Our Europe top ten

Place de la Concorde, Paris
The illuminated La Madeleine, Paris

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

People we’ve met while travelling

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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.

Food, glorious food…part one

Plane food, Emirates
Plane food, Emirates

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.

Dinner in Paris, Rue Mouffetard
Dinner in Paris, Rue Mouffetard
Frites and mayo, Amsterdam
Frites and mayo, Amsterdam
Dinner at the Blazer Brasserie, Amsterdam
Dinner at the Blazer Brasserie, Amsterdam

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.

Fresh asparagus, Hotel des Alpes, Lucerne
Fresh asparagus with Hollandaise, Hotel des Alpes, Lucerne
Creme Caramel and Strawberries
Creme Caramel and Strawberries
Macaroons, Lucerne
Macaroons, Lucerne

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.

Salad for starters at Rusticana, Bacharach
Salad for starters at Rusticana, Bacharach
Venison stew with potato dumplings, Rusticana Bacharach
Venison stew with potato dumplings, Rusticana Bacharach
Wiener Schnitzel, Rusticana Bacharach
Wiener Schnitzel, Rusticana Bacharach
Roast Pork and dumplings, Rothenburg ob de Tauber
Roast Pork and dumplings, Rothenburg ob de Tauber
Roast pork knuckle and potato dumplings, Hofbrauhaus Munich
Roast pork knuckle and potato dumplings, Hofbrauhaus Munich

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.

Flavoured cheese, Lucerne Markets
Flavoured cheese, Lucerne Markets
Gnocchi with prawns and zucchini, Venice
Gnocchi with prawns and zucchini, Venice

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.

Medieval Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Markt Square, Rothenberg ob de Tauber
Market set up in Rothenburg ob de Tauber's square

Restless night, the walls are thin and like Amsterdam, we can hear the movement and bodily functions from the neighbouring rooms. Marty opens the windows to let in fresh air, it gets stuffy in our funny little room under the roof. Breakfast is another feast, I explain to Marty that it may not be quite as substantial in Italy, they don’t ‘do’ breakfast like we do or like we’ve had in any of the European countries. Boiled eggs, cheese, meat, bread rolls, cheese spreads and cereal are laid out on two long buffet tables, it is hard to know where to start, we try to be healthy and at least have muesli and yoghurt. The coffee is not great, lots of milk and sugar are required for me to drink it.

Decorated easter eggs on display all over town
Decorated easter eggs on display all over town

It is only early, the air is still fresh and cool, the streets relatively empty of tourists, many locals are out walking their dog and stopping at bakeries to pick up fresh bread and pastries. We climb the steps of the tower near our hotel and walk along the walls, they’re not walkable everywhere, at times you walk on ground level and the towers are closed, the stone is cool to touch and the small holes spaced along the walls were once used to point weapons through in defense of the town. From our room and the wall the steeples of St Jacob’s Church can be seen, we’re content to explore the streets and not venture indoors until we locate the Medieval Criminal Law Museum. The museum opens at 11am, to fill in time we snack on tasty goodies from the bakery and take in the aroma of cooking sausages and deli meats at a local butcher shop. Lunch would be a cooked Franconian sausage on a fresh roll from the butchers, at only 2,50 euro it was a bargain and delicious to boot. Whilst waiting for the sausages to cook, we taste tested salami…yum! We ate lunch outside in the sun, we were in a great position to watch the locals go about their business and to see the other tourists making their way about the town, stopping to take photos of anything and everything (sound familiar?).

Patient dog waiting for his master outside the butcher shop
Patient dog waiting for his master outside the butcher shop

Europeans take their dogs everywhere, but apparently not into the butcher shop, a dear little dog sat waiting outside, shifting slightly every now and then until his (or her) master appeared. I imagine the smell must have been making his mouth water and hope that he got a tasty treat as reward for waiting patiently.

The Criminal Law Museum has a large collection of etchings, documents, punishment devices, seals and legal symbols from seven centuries of history. The barbaric and humiliating forms of punishment for immorality, gossip and drunkenness are beyond belief, it was not a good time to be alive.

Cage used for punishment at the Crime and Justice Museum
One of the medieval forms of torture or punishment

Common punishment for two women or a couple who were charged with being argumentative and always fighting was to bind them together using a device that looked like a portable stock, it was attached around each person’s neck and they had to wear it until they began behaving better towards each other. A woman who had sex before marriage had to wear head gear made of straw and could not get married in the traditional manner available to ‘good girls’. Outside the museum in the courtyard were stocks and wagons used for carting prisoners, hanging in the air was the cage that would have been used for prisoners condemned to be dunked.

Window display at the famous Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop
Window display at the famous Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop

Rothenburg has many bakeries and specialty shops selling ‘schneeballen’, fried pastries coated in sugar, cinnamon or chocolate. They’re a bit like crostoli in texture and taste, but rolled into a ball and the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee. We were still trying to find a coffee as good as that in Paris, a latte machiatto is not as good – too milky as you might expect however it was nicer than the hotel coffee. In addition to trying local food and drinks, our aim was to purchase Christmas decorations from the Christmas Village and have them shipped back to Australia to avoid carrying them and taking the risk of damaging them. Not sure if the lamp we bought will work in Australia, the voltage and power adapter is different, surely this can be fixed using a travel adapter (reverse of the one we had to buy to use our appliances in Europe) and if not it will still look pretty on display at Christmas time. I could have bought hundreds of dollars worth of decorations for our tree but the best ones were about 17 euro and it seemed a little extravagant, I did eventually purchase a nutcracker soldier as a typically Rothenburg souvenir.

Our favourite place to eat
Our favourite place to eat

Pork knuckle, schnitzel or sausage for dinner – big decisions, not lightly made J. The pork knuckle came with sauerkraut so I gave that a miss and we’d had sausages for lunch leaving schnitzel for Marty…again and I ordered boiled beef shank with horseradish cream, boiled taters and cranberries. My choice was a winner, Marty’s fries were delicious when dunked in the horseradish cream and his salad was equally as tasty. The waiter/owner seemed to enjoy the fact that we had returned for a second night, he told us jokes, recommended wines and at the end of the night brought out 2 complimentary glasses of ‘Franconian tap water’ some deadly sort of liqueur that had to be downed in one shot. I couldn’t drink it, the taste was disgusting to me, Marty downed both and instead I devoured a delectable apple strudel and vanilla ice cream dessert. Once back at the hotel Marty met Carlos, he was sitting alone outside the hotel and having a beer, Marty joined him for a couple of drinks and found out that Carlos was working in Rothenburg for the weekend and that he played in a band as well, the next day Marty gave Carlos a list of Australian songs that would rouse the interest of any Australian within hearing range.