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.
Tourists visit Greece to explore archaeological wonders like the Acropolis, but they often forget where western civilization truly began: in Minoan Crete. Home to the Minoans long before Athen’s heyday, the kingdom of Crete boasted magnificent palaces, cities, and a rich culture that influenced most of the Mediterranean. Although it is shrouded in mystery and legend, archaeological evidence gives us a glimpse into the rise and fall of this advanced society. During our travels through Crete I made it my mission to visit these ancient Minoan sites and examine the evidence of their greatness firsthand.
You could say that the Roman Empire lives on though the Vatican. It was Emperor Constantine the Great who 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.
Throughout our European travels we have found evidence of the greatness of the Roman Empire; from Hadrian’s Wall in the misty isles of Britain as far as Ephesus on the Aegean shores of Turkey. Every church, every castle, and every European city we visited was built upon the foundations of Roman temples, forts, and towns. Roman language, culture, and technologies spread all across the western world and are still used today. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when at last we had arrived at the centre of it all, the birthplace of western civilisation, to which all roads once led: Rome.
Between the beautiful architecture and delicious wines (just outside the city you will find the Chianti wine region) tourism has become the major driver of the Florentine economy. Florence, or Firenze in Italian, has been at the front of the pack economically for centuries; in fact in the Middle Ages it was the centre for Medieval finance and trade. All that wealth was put to artistic use and the city is considered to be la culla del Rinascimento, “the cradle of the Italian Renaissance” for a very good reason.
Bologna is known by many names because it’s a city with a high reputation. It is called “La Grassa” (the fat one) for its famous rich and fatty cuisine. A view from one of its many towers will show you why “La Rossa” (the red one) perfectly describes the earthy hues of Bologna. The nickname “La Dotta” (the learned one) tips a cap to the University of Bologna, the oldest operating university in the world. With all of this acclaim and more, Bologna has a lot to be proud of.
Looking at a map, you can see the province of Tyrol, the leg of Austria (kicking Switzerland in the face) with the capital town of Innsbruck stuck to its shin. Nestled there in the Karwendel Alps, Innsbruck has become an internationally renowned mountaineering/skiing destination, the two-time host of the Winter Olympics, the Paralympics, and the first Winter Youth Olympic Games. It’s ideal location as a stop-over point for travellers crossing the Alps allowed Innsbruck to flourish into an important cultural and administrative centre of Austria. Although people often overlook the town and head for the ski hills, Innsbruck has its own elegant allure that shouldn’t be ignored. If you’re transversing the Alps between Germany and Italy, stop by and take a peak into Innsbruck before moving on to your next destination.
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.
Nuremberg is a beautiful German city with a checkered past. The second-largest city in Bavaria, Nuremberg’s exquisite, timber-frame buildings and dark beer bring tourists thronging all year-round. The old town in particular is well-preserved and beautifully captures the image of traditional Bavaria. That’s not even mentioning that Nuremberg has been a thriving hub culturally, artistically, and economically for centuries. It was the centre of the German Renaissance and birthplace of the great artist Albrecht Dürer and composer Johann Pachelbel (Pachelbel’s Canon, anyone?). Yet what made Nuremberg such a successful urban entity is also what attracted the interest of the Nazi party.
Ahhh Venice… a labyrinth of stunning architecture and alluring attractions, riddled with canals and trampled by 20 million tourists each year. Everybody wants to come to Venice and realize that romantic image of Italy we have in our heads: wandering the secret campis or grand piazzas, sipping espresso at canal-side cafés, and, of course, riding the gondolas as the drivers sing, “Thiiis is the night, what a beauuutiful night…” Although the dream of Venice has long been propagated through popular media, the reality comes pretty close to meeting expectations. Like Paris or Rome, Venice is a historical masterpiece, a wealth of architectural wonders that will continue to draw the masses for years to come.
In the land of Istria: a broad peninsula jutting from Croatia’s northern coastline, one can wander through seaside fishing villages, clamber up to hilltop citadels, and rediscover leftovers from the might of the Roman Empire. Among the many medieval and Roman fortified towns dotting Istria there are four that stand out as wonders of Croatia: Porec, Rovinj, Pula, and Motovun. Though we had been lucky enough to explore most of Croatia’s southern coastline, the Istrian Peninsula promised unforgettable treasures that we couldn’t pass up when the opportunity came ringing.
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.
We were en route to our new workaway home: a horse farm venturing into permaculture, just a short train-ride from Croatia’s capital of Zagreb. Arriving at Zagreb’s main station, we had the first of what would be many frustrations with Croatia’s transit system. While we were waiting at our designated platform, a mysterious locomotive rolled up. The train had a different number than the one we were waiting for, so we ignored it and didn’t think too much of it. As it was getting closer to our departure time, this foreign train still sat there, the display hadn’t changed, and we started to worry. Is this hunk-of-junk going to get out of the way for our ride? What’s going on? (I’m sure you can all see what’s coming). As the mystery train was finally chugging away from the platform, the screen briefly changed to display our train’s details, and then went dark. What? NO! We frantically emailed our host that we would be on the next one, shooting hate-filled glares at the displays that betrayed us. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long, soon we were off to our temporary home near the Slovenian border.
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.
On its way to recovery from the Bosnian War, the beauty and mystery of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been revealed to the world. In the Herzegovina region the town of Mostar lives and breathes again as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Balkans. With its fascinating blend of medieval European and Islamic architecture, cobblestone alleys and slate roof tiles, Mostar is a picturesque town settled peacefully on the crystal clear Neretva River.
Our first stop in Bosnia was, of course, Sarajevo. Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we had been fortunate enough to find a workaway host with the best view in the city. Perched atop one of hills surrounding Sarajevo, Olywood is a B and B/hostel, high enough to overlook the city lights below and to get a peek at the snow-capped mountains filling the horizon. Despite the natural beauty and charm of Bosnia and Hercegovina, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the Bosnian War which once ravaged the country. Sarajevo itself was under siege for 1425 days, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. With the break-up of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that prided itself on cultural acceptance, suddenly became the centre of a conflict drawn along ethnic lines.
After spending some time workaway-ing at a nearby farm, it was time for us to get back to the big city and enjoy the sights and charms that Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, had to offer. Life was simple back on the ol’ farmstead, and we enjoyed the daily chores of milking the goat, feeding the animals, fetching water from the well and scouring the property for eggs never laid in the same place twice. Evgeniya, our host, had bought this large property in the village of Bobryk and started a farm in order to independently sustain her family. Pretty much all the food we ate was grown from her land, including the delectable chicken eggs (when we could find them) and fresh goat’s milk. As much as we enjoyed having a break from being a tourist, a time to let our minds rest with a few chores to keep us busy, Ashleigh and I were eager to find out what was beyond the outskirts of this small village.
From the top of Šentviška Gora Plateau, Ashleigh and I descended along a walking trail that had been altogether obscured by a passing storm. Felled trees littered the path like strewn match sticks and we had to scramble our way through like an obstacle course. We were staying with English expatriate Helpx hosts who lived in a terribly remote region of Slovenia, amidst the tiny settlement of Ponikve– a carpenter and a hairdresser who decided to make a new home in a strange country. Unable to get a ride, and with no other way to get off the mountain, we set off on our weekend adventure on foot in an attempt to get to the beautiful Tolmin Gorge, about 15 kilometres away.
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.
We had been staying a few weeks on a farm near Yalova, just a short ferry ride away from Istanbul. Chevrel and Alan are an English couple building their dream property on the mountainside of the small village of Kurtköy, and we definitely took away a lot of inspiration from their place. My favourite moments though were during tea time with everyone out in the garden. Between everyone laughing, chickens darting in to steal grapes, and the dogs nudging around to say hi, we would all be having a blast over cups of tea. Bidding everyone a fond farewell, we set off on our next adventure… Istanbul!
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.
Early in the morning we bid a sad farewell to Ola and John, our most gracious Workaway hosts in northern Poland, and prepared ourselves for the two week tour ahead that would swiftly sweep us into the unknown. The Baltic Nations, three post-USSR countries sandwiched between Russia and the Baltic Sea, were completely unfamiliar to us and we relished the chance to discover its mysteries first-hand. First on the list: Vilnius.
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).
A long time ago, sometime between about 600 and 150 BC, Celtic tribes journeyed across the sea from western Europe and invaded Ireland. The land was lush, fertile and beautiful, a much desired location for a new home, but it was not empty. Another race had already been settled in Ireland for thousands of years. The Tuatha Dé Danann were recorded in Irish mythology as being a race with supernatural powers and god-like abilities. Whoever these people were they left their mark on the landscape, building enormous burial chambers and temples, erecting massive standing stones, and leaving behind exquisite, scrolling carvings, a style that is still duplicated today in Celtic art.
“Then, when it was least expected, Gisli turned around and ran from the ridge up onto the crag known as Einhamar. There he faced them and defended himself. Everyone in Eyjolf’s party was badly wounded, and Gisli died with so many great wounds that it was an amazement to all. They say he never once backed off, and as far as anyone could see, his last blow was no weaker than the first.”
Gisli Sursson’s Saga
Our last thing to do has been done today. We visited “Viking World” near the Keflavik airport. Though the name sounds like some rip-off carnival, it was an absolutely fascinating museum in which I learned a lot about the epic history of the Vikings.
“With bloody brand on-striding My bird of bane hath followed; My hurtling spear hath sounded In the swift Vikings’ charge. Raged wrathfully our battle, Ran fire o’er foemen’s rooftrees; Sound sleepeth many a warrior Slain in the city gate.” ~Egill Skallagrimson Egill Skallagrímsson was a peculiar character in the history of Iceland. Egill’s brash and … Read more Egill Skallagrímsson