Sailship Oslo Norway Scandinavia

Norway

Anyone contemplating a Nordic escapade will no doubt have Norway on the brain, and for good reason. The very word Nordic means North, and as you know, Norway is…well, way North. Hence the name. (Sorry, I know that was a pretty deep explanation. I’ll try to ease up on the factual details). But, that’s not the only reason! The country basically makes up the entire Western and Northern coasts of the Scandinavian peninsula. The landscape is completely riddled with fjords along with their majestic breathtaking views. What is a fjord, you say? Well, they come in all shapes and sizes. There’s the Fjord Fiesta, the Fjord Focus, or for those that need a little pep in their step, the Fjord Mustang. Personally, I prefer German to American manufacturers, but that’s for another post. Supposedly, the Norwegians have added an extra meaning to “Fjord”. They say every long, narrow, and deep sea inlet should be considered a fjord as well. Although, I can’t help but think it’s just another deceptive ploy to lure unsuspecting American tourists to their country.

Fjord Panoramic Norway Scandinavia

You can’t afjord to miss views like this…trust me there’s nor way.

If you remember from past posts, I labeled certain places as “comfort countries”. This was based on if they widely spoke English, how edible their cuisine was, and how easy it is to get around. I’d give Norway an 8.5 on the comfort scale. The only reason why I haven’t given it a 10 is because of the cost. While Norwegians are known for their impeccable English skills, mouth-watering seafood, and convenient public transportation, Norway is in no way an “a-fjord-able” place to visit. Not only that, but the prices are somewhat confusing, if not absurd. Say you would like a beer. Now, in Belgium that would run you about €1.30 per bottle, and you can count on it being a brilliant brew. What about nonsensical Norway? One bottle, sorry one can rather (you can already tell what the quality is going to be), of not so great tasting beer will cost you almost €10! After the initial sticker shock you somehow decide you’re ok with parting with that much dough (your travel conscience probably used the timeless “When will we ever be in Norway again?” rhetoric which seems to cost us travelers way too much money). You head right on over to the nearby supermarket. Think again. If you want anything containing alcohol, you’ll have to visit what’s called a vinmonopolet (try saying that after you’ve had a beer), and there’s typically only one or two per city. By law, they close at 6pm on weekdays and 3pm on Saturday (closed on Sunday, of course). To make it even more strict, if you’re in the shop at say 2:50pm on Saturday, for example, you take your time selecting a bubbly beverage and then you excitedly waltz up to the cash registers with your new-found drinkable acquaintances. (I prefer the Viennese Waltz, myself) That is, until you realize it’s 3:01pm. You’re only one minute too late! Even though you’re in the shop, beer in hand, and employing the best puppy dog eyes you can manage, you must return the beer to its shelf and promptly leave the premises. No questions asked.

Bryggen Wharf Bergen

Bryggen Unesco World Heritage Site. As much as I like warm weather and sunshine, I decided I wouldn’t have it any other way. As funny as it sounds, the overcast drizzle suits Norway. It adds to the element of coziness that seems to infiltrate all Scandinavian culture.

So, we’ve established that Norway is an expensive place, and that it’s a bit strict when it comes to alcohol, but why did I say the prices were confusing? I’ll give you an example. If you choose not to rent a car and plan to see Norway by public transit (train, bus, ferry, etc.), you’d probably expect to pay an arm and a leg, another leg, your cat, and all of its legs, and your first-born child just to afford one ticket. Let’s set the stakes even higher, how about a night train from Oslo all the way to Bergen (literally crossing the entire width of the country from East to West)? Oh, that’ll only be €30, and they throw in a blanket, a pillow, ear plugs, an eye mask, a cat, and a first-born child for no extra cost. What is that you say? You would like a beer on this train journey as well? While they do serve beer on the train, you might as well forget it. After paying for it, you wouldn’t have a limb to drink it with.

Nærøydalen Norway

One of my personal favorites from the trip, this valley is called Nærøydalen which just so happens to be another UNESCO World Heritage sight. 2 down, 979 to go.

On a serious note (as if I had one), I wholeheartedly recommend taking full advantage of public transportation instead of a rental car, especially because of the scenic routes only accessible by train. You’ll not only be rewarded with jaw-dropping views, but more importantly you won’t have the stress of driving through those jaw-dropping views. It’s not you that I’m worried about, it’s the person sitting next to you in the front seat. It’s exceedingly difficult to remain calm and collected as your co-pilot rocks back and forth with tears streaming down their face. It was scary enough to ride the bus down the mountain passes. At one point those in the back of the bus were sitting almost 7 feet (2.1m) higher than the passengers in the front. Trust me, it’s not easy to wipe away the tears when you’re rocking all over the place. (Of course I’m talking about the other passengers. I would never cry. Ok, ok, except if I spilled my beer, which cost my life savings.)

Norwegian bus steep grade

This stretch of road known as Stalheimskleiva is one of the steepest in Northern Europe. If you look really hard, you can see all the passengers sobbing inside…

As far as cities go, I’d recommend seeing Bergen (pronounced Barr-i-ghin with a trilled ‘r’) instead of Oslo. While Oslo does have its charm in some respects, it’s just not my kind of town. If you’re into art sculptures (usually inappropriate sculptures, I might add), modern architecture, and exorbitantly high-priced restaurants (no surprise there), then Oslo is your city. Bergen, however, is home to a UNESCO world heritage site known as Bryggen which is an old fishing wharf dating back to the 13th century. Only 63 of the original buildings remain in Bergen, but as you walk down the pier passing by the fresh seafood booths and authentic woolen sweater shops, you’ll get the true feel of Norway. From Bergen the fjords are easily accessible. My recommendation, check out the Norway in a Nutshell fare package if you’re short on time. In one day I was able to take trains, buses, and ferries all throughout Norway’s dramatic landscape. Seeing stunning out-of-the-way villages such as Mrydal, Flåm, and Voss (where Voss water comes from, you know, the water that comes in the capped flower vases that’s always on sale next to the seashell soaps and yogurt covered raisins at TJ Max) along the way.

Village in Fjords Norway

While many make use of the ferries as tourists, for some it is what connects their small village to the rest of the country. If you make time for a ferry trip don’t be surprised if the whole ship stops momentarily at someone’s personal dock to pick them up for a grocery run.

If you only have a couple of days to spare and you’re on a budget, the best option would be to fly into Oslo Rygge Airport and take the night train to Bergen. By using this approach you’ll be able to spend the afternoon and evening in the city and then hop on the train to combine hotel and travel expenses. As you arrive early the next morning at Bergen Station, right where Norway in a Nutshell launches several of its tours. Generally you’ll set off at about 8:00am and return by 6:00pm, giving you plenty of time to sightsee and grab a bite to eat. The fact that Bergen stays light until 11:00pm in the summer is an added bonus. If this truly is a blitz trip, then head back to the train station from which you arrived and board the night train back to Oslo. You’ve just spent the entire weekend in Norway without booking one hotel room! Depending on when you’re flight out is, you should have plenty of time to grab a coffee and a slice of cake. (Word to the wise, if they offer to cover your coffee cake in “cream” or “sauce”, confirm by nodding your head up and down vigorously, which is Norwegian for “yes”. Your taste buds will thank you.)

On a side note, if you ever find yourself in a city, either passing through or taking your time, you might decide to head to a grocery store for lunch instead of blowing your money at a restaurant. While that is a brilliant idea, it’s best to first survey the prices to see if you’re actually getting a deal and if it’s really worth all the hassle. No matter how tempting it may be, avoid going to the grocery store in the train station if at all possible. Though convenient, it’ll cost you in more ways than one. Allow me to share my experience. I had time to kill while I was waiting for my train to Bergen. I, of course, was hungry. What else is new? I made my rounds through the station looking for some decent consumables when I was struck with a lightbulb moment (interestingly because Norway is such an eco-friendly country, it was one of those spirally fluorescent lightbulbs). “Why don’t I just buy some stuff to make sandwiches from the little shop here at the station? It’d be cheaper than a restaurant, and I’ll have the ingredients to make more if I get hungry on the train.” (Sorry, guess I should have said when I get hungry on the train.) I waltzed (this time more of a cross-step than a Viennese) through the automatic sliding doors and began perusing my options. I first selected a cheese which was supposedly made locally and looked amazing. More importantly I chose a cheese that was pre-sliced since I didn’t have a knife with me. I found some bread rolls on sale, some nice salami, and (without any other option) an entire jug of mayonnaise. Total cost: $25.00, not exactly a steal. I could have had a crouton and a glass a water at a fancy restaurant for that kind of money.

Oslo Skyline

While I’d sooner be in a 700 year old fishing wharf any day, I did enjoy meandering the city, but 1 day is my max for any major city. Be it Oslo, or Paris, or even London.

Under most circumstances, I do my utmost to blend in to my surroundings so that I don’t stand out as a tourist. But not this time. I parked myself on the only available space on a bench on the train platform. Anxiously, I tore into my bag of goodies and prepared to build myself a breaded beauty. I began to open up a roll, only to realize it was on sale for a reason. It was more of an archeological artifact than a baked good. At the same time the wind started to pick up forcing all of my fellow benchmates to cover their faces to avoid the onslaught of flying breadcrumbs hurdling toward them. To make matters worse, this attracted the entire country of Norway’s pigeon population. Circling the bench with menacing grimaces, I felt as if they viewed me as a giant piece of wonder bread. I figured, I’ve gotten this far, I might as well finish the thing. As I go for the cheese, I realize that some genius decided to put decorative lines along the edges just to make it look pre-sliced. So with the skill and precision of a blind fingerless Neanderthal, I proceeded to rip the cheese into chunks and place them in my ancient bread roll. Speaking of cutting the cheese, I attempted to squirt a bit of mayonnaise into my hoagie of horror. Not only did it deploy 5 metric tons of mayo all over my lap (a bit got on the sandwich), the bottle let out an absolutely ghastly sound. Thinking that I had messed myself, everyone within a 100ft radius evacuated the premises. So the moral of the story is this: unless you want to be all by yourself, covered in mayonnaise, surrounded by pigeons, with cheese under your fingernails, do not, I repeat do NOT venture into a train station grocery store.

Tyler wearing a viking hat

Here’s a perfect example of me trying not to stand out as a tourist. This can be accomplished by wearing the native attire. (Side travel tip: In an effort to pack light, pockets can be a traveler’s best friend, especially inside pockets to prevent theft. The coat I am wearing in this photo contained anything from money to train tickets, extra camera batteries, my passport, cheese, salami, and even a jug of industrial grade mayonnaise.

Waterfall

No Norway blog would be complete without a waterfall, or as the Norwegians call it “foss”. It’s the icing on the cake, making a quick trip through Norway truly unforgettable.

While it may sound like most of my travels are consumed with mishap and unpleasantries, I do actually enjoy myself from time to time, but as I’ve said before, who wants to hear about the time I ate at a restaurant without getting lost or caught the train on time and got bumped to first class. No, when people come up and ask: “Hey, how was Norway?! Did you see the Fjords? Wasn’t it breathtaking?”, I usually say: “Eh, it was alright, but did I tell you about the time that I got mayonnaise on my pants?! Let me tell ya…”

Fjord

Editor’s Note: If anyone finds themself in Bergen and they haven’t eaten, I forgot some cheese, salami, and a heap of mayonnaise at the Scandic Hotel. Email me if you want the address.

Sweden

Generally we base our travel decisions on what we already know about the countries we plan to visit. Many decide they want to explore France, for example. It’s a popular country for tourists because of what it’s known for. We’ve heard they have great food, interesting architecture, and arguably one of the most beautiful languages. There, I did it, I finally gave France a compliment. Post after post, I’ve cheap-shot, lamb-basted, and all together roasted that crêpe eating country every chance I could get. I figured now was a good time to ease up a little. They really do have fine cuisine and beautiful surroundings. So, for at least the duration of this post I’ll try to do my best to be kind towards France. After all, I could have listed the things that it isn’t known for, like friendly people or occasionally, deodorant.

Stockholm city center square

Just about every major European city has a square at its center. I find this to be truly an endearing quality. Stockholm is no exception. Need a beautiful place to take it easy, only accompanied by an espresso? Head here.

However, the real star of this post is Sweden. And, what do we know about Sweden? “Um, well…lot’s of things. They have meatballs, they have Ikea, and uh…did I mention the meatballs?” The sad reality is, at least for most non-Europeans, we don’t really know much about the place. Which, in turn, causes many to overlook Sweden as a tourist destination. In fact, the only reason I had the chance to visit was because I was on my way to Norway. I figure if I’m going all the way to Scandinavia (an area of Northern Europe consisting of: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and various Nordic islands), I might as well see a couple of its countries.

Swedish Meatballs

Even if Sweden’s only claim to fame was their meatballs (don’t worry, it’s not) it would still make my top ten list. Hey, maybe I should make one of those…

Most likely, the cheapest Swedish airport to fly into would be Stockholm-Skavsta. It is a bit out of the way, but if you don’t mind taking the scenic route you can be in Stockholm city center in about 1 1/2 hours. A one way (enkel resa) ticket for the bus costs about $18.

A view of the stockholm city skyline with boat in view. Sweden

This pier is just crawling with locals who have brought their own wine and cheese to kick back, relax, and enjoy the view. It’s a refreshing difference from most bustling cities.

Speaking of cash, I’d like to address a common conundrum when it comes to foreign currency. I’ve noticed many will bring along a stack of bills from home in hopes of converting it upon arrival. While conversion booths would love for you to do this, it is by no means the most economical option. I remember my very first visit to Europe, I brought some US Dollars with me. I have to admit, there’s something reassuring about having cold hard cash with you, especially when you are in a foreign land. I practically skipped up the steps to the nearest money conversion office, ready to receive my crisp new UK pound notes. “Sure”, the man said, “the current rate is 1 pound for 2 dollars”. Ridiculous! At the time, the real rate was around £1 to $1.50. I wasn’t about to lose .50¢ on every pound I spent. Fortunately, a friend of mine was headed to the U.S. and he needed dollars. So, we did a clean swap to both of our advantages. Money changing booths always charge something for their services, and it adds up quickly. Instead of bringing cash along, call your bank or credit card company ahead of time. Inform them of which countries you plan to visit, and check on their foreign transaction fees. Personally, I shopped around until I found a bank that didn’t charge those fees. Anyway, once you arrive, head to any ATM in the train station or airport. Here in Europe there’s generally no extra fees for making withdrawals, and you get the absolute best exchange rate in your favor. (Though your bank may charge its own fee.)

Looking up at a red stone building in Stockholm Sweden

While in most cities you have to sacrifice cleanliness for architecture, (i.e. Paris…oops, I mean Paris is great, and sparkly clean!) in Stockholm you need not worry. The city is as architecturally beautiful as it is spotless.

So, back to Sweden. If you take the bus from Skavsta, you’ll be dropped off right in front of Stockholm Central Station. There’s a perfect opportunity for you to head over to any “Minibank” (ATM) and withdraw some Kronor. As with all of the Nordic countries, (besides Finland) Sweden is not on the Euro. While the exchange rate appears to be in most tourists’ favor (i.e. 1 Euro = 9.40 Swedish Krona), do not be deceived! Most of Scandinavia is not at all cheap. To do a quick mental conversion, when you see the price, simply move the decimal point once to the left. If it’s 135.00 Kronor, then it’s about €13.50. If you are on the dollar, then add about 10% to that. Keep in mind each Scandinavian country has their own Crown, meaning you’ll need to withdraw different currencies whenever you cross the border. The exchange rates are practically identical, so you don’t have to worry about doing extra math.

Arial view of Stockholm Central Station Sweden

Stockholm Central-Stepping into any train station immediately fills one’s soul with adventure and anticipation. You know that feeling you get when you read an old-fashioned paperback book even though you could read it on your fancy new tablet? That’s the feeling I get every time I step into a train station instead of an airport. It’s simply irreplaceable.

As far as accommodations go, be sure to read the hotel description thoroughly. You can get stellar deals on hotel rooms, but it usually comes with compromise. Nothing too major though. The room I booked in Stockholm was only missing a bathroom, a mini fridge, a microwave, a TV, a phone, tissues, cups, mini shampoos, those, often dusty, decorative soaps, and, oh yeah, it was in a windowless basement. Imagine being taken hostage and trapped in an abandoned Ikea warehouse overnight, and to think, I paid to be trapped there! While it may not be a luxury retreat, if all you need is a place to sleep, it will definitely get the job done.

Small hotel room in stockholm sweden

I apologize. This is the best angle I could get on the account of the room being so small. Welcome to my humble abode. Home sweet…Ikea dungeon.

Considering I was already staying in an Ikea warehouse, the only thing left to check off my Swedish checklist was the meatballs. I searched high and low, up and down alleys, through people’s homes even, looking for those elusive edible orbs. You’d think if it was one of the two things your country was known for, they would make signs for aimless tourists like me. “Meatballs 200m this way” with some sort of flickering neon arrow.

Narrow street in stockholm sweden

Hmm…no meatballs here.

After hours of searching, weighed down by bags of Swedish moose key chains, I finally found someone eating a plate of meatballs at a small, but packed little bistro. (I have to admit, I was slightly tempted to yell out: “Hey look! It’s ABBA!!, which in Sweden would have caused sudden panic followed by a dangerous stampede of excited fans. The perfect opportunity to slip behind the scenes with the meatballs, but I restrained myself. If the lady hadn’t already eaten one, it may have been a different story…) After reading the menu, I learned the Swedish word for meatballs is köttbullar. Had I known that, I would have realized I was surrounded by meatballs the entire time (that actually sounds kind of creepy. Maybe it’s better I didn’t know). Once you sink your teeth into one of these mouth-watering spheres of Sweden, you’ll never set foot in an Ikea cafeteria again. I had no idea meatballs could taste so good, especially when they are accompanied by homemade mashed potatoes, lingonberry compote, and the most amazing tart cucumber salad translated as “pickles” you’ll ever lay taste buds on. My recommendation, start with a smoked reindeer salad, then enjoy the köttbullar, of course. (If you’ve finished the appetizer and someone receives their meatballs before you, feel free to use the ABBA maneuver at this point.) Tie it all together swimmingly with a delicious local apple cider. I didn’t realize this at the time, but afterwards you should go for an ice cream. Apparently they’re known for their waffle cones which they make right in front of you. The smell in itself is seductive.

Reindeer salad sweden

I find it awkward when people ask me if I saw reindeer in Sweden. I usually say something like “Yes, but they were hard to see, because they were sleeping under a bed of arugula.” Hey, don’t judge.

Sadly, the extent of my trip only included spending an evening and a morning in Stockholm, so my advice is quite limited. Although, if you are on some sort of blitz trip through Europe, and you’re searching for a unique destination, a day in Stockholm would be very well spent. The city is situated right on the water, on the banks of the archipelago that connects Lake Mälaren to the Baltic Sea, making the views nothing short of extraordinary. If you are visiting in the summer time don’t expect the sun to go down any time soon. Though it is considered “Southern Sweden”, bear in mind you’ll be sharing the same latitude as Juneau, AK. With sunsets around 10:30-11:00pm and restaurants staying open till dark, you’ll have plenty of time to meander Stockholm’s many unique alleyways and cobble stone roads, looking for meatballs, of course. Or you could spend your time perusing the many gift shops playing the “try to spot a souvenir that doesn’t have a moose on it” game (never did win that…). Another word of advice, if you do decide to go big and book a room that has a window in it (someone’s fancy), make sure you close the curtains. That is, unless you don’t mind being awoken at 4:00am with the sun burning through your eyelids. Who knew staying in a basement had its advantages?

Downtown

So, if you’re planning to make a trip up to Scandinavia, I’d certainly recommend paying a visit to Sweden. Planning a trip to the Fjords in Norway? Check out the option of flying into Stockholm first and take a train over. In my case, it was almost the same price. Swedish trains are both ultra modern and impeccable, and with the going rate for a ticket from Stockholm to Oslo being around €30, it’s the most affordable thing you can find there. Not to mention the phenomenal views along the way.

Alleyway in Stockholm sweden

Sweden may not be the most well-known (or the warmest) travel destination, but windowless accommodations, excessive moose memorabilia, and confusing exchange rates aside, giving Sweden a chance will undoubtedly leave you coming back for more…meatballs.

Editor’s note: No reindeer were hurt during the writing of this post. Well, I mean I had nothing to do with it. It was dead when I got there, I swear. 

Switzerland

Have you ever noticed that foreign countries and cultures turn out to be completely different from what you were expecting once you actually see these places for yourself? English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley once wrote: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Why is that? Well, the media certainly doesn’t help matters. In the movies, common stereotypes include: Russians always being the bad guys, Germans ever cunning, but essentially evil, the French persistently rude and snooty (well, that one may be…), and the Swiss speaking with a thick German accent. Take that last one, for example. Why is that inaccurate? Don’t people from Switzerland speak German?

Small village in Switzerland

I took this picture from the house where I was staying which looked almost identical. Anyway, I asked my friend how old his house was. He said: “It’s fairly new, maybe 300 years old.” And here all this time I thought my house was old since it was built 15 years ago…

In previous posts we’ve discussed (and have hopefully dispelled) some “travel myths” ranging from how to accurately cross a country off your list (Fiji) to disproving the malicious slander that English food is disgusting (England). In this post, I’ll be attempting to decode the true nature of that schedule-crazy, dairy-loving, multilingual land known as Switzerland (Or Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera, Svizra, or for all you lovers of Latin, Confoederatio Helvetica).

According to most Americans, Switzerland is good for only four things: army knives, watches, hot chocolate mix, and cheese. But, only a certain kind of cheese. See, if you go to the neighborhood deli and ask for “Swiss Cheese” you’re in for a treat. Out comes a heap of white bitter squares with holes in it. Switzerland is home to around 450 different varieties of cheeses. There’s Gruyère, Raclette, Appenzeller, Schabziger, Sbrinz, Berner Alpkäse, and the list goes on, but they choose that one to name after the entire country?!

Homemade Cheese Wheels Shelved in Switzerland

I have to say, this tasted just a tad better than the pre-sliced deli brand.

Then I thought about it, “American Cheese” , supposedly named after the United States, is the most vile, artificially yellow, plastic flavored cheese on the planet. What more can you expect? At least “Swiss Cheese” is actually considered “dairy”. As you can imagine, this cheese ordeal was weighing heavily on my mind. Not long after I touched down in the land of bells and alphorns, I began doing my cheese investigation. “So, do you guys really like “Swiss Cheese”?, I asked my friends. “Which one?”, they asked, “You know, SWISS Cheese”, I said. “We have many cheeses”, they replied. I then tried describing this peculiar cheese: “It’s kind of gross, oh oh and it has holes—”. I couldn’t even finish my sentence before all of their faces contorted in unison as if we had just driven by a waste treatment plant. “Oh, you mean Emmentaler?” they said disgustedly, “we don’t eat that stuff.” Of course, I’m sure that’s not the opinion of the entire Swiss population, but I couldn’t believe my ears! A Swiss person doesn’t like Swiss Cheese? All these years I was treated as unsophisticated and having no taste because I didn’t like Emmentaler. What a relief to no longer be chastised for my choice in cheeses.

I realize now, that they put a country’s name on a label to make it seem more appealing, more exotic, and more importantly, worth buying. I can just imagine some Swiss guy opening up a cheese shop when he got to America. All of his cheeses were a hit. Well, except old Emmentaler. With crates and crates of this tasteless holey cheese, what else could he do? “I’ll just say this is our national cheese, those poor saps will be all over it. Just like when I sold all of that yellow cellophane and called it ‘American'”, he said rubbing his hands together with an evil Swiss laugh.

A view of the Reuss River in Lucerne Switzerland

There’s one notable side effect to being a budget traveler. You must travel during the off-season for the best deal. Best deal usually equals worst weather, hence almost all of my pictures are slightly gloomy. At least you get the idea. This is Lucerne (Luzern), by the way.

This practice is not unique to the U.S., by any means. For example, once I went through a grocery store in Curaçao, in the freezer section. It was lined with various types of pizzas all corresponding to different states in the U.S. I had no idea that “Pickle-and-Sardine” pizza was so popular in Rhode Island.

Another notable occurrence was in Belgium. Normally I have nothing bad to say about the place, Belgium is quite possibly my most favorite (and most visited) country. The only exception was the “Americain Sandwich”. This breaded atrocity consisted of raw, and I really mean raw, ground beef churned with hot sauce and onions slapped on a baguette. (I know what you’re thinking….”ewww gross, onions!”)

Kapellbrücke Luzern Switzerland

Another view of Lucerne through the Kapellbrücke. Europe’s oldest wooden covered bridge.

And because I am American, just about every Belgian wanted me to try this thing. One actually went as far as buying an entire “foot-long” (30cm-long doesn’t have the same ring to it) for me to enjoy all by myself. Thankfully, I had a friend with me at that time who was also from the U.S. who had left the country for the very first time. I could use the “I don’t want you to miss out on the experience. Here you can have mine” line. To my surprise, the whole sandwich was gone in seconds. Although, I still can’t figure out why he insisted on eating right next to that trash bin.

Anyway, back to Switzerland. As long as Emmentaler minds his own business, there are countless mouth-watering cheeses to be had. I remember one cheese that was so fresh, it could only be kept for three days after it is made. Meaning, the only way to sample this delicacy is to hop on a plane!

Löwendenkmal The Lion Monument Switzerland

Löwendenkmal or Lion Monument. This was to honor the Swiss soldiers killed in the French Revolution.

So how does this answer the question about the Swiss accent? Again, in the movies you’ll hear Swiss people speaking with a crisp German accent and they are depicted with blond hair and blue eyes. Also, there is a side myth (one that was mentioned in the Germany post) which is the idea that German is spoken with a lot of phlegm. Both of those are not accurate. While there are people of all types that live in Switzerland, I wouldn’t say it is predominantly blond hair and blue eyed. Besides Germany, Switzerland is nestled between Italy and France as well, making it quite a melting pot.

Cable car gondola

The classic mode of transport in the Alps.

The idea that German is spoken with a lot of horking and hacking likely comes from the way Swiss German (which is a dialect, not an accent) is spoken (that’s probably why so much dairy is consumed in this country. It makes it a lot easier to speak the language, if you know what I mean). The ‘ch’ is where you’ll find that distinctive phlegm-filled sound. So to clarify, the ‘ch’ in German sounds like a cat hissing, whereas in Swiss German it sounds like you’re trying to clear your throat after drinking a gallon of half and half. When you hear someone speaking the Swiss dialect for the first time, you’ll have no idea it’s related to its Lederhosen-clad neighbor.

Looking down on Wolfenschiessen from a small cable car (Gondola).

Looking down on Wolfenschiessen from the Gondola.

To illustrate how different the Swiss German dialect is from High German (the German that is spoken in Germany), if you were to ask someone from Germany if they can understand Swiss German, they will likely say: “Ja, Natürlich” (Yes, of course). In actuality, what they are understanding is someone speaking High German with a Swiss accent. It’s like saying you understand French, when really all you can understand is someone speaking English in a French accent. So if the accent alone sounds like a different language, you can imagine how much the actual dialect differs. As long as I haven’t totally confused you, let’s move on. On the other hand, if I have totally confused you, we’re still moving on.

Swiss Chalet

Staying in a cabin up in the Alps during a snow storm registered a 10.0 on the cozy scale. It was almost devastatingly cozy.

Interestingly, because of its aforementioned neighbors, Switzerland is divided into German, Italian, and French regions (most of my time was spent in the German part). This gives you some variety. For example, if you’re interested in France, it’s culture, architecture, or cuisine, then Geneva or Lausanne might be a good idea to visit. Or, if you’re fascinated by Italy, then be sure not to pass up Lugano. Nothing quite like seeing palm trees beside the Alps. For me, at the time I was intrigued with all things German (which makes up most of Switzerland). If you fly into the Zürich airport, you’ll be greeted by the (recorded) sound of cow bells and mooing as you board the airport tram, truly setting the stage for this amazing place that somehow takes you back in time while remaining completely modern. As a side note, you will notice on the license plates the letters “CH”, and no I’m not still talking about phlegm. This is the country name’s official abbreviation. Makes sense since it’s spelled Chaswitzerland. Wait what?

If you were paying attention, earlier you would have read that “CH” really stands for the Latin “Confoederatio Helvetica” or Swiss Confederation. Since Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh the official name was chosen in a neutral language, Latin, in order to make it fair for everyone. (Listen, I’m just trying to help you if you ever make it on to “Jeopardy!”. I am expecting a cut, though…)

Sleeping next to a fire in a cabin in Switzerland

Ok, I know you’re probably wondering how I could waste my time napping in such a beautiful place. To which I propose a better question: How can you not? You try staying awake when you’re in a cozy cocoon next to a wood stove being force-fed hot chocolate. It’s just not happening.

Really, your entire vacation could be consumed by this mini-Europe. It truly is a unique combination borrowing the prompt, clean, orderly nature of the Germans, the amazing cooking skills of the French, and the fantastic coffee and architecture of the Italians.

In neighboring Austria, I remember once being delayed over an hour traveling by train. This is in stark contrast to Switzerland where the trains show up right on the dot. Some even had countdown timers posted that would tell you when the next train was to arrive, right down to the second! Once on board, you’ll feel like you’re on a mobile library. If you were to close your eyes, you honestly wouldn’t know when the train started moving or when it stopped. A far cry from “The Dreadful Spanish Train Incident“. The only bad thing about traveling in a library is that you find yourself constantly looking over your shoulder. Waiting for some lady with bad breath and reading glasses hanging around her neck to scold you, sternly whispering that your “Captain Super Person” Volume 12 comic is 3 years overdue. It was one time, alright?!

Miniature Cows Switzerland

I really felt like we had something here. They still email me once in a while, but I don’t understand their dialect.

Once, I stayed with some friends that had a farm on a mountain side above the village of Wolfenschiessen. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this alpine farm was the miniature cattle that was being raised there. Why would you want mini moo cows, you say? Two reasons: First, since they’re on a mountain side, they need a lower center of gravity so that they don’t lose their balance. Second, the only way to get to this lofty estate is by cable car, so they need to be “travel size”.  You could possibly add a third. It sends their adorable factor through the roof. I was afraid that one of those nights we were going to have sliders (you know, those mini hamburgers) for dinner, thankfully we stuck to fondue.

Miniature cow Switzerland

The moment you contemplate being a vegetarian. That is, until you smell bacon…

On the subject of food, if you ever have the chance, try Raclette. It’s more of a social event than a dinner, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable. A bunch of friends gather around a table top grill, each equipped with a mini pan and a table full of ingredients. First, you mash a small potato into your tiny skillet and place a thick slab of Raclette cheese on top. After that, you’re free to concoct whatever combination comes to your mind. You’ll generally find bacon, pickles, pineapple, garlic, and a host of other weird ingredients that melt together into little potato patties of heaven. It does take a long time to cook, so that’s where the socializing comes in. Stories, laughter, and the smell of cheese fills the air. That is, until the smoke detector goes off, the sprinklers turn on, and everyone runs frantically outside screaming and crying until the fire department shows up. Come to think of it, it may be a better idea to do this outside.

Right before the sprinklers...

Right before the sprinklers…

As always I’d encourage you to draw your own conclusions about different lands. Just as I said that others are wrong about other countries, I too have my own views. Who knows maybe you’ll stay with some Swiss friends who raise gigantic cattle and eat Emmentaler (Swiss Cheese) by the truckload. Maybe the trains will be on time in Austria and late while you’re in Switzerland. You might even find Raclette to be inedible. The point is: Everyone is wrong about other countries. Each traveler picks up on things they like (and sometimes exaggerates to make them seem better) or things they dislike (possibly blowing them out of proportion to make them sound worse than they really are). What? Don’t you look at me in that tone of voice!

 

 

Looking down lighted street in downtown valencia spain

Spain

After I spent the winter of 2013 in Belgium, (not too balmy, I might add) my parents came to visit me (and more importantly the waffle wonderland that I called home for 3 months) just as we were creeping into spring. (Now if you’re reading this from Florida or any tropical location for that matter, I’m sorry for confusing you with the strange concept of seasons. Spring is that time of year that is slightly less hot right before it becomes unbelievably sweltering. For the rest of humanity (with the exception of Canada, where spring is known for being slightly less cold. Before sunny “unzipped parka weather” comes for a couple months) spring is a welcomed season filled with flowers, rain, itchy eyes, and runny noses.) Anyways, after they saw a bit of Belgium, we were to head out on a European Blitz Trip (EBT). Everybody knows about the EBT (not to be confused with Evangelical Belching Tortoises). Before setting out to the European continent for the first time you likely poured over every map and travel book you could find and put together the most outrageous exciting albeit impossible itinerary.

“So, Day 1 we’ll fly into Paris, then we’ll take a “quick train” to Moscow, come back to Paris that night, and go to Athens the next morning, Day 2…” All of this, of course, stems from that one well-meaning friend that told you that Europe is so small, you can practically walk it. Sorry to say, that just isn’t true. Europeans even at times (though it is rare, since most are superior at geography) plan the ABT (Arthritic Boomerang…I forgot the rest). Someone told me their plan was to rent a car and drive to Los Angeles, New York, Miami, then Chicago all in one week! I wonder what kind of well-meaning friend they were talking to.

Front of the train station in Valencia, Spain

Train Station in Valencia, Spain – Just about every European city is equipped with a train station. They’re gateways to the rest of the world at your disposal. For me, they’re dangerous. Every time I walk by a train station, I have this uncontrollable urge to spontaneously buy a ticket to a random country.

When planning a European Adventure you must follow a balanced ratio of countries to travel days. Otherwise your entire trip will be consumed by rushing to airports and train stations, missing out on what you came all that way to see (crammed in coach on that 11 hour flight in the middle seat of the middle row next to that sweaty guy who keeps waking you up to boast that he travels for work and has flown a million miles. Who cares, it’s three in morning?!).

Port Authority Building Valencia Spain

It amazes me how even the Port Authority building is stunning. Complete with a Canary Island Date Palm and a bicycle path.

Anyways, back to what this post is supposed to be about. We planned an EBT that included traveling through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, England, and Spain in only two weeks. Clearly we didn’t use the ratio thing. One of the final and most memorable segments of the trip was Spain. Here, we were at the latitude of Colorado (where we were living at the time) and there were palm trees, beaches, and warm sunny weather! I had been so cold for so long that I pulled one of those “kiss the ground” maneuvers. Neat architecture of Valencia SpainNote: Never do that in a train station, all I can say is that when I got back up I was chewing gum and I definitely wasn’t chewing gum before.

Sun setting in Valencia Spain

Another reason I may have kissed the ground was because of the train trip that it took to get there. All the trains I had been on in the past I’ve opted to upgrade to 1st class (when it’s cheap). For example, once I was taking a bullet train from Zürich to Paris, because I only had a backpack and I had to bring a suit, the only way to keep it nice was to wear it when I traveled. So here I am in a full suit taking a bullet train through Switzerland, how much more of a James Bond moment can you get? Well, it was only €6 to upgrade to first class. Needless to say, I was sitting (legs crossed, of course) in a plush recliner, sipping on an espresso “reading” a french newspaper going 300kph (I’d convert it to mph, but this makes it sound faster) into Eastern France. It was at that moment that I mastered my “one eye brow raised higher than the other” look of snooty sophistication. From then on, I used it promptly every chance I could get. (Though I can’t say it worked too well sitting in the middle seat of the middle row next to that sweaty guy…). Short story long, I wanted to replicate this amazing experience for my parents. Logically, I suggested that we take the train from Montpellier, France winding down the beautiful Mediterranean Coast to Valencia, Spain (pronounced Ba-LEN-thee-ah, Eth-pain). What could be better than first class, I thought. The last time I took first class, it was only a three-hour trip. Yet, I was fed generously. This trek to Spain was over seven hours, my eyes beamed at the thought of even more free food.

Date palms with Valencia Spain in the foreground

Not sure what to do once you get to Spain? Simply walk the streets, you might even get a free tour from one of the locals like I did.

Excitedly, I escorted my parents down the rows of platforms. As we approached the international part of the terminal, the trains kept growing. Some were double-decker, some had astonishing dining cars, all of them sleek and impeccable. Our anticipation was building as we approached our train…well…up until we reached our train.

Lights over the streets of Valencia bring color and atmosphere

I still can’t get over the atmosphere of the city at night. Whether you’re sipping on a hot espresso or dipping into a cold Gelato.

When we arrived, the platform was empty, but we knew our train was due any time. So, we waited and waited and waited. Finally down the tracks comes this disheveled filthy “chitty chitty bang bang” of a train. No double-decker, no fancy dining cars, not even a fresh coat of paint. As it pulled to a stop all the engines backfired and the mufflers fell off simultaneously. My look of eager excitement turned to horror in a matter of seconds. “Surely, it has to be nicer inside” I remarked optimistically as we tripped over an inebriated train conductor to get to our seats. (Come to think of it, that might not have been the conductor at all, no one even checked our tickets on the entire journey. It was probably just someones washed up uncle.)

Center of town, Valencia, Spain

In the heart of downtown Valencia.

As we walked down the aisles looking for our seats, we were welcomed by dirty carpet, missing seats, and possibly missing windows. “Good thing, we’re in first class”, I said, trying to maintain that glimmer of hope, as small as it might be. Forcing the doors open that connected the cars, we arduously made our way to first class (I don’t think arduous and first class share too many sentences). Upon entering we realized that first class was identical to second except that these seats were a nice (and by nice, I mean old, torn, and stained) green versus the clearly inferior blue seats of second class. Cleaning them off as best we could, we reluctantly eased into our seats. Taking a deep breath, we filled our lungs with air that had a familiar smell, but hard to place. Somewhere between a freshly loaded litter-box and a spoiled tuna fish sandwich (you know the one with mushrooms, peas, and little bone fragments). Then with a quick shove from a few railroad workers and a few thoughtful school children, the train was in motion. We were off to Southern Spain with the elegance and grace of a one-legged ostrich.

Torres de Serranos city gate, Valencia, Spain

Behold the Torres de Serranos. Originally built in the late 14th century to serve as the city’s gate, it is now considered to be the largest gothic city gate in Europe.

“At least there’s food service”, I thought. As discussed in the Australia post, I have a condition called Vehicular Narcolepsy, so as soon as the train was moving I was knocked unconscious. I’d briefly open my eyes to see my parents staring at the exit with their arms crossed, there feet tapping, and a scowl across their faces. No food yet. About every hour I’d regain consciousness only to find there was still not a peep from that wonderful little wheeled cart stocked with happiness. Until about three hours in, in comes a woman, a train attendant. We were all ecstatic, food finally! No, she was there to pass out rubbishy headphones to watch a movie on the one remaining glass bubble TV affixed to the ceiling. Seeing that this was the only free thing provided so far, my dad violently snatched the headphones from the attendant thrusting them into this ears only to realize that the movie was dubbed in Spanish with no English subtitles. Then the headphones were hurled to the ground and stepped on with an impressive amount of passion.

Night lights over a street in Valencia

After flinging those dastardly headphones to their dirty carpeted grave he proceeded to march towards the front of the train. I, of course, fell asleep before he managed to get the handle to work on the exit door. I was abruptly awakened by a greasy paper bag that was briskly tossed into my lap. “There’s no food service on this death trap”, my dad grumbled. “I had to go all the way to…”. Losing consciousness fast, I peered into the bag, It appeared the dining car was having a special on week old grilled cheese sandwiches that day. After inhaling my meager rations I again drifted into a coma. As we pulled into the station in Valencia, I felt refreshed and ready to take on Spain. Unlike my parents who were trudging along behind, each dragging one leg, there eyes completely blood-shot, and lips quivering uncontrollably. “What was up with them?”, I remember wondering as I darted out of the station on my way to a Kebab cart.

Travel tip: I know I’ve really talked this train up and have gotten you all excited. You’re probably on the Spanish Rail booking site right now. Trust me, it’s really not that great. You’d be better off spending the afternoon in a gas station restroom. Don’t forget to bring your own grilled cheese, though!

I suppose at this point you’re wondering when on earth I’m going to talk about Spain. I mean come on, this post is called “Spain” for goodness sake.

España written in the sand

Well, to start, coming from North America I’m used to people from Mexico or Guatemala speaking Spanish. I have to say it was rather disorienting to see two blue-eyed older pastey white guys conversing in full on Spanish. On top of that, the Spanish they speak is quite different from what I was used to. It’s deeper and certain letters are pronounced with a certain twist. Imagine a Hispanic James Earl Jones with a lisp. Needless to say, I was enthralled and found myself captivated (the kind when you stare blankly with your mouth wide-open) by what looked like Americans speaking amazing goose-bump inducing Spanish. It reminded me of the time I was in Scotland. I found it incredibly difficult to find a genuine Scottish accent since there were so many tourists. Giving up, I walked into a gift shop only to be surprised my this Indian gentleman (complete with a turban) speaking with the most astonishing textbook Scottish Brogue I’ve ever laid ears on. Anyways, after I closed my mouth and stopped staring we made our way to the hotel.

After dropping our bags off at our room we decided that we’d reward ourselves by visiting the beach. “Why don’t we buy tram tickets to get there? It’s only a euro.”, my parents asked. I said to myself: “What are we on a spending spree?! This is Europe, this continent is so small you can practically walk it!” Armed with a map and my camera we set off on one of the worst decisions of our trip. According to the map, all we had to do was follow this dried up riverbed till we get to the beach. Easy! 3 hours later we were still in the riverbed. So far, we had found Amelia Earhart’s remains and Waldo. On the verge of heat stroke (Is it possible to get heat stroke when it’s only 68ºF(20º C)?) we were greeted by an oasis of orange trees loaded with fruit. After all, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear Valencia? What an awesome experience, eating fresh Valencian Oranges right from their hometown! We vigorously tore open those Spanish jewels and sunk our teeth into perfection. Or, at least, that’s what I wish happened. The moment we bit into the oranges every last drop of moisture evaporated from our mouths, it was like eating the Sahara desert. Those oranges were “for our eyes only”. No, there was nothing top secret about them. Instead we learned that the city of Valencia had planted ornamental oranges “for our eyes only” and to kill unsuspecting tourists with dehydration. (That’s probably what happened to poor Amelia, stupid oranges.) Once we regained our composure, we resumed our quest for the beach.

Above you'll see the leading cause of tourist death in the city of Valencia.

Above you’ll see the leading cause of tourist deaths in the city of Valencia.

Once we finally reached the beach we caught sight of a tram, one that could take us back to town. Suddenly endowed with extraordinary strength, we made a beeline for the doors. Since the beach didn’t turn out to be much of a reward we set our sights on the town. Bound and determined to taste a real Valencian Orange, we stumbled upon what the locals call Agua de Valencia (Valencian Water). What we didn’t realize was that besides orange juice, it contained five different kinds of alcohol. Then sometime strange happened, my parents were smiling. I have to say after that discovery, the rest of our trip went swimmingly.

Agua de Valencia

Agua de Valencia, roughly translated as “Spanish Happy Juice”.

Southern Spain has perfect weather, beautiful architecture, and the cuisine is as unique as it is delicious. Possibly one of the best attributes of Spain is its people. I remember walking through town one day when a nice older Spanish woman came up to me and started to rattle something off in Spanish. As a seasoned linguist I chose my usual approach, I nodded and said “Si”. Apparently this wasn’t the response she was looking for, because she switched to English. She then proceeded to give me a guided tour of the city, filled with unprecedented zeal and enthusiasm. According to her one of Valencia’s fountains was over 900 years old! If you’re any sort of history buff then I’d highly recommend paying Spain a visit. You won’t be disappointed.

I mentioned earlier that Spain was one of my favorite places to visit, but you may get the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time in Spain because of all the mishaps that transpired. The fact is, it’s those mishaps that made the trip. I could have told you about the other countries that I visited, but those simply went too smoothly. Where’s the fun in that? The moral of the story is when you visit a foreign country there are going to be glitches, disappointments, and at times dehydrating oranges of death. Remember those seemingly negative experiences and cherish them. When someone asks how your trip went, saying you narrowly escaped death is way more exciting than saying you enjoyed the continental breakfast at your hotel.

Looking down a gloomy street in Edinburgh Scotland contrasted with a bright red telephone booth

Scotland

I suppose I should begin by admitting that I’m horribly obsessed with geography (as well as all forms of useless information). Ironically, it’s the only subject I didn’t take in school. If there’s a squiggly circle with a capitol, I’m all over it like a Pekingese on a rubber pork chop. I want to know what it’s called, why it’s called that, what they eat, what they speak, and how to speak it. Which is why I must begin with the subject of Scotland’s geography (all of you other geography addicts who find this elementary can skip this part if you must. There’s an interesting write-up on the origin of Slovakian county names that I could pass along).

The quaint (yet perpetually gloomy) town of Queen’s Ferry

Scotland is the northern tip of the isle of Britain. If England was a head, then Wales would be the beard and Scotland would be the hat. (Although, if I used that analogy around a Scot, they’d probably raise one gigantic eyebrow and say something like (Only to be read in your very best Scottish Brogue): “Eff hats were enter-teening, cap-tah-vee-ting, and more bloomin’ brell-yent than the person that’s wearing et!” Then, I would be knocked unconscious with the swift blow of a whiskey bottle.

What any self-respecting Scottish pub would have on their walls. A Scotsman stabbing an Englishman. Do I need to emphasize the point never to call someone from Scotland, English?

What any self-respecting Scottish pub would have on their walls. A Scotsman stabbing an Englishman. Do I need to emphasize the point never to call someone from Scotland, English?

When visiting any country that far North you can expect rain, drizzle, fog, and overcast. Now, I know that sounds unpleasant, but Scotland’s natural beauty and astounding architecture easily outweighs the occasional (and by occasional, I mean persistent, never ending, “Oh my word! When will it stop?!”) crumby weather.

While I may have spent a total of only four days in this kilt-clad country, I feel as if Scotland and I had some true bonding time (Now, we’re not close enough for me to call it ‘Scot’, but I think we hit it off pretty well). I was staying with a friend in Scotland (I never travel without some sort of contact. Staying in a hotel room reduces the potential of a country when you’re in a plush room with those little free shampoos and samplers of horrendous coffee). The only thing was, my friend worked full-time. So, at 5:00am there I was at the train station. Though I was by myself, I was overwhelmed with excitement. One of the best advantages to having a contact, is that they can give you the low-down on everything there is to see and do! So for the first excursion (keep in mind, I only really had two good days to explore) he told me (in a Scottish accent, of course) to take the train to the capitol city of Edinburgh.

Looking down at Edinburgh

Here’s a perfect opportunity to explain the British ‘gh’. You’ll find people that insist that it’s pronounced Edin-berg, or some will even suggest Edin-borough or better yet Edin-burah. They’re all wrong. If you want to be respected upon your arrival in the land of haggis and plaid then please make the effort to pronounce this city correctly, it’s the least we can do. As in everything said in Scotland, the “R” is rolled: “Edin-brrah”. Once you master the correct pronunciation of Edinburgh, you’ll then instantly be wearing a kilt, and playing a bagpipe with pieces of haggis scattered about your freshly grown Scottish beard.

Alley in Edinburgh

Even the dark alleys are cozy and welcoming in Edinburgh

This city was so great, I spent parts of two days here! (If you’ve read any of my other posts you’d know I only suggest spending one day in a city of any sort) In most cities, I’d recommend researching the sights ahead of time so that you can optimize your day (or days if you’re in Edinburgh), that is not the case with this city. Simply step off the plane or train and proceed to the cobblestone streets of this unbelievable place and wherever you wander, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views and a distinct cozy feeling. I never knew you could feel ‘cozy’ while you’re outside, but even the air of Edinburgh makes you feel like you’re wrapped in a blanket (plaid, preferably) sitting next to a fire with a hot cup of tea and a good book.

The roads are so cool here, that is, until you catch your big toe in one of the cracks, trip, fall, and the next thing you know, your kilt is over your head.

The roads are so cool here, that is, until you catch your big toe in one of the cracks, trip, fall, and the next thing you know, your kilt is over your head.

Originally most of the buildings of Edinburgh were light in color, but after the dawn of the industrial revolution, with its despicable smog and pollution, most of the structures were left blackened. That is what gives Edinburgh its distinguished, yet somewhat eerie nature, exemplified by the regal and slightly foreboding sentinel of the city, respectfully known as Edinburgh Castle. Even with this unbelievable Goliath of a castle, I still remained faithful to my three-step castle viewing process (as set out in the Northern Ireland page).

Edinburgh castle

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh castle Gardner keeper's house.

The garden keeper’s residence.

This lofty structure is built on a rock mass in the middle of town, making it an excellent landmark. Just about any street you’d peruse…there it would be…. the ever watching citadel breathing down your neck (which if you’re a hopeless ever-lost traveler like me, is a welcome relief. “I have no idea where I am or how to get back to the train station, but hey there’s the castle again. Whatever that means… “).

How’s that for a point of reference?

After miraculously finding my way back to my friend’s house, he informed me that we would be going on a motorcycle tour to a place called Loch Lubnaig. I was supplied a helmet and what looked like an oversized protective pajama suit and off we went. Since there was two of us and one motorcycle, I was, needless to say, sitting behind my friend holding on for dear life like a juvenile lemur upon his mother’s back through the high canopies of Madagascar. Not the most dignified position, I must say. There came a point along the journey where my oversized helmeted noggin would sway violently back and forth. The slightest movement and I thought my head would be thrusted underneath one of my armpits. I (very carefully) looked at the speedometer, (the round dial on moving vehicles that most cautious drivers look at from time to time) all I could make out was that the little orange stick was past the mark that read “100”. At that moment I was immediately filled with equal parts of excitement and utter helplessness. Imagine a kindergartener who wet his pants after just receiving a good grade for his macaroni art project…excitement and then helplessness. I have to say it was worth it. I apologize that it was too dark for a good photo but you’ll have to take my word for it. Loch Lubnaig was stunning to say the least. Before the perilous ride home we were rewarded with the classic fish n’ chips at the local pub, over which we discussed my plans for the next day.

image

Hey,  it was either this or a leather biker kilt. (Loch Lubnaig in the background)

My friend mentioned an airplane museum that was a ‘must see’. All I had to do was take a train to Drem (Thankfully, I finally found the correct name of this place on a map. Every time I told this story, its name would change. I never could recall the proper name of the station. It always seemed to come out ‘Grim’ or ‘Drip’ or sometimes even, ‘Phlegm’) and then once I arrived at this oddly named train station in the middle of nowhere, I needed to catch a bus. I thought to myself “I’ve got this. What’s one train and one bus? Piece of cake.” That’s where it all went down hill. I was told by the bus company’s website that the bus stopped at Drem Station, when in all actuality, they stop at some street corner outside of the station (and my view). So there I sat, waiting and waiting. I had to be back at a certain time, because I had a meeting to go to, so I was already cutting it close. After about 30 minutes, I heard a bus in the distance. Temporarily relieved, I made my way towards the entrance of the station anticipating the arrival of the bus. I walked just far enough to see the bus leaving! I had all of two international minutes left on my phone, so I called the bus company. In a thick accent I could barely understand, the representative said: “You twit! The bus comes to the street corner outside of Drip Station (oops, I meant Drem). You’ll have to wait another 1 1/2 hours before the next one comes! *click*” I, of course, didn’t have an extra 1 1/2 hours to wait. So I was faced with a tough decision, either go back on the next train or attempt to walk it.

Outside 'Drip' station.

Outside ‘Drip’ station.

Filled with intermittent bursts of enthusiasm, I’d push on down the road towards the air museum. Then I’d panic and worry about not getting back in time or worse yet, being abducted by one of those wild kilt clans. Forced to live out my days in a skirt and prove my manliness by hurling 12 ft wooden beams and screaming obscenities. So I’d run back to the station. Then, I’d muster up the courage and set out again, only to return with the proverbial tail between my legs. Finally, I decided just to go for it. I suppose I didn’t realize it was a five mile walk through one of the most sparsely populated regions of the UK. All of the roads were lined with 7ft. high hedges so you could only see what was straight ahead or straight behind. This proved to be quite a hazard, since at the most unexpected times rogue Scottish tractor drivers would come blasting down the roads at what seemed like warp speed. Thankfully the inside of the coat I was wearing was neon green so I simply flipped it inside out to alert oncoming (and by oncoming, I mean psychotic and unrelenting) tractor traffic.

On top of that, the winds were quite strong that day making it increasingly difficult to keep my hair in place. Then, out of nowhere, ultralights (tiny personal aircraft thingies) filled the skies. Apparently making good use of the air currents. Probably laughing uncontrollably at the sight below.

By the time I finally arrived at the museum I had bloodshot eyes and crazy hair from the wind, I was breathing heavily from all of the hiking, and I was wearing a fluorescent green coat that was inside out. I’m actually quite surprised they let me tour the place instead of, say, calling the police.

The museum was called the “National Museum of Flight”, however the sign was so badly worn, all I could make out was “nal Muse Flig”. A promising start! Once I entered the facilities I found that they were a perfect accompaniment to the welcome sign. Most of nal Muse Flig’s buildings had broken windows or the roofs had collapsed. “I walked all the way out here for this?” I thought to myself, “I could be in a skirt throwing logs right now!” The original reason for me journeying all that way was to see a Concorde they claimed to have hangared there. I was seeing no such thing. I didn’t even see a building large enough to properly house a VW Beetle, let alone a Concorde.

WWII Plane at air museum Scotland

One of the few planes that were actually in tact.

Figuring that I might as well tour the place since I made all the effort, I purchased a ticket. As I walked into the first hangar, my jaw dropped. There it was, the fastest commercial airplane ever built, the Concorde! Not only that, but it was fully open to tour. Like a giddy school girl, I ran up the steps screaming. I dropped my bottle of glitter in total amazement.

Concorde Scotland

If you look very closely you’ll see a trail of glitter along the jet ramp. Who brings glitter to an airplane museum? I mean, come on!

After that, the rest of the museum consisted of various piles of parts complete with a placard that read: “This used to be a…” Then I stumbled upon a random shed without a label or a placard. The windows were all busted and the roof was partially caved in, so I knew it must have been part of nal Muse Flig . There inside was a group of 80+ year old Scotsmen constructing a replica WWI biplane from scratch. As I stepped into the old out-building, admiring the beautiful specially imported Canadian Pine skeleton of the plane, an angry little old man shooed me out, “Get outta here, can’t you see we’re trying to eat?!”, he said. As I was respectfully exiting, another older gentleman rushed out, “Wait! Don’t mind Quincey. He gets prissy when he’s hungry. I’ll show you around.” After being lectured through just about every nut, bold, and screw of the aircraft, I was satisfied, to say the least. I kept trying to excuse myself, but my impromptu tour guide kept on going. At last, I made my way out of the building only to see the last bus of the day departing from the Museum. I had missed it again!

All the guys working on it started in their 70s, and have worked on it into their 80's. At this rate only 20 more years. I hate to break it to them...

All the guys working on this started in their 70s, and have worked on it into their 80’s. At this rate only 20 more years until it’s finished. I hate to break it to them…

“Don’t worry”, said my new friend, “I’ll take you to Phlegm station” (doh! Sorry did it again). This is where it got interesting. He was standing near the passenger side of the car and was, what looked like, warming up to get to the driver’s side. The 90+-year-old airplane builder then burst into motion, but in the most peculiar fashion. “Hyper-tippy-toeing” is the only way I can word this obscure maneuver. Imagine the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at 10 times the normal speed, but the sugar-plum fairy had severe osteoporosis. After his mini marathon to the other side of the car, it took a good 5 minutes for him to stop gasping for air and regain his, slightly lop-sided, composure. Then off we went back to the station. I said my good-byes, thanked him for the tour, and then he drove away. I stood at the platform waiting for the next train, when unexpectedly he came back. Barreling down the road in reverse. Rolling the window down, he yelled out to me: “You’re on the wrong side of the station, you twit!” and just like that he was gone.

In your travels, give England’s “hat” a shot. You won’t be disappointed. I mean, come on, where else can you be called a twit twice in one day, and walk five miles with your coat inside out to visit an abandoned air museum in a town called phlegm?

Kilts

I couldn’t think of a better way to end this…

Germany

Wie Geht’s? Hier ist mein German page! I have to say this page is directed mainly to Americans, and that is because there are some stereotypes that have to be overcome with regards to this Central European country. Let’s take it from zee top, shall vee?

A view of vibrant green mountains in Bavaria, Germany

German myth #1: German’s are mean, uptight, and all together unpleasant to be around. Usually this statement is followed by, let’s go to France instead. If you want to see mean, then by all means, go to Paris. (See my France page for survival tips) The reason many (Americans) feel this way is because of the difference in communication style.

“As a general rule, when traveling to a different country, leave yours behind.”

As you travel to different countries in Europe (and in the rest of the world, for that matter) you’ll find greatly different rules of etiquette. For example, in China it would not even be the slightest bit rude to slurp, burp, and pass gas at the dinner table. Not that there’s anything wrong with this form of manners, assuredly Americans do things that offend other world cultures (like being obnoxious, uneducated, and all together distasteful as soon as they leave their home soil).

Looking out of a train headed to Neuschwanstein

High speed trains are great and all, but a good old-fashioned regional train has a certain ambience. One of adventure and chewed gum under your seat.

I remember once visiting Scotland. I was leisurely nosing around a gift shop (not a usual place I like to be) having a grand old time actually. I was trying on a Sherlock Holmes’ style hat, when in blasts through the front door, no no, please no, it couldn’t be…an American. Already anticipating the onslaught of embarrassment to follow, I promptly hid behind the collector spoons (don’t even get me started on those) quivering and clenching at every word he uttered. “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?!” he begins his conversation with. Not a “Hi, how are you?,” no this tourist needs to ask a clerk that’s from a country that has spoken english, centuries before George Washington was in a diaper, if he knows how to speak his own language. Wouldn’t you know it, all he needed was a travel adaptor. I was just about to give him mine and swiftly cover his mouth with duct tape (never leave home without it) when he blew through the exit in the same manner he entered. He couldn’t understand the beautiful Scottish brogue that the clerk had answered in. “Can’t find a soul that can speak ‘American’ around here” he muttered to himself under his breath as he stormed out. Checking to see if the coast was clear, I slowly rose from the rack of silly tourist spoons and pretended to be Canadian for the rest of the day.

Cabin on the water near Frankfurt, Germany

Cool little cabins on the water you can rent for the weekend.

Germans may have many negative stereotypes that we have given them, but remember Americans have ten times as many stereotypes from practically every European country…well maybe except Belgium. (Belgians are, quite possibly, the most welcoming and accepting Europeans you’ll find. More on that later.) So let’s break it down. “Germans are mean” is the thrust of German Myth #1. So, are they? Nope (or, should I say, Nein!). But they do have a different style of communication, if that’s what you’re referring to. A German might say: “Give me that piece of cheese, please”, where an American would conjure up a sentence like: “Would you by chance happen to have a piece of cheese that I might be able to try, if it’s not too much to ask?” We’d personally consider the latter to be more polite, whereas the Germans would simply consider it inefficient. If you want cheese, just ask for it! That goes for all aspects of conversation in Germany. Don’t bother beating around the bush, it just wastes time.

Alpine houses in Germany

Typical street view in Southern Germany

As a general rule, when traveling to a different country, leave yours behind. A new country is a new world, enjoy the differences instead of taking them personally. It will definitely make for a better trip. No one likes to hear from a person that begins every sentence with: “Well back in my country, we do that this way…”

Reclining chairs on German night train.

If you’re going to attempt to take a night train from North to South Germany, be sure to pay to reserve seats along with your ticket. I didn’t and I was presented with two options. 1) sit on a cold metal bench in between two train cars or 2) pay extra to sit in these weird contraptions that look like a sit-down hair dryer at a salon. Don’t ask me how I know about those…

German myth #2: The German language is all phlegm, and it’s unpleasant to listen to. Of course, you are entitled to your own opinion, but have you ever thought of what others think English sounds like? Especially the way Americans speak it, definitely not a romance language. Keep in mind the media often misinterprets different cultures, giving them false stereotypes. For example, all Irishmen dance around with buckled shoes, have red hair, and sound like a leprechaun. Not true! (Check out my Northern Ireland page for more details.)

Street sign that says Ausfahrt in Germany

How can the German language be that bad if you can use ‘fahrt’ in everyday conversation and people still respect you!

If you want to hear phlegm in a language visit The Netherlands, or Germany’s southern neighbor, Switzerland. In some of those regions, I swear they must have to drink a gallon of milk just to be able to speak a full sentence. Germans, especially from the north, have a very crisp, clear, and concise manner of speaking. In my opinion, it’s quite pleasant to listen to. Who doesn’t like a good German accent?

Frankfurt Castle

Quaint castle near Frankfurt.

German Myth #3: German’s don’t know how to have a good time. Hello! Have you never heard of lederhosen? How can you not have a good time wearing suspender shorts and feathered hats? I rest my case.

Then, if those three myths don’t work, someone has to mention Germany’s wartime past in an attempt to ‘save’ you from visiting such a terrible place. Really? Can we just let it go already? Yes, we all know it was terrible, but the generation that was involved in that whole debacle has all but disappeared. They’ve paid for their mistakes, they are still apologizing to this day, and they’ve made it illegal to even entertain those disgusting notions of the past. So please, don’t let what happened 70+ years ago decide whether or not you visit this underrated tourist destination.

I just love getting lost in these streets...

I just love getting lost in these streets…

Phew! Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff. Just like other countries that I’ve posted about (i.e. France), there is a definite North-South divide. In the North you’ll find a more clean, pristine, and precise culture. One that we (again, I’m talking about Americans) may consider to be more ‘uptight.’ You’ll soon find that Northern Germans are just as fun to be around. In fact, my closest friends in Germany are from the North.

As with France, the North has more cities to explore such as Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, etc; however, if rustic beauty is your aim, then the South is where it’s at. Mountains: check, rivers: check, castles: double check!

Dom Cathedral. Cologne, Germany

The Cologne Cathedral is the most visited landmark in Germany. Attracting 20,000+ a day. This church has the largest façade of any cathedral in the world.

Here's what inside one of the spires looks like after climbing 500 steps.

Here’s what inside one of the spires looks like after climbing 500 steps.

In my opinion the best way to travel in Europe is to pick a (cool) hub city to stay in, and explore the surrounding areas to your heart’s content that is accessible by no more than a 3-hour train ride away. Any longer and most of your day will be consumed with travel. When visiting Southern Germany, the most logical choice of a good hub city would have to be Munich (München). While the city in itself is astounding to galavant about in, the surrounding areas are just as diverse and spectacular.

Hohenschwangau Castle near lakes and mountains in Southern Germany

Here’s a look at Hohenschwangau, where King Ludwig II of Bavaria grew up. You’ll see his castle down below…

While in Munich last time, I decided I wanted to visit a concentration camp. Not exactly a party starter, but if you do have an interest in world history then I’d definitely recommend Dachau (Wow, I never thought I’d ‘recommend’ a concentration camp). If you have a soft heart and a weak stomach, visiting death camps such as Auschwitz (which is actually in Poland) or Sachsenhausen would completely throw you into a depression for the rest of your life, whereas Dachau was a labor camp with fewer atrocities.

If you would prefer to visit something more ‘uplifting’, then certainly check out Neuschwanstein Castle (Fun Fact: that’s German for ‘New Swan Stone’ Castle. It makes the name sound less intimidating, doesn’t it?). Hop on a train to Füssen and in a couple of hours you’ll be seeing the castle that Disney based their famous Cinderella Castle after (This one’s much more convincing). The best part about visiting Neuschwanstein is that there are no inebriated hobos dressed up as oversized stuffed animals trying to hug you and shake your hand the whole time. It makes me shiver just thinking about that.

Full view of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria Germany

Once upon a time, King Ludwig II of Bavaria (the guy who commissioned this monstrosity) was greedily using up all the taxpayers hard-earned cash to build this luxury estate. However, it was not completed during his lifetime. That’s probably because he was found dead in a river. Coincidence? I think not. So much for a fairy tale ending!

As in most European countries, don’t be afraid to wander. Who knows what you will stumble upon! If you’re there around Oktoberfest (in Bavaria it seems like every month is Oktoberfest, they just put the month in the name to sound like they have self-control) you can expect to see lederhosen, taste great beer and ‘apfel strudel’, and hear Schlager music. What is Schlager you say? Imagine music that resembles rabid squirrels chewing on bubble wrap through a megaphone. Needless to say, it’s the worst thing I have ever heard. Sorry, Germany. You’ve got great things going for you. Just work on your music…PLEASE, because my ears are bleeding and just the thought of being horrified again by that reprehensible swine fodder makes me want to crawl into a padded cell, don a straight jacket, and rock back and forth violently, humming “You Are My Sunshine”.

Blue and White tent during Oktoberfest. Munich, Germany

These Oktoberfest tents abed the dreaded Schlager instead of killing it before it multiplies.

Plate of Apfel Strudel in Germany

You can’t come to Germany without trying some Apfel Strudel. (Never confuse Schlager with Strudel, the results could be deadly.)

One more word to the wise. If you happen to have any form of blonde hair and blue eyes, beware! In this day and age most people you see in Germany do not look like the stereotypical Germans from Indiana Jones (the accents are right on, though). With my complexion, I was stopped at just about every street corner, bus stop, train station, grocery store checkout lane, and Biergarten. Overwhelmed with questions by unsuspecting American tourists. The first question, of course, being: DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? Then, where is this street? How do I get to this castle? What does this word mean? Should I get the Schnitzel or the Pizza Leberkäse? Ironically I had just came from that street or castle, or I had just learned the meaning of that word (The food question is a no-brainer. Go for the Schnitzel. Unless you like pizza liver cheese.) so I’d answer their questions. I always received the nicest replies. Your English is amazing! You sound just like one of us! To which I’d respond with a “sank-you” and a heartfelt “Auf Wiedersehen!”

Tyler Cramer standing in a covered bridge near Frankfurt, Germany.

The only selfie I can approve of is at a great distance inside of a covered bridge in a foreign country.

Besides castles and concentration camps, there is plenty to see in the areas surrounding Munich. The first thing I do when I visit a country is to haul out the map (ok ok, I haul out my smart phone) and see where the closest country border is so that I can check off another country from my list (for the official rules on crossing a country off of one’s list see my “Fiji” post)! The closest foreign country to Munich was (and still is) Austria. The moment I found out that I could be in Salzburg in less than 2 hours by train, I screamed like a girl (involuntarily, of course *clears throat to make voice sound deeper) and tore off down the road to the nearest train station. There, in Salzburg, I made the biggest mistake of my entire trip. I purchased a genuine Tyrolean Hat (you know, one of those cool little green Bavarian-style hats with the feather in it). Why was that a mistake? Well, it started raining. I decided that since the inside of my hat said “wasserbeständig” (water-resistant) in big letters, now was a good time to try it out. The moment I ornamented my head with this fine piece of felt, hordes of tourists came barreling down the boulevard with pitch forks and torches and picket signs that read “Where is Mozart’s house?” and “Where is the nearest bathroom?”. Clutching my hat for dear life, I sped down to the train station, narrowly escaping onto the next train back to Germany. I sighed with relief. Slouching in my seat, I watched the angry mobs grow smaller and smaller in the distance. A nice older German lady was sitting next to me. She looked at me very intently for a moment and then asked: “Any idea how I get to Hohe Straße from here?” Without a second thought I thrust my newly acquired headpiece into the trash.

Walking up to the Hofbrauhaus in Munich

Walking up to the Hofbräuhaus in Munich.

So in summary, when you go to tell your friends about your upcoming trip to Germany, don’t be surprised if you are barraged with negative stories, myths, tall-tales, and propaganda. Simply nod, say “Hmm”, and resolve to traverse this amazing country undaunted. Also, seriously consider dying your hair a darker shade, but if you choose not to, never under ANY circumstances wear the local attire, trust me. Lastly…wait, what’s that sound? Is that…no, it couldn’t be! Not Schlager! ♫“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine……♫

German Lake 3

Editor’s Note: If you find a green felt hat with a feather in a waste receptacle on the Salzburg-München Train kindly return it to the address provided. Oh, and if you see an older German lady that looks lost, tell her to head North on Kartäusergasse for two blocks and Hohe Straße will be on her right. 

England

When one sets out to explore the European continent for the first time, certain core (and by core, I mean ‘comfort zone’) countries immediately come to mind. Most want to see countries and cities that will be readily recognized by their friends when they get home. “You went to Dublin?! I’m so jealous, tell me everything!” That’s the line that most hope for when telling of their travels. I try telling someone about the day trip I once spent in Luxembourg and they just look at me blankly, thinking to themselves: “That’s in Indiana, right?” Then, “Surprise!”, your story is ruined, you then have to spend the majority of your time just explaining where Luxembourg is and more importantly what it is. By the time you get to the ‘good stuff,’ they’ve lost interest. And that’s alright.

Colorful taxi driving through London, England with Big Ben in the Background.

Oversized taxis, traffic lights, giant buildings with the sole purpose of telling you the time. Gotta be a comfort country.

There comes a point in every traveler when you have to resolve to leave your comfort zone and venture into places that you may have a hard time explaining ‘where-on-earth’ it is. That is where you find unforgettable travel experiences.  Don’t let how many likes you think you may get on Instagram dictate where you travel.

Black and White facade of Big Ben Clocktower in London, England

Ok, I admit. When I posted this on Instagram I was hoping for some likes…

England can be one of those comfort zone countries that’s first on your list to visit when you get to Europe. (If it isn’t, and you instead were dreaming of roaming the streets of Riga, Latvia for your first European adventure, then I’m impressed. For you, my friend, are a courageous swashbuckler of olden times. Please proceed to the nearest airport and conquer the seven seas of your imagination).

Steep english road in England

You miss out on moments like these when you stay in the city.

Now, I’m not saying all comfort zones are bad, I’ve heard comas are quite tranquil. England is in a ‘comfort zone’ for a few key reasons. First of all, If you’re a native English speaker (in other words, someone who is only capable of learning one language every 70-80 years) then you can leave your phrase books at home (although, they should write a few for some parts of England where sometimes you have to resort to sign language even to get directions to the nearest pub). Second, you won’t have to worry about the food and water quality there. This is where ‘England Myth #1’ needs to be addressed. It states: “All English food is boiled, tasteless, and altogether ‘icky.” NOT TRUE! I don’t know where or how this gossip was spread (probably French propaganda), but it ends here. In England you’ll be delighted with not only good ol’ pub fare (i.e. Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers and Mash, Fish n’ Chips, etc.), but also tantalized by amazing Indian food everywhere you look. Definitely not ‘icky’. In fact, I’d recommend keeping travel size samples of English food in your pockets so that the next time someone carelessly decides to recite ‘English Myth #1’ you can immediately force feed them a miniature Shepherd’s Pie, silencing that slanderous notion for all eternity. Trust me, they’ll thank you. (I’d recommend bringing along some napkins with the mini pies as well, I’m still brushing bits of corn off my coat from last week.)

Old brewery in England that spells Brewed as Brewd

How can you have bad food with spelling like that?

Ok, so we have an idea of why England can be a comfort country. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering: “How can we keep that from happening?” I’m glad you asked. Even though England is a default comfort country, don’t worry, there are ‘un-comfort zones’ to be found! Take note, there are both good kinds and bad kinds of ‘un-comfort zones’. Dropping your wallet full of freshly withdrawn pound notes (along with your glasses) after dark in some random subway station by yourself surrounded by escaped convicts with tasers is an example of a bad ‘un-comfort zone,’ avoid these.

Severed pig heads at an English Rag Market in the UK

Nothing says ‘un-comfort’ like severed pig heads for sale.

Comfort countries, in turn, have comfort cities. As a general rule, more comfort, more money. Needless to say, London is a comfort city. Amazing to visit, not so amazing on your wallet. For example, London’s restaurant prices are over 170% more expensive than, say, Budapest (which is definitely not a comfort city). My advice: if you have your heart set on London, then by all means go, but try to limit how much time (money) you spend there. In my opinion, most comfort cities can make for a very satisfying day trip. I saw Paris for the first time in a 7 hour layover (Always try to capitalize on your layovers. For another quirky tale on this, check out my Fiji page). After you’ve had your fix of comfort (psh…who needs comfort?) head up to the Cotswolds.

Big Ben with a budding tree branch in the foreground. London, UK

Another reason I keep my time in the city to a minimum. I inevitably get lost, walk in circles and take pictures of the same things over and over. Hence, the surplus of Big Ben shots, whoops.

After driving about 100 miles northwest of London, you’ll swear you’ve traveled back in time (or to any BBC sitcom for that matter). Named after the Cotswold Hills, the Cotswolds run through six different English counties. In the U.S. when you cross a county line little changes, except for a boring green sign that says “_____ County Line.” In England, it’s much different. The accent changes, the industry changes, the architecture changes, each county has its own unique flare.

Cotswolds English Market

Fun fact #875: Notice that the building is goldish color? That’s because the buildings of the Cotswolds use a specific kind of limestone common to that area. If you go further north or south in England, you’ll see different colored structures for this same reason.

The Cotswolds are chock full of little villages waiting for you to discover. Each having its own Cotswoldy (definitely not a word) charm. When you visit the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, for example, be sure to check out Shakespeare’s residence. (By ‘check out’, I mean strictly abiding to the 3-step castle viewing process set out in the Northern Ireland page., of course)

Shakespeare Residence in Stratford-Upon-Avon in the Cotswolds, England

No, that’s not Shakespeare out front. I think he was away that weekend. Or, perhaps, not away. That is the question. (Ok, that was cheesy.)

Inevitably, you will be confronted with a small chalkboard street sign that has the words ‘cream tea’ scrawled on it.’ When you see this sacred billboard, liberally apply the brakes, find an appropriate parking space (on the correct side of the road), and run screaming with joy into that miraculous establishment as fast as you can. Nothing tops the euphoria that ensues upon consuming those glorious scones, accompanied with their trusty sidekicks, clotted cream and strawberry preserves. Washing it all down with a piping hot potta’ tea with milk, your life will flash before your eyes. All the while you’ll be wondering how you’ve survived all these years without once partaking of this invaluable gift to humanity (Well, that wasn’t dramatic).

Cream Tea with Scones and Clotted Cream in England

There’s really no comment needed. Maybe a moment of silence would be appropriate.

After you’ve enjoyed your cream tea (if you’re like me, there’s going to be more than one round) set off, down the windy roads of south-central England. You really can’t go wrong once you’re in the Cotswolds. Stop at whatever town is your ‘cuppa tea (sorry couldn’t resist), whether it be Cheltenham, Broadway, or wherever your little rental Ford Fiesta will take you.

Old Market Cotswolds England

This market place is over 600 years old! That’s gotta be like 1200 years in metric!

This is the part where I talk about pubs. Pubs sum up everything you could possibly want in an English adventure. Do you want to see architecture from the 16th and 17th century? Go to a pub. Do you want to sink your teeth into some freshly fried Cod or maybe devour a generous helping of bangers and mash? Go to a pub. Do you want an opportunity to hear English accents in their natural habitat? Go to a pub. Do you want a ‘Double Shot Caramel Macchiato with extra foam? Then go back from whence you came! Obviously you have to no appreciation for culture.

Then, there’s English Myth#2: Don’t order a beer in England, because they serve it warm there. What?! Ok, sure with beer that’s handcrafted like at “The Olde Swan” pictured below, you could risk ruining a good brew by refrigerating it. So while some beer there may not be refrigerated, it’s certainly cellar temperature. Let’s put it this way: England is cold, which means English dirt is cold, which means that English cellars are cold, which means…. I’ll let you figure out the rest. (I’m still working on bringing samples of English beer with me at all times to refute this second bit of malicious gossip. Only set back is, by the time English Myth #2 comes up, the beer is warm from being in my pocket with the mini shepherd’s pies.)

Snowshoe Arms in the Cotswolds, England

By far my favourite (notice spelling) pub of all time. Snowshill Arms.

This place, "The Olde Swan", even brews their own beer in the back room!

This place, “The Olde Swan”, even brews their own beer in the back room!

From severed pig heads, to flat cap souvenirs. The rag market has you covered.

From severed pig heads, to flat cap souvenirs. The Rag Market has you covered.

Now, you’re probably thinking “ok, say I take your advice and spend all of my time in the ‘un-comfort zones,’ how am I supposed to get a decent souvenir? True, the ‘comfort’ method would be to traipse into one of those touristy gift shops and grab a fist full of key chains. Feeling more adventurous (or more thoughtful)? Check out some ‘Charity Shops’ or better yet, head to the Rag Market in Birmingham. There, I found a genuine Harris Tweed hand-woven flat cap for £5 (normally £50). If you do the math, you could buy ten flat caps for the price of one, imagine that! With that kind of discount, you could even afford to buy souvenirs for people you don’t like very much (just kidding)!

So as you sit down and plan your European adventure, be it the first, second, or tenth time, go ahead and schedule in some comfort countries. But promise me this, that you will seek every opportunity to find the un-touristy, un-popular, and un-comfort zones, and when you go to tell me about your adventures, it better take a good ten minutes to explain ‘where-on-earth’ you were.

Editor’s Note: Due to the increase in hate mail from “French Propaganda Weekly” I find it necessary to inform you that in no way have I been paid by the English Tourism Board ‘s BETEFBFTM (Britons for the Ethical Treatment of English Food and Beer For That Matter) division (although it was tempting).  

 

 

 

Still scrolling? Here are a few bonus photos to make it worth the trip:

Town road in England

Really any road in England is worth admiring.

Catapult near Warwick Castle, England

Aha see! A random 100 ft. tall catapult, I told you this was a comfort country.

Ludlow Castle in England

Ludlow Castle

Big Ben overlooking the Thames in London, England

Sorry, I just had to sneak one more Big Ben photo in there.

Looking up at the Arc de Triomph in Paris, France

France

France: North vs. South

Most European countries are often broken up into the “Southern Mentality” and the “Northern Mentality.” I am in no way relating them to the United States’ north and south divide. The directional mentalities may mean different things in different countries.

In most cases the northerners are more snooty, more “sophisticated” (or at least they think they are) and the southerners are more hospitable, more down-to-earth, sometimes (most of the time) even better cooks. I guess that does kind of sound a little like the U.S.

There are exceptions though. For example, in Belgium, the Northerners (Flemish) are much more low-key and welcoming. Whereas the Southerners (French-speakers) are more uptight and less yielding.

Anyways, before I get off track, France has the typical North-South divide. Yes, Paris is “magnifique” and you should probably visit this stunning city if you are in the country. Keep in mind, though, with great cities, come great “snooty-ness.” As a recommendation, if you are planning on visiting France, namely Paris, brush up on some French phrases. The first time I went, I didn’t follow that advice. Needless to say, I’ve never been treated so poorly in all my life (well maybe besides by the people at the local Drivers’ License Office). Now, everybody has their own Parisian experiences. Maybe I just caught everyone on an off day (not likely).

Oh so good...Thank you France

Oh so good…Thank you (Southern) France

Regardless, when I returned (this time equipped with an armament of French phrases) my experience was entirely different. Those few French words that I stumbled through made all the difference. All of a sudden, I was being treated like a human! Ok, I exaggerate a little. Parisians never treat tourists as human (just kidding). Nonetheless, learn some French (even if it’s just Merci and Bonjour) before you go. It will  completely change your French voyage.

Now on to the subject of Southerners. I LOVE southern France. For one, Nice (pronounced Neese) is, well, nice (pronounced, well you know). The quaint markets, the exquisite eateries, the laid-back atmosphere, all the crêpes you could want, what else could you possibly need?

Those are some "Nice" spices...get it...eh eh?

Those are some “Nice” spices…get it…eh eh? Sorry, forget I said anything.


If you do perchance extend your excursion into the south of France, don’t pass up La RossettisserieOpen only a few hours each night and with the seating capacity of no more than about 20, it’s a culinary quest you’ll not soon forget. My mouth is still watering.

Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to step outside of the box. Give the big cities and tourist attractions a break and go somewhere where most tourists would never think of going. That’s where stories, memories, and laughs (and sometimes tears) are born.

And in the off-chance that you do decide to still visit Paris (face it, you won’t take my advice) check out some of the sights from “The City of Lights”, hey that rhymed…

Looking up at Eiffel Tower at night in Paris, France

No idea what this thing is called. We’ll call it the “Giant Metal French Thing” for now.

 

Yes, you can go to the top of the “Giant Metal French Thing.” Of course, when I was forced into ascending this monstrosity (Take note, this was supposed to be a temporary structure built for the world’s fair and the French thought it looked “tacky”) I chose the cheap route and took…cue dramatic music…the stairs. Beware, there’s over 700 steps just to get to the elevator that takes you the rest of the way. By the end of that jaunt my thighs were so huge I was afraid they were going to be deported for not having their own passports. In my opinion, once you’ve ascended any tall structure, you don’t need to ascend another. Again, that’s my opinion. I know some love the sights from the heights (I’ve really got to stop rhyming), but if you’re like me, save the $40 and feast your eyes on the picture below.

Ariel view from Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

When you visit France, you’ll find that everything feels like a Kodak moment. Even the subway stations are photogenic.Black and White Metro Subway Station Entrance Paris, France

Paris as a Layover

IMG_8065

Masquerade anyone?

As a general rule, I think it’s a great idea just to blitz big European cities in a day. My first time in Paris was just a really long train layover (planned on purpose). Side point, when taking trains through Europe and your itinerary connects through Paris, keep in mind you’ll have to trek from one train station to the other. Paris is set up like the center of a spoked wheel. There’s I think at least 7 train stations that depart to different areas. Say you want to go from Zürich to Brussels. You’ll get out at Paris’ Gare de Lyon and you’ll have to find your own way to the Gare du Nord which will take you the rest of the way (They’re 5km apart). As long as you did the smart thing and packed light then avoid cabs at all costs and see the city during your layover. (Layover adventures are travel opportunities that are often ignored. For another “long layover adventure” see “Fiji”) Get a metro “carnet” (10 tickets for about €14) and zip around the metroplex that-a-way. Those “hop on-hop off” buses cost double and they only stop at certain places.

Beautiful Hallway in Palais Garnier Paris, France

Cue the scary organ music…

 

With your carnet in hand, Paris is your oyster (Excuse me, escargot). If you like the Phantom of the Opera, definitely check out the “Palais Garnier” for €10, take yourself on your own tour of the place. Leave no hallway unexplored. It’s an extraordinary structure, oh, and don’t forget the chandelier either!

You surely have to check out all the other marvelous architecture. Such as the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and the Louvre (if you want to impress your French friends the correct pronunciation of Louvre is: Loo-voo-loo-de-la-roo, though I may be saying that wrong)

Arc de Triomph in Paris, France

Arc de Triomphe

 

Facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France

Notre Dame

 

Glass Pyramid of the Louvre black and white in Paris, France

The Louvre

On a serious note, if you wish to enter the Louvre (not really sure what’s inside, I’m pretty sure it’s a giant Costco or something) do not visit Paris on Tuesday (if you’re only there for the day, that is) both times I’ve been, it’s been Tuesday. It goes without saying…I missed out on the free samples.

In summary, if you wish to go to Paris, by all means go! If you can, try not to spend all your time there, because there’s so much more of France to see (and the people are nicer everywhere else). As I said, Nice and the French Riviera are a must see…

Cote d'azur (French Riviera), Nice, France

A ‘Nice’ shot of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera). Ok, I swear, I’m done with the ‘Nice’ jokes.

Something cozy about narrow alleyways…

quaint alleyway in Nice, France

 So in conclusion. Wherever you may traverse in this beret clad country, embrace the good and the bad. The kind-hearted and the snooty. The magnificent and the malodorous (talking about cheese, of course) and when you’re frustrated, try this: Take a deep breath, let out a big hearty French laugh, and shout: C’est la vie!

Pathway off of a cliffside near Carrick-a-Rede, Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

Cliffs of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s take on the Cliffs of Moher (which are located in the Republic of Ireland)

These ten counties of the Island of Eire are technically its own country. A country that makes up only 3% of the population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (affectionately known as the UK). For a better (or at least I hope better) explanation of the names of the regions of the British Isles, see my “British Isles” page.

It’s seems to me that Northern Ireland doesn’t get as much recognition as the Republic of Ireland. I understand, when you think of Ireland, you think of Dublin. Though the Republic’s capitol is a must-see for all the american tourists who have to say: “Oh back when I was in Dublin, and yes I mean Ireland, yada yada,” who cares, you’d be severely missing out on Ireland’s natural beauty if you chose to forgo Northern Ireland.

If you are planning to visit any part of Ireland, here’s a few ups and downs to Northern Ireland to help you decide if the northern ten counties are right for you (uh oh, I feel like I’m selling insurance. By the way, you could save 15% or more by….).

Lobster outpost in Carrick-a-Rede, Northern Ireland

One of the original lobster outposts.

First, let’s start with the bad news. Northern Ireland is on the pound (GBP), so if you’re coming from the U.S., that can decelerate your “bang-for-your-buck-o-meter” rather quickly. Although, the dollar (USD) is climbing at a staggering rate. Last time I checked, 1 pound sterling cost $1.47, that’s about what the euro cost when I was in Europe last year (2014).

Another bit of bad news: you probably won’t hear that “leprechaun accent” that you know you were hoping for. In fact, the Northern Irish sound to me like heavily accented Minnesotans (don’t tell them I said that, of course). I’m not going to go into the full explanation of why that is, but to illustrate this further, when overseas I’ve been labeled as Irish as many times as I’ve been placed as American (now that could be because I tend to adopt the accent of whoever I’m talking to, but that’s besides the point).

Onto the good stuff (Hint: Notice how short the ‘bad news’ portion is). In my opinion, there are three things you HAVE to check out while you’re visiting Northern Ireland. The best part: they’re all located within about 11 miles of each other!

Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland

So hop in your car that you’ve rented (hired, if you’re going to learn the lingo) and then once you’ve realized you’re sitting in the passenger seat, gracefully exit the vehicle and get in the driver’s seat…weirdo. Anyways, drive up to Dunluce castle, which should take you about 1 hour and 15 minutes if you’re driving from the capital city of Belfast (that is if you don’t get into a head-on collision since you keep veering into the other lane). Once you arrive in Dunluce (and after you’ve changed your trousers from all of those close calls) behold this, now ruined, medieval castle. The rule is: the more ruined the castle, the cheaper it is to tour.Approaching Dunce Castle, Northern Ireland

As a side note, when you plan on gallivanting across a country where there are heaps of castles, pick one castle that you feel you must see the inside of and stick with that one. If you veer from this advice, you’ll soon find that once you’ve seen one castle (on the inside that is) you’ve seen them all. Now don’t get me wrong, I love castles. I usually try to incorporate at least one new fortress on each trip, but I choose to take the free route. Follow this easy three-step process when touring a castle: Step 1-Save £30 by not paying to go inside the castle. Step 2-Load up on pictures of the exterior. Step 3-Proceed to the nearest pub, and go “hog-wild” on a shepherd’s pie. All the while, flipping through countless (free) castle pictures on your camera and admiring that crisp £20 note that you just saved (cost of pie and pint factored).

Now, back to Dunluce. It is quite “ruined,” meaning it is quite “cheap” (£5, I think) and since it’s in this state of dilapidation, there’s not much to see on the inside (it’s so ruined, you can practically see the inside from the outside. Definitely not the castle you should pick to ‘splurge’ on.), but you can take some amazing exterior shots. I believe this castle even made it on the inside of a Led Zeppelin CD case. (I may have misheard though. So google it before bragging to all of your ‘LedHead’ friends.) Ok, spend 20-30 minutes tops here, and then head northeast!

The Giant’s Causeway

In only 4.5 miles you’ll reach my personal favorite. Even though I typically would never call a touristy area a necessity, the Giant’s Causeway is just that. This natural wonder is, well, naturally wonderful.Looking up at the cliffs above the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

 

Ariel view of the famous polygonal stones of the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

Polygons await you when you arrive at the Giant’s Causeway. Who doesn’t love polygons?

DSC02652Seeing about 40,000 interlocking polygonal pillars, some towering almost 40 ft. in the air, feels like LEGOland the way nature intended it. (If you’re debating between visiting Northern Ireland and going to LEGOland, then sadly, we can’t be friends). As a budget traveler you should, of course, opt to walk instead of being bussed down to the causeway. Though I originally chose that option to save some dough, in hindsight I’d recommend this anytime over the bus. Though it is a bit of a trek, you’ll be rewarded with a plethora (all great article uses plethora, everybody knows that) of Kodak moments. If you’re into folklore, check out the visitor center/gift shop that has a video presentation about Finn MacCool and the fearsome Scottish giants (I have no idea if it’s worth watching. Plop me in a foreign country with a camera and the last thing you’ll find me doing is watching a movie, unless it’s a good movie…and there are snacks. Come to think of it, if there were snacks at that Finn MacCool video then you wouldn’t be seeing these pictures of Northern Ireland). Spend as long as you like here, this is an unforgettable sight to see.image

 

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-a-Rede 3Then after you have seen enough, venture another 7.5 miles to get to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge near Ballintoy, Northern Ireland. Legend has it, bridges were built to the miniature island of Carrick-a-Rede for over 350 years. Originally used by salmon fisherman, but since the salmon have all but disappeared, it now serves only as a tourist attraction. There is a toll of £5.60, which is certainly worth it (reach into your pocket, you should still have that £20 note from NOT blowing it on castle admissions, and cheesy “my friend went to Ireland and all he got me was this lousy…” trinkets). If you’d rather not cross this bridge, I understand…pansy. At first I found it frightening, but then seeing my 70-something-year-old tour guide (No, I didn’t pay for a tour guide, he was my cousin, obviously) fly across the bridge with the grace and speed of a well fed Peregrine falcon, I decided to ‘give it a go.’ Words and pictures cannot convey the excitement of crossing this perilous overpass. It looms 98 ft (30m) above waters that share the same latitude as the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. As you intrepidly cut across this mess of ropes and planks, bombarded by winds in all directions. All the while swaying side to side, back and forth, and up and down, it’s no wonder why some are so petrified by the time they reach the other side that they have to be boated back to the mainland. I’m making this sound horrifying, aren’t I? It sounds terrifying, but when it comes right down to it, it’s a blast. Look on the bright side, according to records, no one has fallen off this bridge in all those centuries. Hey, maybe you could be the first!

Looking straight down 100ft from the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in Northern Ireland

So if you choose to make the voyage over to Ireland, be adventurous and give Northern Ireland a chance. Yeah, they may not have the accents we’d hope for, and sure it’ll cost you a little more to peruse then euro zone Ireland. But remember the next time you’re at a dinner party and that one guy starts out his story: “Oh, back when I was in Dublin, and yes I mean…,” (we know he was really just there for a two-hour layover after some business trip) all the dinner guests begin to slouch in their seats and prepare for the long ride ahead. That’s where you jump in and say: “Yeah, but did I ever tell you about the time that I scaled the perilous bridge of Carrick-a-Rede.” Instantly the heavens will turn ominous and roar with thunder. You’ll then be transformed into a bearded fisherman with one leg and a yellow rain slicker. Instantly endowed with an impromptu Irish accent. All the, once bored, dinner quests will be on the edge of their seats, glued to every word of your tantalizing Irish tale.Looking across Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in Northern Ireland

Editor’s Note: When telling your ‘tantalizing Irish tale,’ resist the urge to say ‘top of the mornin’ to ya’,  which no one in Ireland actually says or even worse, ‘Argh!’  which gives the story a pirate feel ultimately leading to the death of your once interesting story, prompting the return of the business trip drivel. Trust me, you don’t want that.