Solo run: a woman, three months and the open road

A three-month break gave Rebecca Meehan a chance to explore continental Europe, but going it alone had its drawbacks

Although some of my friends and family thought I was mad going travelling alone, I questioned my sanity only once. I'd been away for two months and was somewhere in central Croatia.

The journey from Bosnia to Hungary was already taking twice as long as it should have because of widespread flooding. Landmines had become dislodged on the Balkan hillsides and news bulletins carried warnings for anyone travelling through affected areas.

It was there, half way to Budapest , when my driver fell asleep at the wheel and swerved into oncoming traffic.

It was a trip of firsts – the first time travelling alone being the most significant obviously – but that was the first time I almost died. It was also one of the rare times I proved my mother wrong.

READ MORE

Despite her pre-holiday optimism, “Oh Jesus, Rebecca, you’re going to get yourself killed”, a series of frenzied wallops to the side of the man’s head woke him up with just enough time to prevent our demise.

In the days that followed, when the shock had dissipated and the thought of getting into another moving vehicle didn’t terrify me, I smiled and congratulated myself for going on such an epic journey alone.

My reasons for leaving were straightforward. I’d graduated from university and started an internship with a national radio station. Fast forward five years and I’d been promoted to a senior role, met a man, found a house and settled down.

I had never spent a significant amount of time in my own company. I was also exhausted. I applied for three months unpaid leave and booked a one-way flight to Spain.

When it came to telling friends and family, "Why are you going to Europe?" was the second most popular question after "How are you going to cope on your own?" Europe seemed big enough to be varied and exciting but small enough that I was always only going to be a few hours away from home.

My first stop was Seville. After navigating my way from the airport without the help of a taxi, I dropped my bags in the cosy but oh-so-trendy La Banda Rooftop Hostel and went exploring.

I’d never smelled real orange blossoms, nor had I eaten authentic Andalusian food. I’d also never walked into a bar full of people and tried to make friends. The tips given to me by friends who’d travelled rang true on my first night away from home: I wasn’t the only person who’d chosen to travel alone, fellow backpackers are lovely and it is easier to bond over a cold beer.

Over the course of three months, I tried to speak as little English as possible but my efforts were often in vain, nowhere more so than in Paris. My hostel was in Beauville and while it was visually beautiful, it was completely void of atmosphere and warmth.

I spoke in eager, broken French to waiters and waitresses only to be replied to in fluent English. Faced with spending the entire weekend in my unfriendly lodgings, I committed to visiting places I'd never been. I took the train out to the flea market at Saint-Ouen and cooed at the antiques I couldn't afford. I spent an afternoon in the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the Seine's Left Bank and wished I'd studied English at Oxford. For the first time in almost a month, I was incredibly lonely.

Homesickness was an unavoidable part of the trip. It was at its worst after rare but wonderful visits from friends. I was on a strict budget and my visitors felt compelled to spoil me before waving me off to my next destination.

Friends Gillian and Ciaran stuffed me full of expensive wine and cheese on my last day in France. Baffled at the size of my backpack, my sister Emma paid for multiple massages during a surprise weekend in Munich.

My benevolent benefactor, or boyfriend as he's also known, spent two weeks travelling the length and breadth of Italy with me, swapping hostels for hotels in Venice and finessing our wine-tasting skills in Valpolicella.

Saying goodbye to Eoin was particularly difficult. He was my last visitor before my final month backpacking and this probably accounted for my dramatics. Like a scene from a black and white film, I stood on the train platform in Rome sobbing loudly. I waved a handkerchief (it might have been a tissue) and ran alongside the departing train. He has since described this experience as “cringeworthy”.

After Italy, my stomach churned with an overwhelming sense of pressure and excitement. I had to fit in as much as I could in my remaining four short weeks.

I grabbed an overnight ferry from the port town of Bari to Croatia. I set my alarm for sunrise and brought my camera out on to the upper deck to see the Dalmatian coast in all its glory.

I was alone, but not at all lonely. I wandered off the boat in my flip flops and found my accommodation, Marco's Hostel – an old stone building perched on the waterfront where Game of Thrones had been filmed the year before.

The majority of the hostels I picked were homely and relaxed. In Bosnia, socialising tended to involve communal movie nights and chats over iced tea on the patio. In the Czech Republic, I managed to choose a place that offered nothing more than games of beer pong and nightly pub crawls.

It was on a hot June morning in Hungary when I decided I was ready to come home. I was staying in one of the dodgier hostels on my trip. I woke up before my roommates and looked around the room. Books, iPods, toothbrushes and cans of deodorant littered the wooden floor.

In the bed closest to mine, an Ed Sheeran lookalike had kicked off his covers in his sleep. On top, he wore a grubby South Park t-shirt. On the bottom, he wore nothing at all. I'd dodged death getting to Budapest, but the sight of a stranger's bits basking in the morning light brought with it a new level of horror. I packed my bags that afternoon, admired the city's beautiful architecture once more and embarked on my last trek through eastern Europe.

I flew home after two months and 26 days away. I looked completely out of place in Dublin Airport wearing denim shorts, a straw hat and threadbare runners that I'd taped together weeks earlier after a long hike in Austria.

Not only had I amassed new friends and new freckles, I felt remarkably more confident and self-assured walking through the arrivals hall than when I’d left the departure lounge three months earlier.