In our first big European road trip this spring we weaved around the south of Europe, avoiding the highways in favour of the more hidden spots off the beaten track. Before we hit the road again, heading further north this time, we thought it would be a good idea to think back a couple of months and overview our first road trip in Europe. After all what’s the point in travelling to amazing places if you don’t look back on the memories (as well as the lessons learned). Maybe it can also be a bit of help to others planning their own trips too, because as we found out with so many options and ideas it can be pretty hard to know exactly where to start. The best thing was just to have a broad plan and let the rest just fall together on the road!
Over around 80 days we travelled over 18,000km through 15 different countries. We recorded each step of our journey as we travelled in the 8 blog posts below. It was an epic journey for us and hopefully our memories inscribed in these blogs are helpful inspiration for others.
After spending 3 months in the French Alps for the winter we were very happy to get on the road and start our travels (doing a winter season in a foreign language was a bit of a struggle for a few reasons, maybe I’ll write a blog on it one day, but then again maybe not). We knew we had nearly 3 months before we needed to be back in Dordogne for the summer, and we knew we wanted to see as much as we possibly could in that time, so after taking a couple of days to breathe we got straight on the road!
The initial idea was to head to the north of Spain and loop around anti-clockwise through Portugal and the south of Spain, but with rain in the northern forecasts and sun in the south we immediately reversed our plan. The best thing about having nothing booked an nothing set in stone was that we could adapt everything; stay longer in some places if we loved them, skim over others that turned out not to be our favourites and follow the best weather (effectively making our own luck in this way).
Having said that though we did have quite a few potential spots to explore marked on a map and a potential route drawn on top of it. While we were working in the Alps, if we ever saw something that looked interesting or beautiful on the internet or Instagram or other people’s blogs we would add it to the map. Then once we were on the road we added some flags of things that looked cool in the area we were in. By the end of the trip it looked something like this;
As we came into an area we would refer back to the map, see what we had added and see if we still wanted to check those things out, then we would have a look for other things in the area we had not already marked to make sure we didn’t miss anything we really wanted to see. It is impossible to see everything and do a trip like we did, but we sure did our best! One good thing about something like this is it gave us a broad idea of each of the places we went through. We know which areas we are going to be rushing back to for some more exploring, but also the places we are comfortable saying a return trip is not a priority. It’s a different type of travel than what many people do, but for us it was perfect.
I arrived in France with an empty bank account and next to nothing to my name, but with a job set up to start as soon as we arrived I was thinking ‘she’ll be right’. And sure enough it was. Just three months of work was able to fund our entire journey; accommodation, food, petrol, tourist attractions, several ferry trips, and everything else on top. How did we budget it? We looked at the amount of money we had earned and divided it by the number of days we had to travel, and with a (little) bit of willpower we managed to stick to it.
Our budget for two people was 60€ per day and it really could have been a lot smaller (we ate out a lot…). If you’re interested or trying to budget your own travels here’s a bit of a breakdown that Splitwise kindly put together for us (if your not interested skip this section, it’s boring);
- Our biggest expense was food, and it really didn’t need to be, but with moving around like we did the convenience of quick, tasty, local food was pretty appealing (as were a few beers and local wines here and there). I’m not going to break it down because it was too much… Roughly double what we spent on accommodation… But no regrets, we made a fair few tasty memories! 🤣
- On average we spent less than 15€ per day on accommodation for the both of us, some days we spent nothing (free camping or sleeping in the car) and on other nights we splashed out a little, but on average it ended up pretty good! AirBnB ended up being surprisingly amazing with really cheap options last minute. We also got to stay with the locals which was a great experience.
- Diesel cost us on average 12€ per day. The cheapest by far was Andorra where they have next to no taxes (as well as a little hidden petrol station between the border crossings of Greece and Albania which also was tax free). The order of cheapest to most expensive diesel in the main countries we passed through was; Bosnia & Herzegovina, Spain, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Albania, Portugal, France, Switzerland and the most expensive being Italy.
- With most of our activities consisting of hiking, swimming and wandering around historic towns our budget was very small for tourist attractions. In the end we only spent around 5€ per day on entrance fees and other attractions. I can honestly say I don’t think we missed out on anything by not spending a whole lot of money on these things, we very quickly learned to pick and choose a vast variation of things (and not pay for things where you could see the entire attraction from the road).
- We didn’t buy any souvenirs despite them being sold around every corner. After all the French word ‘souvenir’ means memory, and the best kind of souvenirs are the memories aren’t they?
- Big extra expenses included the ferries we took between Italy and Greece and to and from Santorini (around 150€ for the both of us on each ferry) and some pretty crazy road tolls. Don’t take toll roads if you can avoid it (you generally can), especially not in Spain and France… It was only worth it in the Balkans where the tunnels through the mountainous areas can cut out a lot of time and tricky turns (they are also pretty cheap, and hidden so you don’t really have a choice anyway).
I was incredibly surprised how far our three months income could go, and we could have definitely done it a lot cheaper. A huge perk of seasonal work is that it often comes with accommodation included or at a very cheap cost (some jobs in restaurants even had food included too). That made it pretty easy for us to save enough for our travels in spring. We would definitely recommend this style of income for travellers (just maybe in a country where you speak the language would be good).
The whole trip was one incredible experience for sure. We saw so much in such a short period of time and definitely have a few places we will rush back to when we have another opportunity. It’s hard to choose top spots from all of the places we have been as everything has it’s own unique beauty that is hard to compare. But there are definitely a few places that have stuck in our head that we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
The whole country amazed us. It is a place that doesn’t seem to be top on people’s travel list and I have absolutely no idea why. The nature is beautiful, the lakes picturesque and even the cities feel a bit off the beaten track. Triglav National Park, Lake Bohinj and Soca Valley are all places we would love to head back to explore some more, and the memory of the magnificent Skocjan Cave is something we will never forget. Just the glimpse we saw this time around has definitely made us want to come back for a much longer period and see all the spots we didn’t have time for on this journey.
Greece (Peloponnese Peninsula)
Many people make their way over to Greece and straight away head off to the Greek Islands, maybe after a quick stop in Athens. But there is so much more to see, in particular in the Peloponnese. The large peninsula is now technically an island with the Cornith Canal in the north-west separating it from the mainland. The landscape is beautiful with mountains, ruins, waterfalls and beautiful coasts with stunning hidden beaches. It is an area well off the beaten track which makes it all the more spectacular. Places you would expect to find packed with tourists were quiet and tranquil, and in some areas you could drive long distances without seeing another car (it felt very similar to New Zealand in many ways such as this).
Northern Greece is also an incredibly beautiful area, and with several ski resorts as well which you don’t really think about existing in Greece. We would love to explore some more around the north and further towards the west as well. Greece in general was also a country filled with lovely people. We really felt for them with the financial struggles they are going through as a nation.
Picos de Europa National Park, Spain
This national park in the north of Spain was incredible with amazing hikes around the mountains, we would love to do more! Even just driving through the roads are beautiful, with mountains, cliffs, animals and small villages spotted throughout.
Dolomites, Northern Italy
Another incredible hiking area we would have loved to have spent more time in. The rocky mountains shooting up from the ground were an amazing sight to see. There were so many places to hike and explore but with it being the end of the trip we only got a sneak peak. It has definitely left us excited to get back one day soon.
I don’t think there is anything we would have changed about our trip. We used the time we had to do as much as we could, and obviously we are always going to feel like more time and more places would be ideal, but I think we did pretty well with what we had. The only real difficulties we had was with the heat (I don’t know how anybody could cope travelling like this around these areas in summer) and with Italian roads (but we survived, so all good).
One thing that had a huge impact on us was how over time humans have changed the environment around us. Over history we have done some incredible things. The fact that with very little technology humans were able to build huge structures that have lasted several millennia is quite incomprehensible. We wonder how many of the structures built today with current technologies would be able to survive that long. However, the impacts we have made on our environment have not all been positive ones. In particular the vast amount of litter covering the beaches, towns and even isolated streets was very shocking to see. In some places it appeared as though the piles of trash had just been growing for decades. With plastic taking centuries to biodegrade those piles aren’t going away anytime soon, and instead will just continue to grow. It has definitely encouraged us to do a little bit of research and find ways to help change the situation, so I thought why not share a little seeing as though ‘spreading the word’ is one of those things we can all do.
There are many ways to take the same photo, what you see isn’t always what you get…
The “first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured” was published in July 2017 and estimates that only 9% of the plastic we have produced has been recycled, and that 79% has ended up in landfills or the natural environment (you can find the article here). Since around 1950 the use of plastics has increased exponentially, but plastic recycling has lagged behind. Perhaps an instance where technology and research has been moving too fast for the world to keep up. Although recycling is the best thing we have so far it is also not perfect. Recycled plastic is of a lower quality than it’s original form and therefore with current technologies a plastic bottle cannot be recycled back into a plastic bottle and instead be used to create secondary materials for more industrial uses. Plastic recycling then effectively delays it’s disposal into the environment rather than eliminates it. There are some great initiatives starting up to reduce and reuse waste of all types, not just plastics, but it seems as though the speed of these changes is lagging behind our production.
After this trip we have definitely become a lot more conscious about how we contribute to the environment. We have made an effort to make changes in our own lives to reduce our environmental impact, but it is crazy how difficult we have found this. The amount of single use plastic packaging is the supermarket is mind boggling. One example being tea, where tea bags might be in a cardboard box, but most of the time that cardboard box is covered in a plastic wrapping and often each tea bag is individually wrapped in plastic. It’s the same with biscuits, muesli bars, cereal, drinks, soap, it just goes on forever. Even fruit and vegetables can be difficult with sometimes the only option of spinach or lettuce will be in plastic packaging, or if there is another option with less packaging often it is more expensive. It feels like our options have been greatly reduced by trying to help. It should not be this hard… We don’t need our oranges individually shrink wrapped, so why is this presented to us?
However, although it is hard, just opening our eyes to the fact that everything we purchase has an impact on the environment in some way has led us to change the way we act and utilise our purchasing power. Buying local products, choosing items with the least packaging, reducing the amount of meat we eat and being selective about where we shop. It all has some kind of impact. A lot of change does need to happen at industrial and governmental levels, but in the end industries and governments are always going to follow what the people want. So if we all tried our best to make environmentally and ethically conscious decisions, that will end up being what is provided for everybody. We can’t do everything, but we can do something and that is worth a whole lot more than nothing.
Keeping Carbon Neutral (or at least doing our best)
We acknowledge that travel by nature is not the best activity from an environmental perspective. Road tripping is an amazing way to explore hidden places off the beaten track and see things that are inaccessible by public transport, but unfortunately it does have a higher environmental cost. We do our best to reduce our carbon footprint in every way we can, but a passion to explore the world comes at a cost.
The only true way to reduce your carbon footprint is to reduce your CO2 production. There are many companies that advertise carbon offsets, the idea being you donate to a company that caries out carbon positive activities such as planting trees or funding environmentally friendly projects and in effect by doing this you supposedly negate your carbon footprint. We knew that this was a controversial idea, however weren’t fully aware of how controversial before reading this article (highly recommend a read). Basically it describes how some companies claiming to offset your carbon production can be inefficient, ineffective and in some cases have an overall negative impact. The honest truth is there is no way to negate a carbon footprint you have already created, and by far the best thing to do is to change your actions as to minimise your carbon impact. Having said that though, there are projects you can donate to that will have a carbon positive effect and therefore while not cancelling out your own footprint can help reduce our carbon footprints globally in the future.
Certified projects you can donate to that aim to reduce carbon emissions can be found at thegoldstandard.org and the United Nations also have a carbon offset platform. It’s pretty impossible to know the best places to donate, and it may not be perfect, but at least by choosing a project listed on these websites you have a better chance that your money will go as far as it can toward helping the environment. We chose to make a contribution to renewable energy by donating to a project building wind turbines. By no means does this make us carbon neutral, but at least it is something. The most important thing though is the changes we are making now, but this blog has already become far more environmentally orientated than planned so I’m going to stop there (I clearly have too much to say, so maybe there is another blog coming about it another day).
The Next Steps
We have just spent the last two and a half summer months in Dordogne, France working as ‘kayak rental-ers’, spending time with our French family and refilling the savings for whatever comes next. We are soon heading off on European road trip number two, going further north this time, with a little less time and much less planning. But before we hit the road we have a couple of smaller trips on the radar, the next blog on canyoning and climbing in the Sierra de Guara is already underway!
We have until mid-November until my European visa expires so there is still a bit of time to play around with. But when we head back to New Zealand we have a lot more exploring to do there too! We have the travel bug, and that’s not going away any time soon…