Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world, has been a thriving metropolis for thousands of years. More than a third of Greece’s population sprawls across the Attica plain amidst ruins of ancient grandeur. Athens is known as the founding place of western civilization: its arts, politics and philosophy. It has always been a highly revered city, even to foreign conquerors who would choose not to attack it out of respect. The Athens of today is still the political, business, and artistic centre of Greece and much beloved by the rest of the world.
You could say that the Roman Empire lives on though the Vatican. It was Emperor Constantine the Great who converted the whole of Europe to Christianity and built the original church on Vatican hill, over the grave of Saint Peter himself. After the Western Roman Empire fell, the Catholic Church acted as the principal force of unity in the Western World. In the Middle Ages, the Pope was considered greater than all the kings and rulers of Europe. Even today, the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.2 billion followers. Vatican City has become one of the most popular attractions in the world, drawing over 5 million tourists a year to its priceless works of art and opulent architecture. Despite one’s religious beliefs, one cannot deny the cultural and historical importance of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican.
It’s hard to know where to start with all that Munich has to offer. Bavaria’s capital and largest city holds the bar high as an economic powerhouse, popular tourist attraction, and a major centre of arts and culture. Despite being bombed into oblivion during World War II, Munich has rebuilt itself stronger and better than ever. In 2015, Munich was rated fourth city in the world with the highest quality of living. It’s a home to global corporations like BMW, Allianz and Siemens and has the lowest unemployment rate in Germany. Its historic architecture, rowdy beer halls and elegant parks make Munich a desirable place to live, play, and visit. Oktoberfest, the largest folk festival in the world, alone attracts 5 to 7 million tourists to Munich a year. All things considered, Munich seemed to be the perfect place to end our Bavarian adventure!
If you’re craving the ambience of a quintessential medieval town, look no further. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a vision straight from the pages of Grimm’s fairy tales. Enter through one of the six gateways and take a stroll along Rothenburg’s rough cobblestone streets. Pass under leaning wattle-and-daub homes with intricate timber frames and terracotta shingles. Climb any one of the stone towers and gaze over a forest of feudal keeps, chimney tops, and church spires. A mix of ancient history and olde tyme fairy tales lie within Rothenburg’s walls, just waiting to be remembered.
Italy’s infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa attracts over a million tourists a year, so we thought it was time to join the flock and see what all the fuss is about. Embarking with a caravan full of Ashleigh’s family we left the gorgeous shores of Tuscany and proceeded inland to the province of Pisa and its capital city. With Fred behind the wheel of our monstrous bus-van, Braeden navigating and the rest of us back-seat driving, we carefully piloted through Italy’s narrow streets, avoiding reckless Lamborghinis along the way.
Fixed like a giant spider-web on the map, Milan stands out as one of Italy’s greatest, and most dazzling, metropolises. We had heard people say Milan’s a commercial capital without much else to do but shop for Gucci purses and dine in exclusive restaurants. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of renaissance art and architecture, marvellous churches and green spaces Milan has to offer. You don’t have to be ‘rolling in the dough’ to spend a couple of enjoyable days strolling around the city (or using its cheap transportation system), revealing the cultural riches of Milan around every corner.
Bumping and twisting around the mountainous coastline of Dalmatia, the lower region of Croatia, we took a sudden left up Pelješac peninsula. We were racing the setting sun, crossing our fingers that we would make it to Korčula island, and Korčula town, in time to snap a few photos with the last of the day’s light. The bus pulled over in Orebić, and while we impatiently waited for our ferry we got our first glimpse at Croatia’s southern Dalmatian islands. Beautiful. There is a reason why it felt like literally everyone was telling us we HAD to visit Croatia’s islands.
Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, has been the most impressive “old town” we’ve ever visited on our incredibly long journey. An extraordinary citadel set on the rocky shores of the Adriatic Sea, built up out of bleached stone and capped with red terracotta roofs, the splendour of Dubrovnik glistens in the rays of the Croatian sun. The three days we had in Dubrovnik were spent simply meandering through the old town’s maze of corridors, peeking into its limestone dwellings, and striding upon its battlements and bastions (we didn’t even have time for a swim!). It would be hard to find a city that can compare with Dubrovnik’s lavish, Venetian architecture, scale of fortifications and the excellent condition of its ancient monuments.
We scored a pretty sweet Airbnb place in Sibiu, right outside the old city walls. It was in a perfect location for us to explore the old town and, since it was still pretty early in the year, the area was relatively quiet with just a few out-of-season tourists like ourselves.
Sibiu (“Hermannstadt” in German) was the largest and wealthiest of the citadels built by the Transylvanian Saxons: German merchants who settled in the area around the 12th century. The vast amount of wealth accumulated by the guilds allowed Sibiu to flourish, and permited/encouraged construction of the city’s impressive fortifications. At one time, Sibiu boasted 39 defensive towers, four gates, and five artillery batteries in addition to the walls surrounding the city. Nathanael and I were lucky enough to be staying right outside from one of only three of the remaining defensive towers, the Carpenters’ Tower. Pretty hard to beat that, eh?
The city of Brașov, with its medieval towers and Saxon architecture, surrounded by gorgeous mountains and ski slopes, stands out in my memory as being a idyllic place to live in Romania.
We were very fortunate to have met Bogdan in Casa de Cultura Permanenta— our temporary home in Cluj-Napoca. Bogdan owned an apartment in Brașov and was gracious enough to give us a place to stay while we were exploring the city. For five nights we had a wonderful home in Brașov, as well as a room-mate named Eduardo who brought us to some of his favourite restaurants and pubs. Eduardo was a young man from Australia who had moved to Romania to start an online business. With Romania having one of the fastest internet speeds in the world, as well as cheap living expenses, settling in Brașov is certainly a tempting idea for anyone who can make their income online.
Just before leaving our home in Cluj-Napoca, in the spur of the moment, we were convinced to hitch a ride with a friend in the direction of Sighișoara: a brightly coloured citadel overrun with medieval architecture.
Like something out of a German fairy tale, the Transylvanian-Saxon village of Sighișoara rests on top of a steep plateau, wrapped in ancient fortifications, and furrowed with twisting, cobblestone passageways. This UNESCO-claimed heritage site, founded in the 13th century, is among the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.
The man who scouted out the location of the Ukrainian fortified town, Kamyanets-Podilsky (fortress of stone), must have received a shiny, gold star for his brilliance. Surrounded by a 100 foot deep, natural canyon, this citadel has got to be in one of the most defensible positions in the world.
A cold wind was already blowing when we arrived in Levoča, a medieval, fortified town that became part of the UNESCO Heritage List in June, 2009. Spiš county was our final stop in far eastern Slovakia and we were eager to take a walk-about through Levoča’s historical sites before the day was through. A hideous, dark cloud was building in the distance and rolling out in our direction, so made haste like soldiers on a mission.
“Winter is coming…” I whispered to Ashleigh with a sidelong glance as another gust of cold air spewed icy needles into our faces.
Top Five of Austria
Next up in my Top Five series… Austria! We spent about a month in Austria this past December, and though we visited only two cities, we still felt like there was something new to see every day. Nat and I both loved the tantalizing collection of chocolate and pastries available in every cafe and bakery, Austria’s transportation is amazing (although expensive), and their wiener schnitzel is delicious! So I hope you guys enjoy a quick list of five of my favourite places in Austria.
My Top Five of Serbia
We dashed through Serbia in two quick, but busy bursts before continuing on our journey. The former Yugoslavian countries have a complicated relationship with each other, and it was really interesting (and sometimes a bit worrying) to see how influences of recent history are playing out. Local tensions aside, we had a fun time in Serbia and here’s a glimpse at some of the interesting things we would recommend seeing!
A Polish girl we met in Niš raved about Belgrade being her favourite city in Europe, she just loved it. She was a partier, and Belgrade, the city that never seems to sleep, was definitely the city for her! For Nat and I, we found the fortress more our speed (we’re so predictable, eh?). What I really liked about Belgrade Fortress is they have turned it into a diverse, community space with something for everyone. Restaurants, markets, parks, tank exhibitions, and even a dinosaur exhibit! So much fun, and what a great way to incorporate modern life into a piece of the past!
Our very first Couchsurfing experience began in Budapest and we were privileged with meeting such a wonderful host! Gabor met us at the train station and took us into his family home, a hundred-year old apartment building with a beautiful, enclosed courtyard, quite near to the Danube. His parents were extremely friendly, offering us tea, biscuits and breakfast, and Gabor himself was a wealth of knowledge about the history of his city.
…Meanwhile, in a remote village somewhere on the Hungarian plains…
Yes indeed, that was a straw bale dressed up to look like a pig from the video game Angry Birds, but wait, we’ve got the WHOLE collection!
The tiny village of Tiszaigar, population of 946, is a cheery, little community near Tisza Lake in the Great Plains of Hungary, a two-hour drive east of Budapest. The Tisza people take great pride in their hometown, keeping it clean, building a beautiful fountain garden, and taking care to decorate according to the holidays. This year there was no particular theme but they chose to create several straw bale Angry Birds characters (including the giant slingshot), a straw bale Mater the Tow Truck from the movie Cars, and a maze for the kids to wander around in and get lost for hours. What were we doing in a wacky place like this you may ask?
Ashleigh and I stepped off the bus into Belgrade’s streets around five in the morning, expecting the city to be asleep. Instead, we were met with a heavy bass thumping from thriving nightclubs, scattered people swaggering with half-drunk bottles in their hands, and a completely smashed sailor who just wouldn’t leave us alone (in a friendly sort of way). Most of Belgrade was still awake from the night before and still rearing to party!
We decided to take a bit of a vacation from volunteering to venture through Serbia and get a last taste of summer in Montenegro. First stop: Niš!
Isn’t that the best ice-cream sundae you’ve ever seen? We found this treasure at an adorable cafe decked out in old Tram décor. They had a few other really good ones on the menu. For us it was a toss up between the one above, titled “Adam and Eve,” and one called the “Viking Cup,” which looked like a deluxe sundae with two bananas speared on either side of the glass to look like Viking horns. A little expensive, but the picture alone was worth it.
Ashleigh and I swung back and forth in unison as we wound up the snaking road to the top of Belogradchik, a small village resting on the side of a mountain. The town wasn’t too far from the train station but the taxi ride meandered wildly, taking near 180 degree turns every few minutes, and we struggled to keep our heads on straight as the g-force took its toll. Stepping out into the streets, we were met with a sense of peace and quiet in this sleepy village.
My Top Five of Bulgaria
Want to go somewhere different? With some incredible scenery, friendly people, and wooden monasteries perched on mountains? Look no further than Bulgaria! I loved our time in Bulgaria, and I would say that it has some of the most beautiful natural landscapes that we have seen in Europe so far. Top that off with cheap beer and great vegetable markets, how could you go wrong?
Hiking in the Mountains
The Balkan mountain range is incredibly beautiful. Seriously, it took my breath away (in more ways than one, ugh, so steep). When the sun is shining you can see peak after peak stretching off into the distance, each fading to a lighter shade of blue the further they go on. Hiking along the roughly marked (or more often, unmarked) trails we came across goat herders, meandering herds of horses, and gravity-defying farm fields. We came across this hay field on our way back from a big hike and we couldn’t believe that someone could actually farm the slope. It may not look it in this picture, but I swear the incline was something like 45°! And check out that haystack, it’s so tall!
The Illiad, one of the two popular epics attributed to Homer, is an ancient Greek story set during the Trojan War. The Illiad is probably one of the greatest tales of all time, retold for centuries in the courts of kings, before the thrones of emperors and is still a favourite of today. Although Homer stirred many outlandish deeds of mighty heroes and angry gods into his stories, the Trojan War is believed to have actually occurred and the ruins of the ancient city of Troy still exist.
Due to the large number of castles Ashleigh and I visited on our tour of the United Kingdom (16 in total!), and the vast amount of information attached to each, I have been forced to split my article into two parts. Welcome to PART 2! If you haven’t seen PART 1, please read it here.
The last outpost of Scotland awaited us next in the Shetland Isles! We visited a few English castles in Tamworth and Newcastle, the Scottish castle of Edinburgh, and others in the Midlothian region. Muness Castle on Unst Island, the most northern tip of land in Scotland, was to be our next stop, followed by Urquhart Castle on the waters of Loch Ness, Cuchulainn’s Castle in Ireland, and Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, Rhuddlan, and, finally, Flint Castle in Wales. Each one of these imposing strongholds had their own stories to tell, through their importance in history, the way they were designed, and the legends surrounding them.
Before coming to Britain, even before embarking on our European journey, I would often sit and dream of treading through stone passageways, patrolling the length of rocky defences, and keeping watch from the tallest turrets on a windy night. Castles were raised by the ruling powers through the blood and sweat of their toiling subjects; impenetrable fortresses of carved stone blocks atop rocky crags, castles are truly an awesome sight to behold. They were, at many times, scenes of bloodshed: from sword clashing medieval battles to the assassination of nobles. They were once the seat of lords and kings, protecting, as well as dominating, the countryside. They have stood for hundreds of years and will hopefully continue to stand for centuries more (partially thanks to the National Trust).
My Top Five of Finland
A little tired, but enthused from our mini-cruise, we arrived bright and early in Helsinki harbour on December 20th. The ferry pulled in, and after snapping a few nice shots from the ship, we got our packs on and off we went.
We were meeting our Finnish host about an hour west of Helsinki a little later that day, so we didn’t take much time to look around this time. That ended up being fine though, because it was raining anyway. The route to the central train station went by a lot of nice buildings too, so we could do a little bit of sight-seeing as we walked.