Monday, 4 August 2014

Best of Europe: a Memoir

As the end of the dream rapidly approaches and the bleak reality of "normal" life looms ever larger on the horizon, it's time to look back at the previous 34 days of travel and do some completely subjective rankings.

Here is my trip summarized in easy-to-digest bullet format for the pop-travel audience screaming for content.

The winner and runner-ups are listed below in a completely random set of categories. Enjoy!

Best Big City:

With a strong sense of youth, one-of-a-kind canals, a perfect transportation network of trains and ricketty old bicycles, and the incredible hospitality and friendliess of the Dutch people, Amsterdam is the answer to the question: "what should a city be like?".

Runner-ups: Munich (hospitality, beer, attractions), Vienna (public spaces, coffee, beauty)

Best smaller city or town:
Ennis, Ireland

Charming city in County Clare, towards the west coast of Ireland. Narrow cobble-stone streets, restaurants, pubs and Gaelic-singing street artists. You listen to The Band's The Weight sung by a banjo playing octogenarian in Irish and you would fall in love too.

Runner-ups: Utrecht, Netherlands (canals, beauty, atmosphere); Rennes, France (architecture, atmosphere, hospitality)

Best Country-side:

You don't need to visit rural Ireland. It's exactly what you think: beautiful rolling green hills, small towns, charming pubs, great accents and friendly locals to sing and drink with in every town. Ruins and castles for the landscape every few kilometres, as if the landscape needs more charm. Every moment is a fairy tale.

Runner-ups: Austria (Alps)

Best Döner / Kebab / Kebap:
Berlin - Hauptbahnhof 

A delicious flavour bomb of sauce and perfectly cooked meat in the traditional Döner bun. Perfection. Locate the Döner shop on the 2nd level of the Berlin Hbf (station) just about the intercity train level.

Runner-up: Dublin, Ireland (wild, Guinness-induced party night make anything delicious)

Worst Döner / Kebab / Kebap:
Rennes, France

Who puts fries in a kebab? It isn't bacon; fries on everything does not make it better. A disappointing showing from clear winner of the best food quality category (not listed).

Runner-ups: all the rest of France that partakes in this bizarre French-fry addition to a beautiful thing.

Best Beer:
Munich - weissbier
Turns out the rumours are true, Munich knows their beer. But stay away from the plain lager (helles bier); it is good but nothing fancy. Weissbier is the way to go.

Runner-ups: Anything Belgian (surprised?); Stadskasteel Oudaen, Utrecht (micro brewery on a canal in an old castle)

Best Patios:
Stadskasteel Oudaen 
Utrecht, Netherlands

Like a quiet version of Amsterdam, Utrecht's uniqueness lies in having it's canals one level below the street level. The result? Amazing patio spaces away from the busy city core above, with only beautiful old cathedral spires and buildings towering around you.

Amsterdam. The picture below explains why it is one of the best:

Munich Chinesischer Turn Bier Gartens (a perfect beer garden located in the beautiful English Garden park in central Munich)

Worst Patios:
The Irish fear for rain and general pessimism regarding everything to do with the weather means you won't see a patio seat outside of Dublin. The action is all inside the pubs rather than out front. I had seven days a beautiful sun in Ireland and not a single patio spot can be found.

Best Street Art:

Murals, painting and graffiti cover every inch of the city and have an amazing amount of diversity and creativity. Go see it. 

Runner-up: Berlin

Best Coffee:

The melange, a traditionally Viennese coffee with milk foam, is the best coffee I have ever had. The ambiance and attitude of Viennese cafés are best I have ever experienced, including international newspapers, marble counter tops and tables, beautiful decor and mandatory water delivered with every order.

Runner-up: none. 

Fastest Train:
Paris-Nord to Arras, France TGV

It actually peaked at 321 km/h but my fingers weren't fast enough for the screen capture.

Most Cool & Hip Neighbourhood:
Gartenplatz, Munich

Expensive (only compared to the rest of Munich, not to Canada) but super cool area around a park situated in a small traffic circle. Bicycles, restaurants and young people dressing nicely with glasses. With the help of a lovely local who guided me, I recieved an excellent tour of the sights and sounds of this hipster haven. Perfect. 

Runner-ups: Kreuzberg, Berlin (would have won easily with all the street art and all-night theme clubs, but too covered in broken glass and drug dealers for 1st place)

Best Public Space
Museum Quartier, Vienna

Museum Quarter is home to many museums, late night parties and an informal culture of public lounging on street furniture and benches. Coupled with the MUMOK, an enormous national contemporary art gallery, the squares of Museum Quarter are lively and filled until the wee hours with vienniatans celebrating each other and their city.

Runner-ups: Englischer Garten, Munich (enormous green park, filled with beer gardens and surfers [seriously] ); Champ de Mars, Paris (crowded but perfectly situated next to the Eiffel Tower for lounging with the world most famous view)

Best Lucky Moment
The Venus de Milo, Louvre, Paris

I stumbled upon this randomly at 9:30am while completely lost in the world busiest art museum. Apparently so were the rest of the crowds as I was treated to a near empty exhibit room, along with two new friends from Austria and America. You can keep your Mona Lisa and the chaos associated with it. Alone with one of the most famous statues in the world at the world's busiest art museum is a special moment.

Runner-up: In Innsbruck, Austria I found myself woefully unprepared in a completely full mountain town and no reservation. Quick thinking, rudimentary Spanish skills and helpful Polish staff resulted in sharing a luggage room with some new friends from Spain for 8€ a night. Beats sleeping at the train station!

Friendliest Country / Biggest Myth Proved Wrong
Germany, Netherlands & France 

So many acts of kindness and special moments to list. Everyone I met was kind and helpful and I met many new friends from all these countries. New friends in Netherlands and Germany were excited to show me their local favourites and help me learn bits of language and culture. Everyone in France I met were equally estatic to assist me and provide me with tips, language lessons and local hidden spots. Don't listen to any of the stereotypes; the people in all these countries were some of the nicest I have ever met despite what Canadian and American media may have told you.

Biggest Myth Proved Right

As I mentioned all you have to do is picture Ireland in your head and it's exactly like that. A damn fairy tale.

Best Monument or Statue
St. Gregory Fights the Dragon, Berlin

Criticized for not being realistic when it was dedicated in the 1850s by the equestrian club of Berlin. Apparently the objection is that the horse wasn't realistic enough. No mention on the realism of the dragon from the dragon club.

Runner-up: Vienna - Angel murdering an unarmed man

Munich - angry man eating a baby

Best Unexpected Activity
Scooter ride at Templehof Airport, Berlin

The now defunct Templehof Airport has been converted to a public park. After a 8€ electric scooter rental and I was off on a surreal ride around the abandoned taxi-ways and runways. Kite boarders, cyclists and runners all take advantage of this enormous public space in a country where open space is a premium. 
Runner-up: Hidden café on the roof of the Munich University architecture school

Climbing the ~600-step Dom Tower in Utrecht, Netherlands with views of the distant skylines of Rotterdam and Amsterdam

Topic that Best Brings Cultures Together
Game of Thrones

I am pretty sure everyone in the world watches this show. Seriously: every single person I met talked about it. I've had entire conversations in Polish, Spanish, Korean and a dozen other languages.
Runner-up: World Cup, Breaking Bad, How I Met Your Mother

Most Annoying Conversation
Being confused with Americans
The seasoned travellers could easily pick out the Canadian accent, but the less experienced ones were quick to assume I came from America. It is only after I would apologize for something, offer to help with something or drop an "eh" by accident when people would say "oohhh you must be from Canada!"

Now time for the short list for those quick factoids:

Length of trip: 34 days
Number of pictures taken: ~800
Number of Austrian body-builders met: 1
Number of Countries Where I Watched a World Cup Match: 5
Number of Languages I Watched World Cup Matches in: 7
Best Hostels: Munich
Worst Hostels: Dublin
Best Trains: Ireland, Austria
Coolest Trains: TGV, France
Number of different modes of transport for the entire trip: 12
Number of cars driven: 0
Average Kilometres walked per day: 20km
Number of Museums visited: 7
Cheapest City: Berlin
Most Expensive City: Dublin, Paris
Cheapest Bottle of Wine: Innsbruck, 1€ = $1.50 Canadian
Cheapest Pint: Munich, 1.20€ = $1.80 Canadian
Most Expensive Pint: Paris, 7.20€ = $11.70 Canadian
Most Romantic City: Vienna
Least Romantic City: Dublin
Acts of Robbery Witnessed: 1
Number of times Pitpocketed: 0
Number of clueless 18-year-olds I met that said they were robbed and didn't seem to realize leaving your purse alone at the bar in Prague is not a good idea: 3
Number of laundry Loads done: 3
Best Street Food: Antwerpen - Belgian waffles
Most Memorable City: Munich
Language I Most Want to Learn: French and German
Country with the best bears: Korea (seriously look it up)
Worst thing in Europe: Near total lack of Vietnamese pho soup on the European continent
Best Moment: touring Munich with new German friends
Worst Moment: going home

I have several other posts for different European cities that need to be posted but can't from here due to technical difficulties but will aim to get them up in the coming weeks.

Au revoir / auf wiedersehen / dag / goodbye from Europe!

I will be back.

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