Doctors in Paris (Oct. 22-26)

The gardens at Versailles

The gardens at Versailles

I had originally scheduled a Megabus out of London for a Tuesday, but come 1am in the early hours of my departure date and I start puking for hours.

Of course being sick with a cough and sore throat and indecisive snot and exhaustion wasn’t enough – I had to get food poisoning. I think I woke up the whole house with my dry heaving and at that point I realized there was no way I’d be getting up at 8 in the morning. Apparently my flatmate Connie came down to try to wake me, thinking I’d accidentally slept through my bus, and couldn’t get me up shaking my leg and calling my name.

Paris's famous "Love Lock" Bridge

Paris’s famous “Love Lock” Bridge

I spent the whole day in my sleeping bag, not eating but also somehow enjoying my sick day because it meant I got to spend another day with my flat – if any of you are reading this, thanks for the vitamin water and plethora of donated medicine.

I managed to get out of bed Wednesday morning and catch my bus to Paris and eventually to an airbnb I would be sharing with Josh and Jess, two Australian friends whom I’d met in Greece and met up with again in Croatia.

After a couple of hours chilling in the apartment, the three of us went to meet up for falafels with my English friend Lily who I’d met over the summer. It was surprising to see a falafel pita at such a steep price – €8 – but the place was really good and I couldn’t finish the falafel due to my still-weak stomach. The dinner was enough of an event for me after a long day of travel and after days of being sick, so we called it a night early.

Jess and me on the Seine

Jess and me on the Seine

The next day started out lazy, as I needed a lot of sleep those days. We all watched our respective television series – me catching the new episode of American Horror Story not too long after airing back home. We finally made it out of the apartment in the early afternoon to do some sightseeing. We walked to the Pont de l’Archevêché (the love lock bridge) and along the Seine for a while before heading to grab macarons at Laduree, at which point the walking had gotten to me and I needed to head home and sleep. My exhaustion was getting worse by the day, which is always a drag when you want to take advantage of the city you’re in.

After hours of napping and rest, Josh and Jess came home with a baguette and some cheese for dinner. I still couldn’t eat very much but knew I’d need something in my stomach since we were going to meet up with Lily to go to my favorite bar in the world, Chez Georges, which is a cool enough joint for me to write a separate post about it.

Chez Georges wine bar - my favorite bar in the world!

Chez Georges wine bar – my favorite bar in the world!

Josh and Jess were supposed to leave for Barcelona the next day, Friday, and I was going to store my bag in the train station until I could bring it to a friend from Northwestern’s apartment. We exhaustedly made our way to the train station (we had stayed out until probably 3am and had to check out before 10) and waited for nearly an hour at the ticket counter, where all tickets to Barcelona were sold out until the next day. We spent another hour in the train station trying to find accommodation for the night and then made our way to a cheap hotel to drop off our stuff.

At this point, I had started to feel so sick and exhausted (our night at Chez Georges definitely did not help) that I decided that I needed to see a doctor. We spent an hour and a half waiting in a walk-in clinic to hear what I already knew: “you need to be on antibiotics.” Of course I can’t just walk to the store and pick those up without a prescription, which my dad usually writes for colds and the like, and my dad couldn’t write one for Europe. Ironically, the last time I was in Paris, I had to go to a doctor and ended up with antibiotics.

Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore

Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore

I don’t know if it’s medically possible, but I started to feel a little better not even an hour after taking my first pill. Since we had spent most of our day trying to fix unfortunate problems, we decided to take a visit to Shakespeare and Co., the famous English bookstore that’s original location’s patrons once included Hemingway and Joyce. I had also watched Before Sunset on the bus over, where the shop was also featured. I bought a book (On the Road), which they stamped with their famous emblem, and we sat down for crepes afterwards. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to get crepes without getting a savory and a sweet one – I opted for smoked salmon and finished with Nutella banana. Because it was late, I ended up staying in the hotel instead of taking my things over to my friend’s.

Josh and Jess left early the next day and I went to visit Versailles, the old Chateau and gardens of French royalty, including Marie Antoinette. It was a nice morning surrounded by annoying tourists who don’t know how to walk without stopping in front of you, something I hadn’t really done in a while. I enjoyed exploring the area and even ran into a girl who I recognized as a Northwestern student.

Gardens of Versailles

Gardens of Versailles

After Versailles, I met up with my friend Kelley who I’d be staying with for the night in Montmartre. We grabbed coffee at her favorite café and explored the area before grabbing bread, cheese and wine for dinner. She roasted up some veggies she had in her fridge to complement.

Later we would out for her coworker’s birthday at a bar, where I met a large group of international people living in Paris. I couldn’t help but think how much I would like this to one day be me – a foreigner living in Europe, an expat, part of an international community. The real question is how I’m going to get that visa (marriage please?).

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

Advertisements

How Traveling Changed My Life

Motto

Trying to write about the end of this four-month journey in the Istanbul airport and subsequent flight to Chicago is a little awkward, because whenever I think about what this trip has meant to me I get pretty emotional.

Irish West Coast

Irish West Coast

I came to Europe with only two companions, an orange synthetic rolling bag and a small backpack, also orange but a clashing shade. I left the rest of my baggage at home. I remember sitting on the plane out of New York, scared of being lonely but obviously very excited – the lack of any real plans or timeframe was exhilarating, nerve-wracking and somewhat comforting at the same time.

What would follow would be four months of adventure, nights out and days in, romance, reunions, excruciating bus journeys, unpleasant sleeping situations, homey hostels, new cultures and most importantly, new friends. Friends from Australia and Germany and the UK and America and Austria, Ireland, Spain, France, Bulgaria, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, India, Japan, Poland, Canada, the Czech Republic and definitely more. Friends who taught me about their cultures, their education systems, their politics – whether air conditioning is common in their countries. Groups who let me tag along for dinner five minutes after meeting and two drinks in felt like old friends. A couple that could have had a romantic vacation in Greece but instead chose to spend a week in an 8-bed dorm with me. Friends who would meet up with me in four more countries or spend weeks with me in one. Friends who taught me that I don’t need much time to feel close to someone. Although I traveled mostly alone, I was never lonely, and I can’t thank every individual I’ve met enough for that.

Traveling is all about the people you meet.

Traveling is all about the people you meet.

Though the people I’ve met have really been the best part of this trip, traveling also gave me a crucial realization about life: you never know what tomorrow could look like.

I think it’s important that I said “could” there, because you likely know what tomorrow will probably look like if you’re caught in the day to day of normal life. But hopping from country to country alone, knowing I’d have to make new friends and learn phrases in a new language and having no idea what my hostel or the city would look like – that lack of control – weirdly made me realize the kind of maximum authority I can have over my life.

What was at first an impromptu decision to rent a car ended up in one of the great adventures of my trip.

What was at first an impromptu decision to rent a car ended up in one of the great adventures of my trip.

If I didn’t like the people I met, I could meet new ones. If I hated the city, I could get a bus out (though that never happened); if I loved the city, I could skip my train and stay for a week (my bank account hates me for that one… ok those three ones…). I never had to be stuck in situations I didn’t like, and I could stretch my plans to fit ones I did. I had a control and freedom that I had not experienced in the last 16 years of school and camps and internships and jobs and stringent, mandated routine.

In turn, this taught me that there is no right narrative for my life either. I don’t know where I will be in a year and a year ago I didn’t know where I’d be now. That lack of control and foresight in life is just the same as in traveling. Maybe I’ll find the job of my dreams in Washington and love it so much that I want to stay and make it to work every day and settle back into routine, hopefully getting to travel sometimes still and have a good work life balance. Or maybe I’ll move there and not find what I’m looking for. But then I’ll do something else. I’ve been taught for so long that I had to finish university and go right into my career and do it forever and ever and it better be an impressive one that would make me look smart and interesting and earn me lots of money. But now I realize that I’m not going to accept any life narrative that doesn’t bring me happiness. I think that’s a much better measure of success.

Creating our own party on our Sail Croatia trip

Creating our own party on our Sail Croatia trip

(An aside – I am very privileged to be able to say that, but I think it’s as much of a universal lesson as I can speak to after romping around the world for four months.)

I could go on and on about the things I’ve learned traveling – the incredible cultures, which countries you can cross the street on red without being an obvious tourist, how to travel cheaply, how to make friends like a pro, how to make decisions in a group, how to document my travels (both for myself and publicly), how to cook for a bunch of people with different preferences and fall asleep literally anywhere and know when I need to take a break, how to get someone to stop snoring (cough really loudly until it partially wakes them up and rush to fall asleep before they do) and a hundred thousand other things I could rattle off.

Reuniting with old friends is one of the best parts of traveling.

Reuniting with old friends is one of the best parts of traveling.

More than anything, though, I’ve learned so much about who I am. These last four months, I’ve felt the depths of human connection in short microcosms of friendships with strangers. I’ve talked about my country’s reputation in the world and learned how I am an ambassador of that at all times. I’ve felt happiness like I have never felt before, and I’ve gained so much confidence in so many aspects of myself. Being the only constant in my travels, I’ve become my own best friend and learned to love myself without exception.

Breaking the rules and into an abandoned theme park in Berlin.

Breaking the rules and into an abandoned theme park in Berlin.

I think the one last thing I want to say about my travels is about why I blog about them. First of all, I’ve still got quite a bit to post after this one (almost a month’s worth, most of which is already written), but it was important to me that this one was actually timely. I think in some ways could look like a self-indulgent form of a personal journal, but I really do write these things for myself. The other reason is that it’s strange doing so much, going so many places and experiencing so many emotions and having no constant person to share them with, so blogging has become my outlet for that.

If you’ve read just one post, made fun of my cheesy outlook on literally everything or even just looked at my pictures, thank you so much for letting me share a piece of this experience with you. If not, I’m going to be looking at this until I’m dead anyway and happy that I’ve got it all at my fingertips. This has really been the time of my life.

And after it all, I'll never be the same.

And after it all, I’ll never be the same.

London: Home Away From Home (Oct. 7-22)

The house in Forest Hill

The house in Forest Hill

My third and final trip to London would be by far my favorite. I would see my old flat (C6) from study abroad together for the first time in two years, although I had seen most of them at some point in the summer in visits to their homes or at the house in London. I’d be spending nearly two weeks with them, and those were two weeks at home.

Family breakfast

Family breakfast

At the house in Forest Hill, I have my own key. Fixing an extra cup of tea for me was automatic. We would clean together, cook together – spend pretty much all of our time together drinking tea and chatting and watching television on someone’s computer. I rarely left the house, which was a welcome break from the constant movement of traveling.

Nothing beats that feeling of not seeing someone for a long time but picking up like no time has passed at all. We could talk about anything, be weird around each other. We could cuddle watching TV, chat nonstop or sit in silence without it being weird. When one of us went to the store, everyone else would shout requests, knowing the others would return the favor. “Bring us some munchies,” was regularly shouted before the front door shut.

I cooked a full English for the house

I cooked a full English for the house

We were all quite sick by my second week in the house, and when I got sick later than everyone else, my flatmates would give me their medicine. I got food poisoning before heading to Paris, and my flatmate Boyan brought me vitamin water. When my flatmate Connie left for the weekend to go back to Portugal, she gave me her room (I had been sleeping on a futon in the living room).

Hanging out in the living room (AKA my room)

Hanging out in the living room (AKA my room)

The house was and remains a magical place. It’s not even a sense of welcoming in C6 – to be welcome is to be a guest. I was not a guest – I was home. It was so much my home that when I got back from a two-night trip to Brighton on the coast, Connie welcomed me with “it was weird not having you here.” The sense of belonging I feel with these friends is one of the most beautiful things about my life travels. I consider my flatmates family, and the only thing that makes saying goodbye to them okay is knowing that I will see them again soon, somewhere and sometime unknown.

From our Christmas dinner in 2012

From our Christmas dinner in 2012

Shaunagh and I met up with some friends from Sail Croatia for a night out in West London

Shaunagh and I met up with some friends from Sail Croatia for a night out in West London

Brighton Pier

Brighton Pier

Met up with some girls I met in Budapest at their university in Brighton for a couple of nights

Met up with some girls I met in Budapest at their university in Brighton for a couple of nights

Croatia: Zagreb (Oct. 5-7)

We drove from Plitvice to a nearby village called Rastoke, which is known for its mills and waterfalls – many of the homes and stores there are built on top of the water. We were pretty hungry by this time since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we grabbed pizza and lasagna from a restaurant there. We then set out to make the final two-hour stretch to Zagreb.

Getting to Zagreb from Split was pretty easy – signs mark the entire way there. Finding the airbnb apartment we had rented, however, was no easy feat. Once in the city, we had to turn the data on my phone to use the maps. After a series of one-way streets and maybe ten turns, Stuart was driving behind a tram on the road when the road ended and we were driving on gravel.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,” I said. I wasn’t paying attention before and had no idea how we ended up on the gravel. I shortly realized we were driving on the train tracks.

“Oh my god. Oh my god what are we doing?”

“Brennan – it’s okay,” Shaunagh said, realizing I was probably not making things any better.

Another tram drove past us, the driver looking shocked at our presence, and we noticed a platform of leering passengers waiting for the tram shortly ahead to our right. Stuart tried to pull up over the median, but our wheel got stuck, which made the situation increasingly tense. None of us said anything. After finally pulling off the high curb, Stuart drove forward on the tracks until we reached the grassy part of the median, where we were finally able to get over and back onto the road and off the tracks.

Most of us burst into laughter the minute we got onto the road.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

We arrived at our airbnb quite late, realizing it was not as close to the city center as we originally thought. We were pretty tired from the long day, so we weren’t up long before going to sleep.

The next morning, the four of us headed into the city center of Zagreb for lunch, eating at a fantastic restaurant called Mundoaka Streetfood. I had a cappuccino while I waited for their sandwich specialty (it was incredible) and ended up having two desserts, a carrot cake muffin and a poppy seed and pear tart, because the food was so good. I would return by myself the next afternoon before my flight to London.

After lunch, we met up with some friends I met in Ios, Australians named Josh and Jess, who had come from Split the day before as well, also stopping at Plitvice. I would later meet up with them in more cities, making them some of the main traveling companions of my trip. One of Shaunagh’s companions had been working in a hostel in Zagreb and met us after lunch as well, taking us around the city center and to Dolac Market, where I got six clementines for less than 50 cents.

IMG_9740

After wandering the city, the entire group went to the grocery store so we could have a rare home cooked meal when we got back to the apartment. I would be making sweet chili stir fry, although they didn’t have a lot of my typical ingredients. We bought chicken, corn, three kinds of peppers, onion and zucchini as well as some cheese, olives, biscuits and wine to snack on.

Back at the apartment, we started sipping wine and I started cooking the vegetables. When they were done, I pulled a large, cone-shaped mixing bowl out of the cupboard, criticizing the pointed design of the bowl that could not stand up straight. Why on earth did they think it was a good idea to design a bowl like this? I had to put the pointed bottom in a mug to keep it upright, and it wasn’t until after I’d put the sauced-up vegetables in the bowl that one of my friends pointed up at the ceiling.

“That bowl looks a lot like those light fixtures…”

(LOL)

Our guests left shortly after dinner (which was great), and my three companions planned their next stop, a trip to Lake Bled in Slovenia. I already had a flight booked to London the next day, and there was nothing I could do to change it. I was pretty jealous that they would have two more nights together, and it confirmed one of the great lessons of solo traveling – plan as little as possible whenever possible.

Croatia: Plitvice Lakes National Park (Oct. 5)

Mid-sized waterfall at Plitvice Lakes

Mid-sized waterfall at Plitvice Lakes

After Sail Croatia ended, six of our group booked a hostel together for one last night in Split. I met up with two of my Australian friends, Jess and Josh, for coffee and wifi, as I’d gone a week without reliable connection to the real world, and then headed back to the hostel to meet back up with the group.

While we spent most of the day napping and relaxing after the long week, we did go out to eat at a highly recommended restaurant called Fife with cheap seafood. The black cuttlefish risotto (which Shaunagh made fun of my American pronunciation of) and the fried squid rings were highlights of the meal.

Shaunagh and me

Shaunagh and me

We went to bed early that night and the next morning, four of us said goodbye to the others and picked up a car we had hired for the day and night for only €50 between the four of us. Stuart, an Australian who had never driven on the right side of the road (but knew how to drive a stick and had his license on him) would be driving for the day.

After a 30 minute struggle with the Bluetooth, we were finally able to connect my phone to the music and turned up the tunes. Our plan was to drive to Zagreb, making an extended stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Plitvice Lakes National Park and the “Old Mill Village” Rastoke.

The group

The group

Without getting lost (seriously), we drove out of Croatia’s coastal sun and into a grey fog that hanged over the country that sat past the mountains separating the coast from the mainland. The difference in the weather was stark and surprised us after driving through a long tunnel under the mountains. I was not aware of it at the time, but the tunnel marked my goodbye to summer and greeted me with autumn at its end.

Starting out the hike at Plitvice Lakes

Starting out the hike at Plitvice Lakes

Under the melancholy sky, we arrived at the Plitvice lakes around 12:45, donning sweaters, jackets and jeans for the first time in weeks (I’ve since worn my one pair of jeans every day). We bought tickets that were never checked and made our way into the park, not fully prepared for the stunning landscape we would be exploring for the next four hours.

To truly describe the lakes would be impossible; photos and words will never capture the feeling of being there. We were maybe 20 minutes in when we came to the consensus that it was the most beautiful place we had ever been. Waterfalls were everywhere you turned. The lakes range from small to large and are arranged in cascades, making them spill over into one another from dozens of angles. There’s a wooden log trail/bridge spanning throughout the entire park, somehow seamlessly integrated into the park and making the area still feel somewhat untouched (aside from the large amount of visitors). The trail often rests just inches above the water, other times even half an inch under the water. We guessed that the area must maintain a pretty constant water level.

The path

The path

There is one part of small, connected lakes spilling into each other that essentially make one long waterfall, and much of this area was closed off because the trail was partially submerged. Most of Plitvice’s visitors, including us, did not follow the rule and passed under the rope– how could we skip over the most stunning part of the park? The “closed off” area turned out to be a bit of an obstacle course, balancing on the rock-lined side of dirt paths and jumping between logs. We were headed for a site on the map marked “big waterfall,” and it was at first unclear to me whether it was just the series of descending small waterfalls that made the big one.

Big Waterfall

The “Big Waterfall”

It was not. To my right, the small waterfalls let out into a waterfall a bit larger than the others we had seen. It was wide and impressive, and I reveled in the completion of a journey we thought might be hindered by closed trails. We walked a bit farther to get a better look when I glanced to my left and realized I was completely wrong about the “big waterfall.” To my left was a waterfall four times larger than what I thought it was, water rolling down the sharp incline at times and free falling at others. My mouth dropped two inches. I felt so lucky to be there, looking at something so beautiful and strong. There was nowhere else I would rather be.

Shaunagh

Sail Croatia (Sept. 27-Oct. 4)

Overlooking the island of Hvar

Overlooking the island of Hvar

It seems no easy task to write about the definite highlight of my trip – 12 days in Croatia sailing across the coast and to the islands and driving inland to the Plitvice Lakes National Park and to Croatia’s biggest city, Zagreb. It’s rare that I find myself able to get such an in-depth look into a country, but Croatia was definitely the place to do it.

Me and Shaunagh in Hvar

Me and Shaunagh in Hvar

I started my time in Croatia with a weeklong sailing trip through Sail Croatia, which happened to be doing a two-for-one promotion on my trip. I had originally learned about the sailing trips through an Irish girl I had met in Budapest named Shaunagh, and we had loosely planned on going together from then on. When I told her it would be $600 total for both of us, it was pretty much a done deal, and she booked a complicated flight from Morocco to Croatia (I myself had to spend a night in Belgrade, Serbia to make it there from Greece without shelling out $500 for a direct one).

Arriving in Trstenik

Arriving in Trstenik

The first day on the boat really set the pace for the week, with most of the people on the ship getting out the beers as soon as we set sail. There was a really nice deck on the top that we would all lay out on in the mornings when we sailed (or really motored – they weren’t actually sail boats), often having drinks or working on our tans. Yes, I do still have a nice bronze glow going on and it’s probably not going anywhere for a while. Aside from Shaunagh and me, the group was largely Australian, with a few Kiwis (New Zealanders) and South Africans, and two other Americans would join the boat a couple of days late. Although the trips are known for being a lot of 18-21 year olds, our boat had an older range, with most people being in their mid-twenties and up to 30.

Stopping for a swim

Stopping for a swim

It would be hard not to describe Sail Croatia as a booze cruise. Our days were spent lounging around the boat, exploring cities like Dubrovnik or doing excursions like an island buggy tour (really exciting) and white water rafting (reeeeeeeaaally cold, but also exciting). Our nights, however, almost always revolved around having some “bevs,” whether throwing a party on the boat or going to a bar (some of the islands were quieter and didn’t have much of a nightlife, other places were closed due to the season winding down).

Looking over King's Landing!

Peaking out at King’s Landing!

A highlight of the trip, we spent a day wandering through the walled city of Dubrovnik, AKA King’s Landing in Game of Thrones and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I used my student card (even though it’s expired…) to get a cheap ticket to walk on the walls of the city, which I highly recommend. We tried to find Sansa’s garden to no avail, but we saw many places where we were sure different scenes of the show took place. Pretty much the entire afternoon was spent talking about Game of Thrones.

Revelin Club in Dubrovnik

Revelin Club in Dubrovnik

After our afternoon wandering the city, we had a little party on the boat before heading to a couple bars in Dubrovnik – Skybar and Revelin. I have a Yoncé tank that I wear as pajamas and underneath my button-down shirts (I did start this trip at a Beyoncé concert), and at one point in Skybar, “Crazy in Love” came on and I ended up in my tank with a stage and a little crowd… The rest of the night was a blast, although a Kiwi tried to fight me over a hat I was wearing, which I timidly declined.

Flaming Jäger Bomb Dominoes in a bar in Hvar

Flaming Jäger Bomb Dominoes in a bar in Hvar

Another highlight was on an island called Mljet, which has a national park where you can hike, bike and rent kayaks. I rented a kayak for an hour and explored the peaceful saltwater lake on the island before heading out on a long hike with the two American guys on my boat. We hiked for an hour before we realized there were no operating water taxis or ferryboats and that we would have to walk all the way back. Maybe five minutes into walking, a car drove down the narrow bike/pedestrian/car path and on a whim I stuck out my thumb. The driver pulled over, and after some miscommunication (he didn’t speak English), we figured he was telling us we could come in and we did. We motioned for him to let us out before he turned off the path we were taking, still leaving us a 30 minute walk but saving us considerable time and giving me my first experience hitchhiking, if the brief ride counts. A couple friends of mine have actually hitchhiked from London all the way to Croatia.

Beach

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

Statue of St. Peter and the view of Makarska

The excursions I mentioned earlier, buggy riding and rafting, were not free but were a good excuse to do something other than lounge around during the day. The buggy driving was really exciting – Shaunagh and I shared one, though I drove, and basically the entire drive was spent accumulating dust in my eyes even though I had sunglasses on. We drove pretty fast around the island, and it was even a bit scary sometimes. The buggies didn’t have power steering, so you had to really pull at the wheel to go anywhere. The rafting was a longer experience, about three hours on the rafts, and the weather had drastically changed to cloudy and cool the day before. Definitely the coldest experience of my trip, but it was really fun and we got completely soaked and had a great guide.

Pirate Party

Pirate Party on the boat

The trip was absolutely made by the people on the boat, who were all really fun and all got along really well, especially Shaunagh. This was the first time for me to meet up with a fellow traveler, and our friendship definitely cemented in our time together on the boat. The best part about traveling with fellow travelers is that we understand going solo and don’t have to be attached at the hip – some days I was keen to get exploring in a city while she wanted to relax on the boat for a bit, and it was perfect that way. But it was nice always having her to come home to.

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

Next time: Shaunagh and I rent a car with two other friends after Sail Croatia and drive to Plitvice Lakes and Zagreb.

The Town You’ll Keep Coming Back To

The town of Plakias from above

The town of Plakias from above

If you’re taking a trip down to the Greek Islands but looking for something a little different than the gorgeous geometric architecture and the barren, brush-filled hills of the smaller islands, the small coastal town of Plakias on the southern side of the massive island Crete is worth the trip past the Cyclades.

Plakias is affectionately known as “the town you’ll keep coming back to,” and aptly so – its often-older clientele (maybe only older because I visited during the end-of-season) will tell you it’s their 15th or even 20th summer on the island. You’ll find most of these eccentric regulars at the Youth Hostel Plakias, which is the “southernmost hostel in Europe” and attracts those clients you may consider young at heart. While the crowd is older than your typical backpacker hostel, the hostel creates a community that seamlessly integrates generations of new visitors to Plakias.

Youth Hostel Plakias

Youth Hostel Plakias

Youth Hostel Plakias is run by a Bavarian-born, long-haired man named Uli who lived in Berlin before taking over the hostel (and presumably during the winter off-season). I would learn from a talkative regular named Martin (an older Brit who has been visiting the island once or twice a year for 14 years) that Uli is the third manager of the hostel. Its original manager was “no hospitality professional” but ran the place impeccably for 30 years before his retirement. Only a week after his last day, the beloved manager was carrying a supply of wooden planks on his scooter when he crashed and slipped into a coma for a year before passing away. The hostel would have been his life for the three decades of summers before, requiring work from morning till night with no days off.

The original manager left the place in the hands of a professional – an Australian who would run Youth Hostel Plakias for only two years before abruptly quitting. The owner, who does not participate in the daily affairs of the hostel, ended up contacting Uli, a hostel regular, who has run the place ever since. While some of its frequents felt envy that they were not contacted about running the hostel (it’s likely that many of them would have loved to take over), everyone agrees that Uli has done his job well – I found him welcoming and informative, trusting and kind.

Hanging out in the hostel (with a surprise guest in the background)

Mirjam, Felix, me and our new Australian friend Krista (with a surprise guest in the background)

At only €10 a night (€9 in the slower months), Youth Hostel Plakias holds a charm and comfort that cannot be matched for the price. Set in an olive grove, there are hammocks strung up between the trees, 8-bed bungalows for the tenants and an enclosed outdoor bathing and toilet facility. The main room and reception opens into a covered patio, always bustling with an outgoing, welcoming group of tenants. In addition to the older regulars, a few young seasonal workers hang out at the hostel, new friends coming in and out of the town like a revolving door and those who return to work another season seeing familiar faces each year.

Hanging out at YH Plakias

Hanging out at YH Plakias

I befriended one of the seasonal workers, a late-twenties Australian whose uncle lives on the island, who told me about the Plakias alumni’s tendency to try to “out-Plakias” each other. The area holds a wealth of secret hiking paths and beaches, monasteries and other wonders for its visitors to explore and fall in love with, and the regulars often brag about their knowledge of the area. A boisterous American woman from Virginia named Amy told me she loves to “take newbies on adventures” around the island in her rented car. Martin, mentioned earlier, loves to tell the first-timers Plakias lore. He had overheard myself and my companions, a German couple named Felix and Mirjam whom I had been traveling with since Ios, talking on the bus down to the town and greeted us on our first night: “I guessed you would be staying at the hostel and was so excited on the bus to know it was your first time here!

After climbing one of the waterfalls on the river walk

After climbing one of the waterfalls on the river walk

Uli, or maybe the managers before him, has a map up on the wall of reception with many of the island’s activities and step-by-step (though sometimes confusing) directions on how to get there (the island isn’t known for named roads, and you will likely be traveling through olive groves and fences to get where you want to go). On our first day, Felix and Mirjam and I headed to the hostel-favorite “One Rock Beach.” It was a 45-minute walk from the hostel, and we were warned that, “if you make the wrong turn, the walk is two hours, and no one ever makes it there on their first try.” After a collaborative effort, our group was able to find the beach without problem, making the correct choice at the six-way intersection and appropriately breaking into a resort to get through to the beach (that’s where the two hour detour could have began).

Admiring the view

Admiring the view

One Rock Beach is relatively private – you have to scamper down some rocks to get down to the nude-friendly, pebbly beach with a large rock sticking out in the middle of the water (hence “One Rock”). The waves get quite large between the cliffs lining the side of the beach and crystal-clear water, and on our first day, a playful group of naked 60-somethings held a photo-shoot in the waves, clawing like kittens and rolling around on their backs.

After climbing one of the waterfalls on the river walk

After climbing one of the waterfalls on the river walk

After a long afternoon at the beach, we headed back to celebrate one of the seasonal worker’s birthdays with the entire hostel at a local restaurant (unfortunately I don’t know its name) that arranged our food and drinks for a flat fee. It was one of the best meals of my time in Greece – the saganaki, trio of dips and beet salad appetizers stealing the show from the main courses.

My favorite activity of the week was a four-hour “River Walk,” a trek uphill literally inside the river (more like a large creek) that runs through the island. Although one of the girls with us complained about the lack of a real path – “I can’t believe they recommend this! You actually have to walk in the river!” – the rest of the group thoroughly enjoyed the challenging climbs up the waterfalls and delicate walking in flip-flops over sometimes-slippery rocks. The creek is well shaded and the water cool, keeping you consistently refreshed, unlike the island’s less strenuous walks in a sun that harsher here than in the rest of Greece (not that the rest of Greece lacks in sunshine). The trek gets harder as it goes, and many of the climbs were a challenge for the shorter travelers in our group. The end of the hike leaves you at a main road on top of the hill, where you can reward your efforts at a taverna with lovely food (the ice cream and homemade baklava were a favorite) and a panoramic view of the town below. The walk was the perfect adventure in the midst of a week of relaxation in the islands.

The beginning of the river walk

The beginning of the river walk

Climbing in flip flops and water shoes is not easy...

Climbing in flip flops and water shoes is not easy…

Other highlights of Plakias include the local grapes you can buy from truck beds parked around the town, which are almost always just picked that day and generally about €1-2 for a kilo (which I could finish in a matter of hours), the wood fired pizza at the restaurant Kri Kri (get the farmer’s pizza – a vegetarian’s dream) and even the bus ride from Rethymno (sit on the same side as the driver for views of the gorge and to keep yourself out of the sun, per Uli’s instructions in an email sent after my booking). You can hike to a nearby monastery or explore other beaches on the southern side of Crete – activities I was unable to do in my short time there.

Natural shower under a cold waterfall during the river walk

Natural shower under a cold waterfall during the river walk

I found Plakias to be my favorite destination in Greece, with something for the adventurer in me and for the weary traveler in me who just wanted to sleep on the beach (which I managed to do for four hours one too-hot afternoon). I hear it is highly worth checking out the rest of Crete, but in my limited time there I wanted to take some time to get to know Plakias rather than just run around trying to see everything.

And yes, I do hope to return.