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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.

Final Stop: Stockholm and Copenhagen! July 6, 2009

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Tivoli in Copenhagen is a wonderland Tivoli in Copenhagen is a wonderland

[Note: Travel Diary updated to include this trip!]

Last journey in Europe: the Scandanavian cities of Stockholm (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark)!  This was yout typical ‘unwind’ trip – it took place right after my graduation and several days before we were set to leave the UK for good.  After exhausting but totally excellent adventures in places like Greece and Italy, northern Europe was the place to go to relax.  We started off in Stockholm, stayed for about a day and a half, then took the train to Copenhagen and stayed there for a day and a half.  Short but sufficient.  Besides, with the prices in those cities you wouldn’t want to stay for too long!

Note that even though Sweden and Copenhagen are part of the EU, both countries still retained their local currencies – the Swedish Krona (SEK) and the Danish Krone (DKK).

Initial impressions

Stockholm

Having done less research than usual before visiting a city, I was very surprised when I first arrived in Stockholm.  It was less touristy than I had envisaged, though it met expectations in terms of cleanliness.  There were very few people walking the streets, and even fewer cars – the exact opposite of what I had experienced in London.  The city is essentially made up of a series of islands, so no matter which way you walk, you are likely to run into water sooner or later.  And when you do, you’re likely to fall in love with the city because the waters are so crystal clean and incredibly beautiful.

Swedes are very proud of their clean water and their tap water is highly drinkable.  Honestly, it tasted just like bottled spring water.

St George in St Nicholas' Church in Stockholm

Dragon slayer St George in St Nicholas' Church in Stockholm

Copenhagen

After visiting Stockholm, Copenhagen was a little bit of a shock.  I had expected the two cities to be similar, but Copenhagen was more touristy, dirtier and substantially more crowded (though still not that bad).  However, the place really grew on me during the second day, and now I am very fond of it.  There are some exceptional attractions in Copenhagen which are really worth checking out, and while things are expensive, it is the ‘cheap’ food that really satisfied my taste buds.  The Nyhavn area is also quite pretty with its multi-coloured houses and restaurants lining the sides.

Best attractions

Stockholm

There are plenty of things to see in Stockholm, with over 70 art galleries and 70 museums, the Royal Palace (the interior is a bit overrated in my opinion, the Swedish Parliament and so forth.  Of course, with only a day and a half, we had to be extra selective.  Here are the top 3 things I thought were worth checking out:

3. Gamla Stan (Old Town) – this is a nice area to walk through and check out.  It has a distinct flavour to it, and even though it is rather touristy it was time well spent.  The streets may seem a little grotty with many dark stains, but it’s probably just all the dried spilt ice cream!  Speaking of ice cream, there are quite a few vendors around, as well as high-priced restaurants and souvenir stores.  If you head there from the north, you’ll get to see the Swedish Parliament and the Royal Palace from the outside, as well as some pretty views of the waters, including the City Hall where the annual Nobel prize banquet is held.

2. Boat cruise – with the many islands, if you have limited time, the best way to see Stockholm is a boat cruise.  Most of them are conducted by Stockholm Sightseeing, and the most popular cruise is the Under the Bridges tour, which costs 190 SKK a head and lasts for roughly 1 hour and 45 minutes.  It is very relaxing – you just sit there, enjoy the views, the breeze and listen to the audio guide if you want to (in about 10 languages).  It’s not cheap but you really get to see a lot in a short period of time.

There are also several hop-on, hop-off boats which can be handy (40 SKK per person one way) if you want to get from island to island.

If you have slightly more time, consider taking a trip to the Stockholm archipelago, a maritime landscape of 30,000 islands, islets and skerries.  We didn’t get a chance to go but apparently it is magnificent.

Stockholm Vasa

The maginificent Vasa Museum is my No. 1 in Stockholm

1. Vasa Museum – without a doubt one of the best and most unique museums I’ve been to and the highlight of my trip to Stockholm.  The Vasa is a warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 but was not salvaged until 1961 – 333 years later.  Despite this, the ship remains in remarkably good shape – something to do with the mixture of salt and freshwater at the point where it sunk (apparently).  The wreckage is the museum’s centrepiece, but there are 5 floors of fascinating things to explore, see and learn.  Do yourself a favour and make sure you don’t miss it.

Copenhagen

We ended up seeing quite a bit in Copenhagen.  Like Stockholm, we caught a short 50 minute cruise that took us to see many of the main attractions, such as the Little Mermaid (just a statue by the water), Nyhavn (and the place where Hans Christian Anderson lived), the Black Diamond (just a building) and the Opera House, as well as Our Saviour’s Church.  We also walked to see much of the same the next day, including the Marble Church which was pretty cool.  However, these are my top 3.

Copenhagen Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid...that's all there is

3. Stroget – the famous shopping street was a little disappointing to be honest, but if you’re in Copenhagen it’s hard to avoid it.  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad, with plenty of shops, hot dog vendors and ice cream shops (some with exquisite ice cream), the latter two of which are a lot more up my alley.  The good thing about Stroget is that there are several other attractions in close proximity to it.

2. Rosenborg Castle – this one was a big surprise.  We almost went there by default, thinking that we didn’t have enough places to go, but it turned out to be an amazing experience.  The Castle itself is impressive, but it is the beautiful gardens and the park surrounding it that make it worth visiting.  We must have sat there for a good hour or more just admiring the scenery.

Copenhagen Rosenborg

Rosenborg Castle was a pleasant surprise

1. Tivoli – the big theme park in the middle of the city, and one of the most popular places for tourists.  However, you don’t have to like rides to enjoy Tivoli (we didn’t go on any).  Entrance is 85 DKK, but each ride costs extra (I think between 20 and 40 DKK ).  The best time is to go is when it is just starting to get dark, so you can see what it is like in daylight and then when the lights come on, it’s a totally different feel.  For those who want to experience that fairytale carnival sensation you often see in movies, Tivoli is about as close as you’ll get.  Apart from the screaming youths flying overhead in the various rides and the many food and candy vendors, you’ll also see some very well-kept gardens with colourful flowers to appreciate.  Maybe I’m getting old, but I really liked just walking around and absorbing the summer carnival atmosphere.

Copenhagen Tivoli 2

Tivoli at night

Just missing the cut is the National Museum, which has plenty of interesting exhibits and turn into a bit of a maze, but they really could turn up the air-conditioning in summer.

Eating

Stockholm

The must-try foods in Stockholm, apart from ice cream, are salmon and Swedish meatballs.  We tried both once in a restaurant in Gamla Stan and they were excellent.  I must say though, I have had better of both elsewhere.

There is also a nice little French crepe place in Sodermalm too, for those so inclined.

Stockholm Swedish Meatballs

Mmm...Swedish Meatballs

Copenhagen

I only expected the waffles and ice cream to be tasty, but while they were indeed, it was the hotdogs that blew me away!  You’ll see them everywhere, especially near the Town Hall and in Stroget and Nyhavn.  Make sure you try them.  The regular hotdog (boiled, or you can get the grilled sausage) with fresh hot bread, onions, fried onions, pickles, ketchup, mustard, mayo – was just divine.  We must have had 3 or 4 of them in just a couple of days!

And the ice cream – superb.  Look out for ‘Paradis‘ – there’s a couple in Stroget.  The Pistachio is the best I’ve ever tasted.  The Ferrero Rocher is not bad either.  Unfortunately Paradis doesn’t have the ‘soft ice’ addition that some other places have.

Oh, and don’t forget the Danish open sandwiches (essentially just a sandwich without the top piece of bread).

Copenhagen Town Hall

Lots of hotdog vendors near Town Hall

Hotels

We booked hotels about as close as you can get to the main train stations, both 3 stars – Scandia in Stockholm and Astoria in Copenhagen.  Super expensive for the quality, but it was good enough for a couple of nights each.  Be warned though – most 3 star hotels in Copenhagen (we’re told) don’t have air conditioning.  This is usually not a problem, but if you go in the summer, like we did, it can be rather unbearable at night if you keep the windows closed.  We had a couple of fans, but for security reasons we kept the window largely closed on the first night, and I couldn’t sleep.  It was brutal.  On the second night we ignored safety concerns and left the window wide open, and slept like a baby (despite the bright neon sign flashing on the building across).

In all, it was a fitting end to our stay in Europe!

Travel Update: Copenhagen! July 1, 2009

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If you’ve read more than one of my posts, you’ll probably know I’m not a big fan of the heat.  And right now, I’m boiling hot, sitting in my hotel room in Copenhagen (just arrived from Stockholm today).

It’s the last leg of my European travels, and I’ll be sure to write up a mega round-up when it’s all over in a few days, but right now I’m trying to enjoy the final moments of this fantastic journey.  I’m so behind that I haven’t even finished my posts on Greece!

Anyway, be wary of hotels in Copenhagen.  We chose the Astoria based on its extreme proximity to the Central Train Station in Copenhagen, but there’s no air conditioning!  Because it apparently gets pretty cold here in winter and they only need cooling for a month a year, so most hotels go cheap when it comes to air conditioning (or so they tell us).  Must be global warming or something.  That said, we’re still forking out around 900 DKK per room per night (you do the math, but it’s not cheap!) for a 3-star hotel that doesn’t have air conditioning or free boiled water for that matter.  That said, there is free Internet :)

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