During college, I embarked on a backpacking trip across Europe. I was twenty-one years old, studying abroad in Scotland, ready to pursue what seems to be a rite of passage for privileged young folks.
One backpack, five weeks, grimy to decent hostels, no cell phone, and stops at many of Europe’s iconic sites. It was exhilarating to navigate on my own, stopping to visit other friends studying abroad in Paris, Madrid, and Florence, among other places.
12 years later, I’ve just returned from another five-week excursion in Europe. This time with my wife Rebecca, and this time a little more off the beaten path, especially for American tourists. We achieved this by renting a car for about half the trip and venturing to small towns and villages in Slovenia, Croatia and, during the last stint of our trip, Portugal. Part of me wishes we traveled by our little 5-speed fiat the whole time.
Slovenia — -Croatia — -Hungary (Budapest) — -Poland (Krakow) — -Czech Republic (Prague) — -Portugual.
Don’t get me wrong: traveling by train, for many unaccustomed to such ubiquitous public transit options, can be a blast. It’s a novel experience when you live in a city like Louisville where public transit is not efficient. Overnight trains, however, lose their allure once screeching brakes and a lack of air conditioning lead to marginal sleep.
Our train stops — Budapest, Krakow and Prague (Rebecca’s favorite) — all enchanted us in different ways. But whether it was the heat, crowd fatigue, or simply the feeling that experiencing the real countries were beyond the outskirts of the deservedly innundated cities, I will look more fondly upon the more rural experiences we shared.
Driving wasn’t difficult; the only major detour occurred at the start, when our British-accented GPS voice led us astray during the trip from Zagreb, Croatia to Eastern Slovenia. Gas is expensive by American standards (between six and eight dollars a gallon), efficient cars help ease the pain of filling an eight gallon tank for fifty dollars. And tailgating seems to be widespread recreation across all borders. Any minor irritation behind the wheel was completely overshadowed by meeting people and seeing places off the path of major cities accessible by train.
Driving led us to places I never imagined we’d go. We talked and laughed with an elderly man in the stunning wine country of Jeruzalem, Slovenia. He had barely spoken English the past forty years, but filled us in on regional history and insights into the work of a vintner over countless glasses of local wine. We explored the Istrian Penisula of Croatia, where ancient Roman towns dot hillsides surrounded by olive groves and grapes and the cuisine is superb. We awoke to the clanging of cowbells and the rich scent of Eucalyptus groves in Sao Luis, Portugal.
Several friends have asked what our other big takeaways from the trip are. Others have asked if we felt safe (absolutely). Here’s my attempt to distill a rich experience with several insights into the travels:
On American Exceptionalism:
The more I travel, the more I realized how many wonderful places are out there. The United States is certainly a unique and great country in many ways; Boris and Marco, both entrepreneurs in Croatia, for example, spoke of ridiculous bureaucracy when it comes to small business startup. If you are an enterprising individual from abroad who hopes to launch an idea, brick and mortar establishment, or simply seek out a massive variety of career paths, then it’s tough to beat the good ole’ U S of A.
BUT when it comes to work-life balance, family, diet, maternity/paternity leave, relative calm, there are so many places superior to America. This index, for example, rates the most peaceful places on earth. The Czech Republic, Slovenia and Portugal all rate in the top 20 worldwide. America? Comes in at 101st, behind countries such as Saudi Arabia, Moldova, Serbia, and Papua New Guinea. This doesn’t surprise me.
Slovenia is a Gem:
Smaller than my home state of Kentucky, Slovenia possesses a staggering array of biodiversity and landscapes. Their white wine is exceptional. The capital city, Ljubljana, contains green space and bike paths galore. It’s a young country, formerly part of Yugoslavia. The people were welcoming and were consistently intrigued — especially in small towns — how two Americans from Kentucky ended up in their neck of the woods.
Trip Advisor and Airbnb are Amazing Travel Tools:
This won’t come as a surprise to tech-savvy travelers, but I can’t overstate how easy it was to patch together a memorable journey using these tools. We planned our five-week itinerary before leaving by creating an outline of stops, mostly using Airbnb to find flats in Prague and Budapest, farmhouses in Portugal. We took care of rental cars and train tickets before departure as well.
Once the journey began, we kept it low-stress with an itinerary created on the fly. We didn’t have phone service but tapped into wi-fi to use Trip Advisor to seek out restaurants and attractions.
We pinched ourselves countless times during the course of the vacation, grateful to have the time and money to make the trip possible. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s tough to put a price tag on a lifetime of memories.