So, I’m back from ten days of travelling across France and Spain with my brother. Before I come to my account of what we did and if I would recommend doing a similar trip, let me explain briefly how I intend to structure this. I will do two separate blog posts, the first including some general impressions as well as a description of our route. In the second, I will go into more detail on some specific topics, such as how we dealt with the trains, as well as some further descriptions on the hostels we stayed at, and the food had. Finally, I will wrap everything up in a brief conclusion. Feel free to skip some parts and read whatever interests you most.
This trip was actually my first experience of actual backpacking and of not knowing where you’d end up at night at the time you left in the morning (excluding maybe a hiking trip I did with my family when I was still a kid). But I have to say, I really did enjoy it. I loved being so flexible (though we had some difficulties with the trains, which I will come to later), and I really enjoyed being able to see so many places in such a short time frame – especially as this was the only longer vacation I will be able to squeeze into my schedule this year.
We chose the Interrail ticket with the option of travelling five days out of ten. My schedule didn’t allow for any more than 10 days and we didn’t want to spend all of our days on the train, so this was the perfect choice for us.
In the very beginning of our trip, my brother came to my place in Cologne, Germany, and we boarded the Thalys high-speed train to Paris. We didn’t use our Interrail ticket yet for this trip, as trains to and from your country of residence are not included. It is possible to get a 25% discount on them, but as Thalys is a separate company anyway and we didn’t want to waste a whole day of our only five days of travelling, we paid the complete price of around 70€.
Paris was a great start for the trip, as I had already been staying there for a week or so a few years ago and thus new my way around a little bit. We arrived at Gare du Nord and walked up the Montmartre hill to our hostel at Caulaincourt Square. We spent the rest of the day exploring our neighborhood of Montmartre, including Sacre Coeur with its great view over Paris. The next day we had a look at all the standard tourist attractions, including the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Seine, Place de la Concorde, Dome des Invalides, Eiffel tower, École Militaire and so on. After a quick stop at the hostel as well as the train station to book our train to Marseille, we went back to the city center to spend some time in the Jardin du Luxembourg (I enjoyed it so much to just sit there in the sun and relax!!). Afterwards, we walked through the Quartier Latin (which, sadly, got far more touristy than it was at my last visit), and stopped by Notre Dame and Centre Pompidou. I love the city and I really enjoyed walking around so much.
The next day we were off to our second stop: Marseille. When we got off the TGV after a surprisingly short ride of three hours or so, we started to search for our hostel. Luckily, we bumped into two other people who were staying at the same place so we went there together. After check-in, we set off to explore the city a little bit and went down the main shopping street to the Vieux Port (the old port). We also had a look at the old market district, which my brother already knew from a prior trip. I was really impressed with the atmosphere there. Everything was dirty, but people were selling everything there on the street and I somehow felt like I was back in North Africa. We also had a look into one shop where all kinds of herbs, teas and spices were being sold. Really impressive! As an example, they had at least ten different kinds of pepper alone.
The next day we set off to explore the city for real. Right after breakfast, we climbed up the steep hill to reach the Notre-Dame de la Garde church. From up there, we had an impressive view of the city as well as the coastline. At the church’s wall, bullet holes from Marseille’s liberation in 1944 are still visible. Inside, the most impressive feature is the hundreds of panels donated by various people to thank God for supporting or helping them. Also, there are lots of paintings and little models of ships and planes hung up there as a sign of gratitude as well. From there, we went down the hill again towards the other direction, heading for the sea. On the way, we found the bench with most likely the nicest view in all of Europe! Arrived at the coast, we had a little break in the sun at an artificial sand beach (there are hardly any natural sand beaches in the area). With the bus we went back to the city center and the Vieux Port. But we still didn’t have enough, so the walking continued. So up the hill on the other side of the port we went, straight into the historic city center, which has a kind of artsy touch to it today. I really liked the Mediterranean flair, the narrow streets and staircases, and the beautifully decorated shops and walls there. After that, we stopped by the second big church of Marseille: the Cathedral, with an architectural style somewhat similar to Notre-Dame de la Garde. Finally, we headed back to the port, passing on our way the newly built harbor area with several museums and the old forts protecting the port.
Barcelona Part I
Off we went again, boarding the next train. The first one went via Nîmes and Arles to Montpellier. There we changed trains to head on to Figueres, Spain, which is the main transfer point for trains between France and Spain. We hadn’t been able to book tickets directly to Madrid (our actual goal) while we were still in France and in addition, our train arrived heavily delayed. Thus, the last train to Madrid on that day was already gone and we decided to go to Barcelona for the time being, which we would have to pass on our way to Madrid anyway. After arriving in Barcelona, we headed straight to the next McDonald’s as we were sure they would have free Wi-Fi there. We tried to check for some hostels online, but couldn’t really find anything good, so we asked at the tourist info and were given a map with some cheap hotels and hostels nearby. The first we checked didn’t have any room for us, so we went on down the street and decided spontaneously to ring the doorbell at a place that said something about city apartments on the outside. It turned out this was far above our price range, but the two very nice ladies at the reception helped us searching for hostels online in Spanish and even called the hostel we decided for to make a reservation for us. We were so thankful!! So we went to the youth hostel they had called, checked in, and went straight back to the station. With the metro, we went to the Ramblas and then walked down the street to the harbor. After enjoying the breeze there for some time, we boarded the metro again and headed to Sagrada Família cathedral, where we met a friend of my brother’s who is currently living in Barcelona. We bought some dinner and spent a perfect evening on her roof terrace talking, drinking beer and eating pizza while watching the sun set next to the impressive outline of the Sagrada Família.
After another three hour train ride, we arrived in Madrid the next day. After checking in at the hostel we did a short walk through the neighborhood and had a look at Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. Then we headed, once again, to the station to make some more train reservations. In the afternoon, we continued our walk and visited, among other places, the Palacio Real (the Royal Palace), and, again Plaza Major and Puerta del Sol (this time with my camera). In the evening, we had some great Tapas in a street we had discovered on our walk through the city, where there were lots of nice bars and restaurants.
This seventh day of our trip was the only actually bad day. We left rainy Madrid early in the morning, only to find out that our tickets to Bilbao hadn’t been booked as planned. So the guy at the station recommended to go to a place called Miranda first, in order to catch another train to Bilbao from there. But when we arrived there at 11 o’clock or so, it turned out that the only train to Bilbao on that day would leave at 7.30 in the evening. So we were stranded in this place in the middle of nowhere. After a lot of debating and thinking we decided to cancel our trip to Bilbao and reserved tickets back to Barcelona instead. After all, we wouldn’t be able to make it to the Guggenheim Museum as we had planned, as it is closed on Mondays. And we had liked Barcelona anyway, so why not go back. Still, the earliest train to Barcelona left at four in the afternoon. So, as we still had so much time to kill, we decided to take a look at this place we were stranded at. The town seemed deserted and most of the people we saw were rather old people. We also had a hard time finding a place to eat something at, it being Sunday and all. So after some wandering around, we bought some (pretty dry) baguette and some croissants and sat down in a park for a while, eating bread and feeding birds with the crumbs – just like cliché old people do. After some time, we could finally board our train and arrived back in Madrid at around ten at night. Luckily, our hostel from last time still had some beds available for us. What a lost day.
Barcelona Part II
After our very disappointing day spent mostly on trains and in train stations, we decided to really relax for a while in Barcelona. So we spent a complete day at the beach and in the water (although it was still really cold). In the afternoon, we walked back all the way along the shore to the harbor and the entrance of the Ramblas.
The next day was our last day together on this trip. We did some more sightseeing until noon or so and went to see the Miró Park, the Plaça Espanya and the Montjuïc Park, from where we had a great view over the city. Finally, it was time to say goodbye and my brother brought me to the station, were I boarded the train to Girona, from where I would be flying home the next day.
This was the only part of the trip I did entirely solo. I really enjoyed it though. I checked in to the hostel and almost immediately set off again to explore the city. I walked through the old city center a bit and, completely by coincidence, found the stairs leading up to the old city wall. So I climbed up and ended up circling almost the entire old part of the city by walking on the wall. I also climbed some watchtowers for even better views, passed the university and finally ended up at the big cathedral. On my way back I passed through Girona’s Ramblas and really enjoyed the narrow alleys and stairways in the old part of town. Back in the hostel, I met some people who were also travelling alone, and we spent a great evening together having Tapas, drinking beer and talking. Early the next morning I boarded the bus to the airport and flew back home.