Six lessons in six countries: as volunteer nomads, hopping from one hostel to another, you can’t help but learn a bit about yourself.
Childlike giddiness hit us an hour after the plane ride. Still, we had to keep pinching each other in our delirious states to prove we were really in Europe. My two roommates and I had planned the three-week backpacking trip for nearly a year. Sabrina the intrepid adventuress, Erin the thrill seeker and I the culture junkie had finally landed on Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam, Berlin, Krakow and Budapest. As thrifty university students we agreed luxurious hotels were out and hostels were in.
Paris, France, Le Montclair Hostel
Lugging a heavy expedition pack down a catwalk of glitzy designer clutches isn’t the most glamorous feeling, especially after a seven-hour flight, but we were determined to run on adrenaline. Day one was a crash course in backpacking and, boy, did we cram. In one afternoon, we saw the deceivingly small Eiffel Tower, felt romanced by the Seine and were sufficiently creeped out by Mona Lisa’s eyes at the Louvre. We quickly realized it’s not the quantity of things you see, but the quality of time you spend there.
The following day, instead of cutting our visit to Versailles short, we allotted the whole day to comfortably explore the palace and the massive grounds.
Lesson #1: Quality over quantity. Be prepared to change the plan.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Shelter Jordan Hostel
Rumours about Amsterdam’s red-light district and smoky “coffee houses” (cannabis is legal here) inspired us to concoct several imaginative what-if scenarios on the train from Paris. Not surprisingly, some of them came true. Experiencing Amsterdam doesn’t just mean trying delicious foods like “bitterballen” (a Dutch meat-based snack, deep fried and coated with breadcrumbs). At the very least, it means seeing and understanding the local culture.
Lesson #2: Step outside your comfort zone (and your hostel).
Bruges, Belgium, Lybeer Hostel
The UNESCO world heritage site in Bruges reminded me of a Mother Goose fairytale. The town is practically made of Belgian chocolate and we spent a good portion of day one touring the city and taste-testing free samples. Though beautiful, it was swamped with tourists.
Our friendly hostel owners gave us an after-hours tour through the lamp-lit cobblestone streets. Whereas cookie-cutter hotels are pricey and impersonal, hostels can have owners who develop good relationships with their guests, rather than just renting out a cheap bed.
Bruges wasn’t the only place where this lesson rang true: in Berlin, the hostel owner lent us cozy sweaters on chilly days and helped us with laundry. The owner of Balaton’s Hullum Hostel drove us in his rickety truck to the horse-riding stables as if we were part of his family. One bitterly cold night he even brewed us steamy, spiced wine.
Lesson #3: Become friendly with the locals—they know best.
Berlin, Germany, Raise a Smile Hostel
After our free walking tour we joined an alternative pub-crawl, experiencing everything the city had to offer. We were in bed by three in the morning, vowing to make our plane in five hours.
I was feverishly chiselling down a dreamy Berlin Wall when I heard sirens in the distance. Suddenly my body was overtaken by an electrifying jolt. When I opened my eyes I recognized the zebra-patterned walls of our African-themed hostel. But something seemed wrong.
Dim sunlight shadowed the balcony’s French doors. I glanced at my watch, tore off my covers and leaped like a spider monkey onto the top bunk, forcefully waking up my zonked-out travel-buddy Sabrina.
“Our plane leaves in two hours! We missed the alarm!”
We woke the third member of our trio and entered an altered state of consciousness, stuffing every belonging in eyesight into our expedition backpacks. Only when we were on the plane ride from Germany to Poland did we finally stop to laugh (with somewhat manic tears), steadying our breathing from the safety of our seats.
Lesson #4: If you have an early plane to catch, set two alarms and do not shut your eyes again after waking, even for a second.
Krakow, Poland, Greg + Tom Hostel
We arrived in Krakow with raccoon-eyes and bed-head. I swear, Greg + Tom Hostel was illuminated by a beacon of light.
Inside we found a homey living room adorned with a flat screen TV, multiple computers and a Wii console. I would have surrendered to the plush sofa if it hadn’t been for the smell of food wafting from the kitchen. Freshly baked bread and platters of colourful fruits, veggies and deli cuts. All free!
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Greg + Tom is top rated on hostelworld.com. Some of the hostels we declined; though affordable, they were criticized for being too noisy, inconveniently located or untidy. Former guests praised the Greg + Tom for its affordability and coziness.
The hostel also arranges affordable tours to salt mines and the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp.
Lesson #5: Do your research. Use established sites like HIHostels.ca or hostelworld.com to check ratings and comments. Print off free city maps and transit routes. Don’t accept deal-breakers in the name of thrift.
Budapest, Hungary, Colors Hostel
Here, we bunked with three McGill students and became temporary BFFs. We spent the day sunning in the hot springs, army crawling through Hungarian caves and dipping bread in authentic goulash soup. As quickly as we had said hello, we left for Balaton while they headed to Poland.
A grey-haired German traveller told us over breakfast: “Hostels are like the hotels of the 50s because you meet many people of different flags.”
It’s easy to make friends in hostels because you share a bedroom, kitchen and living room. We started assigning nicknames for our acquaintances: Brazil boy, the French girl who ate cereal with a fork. No doubt, I became “Canada” because of my black Olympic hoodie.
Lesson #6: All you have to do is introduce yourself to inspire a 20-minute autobiographical monologue from your fellow traveller.
1) Backpacking can make or break a friendship. Make sure you travel with people you get along with, to combat bouts of fatigue and homesickness.
2) Pack old T-shirts and towels that can easily be discarded to make room for new souvenirs.
3) Bring a journal and camera to chronicle your memories.
4) Splurge on one traditional meal in each country. For the rest, buy ingredients from the closest grocery store and make group meals at the hostel.