Everyone knows "how to backpack across Europe". The classic, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Athens, Munich, etc. etc. etc. trip. Go to Oktoberfest, or Carnival, or Running of the Bulls, or Stonehenge, or the Roman Coliseum, football game, castles, French riviera, gondola rides. Sure, these things are great. Honestly, I will probably do most, if not all of them this next semester when I go to Scotland and spend part of my Summer in Europe.
However, what about the people? The language, the rest of the country outside of the city lights? What about the rivers and forests and streams? What about Le Havre, France, which is the sight of Henry V's siege of what was once Harfleur? What about Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated? What about Hadrian's Wall, built by the Romans in England? What about the Coliseum and other Roman architecture in the South of France, specifically Arles? What about Al-Hambra, one of the greatest pieces of Moorish architecture in Spain, truly the melting pot of Middle Eastern and Western culture? What about Syracuse, where the Greeks landed in Herdotus' Histories? I haven't even gotten out of Western Europe...get what I'm saying?
There is so much more to see in Europe, so much more to learn, so many more experiences. I love drinking with new friends, trying new bars and new pubs, meeting new people. These are all essential to traveling. If you ever get the itch to REALLY get off the beaten path (I mean you've already left everyone you know behind, you're traveling, you might as well leave everyone else, who left everyone they know behind to travel) then read on.
These are some of the things I'm going to keep in mind when I'm in Europe.
- Get into the countryside. Sure, seeing the big cities is great, but if you really want to learn about a people you have to go into the country; look for festivals that aren't well known. Pamplona would be great (I think, as long as you don't end up like that guy), but what about Guy Fawkes night, or Bonfire Night, in England (5th of November) where everyone lights fires and parties. You might just learn a little about the history of England.
- Check out the smaller harvest festivals all over Europe (yes there is more than just Oktoberfest), and take a minute to relish the blessings we have today. Appreciate what people in the same location you are in had to go through hundreds of years ago to enjoy a beer, or some meat, or a glass of wine, like you are.
- Don't worry about not knowing the language; don't be afraid to start when you're in country. Just because all you know how to say in Italian is "Bonjourno!"or "Grazie!" doesn't mean you can't say it with all the gusto you can muster. Say it like you think every Italian should, make it fun. If you say it with a nice big smile on your face and sincerity in your voice, I can almost guarantee you're going to get a big smile out of the locals every time. Especially the little old lady you open the door for and say "Bonjourno!" to; you just made her day.
- Eat where they eat. You will be tempted by every McDonald's you see, every TGIF's, every Burger King, every KFC. Don't! Resist! Just because the old Indian guy is reclining in a hard backed chair, feet up on the counter, watching soap operas doesn't mean that those Kebabs or Shwerma aren't just delicious. Ever heard of a farmers market? I bet you have, well they have them in Europe too. They may not always be called a farmers market, but you can certainly find them. If you're ever in London, check out Borough Market; it just might be my favorite place in London.
In other words, why not do something different? Take a minute to find something that everyone doesn't know about, something that, when you get back and people ask you what you did it's not just a list of "I went here, I saw this, I did this." That you tell them, "I went to Arles, France where there is a better preserved Roman Coliseum than the one in Rome. In fact, it is still used today. There are baths there, built by the Emperor Constantine, Roman architecture everywhere. It's beautiful, stunning." Pick somewhere that,when you mention it to your friend who doesn't get out much, he doesn't automatically conjure up an image in his head of exactly where you were (e.g., London, Paris, Rome).
Good luck and happy exploring. Let me know of any places that this makes you think of.