It has been about ten years since I travelled around Europe, so I thought it was time to see some more of my home continent. I had almost forgotten how easy backpacking can be when public transport works like a dream and everyone speaks English. I have to say, it feels a little more familiar and a little less exciting than Latin America or Asia, but it has been fun. Here's the story so far:
With two large bags, a guitar and a ukulele I said goodbye to Baena, and took the train to Zaragoza, north east of Madrid. Yes, the train was expensive, but it's was hours quicker, way more comfortable than a bus and meant I didn't have to change stations (with all of that pesky luggage).
Zaragoza was scalding hot but surprisingly nice for a place most famous for the being the home of the Spanish inquisition.
The next stop was Pamplona which will serve as home when I start my new job there in September.
Pamplona is the capital of Navarre province in the Basque country. It is home to about 200,000 people, a newly promoted premier league football team, is on the Camino de Satiago hiking trail, and is known for the world's most famous bull running and fighting festival in July. And yes, I have read The Sun Also Rises.
I met my future coworkers for a morning glass of wine (a good sign), and blissfully dropped of some bags and musical instruments so I had less to carry.
The next day I flew business class to Brussels. Well, Ryanair business . . . which gives you a 'free checked bag' and 5cm more of leg room. Whoopee.
Brussels is the first place I have been to in a while where Spanish or English aren't the official languages so I was a little bemused by the mix of Flemish, French and English I encountered. I eventually found my hostel after mistakenly entering a nearby mosque.
Brussels was quite a lively place, especially with the start of the Euro championships. I discovered that someone from Brussels is called a Brusselois although the city seemed to be full of tourists and foreign businessmen.
After a walkabout with my new Colombian hostel pal Alejandro we were lured into a casino by pretty girls and the offer of prize draws for Euros tickets.
We left full of champagne but predictably without any winnings. An unimpressed octogenarian won the football finals tickets, and quickly resumed her place at the fruit machines.
The next day I checked out the musical instrument museum in the Belgian capital. The old building with its ten floors was almost as interesting as the thousands of 17th century mechanical organs, harpsichords, sitars and hurdy-gurdies.
My next stop was Menen (yes I had never heard of it either). I met up with Stijn, I guy who I shared a house with briefly in Buenos Aires.
He showed me around the town, which is regularly invaded by the French, who live two kilometres away, to buy cheap tobacco and petrol.
We also headed out to see Ypres (or Wipers as an old history professor used to call it) and Kortrijk which were both full of football fans.
Stijn and his immaculate bachelor pad were both very hospitable and we even made vague plans to do the Trans Siberian railway next summer. I will have to fit that in with the 18 other trips I've got planned.
Beer Bruges. I spent two days cruising the canals, eating chips and mayonnaise, and drinking an array of wine strength beers.
After placating my hangover with more chips I had an extra day to kill and spent it in Gent. I had no expectations, but liked the place even more than Bruges! It felt like more of a real town (less tourists and more locals) and is slightly bigger too. It certainly has all of the usuals in this part of the world - canals, beer, windmills and castles. I did a cool walking tour which passed the world's biggest cannon (never fired but regularly loaded with drunken students), and ended in the most famous brothel in Flanders (now the Marriott Hotel).
I stayed in a fantastic hostel housed in one of the oldest buildings in Gent. I feel like most backpackers pass by the old Flemish capital but if you have the chance it is well worth it.
I left Belgium and took an accidental detour to south Holland (wrong train) before finally arriving in Leiden, between Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
I came to the relatively unknown 'little Amsterdam' to stay with Richard, a friend I met on the Micamale boat trip in Panama last year. He definitely deserves a mention on Tall Travels as he stands a towering two meters.
Leiden is exactly how I imagined Holland - flowers, bikes, cheese, windmills, canals and old brick houses. It's got a great market, an old university and plenty of night life too.
We went to the opening of the city festival space which turned out to be a 'beach bar' on a building site and a cabaret show about goats. I met all of Richard's mates who were cool (about 90% of Dutch people seem to wear leather jackets now).
Other than sampling Dutch beer, I have been hanging out with Gino the cross-eyed cat. He is a 14lb savage who destroyed my left hand by 'play fighting'. I also took a day trip to Rotterdam which has a nice mix of commercial buildings, maritime history and sushi restaurants. I luckily arrived the day that the city opened a hotel roof terrace to the public. Enjoy the views below.
That's all for part 1. On the final part of my Euro trip I'll be visiting Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen and going to the Roskilde music festival.