I’m lamenting the loss of STA Travel which this week has stopped trading due to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry.
STA Travel literally changed the course of my life. Those InterRail tickets I bought just after graduation that saw us take a few months off to explore Europe after a shitty year were transformational.
InterRailing is ace. We booked a 2 month pass that allowed us unlimited train travel in two countries of our choosing. STA Travel was where you went to buy them and ask all questions someone going backpacking for the first time naturally has.
I voted for Italy, as I was obsessed with Italy at the time and had dreams of living there one day. I was studying Italian but really what is not to love about Italy, the food, the wine, the architecture, the art. I’d already been a bunch of times – with family, on an exchange trip, with college, but to spend a month there exploring was the dream.
My boyfriend at the time – now husband – wanted to go to Spain. Spain? That’s one big tacky tourist resort I exclaimed. I was after culture not the Costa del Sol and awful Brits abroad.
But you know, compromise is key. And we settled on a month in Spain followed by a month in Italy.
The first place we went in Spain after the obligatory week on the beach was Granada, we stayed in our first hostel and discovered after having a full meal in the Albaycin that tapas was free in Granada. It was a revelation. You got a free plate of food with each drink and the tapas got better and better with each course. You were full before you were drunk! Over a decade later it was the lure of free tapas that encouraged us to move to Granada and spend almost 18 months in that magical moorish city when we were looking for somewhere to refresh, where the cost of living was low and you could still have a social life for a fraction of the cost of London.
Next stop was Sevilla – and this city changed everything, it was what made me fall in love with Spain. We’d only picked it as a convenient train stop en route to Madrid, one of the happy accidents of InterRailing.
I was captivated by the orange scent in the air, the bustling tapas bars we’d later return to again and again, the spectacular buildings, the flamenco, the Maria Luisa Park. This was no tacky tourist resort this was a city filled with culture, which wasn’t full of English picture menus and I loved it. I had learnt a few food words but enjoyed playing tapas roulette randomly ordering plates that sounded amazing but with no idea what they were, that’s how I built my Spanish food vocab.
We were only there two nights that first time but must have seen 5 weddings in those 2 days and when we used a pay phone to call home I declared we’d be getting married there. And we did, not on that trip but a few years later and we loved it so much we did it all over again for our 10 year anniversary, and so many of our family made it back out to join us, as Seville had stolen their hearts too.
On that first trip we also traveled by train to Madrid, where we now live, Valencia and finishing up our Spanish leg in Barcelona.
When we arrived at our hostel in Barcelona, copy of Spain’s Lonely Planet with a big bull on the front in hand. The owner declared forcefully what I can only assume was ‘no, this is not Spain this is Catalunya’. Thankfully we managed to rescue the situation with football. We’d got tickets to see Barcelona that night and despite not speaking each other’s language my boyfriend managed to agree that Mourinho was an arse, and Ronaldinho was a god – we were told to watch out for this kid called Messi – apparently he was going places. The football chat got us an upgrade to the jacuzzi room. I didn’t pay too much attention, a jacuzzi room in a hostel seemed improbable. But yes the room we were led to had a jacuzzi. Wow. We were certainly getting our monies worth for €15 a night.
We flicked a light switch and instead surround sound came on, nice. Flicked another switch and a red light came on. Then we noticed the pole. Yup we were staying in a brothel oops. Anyway that night after a jacuzzi, we watched the Barca game. I will always be grateful to have seen Ronaldinho in his prime, he was magic and every time he touched the ball you felt anything could happen. We kept our eyes out for Messi – turns out the boy really could play!
From there we flew to Rome and worked our way up Italy, revisiting my favourite cities of Florence, Sienna and Venice before finishing up in Milan. A city I returned to for work often up until recently.
That trip definitely opened my eyes to the magic of Europe that was on our doorstep. For years later I didn’t feel the need to travel to the other side of the world there was so much to see and do right here in Europe. I enjoyed exploring the regionality of a country and unpicking why one city or place could be so different to another. To explore the regional specialities and understand how and why the food and wine from a place tells its own story about that place.
I don’t have much picture evidence of that trip to hand as it was pre smart phones – I’m sure there is a box of awesome memories with developed film somewhere.
That trip we used maps, learnt enough of the local lingo to reserve seats on the train, call a hostel for a room and eat. Every so often we’d stop in at an Internet cafe or use a payphone and message home. We sent postcards – how quaint!
We did another InterRail trip for our honeymoon a few years later, backpacking again and this time focused just on Spain, I’d been converted now. The itinerary based on train routes with a little guidance from Lonely Planet included Sevilla – Córdoba – Granada – Madrid – Salamanca – Bilbao – San Sebastián – Logroño – Valencia and Barcelona.
Pretty much every stop we stumbled on a local fiesta of some description more by accident than design – enjoyed the street parties and temporary stages erected all over Salamanca, saw some movies at the San Sebastián film festival, went loco at San Mateo wine festival.
I guess travel is much easier these days, COVID aside, with the touch of a button you can explore anywhere in the world and get a good sense of what it will be like. Order travel tickets online for almost anything. But back then STA Travel was a real lifeline to getting started on your first adventure.
I certainly wouldn’t have ended up living in Granada or now Madrid or marrying in Seville if it wasn’t for that trip.
Thank you STA Travel for the happy memories and inspiring some interesting life choices.