Category Archives: Tips and tricks

Best of Israel – Part II, off the beaten path

In “Best of Israel – Part I”, I got as far as Caesarea, having reviewed my favourite spots in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In Part II, I want to take you to the roads less travelled, and into the wild, showcasing parts of Israel that are less frequently exposed.

  1. Mount Carmel
    The Carmel ridge is rising above the coastal plain, starting at Caesaria, and stretching all the way to Haifa, where it dramatically cascades to the sea at the Bahai gardens. It is a green, lush hilly area, carved by deep valleys and full of wildlife. The Carmel is one of the centers of the Druze population in Israel  and a visit to their communities is a culinary delight. An exceptional site is the Mearot stream, a UNESCO-heritage listed property, where prehistoric Homo Sapiens made his first works of art over 250 000 years ago. And maybe ate some Neanderthals, too.
    Panoramic view from the southernmost tip of Carmel ridge
  2. Acco
    A sleepy provincial town, that accidentally is one of the places with the longest running history of human settlement anywhere on Earth. Acco has a small coastal village charm, with its little fishing harbour and seaside restaurants. But beneath (sometimes literally) this humble facade there is a historical record of epic proportions. Acco has Crusader underground tunnels that would impress Indiana Jones, fortifications that defeated Napoleon himself, the residence and burial compound of Bahá’u’lláh, an exiled prophet that founded a whole new religion, a prison where Bahá’u’lláh was held and where both Jewish and Arab rebels against the British rule were executed, a mosque that houses a hair from the Prophet’s beard. Its a wonder Acco doesn’t crumble under the weight of its own heritage.

    Crusader wall remains in the harbour of Acco

    Crusader wall remains in the harbour of Acco

    Acco seaside restaurant

    Acco seaside restaurant

    Acco's harbour

    Acco’s harbour

  3. Nimrod Castle
    All the way up North, sitting on top of a mountain, is Nimrod Castle. It commands the valley below, offering stunning views, and is situated in an area of exceptional beauty. The hiking and other outdoors opportunities here are too many to number. Whatever you choose to do, you can conclude with a meal in one of the many countryside restaurants and overnight in a local B&B.

    Flowers - best part of Nimrod's castle

    Flowers – best part of Nimrod’s castle

    Nimrod's caste massive walls

    Nimrod’s caste massive walls

    Nimrod's caste - with secret passages and all the other castle's must have's

    Nimrod’s caste – with secret passages and all the other castle’s must have’s

  4. The Samarian hills
    Most of the time I spent in Israel I lived in Ariel, in Samaria. I still have many friends living in the area, and I of course visit them when I am in the country. The gentle rolling hills, some covered in olive groves, others barren and rocky, with thorny bushes are genuine, true and pure Biblical landscape. I think it is impossible to get a feel of Israel without a first-hand experience of these hills, where so many stories of the Bible are set.

    Classic Biblical landscapes in Samaria, the heart of Israel

    Classic Biblical landscapes in Samaria, the heart of Israel

  5. Ramon Crater
    I have spent a significant amount of time in the Negev – Israel’s desert. And I’m lovin’ it. For me, the summum of the Negev is the Ramon Crater, a huge hole in the ground which is actually an erosion cirque. Besides the “usual” thousands of years of human history like prehistoric dwellings, ancient water storage systems and Nabatean Incense Route, Ramon Crater is jam-packed with geological sights. Pretty much everything about how the Earth was formed can be seen here, right on the surface. And since its the desert, there are few of those bore-some plants obscuring the view of the beautiful rocks. OK, I’m a geo-nerd, what’d you expect?

    Ammonites are common in Ramon Crater

    Ammonites are common in Ramon Crater

    Ramon Crater is desert in classical Western style - ol' school

    Ramon Crater is desert in classical Western style – ol’ school

  6. Timna valley
    Almost all the way down to Eilat, just 25 kilometres from the Red Sea’s coral reefs, lies a magical, mystical valley. Here at Timna lie the copper mines, where the metal for the copper treasures displayed in the Israel Museum (see Part I) was mined. This valley is as barren as it gets, and it is astonishing. Thousands of years of copper mining left here traces of pretty much all ancient religions. And the wind and water have eroded spectacular structures in the sandstone – King Solomon’s Pillars, The Mushroom, The Arches – if that doesn’t make your blood run faster, I don’t know what else will. Nearby kibbutz Elifaz offers lodging in comfortable air conditioned rooms or on a campsite in huge communal tents or in your own tent.

    The Mushroom rock formation in Timna Park (photo by Tiia Monto)

  7. Masada
    OK, this is not exactly off-the-beaten-path, as it is one of the biggest tourist attractions of Israel. But any “best of” list of Israel has to have Masada on it. Here’s why:A mighty king builds a magnificent palace in the desert, to serve as his refuge, a last resort, his ultimate fortress. After his death, the country rises in rebellion against his masters, the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Rebels take the palace and make it their stronghold. The empire strikes back (they really do), sending its best generals and strongest legions to crush the rebellion. The rebels are defeated, their country is in ruins as they retreat to the desert fortress. The empire’s legions lay siege on the fortress but the rebels hold out. Eventually, the sheer numbers of the empire’s soldiers win and the rebels are facing an imminent defeat. On the night before the final battle, which the rebels know they will lose, they choose to die as free men rather than live as slaves. The empire’s soldiers storm the palace, only to find the dead bodies of the rebels, and just 3 survivors who tell the horrible tale of that last night.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWl1HrmWhV0This is not a Hollywood scenario. This is Masada. And this is Israel – stranger, stronger, more fantastic than any fiction can ever be.

    2000 years old camps of Roman legions around Masada are well preserved in the desert air

    2000 years old camps of Roman legions around Masada are well preserved in the desert air

    Masada's Northern Palace

    Masada’s multistore Northern Palace

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Best of Israel – Part I

Whenever I come to Israel, which is about once a year, I tend to go to the same places. Some out of habit, some because of friends and family living there, some because I just like them so much. Over the years, I’ve come to refer to these places as my “stations of the cross”. This is in parallel with the  14 stations of the cross in Jerusalem, the “points of interest” on the route Jesus supposedly walked on the Via Dolorosa, carrying the cross to the place of his execution.

  1. The Temple Mount
    No visit to Israel is complete without it. I usually get no further than the Western Wall, as a visit to the Temple Mount itself involves an early rise, a long wait and an extensive security check. But it should go without saying that if there’s one place that can not be missed in Israel, it is this one. A tour of the Western Wall Tunnel is highly recommended.

    Everybody visits The Wall

    Best of Israel 11 Best of Israel 10

  2. Church of the Holy Sepulchre
    I’m not a Christian, but I doubt a visit to the holiest place in Christendom would leave anyone without a lasting impression. The place is a maze of passages, halls and tunnels, dimly lit by candles and filled with smoke, singing and rituals at any time of day. The notorious Immovable Ladder symbolizes the state of confusion religion can lead to. My favourite spot of the Church is the Ethiopian monastery on the roof – just trying to find it is a sport on its own.
    Best of Israel 7 Best of Israel 6

    The Immovable Ladder

    The Immovable Ladder

    The Ethiopian monastery

    The Ethiopian rooftop monastery

  3. The Old City Walls Promenade
    The medieval walls of the Old City of Jerusalem can be walked almost along their entire length. The total ~4 km hike is actually quite challenging as it involves climbing up and down ladders and squeezing through narrow passages. From the height of the walls, you get a unique perspective into the Old City and its surroundings, and can get an intimate look into how this dense, congested (physically and spiritually) city lives and breathes.
    Best of Israel 9 Best of Israel 4 Best of Israel 3
  4. Israel Museum
    This huge institution in Jerusalem is worth visiting if only to see for yourself the Dead Sea Scrolls. The museum is full of treasures, depicting the ancient and modern history of Israel and its neighbours, presenting classic and modern art, preserving and presenting Jewish heritage and so on. Besides the Scrolls, my personal favourites are the copper and gold treasures from the Chalcolithic period and the interior of the Paramaribo synagogue.

    The Shrine of the Book, in the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are preserved

    The Shrine of the Book, in the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are preserved

  5. Tel Aviv beach
    In sharp contrast to the devotion and piousness of Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv beach line combines the best of Miami and California, with a Mediterranean flavour to it. It is one of Israel’s biggest treasures and a unique selling point, as depicted in countless commercials. For me, what makes this beach so much fun is the mix of people on it. The elderly locals come up early for their morning coffee, the tourists  bake in the sun during the day, the party people come out at night. Bikini’s and bourkini’s share the waves, the gay beach is next to the religious beach, where men and women come on different days. Best part is of course the drum jam sessions on Dolphinarium Beach, on Friday afternoons.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNk8kgdtRGE
  6. Dr. Saadya
    Every Israeli is sure he/she knows the best falafel place in the country. This one is my pick. More than “just” falafel, its a symbol of Tel Aviv and its turmoil. Its a warm city, that lives on the streets. Dr. Saadya falafel is on King George Street, one of the main drags in town, connecting the upper class Northern neighbourhoods to the Carmel Market. Whenever I am around, I always come in for a falafel, a strong coffee, and some small talk with the owner and the regular customers, as the flow of people is rushing up and down the street.

  7. Caesarea
    The Romans left a wealth of heritage across Israel, and Caesarea is the most prominent example of Roman legacy. Its sunken harbour still holds numerous treasures, as witnessed by recent discoveries of thousands of Fatimid era golden coins and late Roman bronze cargo. Imagine discovering a hoard of gold on your regular snorkelling swim! The fit visitors can hike into town along a challenging track, following the course of the aqueduct all the way from the water source in the hills. The hike is like a tour of history, stretching all the way back to the Neolithic period.

    Not every underwater wreck in Caesaria's harbour is an ancient treasure

    Not every underwater wreck in Caesarea’s harbour is an ancient treasure

    Caesaria overview

    Caesaria overview

    Walls and moat of Crusader Caesaria

    Walls and moat of Crusader Caesarea

To be continued…

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Best bag for the cycling commuter

My review of commuter’s bicycle bags was published in the Bike Citizens Magazine. Here’s why you should go and read it.

20160126_095024_v1_1

Who knows, maybe the best commuter bag is not a bag at all… It all depends on what you commute with, I guess.

Often, reviews of products you come across online are useless. Take bicycle commute’s bags, for example. The reviewers pretty much assume you commute with a which bagbackpack, and then throw in a messenger bag as an afterthought. And somehow, none of the bags they review seems to have any flaws. Which is obviously impossible – we all know every product has its limitations.

I think that the poor quality of reviews has two reasons. One reason is that the people who write these reviews don’t know what they are talking about, and write based on hearsay. “We consulted cyclists in The Independent office, and tested a range of bags for all budgets” – that comes from someone who wrote 200 articles in 12 months. Do you really believe she had the time to test 10 bike bags and come with a decent review? Second reason is that these reviews are often published in various lifestyle outlets, dedicated to praising consumer goods. Their goal is to get you to spend – why would they point out the flaws or drawbacks in the products they try to sell you?

That’s why you need people who know their material, and who are not driven by consumerism. People like me. If you need help in choosing a new bicycle bag, check out my review of commuter’s bicycle bags, published in the Bike Citizens Magazine. It is an honest, no-nonsense comparison of the four very different bags I use routinely, written based on decades of cycling experience. I hope it inspires you to cycle more often on your commute, regardless of which bag you use.

The Bike Citizens Magazine will be publishing more of my articles in 2016, stay tuned!

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How to improve your triathlon cycling (spoiler: not by cycling)

I know that by now its October and triathlon season is definitely over. But with the competition season over, its time to start training for the next year, and I thought my learned advice might actually be of use for other triathletes or those who are considering participating in their first triathlon in the next season.

Last summer, I’ve participated in my 21th triathlon.  Its not like I won any of them, and I’ve only done the shorter versions (up to Olympic distance so far) but I had a great deal of fun participating and have gathered a bit of experience as an amateur triathlete. Over the years I have become better in using that experience rather than sheer muscle power to boost my performance. Triathlon is an endurance sport, but there are quite a few technical sides to it. Of the triathlon components, cycling is my poorest discipline, and I have therefore focused on trying to improve that. So for what they’re worth – these are my suggestions to improve your triathlon finishing time, at least, as far as the cycling part is concerned.

On of my first triathlons... more than 10 years ago

On of my first triathlons… more than 10 years ago

The biggest difference between “normal” cycling and triathlon cycling is the switch. Changing from swimming to cycling and from cycling to running requires a transition between rather different sports, with a different body position and a different set of muscles working. It takes your body (and mind) an effort and time to perform the switch.

Start switching while swimming

Let your body start the adjustment before you exit the water. In the last tens of meters of swimming, lower your legs to start adjusting to the more vertical cycling position. Slower your arm work and power up your legs. This will start redirecting the blood stream to your legs, that will have to do the work from now on.

After leaving the water

Don’t let the adrenaline rush to blind you. Run to your bike, but not too fast – you just stood up and all the blood is flowing to your legs. Besides, there are dozens of other (disoriented) athletes around you running to their bike around you, and accidents are best to avoid.

Some Parc fermé's get very crowded

Some Parc fermé’s get very crowded

Gearing up

Put the helmet on first! Practice the “gearing up” procedure at home as part of your training routine. This will make sure that on the day of the race you know what goes where and in what sequence, so that you can put your stuff on and cycle away “on auto pilot”. Come well in advance and rehearse the procedure a few times at the race location and make sure you know where the exit of the Parc fermé is (you’ll be surprised how many people lose time looking for the exit).

Its not about your gear, its about how you use it... a fixie can be a triathlon bike too

Its not about your gear, its about how you use it… a fixie can be a triathlon bike, too

Mounting your bike

Only AFTER leaving the Parc fermé! Here, there are basically two options – putting the shoes on first, or clicking them into the pedals and putting your feet in while cycling. Which you use depends on personal preference and the type of shoes you wear, but again, this you can test at home to get used to the technique.

On your bicycle

Start on an easy gear and give your body a few minutes to adjust to the position and pace. This is something you can train as well – go to a park and lay down flat next to your bicycle for a minute. Do a few push-ups to get your heart rate up, then start off. Time how long it takes you to cycle at your regular tempo.

Switching to run

Just like the switch to cycling – start preparing in the last minutes by standing up a few times to get used to the upright running position. To shave off a few more seconds, you can pull your feet out of the cycling shoes before dismounting. And, again, start off easily, as cramps are not uncommon at this stage.

And, of course, most important is to remember to enjoy the race! Hope my suggestions help you improve your next (or first) triathlon and I would appreciate any feedback and other suggestions.

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Tourist: A User’s Guide

As you may know, I occasionally host guest contributions on Small European Country (see some general guidelines for submission here). And I am happy to present you with a guest contribution by WD Fyfe. All the pictures in this post are from Pixabay.

An overview of (small) European countries

An overview of (small) European countries

Most tourists don’t want to be tourists. They want a more unique experience than that. Yeah, they want to see all the sights, eat the strange food and check out the local culture — that’s natural — but they also want an adventure. Something different. Something that says, “Our trip was totally cool. We didn’t waste our time and all that money doing the same old crap every other tourist does.” Actually, it’s easy to have a brilliant vacation if you just follow a few simple guidelines. I’ve customized these for a Small European Country but they work anywhere.

WARNING: These guidelines only function for the average urban vacation. If you’re taking the 8 Day/12 Cities bus tour of the Rhine Valley or backpacking the Bumsweat trails of Borneo, different rules apply.

Before You Go:

  1. Yes, that's sign language too

    Yes, that’s sign language too

    Learn “Hi,” “Good-bye,” “Please,” “Thank you,” “What time?” “How much?” and “Where’s the toilet?” in the language of your destination. Or you can just practice pointing, gesturing, grunting and looking like an idiot; that works, too. In a pinch, grabbing your crotch and wiggling your ass is universally recognized as a sign of distress.

  2. Pack one suitcase — only one. Make sure you can lift it over your head. If you can’t, keep taking stuff out of it until you can. Alternatively — stay home!
  3. Make a list of all the things you want to see and do. Wait 24 hours. Cut the list in half — no cheating. Wait 24 hours. Cut the list in half again. Now you have a workable schedule that will maintain your girlish laughter through your entire holiday. The Singing Weavers of Nantes aren’t going anywhere; you can catch them next time.
  4. Watch YouTube street scene videos of your destination. Ignore everything but the people in the background. These are Europeans. Notice they’re not wearing lederhosen, berets or wooden shoes. Nor are they wearing vulgar t-shirts, socks and sandals or pajamas. Use your head! Dress appropriately or expect to get charged the ignorant jerk price for everything.
  5. Tourist is not a job — enjoy yourself.

When You Get There:

  1. Lose the gigantic bag and all the junk that’s in it. Unless you’ve got some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder, you don’t need all that stuff. Yes, women normally carry more crap than men, but nobody needs binoculars, a first aid kit, bug spray, two guide books and a roll of toilet paper just to look at the Brandenburg Gate. And, BTW, if you have a selfie stick, go out in the alley and beat yourself to death with it.

    The gigantic bag you might want to leave behind

    The gigantic bag you might want to leave behind

  2. Shut the hell up! The people around you live there. They don’t need a 102 decibel running commentary about how awesome or awful their country really is. If you feel you must rattle on like a hyperactive child, pretend your trip is a for really special secret that you can only whisper to your invisible friend.
  3. Don’t sweat the details. If you’re getting scammed, robbed or beaten up, definitely complain. Otherwise give it a rest. Ripping into the waiter is not going to change the V.A.T, the sauce or the level of service. (It will, however, increase the jackass population in Europe by one.)
  4. Europe is not overrun with gypsies, tramps and thieves; however, they are available. If you insist on waving wads of cash around, strolling the darkened alleys of Barcelona at 3 a.m. or leaving your wallet, pants and purse on the beach chair while you have outrageous sex in the bushes, you will get robbed.
  5. Treat religion and alcohol with respect. Both can sneak up and bite you on the ass.

Change Your Attitude:

  1. Never comparison shop. You’re in Europe: the way “we do things back home” is irrelevant. It’s like going to a furniture store to buy a boat or asking Lebron James to do your taxes. Go with what you’ve got, even if you don’t totally understand it. That’s why you came here in the first place.

    Shopping=OK, comparison shopping=less OK

    Shopping=OK, comparison shopping=less OK

  2. That European culture you’re so desperately looking for is happening all around you. Quit running at breakneck speed to the museums, art galleries and historical monuments, trying to find it. Relax, and like a timid animal, Europe will come to you.
  3. You are just as exotic to the locals as they are to you. No European expects a half-educated, monolingual North American cowgirl to know which fork to use or where the bargains are. However, with some polite ignorance and a whole lot of please-and-thank yous, they will come to your assistance. It’s surprising how much Europe opens up when you admit you don’t know what you’re doing.

Now that you’ve got these guidelines down to a science and you promise to do things this way for the rest of your life, I’ll tell you the quickest way to turn an ordinary vacation into something completely different.

Find a bar or a cafe close to where you are staying

Find a bar or cafe close to where you are staying

Find a bar or cafe close to where you’re staying. Go there every day for a beverage, either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. These places are great. They force you to stop, settle down and smell the amaretto. However, more importantly, most tourists don’t do this (they’re too busy doing tourist stuff) so after about the third day, the people working there will take custody of you. You will cease to be a tourist and become their tourist. They’ll take a personal interest in the good time you’re having in their town. This works best in smaller places, but it happens everywhere. Remember, the local folks can tell you more about where they live than Trip Advisor ever thought of. These are the people who know where the puppet shows are. They buy clothes, go to local restaurants and know where to just hang out. They also have friends, aunts and cousins who sing in the local band or make jewelry or might be convinced to take you up-river. Not to brag, but I’ve been invited to an illegal Kachina ritual, had a personalized tour of the cliffs of Cornwall, sung “Hasta Siempre” with a band on stage in Havana, and danced with an hereditary Polynesian princess in a South Seas thunderstorm – all because I like a second cup of coffee in the morning.

Happy Trails! WD Fyfe

WD Fyfe has written for newspapers, magazines and radio, but never television (where the big money is.)  He loves the art of travel, and if he ever wins the lottery, he will become a permanent vagabond.  Right now, however, he’s content to live near the Pacific Ocean, type, eat and drink like a king, and watch Ice hockey and European TV.  You can catch his not-so-serious view of the world at http://wdfyfe.net and his serious fiction at http://amazon.com/author/wdfyfe.

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How to turn your European holiday into a nightmare in 10 simple steps

Summer is upon us and as always, Europe will be filled with tourists, young and old, spending their well-earned currencies around the old continent. Many of those are fresh graduates, from high school, college or graduate school, eager to make a journey of a lifetime. Sadly, quite a few visitors are bent on making their European holiday unique and memorable, missing the golden opportunity to march along the obvious tourist traps, fast-forward between the places where everyone else is going, and to do what everyone else is doing, as if their life is not subject to the tyranny of the bucket list. For those poor souls who think they can avoid making the common mistakes, I have compiled a simple and efficient instruction on how to turn your European holiday into a nightmare in just 10 simple steps.

  1. Don’t stay anywhere longer than 2 days. Berlin? 2 days is more than enough! Amsterdam? Can do in 1 day, no sweat, it’s a small city.
    The common advice is to spend at least 3 nights in one place. Longer is better. Trust me, you won’t get bored – plenty of opportunities for day trips out of your “base camp”.
  2. Don’t go to Eastern Europe. Raggedy commy ruins, nothing interesting ever happens there. Nobody speaks English, too.
    It is true that the most visited cities are in the West of Europe. Places like Budapest, Tallinn or Zagreb are rather Westernized nowadays, but the American (and European) travelling crowd still has what the Germans call “Mauer im Kopf” (a wall in the head). 25 years after the fall of Communism its time to ditch that East-West labelling once and for all. Weather is better in the East, too.
  3. Forget about currency exchange. All of Europe uses the Euro, right?
    About half of the European countries uses the Euro. This means the other half doesn’t! There are dozens of different currencies in use, and key countires like the UK, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Sweden stick to their own coins. No need to avoid leaving the Euro zone but keep in mind that it is expensive and inconvenient to get used to other currencies.
  4. Nevermind the climate. You’re going in the summer, what are the odds it will rain?
    Especially in Western Europe summers can be quite rainy. But also in parts of Spain, Italy and the Balkans, weather can be much of a spell-breaker. Don’t forget the rain gear, no matter where in Europe you’re going.
    Average annual precipitation in Europe (Britannica)
  5. Plan your entire trip in advance. With all the information available on the internet, no way you’d miss something and want to change your plans.
    Especially on a longer trip (anything more than a couple of weeks) you are bound to find out things are not as you expected them to be. Some places turn out to be a disappointment, others you’ll love and want to stay longer. Or the weather is nasty where you are and its great just around the corner (see previous point). Having pre-booked hotels and transportation robs you of the opportunity to exploit an opportunity.
  6. Never stray off the beaten track. If all those other places in Europe would be interesting, they’d be full of tourists, too.
    By all means visit some of the highlights, they are famous for a reason. But at least try to discover places not tramped by millions of tourists every year. Europe is so much more than the obvious Paris-Berlin-Venice-Rome tour. And even in these famous places, there are plenty of hidden spots you can brag to your friends about finding. There are even websites that help you discover them – like www.spottedbylocals.com or Hidden Europe magazine. Or even this blog.
  7. Stay in the cities. Europe is a crowded place, there’s no nature left outside the cities anyway.
    European cities are rightfully a tourist magnet. Paris, Berlin, Venice, Rome – the list can become infinite. Outside the cities though there is a splendid country side, huge mountain chains and endless sandy beaches that are all yours, if only you follow point number 6.

    Ridin' the hills

    The French countryside in Burgundy

  8. Stick to the old stuff. Its called “the old continent” for a reason, and you’ve come to see the old masters.
    First of all, the best of the old masters are in museum in North America and private collections in the Persian Gulf. Secondly, Europe did invent impressionism, Art Deco, Bauhaus, cubism, modernism and so on and on. Old stuff is cool. However, European art did not stop in 1800. Do dare to check out some of the less-old stuff, too.
  9. Ignore distances. Europe is the smallest continent, getting around is fast and easy.
    Europe is relatively small. Its still roughly the size of USA or Australia. But besides the size, most time traveling  is lost on waiting. Even getting from Amsterdam to Brussels, just 100 miles apart and 2 hours by train, will take half a day if you consider packing your stuff, checking in and out of hotels and transfers to and from the train stations. A longer distance easily eats a whole day of travel. See point number 1, too.
  10. Avoid hostels at all costs. These are bed-bug infested places, only poor people go there. A hostel is no place for a family.
    For sure, some hostels suck. But there are plenty of other hostels who are just what they say they are – a budget-minded, clean, basic alternative. Many are extremely family-friendly, and I’ve met people of all ages and groups of all compositions who had a great time staying in hostels. Don’t let silly movies put you off hostels.

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Leaving Austria – a tale of a lucky hitchhike

Way back in 2008, when I was a penniless student, I was finishing my semester in Zurich when I got a call from Kristian (who already featured in an earlier post about London). He asked if he could come visit me in Zurich and whether I’d be interested in a little side trip together. Needless to say I was.

You might recall that in 2008 the European football championship was played in Switzerland and Austria. Not that we had tickets but since we were around, we were planning on enjoying the sphere. By the time Kristian joined me in Zurich the semifinals were being played. After spending a couple of days in Zurich I’ve done the last arrangements, packed the rest of my gear and off we went to Vienna on a most spectacular 8-hour train journey through the Alps, to experience the city during the final match between Spain and Germany.

The closest we got to the actual match

The closest we got to the actual match

In Vienna we, much appropriately for two poor students, arranged a place via Couchsurfing with a lovely local couple who were binging on couch surfers, so the house was swarming with guests. A couple of days partying at crazy birthdays, a bit of mischief in the local museums and pestering the losing Germans flew by and it was really time to get back to our base at the Netherlands. Have I mentioned we were poor? We could however afford to spend a bit more time on the journey back and were both in an adventurous mood so we decided to hitchhike. Getting out of Vienna and onto the highway proved in hindsight the most treacherous part of the trip. We probably should have started hitchhiking on the closest petrol station in town. Instead we took the metro to a place near the highway and spent a half an hour searching our way through the fields in an effort to get to the highway petrol station and really start the journey home.

Not the right way to hitchhike

Needless to say, this is not how we were hitchhiking – this is just for the show.

We’ve had an early start, which was a very good thing. It was July and it turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year. By the time we were in position, it was almost nine and already quite hot. Within a mere half an hour I approached a Saab with Dutch number plates and struck a conversation. The guy was friendly enough to offer us a ride but at he explained in the car, he was only going as far as Passau, at the Austrian-German border. He was after all already driving for a while – he was working in some import-export firm in the Netherlands and they’ve had a misunderstanding with Austrian customer. Having failed to clear the misunderstanding over the phone the previous day, he jumped into his car after working hours, drove all the way to Vienna, was there at 7, had a meeting until 9, and was now on his way back to Eindhoven. He was (before he met us) realistic and planned to stop at Passau to get some sleep.

We quickly realized it was a golden opportunity. And we did our best to keep our luck awake, pouring coffee into him at every stop and keeping him entertained by small talk. Passau was passed, then Nuremberg, then Würzburg, and we were still driving. The dude was, in fact, also anxious to get home. It was the last day of school, and his eldest child was graduating from primary school (can you graduate from primary school?). The traditional school play was set due in the evening and he reckoned he could be there at least for the second act. Naturally, we encouraged the idea and as the hours went by we were pretty certain we’d get there.

The Saab clicked through the kilometres, and thank God it was a Saab – the comfy seats, the powerful airco and the reliable engine really got us through the day. By noon it was 38 degrees and the asphalt was melting. Every pit stop we made meant spending as little time as possible out of the car, as even a couple of minutes in the relentless sun would give you a heat stroke. The evening rush hour was rather brutal on less reliable cars, and dozens of overheated car lined the sides of the Autobahn.

As we were coming to the Dutch border, massive storm clouds were gathering as common in Europe on such overheated days. Just as we passed Venlo, all hell broke loose in some of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever seen. We blessed ourselves again with our ride, as the news on the radio mentioned countless train routes out of order due to lightning strikes. From Eindhoven it was quite simple – the storm has passed, cooling down the intense heat, and we had an otherwise uneventful train journey back to Delft. And there we were – having hitchhiked in a single day and with a single lucky ride a whooping 1100 kilometres! And if that’s not a promo piece of the joys of hitchhiking, I don’t know what is.

Vienna to Delft

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