After almost two years in Austria, it’s time for us to head home to the States. But before leaving our adopted continent for a new life in Alabama, we embarked on a “grand finale” backpacking trip through France, Spain, and Portugal. We dubbed it our Victory Tour in honor of surviving Vienna, the academic job market, and almost two full years of marriage — the trifecta of tough!
We were on the road for about five weeks, with one backpack and handbag apiece, and I snapped more than 1,600 photos. Here’s a quick look at the highlights of our trip … and a more reasonable number of photos.
Sorry in advance for the steep loading time on this post. I know it’s a doozy, but I promise there’s lots of cool medieval stuff, friends, food, and a parrot.
For me, this particular trip was fourteen years overdue: I’ve been friends with Marion since high school, when she spent a year as an exchange student in my hometown. I’ve been wanting to see her hometown near Avignon, France, ever since, and finally, the logistics worked out for that to happen.
Marion in a lavender field.
The night we landed in Marseille, Marion’s parents picked us up from the airport and her mom treated us to a home-cooked Provençal dinner, complete with tapanades, grilled meats, cheeses, cake, and family-made liquors. It was definitely one of the best meals we ate in Europe — and it was by far the most personally special to me.
Lucky the Cat is seventeen. The French really do age better than us.
Provence is one of the most heavily touristed areas in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for outsiders. It’s impossible to get around without a car, and we were incredibly grateful to Marion and her dad for driving us to see countless lavender fields, medieval towns, and the top of Mount Ventoux. French country roads are not for the faint of heart: one skinny lane serves two-way traffic, trucks, and bicycles, and everyone goes as fast as possible around the curves. It’s intense, even for Europe, but it’s worth it.
Marion’s chariot. I nicknamed him Thor.
Roussillon, a medieval town that’s famous for the rich, earthy pigments harvested from the nearby Colorado Canyon.
The iconic Sénanque Abbey.
Sometimes in Provence, you come around a corner and there’s just a perfectly preserved medieval town on a hill. Bonjour, Gordes.
Moulin a Papier Vallis Clausa is a historic paper mill in Fontaine de Vaucluse that dates back to the 15th century. It still produces small batches of paper made from cloth.
So. Much. Cheese. You could eat a different French cheese every day for a YEAR and still not try them all.
Now, the road is really the only place where the southern French are in a hurry. The rest of the time, Marion’s folk are more than happy to amble along their cobble-stoned streets, chat with old friends at the neighborhood creperie, or linger with a glass of wine as the sun descends over the Sorgue (also, French waiters are impossible to flag down, so it’s best to just go with it). It was an overwhelmingly picturesque visit, and it wouldn’t at all have been possible for us without Marion and her parents. Merci beaucoup, toujours.
One last look at the lavender fields. They’re everywhere! And yes, I know there’s a weird smudge on my camera lens. C’est la vie!
I’m still sorting through all of my Provence photos, but here are a few, ahem, dozen more of my favorites.
After Avignon, we stopped in Barcelona to see the Sagrada Família. I stepped in a lot of churches during my time in Europe, but this was by far my favorite, in large part because it’s still a work in progress.
From the outside, it looks like a bunch of termite mounds, am I right?
Most European cathedrals feel like the tombs they are at this point in history; they’re monuments to the technological and artistic achievements of their eras, but most of them are no longer the living, breathing centers of their cities. The Sagrada Família is different. It still feels like a vibrant, dynamic place.
It’s like the Alice in Wonderland of churches.
Colored lights and wavy lines are hallmarks of the interior’s design.
Gaudi’s original plans for the Sagrada Família have been lost, and the vision for it has changed over five decades to reflect contemporary, whimsical trends. The fact that our presence as tourists actually helps rather than harms (ticket fees fund the construction) also makes for a unique experience as a visitor. It’s an incredible place, and I hope to see the finished version of it in my lifetime.
Next we flew north to Santiago de Compostela, a city most known as the end of the El Camino, the historic pilgrim road to the tomb of St. James inside of Santiago’s modest cathedral. Today, hundreds of thousands of backpackers walk an average of three weeks along one of three established routes to Santiago, and in the summer, the foggy, sleepy town is crowded with the young, dusty, and thirsty.
Galician cuisine is … adventurous.
For us, though, Santiago served as the beginning rather than the end of our own westward pilgrimage. After leaving France, the gravity of our move back to the States began to set in. But we also started to notice signs that we were on the right path …
It’s literally a sign.
From Santiago, we made our way via regional buses to Baiona, a coastal town so small that most tourist guidebooks don’t even list it. It’s primarily a vacation spot for Madrileño families rather than foreign tourists, and we struggled a bit to adapt to the town’s siesta schedule. But we had no trouble finding great shellfish — and beaches.
Matt boarded a replica of Columbus’s Pinta, which docked in Baiona after returning from the “New World” in 1493. We were especially struck by how small the ship is, and by the fact that on the way to the Americas, the men all slept on deck. Why? Because the hammock was a Native American invention.
You can see all of Baiona’s primary attractions from the deck of the Pinta replica: the medieval fortress, a calm sand beach protected by the harbor, and restaurants serving the best shellfish we’ve ever had.
America, straight ahead! (Or, um, around that island.)
After a week of downtime in Baiona, we made our way to Lisbon, Portugal, so that Matt could attend an academic conference. But from the moment we crossed the Spanish border, it was clear that we’d entered a country we didn’t really understand. Shanty towns dot northern Portugal, and Lisbon is one of the dirtiest and run-down European capitals we’ve seen so far. Signs throughout the city warned us to keep an eye out for “professional bag thieves,” and we struggled mightily against aggressive line cutters while waiting for the historic sightseeing tram (Line 28).
Lisbon loves literature — and street art.
But if you can only visit one European city ever in your entire life, Lisbon likely offers the most bang for your buck. It’s a blend of everything: French-inspired pastries, Spanish/Moorish tile work, Austrian and Bavarian-esque palaces, Scandinavian-inspired art, Italian-caliber street performers, etc, etc. The city also borrows from the New World: there’s a bridge by the same architect who designed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and a replica of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue.
Lisbon is basically a blend of everywhere, with a gritty, sardine-soaked twist.
Lisbon’s Praca do Comerci is like Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace … with a crocodile.
This store is dedicated to selling tins of “birthday” sardines for every birth year. According to the sardine tins, the BRAIN computer virus was invented the year I was born, and ET was released the year Matt was born. Who knew?
Belem Tower. I got SO LOST trying to navigate the buses back from here that I ended up in a city notably north of Lisbon. Oops.
I had more time to explore the city than conference-committed Matt did, and my biggest adventure was a day trip to Sintra with Jane, an American friend who also followed her academic partner to Vienna. Sintra is a charming-but-tourist-choked medieval town with a crazy number of palaces concentrated in one place. The most famous is Pena Palace, a quirky mishmash of architectural elements; some sections date back to the 1400s, but others are as recent as the 1850s. It’s also supposedly one of the sites that inspired Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria.
Pena Palace from St. Catherine’s Heights.
More importantly, the day trip was a chance to spend some quality time with Jane. She and her partner, Trevor, were close friends to us in Vienna, and we probably wouldn’t have made it as long as we did in Austria without them. We stayed with them for two emotional days after moving out of our Vienna apartment, and it was good to have a chance to see them both again while on the road. Anyway, here’s Jane:
Jane! At Pena Palace!
Back to Lisbon, which is, frankly, a city that takes a little effort to love. But the moments when that effort paid off ultimately made for some of my favorite memories in Europe.
Sunset at the Lisbon harbor. What you don’t see: a crowd of people sitting on the concrete pier above the water, all of us watching together and listening to street musicians.
After Lisbon, we scuttled back to the beach, this time along Portugal’s southern coast. Our first destination in the Algarve was Praia da Luz, a pretty town with an ugly past: a decade ago, a British toddler went missing and prompted one of the largest international searches ever conducted. The little girl was never found, and Luz was never quite the same. (Property values are extraordinarily low; we saw listings for large villas for less than 300,000 euro, and our ocean-view AirBnB was absurdly cheap for high-season Europe.)
The view from our balcony.
The McCann case didn’t scare off the Brits entirely, though. A third of the town’s real estate is still owned by expats, and their cultural influence in Luz cannot be overstated. Local restaurants offer few shellfish or octopus dishes, though both are traditional specialties in the Algarve. Instead, British breakfasts are ubiquitous, and the best-rated restaurant in town serves Indian food. We overheard a Portuguese man complain when a British waitress didn’t understand him as he ordered, and that interaction more or less sums up our impression of life in Luz.
Luz’s “Sea Cliff Path.”
The tension between British expats and Portuguese locals in the Algarve became more apparent when we moved to Cabanas, a small town that the locals aren’t giving up without a fight. Portuguese families were waved onto the beach ferry boats ahead of foreign tourists, and I was chastised by a waitress for greeting her in English instead of in Portuguese.
Cabanas harbor. On the far side of the atoll is a sugar sand beach that stretches in either direction as far as the eye can see.
We tried not to take the slights personally, though. We saw how dramatically Luz has changed to accommodate British tourists, and we’re rooting for Cabanas to preserve its local flavor — even if that means a little discomfort for us.
This graffiti was in Lisbon, but it sums up our sense of Cabanas, too.
We spent two weeks on the beach and then began our final trek toward the Madrid airport, by way of southern Spain. All summer, Mediterranean Europe suffered under a heatwave nicknamed Lucifer, and the hellish temperatures finally caught up with us in Seville. The thermometer topped 105 degrees as we toured the Real Alcázar (one of the King of Spain’s official homes and the setting for Dorne in our beloved “Game of Thrones”) and fried my camera’s SD card. But Matt saved the day and took several photos with his phone, along with this video of the main hall:
Here are a few more photos that Matt took around the palace and grounds.
Though the heat melted my camera, it didn’t melt our enthusiasm for Seville: we ate an endless amount of tapas and drank red wines that rivaled French ones. But the real show-stopper of our visit was the Flamenco stage we found in the historic district. Casa de la Guitarra is a cultural center that puts on two small Flamenco performances every day. And by small, I mean the place can fit about fifty people, tops. The intimate stage makes for a really intense experience, and we both came out of the show totally blown away. Here’s the dancer we saw, though she was accompanied by a different singer and guitarist during our show:
Our time in Seville was definitely too short, but we had to hit the road to Granada for one final European mega-site: the Alhambra.
The Alhambra is a massive (and mysterious) medieval complex that includes three palaces, one fortress, multiple gardens, and a handful of posh hotels and restaurants. I could do an entire post on the nightmarish logistics of actually getting a ticket into this place, but I’ll spare you the details in favor of pretty photos instead:
ALL of the walls of the Nasrid Palace are carved with intricate geometric designs and Arabic poetry.
Stony lace is the only way to describe this.
The Generalife is an under-appreciated corner of the Alhambra complex, but I loved the water gardens of the “second palace.”
I think this is probably the best photo Matt has ever taken of me …
Here are more photos from our Alhambra visit.
Granada was also the best place to end our pilgrimage back to the States for a more personal reason. After Matt finished college (roughly the same year the medieval Alhambra was completed — just kidding!), he backpacked in Europe for a couple of months, and Granada was the last city he visited during that trip. He says at the time, he was pretty apprehensive about finding a career and a general sense of direction for himself. So together, we retraced his post-college steps back to a hostel in the Sacromonte neighborhood where he stayed during his previous trip. Outside of it, we stumbled upon a couple of hippie kids with a parrot. I then stumbled into a giant prickly-pear cactus.
Matt’s triumphant return to Rambutan Hostel.
Yes, the hippie kid asked us for money after taking this photo. And yes, we gave him some.
For Matt, our stop in Granada was a full-circle moment. This time around, he’s returning to the States with a well-defined career and a very clear path forward in life. As for me? Well, if nothing else, I know I’ll be busy plucking cactus prickers out of my shoulder for awhile …
From Granada we bused to Madrid, where we had one free day before our connection to Dublin and transatlantic to Chicago. We spent it at Hammam Al Andalus, a Moroccan-style bathhouse and spa.
We also finally found the one thing that eluded us our entire time in Austria: good Mexican food. One of the owners of the homey Mestizo is a Mexican expat who was really excited to chitchat with “fellow North Americans.” Her enthusiasm helped remind us of how excited we are to get back to a culture where we can interact with other people more easily and naturally than we ever really could in Vienna.
But then, finally, after so much time on the road, it came: our last day in Europe.
Our last sunrise as European residents.
This street art in Madrid felt like a nice goodbye card from Europe on our last day.
And of course, there was no better way to celebrate our last call in Europe than with a Guinness poured from a real, genuine Irish tap ( … in the Dublin airport). It’s been a long path home from Vienna, but we navigated it together, and I think the entire expat journey has made us stronger as individuals — and as a couple.
So with that, all that’s left to say is cheers! À la vôtre! Salud! Saúde!
And always, prost!