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Since arriving home we’ve been asked about our favourite destinations and experiences and it is really hard to narrow it down to one or two things, so much of what we have experienced has been incredible and we loved (almost) every minute of our trip. Marty and I also differ when it comes to selecting our special moments, Marty likes to sit and watch the world go by, meet new people and enjoy the moment whereas I like to get moving and explore each destination and what it has to offer. For those of you who are interested, here are my top ten favourite experiences and my top ten less-than favourite experiences, some of them you may already have read about in previous posts.
Top ten favourites:
- Walking through the doors of the Musee d’Orsay and making my way through the Impressionist collection. Degas, Renoir, Monet, Manet and Seurat were the artists who inspired me when I was in High School and changed the way I looked at my surroundings.
- A perfect day in Bavaria (a very small part of Bavaria anyway) starting with a scenic train ride through the countryside where we met two lovely German ladies and spoke about The Thorn Birds, Brisbane’s floods and the beautiful region we were travelling through. Joe, dressed in traditional clothing met us at the Füssen train station, we took a horse and carriage ride up to Neuschwanstein, drank beer on a snow covered mountain and that evening we had dinner with Joe’s family at his mother’s house.
- Waking up in Paris, the realisation that we were finally in Europe hit and it was bliss! Paris is an amazing and fascinating city and 5 nights was just not enough, we can’t wait to go back there and spend more time exploring the streets, gardens and museums.
- Eating piping hot frites (chips) covered with a huge dollop of mayonnaise from the Mannekin Pis frites shopfront in Amsterdam, it was cold and miserable and these were the most delicious things to eat on such a day.
- Staying in the medieval towns of Bacharach and Rothenburg in Germany. These towns are straight from a fairytale and they were in the most picturesque places, Bacharach on the Rhine River and Rothenburg ob de Tauber surrounded by medieval walls overlooking the valley.
- Wandering the streets of Venice and watching the colours of the buildings change as the sun was setting. Truly a magical place and more so in the evening when the crowds have thinned out and the souvenir stalls have closed.
- The hilltop town of Orvieto was a wonderful destination, we enjoyed the local wine: Orvieto Classico accompanied by snacks of marinated olives, foccacia and peanuts. From Orvieto we visited the dying town of Civita de Bagnoregio, a hilltop town with few residents thanks to ongoing erosion of the volcanic stone that the town sits upon, here we had a most delectable meal grilled over an open fire and served on plastic plates.
- Participating in a cooking class in Florence. This was loads of fun and not only did we learn a little about Tuscan cooking, but we were able to enjoy the fruits of our labour accompanied by a few glasses of wine and all of our classmates.
- Rome, everywhere we walked history smacked us in the face from the ancient roman ruins, influential architecture and Egyptian obelisks to Baroque sculptures on display in piazzas, fountains and churches. The traffic was crazy, the crowds overwhelming and the food served at Cantina Kantarini delicious, an amazing city.
- Driving through the countryside in Tuscany and Umbria, being in the middle of a scene that I had only ever seen on postcards or calendars. When driving between Siena and Pienza we must have stopped at least 20 times to take photos and absorb what we were seeing, rows of cypress pines and olive trees, red poppies and Tuscan villas.
Top ten not-so favourite
- Feeling stressed about the driving in Italy, even though I was the passenger and GPS/map reader. We didn’t know how the tolls worked or how much it would cost, the limited traffic zones made me nervous after reading about the cost of the fines we could get and driving through Sorrento was a little chaotic, narrow streets with bikes, scooter, horse and carriages and women with prams all vying for road space.
- Finding our room not ready in Florence and having to spend potential ‘tourist’ time checking out of one hotel, storing luggage and then checking into the hotel we were originally booked into. Not only that, both hotels were extremely popular with school groups.
- Eating crappy, expensive pasta at a tavola calda near the Vatican City, we knew better than to make a rash decision however we were hungry and running late for our tour of the Vatican Museums. Honestly, Hungry Jacks would have been better and cheaper. The pane (bread) charge of 3 euros for the bread we never ordered was also annoying.
- The crowds in the Vatican Museum made it really difficult to spend time absorbing our location and the marvellous things we wer looking at. Next time we’ll book a private tour either early in the morning or later in the day, the money spent would be well worth it.
- Missing out on the Borghese Gallery because I didn’t try to reserve a ticket far enough in advance made me furious, I knew better but wasn’t sure what our plans were for Rome because a friend of ours was joining us for a few days. I should have just booked the ticket regardless.
- Accidentally deleting all my photos from my computer and having to download them all again from the memory cards, sadly we had deleted some of the images from the memory cards resulting in some happy snaps never being seen again. After that I backed up photos online, on my laptop and on usb sticks.
- Not making use of the metro and buses more in Paris, we walked everywhere unless the hop-on, hop-off buses could get us there (and only for a period of two days) and we were exhausted and short tempered. We walked because we wanted to ‘see’ Paris and instead it ate up valuable time that could have been spent in the Luxembourg gardens, Rodin Museum or people watching at a cafe.
- Rude tour guides in museums and galleries who think it is okay to stand right next to you and start spouting their knowledge to their tour group regardless of the fact that you’re trying to listen to an audioguide.
- Paying 22 (for 2) euros to enter Pompeii, 10 euros for the audioguides and map and finding that the majority of the villas and more interesting places to see are closed for restoration or repairs. No mention of this on the map or the guides and certainly not explained to us when we bought the tickets. Although a great place to visit, it was extremely disappointing.
- Getting ripped off by those International phone companies that ‘help’ you with calling family back home and charge you almost $80 for the privilege. To make matters worse we could have avoided the exorbitant fee had we been better prepared and made a note of the dialling out code for Italy and bought a phone card in Venice.
It was much harder to come up with the less than favourite list, we really were lucky on our trip and avoided all the major hassles some travellers are unfortunate enough to experience and the problems we did experience could have been avoided with a little preparation.
We’ve been travelling in Europe for about 5 weeks now and have loved every minute of it, only very minor glitches in our plans and nothing drastic enough to make me wish I was at home. In addition to the amazing sights, fascinating history and delicious food we have had the pleasure of meet and/or interacting with some really wonderful people. It is true that if you make the effort to be pleasant and polite, try to say hello, please and thank you in the local language and keep the “it isn’t like this at home” attitude to yourself then people will respond positively.
In Paris it took a day or two before the staff on the front desk said more than bonjour to us and wouldn’t admit to speaking more than ‘a little english’. Eventually we were engaging in conversation with them, we learned alot about the area we were staying in and they were extremely forthcoming with information and general chatter about their lives, other destinations and what they thought of them. Marty met the manager of the bar across the road and got chatting about food, she spoke English very well and invited us to try their authentic french fries and the best burger in Paris, we did and had an enjoyable evening in the company of locals.
In Amsterdam and Germany, most of our positive interactions were based around food, either over breakfast, dinner or while buying produce for a picnic. We met the owners of a brasserie and doner kebab shop in Amsterdam and got travel tips from a shop assistant near the red light district, they were all quite happy to tell us more about themselves and the business they were in as well as provide good service. In Germany we met a terribly non politically correct waiter who told us jokes about Barack Obama, being married and whatever else he had read on his email that day. We ate there twice, the food was really good but the conversation and entertainment he provided was more valuable and had we stayed there another night we would have eaten there again. At the Hofbrauhaus we drank with an elderly gentleman who looked as though he had finished a couple of steins before we arrived, he didn’t speak much English, enough to give us his name, Patrick, and date of birth (when Hitler came to power) and a few short phrases that helped us with dinner table etiquette in Germany. Marty shouted him a beer, the concept foreign to him, when the beer appeared in front of him and told Marty that money wasn’t a problem and he could afford beer, it was hard to explain that buying someone a drink was a tradition in Australia. It was a fun evening after a long, cold day at Dachau and we were glad to have met Patrick, even though the conversation was a little hard to understand at times.
One of our favourite days ever was spent with a mate of Marty’s, Joe, he met us at the train wearing traditional Bavarian clothing and he drove us around the countryside and to Neuschwanstein for a tour through King Ludwig’s fairytale castle. The weather was perfect for being outdoors, we went for a ride on a horse and carriage and got a lift in a cable car to the top of a nearby mountain where we drank nice, cold beer at a bar surrounded by snow and mountain tops. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get better, Joe took us to meet his family, his Mum had prepared a special dinner of roast pork, crackling, potato dumplings and salad. Joe’s family were the most wonderful people, his Mum and sister had also dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing and we kicked ourselves for not getting a decent photo of them all together, so overwhelmed were we by their hospitality and generosity. It was very hard to hop on the train back to Munich that night and it is a day we will never forget.
In Italy we have been on the end of some truly excellent customer service and met really friendly, engaging people but we have also been on the end of some of the worst and most indifferent service ever experienced. Shop assistants prefer to maintain telephone conversations or conversations with other people rather than help you out or even take your money. Prepared to greet them with ‘buongiorno’, they always start with ‘prego’ or you’re welcome and it throws you, there is often no eye contact unless you don’t have the right change and then you get the glare and the rolling of eyes. Milan was one of the worst for service, we got bumped from place to place just trying to buy a ticket for the tram. Our accommodation in Varenna, Vernazza, Siena, Orvieto and Assisi obviously cared about their guests, helping us with the language, giving us directions and helping us find good places to eat – all with a smile and no rolling of eyes. The Sicilian brothers at the Il Pirata cafe in Vernazza were a hoot, they flatter the women, make lots of jokes, have fun with the work and their customers and the food and coffee was terrific. We went there for breakfast each morning and for dessert one evening, when you meet such good people and get treated well how can you resist going back. In Orvieto we were well looked after by the family that owned the B&B, had excellent waiters at the restaurants we went to and had a fun time drinking wine and eating nibbles with a couple of ladies from Brazil.
There are so many more instances of meeting people that I could write thousands of words, but all my descriptions would sound much the same: interesting, wonderful, engaging, helpful and funny. The people we’ve met have made our trip more enjoyable for us and it has opened our eyes to the way other people think and act, overall we’re really not that different.
You get fed well when flying Emirates, the meals are pretty good in comparison to many airline meals I’ve eaten but it is important that you don’t eat all the food on offer otherwise you will feel extremely uncomfortable and besides delicious treats awake once you reach your destination. When travelling around Europe you expect to eat good food and drink lots of wine because its usually cheaper than soft drink and mineral water and generally tastes good as well. We’ve had some great, inexpensive meals and also a couple of ordinary expensive ones, most of the time we’re dining on baguettes, paninis or crackers with cheese and cold meat but after a while the craving for vegetables and a different taste can’t be ignored.
In Paris we tried escargots in herb and garlic butter at La Grange on Rue Mouffetard, nice except for the slight hint of dirt on one particular snail. The bread served with the meal soaked up the herb and garlic butter nicely, in France and Italy the bread comes free with the meal. The cheese we bought made our fridge smell, we threw one lot out (it may have been perfectly okay to eat however the smell made us heave) and ate the rest cruising on the train to Amsterdam. Wine was cheap and much lighter in flavour than Australian wines, we ordered the house wine on most occasions and it was served up to us in a carafe or jug.
My favourite meal in Amsterdam was frites and mayo, the dinner we had at the Blazer Brasserie was delicious and the cheap thai (9 euro) on our last night was the best value. No way was I trying the pickled fish that are sold at stalls, I’m fussy about fish and they look horrible and slimy.
I’ve tried to remember to take photos of all our meals eaten at restaurants and cafes, having started well I’m now failing dismally and usually half way through my meal before remembering that I have a camera on me. The most expensive meal we had was in Lucerne Switzerland, I forgot to photograph the main and should have scanned the bill because it is a meal we won’t forget and not because it was the best one we had. The meal was nice, local produce and wines followed by luscious creme caramel with cream and strawberries, for 120 swiss francs you might expect more, but hey, we’re in Switzerland and everything is expensive.
In Germany, Marty ate Weiner Schnitzel four nights in a row, it is a dish that brings back wonderful memories of childhood meals with his Grandparents and I have to admit that it was quite tasty. I tried having different meals even though we ate at the same restaurant in Bacharach and Rothenburg ob de Tauber, we enjoyed the company of the host at each place and the food was good. Our most memorable meal and one of our favourite experiences was courtesy of a friend of Marty’s, he took us to Neuschwanstein and showed us some of the surrounding area and then we went to his family home for the most delicious meal of roast pork, crackling, potato dumplings and salad. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat anymore Joe’s Mum brought out cherries and Bavarian cream and his Grandmother started cutting up cake. Their hospitality and friendliness really made our day, it was also nice to have freshly brewed coffee to finish the meal – we hadn’t had much success with coffee in Germany.
The food in Italy is so far, so good, breakfast was lacking initially (prepackaged croissants and toast) but our stay in Varenna on Lake Como has proven to be a ‘filling’ one. Seafood in Venice is a must, I even ate little fishes fried in batter, at first quite nice but after a while I couldn’t eat anymore and the whole prawns fried were nice (couldn’t bring myself to eat the heads) although I after consuming half the meal I was a little over eating whole fried creatures. Chocolate shops and sweet shops line the narrow streets, Lindt and Perugian chocolates of all kinds and you can pick and mix – we added to our stash of sweets for the Easter weekend. We couldn’t find crostoli anywhere, a small bakery over near the Rialto markets sold something very similar and we ate the sugary fried treat as a snack while walking back to the hotel, wish I could remember what it was called.
In Florence we’ll be attending a cooking class, maybe I’ll have something more interesting to write about, until then I’ll try to remember to take more photos.
Our beds are comfortable and warm, we sleep in knowing that breakfast isn’t served until 9am and what a fine breakfast it is: cereal, cold meats, camembert, cheese and fresh rolls plus all the coffee and juice you could possibly want. We were wrong in thinking that we were the only guests of the Am Markt Hotel, Brian and Veronica from LA are also staying at the hotel, they are on a two week trip to Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Our breakfast carries on until 10.30am because we were chatting, it was nice to speak English easily with another couple and they were friendly which hasn’t been the case with many of the English speaking people we’ve come across.
You cannot stay on the Rhine without doing a cruise of some sort especially on such a glorious day as today, we catch a boat to St Goar, it takes about 40 minutes to get there, the weather is warm and sun is shining and the glass of local white wine is the perfect accompaniment. St Goar is home to Rheinfels Castle, we choose to have a relaxing lunch rather than rush up the hill to see the castle, our boat leaves in just over an hour and the sausage and sauerkraut is calling to us, Marty washes his down with a Warsteiner beer promoted by two Ukranian boxing brothers. St Goar is larger than Bacharach and certainly more tourists are visiting while we are there, Bacharach is preparing for the start of the busy season starting with the upcoming weekend. The cruise back to Bacharach is slower, we are going against the current and the trip takes over one hour, there are more tourists on this journey and we pick up on Aussie and Kiwi accents, they seem to be part of a tour group, when we get off the boat at Bacharach we see the Cosmos coach parked by the river. A tour can be a great way to see alot in a small period of time, doing it independently it also good and better if you want to spend more than 1 or 2 nights in a particular city or country.
Bacharach has two churches in town: the Church of St Peter and the Church of St Nikolaus, the bells of both ring regularly during the day and we are glad that they don’t ring all night, our hotel is only 50 metres from the Church of St Peter. Behind St Peter’s is the Wernercappelle or what is left of it, we discover an unobstructed view by walking up the street in front of St Peter’s towards Malerwinkel. Malerwinkel is a small enclosed area of houses near the wall and Steeger Tor (tower?), the houses have well tended gardens and a stream runs through the centre, it is like a village within a village. Directly opposite our hotel and viewable from our window is the Altehaus or Old House, it is a well known medieval, half timbered building that has provided inspiration for poets over the centuries and it has featured in films, the date painted on the building is 1367.
Many of the shops and cafes in Bacharach are operating on limited hours, it is the low season until after Easter and then the town will be packed to the brim with German and foreign tourists, it is good to be here during the low season. The square has been a hive of activity all day, staff at hotels and restaurants are preparing garden beds, flower pots and furniture for the weekend and upcoming peak tourist season. Builders and painters are touching up and fixing the exterior of a number of places, there are workers outside the walls busily repairing or creating the cobblestone road that goes under part of the wall. It would be great to see the town in full swing and use it as a base for exploring the region, perhaps by campervan, we have seen plenty of those parked by the river.
We dine at the Rusticana restaurant again tonight, the owner is happy to see us return and it appears that she has a few repeat customers. Marty has schnitzel again, it is tempting but I know that I’ll have the opportunity to try it later so I order the pork in special mushroom sauce, the meat is tender and the sauce is really good for dipping my fries in and Marty agrees. Tonight we give the strudel a miss and have ice cream as we walk along the river, I choose the Riesling ice cream and the flavour is unusual, it is sweet but refreshing like sorbet. Marty pulls a face when he tastes it and has a more traditional flavour. As the sun sets the sky changes to a vivid pink and blue, the Burg Stahleck becomes a silhouette on the hill and slowly all the lights in town come on, it is a pretty sight looking back at the village from the river. We will miss Bacharach, it has been such a lovely place to stay.
Our alarm goes off at 6am although I had been waking every half hour or so since 4.30am, we have to catch the early morning train to Koln, our first stop on the trip to Bacharach. With the sun not yet in the sky, mist hanging over the canals and the locals cycling to work, we heave our bags onto our backs (they’re hybrid backpacks, not the ‘real’ backpack) and make our way down the street towards the tram stop. We are sad to leave Amsterdam, our stay has been relaxing and pleasant albeit cold and occasionally wet. The people we met were mainly friendly and extremely helpful, some less so however they were the exception rather than the rule.
No time to have breakfast this morning, the cheese and crackers and pieces of fruit that we packed would have to suffice. The Central Station was filled with commuters and fellow travellers, our train to Koln was a fast train, a couple of hours was all it would take to get there. Having a Eurail pass made it easy, just hop on the train and wait for the conductor to check the ticket, only problem for us was that the date on our reservation was incorrect so the seats we had booked in advance were not available. Thankfully we were able to get help from the conductor, she identified seats that were empty and we made ourselves at home in one of the ‘quiet zones’. The countryside of Holland and Germany are pretty to travel through and even though there are no blue skies to brighten the landscape, there are plenty of farm houses, cottages, flowering trees and animals to keep our attention.
From Koln we catch a train to Koblenz and then transfer to another train to get to Bacharach. Panic sets in when we get off the train at Koln, there is a train waiting on the platform opposite and it appears to be going to Koblenz but there are two destinations listed on the information sign on the platform. Everything is in German (of course), Marty asks the conductor for assistance and he tells us that this is indeed our train, time to jump aboard and find a seat. The distance between each destination is not great, the scenery is spectacular, Marty and I point out castles to each other and vineyards growing on the side of the hills, finally the sun is shining and the skies get more blue as we go through Boppard and St Goar. We are in Bacharach by midday, a gentleman at the station walks us to our hotel, he is not local but he is German and explains a little of the history of the area – no tips expected, just a good deed for two confused Australian tourists.
Bacharach is a picturesque village on the edge of the Rhine, the Burg Stahleck (castle) sits atop the town and offers cheap accommodation and meals to travellers in addition to extensive views of the area. My head was constantly turning as we rolled our bags down cobblestone streets, our hotel sits in the middle of the older part of town and near the church, the bells ring every 15 minutes and remind us of the time. Creative and decorative signs hang above shops and restaurants, ivy grows over rock walls and slate and there is an almost medieval appearance to the buildings. I fell in love with the town as soon as I saw it, could I live here? What would we do for work and would my waistline expand much on a diet of dumplings, schnitzel and potato? Our hotel is not open, I ring the bell at a neighbouring building to let the owner know we have arrived, she is young and very friendly and shows us to our huge room complete with spa bath in the bathroom. I had booked the Am Markt hotel through expedia for a very reasonable 80 euro per night, it has turned out to be an excellent choice.
We meet an American traveller, Larry, he is travelling around Germany by himself and wanted his photo taken. For half an hour we talked about the town, our travels and the places he has seen over the last 30 years and perhaps we will catch up with him on a Rhine River cruise tomorrow. Spring is such a beautiful time to be in Europe, flowers are blooming and the winter colours are changing from brown to vivid greens, yellows, pink and white. The weather is perfect, children are playing in the park, dog owners are taking the pooches for a walk and many are relaxing on park benches by the water. The walk to the castle takes about 15 minutes, the trail is muddy and we regularly stop to look around at the landscape and get a different perspective of the town. The remains of a chapel built in the 13th century lies to the left of the path, gargoyles point down from the top serving as downpipes as well as a decorative feature, spotlights surround the chapel and the path is well lit so I’m looking forward to seeing the effect at night.
The town is relatively quiet apart from the church bells and small amount of traffic, a school group is staying at the castle which means lots of laughter and screaming can be heard as the children see the sights and feast on the local ice cream and cake. Where to have dinner is the biggest decision we have to make this evening, rabbit, schnitzel and apfel (apple) strudel is on the menu for the few restaurants open during the low season. During our walk around Bacharach we pick up the scent of baked pastries and cake, the shop assistant doesn’t speak English but is still able to understand that we want to try the chocolate torte and berry shortcake, heavenly.
The view from the castle is amazing and we debated whether to have dinner up there in the bistro, the children running around and the walk up the hill on a muddy track convinced us otherwise and dinner was in a nice little restaurant down the road. Not many of the restaurants and cafes are open at this time of year, we looked at a couple of menus and for 7.50 euros Marty was able to savour a vegetable soup, salad, schnitzel and fries, I went for the venison with cranberries, potato dumplings and red cabbage for 12.50 euros – the soup and salad were also included.