Backpacking Across Europe, 20 Years Past The Prime
The traditional age to trek across Europe with a backpack, a Eurail pass and loose itinerary is the early 20s, in that gap between the end of college and beginning of real life.
Having missed out on such youthful adventures, I decided to scratch the itch as a 42-year-old divorced guy with a 19-day journey through France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Sure, it would have been easy to join a tour bus group or go the antisocial route by staying alone in hotels, but I’d always been curious about the hostel experience, and wondered if I could pull it off a couple decades past my backpacking prime.
The blogs, books and articles I read in preparation for my spring trip suggested that I pack light, but make sure I had such essentials as a sturdy backpack, travel sheets, a quick-dry microfiber travel towel and a money belt.
My journey began in Paris, checking into a 10-bed coed dorm room at a clean, modern hostel in the off-the-beaten-path Crimee neighborhood. St. Christopher’s Inn has a hip social vibe. Its check-in desk leads into the spacious Belushi’s Bar, where post-sightseeing travelers gather in the evenings to grab a bite, catch up on Facebook and kick back a few Kronenbourgs.
Any concerns about traveling alone quickly subsided in this setting, which is the beauty of the hostel experience.
Vacationers in small groups often stay within their cliques, but those traveling alone are drawn to each other. And the age gap between me and nearly every traveler I met didn’t seem to matter.
I wound up taking a day off from visiting Paris’s touristy areas to spend a relaxing afternoon exploring Crimee. I had to relocate to the Le Montclair hostel in Paris’s artsy Montmartre neighborhood, where I met more new friends and settled into a nice mix of solo daytime sightseeing and nighttime socializing.
After four days in Paris, it was time to begin working on my trip’s secondary purpose, visiting some of Europe’s smaller towns from which my ancestors once hailed. It’s great walking the streets of Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin, but how many people get to stroll through the villages of Urcerey, France, and Stadtlauringen, Germany?
Such obscure destinations were going to require some train rides, so it was time to head to Paris’s Gare de L’est train station and activate my Eurail pass. The Select Pass I bought allowed 11 travel days within a two-month period within the borders of France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, which (excluding Germany) Eurail treats as one country; I was able to get a three-country pass rather than the more expensive five-country one.
Youths up to age 25 can get the same pass for $480 for second-class seating, but adults 26 and older must buy the more expensive first-class Eurail pass, currently priced at $736. It was a hefty budget item, but one that I willingly swallowed, since other than airfare and in-city metro and streetcar tickets, it would be my only other transportation expense. It turns out the pass saved me a little less than $200 off the cost of individual first-class tickets, but it earned its value with flexibility, as I often picked my next destination on the fly.
I learned another rail pass lesson on a leg from Belfort, France, to Wurzburg, Germany: Check your route.
The Belfort-Wurzburg trip made connections in Mulhouse, Bale and Frankfurt. I didn’t realize where Bale was until I got off the train and was greeted by a “Welcome to Switzerland” sign.
Switzerland wasn’t one of my Eurail pass countries, but the SNCF train conductor missed checking my ticket on the Mulhouse-Bale leg, so I was able to pay the Swiss Franc equivalent of a mere $1.50 for a partial ticket to cover the foul-up, a small price to pay to visit an extra country. Why yes, I have been to Switzerland.
The Eurail pass, which offers unlimited travel for each day in which it’s punched, allowed me to visit the European towns that appear throughout my genealogical tree and other cities that piqued interest.
Berlin provided the 19-day journey’s wildest night, making me feel 20 years younger before leaving me feeling 20 years older by morning.
After embarking on a custom-designed Berlin walking tour sketched out by The Circus hostel’s desk clerk, I returned after dinner to share a few patio beers with some fellow hostelers from Chicago. Staff at 10 p.m. abruptly folded up our tables and directed us down to Goldman’s Bar, a cool little basement hideaway that draws locals and travelers.
The details are sketchy in my memory, but the night featured great live music by Swiss indie rock group All Ship Shape, a near bar brawl over a spilled beer between a fedora-wearing guy from Poland and a group of Canadians and numerous shots of Goldschlager liqueur raised to a candle-lit shrine to actor David Hasselhoff.
Afterward, I found tranquility at the Jorplace hostel in Scheveningen near The Hague, a laid-back surfer’s retreat with an outdoor deck adorned with a colorfully painted Volkswagen van, hammocks and acoustic guitars. It was off-season, so I enjoyed a good night sleep as my six-bed dorm room’s sole resident before waking up early and strolling the beautiful North Sea beach.
Another highlight in the Netherlands was meeting up with friends from Rotterdam and jumping on their houseboat for a picturesque excursion through the woodsy Nationaal Park De Biesbosch. With no set destination, we wound up docking in Breda and unknowingly landed in the middle of the Breda Jazz Festival.
My plans had me on Day 19 flying out of Paris, so I decided that it would be fitting to end my European adventure where it began, at St. Christopher’s Inn hostel. After getting one last look at the City of Lights, I returned to Belushi’s Bar around 11 p.m. and planned to prepare for a day of travel before turning in early.
But my table quickly filled with new friends from Albany to Australia who were in the early stages of their journeys and ready to party. With the bar’s $4 Midnight Jager Train about to kick in, I bought a round of Jagermeister shots for our group and we raised our glasses to ending and embarking on excursions. After 19 days, it was clearly time to return to my 40s.