Everyone in their life should organise one big trip. A trip that takes them across a continent, tests friendships, and creates countless stories that you live to recount decades on. I think nearly every Australian University student has a”when I was in Europe…” story. That is to say I’ve never really understood Australia’s obsession with the kangaroo route. Heading to the UK and then using it as a base for travelling across the European continent. I’d seen many of my friends take on exchanges in Leeds, Lancaster, and London, and I certainly was considering it myself. When the opportunity came up to travel to Cannes for study credit I leapt at the chance. We’d end up in Paris by the end of the trip, and if you ask me that’s the perfect base to head East and checkout the rest of the continent. This study tour, finished up in early June – the European summer. Again, yet another excuse to make this a longer trip than originally planned.


The plan

Initially it was my plan to head to Bruxelles and Amsterdam before heading home. I’ve been a long-term fan of the Dutch way of life, be it the Dutch accent or their phenomenal commutes. Bruxelles made sense, with Thalys having services running through Bruxelles onwards to Amsterdam. Being the home of the European Union, and being the nerd I am I had to go see the Union in action.

When I first started at University I picked up an internship with a small technology company based out of Salisbury. We worked out of a warehouse and it eventuated into my first ever paid marketing role. While I was working there, we had a number of interns working in the marketing (my team), and the communications teams. One such intern, Anna was a political communication student who was on exchange from her University in Essen, Germany. Whilst I was in a different team, the small company size meant that I got to spend a lot of time jumping between both facets of the operations of the business.

Knowing I was going to be in Europe in June, I sent Anna a message to see whether she’d like to catch up. After all, the train to Essen from Bruxelles is not too far. The answer was, “Let’s go to Santorini instead.” Fair enough I thought, Greece is wonderful at this time of year. What ensued, was some crazy idea that we should hire a car and go for a bit of a trip.

It’s worth mentioning that Anna’s boyfriend is Cameroonian, and speaking French / German. Anna is German, speaking German, English, French, and a touch of Spanish. I on the other hand, Australian. English, and Esperanto. Very much underprepared linguistically for such a trip, and once more. None of us spoke Italian. To summarise though, three nationalities, five languages, three passport colours, and three continents all represented in one trip. We were, for lack of a better comparison a real tower of babel. When you consider this is exactly the kind of thing Juncker, and many other European representatives like to see… we were pretty proud of it. Everywhere we went, the inevitable question was always: “So how’d you guys meet?”

We planned a route that was around 1,000km. Starting in Essen, we’d head south, going past Cologne, and Frankfurt on the impressive German autobahn (I reached 170km/hr). Frankfurt of course being the financial capital of the Union, I was able to grab a glimpse of the city as we stopped for picnic lunch at a German truck stop. Our first stop for the trip, with yet another European institution was Strasbourg, the gorgeous Franco-Germanic city home to the plenary European Parliament. From there, we headed through Riquewiher to Saint-Louis/Basel where we’d prepare for our brief time in Switzerland. Navigating the back-roads of Switzerland, we’d stay the night with an eccentric inn-keeper, and leaving our car in Milan. Flying Alitalia (my first experience with a bankrupt airline) to Rome, we’d then fly onwards with Ryanair to Athens, and finally Santorini. We’d be flying Aegean/Olympic back to Athens, and then Eurowings back to Düsseldorf.


Bilingual home to Europe: Bruxelles

The first thing that hit me about Brussels, and well. All of Belgium is it’s sheer reason for existence. Belgium participates in a economic union nicknamed ‘BeNeLux’ (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), and when you consider the linguistic and religious similarities between communities this makes sense. The whole history of Belgium is complex, and involved a lot of conflict in the 1800s. But, to summarise Flanders and Walonia (which, are linguistically different) got together in what can only be described as the world’s most unusual flatsharing agreement. It is also a country whose flag emoji I often see misused around Octoberfest. So that’s fun.

Brussels/Bruxelles is sandwiched between these two regions and as the locals made note of. They have to speak both Flemish and French, unlike the rest of the country which speaks either one. This means that you see this unique bilingual issue thrown up with police having both languages on their uniform and signage. It is however most well known for it’s role as the de facto capital of the European Union. To be truly honest,  I didn’t spend enough time exploring Bruxelles as I would have liked too. After exploring the Atomica, Grand Place, and the various European institutions I sat down to work through the University work that I’d been neglecting this whole time.


Ik kan geen Nederlands spreken, maar ik zal het proberen?

An amateur linguist at heart I tried to speak Dutch. I really did. After checking into The Student Hotel, a fantastic concept hotel that integrated the ‘student way’ with the general population, I grabbed a bike and headed straight for the Rijksmuseum. Not actually looking at going inside the museum, but I knew there was a street art festival going on. Walking around Amsterdam, I came to realise the unique town planning methods that are used in The Netherlands, and met some friendly locals who happily stopped me speaking Dutch.

The Dutch are truly worldly people. I stumbled across this fountain which played homage to Frans Gillebaard.

Just taking my time, walking around and taking in the country’s unique quirks was enough for me. In hindsight, should have blocked out some time to see Van Gogh, or Anne Frank’s house. But in reality, this just gives me an excuse to come back again!


To Strasbourg we go!

After an interesting bilingual conversation with Europcar, we picked up our little SUV and headed home to pick up our supplies from Lidl. Someone needs to remind me every time I drive abroad, it is only us Commonwealth nations that drive on the left. A near miss avoided, I followed the instructions on the GPS and very quickly found myself on the Autobahn well before I was prepared to be. It was at this point I realised that my Australian driving habits were not going to cut it on German roads. To quote Dannick who’d been sitting in the passenger’s seat this whole time: “Cameron is not to drive. No, I’m scared. Very scared.”

Our little Renault compact SUV. It served us well.

The drive to Strasbourg is about four hours, but with a few detours and roadworks we arrived in about six. Three hours of driving to Anna, three to me. We rendezvoused with our AirBNB host (who lived next door to an Australian), and settled into our home for the night.

I always find it interesting just how often you stumble across Australians abroad. Play Eagle Rock in any pub and you’re sure to find one, but beyond that it seems like we’ve embraced the ‘nowhere’ cultural identity more so than anywhere else in the world. The idea here is ‘somewheres’ attribute a large part of their self-identity to where they live, whereas ‘nowheres’ see themselves as citizens of the world. We discussed lightly the joys of living abroad, and the struggles of being an English speaker and learning another language.

Grabbing a pizza (aren’t we cultured), we sat down to enjoy the very chic furnishing of this young family’s home. Spoke at length about all manner of topics, and relaxed. Who’d have thought six hours of driving would take as much of a toll as it did?

The next day, we caught a bus into Strasbourg. Did a very touristy canal tour, and then treated ourselves to a wonder through the European Parliament’s public areas. Can’t tell you’ve got a political communication student on this trip at all hey?


Saint-Louis. Nearly in Switzerland?

Switzerland is fiercely independent. Do not forget it. I did. When booking accomodation I stopped and thought to myself: “Why is it half the price to book in Saint-Louis instead of Basel?” It was then I remembered that while Switzerland participates in the Schengen agreement, she does not intend to be a member of the European Union. From our Pierre Vaccanes’ hotel room, we look out on the official border crossing between these two nations. A gorgeous little construction, but like all Schengen border crossings quite redundant.

It’s hard to forget sometimes that Switzerland is not a member of the European Union. Just Schengen.

We headed across the border crossing, caught a tram and checked out the reaction ferries on the Rhine, Tinguely’s kinetic fountain, and some badly kerned Comic Sans on a doctor’s practice. We didn’t have time to spare though, we had our next destination beckoning. Trun is not what I’d call the most popular of destinations (try finding it in an Atlas). That’s not to say though, it was our highlight of our trip.


Trun, Café Olga, and being an English speaker

Explaining Café Olga is a bit of a difficult one. Run by a zanny watercolour artist from a former soviet block country, now living in regional Switzerland. A café by day, it turns into somewhat of a pub / B&B overnight. Switzerland is interesting by means of linguistics with four official languages German, French, Italian and Romansh. Not a massive issue for Anna and Dannick but for me, somewhat of a struggle. My french is somewhat a paux fae, and my German has been described as “closer to a Dutchman.” Invited for drinks downstairs with the café staff, we joined them for what was initially just a couple of drinks.

This lead to quite a few drinks. Not something I am particularly unfamiliar with, I am a student, and do work in Advertising. It happens.

In hindsight, we should have just purchased a vignette instead of taking the grand tour…

They say the best way to learn a language is to move to a part of the world that speaks that language. Linguists call it the ‘social interaction benefit’ to language. Humans are naturally conversational, and communication is what has arguably allowed humankind to develop at the rate of growth it has. Sitting here at a small Swiss café, drinking a tallie, and listening to Swiss German I was picking up on the general themes. I could not communicate in reciprocation (hand signals exempt), but I had complete understanding of my scenarios. The night seemed to go on and on, singing and dancing to Scottish(?) music at some point. I will say though, I’m glad that I was born an Australian. Drinking is the one thing we can do well.

The next day we rose to a cooked breakfast, and the mess of the night before. I’m not sure if this just happens when people come stay, or if this is every night at Olga’s. What I can say however is that it’s definitely one of the best establishments I’ve stayed at. Albeit, being completely incapable of holding a conversation with others, not that it matters after four or five beers.


Milan, a design capital

“Don’t drive in Milano” they said. Renault, we need to have a talk. If our hotel is on the outskirts of Milan, you do not take us into Milan to simply take us back out again. Oh boy.

I was very excited about Milan, but what we found was just another Italian city.

Milan, long heralded as the design capital of the Western world was indeed an interesting one. When we arrived in Milan our first priority was to get something for lunch. This lead us to an American themed diner. The cultural intersections boggled my mind a little bit. I could not resist the temptation of ordering Fosters, an Australian beer. In an American themed diner, in northern Italy, with a German and Cameroonian. Welcome to Europe my friends.

Our timing could not have been better though. When we arrived in Milano City, every gallery or design museum we went to seemed to be under renovation. So we headed straight for the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele knowing that while we may never be able to afford the labels the architecture was going to be somewhat of a site.

We shared a pizza and some local Italian beers (a recurring theme it seemed) at an Italian pizza delivery place owned by someone who spoke good Arabic. We’re friends on Facebook now so it’s nice to see what’s going on in this obscure pizza shop on the other side of the world.


Rome. Never again Ciampino airport

We budgeted a day in Rome. 1 day. The response from the hotel concierge was “You’re crazy! Roma? One day?” For once, we weren’t particularly crazy.

One of the seven modern wonders of the world. Very touristy of course, but glad I’ve ticked this one off the list.

Rome was just a small stopover, hardly enough time to take things in. They say ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, but I can assure you that at least the touristy sites can be seen in one. This is where we could have added some more time to the trip, and cut a few less corners.

The vast majority of my memories of Rome come from our escapades at Rome Ciampino airport, the smaller cousin to Fiumicino. If you’ve ever heard of the infamous airline Ryanair, you’d be aware of the various cost-cutting methods that they use to keep those airfares around the €10 mark. As an Australian, subject to a pseudo two-airline agreement (as opposed to the actual two-airline agreement), the idea of airfares of such a price is mind boggling. That is, till you experience Ryanair.

We headed to Ciampino at 11pm, the last possible coach connection we could get. Our flight did not leave till 4am. We’ll sleep at the airport we thought. A quick search on the budget travellers’ favourite website ‘Sleeping in Airports’ quickly alerted us to just how small this airport was. The quote at the top of the website read: ‘If you plan on arriving in Ciampino in the middle of the night in order to catch an early morning departure… you’ve made a big mistake.’ Spectacular.

What you will find though is that Ryanair passengers are somewhat different to the usual travelling public. When you’re used to wearing 7 layers of clothes to avoid a baggage charge, or coming prepared to fight to the front of the queue to guarantee boarding. These people can do anything.

As the airport closed for the night, we found ourselves a nice spot of grass, staked our claim and prepared. I’m thankful we were doing this in Summer for all I brought was shorts, and a sleeping bag liner for dodgy hotels. Settling in, we took turns (carefully watched over by the Italian military) to look after our bags before our flight the next day.

Boarding that flight can only be described as the most nightmarish experience I’d ever experienced in my life. With next to no sleep the night before, I worked my way through security, and up the crowded boarding stairs to find my place on the plane. Sitting down, I was greeted by a smiling purser ready to sell me a scratch card. Yes my friends, welcome to Ryanair.

The flight arrived on time, no worries. Taking the metro into Athens, we anxiously awaiting our check-in two hours later.

(I’d like to say for balance I actually really like Michael O’Leary. He’s undeniable for his publicity stunts and antics, but sometimes you need that kind of person in Business. I just don’t mind paying more for creature comforts, like an accessible airport).


Athens. Making new friends across the seas

The first day in Athens was somewhat a write off. From the marathon effort that ensued in Rome, we decided it was best that we take this time just to sleep and get over the trip thus far. Ordered some Yiros, some Shandy, and settled ourselves into the hotel. My first reaction for Athens was somewhat shocking. Having read about, and watched documentaries on the impact of the Eurozone fallout I prepared myself for a world of extremes. Everywhere we went you saw ‘natural recycling’ occurring, and graffiti making reference to Germans, French, and other European economic powerhouses.

I really like Athens. I felt a bit like Mamma Mia, but the Greek way of life is particularly attractive.

That’s one aspect of Greece. But it’s certainly not what they like to be known for. I really cannot blame them for holding a grudge on the Eurozone after several decades of austerity. This is where we met a handful of other tourists from places such as Turkey, Northern America, Austria, and even one from Brazil.

We took the ‘New Athens Free Tour’ run by George, ‘British George’ (apparently every tour operator is ‘George’?), and walked around the city. I can understand why the Mediterranean is a popular migration destination, the weather and food is impressive.

We then sat down for a rather lavish €10 all you can eat Greek lunch, and enjoyed discussing the quirks of our respective countries. I’m in touch with most of them still. There was also an incident involving the lens cap of one of my lenses ending up in an archeological site. Archeologists were very kind to return it to me.


Santorini. Volcanos, beaches, and sun

I booked University ball tickets on a volcano in Santorini.

I think the picture pretty much sums up Santorini. From captaining a small boat, to climbing the peak of an active volcano it was a perfect end to a long trip.


Coming home

With 24 hours spent in Athens International while waiting for our flight home to Düsseldorf; we quickly realised that we could not sustain this forever. We were all tired, exhausted, and just looking forward to sleeping. And sleep we did. I can highly recommend following our route, and I’d love to hear fellow travellers who try their hand at this. But a few points:

  • Take a little more time to explore. We didn’t have many rest days
  • Ryanair is cheap, it helped keep this whole adventure under A$3,000. If you can afford it, go with another carrier
  • Look into getting a vignette for Switzerland. The backroads are scary
  • Driving on the autobahn is a scary experience
  • Spend some more time in Athens, it’s a phenomenal city
  • Don’t book cheap accomodation in the centre of Rome. Bed bugs were not fun
  • “Halal Beer” means non-alcoholic. Oops.
  • If you’re in Trun, stay at Café Olga!
  • Try and learn a second language that isn’t Esperanto! 😉
We were all looking forward to getting home.