Everyone asks what our favorite places were on this trip and I always have a tough time with that one because it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Lauterbrunnen and the Berner Oberland (in the Swiss Alps) were the geographical highlight, Venice was incredible culturally and architecturally and we really enjoyed the way the Italians love their food and wine. Bacharach is a fairy tale German town with great white wines, it was almost perfection for us.
I would go back to any of the places above. I would also go back to Regensburg (where I met up with my mom). The biggest itinerary regret that I have is that we didn’t build in a couple of days in the Berchtesgaden / Lake Kognissee area, would have loved to do some hiking there. Also wish we had spent another day in Reutte exploring the castles and hiking.
The biggest disappointment was Lucerne. The town of Fussen was nice but the castles in nearby Hohenschwangau were overrated in our opinion. Heidelberg is a very pretty city but we found it very touristy. Salzburg was Heidelberg’s twin in our eyes – worth a short visit (maybe as a day trip). We were in Geneva on business so I’m not sure if I should include it here. But it’s not a city that I would visit as a tourist.
Lissette, who had never been to Europe prior to this, commented sometime during our travels that “Europeans have a really good quality of life”, refering to the ease of travel (trains were fabulous – more on that later), overall cleanliness and organization, the natural environment, and standards (and even pricing) of food. I’ve been to Europe many times but the last time was almost 20 years ago. I don’t know if North America has slipped or if Europe (Western Europe to be precise) has progressed at a faster rate during that time, but I had the same impression – the overall standard of living in Europe has surpassed North American standards. It just seems richer.
People: Europeans have a reputation as brusque and even unfriendly. We visited 4 countries and while we noticed general differences, we never encountered “unfriendliness”. The Italians are the easiest to like; outgoing and relaxed. I found that initial contact with Germans felt like an awkward first date at times; they don’t always smile initially or make eye contact and they can be a little short. But after the initial contact we found they warmed up and were very friendly and helpful. We got to really like the Germans. Germany might actually be our favorite European country. Austrians were likewise friendly and we noticed them especially curious about us and Lissette in particular – maybe because we went to Reutte where they don’t see too many travellers. The Swiss were not unfriendly but nor did we find them friendly.
Below: Public toilets can be found in most places – unlike North American public toilets they’re really clean.
In Montreal they’ve been talking about building a train line from downtown to the airport for the last 30 years (it’s 20 km from downtown to the airport). All levels of government point fingers at each other and in the end nothing ever gets done. I’m sure we won’t have any public transport out to the airport even 10 years from now.
I’ve previously written about planning train travel in Europe and the pros and cons of rail passes. I’m of two thoughts about it. I’m glad we had the passes. 1) Sitting in first class was nice, chairs were comfortable and I often had an electric plug for the laptop, 2) Once there, on the ground, I didn’t have to worry about lining up to buy tickets. Or worst, fighting with ticket machines. We just jumped on a train and showed our passes. This for me was the biggest plus to having the passes. Overall though the savings from having the passes was negligible (I calculated that we had saved a grand total of $90 on our 4 country/2 month pass). Also, pre-booking reservations cuts into your flexibility. Having travelled through Europe and feeling more comfortable about it now, I would probably skip on the passes the next time around – the pre-planning involved was so time-consuming that it just doesn’t make sense to go through all that to save a negligible amount. You can weigh the above and decide what is important to you.
For all that I had heard about train travel in Europe, I was still surprised by how comfortable and hassle free it was. Sitting there, watching the world going by was a pleasure in itself. Trains had restaurant carriages, clean toilets (I keep talking about clean toilets but you just don’t get very many clean toilets when traveling). Trains were on time, tracks were well identified at train stations, help was always there if required. We were just blown away by the ease and comfort of it all. I would never travel Europe by any other means.
I researched hotels using a mix of Lonely Planet, Rick Steve’s “Best of europe″ Guide, and Tripadvisor.com. I pre-booked all hotels which I believe was the smartest thing to do on the whirlwind kind of trip we had. All the hotels were aesthetically fine, but we were in some cases bothered with outside noises; the most common problem we encountered was that hotels didn’t have AC (even expensive hotels) so we’d open the windows wide and would at some point wake up to drunks yelling loudly or dropping beer bottles. We found hotels in Heidelberg, Munich and Venice particularly loud. Next time I would bring industrial-strength earplugs. Apart from that we were pretty happy with the hotels on this trip.
I’ve mentioned Tripadvisor.com for hotels. Lonely Planet is good for logistical information but weak in recommendations (everything is “quaint” or “lovely” or “ideally nestled between majestic peaks” – you can read the whole guide and still not figure out where to go). I never bought a Rick Steve’s guide but gave it a shot and really like the detailed advice and suggestions. I would have never heard of Reutte or Bacharach otherwise – and those were a couple of our favorite spots on this trip. He’s got some really good opinions and recommendations, not just on where to go but restaurants /hotels to stay at for unique experiences. I think his guides are a very good resource in planning any trip to Europe.
We wouldn’t change much about the trip we had. The great thing about Europe is the great cultural and geographic diversity within a relatively small region (relatively as compared to North America). We met some nice people, saw beautiful places, and enjoyed lots of great wine and food.
Do you have any favorite spots in Europe? Always appreciate any feedback or recommendations!
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