by Claire Palo (Creative Writing, ’17)
While studying abroad in Northern Ireland, at Queen’s University Belfast, I took the opportunity to travel to Portugal and Spain. During the seventh week of autumn semester, Queen’s University has a weeklong break called Reading Week. I knew that I wanted to do something fun during my break, so I decided to travel across Europe with my friend, Trianne. Traveling Portugal and Spain with Trianne was one of the best experiences of my life. We saw eight cities in eleven days, and we were constantly moving. By the end of the trip we were exhausted.
In Dublin, I toured a vast library and looked at the Book of Kells. In Porto, I visited a bookstore called Livraria Lello, which is where J. K. Rowling got her inspiration for the Hogwarts library. I also tried the national dish of Portugal—a mixture of sea food over potatoes in a huge pot. It was so delicious. In Lisbon, I shopped at a flea market, visited the Sao Jorge Castle overlooking the Tejo River, and got lost in the winding streets of the Alfama district. In Sintra, I walked through a garden and climbed a hill to Quinta da Regaleira, an enormous gothic estate that we couldn’t figure how to exit. In Lagos, I saw wild dolphins on a tiny boat in the Atlantic Ocean and walked along the cliffs overlooking the ocean and the sunset. In Seville, I took pictures of a million fountains and I got nervous trying to catch a train and no one spoke English. In Granada, my breath was taken away in the Alhambra, which is an Arabic fortress in the mountains. In Madrid, I walked through a stunning garden with statues and ponds full of fish. Of all the places I visited, Granada was my favorite. There was something magical about that place. A city built in the mountains the air seemed to always be foggy and mystical. I wanted to stay there forever and breathe in the history.
Not only did I have the opportunity to explore the beautiful cities of Portugal and Spain, but I became closer with Trianne. I did not know her very well before we left for our trip as we had only met in Belfast. Through the course of the travels we grew to be really good friends. As we were the only two on our trip, we talked constantly and began to figure out each other. We talked about family, politics, boyfriends, and religion, and we dove deep into each other’s personalities. By the end of the trip, Trianne was a different person to me, someone that I felt like I knew on a personal level, someone I liked for who she was.
Being college students, Trianne and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, and so we decided to stay in hostels for our entire trip. Neither Trianne nor I had ever stayed in a hostel before, and we didn’t know what to expect. I did extensive research before we set off to make sure that we were making the right decision. When we arrived at the hostels, I was surprised: they were really nice! Of course, some were better than others. Starting off the trip, I thought that I would prefer being in smaller rooms, but in reality I liked being a room with more people. It allowed me the opportunity to get to know more people. In some hostels there was an option for an exclusively female room, which I would recommend to any girls who are traveling alone, but since Trianne and I were together, it didn’t matter if we were in an all-female room or a mixed one: they both felt very safe. My tip for students wanting to stay in hostels while traveling is to do a lot of research before booking a hostel. There are good booking sites—such as hostelbookers.com— which have reviews of the hostels that includes ranking on cleanliness and safety. Always make sure that the hostel provides a locker, so that baggage can be locked up. 24-hour reception is also really nice, so that someone is always there. We had some problems in our hostels with hot water, but that was where our troubles ended. The hostels were clean and had mostly recent grad or college students who were traveling Europe.
One of the most difficult aspects of traveling was the transit. We took planes, buses, and trains, and there was also a lot of walking! Right when Trianne and I thought we had figured out how something worked, we were proved wrong. It was even harder when no one spoke English and our tickets were in Portuguese or Spanish. Somehow we always arrived at our destination. I’m still not sure how we managed it. There were a couple of times I wasn’t sure we were going to get on the right train or get off at the right stop. I learned for the experience, I didn’t have to be scared to ask for help, even if I didn’t speak the language. The staff was always helpful and either told of pointed me in the right direction.
When I hit my low point in the trip, I was able to talk to Trianne about it because she felt the same way. I remember we were having lunch in Lisbon, and neither one of us was saying much. I was feeling very weird about the whole trip. Already tired, I couldn’t imagine traveling for eight more days. When Trianne and I finally talked about it, we laughed as we admitted what we were both thinking: What have we done! We had hit the hard part of traveling: the part when we wanted to go back to Belfast. We pushed through it because we had each other to lean on and by our last day in Madrid, we didn’t want to leave. We wanted to travel Europe forever!
Trianne and I were so tired by the end of our trip, because we had been going nonstop since the beginning. We went to so many different cities in such a short amount of time that we hardly had time to explore the city we were in before we moved on to the next one. It was a great way to see a lot of things, and experience the different events of many cities, but I needed a vacation after our vacation! My advice for students who want to travel Europe is to allocate more time for each city; that way the is a chance to fully explore the city and not be worn down by traveling.
I would advise students who want to travel to just do it. Trianne had never been to Europe before studying abroad and I had only ever been with my family. I was a little scared before the trip, but I decided to do it and pretend I wasn’t nervous. I am so glad that I didn’t let my trepidation stop me from having a great experience. Not only did I have to opportunity to see and experience the culture of Portugal and Spain, but I made a life-long friend and gained confidence in myself. After traveling in Portugal and Spain, I feel like I can do anything!