The best and worst of everything
Four months, thousands of miles, and thirteen countries. My European adventure was absolutely amazing and the trip of a lifetime! I really had an incredible time, and so many interesting adventures. I have now been back in the states for about a month and have had some time to reflect on my journey. Here are some random thoughts and ruminations.
The first question everyone asks: "What was your favorite place?" I can honestly say that I loved everywhere I visited. There really wasn't a place that I didn't like. Each place was a little different, and of course some were bigger highlights than others. I haven't been able to pick a favorite place, but I have managed to narrow it down to five, in no particular order.
1) Paris -- Paris is just a lovely, lovely place. It is a city that is filled with beauty and elegance. I really enjoyed just walking around the city and exploring the neighborhoods. I also loved the sites -- the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Ste Chapelle, Sacre Coeur. Paris was the first stop on my trip, and it was a little surreal to be there. I kept pinching myself to make sure that I really was in Paris and seeing all of the things I was seeing.
2) Greece -- I loved Greece and everything about it! Athens was really incredible, and it was so fascinating to visit the Parthenon, the markets and temples of ancient Greece. And the Greek Isles were stunning! So beautiful and relaxing -- I will definitely be going back there someday.
3) Scotland -- Scotland was easily one of the most scenic places I visited. Rolling green hills with stone fences, pastures full of sheep and cows, small villages with stone houses -- just idyllic. Of course Scotland was also great because I was with great friends and Lisa's family and friends. It was so nice to be with "locals." And we had such a great time!
4) Slovenia -- Slovenia was a real surprise to me. I really didn't know what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised. The mountains were absolutely stunning and the capital city, Ljubljana, was just a pleasure to explore. The architecture, the layout of the city, the atmosphere -- I just loved it! Of all the places I visited, it would probably be on the top of the list of places I would want to live.
5) Belgium -- I really loved Belgium. It was such a conglomerate of all the good things of Europe. Brussels was a perfect combination of a modern, bustling city and a historic center. I loved the food -- cheese, chocolate, fries and awesome beer! Ahhh, the good life!
Least Favorite Places
Everyone also asks which places were my least favorite. While I really like everywhere I visited, there were a couple of places that weren't as great as the rest.
1) Ireland -- I think under other circumstances I would have really loved Ireland. As it was, I had just left some great friends in London and was again on my own, which was a little sad. In addition, I was travelling by bus and staying in hostels. Had I been with friends, rented a car and stayed at village bed and breakfasts, I probably would have loved it. But the hostels weren't the greatest, with a lot of drunk people around, and the buses keep you confined to the major roads. Plus it rained non-stop the entire week I was there. Despite all of this, Ireland really was beautiful and I definitely would go back someday to do some more exploring.
2) Naples, Italy -- Naples would not have been on my agenda, if not for my good friends Mel and Jamy who moved there in December. I was really excited to visit them, and that part was great. Naples as a city was not fantastic. Of course, I wasn't in the tourist areas, and I was seeing the city through Mel and Jamy's eyes. They had a very tough move and transition to Naples, and I am sure that colored my view of the city. We had a great trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, which I loved; Naples as a city just didn't do it for me.
Okay, so most of you known by now that I loved the food everywhere! But easily the best food was in Greece. It was so fresh and delicious, from the yogurt and honey for breakfast, yummy olives and pistachios straight from the islands, great seafood, greek salads and gyros to baklava to die for -- good eatin'.
This category is a big toss-up. Of course the wine in Italy (especially Tuscany) was great. The beer in the Czech Republic and Belgium was amazing! But I think the overall winner has to be the UK -- solely for the amount of alcohol I drank while I was there. This was mainly due to the Nicol family who insisted we have something to drink in our hands at all times. London was a great town to drink in, from sampling Pimms at Wimbledon, drinking our new signature summer drink in Covent Garden, to sampling beer and sausages in the pubs.
Hands down -- caramel shortbread. Best. Dessert. Ever. Lisa and I enjoyed sampling the many different versions the UK has to offer.
Most Beautiful Place
This is another hard one, but I think I would have to go with Switzerland. The mountains are just gorgeous!
1) Barcelona -- I loved this city! It was such a pleasant city to explore and I really like the historic area and the market at Las Ramblas. The other parts of the city were filled with wide tree lined boulevards with amazing architecture.
2) Slovenia -- I had no idea what to expect and it was great!
1) Wimbledon! -- Without a doubt one of the highlights of my trip. We had such an amazing day at Wimbledon -- it was a once in a lifetime experience!
2) The Vienna State Opera -- Amazing to see an opera in this famed opera house, but the ballet was even more incredible. The ballet Romeo and Juliet was so beautiful and moving.
3) Hiking the Cinque Terre trail -- Beautiful 5 hour hike encompassing all five villages of the Cinque Terre. Loved it!
4) The Munich Zoo -- This zoo was great, and even more fun because I got to go with my nieces! We had a blast playing on the playground and watching the animals. The Siberian Tiger eating his lunch (a rabbit), the rhinos, and the penguins were big highlights.
5) Biking in the Netherlands -- I spent a great day biking out to the North Sea and through the fields and flowers of North Holland. The perfect way to see the countryside and pretend I was a local!
Tours I Went On
1) Normandy D-Day Beaches Tour -- This was a fascinating look at the D-Day beaches and the operations during WWII in the Normandy area. It would have been impossible to see all of these sights using public transportation, and the information the guide gave made it totally worth it. Plus this year is the 65th anniversary of D-Day which made it even more special.
2) The Sound of Music Tour -- A fun tour out of Salzburg that hits all the highlights of the Sound of Music movie and the real life locations of the von Trapp family. Gotta love a bus load of tourists singing "My Favorite Things!"
3) The Vatican Tour -- The best way to see the Vatican and the Vatican museums. Without pre-booking this tour, we easily would have stood in line for 2 - 3 hours. The guide was great at pointing out the highlights and helping us to not get overwhelmed with the massive amounts of art in the museums. The Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Apartments were real highlights. So glad my sister planned ahead and booked this tour!
4) Stonehenge and the Cotswolds -- A great way to see a large amount of the English countryside. I especially liked the visit to the villages in the Cotswolds, which would have been near impossible on public transit.
5) The Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula -- I took bus tours to these scenic areas of the west coast of Ireland, and despite the rain, it was a great way to go. Beautiful scenery and lots of interesting tidbits.
Europe has a lot of incredible museums. Here are a few of my favorites:
1) Louvre, Paris, France -- Hands down one of the best art museums in the world. I could have spent an entire week in this museum. My favorite piece: The Winged Nike of Samothrace.
2) The British Museum, London, England -- Probably the best all around museum I have ever been to. The collections of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Asian art were remarkable. I loved seeing the Rosetta stone, the original Parthenon sculptures, and the Royal Lion Hunting relief sculptures from Nineveh. And amazingly, this museum is free to all!
3) The National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece -- An amazing collection of Greek art and antiquities. Through this museum you can trace the origins of art from simple tribal figurines to sophisticated Greek statuary and architecture. I loved this museum!
4) The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam -- An amazing collection of Van Gogh's work and life. So cool to see his progression as an artist.
5) Orangerie, Paris, France -- Monet's Waterlillies were so beautiful in the round.
6) The Prado, Madrid, Spain -- Greatest collection of European paintings anywhere.
7) Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain -- I am not much into modern art, but this modern art museum was spectacular.
8) Kunsthistorisches, Vienna, Austria -- Great collection of European paintings, as well as ancient Egyptian and Roman art.
This is a tough category because there are so many beautiful cathedrals and churches in Europe.
1) Notre Dame, Paris, France -- Absolutely beautiful, iconic cathedral.
2) Amalfi Cathedral, Amalfi, Italy -- So beautiful. Even better because we were there on Easter Sunday.
3) St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City -- This building is enormous. The sheer size and scope of this cathedral were breath-taking.
4) St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy -- This church has a very Byzantine feel to it. The mosaics, especially on the domes, were stunning.
5) Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain -- This modern cathedral is amazing, and will be even more so when it is completed. It was very moving to see a large scale cathedral being build in modern times and made me wonder even more about the construction of older cathedrals without modern tools.
6) Sainte-Chapelle -- The stained glass windows here are absolutely stunning! Easily one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been in.
Best Parks and Gardens
1) Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain -- I spent a wonderful sunny afternoon exploring this huge urban park in central Madrid. There were so many people out playing in the sunshine -- walking, biking, playing soccer and rowing on the lake. It was fun to be a part of it all.
2) The Gardens at Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria -- The gardens were enormous and really beautiful. The grounds contain small formal gardens, a Palm House and Europe's oldest zoo. And the best part is the grounds have been free and open to the public since the 1700s, when the Hapsburgs decided to share their land with all the people of their empire.
3) Wallenstein Gardens, Prague, Czech Republic -- I spent a lazy afternoon enjoying these beautiful gardens, which are tucked away in the Little Quarter of Prague. I loved the tulips, lilacs and roses. There was even a decorative beehive in one corner!
1) Everyone thought I was Swedish! A lot of the people in the hostels didn't think I spoke English because I looked Swedish. I guess those family roots are still pretty strong. Of course as soon as I opened my mouth they all knew I was American.
2) Hostels really aren't so bad. I was a little nervous about staying in hostels originally, since I hadn't done it before. But for the most part they were really pretty decent. There were only a couple of hostels that I didn't like. I found it was a great way to meet new people.
3) Somehow during my travels I managed to hit a lot of historic anniversaries. Not sure if this happens every year, but there seemed to be an abundance of important anniversaries in the places I visited. Here are a few of them: 65th anniversary of D-Day, 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, 90th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Scottish Homecoming (250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns), 10th anniversary of the reinstatement of the Scottish Parliament, 10th anniversary of the euro, 500th anniversary of the reign of King Henry VIII, 80th anniversary of the independence of Vatican City from Italy, 60th anniversary of the Republic of Ireland's independence from Britain, 250th anniversary of the British Museum, 30th anniversary of the first EU Parliamentary elections, 50th anniversary of the premiere of the Sound of Music on Broadway. It was fun to be in many of these places as they celebrated these historic events. There were several great museum exhibits dedicated to the above events, and it really made history come alive for me. In addition, I was in London during th 4th anniversary of the London underground bombings. I probably wouldn't have realized it, except I was staying right by the Russell Square station, one of the main targets of the 7/7 bombings. A huge makeshift memorial sprung up at the station that day and it was really very emotional to see people observing an event that is essentially England's 9/11.
4) One of the beautiful things about travelling is that it helps us connect with people who may be different than us. I was struck many times during my travels by how people are pretty much the same everywhere you go. People want the same things out of life -- to be happy, have work that is rewarding, and watch their children grow up healthy and strong. The sooner we can recognize that at our core we are all the same, the sooner we will be able to live in a world full of peace.