Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
That's an epigram written by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849. In English, it means "The more it changes, the more it's the same thing." Or as you've probably heard, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
This struck me as I read the first page of the travel journal I kept when I backpacked through five countries in Western Europe in 2010 with my friend Kelsey. I can hardly believe it was that long ago.
I don't have a great memory; I'd written on the first page of my journal that on the plane I'd talked to a girl from Dublin—where we landed—but I have no recollection of that now. Then the last sentence on the page: "Nervousness about hostels, etc. is starting to subside into a 'whatever happens, happens' attitude." That sounded familiar, even nearly seven years later. I'm a planner and it sometimes takes me a moment to live in the moment.
This trip was significant for me for a few reasons. It was my first trip overseas and it's the longest I've been outside of Canada, one month. It would also be the first time in 16 years, when I returned home, that I wouldn't be heading back to school in September. It was an amazing experience. Here's a brief snapshot of what I loved about each country.
I wish we had visited more places in Ireland, but I liked Dublin because it reminded me of my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The people were warm, in contrast to the chilly, damp weather.
I loved sipping Guinness with a view of the city at the Guinness Storehouse. A shamrock was drawn into the foam on my beer, like latte art. Another highlight of the city was medieval Dublin with its striking historic architecture. Open, airy green spaces like St. Patrick's Park and St. Stephen's Green were beautiful, too.
I definitely favoured Bath over London. Bath is so romantic and picturesque. The town is known for its 18th-century Georgian architecture, but the iconic Roman Baths give it an ancient feel. The Bath Abbey amazed me, too—it's obvious how much religious devotion went into its construction.
The Royal Crescent and the Fashion Museum are also worth a visit. And Garfunkel's restaurant served an amazing mac and cheese for dinner (I don't think it's on the menu anymore, but go anyway!).
In London, we hit up some of the main tourist sights like Trafalgar Square, where a lively chaos buzzed, and Westminster Abbey, which was regal and impressive. I loved touring Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern art gallery. Admittedly, we only got a small taste of the city—you could probably never run out of things to do.
Paris was pretty much what I imagined it would be, beautiful and enchanting. Our first hostel was in the 18th Arrondissement, where the round-domed Sacre Coeur basilica reaches to the sky. At the time we were in Paris I didn't know this, but there's also an African market called the marche Barbes in the same arrondissement that I would have loved to have browsed.
Of course, we visited the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum, which both lived up to the hype. We got to see the tower lit up and sparkling at night—it was spectacular. And I think I could have wandered the Louvre for days.
We actually went to Nice after we travelled through Spain, but I'll stick with France here. Nice exuded French Riviera glamour, but it also had a relaxed small city feel that I loved. Walking the Promenade des Anglais we admired the beach with its green-blue seawater like nothing I'd seen before.
Vieux Nice (the Old Town) is charming and bright, its streets lined with restaurants, boutiques and markets. The Castle Hill viewpoint was stunning, and the Russian Orthodox cathedral that pops out of the landscape is another must-see. It's the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe.
Oh yeah, and we ate many, many baguettes in France.
Madrid felt much less touristy after being in London and Paris, which was a welcome change. We loved the Mercado San Miguel (above right) where we stopped for lunch a few times. My favourite meal was a spinach empanada with frozen yogurt and sangria.
This was our first hot destination after two weeks of somewhat crappy weather in Ireland, England and Paris, so we made the most of it and walked around outdoors in the Royal Botanical Garden (which has over 30,000 plants) and the Plaza Mayor. The Royal Palace and Catedral de la Almudena are two other striking sights.
Barcelona was my favourite city of the trip. It felt so energized. Our hostel, the Mellow Eco-Hostel, was far from the city centre but was clean and had gorgeous views. And there was so much to see...
I had never heard of the architect Antoni Gaudi until I visited Barcelona, but I was astounded when I saw his Sagrada Familia, a massive Roman Catholic basilica that has been in construction since 1882. The estimated completion date is 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. We saw other Gaudi architecture, too, in Parc Guell (above) and on a walking tour that included his Casa Batllo.
Other things I loved about Barcelona were the Mercat Boqueria with its delicious food, the city's Gothic area with musicians that played on the streets, La Rambla (a pedestrian street, super fun albeit crowded) and of course the beach. We also saw a flamenco show that was fantastic.
Italy was the first country where we didn't share accommodations. The first place we stayed (Villa Dori) in the Venice countryside was unexpectedly wonderful. We had my favourite breakfast of the trip there in this beautiful cellar room—a huge spread with pancakes, crepes, eggs, meat, cheese, yogurt, fruit and orange juice. We also loved the "wildlife" on the hotel grounds—frogs, lizards, owls and roosters.
I've heard some bad reviews of Venice, but personally I was amazed by its character and charm. Walking the streets around the Grand Canal we saw gondoliers, churches, shops with delicious looking pizza and pasta in the windows...and gelato. I had never had gelato before I went to Italy and it was incredible. The grand, ornate Saint Mark's Basilica in Saint Mark's Square is also must-see.
While some cities like Rome reflect a collision of ancient times and modernity, Florence did not feel like one of those cities. It was more like a living museum. Il Duomo was one of the biggest churches we saw on the trip. The exterior was impressive, but the interior seemed bare for the cathedral's size.
The Piazza della Signoria, Florence's main square, was bustling with activity and offered lots to see. From there we crossed the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge lined with jewellery shops that has a lovely view, and made our way to the Palazzo Pitti, a sprawling palace and museum with beautiful gardens.
I loved walking the palace's vast Biboli Gardens. It was one of the first times in weeks that there weren't many people around, and I relished the space. The views were breathtaking, too.
Rome was the perfect place to end our journey. The city is an amazing whirlwind of contrasts, most notably of old and new. I had wanted to go there and see the Colosseum for what felt like forever, and it was a surreal experience. The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre ever built. Nerds like me will appreciate this history of the iconic landmark.
We saw more ruins at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill where I was still in awe, then visited the Pantheon (apparently Rome's best preserved monument), and saw the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. Anyone with an interest in history, art or architecture would be in heaven here.
Once we'd checked the tourist must-sees off our list we went to Trastevere, a gorgeous area in the west of Rome across the Tevere River. As we walked around I noticed the brown leaves on the ground and couldn't believe we'd been travelling for a month and that it was almost fall. I was ready to go home, but in that moment in that peaceful neighbourhood I didn't want to leave.
We stepped inside the Basilica di Santa Maria, a church with a gold ceiling that was my favourite church we'd seen on the trip. I also had my favourite meal of the trip in Trastevere—gnocchi with mussels at Trattoria Carlo Menta.
The next day was our last day of the trip, and we visited Vatican City (technically the smallest country in the world) and toured Saint Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Like the Bath Abbey (but more so), the devotion in the creation of these iconic places is evident.
On the last page of my journal: "Wow, time goes by really fast." I am aware of this every day. As much as possible (and I firmly believe it's more possible than our practical minds can understand), life should be spent doing what we love, whatever that is that makes us feel alive.