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.

Koala with Joey at Healesville Animal Sanctuary

Australia

Sign with Kangaroo Ahead AustraliaUpon hearing that you’ve been to such a far-flung continent as Australia the first thing someone asks you is: “How did you survive the jet lag?!” or sometimes “How could you handle such a long flight?!” I guess I was expecting different questions, such as: “What was the food like?”, “Did you get to hug a koala?”, or “What does the inside of a well-played Didgeridoo smell like?” (Ok, maybe I’m the only one that wondered about that last one).

To answer those two questions, I have to explain a condition that I have. It’s called Vehicular Narcolepsy. The moment I ease into the uncomfortable seat of a plane, train, or automobile, I slip into a miniature coma (I can only be resuscitated by the sound of one of those free food carts rolling next to my seat, not sure why that is…). Sometimes my condition is so severe that I fall asleep before the plane takes off and then I am rudely awakened by some irate passenger trying to get past me with his roller suitcase. What’s the rush? Everybody else is off the plane. I remember once I was traveling from London back to Brussels, and I decided to take the train. What makes this interesting is that England is separated from Belgium by the English Channel. So part of that journey would be through an underwater tunnel known as the ‘Chunnel.’ There I sat, upright and vigilant, determined to stay awake and not miss out on this unusual train ride. Next thing I knew, we were pulling into the station in Brussels. Good thing that food cart rolled by, otherwise I’d still be asleep in that train. Going back and forth from London to Brussels for decades. The next time you were in the checkout line at the grocery store you’d see rows of tabloid magazines with the headline “Comatose hobo spends 27 years on train until free food service finally comes.”

Tom Bradley International Terminal LAX Los Angeles California

Well, I slept here…

American Airlines 737 DFW Dallas Airport

And in there.

Anyways, back to Australia. Flying from Florida I had to take four flights to get there. I fell asleep in Florida, woke up in Texas, grabbed a BBQ sandwich, then fell asleep again. Next, I woke up in Los Angeles. I had a very long layover there so, needless to say, I slipped into unconsciousness yet again. Thankfully someone opened a bag of Cheetos next to me so I didn’t miss my flight. I then slept through the eleven hour flight to Fiji (less the food breaks, of course), spent the day in Fiji, and then slept for five hours on the final leg to Australia. By the time I landed it was about one in the morning, so I slept again figuring that was the fastest way to get to breakfast. I have to say sleeping for 34 hours has a way of taking care of the jet lag. So how did I survive the long flights? I usually say: “Well, the food was good. Other than that, I don’t really remember.”

Looking at Skyling of Melbourne from Federation Square

Those lines you see strung up are tram cables with lights that mimic the stars at night. Giving you the outback feel right in the city. The tallest tower is called the Eureka Tower. This 975 ft. tall residential building is an artistic representation of the Australian Gold Rush. The blue and white being the colors of the revolt against the taxing British authorities, and the stripe pattern is meant to mimic a surveyors staff for gold prospecting. The gold bit on top obviously represents, well, the gold, and the red strip is there to represent the blood spilled in battle between the Australians and the British.

As you may have noticed from earlier posts I try not to spend too much time in touristy places. When most visit Australia, Sydney is likely first on their list. I, of course, didn’t go to Sydney. This time it wasn’t exactly my choice to visit Melbourne instead of the world-renowned capitol, but I am sure glad I did! Melbourne is sort of the Portland, Oregon of the South Pacific. Incredibly artsy, unparalleled coffee, and amazing food, all without hippies, hipsters, and all those other annoying things that start with hip, like hippos and hip hop artists (Am I the only one annoyed by hippos around here?).

Eggs Benedict Melbourne Australia

There’s no such thing as a greasy fried egg and a slice of wonder bread here. If you want breakfast, you’re getting a mouth-watering Benedict garnished with Rocket (Arugula).

A testament to Melbourne’s artsy side can be seen in some of their alleyways (which they call lanes). Where in most cities, graffiti is a problem, Melbourne turns it into an ‘art.’ The city commissions ‘street artists’ to do their thing, but only in designated lanes. The result? Check out this lane for example…

Grafitti in a lane in Melbourne Australia

I say, what a novel idea really! And what about the other lanes that aren’t slathered in ‘art’? They’ve been transformed into restaurant districts. I’ve never been so excited to eat in a back alley in all my life! Just make sure you venture into the right one, otherwise you could end up sharing “Rat-a-la-Burn Barrel” with a couple of vagrants. Not that it would be a bad thing. I’ve heard Rufus’ use of paprika and thyme is nothing short of breathtaking. (Any resemblance to real vagrants named Rufus is purely coincidental.)

Outside of Gills Diner Melbourne Australia

While Gills may not be the prettiest on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Stuffed Rabbit wrapped in procuitto Melbourne Australia

No this is not from Rufus.

Anyway, moving on to the coffee. Originally Melbourne had been invaded by an evil enterprise, one that will not be mentioned here (Hint: it rhymes with Starbucks, oops). There were already 80+ of these fiendish franchises permeating the streets of Melbourne a few years ago, but once the native Melbournians realized what real coffee was, they started their own “mom and pop” coffee shops. Were they successful? Let me put it this way. They have eradicated all but 5 of those villainous green and white establishments.

AU Coffee

I deleted my Starbucks app just looking at this picture.

The first time you set mouth on the dark brown velvety goodness of a true Australian coffee, be it a short black, long black, long white, flat white, cappuccino, or latte you will be uncontrollably forced to shred your “Gold Card,” delete all of your “Frappuchino selfies from Instagram, and run screaming down an alley repeating the words: “My life has been a lie!” until you trip over Rufus who was violently gnawing on another ‘paprika rat.’

Dessert case full of delectables Melbourne, Australia

Here’s a picture of some desserts to help get your mind off of Rufus and the rat.

Besides excellent coffee, the nearby Yarra Valley is home to rolling vineyards and even a Chocolaterie that is quite inventive.

Yarra Valley Chocolaterie

Here, in what feels like the middle of no where, you’ll find a chocolaty oasis teeming with unusually (but most of the time good)  flavored chocolates. Some a little more adventurous than others. While lavender may be nice to smell, eating it in a chocolate bar is a completely different story, but hey if you like to eat things that taste like potpourri, then you can have mine.

Yarra Valley

The Yarra Valley is the State of Victoria’s oldest wine region with the perfect cool climate for optimal grape growth. A concept that I didn’t fully grasp until I got here, it’s cold! I figured it couldn’t be that cold in the “Southern Hemisphere” but the temperatures were around 40-50ºF most of the time.

If you do decide to visit Melbourne (which I highly recommend) remember to make time to get out of the city. I trust you wouldn’t want to miss out on the Australian wildlife (and no I’m not talking about Rufus again, would you just let it go already?). The animal life on this continent is completely unique. My personal favorite, of course, is the Koala Bear (no it’s not really a bear, it is a marsupial. Hence the pouch). There’s another Koala myth that needs to be dispelled. I’ve heard the notion that Koalas are permanently intoxicated from the Eucalyptus leaves that they consume (and I understand, if I spent all day, everyday sitting in a tree eating the same old leaves, I’d hope there would be some sort of ‘kick’ to them), but this is not the case. The leaves that they eat are very low in nutritional value so the Koala needs to sleep around 18 hours a day to conserve energy.Koala sitting in Gum Tree Victoria, Australia

 

From what I could see Australian wildlife either wants to sleep all day (Koalas and all the other Marsupials) or kill you (venomous spiders and snakes). I prefer the fluffy ones that sleep all day, just don’t let Rufus near them (really, another Rufus joke?).

Now, you may be thinking that Australia is a ‘comfort country’ (What’s that? See my England post) since they’re English speakers, but that’s not necessarily the case. Australians really like to abbreviate their words or even make up their own, it seems. Afternoon becomes ‘Arvo’, McDonald’s becomes ‘Macca’s’, Sandwiches are called ‘Sangers’, and if something is really good, it can be ‘a ripper’, ‘dinky-day’, or ‘true-blue!’ Throw in a thick Aussie accent and “Presto!” they’re speaking a different language. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. If not, just nod your head and say “fair dinkum?” (Translation: “Are you serious?”).

Gum tree with South Pacific Coast in Background

Make sure you have SPF 3,000 because of the colossal hole in the planet.

Another thing to keep in mind, there’s a gigantic hole in the ozone layer above the south pole extending up to Melbourne. This makes the sun tremendously intense. I saw one guy get sunburned in 10 minutes! My advice, invest in one of those awesome Aussie hats (usually made of kangaroo leather), they’re a real ripper! What if you don’t feel like wearing a hat or applying sunscreen? No biggie. As long as you don’t mind getting skin cancer and having the complexion of a lizard in molting season, then be my guest.

Beach Victoria Australia

These waters bring surfers from all over the planet.

All in all Australia is an outstanding place to visit. Where else can you sip on an amazing cup of coffee while gazing up at koalas in the old gum trees, all the while sinking your teeth into a delicious, succulent paprika…ok ok fine I won’t say it. The moment you set foot ‘down-under’ you’ll see why it’s worth the jet lag (still don’t know about the Didgeridoo smell, though).

Above images: Australia has these crazy suspension platforms that allow you to walk through the Eucalyptus forests. The walkways are about 100ft. up whereas the tower is 150ft. tall! Very cool, there’s three on the continent so if you ever visit check to see if you can squeeze in one of these tours.

Editor’s note: I haven’t seen my cat since Friday. I’m also missing my entire bottle of paprika. The cat comes to “Frisky” and the paprika comes to “Pappy”. Anyways, got to run. Something’s in the oven. Whatever it is, it sure smells good…

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.