April 24, 2017 · 21:38
2015 and 2016 have both been record years in terms of U.S. tourists arriving in Europe, and 2017 seems firmly placed to be third record year in a row. Why wouldn’t they come? The American economy is doing well, the Euro is on a 12-year low (just 1.07 USD for one Euro!) and Europe is a safe, pleasant and immensely variable destination. Added bonus – many Americans have European roots, so even without direct relatives still living on the “old continent”, its always fun to see the town where your great-great grandmother came from back in 1882.
In recent years my city – Rotterdam – has become increasingly popular with tourists as well, becoming the second most popular Dutch city. Rotterdam will probably never surpass Amsterdam, which gets more than 10 times as many visitors. Nevertheless, with the increased popularity of the sea cruise, not a week goes by without 2, 3 or even 4 cruise vessels docking in Rotterdam. You know what that means – Americans! Europeans welcome the American visitors and their $$. In addition, the visitors bring with them a perhaps even more valuable commodity – free entertainment. As my fellow writer WD Fyfe has so nicely put it in his guest post: “You are just as exotic to the locals as they are to you.” Here are a few of my own observations on the habits and customs of the American visitor to Europe.
- Americans tend to think everything in Europe is “cute” and “small”.
Cut it out. Its not “quaint little Cologne“. Cologne is a city of over a million people, the centre of a metropolitan region with a population of 3 million. It lies in the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, with over 10 million people, the third largest metropolitan in the EU. Just because the city centre looks old, doesn’t mean its a cute little village. Same goes for Amsterdam, Brussels, Prague and all other major European capitals. Such comments are especially funny when made by Farmer John and Pumpkin Jane from Springfield, Illinois. Although even if you come from the suburbs of Chicago, its still no excuse to pretend you’re living in a cyberpunk 3D Futurama-meets-Fifth Element-style SuperCity, and you feel agoraphobic in these European “quaint little cities”.
Quaint little Cologne
- Speaking of Chicago, you’re not in mortal danger in Europe.
Dear American visitors. You’re not “surviving” Brussels. You haven’t “braved” Paris. Your few days in London were not a selfless act of courage. Yes, in 2015 and 2016 there were several high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe, with almost 200 people killed in both years. No, you’re not in mortal danger from the moment you step on European soil until the moment you leave. Think of it – in Chicago, 700 people were murdered in 2016! How does that compare to the risks posed by terrorism threat in Europe? Right – relax and get a bullet-proof vest when you get back to USA.
- Since I mentioned bravery – there’s nothing “daring” in visiting Budapest.
For some reason, Americans still believe the Iron Curtain is crossing Europe. Therefore, they tend to describe their day-trip to Budapest as a hair-raising plunge into the Great Unknown, where Stasi agents lurk on every corner. Stop it. You’re not “boldly going where no one has gone before”. Prague and Budapest are not even in Eastern Europe – its Central Europe. Both cities are in the Top 10 of most visited cities in the world. Countries like Estonia welcome more tourists per capita than Spain or Italy. Trust me – they’ve seen tourists before you. They know how to strip you of your dollars. Its not by robbing you, silly – its by selling you rubbish guided tours and ridiculous chariot rides.
- “Copenhagen is a hidden gem of Europe” – yes, exact quote.
I’m sure that’s the reason you can’t even see the statue of the Little Mermaid, let alone take a good photo of it. The crowds of tourists are there to hide this gem. Look – just because you haven’t heard of a place or a city, doesn’t mean its “new”. Something is “a hidden gem”, “a route less taken” or “off the beaten track” if its actually less haunted by the masses. A place like Gent, a region like Pyrenees or a country like Moldova might qualify for such a term, because they are not immediately recognized by everyone. In the more touristy places its also possible to find “hidden gems” or go “off the beaten track“. But calling Copenhagen “a hidden gem” is about the longest stretch ever.
- I know it’s a shock to you, but not everything is better in America.
Of course, this one is not limited to Europe. Americans are known throughout the world for compulsively trying to prove that everything is better in America. I recall one especially fanatical American, who, in front of a Belgian, a German and a Czech, tried to argue that the best beers in the world are being made in Boulder, Colorado. And all that in a Danish pub. Of course, it didn’t occur to him that a)it’s a matter of taste b)nobody actually cared and c)he was making a complete fool of himself. Seriously – why do Americans try to make a pissing contest out of everything? It only shows your deeply engraved inferiority complex, darlings. No need to argue with the French about who’s wine is better, with the Germans about who’s cars are faster, with the Greek about who’s state debt is bigger and with the Russians about who’s president is insaner.
French wine is just better.
Dear citizens of America visiting Europe in their masses this summer. Please chill out. You’re on vacation. We wish you a pleasant stay and hope you never change. Life would be so dull without you.
August 29, 2016 · 20:00
Welcome to Tel Aviv – the flagship of the Middle East in bicycle friendliness
Tel Aviv’s compact layout, flat geography, mild climate and young population all combine to create a city that was destined to become a cycling hub. Cycling in Tel Aviv is fun, and nowadays it not just fun but also easy thanks to Tel-O-Fun, the city’s public bicycle program. The project was scheduled to be launched in 2008, but was delayed until the Israeli helmet law was amended in 2011. Once the mandatory helmet age was curbed to 18, Tel Aviv immediately launched the long-awaited Tel-O-Fun, and ignited a true cycling revolution. Bicycle rental stations popped up all around the city, and in a fortnight, the bicycle became a real alternative to the car in Tel Aviv.
Read more about Tel Aviv’s successful bike sharing program in my latest article in Bike Citizens Magazine.
July 4, 2016 · 14:19
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.
- 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.
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
Acco seaside restaurant
- 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
Nimrod’s caste massive walls
Nimrod’s caste – with secret passages and all the other castle’s must have’s
- 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
- 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
Ramon Crater is desert in classical Western style – ol’ school
- 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)
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
Masada’s multistore Northern Palace