Traveling on the brink of a pandemic – Part 1

Solo trekking through Europe proves COVID-19 scars run deep

Solo trekking through Europe proves COVID-19 scars run deep

By Kyle Barr


Kyle barr

There was a young man in Toulouse, France, one of only two people in a hostel dormitory, the other being me. There were two of us in a room intended to facilitate the 15th. A Parisian traveler, he had taken trains and buses to Toulouse, nicknamed the Pink City for its famous powder-red brick. We had a good view of the street and that colorful stone through the window that we shared between our beds.

“I want to see more of my country while I can,” he told me on that cool and humid July night. He also told me that he still had not received a vaccine against COVID-19. I had, but I slept just 10 feet away from him.

It should be a normal interaction for travelers across Europe but, in a space like this, the conversation inevitably turns towards a pandemic. He told me he didn’t know why he was reluctant to get the vaccine. It could have been nerves. These might be the kind of anti-authoritarian impulses we Americans know all too well. He, along with many French citizens, denounced French President Emmanuel Macron for their mandatory proof of a vaccine or negative COVID test for everything from cafes to concerts.

On July 14, Bastille Day, demonstrations broke out in the cities of France. I watched one in Marseille make its way from the old quays to the local municipal building. The demonstrators shouted “Freedom! holding signs saying “My body belongs to me!” meaning “My body is mine!”

The Monument to the Girondins in Bordeaux. Photo by Kyle Barr

But the young Parisian said that despite his anger, he could indeed change his mind.

“Maybe that will finally get me vaccinated,” he told me.

Reuters data shows that around 73% of the French population has been vaccinated. This compares to about 59% in the United States. I wonder if this young man I met in Toulouse ever had his chance, but we were traveling in opposite directions, and I don’t think I’ll ever know.

There is only one time when you can do something for the first time. Backpacking Europe is therefore one thing – a huge thing to do as a novice. To do so during a once-in-a-century pandemic is quite another thing.

Last summer I made the very sudden decision to take a two month hiking trip through several Western European countries from June 23 to August 18. Starting with France, I went to the south of the Basque Country in Spain, then back to France before going to Switzerland, then to Germany, the Netherlands, then to Denmark before a quick flight to Iceland.

My journey began just as we all thought the pandemic would subside, right after many European countries started opening their doors to overseas travelers. My trip coincidentally ended right after these same nations began to overturn those policies with open arms. France implemented a COVID passport system just weeks after I left, and it’s still only really available to French citizens, meaning it would be nearly impossible to do half of what I could. do a few months ago. Other European countries have instituted new restrictions and lockdowns. This means that there was a short period of three months, a golden slate during which the classic Euro tour was still possible. It’s gone now.

Currently, the rules are changing and Americans may find that restrictions can change between when they book travel and their departure dates. In particular, unvaccinated U.S. passengers should keep abreast of all changing regulations.

The statue of Ludwig I, Koenig von Bayern, King of Bavaria in Munich. Photo by Kyle Barr

I wonder now if things will ever return to this golden age of pandemic era travel and, at the same time, if we should ever go back. Because even during this perfect time when summer travel was (mostly) possible if one carried a vaccine card in a passport, venturing into pandemic-scarred lands alone is not like it used to be. It may never be the same again.


I have stayed in 17 hostels in total, one small hotel, two Airbnbs and two stays with caring people. During my visit to Hamburg, Germany, I spoke with the hostel staff and heard, like most hostels along my route, that they were barely 30-40% off which they had done in 2019. The hike alone depends on the ability to initiate conversations. with strangers, to meet new people from everywhere and organize day-long activities, but the pandemic has more than hampered travel around the world. He also changed some attitudes. Fewer people seem willing to sit down with strangers to have conversations as the pandemic continues.

That’s not to say that people are more obtuse or less friendly, but there is a sort of mistrust that hangs over all interactions. Most of the travelers I have met have spoken in a similar way about this general feeling hanging like a cloud above people’s heads. Part of this was due to the lack of people in the hostels, but there was also a defining feeling of separation.

Kyle Barr is a freelance writer and former editor of The Port Times Record, The Village Beacon Record and The Times of Middle Country.

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