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Ultimate European Adventure Round-Up! July 10, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

One of the main reasons I decided to come to the UK to study (rather than say the US) was so I could get to visit and travel around Europe (something I had not done before but had been a life-long dream).

I have done a couple of round-up posts before after long trips (see ‘My European Adventure Round-Up’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Adventure Round-Up’), but since I have left Europe now, I thought it would be good to consolidate all the places I’ve visited over the last 9 months and deliver my final judgment.

Here are the places I visited:

(a) England – London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Salisbury, Avebury
(b) Italy – Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa
(c) Vatican City (technically a country and a city)
(d) Greece – Athens, Santorini, Delphi, Arachova, Hydra, Poros, Aegina, Milos, Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio
(e) Ireland – Dublin
(f) France – Paris
(g) Belgium – Brussels, Bruges
(h) Netherlands – Amsterdam
(i) Spain – Barcelona
(j) Germany – Munich, Berlin, Fussen (Neuschwanstein), Freiburg (Black Forest)
(k) Switzerland – Basel, Lucerne
(l) Sweden – Stockholm
(m) Denmark – Copenhagen
(n) Austria – Vienna
(o) Czech Republic – Prague

[Note: I didn’t count Frankfurt in Germany as I only stopped there for transit (twice) but did exit the airport]

108

In Bruges

Favourite places:

In terms of countries I would vote: (1) Greece; (2) Italy; (3) Germany.

Greece is simply incredible with its plethora of well-preserved archaeological sites and mythology, but is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited with its marvelous islands and beaches. Italy is similar in some respects, and gets extra marks for the number of attractions it has on offer (and its proximity to the Vatican). Germany, on the other hand, is very underrated, with wonderful, historically rich cities such as Munich and Berlin as well as terrific attractions such as the Black Forest, Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp.

Individual places are too hard to vote on as each location has its own flavour and strengths. Further, some places are big while others are small, and the differing lengths of time I stayed in each place may play a decisive role. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges sometimes.

However, if someone held a gun to my head I would probably pick: (1) Santorini; (2) Rome; (3) Athens; (4) Paris; (5) Amsterdam; (6) Venice; (7) Munich; (8) Stockholm – though the order might not always be the same.

Santorini

Santorini was my favourite

Least favourite places

No prizes for guessing that Prague was my least favourite city (see my rant here) but at least I can say that I may have just had some bad luck with my experiences and that I didn’t spend enough time there. Now London, on the other hand, has no excuses.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with London because I visited the place at least a dozen times during my 9 month stay. There are lots of things to do and see there, and the British Museum is a must-visit, but the exorbitant prices, poor service (they just don’t care) and the absolute filth and over-crowdedness just about everywhere (and especially in the Tube) would drive me insane if I lived there!

Prague Castle From Afar

Prague Castle from afar


Most/Least Expensive

Just about all of Europe is expensive compared to where I come from. It got to a point where if I tried to convert the currency I would probably just start sobbing uncontrollably.

But in any case, the ones that stood out for me were obviously London, Switzerland (as a whole), and in particular the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Cheapest was definitely Prague, but I think Italy was not too unreasonable. In Greece it depended on where you went (the islands, for example, were relatively more expensive compared to Athens).
Best/Worst Food

Another tough one because I probably didn’t get to sample the best/worst food each place had to offer. Hence I’ll just try to recall the best foods I can remember.

Number 1 has to be the calzones we had in Barcelona. Damn they were bloody good (Can Conesa at Jaume I). Number 2, the hotdogs (from portable street vendors) and ice cream we had in Copenhagen (see more at this post). Number 3, the some of the pizzas we had in Italy.

Copenhagen Marble Church

Copenhagen's Marble Church

As for the worst, this is probably a little unfair because I ate there quite a bit, but London has some extraordinarily bad food (though to be fair, as well as good food), but you just don’t expect something so bad for the prices that you pay.

Most Romantic

Easy top 3: (1) Venice; (2) Santorini; (3) Paris. Three very different places with different charms, but all great for a romantic weekend or getaway.

Venice

Most Romantic: Venice

Top 15 Attractions

This is probably the toughest of them all. My list started with 5, then 10, then 15, then got to 20 (and could have gone to 25) before I cut it back to 15.

In the end, I decided just to go with gut instinct on this one. Note that while Santorini is, as a whole, one of the best places I visited, it’s not really an ‘attraction’ per se. Also important to note is that I love archaeological sites, museums and memorials, so keep that in mind when you read on.

Counting down:

15. Dachau Concentration Camp (in Dachau, near Munich) – a highly depressing place to visit but also one of the most important and informative. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable but it’s one of those places you’d be glad to have experienced.

Dachau

Depressing but worthwhile: Dachau

14. Rosenborg Castle (in Copenhagen) – one of those unexpected gems with a neat little castle, beautiful gardens and a well-managed sea of flowers. A great place to have a picnic or just to chill out for a couple of hours.

13. La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona) – this freakish, still-under-construction piece of art created by Gaudi is either loved or hated. But either way, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it.

12. Roman Baths Museum (Bath, UK) – the site of the ancient Roman Baths, where much of it is still wonderfully preserved. I went there twice and I can tell you that it has been newly renovated and has improved on its already exceptional audio guide.

11. Nea Kameni (Santorini, Greece) – Fira and Oia are beautiful, and the Red and Black beaches are spectacular, but if I had to pick an ‘attraction’ from Santorini, the volcanic island of Nea Kameni is it! Take a 90 minute walk up to the top and back – even in the heat it is well worth the experience of seeing the destructive power of the volcano up close.

Santorini Volcano 2

Nea Kameni in Santorini

10. Tivoli (Copenhagen) – the famous theme park has a splendid carnival atmosphere. The entrance fee does not cover the rides, but you don’t need to go on a single one to enjoy the place, especially when it gets dark and the coloured lights illuminate the fairground. Magical!

9. The British Museum (London) – if nothing, London has tremendous free attractions, and they don’t get much better than the enormous British Museum. If you race through it you can probably see it all in half a day, but to truly appreciate how much priceless stuff the Brits stole from just about every other culture in the world, you’ll need at least a full day, if not 2 or 3.

8. Anne Frank House (Amsterdam) – Amsterdam may be best known for its weed and girls, but the highlight for me was the Anne Frank House, in which you can get to see where the legendary Anne Frank and her family once hid from the Nazis. Yes it can be depressing at times, but it is also quite uplifting too to read Anne’s touching words and see just what a magnificent and insightful writer she was. One can only imagine how many great writers must have perished in the Holocaust.

7. Vasa Museum (Stockholm) – the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage and was not salvaged until 333 years later. Today it forms the centerpiece of the exquisite Vasa Museum, one of the most unusual museums I’ve ever been too. I loved how you could get a different view of the Vasa at each level of the museum, from the bottom all the way to the top.

6. Neuschwanstein Castle(Fussen, Germany) – no wonder this is the number 1 attraction in Germany and has been for so long. It’s the type of place you can go a couple of times during different seasons, because I hear it’s a different feel with and without the snow (I went with a bit of snow during early Spring). The walk up to the castle itself is just magical, and the inside is worth a look too.

Neuschwanstein 009

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

5. The Acropolis (Athens) – I would have never thought that I’d rank a single monument so high, but the Acropolis has captivated my imagination ever since I was a child, and seeing it up close in person at last fulfilled a life-long dream. Even with the scaffolding along the sides and back it still takes the breath away. Now with the Acropolis Museum opened it will be even better.

4. The Louvre (Paris) – the best art museum, one of those humongous places that can take days to full appreciate. With limited time, I only got to see the main masterpieces (the most high-profile ones, at least – and there were many), so I look forward to going back there someday and seeing the rest.

3. Vatican City (Vatican City) – (I’m calling it an ‘attraction’ because it is small enough) regardless of your religion, Vatican City is one of those places that you just need to see, even if it’s just for the amazing artworks painted on almost every empty space on the inside. St Peter’s Square and St Peter’s Basilica are also some of the amazing places within the world’s smallest country that left my jaw ajar many times.

2. Palatine Hill (Rome) – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum is one of the most fantastic I’ve ever seen. Just use a bit of imagination and thousands of years of history will unfold before your eyes! Make sure you head up to the top around the outside wall to get a full view of the site.

1. Archaeological Site of Delphi (Delphi, Greece) – the centre of the world, up in the mountains, where the oracle once sat – the enormous, well-preserved archaeological site of Delphi is a remarkable place that is well worth the journey from Athens (if that is where you’re staying). There’s a lot to see and absorb and enjoy, so take your time and really use your mind to envisage what it was like 3,500 years ago in Ancient Greece.

Delphi 1

Delphi Archaeological Site is No. 1

Well, that’s it. I’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I just wrote the next time I look at it, but right now, these are my thoughts.

My European Adventure Round-up April 6, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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Venice truly is a beautiful city

Venice truly is a beautiful city

[Note I have posted a new European Adventure Round-Up after my trips to Greece, Sweden and Denmark – see here]

Well, I’m finally back.  20 days, 5 countries, 12 cities.  It was pretty hectic, but also one of the best vacations of all time!  I’ve also finally brought the Travel Diary up to date, and I’m glad I did because it’s an experience I don’t ever want to forget.  On the other hand, we’ve taken well over a thousand photos, so it’s going to take a while to sort through them all…

Just to recap, the places visited (in order) were: Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome (Italy); Basel and Lucerne (Switzerland); Freiburg, Munich, Fussen, Berlin (Germany); Prague (Czech Republic) and Vienna (Austria).  Yes, if you think about it the order was kind of weird, but there were a few unexpected things that happened with the original plans and we had to fudge it a little.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the trip:

Best City

Looking at everything from an overall perspective, the best city I visited would have to be Rome.  There’s just no other place like it.  The amazing history, the plethora of attractions and sights, the pizzas and gelato – and you’d be surprised how close everything is and how you can walk from one place to another in just minutes.  Oh, and who can forget Vatican City?  You don’t have to be religious to enjoy one of the most amazing places on Earth, even if it’s just for the paintings and the architecture.  We spent roughly four days in Rome but we were gunning it all the way.  If we had the time and money we would have spent at least a week there.

The Colosseum was pretty awesome

The Colosseum was pretty awesome

Most Beautiful

We got to witness some amazing views throughout the trip, but the most beautiful city must be Venice, with its clean, turqoise waters and canals, bridges, pretty buildings and narrow alleys.  There is something relaxing and soothing about the place, and of course it is very romantic.  St Mark’s Square is also a delight.

Most Disappointing/Overrated

No surprises here because I just posted a rant about Prague (which has turned out to be one of my all-time most popular posts!).  It’s probably the only place out of all the places we went to that I found disappointing.  Maybe it was because my expectations were not met in the short time we were there, or perhaps the unfriendly people we encountered.  Or perhaps it just wasn’t my type of place.  I wouldn’t go as far as advising people against going, but expectations need to be kept in check and awareness needs to be high.

Most Surprising/Underrated

Without a doubt it has to be Munich. It’s a place with a lot of history, some interesting attractions, and if you are a beer lover (I’m not), it can be heavenly.  But there’s also plenty of shops for those who are less into history.  We only took the local city tour but there are other ones such as the Third Reich Tour which seemed quite interesting.  Another great thing about Munich is its proximity to other places.  Neuschwanstein Castle is only a 2 hour train ride away (an easy day trip) and the former concentration camp site of Dachau can be reached by subway (then short bus ride).  A lot of people also take day trips to Nuremberg and Salzburg (in Austria).  One place I would have liked to visit but didn’t have enough time was the Olympic site.  Maybe next time.

neuschwanstein_castle

Neuschwanstein Castle is a must-visit

Most Informative

That title would have to go to Berlin, simply because of all the free information available along the sidewalks (especially near Checkpoint Charlie).  In other places you may have to do your own research beforehand, or buy a guide book, or join a tour, or pay to enter a museum – you can still do all these things in Berlin but you don’t have to spend a dime to learn a great deal about the city.

Most Depressing

Hands down the prize goes to Dachau (near Munich).  The former concentration camp site has turned into a giant memorial and museum.  It’s hard to keep the eyes dry and you won’t be doing any star jumps there but it’s such an important place to visit.  Be sure to catch the 22 minute documentary film that shows throughout the day (remember to check what time the screening is for your preferred language).

Most Expensive

Be warned: Switzerland costs money.  One of the dumbest things we did the entire trip was only allocating 100 Swiss Francs for our 2-day stay in Basel/Lucerne.  We ended up putting at least double that on the credit card, and that was just for food and transport.  When a medium McDonald’s value meal costs in the vicinity of 12 Swiss Francs (to put that in perspective, that’s roughly 10.50 US Dollars, 7.15 Pounds, 7.85 Euros and 14.80 Australian Dollars) you know your wallet is in for a rough time.  Note we found Italy and Germany and Austria to be quite even in terms of prices and the Czech Republic to be slightly cheaper.

Top 5 Attractions

This is a tough one, but off the top of my head right now, the 5 attractions I liked the most were:

5. The Munich Royal Residence (Residenz) (Munich, Germany) – the former royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs, and naturally, full of amazing treasures, artworks and countless rooms to explore.  Free audio guide too.

4. Dachau Concentration Camp (Dachau, near Munich, Germany)– depressing as hell but plenty to see and absorb, and ultimately a tremendously insightful and rewarding experience.

3. Vatican City (Rome, Italy)– regardless of what you think about religion and/or Catholics, just go and have a look.  It’s worth it.  Just make sure you buy tickets in advance for the Vatican Museum if you don’t want to wait forever like we did.

2. Neuschwanstein Castle (near Fussen, Germany) – I didn’t expect it to be so awesome but it was.  The Castle was beautiful, and the tour inside was funny (because of the robot tour guides), and the hike up the hill to get there was simply magical.  We went when there was still snow lying around, and I think that made it even more spectacular.  Weather is pretty important – I heard that it can be quite miserable when it rains and when the visibility is low.

1. Palatine Hill (Rome, Italy) – just go and see it.

Final Thoughts

  • We were pretty blessed the entire trip.  It was tiring and we got ill a couple of times, but it came and went quickly, usually overnight.  The weather was also super.  Even when it was forecasted to rain we still got sunny skies.  The only time we were bothered by the rain was in Dachau, but as I said it suited the gloomy atmosphere there anyway.
  • Join local tour groups only if you like to listen to a lot of stuff, like history and explanations on how things became the way they are.  Or if you just don’t like the hassle of organising and figuring things out for yourself.  Otherwise you can save heaps of money doing things on your own, and there’s a lot more freedom too.
  • Expensive food does not always mean the most tasty.  Some of the best pizzas we had in Italy were from small vendors wedged in a corner somewhere and the same could be said for the ham and sausages we had in Germany.  That said, we did enjoy some spectacular meals that were pretty pricey too.

Now, I probably should start studying…

Travel Update: Prague is Overrated! April 5, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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prague-bridges1

Prague can look incredible from afar, but...

[Note: Travel Diary has been updated to include Munich (including Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp) and Berlin!]

I never thought I would say this, and undoubtledly it will be heavily disputed, but in my opinion it’s true: Prague is overrated!

When I first arrived in the UK, Prague was near the top of my list of travel destinations.  Not because I knew very much about the place myself, but because every tourism book I read raved about the place and every person I spoke to kept telling me: ‘you have to go to Prague!’ 

Hence when we planned our big anniversary vacation and an opportunity came up where we had a couple of extra days on our hands, I insisted that we go to Prague (even though my wife had been and said it was nothing special, a view that 2 of her sisters concurred with).  ‘But it’s Prague‘, I would say, ‘we have to go to Prague!’  And so we did.

However, out of all 12 cities we went to on this giant trip, Prague was by far the most disappointing.  If asked, I would say it’s ‘okay’ because the place is not without merit, but given its glittering reputation (or at least the reputation I thought it had), I had expected a lot more.  It’s one of those places that look good in postcards and photos and from afar, but when you are there and everything is up close it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Perhaps I don’t really know the city well enough to be making such comments – after all, I did only spend roughly a day and a half there, so it’s really not much more than a generalised first impression; or maybe my expectations were too lofty or unreasonable – either way, these were my main gripes:

1. Appearance – I was very surprised when we stepped off the train at Praha Holesovice station, one of the main stations for international trains.  It was old, dirty and looked incredibly runned down.  Not just on the platforms but even inside the small, no-frills terminal.  I expected that to change when we caught the subway to the central station, Praha Hlavni Nadrazi, but it didn’t.  It was bigger, but still old, dirty and runned down.  When we walked outside, more of the same – the roads, the buildings, the walls.  It wasn’t even in a kind of charming or romantic sort of way.  For some reason, it just felt dull and gloomy.

2. Tourist-unfriendly – the appearance of the city was unexpected but was something you could put down as a different experience.  However, Prague also turned out to be relatively tourist-unfriendly compared to all of the other European cities I’ve visited.  There are very few English signs around and the public transport system, though not dissimilar (to say Germany), was the most confusing.  But that’s not the main problem.  The main problem is the lack of help you can expect to get from locals.  If it were just one or two people I would have put it off as bad luck or coincidence, but pretty much every single person behind a counter we sought assistance from (with the exception of the hotel receptionist) had ‘I’m not going to help you’ written all over their face – and this includes the people from the Information office! 

For instance, when we couldn’t figure out how to purchase subway tickets at the machine (no ticket office), the one guy working there in uniform quickly turned his back on us when he saw us approaching and had to be prompted by his friends to help us.  All he told us was that we had to break our notes as the machines only take coins, then ran off.  Funnily we saw the same guy on the subway asking to check our ticket.  Fortunately we did our research and bought a half-ticket for our luggage, or else we would have been fined!  Strangely, he only targeted touristy-looking people and the locals simply ignored him and the little badge he kept flashing. 

Another example was when we tried to purchase train tickets to Vienna – though the woman behind the window spoke perfect English and we were perfectly polite, she acted as though she was doing us the world’s biggest favour.  If we didn’t keep prodding her with multiple questions, we would have never: (1) purchased 2 tickets instead of 1 despite there being obviously 2 people in front of her; (2) found out what time the trains departed; (3) gotten seat reservations (apparently compulsory for international travel); and (4) found out that the train actually departed from a different station to the one we purchased the tickets from!

3. Attractions – there are a few good attractions in Prague; after all, it does have a tremendous amount of history.  I suppose that’s what attracts the tourists.  However, there was nothing overly exciting about what I saw in Prague.  The number 1 attraction, Prague Castle, was just average in my opinion, but it was probably because I had seen much more spectacular places elsewhere.  The view over the city from outside the Castle walls was worthwhile though.  The next best attraction would be Charles Bridge, with its many sculptures along the sides.  Apart from those 2 I would struggle to find anything else worth recommending, maybe except a quick peek at the Astronominal Clock and Tyn Church.

4. Rip-offs – probably the most irritating thing about Prague is how the locals try to rip off foreigners.  This was something I had read before, but I didn’t expect it to be so prevalent.  All I will say is that when in Prague, you need to be extra careful.  Read every receipt, every bill, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Check prices beforehand and make sure there are no hidden costs or charges.  Ensure, even in what may look like a respectable restaurant, that the waiter has not tampered with the bill, ‘miscalculated’ or added things that aren’t supposed to be there.  Be very wary of ‘service charges’ that magically appear out of nowhere.  We were caught off-guard by that one at this recommended restaurant called Sherwood on Opletalova (food was very salty), where the waiter added a 15% ‘service charge’ to our bill as though it was restaurant policy (even though the amount didn’t even appear on the bill).

We were almost ripped off at Prague Castle too, where we were strongly recommended to purchase the audio guide (which actually cost more than the entry tickets!) because there were no English explanations anywhere (which turned out to be untrue) and because otherwise we would have to wait in line for up to an hour to enter St Vitus Cathedral (we waited for about 1 minute to get in).

I also read elsewhere that train conductors have a tendency to try and intimidate foreigners by pretending there is something wrong with their ticket and insisting further payment or a fine.  I thought it was an exaggeration before but now I don’t find it hard to believe.

On the plus side though the prices were relatively cheap compared to most other European cities I’ve visited, and the food was pretty good in general.

Anyway, that was my first experience of Prague.  Unfair?  Perhaps.  I’m sure there are many out there who absolutely adore the place and with good reason too, but I found the city rather unappealing.  Much of it probably has to do with the local attitude towards the tourists that keep invading their city!  Can’t say I blame them.

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