Trient: Population 300

Not a bad view to wake up to.

After Interlaken, I met up with my friend Cédric, whom I’d met in Wicklow, and his family. For two days, I stayed with them in a tiny town in the Canton du Valais in French Switzerland with a view of Mont Blanc. The region of the French and Swiss Alps is one of the prettiest in Europe, full of little towns of no more than half a thousand people running down sloping mountainsides or nestled in valleys. Trient, thankfully, is in a valley.

It’s a dream. Quiet, remote, bordered by unfettered mountains of pine forest and perfect blue skies and filled with fresh mountain air. You could walk it from end to end in ten minutes. There’s not much to it; a pink church on the hill, a rocky stream running through town, a few cows and horses grazing on the side, and little scattered houses, perfect in their loose and imperfect conformity to the Swiss ski lodge ideal implanted firmly in my mind. In the center is a hotel with one café, which I don’t think I ever saw anyone visit.

Tiny Country, Many Faces: The Story of Switzerland

Welcome to Interlaken

There is a joke, or not a joke, that even Swiss people don’t know what they are. The country has four languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansch, which even most Swiss people don’t speak. When you take a tiny portion from a tiny population, that makes 200 people in the world who speak a language. That’s a joke; it’s probably closer to 2000. Imagine if your high school spoke its own language understood nowhere else in the world. In a way that is the case, at least if you went to my high school. They/we were a breed of their/our own (I just had my 5 year reunion).

Yet the Swiss are decidedly not German, or French, and definitely not Italian. You should hear the way the Swiss and Germans talk about each other. It’s funny because the other countries hate both of them. And nobody likes the French. And why not throw in the Austrians as well, since they don’t like anybody. I met an anthropology student from Vienna who literally went “blah!” while tossing his head when I asked what European cultures he studied (he was more interested in other continents… fair enough. But “blah!”?).

San Sebastian

Statue of Jesus at the top of Mount Urgull.

I needed a vacation from my vacation. A break from culture. Donostia-San Sebastian was just an hour’s bus ride from Bilbao.

If San-Sebastian and Bilbao were siblings, Bilbao would be the quiet, scholarly one who’s kind of boring and San Sebastian would be everyone’s favorite nonstop partier. The only reason 95% of people go to San Sebastian is to party.

I came there on Friday afternoon before the start of the Semana Grande, or “Big Week,” or, more accurately, “Week of Parties,” though I was told by the hostel staff that the parties go on all summer. Sure enough, here were all the people my age. The majority of the tourists, however, were Spanish. While America and Australia flocked to Barcelona, Spain vacationed in San Sebastian.

Impressions of Bilbao

Sunset in Bilbao

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Bilbao as I had with no other city before. This wasn’t the head-spinning infatuation of first moments in Galway; this was a more subdued love, intellectual and appreciative (and longer lasting). It’s an odd mix of a typical European old town, industrial outskirts, and futuristic buildings that look like something out of The Jetsons. The odd thing is that it’s empty. A classy, spotlessly clean model of urban planning with a smattering of people to enjoy it.

I’m still in awe over Bilbao when I recall it: I have never seen a better laid-out city. Two-lane bike paths swerve along neat green patches and wide pedestrian walkways by the river. Modern bridges crisscross above and flow seamlessly out of and into the sidewalks. From afar the whole thing looks like a perfectly spaced, harmonious balance of logically interwoven ribbons. Bilbao makes so much sense.

40+ Degrees: Time in Torrevieja

Villa Martin

Driving along the road of life, sometimes you’re going and going and then you fall into a ditch. A stubborn ditch that you treat as a minor annoyance you’ll be out of in a few minutes until you gradually discover how deep and wide the ditch really is and only then, when you grasp the true magnitude of the situation, do you realize that you’re stuck. That could describe my visit to Torrevieja.

When I set out from Barcelona I was imagining a few days of beachside relaxation in a little town full of young Spanish people inviting me out to bonfires every night and then walking back at dawn to my own private condo with a rooftop patio and fast Wi-Fi.

Never has reality been farther from fantasy.

Barcelona in Brief

Construction of the Sagrada Familia.

Barcelona was one of my top cities to see. I wanted to devote a good long time to it to give it a thorough exploration. Now, I was just passing through for a night on my way to Torrevieja, where I could recoup at my mother’s condo, get new glasses, and buy a backpack that wouldn’t kill my back. Somehow it had escaped me what a proper backpacking backpack looked like, and I toted a huge black cube, which I counterbalanced with my daypack slung opposite over the front.

This is how I looked stepping off of Barcelona’s main station, vigilant about pickpockets as I’d been warned the city was rife with them. But, I never had any trouble here. Maybe because I was hypervigilant and looked especially paranoid searching every face around me on the metro as if to say, “yeah, my hands are blatantly jammed inside my pockets.” Anyway, the one horror story I heard was of a woman who left her camera in the backseat of a taxi while getting out and, when she turned around, found it gone. As a rule I avoided taxis on this trip.

Why Not Avignon?

Rhone River

After being miserable enough times on the road, I learned that instead of falling into heavy introspection over what my problem was, a much better solution was to GTFO. I wanted to see more of France, so I did some research on France’s different regions (France is big :-/) and picked Avignon because I liked its name and, well, why not?

I’d hit a rocky road since boarding that ferry and it was one blunder after another, but I felt optimistically that in Avignon I would again find my groove. Indeed, minutes after the train was out of Paris and rolling through the countryside, I was overcome with relief and leaned back in my seat, idly watching rural France roll past. At last, I was the person I wanted to be: the lone train traveler “en route” with no past and no tomorrow, just a backpack, watching a new countryside out the window. It was very romantic.

The scenery was beautiful and idyllic, with low, colorful mountains, plentiful fields, the cutest country houses, and – at last – tiny, beautiful villages that looked like they were out of time. Imagine the village Belle grows up in in Beauty and the Beast (only now do I realize how much Disney likes France…).

“Versailles: Rhymes With ‘WHY'” and Other Parisian Tourist Attractions

Wedding photos at Versailles

Paris was the only city where I was really excited to do all the typical touristy things. There is so much to do, you could easily stay in Paris for a week as the world’s densest tourist with the weakest knack for discovering anything interesting or unusual. I’ve heard the Louvre alone takes three days for a comprehensive tour (assuming you’re not just there to see the Mona Lisa).

In my four days there I spent so much time wandering aimlessly around the city and so stubbornly refused to spend money on metro fare unless my feet were absolutely killing me that I saw only a handful of these, and much like in London, I missed some crucial ones, such as the inside of the Louvre and Sacre Coeur. But I will describe the ones I did see.

A Wander Through Paris

Paris is how you say... belle.
Paintings of Paris from the early 1900s depict it as a quaint but bustling city full of ornate statues and stately buildings connected by cobblestone streets utilized by horse-drawn carriages. Today “quaint” would hardly be an appropriate description. From the top of the Eiffel Tower it is an endless sprawl of white-gray triangles comprised of cloistered apartment and office buildings extending toward the horizon.

On ground level, the ornate old buildings, endless cafes, and bridge-crossed Seine decorated with gilded statues would still make it quaint, if it weren’t for the huge, busy roads and masses of Asian tourists whose numbers are second only to Prague’s masses of Asian tourists. Each with a high-end camera, they swarm through the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame every July and August day, addressing the Parisians selling tickets in broken English.