I arrived in Munich late at night on January 14th. My friend Caitlin met me at the train station, and walked me over to her house to drop my stuff off. Jetlag hit me real good at this point, so I only barely remember her taking me to a nearby biergarten to get some food and catch up. The next day we headed down to the center of the city, and she showed me around the sights, like Marienplatz and the Frauenkirche (one of many famous churches in Munich).
As we walked and ate our way through the day Caitlin updated me on all of the things that I should expect to be different in Europe, like how water is never free anywhere, nor are public restrooms; like how many buildings which are still used and lived in are older than our entire country; like how people use cash instead of card, and get irritated if you make them break a large bill, or they just might not do it at all; like how even in a large city like Munich everything can still be closed on a Sunday.
The thing which struck me most about Munich was how quiet it was. The din of traffic is so ingrained into me that I don’t even hear it until it’s not there. And to not hear it inside of a city was very strange. More than sound, there was a quietness of life. It didn’t feel like people were rushed, with too much to do and too little time. People crowded onto the subway, but not with impatience, and people walked home from the train station after work without hurry. It was like the priorities of the whole culture were different in some fundamental way that I could never quite put a finger on.
Caitlin worked during the week, and so I was set free into the City for a few days. I visited more churches, ate more food, hung out at the library figuring out the next steps of my travels, and just generally wandered around the city.
One snowy day I had lunch with a distant relative on my mom’s side, who is an artist in Munich. I met her at her studio, and from there we wandered around various museums, where she gave me a private guided tour of the exhibits. We talked about politics, and about how immigration is affecting it, and about Trump (of course), and about art, and school, and our different cultures. She told me that Europe had always looked to the U.S. as a kind of older brother, but now that image was starting to fall apart, and I told her about the tiny house and minimalism movement that is hopefully picking up steam in the U.S., and about my friend who is living in a van and traveling around the country. I learned a lot that day, and when I headed back to Caitlin’s afterwards I felt much more at home in the country and continent than I had before.
A week after arriving it was time for me to continue on. One cold morning I hopped onto a bus, rode through a snowy Switzerland, and hopped off into a bright and sunny Milan.
My first impression of Milan was: “Wow, this place is sketchy”. The streets were dirty, old, and covered in graffiti. There were homeless people everywhere, people selling bootleg clothes in the street, scammers targeting tourists, and a general disheveldness which Munich didn’t have. But on the other side of that coin, Milan is one of the fashion capitals of the world, and everywhere I looked there were also beautiful people in expensive looking clothes, driving fancy cars, and eating at fancy cafes. Where Munich was simple and wealthy, Milan was lavish and disparate.
My hostel in Milan was called the Ostello Bello, and was probably the best one I could have gotten as my first hostel in Europe. The hostel’s downstairs area was a restaurant/bar, with some tables reserved for hostel guests. Upon arriving they immediately sat me down at one of those tables, where others were sitting, and said “this is Brian, talk to him”. They did this with every person who arrived, as well as giving us free food and drinks, so that every night turned into a small party.
It took a while for me to fully break out of my shell and get used to meeting people in hostels, but if it weren’t for Ostello Bello it might not have happened at all. Every night I got to hang out and make friends with people from South Korea, Scotland, Argentina, France, Switzerland, and locals from Milan too. So despite all the negative things I’m going to have to say about party hostels later, I’m grateful for Ostello Bello.
As far as Milan itself, the thing which impacted me the most was the Duomo. And boy did it impact me, so much so that I visited it twice. It’s the third largest church in the world, but my experience of it was even better than when I would go to St. Peter’s, the first largest, later on. The interior is so cavernous that all sounds echo virtually forever, creating a low hum which reminded me of the Hindu Om. To think that the words of a book carried such force that, 2000 years later, people were erecting and maintaining incredible structures like the Milan’s Duomo in their honor floored me. There’s a lot of criticism which could and should be leveled towards the Catholic Church, but damnit they know how to build a building.
Besides the Duomo I also visited some museums and other sights, like the Sforza Castle, walking from one to the other as the days went on. Walking became a frequent past-time for me during my traveling. Between Google Maps and the external battery pack I always had with me, there was never a worry about getting lost, and with hostels generally being clustered near the sights it was rarely more than a half-hour walk to any given thing I wanted to see. So I got used to walking a lot, and taking public transit infrequently, and never once used a taxi or rental car while in Europe.
Five days after arriving in Milan I left it, having made many friends and having learned a lot about Italy and Italians. I also learned I was spending too long at each city: It was almost 2 weeks into my 3 month-max trip (for visa reasons), and I’d only been to two cities! From then on I kept to two or three days per city, depending on how much I cared about it, with a couple of five day-ers when I really needed a rest.
After the hecticness of Milan I needed something more quiet. Before leaving the U.S. a friend had told me about Ravenna, the once capital of the Western Roman Empire and now small Italian city, where some of the world’s oldest Christian structures still reside. Mosaics retain their original quality over time far better than many other mediums, and Ravenna was full of ones from as early as the 6th century. While not as glamorous and fast-paced as Milan, Ravenna really hit me with the depth of its history. As someone from the U.S., I’m not accustomed to seeing anything built before 1500, and yet here were buildings in excellent condition which were built a thousand years prior.
Something else which took some time to get accustomed to was using cash (what a segway!). By this point in the trip it had become somewhat second-nature, but only by way of many mishaps previously. In the U.S. using cash is usually a backup option, with credit/debit cards ruling supreme. ATMs never give out bills bigger than $20, and no establishment would ever complain about having to break a $20 except for maybe the smallest purchases. In Europe the ATMs (or cash machines, whatever) almost always give out €50 bills, which absolutely no one wants to break except big chain stores. It’s a giant pain. I still remember the exact location of an ATM in Munich which gave me €10 bills, it was that exciting of a find, and I went out of my way to go back to it more than once.
So in addition to needing to keep an eye on your cash and get more out periodically, you also need to keep an eye out for places which will break your bills, and plan accordingly. Before leaving the U.S. I had gotten a debit card with free international ATM withdrawls at any ATM, so finding places to get cash out wasn’t a problem, but breaking it always was.
But by the time I got back home, I missed doing everything in cash, and even kept doing it for a while in spite of my culture. While having to find places to break fifties was a pain, a little friction to making random purchases wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of impulsively buying whatever was in front of me, I was incentivized to wait until a better opportunity arrose, generally by waiting until I could buy multiple things at the same time, which generally meant buying more efficiently because I was putting thought into it. Also, by always paying in cash, I had a better sense of how much I was actually spending day-to-day. In the U.S. we abhor inconvenience, but in my opinion our reluctance to use cash is a good example of how that abhorance can be to our own detriment.
The train from Ravenna to Florence (or, as Italians spell it, Firenze) was uneventful. Finding the best route between cities turned out to be pretty straightforward. There’s an app called GoEuro which helps compare different methods like bus, train, plane, and taxi/ride-sharing. There’s another app called Rome2Trio which does roughly the same thing. And there’s a bus company called FlexBus which I used quite a bit; their prices are good, their buses are new, and the UI of their site was made in the last decade.
Florence was by far my favorite city in Italy. On the one hand it was very trourist-friendly, and on the other it still retained the feeling of being a historic city. I split my time there between visiting museums and churches and finding the best/cheapest spots to eat. Before leaving home, a friend had told me to avoid any restaurants with pictures on their menu; they’re targeted at tourists and priced accordingly. So my strategy for finding food involved marking off hole-in-the-wall spots in my maps app whenever I came across them during the day, and returning later when I was hungry
On my second day in Florence I was sitting by the Uffizi, eating a panini, and I randomly met an art history student from Madrid who was also visiting Florence. Together we went to a bunch of museums, saw the David, and just generally hung out. I asked her a lot of questions at the museums, because, to be honest, I’d never understood what to make of art in museums.
I’d already learned that, even if I could see a picture of something online, seeing it in person is way different. In person the colors in a painting pop out more (many even have gold leef paint which doesn’t really show up in pictures at all, but makes a world of difference), there’s a lot more detail to be seen, and the size of some is absolutely baffling. I also enjoy learning about history, and the history of art is effectively the history of the world. So museums had become a meditative place for me; I could go to one and just wander, taking in art pieces at whatever rate I liked, learning and thinking about history as I went.
Not pictured, the crowd of selfie-ers behind my trying to get a shot with The Birth of Venus, Florence, 2018
What had always confused me, though, was how to judge art. As in, what makes one piece better than another, or what makes one artist better than another? Why do some paintings become famous and others remain obscure? What my friend from Madrid told me is that there’s not really a metric. Some paintings become famous for historical reasons, either due to where they were originally displayed or some story associated with them. Same for some artists. Ultimately it’s up to the individual to judge them. There was a painting in the same room as the famous Birth of Venus painting which I liked far more, and was happy to admire it alone as throngs of other tourists vied for good selfies with the more famous piece.
I left Florence with a greater appreciation and understanding of museums, as well as a good friend who I would be able to visit later while making my way through Spain.
Rome surprised me when I got there, though, to be honest, it’s not clear what my expectations actually were. The city center, aka the tourist center, is absolutely massive, and all of it is completely tourist-centric. Living in Rome must feel like living inside of Disney World. The city no longer exists for its residents, but instead has been completely swallowed by the tourism industry. Every street corner and storefront is filled with souvenir shops, overpriced food, clothing stores with “I <3 Rome” shirts, gelato shops, walking tour agencies, bike rentals, “experience” vendors (helicopter rides over the Colosseum! Oh my!), shitty jewelry stores, and so much more, all aimed at someone who has too much money and not enough time to spend it all.
My hostel was one of the cheapest I could find, but I was only staying two full days so it was fine. Seeing all of the sights of Rome in only two days is not recommended. The first day I went straight to the Vatican, getting there as early as possible to try (unsuccessfully) to beat the line. St. Peters is the largest church in the world, but being rushed I wasn’t able to enjoy it like Milan’s Duomo, and a lot of it was closed off unless you wanted to pay more. I wasn’t able to spend enough time in it to enjoy it.
The Vatican museum was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. For starters it’s huge, with tons and tons of things to see, including the Sistene Chapel. I took my time wandering around. After the museum I left the Vatican and wandered over to some other sights, like the Castel Sant’Angelo and the Pantheon. As the day wore on, and more and more tourists started pouring out, everything became impossibly crowded. It was difficult to really enjoy anything, what with everyone taking their phones out to capture anything and everything the guidebook said to, without really taking the time to take in the thing itself.
This was something I began to struggle with while I was in Rome. It wasn’t always clear to me why these people cared about these sights, with myself being included. My pessimistic self would say that people just want the social media points gained by a nice selfie in front of Trevi Fountain, and that the tourism explosion which has started in the last decade is driven by that narcissism. My more charitable self might say that everyone understands that the journey matters more than the destination, and that seeing the sights isn’t really the point, but rather prefer the adventure taken with friends and/or family, and so they snap a quick picture and continue on with their good time.
The reason people travel and visit tourist spots is really only their business, and I can’t be one to judge. It just seems unfortunate to take an entire city, arguably the most important city in written history, and turn it into a theme park for the sake of people who don’t actually care all too much about it. I carried this realization with me for the rest of my trip, that tourism is a deal-with-the-devil; it takes the money of people who, ostensibly, find some place interesting, in exchange for driving away the original inhabitants of that place who made it interesting in the first place.
Later on I would learn that the creep of tourism and the dreaded plague of “gentrification” were spoken of as the same thing in popular destinations. The problem of wealthy people driving out the inhabitants of a city in order to take part in the city culture, which the original inhabitants created, is a global one, and one I’m certainly a part of. I moved to Denver because I liked the culture of that city, and was fortunate enough to be able to afford to do so, but then left only three years later, and was now doing the same in even shorter time periods in cities the world over.
I obviously didn’t stop being a tourist after Rome, but I made a conscious attempt to be a better one. I put down the guidebook (or, in my case, the guide app) and tried to explore more naturally, taking in each sight as I found it, and learning as much about it as I could. Rather than trying to see a little of everything, I would find something which really called out to me and focus on that. It’s a tough predicament to be in; it’s important to go out and see the world, to meet people from all different cultures and see all the ways they live, but doing so is, often, detrimental to those cultures. It was tough to find a balance I was comfortable with, and I’m still not sure a “correct” balance actually exists.
All that said, the Colosseum was pretty baller. Rome, 2018
My second day in Rome I spent at the Colosseum and the Palatino, but I was so utterly exhausted and brain-melted I barely remember them. I left Rome with a ton of things left unseen, but without any regret about it. Italy itself had far too much for me to do in this trip, and I knew I’d be back one day, both to Italy and to Rome itself. On the third day I hopped on a plane, flew across the sea, and landed in Spain.
Barcelona definitely made my list of favorite places I visited. Having come from a city which didn’t feel like much more than a playground for tourists, it was refreshing to be in one which felt more real. Spaniards seemed to be friendlier than Italians as well, and my hostel was filled with characters from the UK to Brazil to Russia.
There was an architect in Barcelona named Antoni Gaudí, who died in 1926, but left an indelible impression on the city. If I hadn’t known when he lived and died I might have thought he founded the place, he’s that ubiquitous. His style is completely strange; his exteriors look like something out of Candy Land, while the interiors seem to come from a utopian sci-fi.
What blows my mind is that, for whatever reason, they let him build a church.
La Sagrada Familia isn’t actually completed yet. Gaudí took it over in 1883, a year after it had been started, and worked on it until the day he died. He knew he wouldn’t live to see the completion of the project, and so laid out the plans such that it could be completed without him. The church has been slowly constructed using private funds and donations since then.
Outside faces of La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, 2018
The outside presents two faces, one a mishmash of sculpture which resembles melting ice-cream, and the other highly geometrical, both filled with biblical scenes and small details. Neither really prepares you for what the inside will be like.
The incredible interior of La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, 2018
I’d been in a lot of churches and cathedrals up till this point. Even when they were as mind blowing as Milan’s Duomo, they all followed a similar pattern: gothic, brooding, ornate, almost dark in a way.
La Sagrada Familia is none of those things. It shirks the gothic style almost completely, instead adopting one inspired by natural shapes and patterns. It feels more like being under a canopy of trees than being in a building. There’s light, and color, and organic shapes, like the tree-trunk-like columns and the flower ceiling. And yet there’s also a geometric pattern-ness to everything, which hints at an order and intent for everything in sight, so your eye is drawn in to investigate every detail without needing ornamentation to grab it.
It’s lucky that I hadn’t made any other plans for that day, because I spent nearly two hours at that church, walking around, taking it all in, sitting and contemplating, holding back tears a lot of the time, not being successful at it the rest. This might have been the first building I’d ever felt gratitude for. Where the traditional catholic building has, as a foundation, a call to authority, this one had a call to nature and humanity. And rather than being the crackpot dream of a single person, it had been carried on and supported and built by many others long after he had died. It was a reflection of an ongoing change in a society which I was grateful to see.
I left Barcelona with a new understanding of churches, and what they might represent, even for someone who’s not catholic. They’re a space that’s been set aside with the fundamental purpose of sitting quietly and thinking about things larger than oneself. Thinking about one’s place in society, or in nature, or in the universe, and thinking about how that affects one’s actions. Every society on earth has these spaces, though they go by different names, and have lots of different decorations. Each one of these spaces carries a message about what that society has ascribed importance to, and the message La Sagrada Familia carried with it was refreshing.
Originally I hadn’t planned on going to Madrid at all, but in Florence I met someone who lived there and so decided to spend a couple nights hanging out. Going on a tour of a city is one thing, but going with a local is something completely different. We saw some of the things a tourist is supposed to see, like the opera house, the palace, and whatever this building is:
But more than that, I got to see what it was like to actually live in a city like Madrid, as a normal person. A fancy tapas restaurant is too expensive there, so we went to a local bar that did it more simply and cheaply. We also ate kebab, which is the European equivalent of the corner mexican or chinese joint in the states; a place with cheap, good food, open late, run by immigrants.
Mostly, we walked around and talked. We talked about colonialism, and oppression and guilt, and about the Spanish Civil War and fascism, and about Catalan and its desire for independence, about capitalism, and the pain it causes, and about tourism and gentrification, and about royalty and aristocracy, and about language and culture. Like in Munich, I learned a lot, and felt a lot closer to Spain than I had when I arrived.
I only spent one full day in Madrid, and afterwards took a bus, continuing south, down to Córdoba.
It was on the bus to Córdoba that I remembered to actually book a place to stay there. I quickly grabbed an AirBnB in town, though, as it turned out, messed it up and it didn’t get reserved. So there was an hour there, waiting at the Córdoba bus station, where I was trully homeless. I spent it booking another AirBnB, properly this time, and eating some bread and cheese from my backpack, and watching some birds fight over a loaf someone else had dropped.
This was the first AirBnB I’d gotten in Europe so far, up till this it had been only hostels (and one hotel, in Ravenna). While I’d enjoyed hostel life initially, especially my first taste of it in Milan, it had begun to wear on me.
What I’d found is that, first and foremost, hostels were trying to hit a certain feel. Good vibes were words which I saw in many a hostel description and review, though didn’t often actually experience. It’s in the public consciousness that backpacking through Europe, going from hostel to hostel, is a journey filled with new experiences, new people, and lots of partying. And while that is true, a lot of hostels ignore hospitality in favor of playing up to that fantasy, to their own detriment.
A hostel’s primary goal, like a normal hotel or AirBnB or whatever, shouldn’t be to provide you with experiences, or help you meet new people, or enable your drinking and partying. These are certainly secondary goals it might have, if it wants. But the primary goal should be to make you feel comfortable and at home. And while the conceit of a hostel is that you are exchanging some physical comfort for cost, by having shared bunk rooms and common bathrooms and all that, comfort can be established through more than a fluffy bed. Some hostels I stayed at got this, most didn’t.
If someone feels comfortable in a hostel they’ll open up on their own, and naturally want to meet the people around them, go out partying, and have cool experiences. Or not. They’ll do whatever the fuck they want to. But if a hostel is too focused on being cool and hip and showing off how good its vibes are, it’s neglecting the basics, and then there’s no partying, and the vibes aren’t good.
So I was tired of party hostels, as I began calling them, having just been in one in Barcelona a few days prior, and instead spent the night in what turned out to be a brutally cold old building which had neither heat, sealed windows, or cooking device with which to make a hot meal. Which is what I get for being a snob, I guess.
In the morning I visted the Mosque/Cathedral of Córdoba. This site has had the odd history of having originally been a church, having then been converted to a mosque when the Moors took Spain in the 700s, and then converted back to a christian church in the 1200s when the catholics took Spain back, and has since been designated a cathedral. It retains much of the Moorish architecture, but with a church in the middle, and is an utterly fascinating place which I neglected to take any pictures of.
This was probably one of the most interesting places I visited while traveling. Granada was once one of the most important Moorish cities in Spain, then briefly became a Jewish state, and then the seat of the Nasrid dynasty (the last Muslim dynasty in Spain), and then eventually went back to being a part of the Catholic empire. During this time it also had a large influx of Romani, and out of this mishmash of culture it became one of the birthplaces of flamenco.
My bus got in at night, but I was lucky enough to catch the last public bus from the bus station towards my hostel. It dropped me off in the Albaicín, an old Muslim quarter in the city, where the houses retain the old architectural style and the streets are narrow and winding. From there I walked uphill a ways to the Sacromonte neighborhood, the traditional home of the Romani in Granada. Here the people had dug out caves in the side of the mountain, and made them into homes. My hostel was in one of these caves.
The hostel was small and quiet, overlooking both the Alhambra (the castle on a hill, built by the Nasrids) and the rest of the city. The guys running it were chill; the owner was Dutch, and the other was Scottish. The Scot had come to Granada to live and study flamenco, and it was obvious from how he spoke about it that he was completely in love with the art and the people. On one night they took me out to a “real gypsy bar”, as they called it.
The flamenco artists in town, the singers and guitarists and dancers, make a living performing for tourists, but this bar is, according to my guides, where they go after the shows to hang out. There was no music in the bar, but, as the night went on, three or four cliques formed up naturally, each around a guitar player and singer, with dancers circling around, the rest clapping to an indecipherable rhythm. The Scot knew the names of a few of the people playing, and told me that it was at gatherings like this that the musicians tried out new things and pushed the art further. It was the “real” flamenco.
After that we got kebab and went back to the cave.
Sacromonte is situated on the face of a valley, with the Alhambra being on the opposite side. So to get to the Alhambra I had to venture down to the valley floor, where Granada proper is, and found a very familiar tourist district filled with all the crap I’d seen in every other city. The Alhambra itself was interesting, but also packed, and I hadn’t realized they only sell a limited number of tickets per day to get inside the castle, so I missed a lot of it. So I went back to the peace and quiet of Sacromonte.
Being uphill and difficult to access by car, the Sacromonte was, in many ways, warded off from the wave of tourism which has swept the world and sucked the heart out of its cities. Only those willing to carry their bags 20 minutes uphill could disturb it. I found the absolute best spot possible, with benches overlooking the Alhambra and the city and the sunset, sitting and drawing for hours, and was only disturbed by one or two couples sharing the view in all that time.
I had originally planned to head back to Munich after Granada, but after talking with a lot of people who told me I had to go to Portugal, I booked a bus to Lisbon at the last minute and set off. And damn I’m glad I did.
Sometimes called the San Fransisco of Europe, Lisbon is a city with beaches, historical buildings, perfect weather all-year round, earthquakes, and a large orange-red suspension bridge across a bay. Unlike San Fransisco, it’s an affordable place to visit and the people who live there haven’t been priced out by tech companies (yet).
Part of why I liked Lisbon so much is that, while tourism is an absolutely huge industry, it didn’t really feel that way. The Baixa district, where my hostel was, was certainly an area just for tourists. But it wasn’t very big, and once outside of it you find yourself in somewhere like Alfama, which has been a blue-collar district since the Moorish invasion, and retains its winding cobblestone streets and narrow alleys. If you look at the skyline of Lisbon you won’t find any highrises or office buildings, just 4 to 5 story apartment buildings and churches. It’s a city meant for people to live, first and foremost, with business being secondary. And so, despite being the biggest city in the country, and 9th most visited city in Southern Europe, it still feels quiet and cozy.
Another part of what made Lisbon stand out to me was the hostel I stayed in, and the people I met there. The hostel was homey. There was a small dining area with a single long table, a small living room with couches and chairs arranges in a circle, a decked out kitchen that anyone could use, and free sangria every evening. Rather than focus on partying and yolo and whatever, the owners focused on making it a home, where people would cook and eat and talk and hang out together. So that’s what we did, every night, and in the mornings we’d meet up one more time to eat unlimited free pancakes from the kitchen. It was an amazing time.
While I was there, a museum had an exhibit devoted to M.C. Escher, the Dutch artist known for his tesselations, fractals, and generally paradoxical work. Escher had always been an artist I was aware of, and a year prior to this I had read the book Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and become even more interested. So I couldn’t pass up the chance to see his work in person. And boy, did it leave an impression on me.
Having traveled to Córdoba and Granada in his early twenties, Escher was impressed by the Moorish architecture, specifically the tesselating tile patterns they used in decoration. He began trying to replicate their work, and ended up following what amounted to a mathematical investigation of geometry, in the context of art. The museum presented his work in largely chronological order, and, in seeing the progression of his ideas over decades, it really struck me both what a genius he was and how dedicated he must have been to have spun his wheels on the same problems for most of his life.
Tesselations, paradoxes, and tricks of perspective, Lisbon, 2018
For the rest of my trip, even through Asia, I would spend my time doodling tesselations of my own, trying to find the tricks that Escher found which let him make such complex images. I would find some, but certainly Escher still has the leg up on me.
Having traveled most of Southwest Europe at this point I flew back to homebase, Munich, to recuperate and figure out what my next steps would be. I left Lisbon promising myself that I’d be back, even considering finding a way to live there one day. While my life plans have since changed, it’s not something I’ve totally ruled out.
To be continued
In my next post of this series I’ll tell the story of the second, and longest, leg of my European tour, where I go to Belgium, the UK, Scandinavia, Prague, and Berlin!