weeks in transit up through Germany, and 3 weeks in the Nordic countries, however, in order to cut fuel costs (by far our largest budget overage), we decided it was best to save the Nordic countries for another trip, shorten our time in Italy, and only pay for full-blown campsites every 5th day. In a trip already riddled with challenges, it felt like we would have to dance through a minefield of obstacles to make it home with a couple pennies in our pockets before I head back to Alaska for work this summer. In fact, I kept two pence from the U.K. which I often rub together in my pocket to remind myself we aren’t broke just yet…
One of the most significant alterations to “the big bad plan,” was booking two “Workaways” — hosts through workaway.info that offer room and board in exchange for 3-5 hours of work, 5 days a week. The first of those was in a tiny fishing village along the Loire River in Brehemont, France. From the moment we arrived, we were welcomed into a charming 16th-century farmhouse by our lovely hosts, Louise and Porter and their adorable three children. Louise is Irish and Porter is American, so were able to converse rather easily without language or cultural difficulties, which was nice. Most of our work consisted of childcare, clearing brush and trees from a backyard garden with a chainsaw (I can hardly call it work it was so fun), and painting another old apartment/art gallery building along the river that they are restoring for artist residencies. Porter has had a long career in antique dealing and restorations and has a great vision for all of the old buildings and furniture he has collected. It was fun to learn from him! We also enjoyed sharing songs with them, as we would take turns playing guitar and singing late into the night over a bottle of wine. They truly are a wonderful family in an incredible area of France. It is funny how it works out this way, but I think this may be one of our favorite parts of our trip, which we would not have experienced without the necessary changes to “the big bad plan.” Thanks for hosting us, friends!
At dusk, we often enjoyed bike rides along the river and through fields of yellow flowers. On weekends, we adventured through the Loire Valley — a place of rich culture and history, the purest-spoken French, and beautiful Chateaus, including the gardens of Chateau de Villandry.
In a stroke of great fortune, we were also offered their apartment in Paris for several nights, which we enthusiastically accepted! We spent 5 days in Paris wandering the streets and taking picnics in the park between sessions of eating as many crepes, baguettes, onion soups, and creme brûlées as possible, all washed down with rose wine. We did all the touristy things such as saying hello to Mona Lisa at the Louvre, enjoying a picnic underneath the Eiffel tower while being appropriately serenaded with “My Heart Will Go On” by the Native American flute-playing-vendor, and basking in the sun in the Luxembourg Gardens. The City of Love is undoubtedly our favorite European city and we cannot wait to return (hopefully) on many more occasions in our lifetimes.
France treated us incredibly well, and we cannot wait to return. The French’s focus on leisure and quality in all things really inspired, encouraged, and reinvigorated us. There is a lot in their culture that we really enjoyed and will take with us.
The drive through the Alps:
Prior to deciding on renting the van, we watched a lot of YouTube videos, typically in German or Dutch, with these amazing RV’s driving across the Alps with ridiculous commercial-type scenery in the background. We knew a lot of the famed routes through the Alps would be too riddled with hairpin turns for our stomachs and van’s brakes likings, but we couldn’t miss the chance to see them, even briefly. So we took a route from France through Switzerland from Geneva up through a winding mountain pass to Interlaken, and let me tell you, we could have been the ones in those commercials… It was unbelievably gorgeous across Switzerland!
We ran out of propane at 2 a.m. and had an issue with the adaptor (again… ughhh…), and thus drove through the night to Germany to get full bottles and service the van. While there, we visited the Neuschwanstein Castle (the one that inspired the castle at Disney World) and were AMAZED by how beautiful it was! There are a few places that consistently pop up on Instagram or Pinterest feeds that don’t look real and you certainly don’t expect to see them your lifetime, so seeing this place was a pretty neat experience.
Finally, we drove through the Austrian Alps followed by Swiss Alps again, which included a few more wild hairpin routes and stunning mountain views before arriving across the border into the Italian Alps, en route to Lake Como.
With our time in Italy cut in half, we knew it would be a very quick trip, however, there was SO much we still wanted to see. We like traveling slower and seeing fewer places really well, typically, but this was just not going to work this time so we put on our “tourist” hats and hit the road. First, we drove all the way from Lake Como (which was promptly added to the very short “come back here for a much longer trip” list) to Naples, Italy. Why? Long story short, I met these three Italian sisters while visiting my cousins’ house in Alabama with my siblings in 2009, and we had one of the most fun weeks of my life. So when they invited us to come stay with them, eat pizza in the city that INVENTED it, and hang out with them as locals, we had to accept. The Continos are one of the most wonderful families and we loved hanging out with them and their friends! They showed us around town, fed us much better than we deserved, and graciously let us stay at their house while we parked our van in the crater of an active steaming volcano for a few days. It was an incredible weekend and one we’ll remember very fondly!
After leaving Naples, we spent a day exploring the ruins of Pompeii. It was such an eerie, yet strangely beautiful place. We marvelled at the well-preserved frescos and Roman architecture, and I think were very surprised by the sheer size of the city. It is a great way to spend a day in the shadow of the mighty Mt. Vesuvius.
Next came Rome, which although not built in a day, unfortunately, had to be explored in one. We spent the morning in Vatican City, where we saw Pope Francis and heard him speak. It was great being surrounded by pilgrims from across the world gathered to be encouraged by such a history-making and mercy-giving man. Although we’re not Catholic, we both greatly admire Pope Francis and seeing him in person was a very moving experience and one that we will look back on as being highly impactful. After this, we wandered to the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and Colosseum. The combination of seeing the Pope, visiting these gorgeous historic landmarks, and enjoying the first day where it was actually warm enough to get a nice suntan left us brimming with joy! I hope the Eternal City is just that because I will need MUCH more time to explore this city in a lot more depth in future trips.
Following Rome, we drove towards Assisi. We’ve both been long-time admirers of Saint Francis of Assisi and thought we’d explore the basilica which also holds his tomb. The Basilica of Saint Francesco was easily my favorite of all the dozens of cathedrals we’ve visited across Europe. The architecture and surrounding scenery are stunning, the ceiling murals were gorgeous, the atmosphere was incredibly peaceful and honoring, and the relics were modest yet fascinating. Highly recommended! What we did not realize was that Assisi is also a gorgeous renaissance town that has been immaculately restored and that the first day of their annual spring festival fell on the day we happened to be visiting. While wandering lost through the streets, we noticed a couple in traditional royalty renaissance robes walking towards the center of town. We then began hearing crowds, drummers, and singing. We followed behind them and finally found the Calendimaggio festival and enjoyed watching thousands of people of all ages in traditional costumes perform dances, songs, drum cadences, and a parade. It was SO fun feeling like we stumbled on a barely-publicized yet very popular local event. One of my favorite memories and cities of the trip thus far!
Since we were in the vicinity, we drove to the small Republic of San Marino for the night. It is the world’s 5th smallest country and is mainly situated on top of a single hill. We spent a miserably hot and sweaty hour climbing straight up in order to save a few bucks by avoiding the cable car that swiftly takes you to the top. We finally got to the peak and were greeted by rows upon rows of kitschy tourist shops and the thickest swarm of nasty bugs we’d ever seen. WORST COUNTRY EVER. We paid the 5 euros for the cable car just to get us the heck off that mountain and on our way out of town. Good riddance, country #26…
Finally, via a stop in fair Verona to see Juliet’s Balcony as described in Romeo and Juliet, we visited Venice… A definite highlight of the trip! We intentionally got lost and wandered for the entire day, only stopping to find more gelato, pasta, espresso, and prosecco. It is one of those magical and unique cities that is everything you imagined it to be. We’ll be back!
On towards Eastern Europe:
As we cut the Nordic countries, we knew we’d have a little more time to explore Germany and Eastern Europe, so we headed east for Slovenia for a few days. We knew literally nothing about Slovenia, so we looked up the main things to see: waterfalls and mountains in Triglavski National Park. So off we went chasing waterfalls. The rivers were the most gorgeous turquoise green I’ve ever seen and the waterfalls were all spectacular. We managed to find ourselves alone at the cavernous Slap Kozjak falls and promptly took what will likely be the most beautiful, daring, and coldest skinny dip of our lives… We camped for a few nights by a lake under the Julian Alps and basked in the beauty of Slovenia… Who knew?!
After Slovenia, we headed back through Austria to Budapest, where we explored for a couple days. We had heard so many good things about this city, often referred to as “Little Paris,” which felt mostly true. The magic of Budapest happened around dusk. After we watched the sun set from atop the hill at the Fishermen’s Bastion looking across the Danube river towards the Parliament Building, we strolled along the river as the city lit up. There are river cruises you can take and if we ever return, we’d love to do one, as every building and the 5 bridges are illuminated in brilliant fashion, shimmering upon the water. It is an unbelievably romantic sight to see!
Workaway in Slovakia:
And so we’ve arrived, 15,000 kilometers and 2500 words later to Slovakia. (Mom, I assume you’re the last one still reading, so thanks for the support. I love you!) We’ll be here for one week helping to get a campsite ready for their season and catching up on long-overdue reading, writing, podcasts, Ranger baseball highlights, and photo uploading before we head north to Poland, Czech Republic, and finishing our European tour in about three weeks in Germany.
Although the time is drawing to a close, we still have a lot to see, and hopefully, I can update this a few more times before the month is out. I am not ready for this trip to end, but looking back over our photos from the last month just has me so grateful for all we’ve seen and done. I truly am so thankful for the love and support we get from all of you, dear friends and family! The more we travel the more we’re thankful for those things familiar and close to our hearts and home. We’ll see you in no time… Until then, ONWARD!