Having arrived in Europe is both a triumph and a shock to the system. For the past two years we’ve explored the Earth’s faraway wild places with wonder and amazement. Every time we moved we were moving into the unknown, and with it came a sense of adventure and uncertainty. Europe is sort of the end of the line on our trip, and marks the emergence from the unknown into a world that we know. We used to live in Europe, after all, and have spent considerable time exploring it. While arriving in Europe after two and a half years of exploration was intended to seem like a relief, what we experience instead is something unexpected.
Being that our goal has been to get to Morocco as quickly as possible, we consciously but begrudgingly speed through Greece. Over the course of two days we drive from the Turkish border to the mountains of Meteora where monasteries are built atop rocky spires with impossibly sheer cliffs on all sides, and we camp. In the morning we head west with the intention to cross Albania and drive the Dalmatian Coast en route to Italy.
A few miles before the turn to Albania we notice that our super expensive car insurance is invalid in four key countries: Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia. Some combination of these countries, may I remind you, must be crossed in order to reach our destination without backtracking all the way to Romania. Some quick research on the part of my trusty and attractive copilot reveals that individual insurance can be had at these borders for no less than $140 each, and we decide that for a mad dash this kind of money is unjustifiable. We reluctantly drive to Igoumenitsa where we catch a ferry from Greece to Italy.
We set up an impromptu camp on the ferry for the overnight trip, and arrive late the following afternoon in the eastern Italian town of Ancona. Camping in Italy, we quickly realize, is a much less private affair than it had been in Turkey and Greece. We spend the night in a parking lot between the ocean and a busy road while being periodically awoken by the screech of train wheels right outside of our window. In the morning I realize that the bearings in Nacho’s bumper swingarm are long dead, so I make a haphazard repair and we set off. We drive through picturesque towns and small mountain villages into Tuscany where we spend our second Italian night in a parking spot behind a gas station next to a big fuel tank. La dolce vita!
At this point in our story, one might be asking oneself: “Why is Nacho in such a big hurry?” Besides the previously stated reason of warmer weather in Africa, there is another—the Schengen agreement. This agreement (pronounced “shen-ghen,” by the way), allows the free passage of goods and people between most countries in Europe without customs and passport control using a common visa—the Schengen visa. The trouble with this visa, though, is that it is only good for three months, and it can’t be extended. In order to receive a new Schengen visa, one must leave Europe for at least three months within a six month period before returning. Therefore, the longer our drive to Africa takes, the less time we can spend in Europe when the weather warms up. And thus we pick up our story where we left off, which is to say where we were crossing Italy in just two and a half days.
We drive to Lucca, a nice city in Tuscany, and walk around the historic center. We regard the pastel walls and narrow cobbled alleys, the smell of fresh bread and sausage wafts to us from open doors, but that sense of adventure that we’ve had up until now is missing. We sit down and enjoy two small coffees on a terrace, and then, what’s this? A bill for $12.50? Twelve dollars for COFFEE!? The chic barista shrugs at my look of confusion and waits for me to hand her what, since arriving in Asia, has been two full days’ food budget. Hanging out in familiar places and paying premium prices for things like coffee feels strangely unadventurous. We start to feel, for the first time, not like daring adventurers but like homeless people.
We cut to the coast and drive to what we’ve always considered one of Italy’s gems, Le Cinque Terre—a series of five small villages perched on the rocky cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. We drive the winding cliff side road between the villages, stopping in Riomaggiore before arriving in Vernazza for the sunset.
We park Nacho and make our way out to the water front and step out onto a rocky outcropping, the Mediterranean unfolding before us and the pastel Italian fishing village climbing the canyon wall behind us, but we feel a great deal of nothing with a hint of boredom. Our adventure feels strangely devoid of adventure. We notice an American girl in her twenties perched on a rock and she’s glowing as if entranced by her surroundings and the view, and it only makes us feel as though we don’t belong here. Like maybe we’re not quite ready to be back in the modern world, and that perhaps bee-lining it to Morocco might be just what the doctor ordered.
In the morning we head out and point Nacho’s big blunt nose toward the French border. As we approach Genoa we hop on the motorway to speed things up through the foothills of the Alps and into France. After two hours on the motorway we’re feeling completely exasperated by what feels, literally, like highway robbery; in only two hours we’ve racked up $87 in road tolls! And this on top of, I kid you not, gasoline costing $9 per gallon. We’re spending $1.15 per mile just to drive, and we have over a thousand miles to go! We exasperatedly exit the motorway and get back to the slower but toll-free surface roads.
By evening we’ve made it to Provence, and we trundle off on a dirt track and into a vineyard to sleep for the night. France is surprisingly beautiful and we’re feeling much more relaxed. Italy, despite always having been my favorite European country, had us feeling a little overwhelmed, and perhaps in a minor state of reverse culture shock.
In the morning we’re back on the road, where we happily bounce along southern France’s backroads past farm stands selling fresh asparagus and strawberries. We realize that we’ve become emotionally fickle like a couple of fourteen year old girls.
“I’m so sad! My soul feels hollow! I can’t afford to drink coffee! Ooh, is that asparagus? Do you think the French would approve of this cute pants-hat combo?”
By late morning we cross the border into Spain and feel something of a homecoming. Two and a half years ago we started our trip by crossing the border into Spanish-speaking Mexico, and over the next thirteen months came to feel at home in Spanish-speaking lands. Now, being in Spain, we feel it again. For the rest of the day we lumber along Spain’s back roads and highways skirting the Mediterranean coast before cutting inland and finally stopping for the night at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
When we awake the air is crisp under clear skies, and Sheena heads off into the forest for her morning run. This aspect of being in Europe has left Sheena elated; she’s been missing her runs for a long time. She had developed a consistent regimen back in Argentina where it was easy to get into nature and away from people, but as soon as we got to Asia it all came to a halt. It was either too hot or too congested to run, and when we got to India it became impossible for her to go out alone for fear of being assaulted by creepy men. Now she is in her element and she’s a happy copilot. She returns an hour and a half later with her pockets full of wild thyme that she’s picked in the forest and then happily cranks up the Nacho shower, free to do so now that we’re in a place where dozens of creepy men won’t be vying for viewing spots around the shower tent.
We pack up our things and hit the road under sunny Spanish skies, traversing the edge of the Sierra Nevada and then snaking along the water’s edge until we arrive, at long last, at the port city of Algeciras. We stop in at the grocery store to stock up on cold cerveza, Spanish sausages, and other Iberian specialties before heading out to the port. In the distance the shores of Morocco stand watch over the Strait of Gibraltar. As the ferry disembarks we look south toward a new journey; the Dark Continent, a dose of chaos, and a new found sense of adventure. We’ll appreciate Europe for what we intended it to be—our last hurrah—when the time comes. Give us one final blast of dirty street carts, mud hut villages and colorful indigenous people and then we’ll be good and ready to relax away the rest of our trip in the modern comforts of Europe, but not just yet.