I can’t believe it.  I laid down a pretty ambitious itinerary in March and to my surprise, I did it all.  Yeah, it took a night sleeping in a car, running on some financial fumes, massive data roaming charges, applying for internships at airports, a series of power naps, sketchy encounters, and registering for classes via phone, but I did it.  And it was damn amazing. The past 34 days have been seriously some of the best I’ve ever had.  It’s hard to reconcile a lot of the moments especially now that I’m back in London, AKA reality; where responsibilities and finals have suffocated the thrill of travel.  I honestly thought I’d be sick of traveling after 4 weeks of constant re-location, but instead I feel like I’ve just gotten a taste.  A tease.  A glimpse into an alternate life style of adaptation, freedom, and beauty.  And not just physical beauty.  Visceral beauty.  The kind you feel and breathe and taste.  The kind that is a product of an experience, not just a place.  But we’ll get to that.

So here is how it went down:

Lisbon, Portugal

The first stop of my trip; I fell in love with this city from the beginning.  From the colorful, eclectic architecture to the hilly landscape reminiscent of San Fran, Lisbon was a pleasant surprise.  Upon arrival we took our fresh legs for a stroll around the city and made the quick realization that this old world city was the perfect kick-start to the break.  Something about this port city’s brisk sea breeze, graffiti-plastered walls, and quiet quaintness that really spoke to me.  Bi-polar weather gave way to both sunny, cocktail-sipping lounging, and cozy tea-sipping in our hostel’s homey lounge.

Highlights: Lisbon Oceanarium, hostel’s comfy lounge, Rose and cheesecake, Belem Tower

Madrid, Spain

A short stint in the air delivered us across a border and back within the big-city feel.  Madrid had all the bells and whistles of London but with more distinct old world accents.  I dusted off my limited Spanish as we all plummeted into a world of tapas, sangria, cheap cocktails, sunshine, and flamenco dancing.

Highlights: Lateral Bar, San Miguel Market, Royal Palace, Flamenco Show, Churros con chocolate, free drinks

Barcelona, Spain

Another quick flight landed us in the Catalonian capital.  I’m going to tell you now I wasn’t impressed.  Nothing against the city itself; it’s a beautiful testament to a rich culture influenced by the talents of Picasso and Gaudi.  But I felt tourism breathing down my neck.  From the flashy displays at the Magic Fountain, to the beaches made from imported Egyptian sand,  to the hoards of tourists… it was no shock to learn that there is dissent brewing amongst locals towards the growing tourist facade in Barcelona.  Nonetheless, there was lots to do and see… and that Egyptian sand was so ideal for lounging.

Highlights: Magic fountain, Restaurant Cal Pep, Mercat de Sant Jospeph, Gaudi Park/House/Church

Rope pyramid on the beach in Barcelona

Pula, Sardinia

Although our next stop was only another short 400 mile flight, the small town of Pula (7,000 inhabitants) was a far departure from the bustling, tourist entrapment of Barcelona.  Sardinia in itself isn’t a particularly popular tourist destination but when we arrived at our B&B in the town of Pula we were the sole American tourists there.  It was so refreshing.  It was my first opportunity to don my running shoes and do a bit of hiking.  Jen and I managed to hike/climb our way down to a secluded rock overpass, spotted with tide pools.  The beaches of Sardinia we’re spectacular.  Miles of soft, silky, powdery sand.  High dunes that you could literally swim or roll down.  The water glimmers with such a pure turquoise hue; something I’ve only seen in Hawaii.

Highlights: Shotgun on the drives through Sardinia, beach of Chia, hikes, rolling down sand dunes, King Prawn

Marseilles, France

The least impressive city in my eyes, Marseilles was incredibly memorable for the things we did outside the grasps of urbanity.  The city itself was beautiful by night, when the stench and stains were blanketed by a mellow breeze and a colorful array of lights.  However, a bus ride from the central city put us on trails that toured us through the limestone calanques of Marseilles.  The calanques were host to one of the highlights of my entire year abroad.  Plunging into the icy, blue and green Mediterranean sea, feeling the salty burn in my eyes, and the bite of cold in the water… fully submerged I felt the rush, the excitement… a form of chilling contentment.  Perched on that island of limestone, sun-bathing in triumph, in retrospect, maybe wasn’t a big deal.  But at the time I forgot about all else except me, the sun, the ocean, and the rocks.  And it felt good.  So good.

Highlights: Calanques, fresh oysters at Toinou, Chateau D’If (yup, from Count of Monte Cristo)

London, England

That’s right, a return to the motherland.  My fam came over to visit the SE1 in what seemed more like an exciting, crash-course layover in London, than a one week breather.  The prior two weeks of traveling really had taken it’s tolls as I limped around the beautiful attractions of London with my family.  It was great to see them and showcase the place I’ve labeled as home for the past 7 months.  It was also great to dabble in high-class dining.  And I mean HIGH class.  Sorry Dad.  I have Ramsay to thank for the best lunch of my life and Bosi for one of the best meals of my life.  And my Dad to thank for footing the bill.

Highlights: Borrough (per usual), 7 course tasting dinner at Hibiscus, Ramsay’s, Southwark Tavern

white chocolate covered strawberry ice cream, served over dry ice

Zurich & Geneva & Zermatt, Swtizerland

2 continuous days of sleep and a load of laundry later and I found myself next to my all too familiar little black Nike carry-on, Bose headphones blasting Cudi, hands clutching my boarding pass… Destination: Zurich, Switzerland.  My 6 day excursion in Switzerland had little planning.  Armed with a tiny Ford Focus, a few hastily printed google maps, a blackberry, and a pair of limited navigational intuitions… we set out to traverse Switzerland.  And Switzerland we traversed.  800 miles of traversing and everything else.  Yeah, our diets were limited to the grocery store, our sleep limited to a couch/car seat/bunk, our shower temp limited to cold… but damn, how unlimited the beauty of of Switzerland is.  Hiking around the Matterhorn, to the point where frozen tundra blends into icy snow, we spotted a few skiiers/hikers who stated, nonchalantly, they had been skiing/hiking for the past 5 days amongst the vast, mountainous, alps.  How unlimited the Swiss people are.  Crouched upon a rock, surrounded by powdery snow, listening as cracking ice gives way to mini-avalanches upon the face of the Matterhorn… I was left in awe.

Highlights: Zermatt, hiking the Matterhorn, Rhine Falls

Athens & Santorini & Mykonos, Greece

If I left Switzerland with my jaw dropped, I only had a short layover in Slovenia to pick it back up before it was back on the ground in Santorini.  A 5 hour ferry (made bearable by a few rounds of Ring of Fire/King’s Cup) from Athens delivered us on the island of Santorini.  I saw a lot and did a lot.  Mostly on ATVs.  ATVs kick ass.  One volcano tour, a donkey ride, dip into the Mediterranean, and a lot of drinking games later… Mykonos.  Mykonos was essentially a smaller serving of Santorini with a hint of nightlife and some beautiful sunsets.  I think Greece sensed that I was running on next to nothing in the bank and provided me easy access to the delicious, cheap, all-purpose gyro around the clock.  I think I could run on gyros and smoothies for the rest of my life.

Highlights: ATVing, gyros, donkey ride, volcano tour,

Looking back on the past five weeks, I feel so incredibly fortunate.  Few have the chance or means to travel and experience what I have, especially at my age.  It was a riveting time for me.  A journey that is mine for the rest of my life.

But as soon as I end this journey I know that this ending is only the beginning.