The Art of the Short Stopover | 24 Hours or Less in Barcelona, Strasbourg + Toulouse
Having traveled solo for 9 months around Europe, I have become a bit of a maestra of carefully conducting travel plans in the most budget-friendly way possible. However, something I have not exactly mastered as artfully, is making those plans both cheap and simple. My trips tend to end up being quite elaborate, with multiple stopovers, out-of-the-way overnight stays in random cities, and chain links of planes, trains and the occasional bus. While this was all well, good and exciting as a young traveler hopping around with no agenda, I still may be young, but I now enjoy travel with a purpose and get a bit more exhausted by long, complex voyages. Unfortunately, the habit of crafting elaborate journeys seems to be stuck with me.
My most recent trip this past October was no exception. I mentioned before what the whirlwind week-and-a-half consisted of, which was in brief, 6 cities in 11 days. Why did I do this to myself?
At the moment of booking, it did not seem too complicated and the prices of the various flights were much cheaper (although when you factor in airport shuttles and lunch or dinner in the stopover cities, I am not sure it made a huge difference in the end). Once I was in the midst of the trip, I suddenly realized how ridiculous it all was- stopping over in a place for 24 hours or less for no reason except to catch budget airplanes and cut corners. I was ready to smack myself on the side of the head, cancel it all and just book some expensive direct flights, but I decided instead to deal with the crazy little adventure I had created for myself and make the absolute most of it.
Before I even made it to my first destination, I was already faced with a long layover in which I could either sit at the Barcelona airport, wandering duty-free shops and downing Starbucks lattes, or I could take a 30-minute shuttle into the city and hang out with one of my best friends for about 3 hours before jumping on the bus back to the airport in time for my flight. Which option would you choose?
It helped that I had visited Barcelona several times before so I knew the lay of the land enough to know that a quick trip like this was even possible. I shuttled into the city center, Plaça Catalunya, and met my dear childhood friend, who I haven’t seen in way too long, to catch up and have a nice long lunch at a delicious tapas restaurant called Tosca. After several shared dishes, a flan dripping with caramel and a coffee, we meandered our way back to the bus station before hugging farewell and I went on my way to Switzerland.
I spent that long weekend in Basel (the actual reason I was traveling to begin with, and yet only took up 4 days of the 11 day adventure) and then, in order to hitch a cheap flight over to Toulouse, I took a two-hour early-morning bus to Strasbourg, a little French river city bordering Germany. I was there for exactly 8 hours, clacking around on the cobblestone streets with my light but burdensome rolling suitcase. Despite my baggage and my noisy entrance to a quiet, quaint place, I decided to also make the most of this stopover and treat myself to a pastry and my second coffee of the day at L'Atelier 116, an organic bakery on one of the main streets near the old town. I wandered a bit more before tiring of hearing those wheels following me everywhere, so I stopped again, for food of course, and lunched at a cute and healthy fast-food place called Pur Etc. and had a delicious sweet potato and lentil dahl.
After taking copious amounts of photos of the beautiful river scenes and charming old buildings, I finally made my way to the train station to catch a train to the airport, fly to Toulouse, and immediately upon arrival there took yet another bus to Auch, arriving just past midnight.
I was able to relax a bit once in Auch (read more about that here) before my 24 hours back in Toulouse. This was my longest layover yet and almost felt like a destination within itself. I was able to meet a friend for dinner, shop for some presents to bring back home, sleep a full 8 hours in a hostel dorm room that I was lucky enough to have to myself for the night, and even take an amazing dance workshop with that same friend in the morning at the James Carlés Center. I also spent a fair amount of time admiring the river-side walkways and treated myself to a créme brulée cappuccino at a little rustic cafe called The Coffee Pot. Part of me was left wanting more of this lovely city, but another part was simply ready to return home and get my feet solidly back on the ground.
I would like to say that I then flew happily back to Tangier, but not quite. I had one more stop over. Ryanair took me over to Madrid, where I met a friend at 10pm who was gracious enough to let me crash on her couch for several hours before waking early the next morning. We had a very Spanish breakfast at a local cafe/bar of pan con tomate (bread with smashed tomatoes and olive oil), potato and egg tortilla and strong black coffee before I finally made my way back to the airport to catch my last super-cheap-but-maybe-not-worth-it flight back home.
It is no wonder I got sick a week after returning. My body and mind were absolutely worn out from the movement, the dancing, the traveling, and the mental calculating of train and plane times. And yet, I don’t regret a second of it. If you have to stop over in a city, make it count. I dare to say, make an art out of it. I was able to see some new cities, absorb new atmospheres while getting lost in small, cobblestoned streets, and people watch while having coffee in lovely little cafes, all of which are some of my favorite travel activities. No amount of time is too short to turn any place into an adventure for yourself- even an airport can be treated as an exciting destination if you take the time to soak in your surroundings. With the winter holidays coming up and many people traveling home for Christmas or New Year’s, see if you can rethink those layovers or that travel time. How can you make the in-betweens part of the beauty of your trip?