How I travelled around Europe and why you should too: 7 months as a solo traveller

By Nicola Isendahl
© Nicola Isendahl

Quit job: Check! Plan travel route: Check! Pack my backpack: Check! – Europe offers me comfort and well-being on one hand and on the other, excitement and a sense of adventure. This continent is my home yet can still be totally alien. These were a few of the thoughts behind my decision to travel alone through Europe for seven months. But what was the main reason I had to do this?

Let me ask you – How well do you know your neighbours? Maybe those directly underneath you. But perhaps because they are always complaining about the noise. What about the woman next door? The young couple two doors down? Across the hall or three houses down the road? Just saying.

Some may assume it’s a challenge travelling alone. Well, I’ve got nothing to prove. When I was 19 I heard something resembling the following phrase a thousand times – “Oh, wow! Are you travelling alone? As a woman? In South America? So young?” Back then, there were no smartphones. There was just me, for four amazing weeks, alone – well, with the obligatory trusty guidebook tucked under my arm; that was my search engine back then. These days, technology is unreal. Whatsapp, Facebook and Skype keep you connected and your friends are always there, albeit virtually. Jump on your KAYAK App and hotels, hostels, trains, buses, tours and flights are all bookable online. Click, click, click: 2 minutes later you’ve bagged your accommodation for the next four days. So, it’s not the challenge of “being on your own” that has driven me to embark on my 7-month trip through Europe, thrilling as it may be.

The author at Laheema National Park © Nicola Isendahl

There you have it; it’s that simple – what I’ve seen of Europe already is simply incredible but there are still many neighbours I want to get to know. I’ve never been to Poland, the Baltic States, Scandinavia, Scotland or Ireland. Once again – Europe offers me comfort and well-being on one hand and on the other, excitement and a sense of adventure. There is a common base that we Europeans share and yet so much is different. Food, climate, landscape, language, and habits shift as you cross borders along the way.

How I planned my journey

I’m German born and raised and currently live in Berlin. So, where do I start? I know the nine countries that neighbour mine; seven of which I’ve actually been to. Of my list of places I still haven’t visited, Poland is the closest, just a few hours away, in fact. It’s from there that I plan my route; setting out solo my path curves from east to north then traverses the west side of Scandinavia down to the south, chasing the sun afterwards as the North falls under autumn’s shadow.

Screenshot from the journi app. Snaps from Riga, Helsinki, Tartu and Kuldiga © Nicola Isendahl

Admittedly, Morocco isn’t part of Europe, but when presented with the chance to check out new countries I take them, plus I have a friend to visit there. In fact, I’ll be visiting plenty of friends along the way.

In StockholmOsloDublinBristolParisLausanneBarcelonaMadridPamplonaSevilla – and as previously mentioned, Casablanca. If I’m honest, another, but less important reason for my trip, is to tentatively seek out a new place where to call home for a few years. An exciting new job in an exciting new city.

Yeah, that’s something else. I quit my last job, so now it’s time for some self-reflection and a big dose of “what’s next?”.

When I started my journey in May, I was often asked if I was going to write a blog to document and even justify my trip. But I don’t want to lug around some device just for that purpose, in fact, I don’t want anything except my phone when it comes to that. And typing long texts on your mobile phone is a bit (very) tedious. Some hostels have computers that you can use, but from the bookings I made before I left, only one in five accommodations actually offered that service.

So I decided on a kind of visual travel journal instead, using the free App journi. It’s a super app, easy to use and as engaging as Instagram or Facebook. A beautiful way to showcase your journey, a tidy package with images and brief text all linked to a travel map. Followers need simply register via email or link to Facebook.

Yummy: smoked fish in Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island © Nicola Isendahl

Of course, there are creature comforts I miss while I’m way and being true to the German stereotype, for me that’s decent bread and beer. After several centuries of the influence of Germanic culture in Poland and especially Lithuania and Latvia, it’s no surprise that their bread and beer game is superb. I feel right at home.

Carnivore plants in National Park Lahemaa (North Estonia) © Nicola Isendahl

In the East, almost everything needs a superlative to properly describe them. Some sights are mind blowing – Bialowieza, the only remaining lowland, primaeval forest in Europe whose trees impressively stand over 50 meters high – while others make me grin with joy  – Europe’s widest waterfall in Kuldiga, Latvia, is only two metres high but about 100 meters wide. Just gorgeous.

Fun with statues in Tartu, Estonia © Nicola Isendahl

Travelling alone is something special. Sure, there are times I’d love to share my impressions or even just have a drink with old friends in the evening and not with “new acquaintances”. Those whom you just met two hours ago in the hostel dorm. But it also allows for a lot of freedom and a whole set of different challenges.

Like a film set: pretty facades in Poznan, Poland © Nicola Isendahl

Accommodation wise, I like to have a mix of hustle and bustle (all sorts of people sharing hostels in all sorts of cities) and quiet and remote (small, local B&Bs in the countryside, where cats, mosquitoes and with luck, the occasional deer or beaver are the closest you get to a having a “social group”). I don’t usually stay in any place for more than four days, and this rhythm seems to be the right groove for me.

As I tend to navigate my path by bus, train and ferry, I usually have to plan a few nights in advance when I choose to visit remote areas off the beaten path, the same applies for ferry crossings. Everything else is fine just one to two days in advance. Especially if you are flexible, don’t mind taking transport during the off hours (very late or very early) and are happy to crash in a 12 person shared dorm instead of the coveted 4-bed women’s dorm to go to sleep you can be super spontaneous and last-minute.

Street Art in Tartu, Estonia © Nicola Isendahl

Natural highlights

The Curonian Spit: The white sand beaches of the Curonian Spit in Lithuania are legendary for their natural beauty. To visit them you can easily get to Nida by bus or ferry then rent a bike, or you can walk from the lagoon to the east side of the spit in 15 minutes. If you want to add another country to the list of lands you’ve set foot in, head to the Parnidis dune from which you can cross over and into Russia.

The Cliffs of Åland: Some things are best appreciated after you’ve put a little effort into reaching them … for example, arriving at the Åland Cliffs on a rental fixie bike after cycling 30 kilometres of winding paths, wind buffeting your face, through forests and apple orchards on the North of the island. But the pink granite cliffs are so amazing they refill your energy reserves and give you that final push to cycle/bounce your way along the final stretch.

Accommodation in Aland from £32

Bialowizea NATIONAL PARK, Poland © Nicola Isendahl

Bialowieza National Park: Bialowieza is the only lowland primaeval forest in Europe. To be honest, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Temperature aside, it has the feel of a tropical rain forest with its giant trees towering more than 50 meters above you. Warning: mosquito alert!

Where do I go from here?

People always bet me that at some point I’ll have had enough and won’t make the whole 7 months. I call their bluff. I honestly can’t imagine that happening. Rather, I think “Oh no, I’m almost a third through this already! I don’t want this to end.”

In two months I’ve been to six countries and experienced their languages and cultures – I’ve travelled about 7200 kilometres (statistically about 115 a day), seen 33 cities, and countless forests and lakes.

Love Locks in Breslau © Nicola Isendahl

In Poland, I met a Korean travel friend; in Sweden, a friend I studied with; and along the way, lots of new exciting people – enthusiastic tour guides, hot hostel flirts, lovely looking old ladies, Americans, Armenians, Israelis, Irish, Dutch, Portuguese, Spaniards, Australians, Taiwanese and more.

Some encounters have been entertaining and some meaningless, but it’s surprising how many of these meetings touch the soul and are steeped in meaning, even knowing you may never see the other person again. So what comes next?

Seagulls in Helsinki © Nicola Isendahl

At the moment I am at what will probably be the northernmost point of my voyage, and from now on I will be slowly moving south, from Norway via Denmark and northern Germany to Holland, then a quick trip over the sea to visit England, Scotland, Ireland before returning to the mainland. From southern Italy I’ll take the ferry to Catalonia, from there I’ll travel across Spain to the west coast and then down, through Portugal to southern Spain. By this time it’ll be December, and seeking some residual heat the exclamation point of my trip, my final destination will be to Morroco, where the sun still shines.
I am excited and cannot wait for the next five months!

Note: These rates are based on search queries made on on July 24th, 2017. The prices are quoted in GBP. Flight prices are based on results for a return economy flight search. Hotel prices are for double occupancy and include taxes and fees. Prices are subject to change, may vary, or no longer be available.