“6 o’clock guys, wake up! I made some porridge. We have to move fast if we want to make it till the sunset.”
That was one of many early mornings of which we – Mor, Dor and I, have traveled the most expensive region of Europe for almost nothing, if you disregard the flight cost. We were vibrant, excited and adventurous – traits suitable for young men, boosted by the liberating freedom that accompany the final release from a long 3-years mandatory Israeli army service.
It was 2010, somewhere between Stockholm to Karlskrona in Sweden. It’s funny to think that just a week earlier we were all practicing sales pitch techniques, trying to make some money knocking on doors and selling Chinese-made oil paintings. The crew was solidified (thank you, Israeli culture), the scenery was just stunning, and these two ingredients blended together produced a spontaneous yet powerful getaway.
The Getaway: Who Let The Israelis Out?
“We’re doing this. We’re fu**in’ doing this.”
We sat around the table in our shared apartment in Stockholm, preparing our big day of quitting the god-damn oil paintings and venturing out into the wilderness of the Swedish forests. Quite ironic it is, considering the fact that I let them all watch ‘Into The Wild’ just a few nights earlier. Alas! with the door-knocking, the beauty of nature was too mesmerizing to resist.
We were all throwing in ideas, opinions and helpful comments, and eventually reached the final plan. We’re going to get a few pairs of bicycles, and just head south, with the very clear intention of reaching Greece and taking a boat (with the bicycles, of course) all the way back to Israel. Daydreams of the Israeli media cheerfully waiting for us at the end occurred but there was no time to think about it. We had to move. Money was scarce.
The 3 Survivors
Our apartment actually housed three girls – Batel, Yafit and Neta – and four guys – Dor, Mor, Nave and I. Nave really wanted to come, but eventually chose not to, as he made a call to his rabbi and the latter told him that he’s better off staying and making money instead. Quite a Jew.
Neta wanted to stay as well, but Batel and Yafit were really excited to join us, and they did.
We were exiled from the apartment, and were also accused for breaking the team. No body really cared though, we have achieved a refreshing temporary freedom, and were all sucked in our own self zen-like state of mind.
We spent the first night in a tent under a bridge in Stockholm. We were practically homeless, but we loved it. The police surprisingly found us in the middle of the night and a hot long-legged Swedish in uniforms approached us with a flashlight. “They said we can set up a tent for 24 hours.” I said.
“Yes. That’s correct, how long have you been here?”
“That’s the first night.”
“Alright, good night. Just make sure you leave tomorrow.”
“Yeah we’ll leave, but wait a second – what if we just set up the tent a few meters away tomorrow, does it give us another 24 hours?” I jokingly asked.
“Ahh, hmmm, yeah I suppose.” she confusingly confirmed.
Morning came, and the excitement was at peak. We went to the local post office and sent everything back home, only keeping a few pairs of clothes. Mor convinced me that we don’t need anything else, and that was actually one of the triggers for my later-to-come extreme minimalism mindset.
You see, we came from a different world. Before our army service really begun, we all had months and months of tough preparations and field-time in the military recruit training (Tironut, in Hebrew). You don’t have too many luxuries when you’re out there sleeping under the (astonishing) sky of the Negev dessert, which I think is why we had absolutely no problem traveling with almost nothing (money, clothes, whatever) and sharing a very small tent for all of us, spooning each other.
Back to the trip now.
Something strange happened that morning. The girls got cold-legs and chose not to venture out, thinking Mor is not fond of their presence, or something. I think he was burdened by the fact that girls tend to be pretty dependent by their very beautiful human nature. They chose to return back to the apartment, and were very disappointed. I could certainly understand both sides.
So, 3 we are. Let’s go off-road, let the real fun begin.
So, Can You Actually Travel Europe Cheap or Even Free?
You damn sure can, and we’re a living proof for that. Starting from Sweden, we managed to get pretty far and were having a much richer experience than we’d have if we took fast transportation and stayed at hotels. We were living each and every step of the way, seeing the countryside as the landscape changes, escaping the clouds with our own legs-engine, and having a ton of pure untouched fun. Memorable, that is.
Besides the necessary flight cost from Tel Aviv to Stockholm, let’s break down all the costs and techniques that took us to a whopping distance of well more than a thousand kilometers. Europe on a shoestring re-invented.
Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.
H. G. Wells (1866-1946)
You should have understood that one from the title alone. We managed to get three bicycles on our first day. Mor had a small netbook, and we used it to get some used bicycles from Craiglist-like Scandinavian websites. We also bought some second-hand equipment and a bit of new stuff from a Swedish shop, and off we went.
Except for Mor, neither I nor Dor used bicycles since childhood, and were building up our cycling capacity from 40km to around 100km a day over the following week. That was tough, and I don’t recommend it for the sake of your knees. Start slowly, don’t try to be a hero. I had to quit after two weeks because my left knee started to feel a little painful.
We did manage to go through a vast distance with our bicycles – something like the length of our own home country, Israel. We passed through amazing lush forests, stopped for lunch looking at free-roaming horses, and went to sleep in the middle of nowhere, when night came. Sore butt be damned, it was just too exciting.
When my knees started having problems, we all separated to our way. Dor and I gave or sold the bikes and took the train to Copenhagen (Denmark), and Mor continued with his bicycle to Poland (through a ferry), all the way to Uman in Ukraine, seeking to soak some Jewish heritage and visit the tomb of Nachman of Breslov.
Except for the initial (low) cost of the bikes, we didn’t spend nothing on transportation (except for the train and ferry, of course), as our body was our own engine, happily cycling through the amazing panoramas of the Nordic mountains and mind-blowing greenish forests.
It was tough though. Sweden is not a flat country like Holland, and I’ll have to admit – cycling through a steep hill, again and again and again, for tens of kilometers every day, can sometimes break your spirit. But at night, you feel satisfied as if you’ve just brought Angelina Jolie home to your parents.
Thanks to this liberating nature of adventure, our one-month trip felt like a year. Every day was packed with experiences, views, emotions, tiredness and a new replenishment of motivation every night. Try it, thank me a thousand times later.
Total Cost of Transportation: Around €100-130 each (Including a train/ferry ticket and the difference between the buy/sell price of the bicycles and the equipment).
Anyone who has spent a few nights in a tent during a storm can tell you: The world doesn’t care all that much if you live or die.
Anthony Doerr (1973)
As I have already mentioned, sleeping under the skies, in a sleeping bag or inside a tent were all no-stranger to us. We were all a part of the IDF and these kind of things were very normal. We learned to enjoy it years ago, and it was no different this time.
At the first night, we all slept in the same small tent. Mor was sweating, Dor was snoring, and I was reading Dan Brown’s ‘Angels and Demons’ with my flashlight on. Life as its finest. After that first night, one of us slept outside in a thermal sleeping bag (mostly Mor, that was his bag) while the rest shared the tent.
I doubt we’d have so much fun if we went to fancy hotels or heated guesthouses. It was cold, challenging and solidifying. Dor and I were having nice little ‘dorm-like’ talks before sleep every night. We usually sorted things out, apologized if was needed, and were re-motivating each other for the next tough day. Humans are a social creature.
Total Cost of Accommodation: €0 (Tent was borrowed from my dad), although we gave it to the girls and bought a new one for a couple tens of euros.
Food & Water
Maybe a person’s time would be as well spent raising food as raising money to buy food.
Frank Howard Clark (1888-1962)
Luckily for us, Sweden was full of apple trees all around the cities and forests, and it quickly became a habit to stop and collect a good bunch of them. Fructose was our friend, and was showing up in blueberry and raspberry bushes as well. Free food, anyone?
We always tried to stop by a lake at night. Sweden is full of them, and we used its water to wash our clothes, brush our teeth, take a shower, and even fish our dinner! Some Swedish locals taught me how to kill the fish with minimum suffering, as I was a vegan back then (didn’t last long) yet still hungry as a Kenyan hunter in the African savannas.
The rest of the food was basically cheap whole-bread, oats and cheap granola mixed with other whole grains. Mor used to make a mushy morning porridge out of it, and I used to make some spiced-up pasta soups at night. Some sort of a cheap sausage was also used.
We had a small camping stove with us that we cooked our food with. These are very light yet very useful to have when you’re out there in the great outdoors. Take a look at Amazon, they have many options.
As for the water, the tap water in Sweden is completely clean, safe and good-tasting. We were actually very surprised by that, and took every opportunity to fill up our bottles of water along the journey. We usually just used the public taps in camping sites, or politely asked from restaurants and similar places.
Total Cost of Food & Water: I can hardly remember, but very low as you can imagine. We always found these items on ‘promotion’ or something and bought the extremely cheap ones. In two weeks, we probably spent around €50 on food each, and that includes beers!
Final Words and Conclusions
That’s it, no need to over-complicate things. This really was my first real journey abroad, and I’m thankful for that experience. All of us actually met there, and we’re still good friends. These memories will last a lifetime, and I encourage you all to take similar actions and stretch your comfort zone. That’s how you evolve, fast.
Turns out, the less money you bring to a trip, the more experiences you seem to have. It takes far more human interactions to achieve something when you don’t have the sufficient money for it. I actually started this trip with around $400 on my bank account, and that was enough for everything, including the flights from Tel Aviv to Europe and back.
It was all two years ago, and even though I have my own online business today that lets me travel freely, these days of challenging travel will forever stay with me. Along with the army service, they gave me the wisdom to know that all you need in order to be totally happy is a bunch of good friends and some wild blueberries.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)