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Unorganized Europe – tips on how to enjoy Europe on your own terms

I’ve never been on an organized tour in Europe. And I honestly do not understand people who go on these tours. Well, some people at least. If you’re in your 50’s and enjoy wearing name tags, then its the right thing for you. Or if you’re a Chinese or a Russian and don’t speak a word in another language, then I totally get why booking a bus tour is the way to go. I even understand why Americans who only have 10 days off a year would think that swooshing through 17 countries in a week is a good idea (it’s not – Best of Europe in 21 days? Best of Europe’s highways and tourist traps, perhaps). But there are so many young people out there with lots of time and little money on their hands who nevertheless pay a premium price for something like this:

This mad schedule offered by Contiki will take you to 8 countries in 12 days!

European Discovery
From Amsterdam to Rome to Paris, you won’t want to miss a thing. In fact, sleep will probably be the last thing on your mind!

Sleep will probably be the only thing on your mind as you are dragged to a new town every day, and spend an average of at least 4 hours on the bus daily. More than 100 Euro per day and drinks are not even included! What I understand least is that it’s the same crowd that rents a motorcycle and crosses the back-roads of Laos for weeks, hitchhikes across Africa, stays in an Indian ashram for half a year, but when in the most civilized, tame continent they suddenly feel the need to be taken by the hand and fast-forwarded as if chased by ghosts. I honestly can’t think of a more exhausting and unsatisfying way to spend your vacation. The only explanation I can come up with is that people who book these tours want to get drunk in as many cities as possible. But surely there are cheaper ways to achieve this noble goal?

The rushing is not limited to organized tours though. So many travellers, young and old, wreck themselves with travel schedules from hell. 15 countries in 30 days, 10 countries in 12, 5 cities in 3 days – there’s no limit to the self-inflicted travel misery. Sure, I am a fortunate person. Blessed with a sufficient amount of paid leave and living within easy reach of Europe’s best. But its a lifestyle choice most of all things. I see my vacations as an opportunity to relax. Spending endless hours in transit (and traffic), checking in- and out of hotels every day or two, queueing up to see the endless must-sees is just not my idea of relaxing. When on holiday (and in daily life) I try to choose quality over quantity. And so can you – here’s how to enjoy your (European) vacation

  1. Set up base camp

    No, you don't always have to go to 4000 meters for a free place to sleep in Europe

    Not all base camps must look like this

    Even if your next destination is only a 100 km away, packing, checking out, dragging your belongings, checking in and unpacking still eats a whole day off your vacation. In most of Europe distances are (relatively) small, trains are fast and border controls non-existent. Setting up a strategically located base camp will enable you to explore a whole country, if not several countries, just by doing day-trips. Of course, I’ve done the ultimate move and set my base camp in The Netherlands for the past 12 years already, but that’s an extreme case.

  2. Think of your goals
    It’s so trivial but true nevertheless. If your goal is, indeed, to get plastered in as many destinations as possible – go with it! But don’t try to combine it with cultural aspirations (well, getting plastered is a part of most cultures, but you know what I mean). Think of the things you really want to do and tailor your trip to suit those aspirations. If you’re on a tight budget – go to the Balkans rather than Scandinavia. Yes, you can enjoy Scandinavia on a tight budget, too. But it probably will require a lot of camping and not everyone’s up to it.
  3. Choose the right transport

    During Chrismas vacation bicycles get stuck not only in traffic

    Obviously the wrong choice of transport here

    For you and for your trip. I can’t stand long bus rides so I try to avoid those. But there’s more than personal favourites to it. So, if you are hopping between major destinations, a flight is a good budget option in Europe. If you don’t mind the trip taking a bit longer, and being perhaps a bit more expensive, the train is a good alternative. And if you’re in a party of 3, driving a rented car is probably cheapest. But it’s not all there’s to it. Driving takes an effort, and high-speed trains take you there in a whisker. For example, going from Madrid to Barcelona takes more than 6 hours of driving, but less than 3 hours by train. Can you drive this bit? Yes, you can! But it makes little sense to do so unless you plan to stop along the way.

  4. Limit your destinations
    This can not be stressed enough. An excellent recommendation is a minimum of 3.5 days per destination. But that’s a minimum. If you go to bigger cities, and plan day-trips to other places and/or the country side, I would suggest 5 days at least. As an example, if you intend to spend 5 days in Paris, you can probably fill your schedule completely just with the city. But even if you’re fed up with Paris after a couple of days, you can still take a day to visit Fontainebleau, and a day for another city (Dijon is just 1.5 hours away!). Better still, rent an apartment in Paris for a week, and don’t let that stop you from going to the Loire for two days, spending the night in a Chambres d’hôtes along the way, before going back to the city. The total will be probably cheaper and surely more efficient than separate bookings.
  5. Keep things optional

    The Narrenturm was probably not the happiest place to be in

    Is a former madhouse in Vienna a “must-see”? I sure enjoyed the visit

    I always try to remind myself that there are no must-sees. So what if I haven’t seen whatever that is that’s on “everyone’s” list? Its my vacation and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to… Sorry, I got distracted. I’m not going on vacation to tick off a bucket list, but to enjoy myself. And to me that involves more leisure time and less obligations. I do my research, but view the resulting wish-list as “options” rather than “musts”.

  6. Optimize you trip
    In retail marketing they call it “cherry-pickers”. The term refers to customers who are coming in, buying the items on most attractive sale and leave, not tempted by the overpriced trash presented at the check-out. Be a “cherry-picker”. With open borders and short distances, Europe is an excellent place to optimize. No need to think in terms of “countries” – if an activity or a landscape is better/cheaper elsewhere – go there! Let the example of Cousin Avi be your shining light:
    Doug the Head: [referring to England] We’ve got sandy beaches…
    Avi: So? Who the fuck wants to see ’em?
    See what I mean? There are many reasons to go to England, but why would you stick around for the beaches when Ibiza is only a two-hour flight away?
  7. Try to be flexible
    Booking ahead your entire trip makes sense if you have only one or two weeks. But if you have a month to spend in Europe it’s rather unnecessary. What if you hear of a place you really want to see? Or if you would like to stay longer where you already are? Can’t do, because you’ve already booked elsewhere. By setting your beginning and end points and perhaps booking one or two nights there, you’ll be free to choose your next destination as you go. And no, it’s not difficult or expensive. You’ll just have to be flexible about it.

I’ve written a series of posts about the different regions of Europe, and listed what I think a region is best for, when is the best time to go, how to get around, why you shouldn’t go there and where to go if you only want to spend one week in the area. Perhaps this summary can help you choose and plan your next European destination:

And if you have comments on how you optimize your vacations, I’d love to know.

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Filed under cycling, Europe by region, Tips and tricks, Travel, Work

Adventure starts just across the border

One often hears generalizations about Europe and Europeans. “All Europeans are…” people go. Not all stereotypes are even negative – so, Europeans are supposedly all riding bicycles and are fit. Undoubtedly, some Europeans are, and maybe the average European is skinnier than the average American, but about half of the population of Europe is overweight nevertheless. Well, these stereotypes are just what they are – wild generalizations that may or may not be partially true.

Often, the same people that make generalizations about Europe are surprised how the EU members can’t agree on a common policy on this or that issue. Truth is, that Europe, even seemingly very similar countries, is far from a uniform place. Take the Dutch-Belgian border, for example. If you can find it, of course – it doesn’t even exist! Well, technically, it does, but the border is divided into two very distinct sections that take you to two completely different countries – Flanders and Wallonia.

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium - our first stop - are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium – our first stop – are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

Wallonia has been our first stop on the Grey Wave surfing trip. Every time I cross this border I am surprised how different two countries so close in geography and history can feel. Travel over the highway from the Netherlands into Flanders and you’ll have a hard time noticing you crossed the border. Cross into Wallonia, on the other hand, and even in the dead of night you’ll immediately notice you’re in a different country just by how your car is almost rattled to pieces by the dreadful Wallonian roads. Fortunately, the kind Wallonians notice you about the road perils by signs announcing that “Route dégradée”. Even in Spa, probably the wealthiest community in all of Wallonia, the roads look as if they were carpet-bombed just the other night.

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Of course, the language changes instantly to French, and due to the Belgian language divide you won’t find any sign in Dutch in Wallonia. Nor will you see any French in Flanders, by the way, even Lille is referred to as Rijsel on the highway. Furthermore, I am quite used to wide range of beers in Dutch stores, but the Belgian beer shelves are simply overwhelming, including local Spa beer, unknown to the rest of the world (for a good reason, I assure you). And the supermarket music is not the Top 40 drab I am accustomed to – no, its electronic music, and good one, too. Perhaps that’s the Belgian (or should I say Wallonian?) Top 40? Speaking of supermarkets and food – its tough enough being a vegetarian in the Netherlands, but at least they don’t label fish courses as vegetarian food on the menu, like they do in Wallonia. But the main difference is undoubtedly the landscape. Just across the border they have hills, and steep ones, too! In short, even in Western Europe, your adventure starts as soon as you cross the border.

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Off the beaten path in Vienna

I once wrote a post about the weirdest tourist attractions in Europe. Admittedly, I have a taste for those out-of-line sites. Everywhere I go I try to visits those spots away from the public eye, the obscure and bizarre locations that in my view convene the best “feel” of a place, much better than the well-known, well-tramped tourist traps. As of recently, I am greatly assisted in my quest for the strangest places by Spotted By Locals, a website I contribute to myself, writing about my favourite spots in Rotterdam. On my recent trip to Vienna, thanks to Spotted By Locals, I was able to bag not one, but two quite absurd sites into my collection of “Europe’s weirdest”.

It was a conference of geoscientists. Yes, we're nerds and are proud of it.

It was a conference of geoscientists. Yes, we’re nerds and are proud of it.

I was in town for a conference, the 2014 EGU meeting to be specific, and since I can’t spend 5 days straight in dark, hot classrooms, especially when its 25 C outside, I took time off to explore Vienna. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, what’s up with Vienna? On the surface, its a big city, a major European capital with a lot of history and it is supposed to have all it takes to be a coveted destination. But Vienna just doesn’t arouse, fails to excite. You rarely come across bloggers putting Vienna on their must-go list, do you? It has a reason – while Paris is “city of love”, Amsterdam the “city of sin”, Berlin has the whole anarchist vibe going on and London is… well, just London, but what is Vienna? The “city of opera”? Not really the crowd magnet, isn’t it? Actually, Vienna does attract a lot of tourists, but its mostly middle-aged Americans doing fiaker tours and looking utterly ridiculous while at it. Not the backpacker city by any rate.

As I was about to discover, underneath the classy polish, Vienna does have a lot to offer, but its charms are to be found outside the city centre, which is crowded with Russian tourists and impossibly expensive souvenir stores. After an early morning session at the EGU, I took the subway to town for a brief escape to the courtyards of the university. The shaded patios were an excellent shelter from the passionately bright sun and a welcome opportunity to stretch one’s legs. But the best thing was that turning around the corner I bumped into the Narrenturm. Better still – I happened to be there on Wednesday, during its very limited opening hours!

The Narrenturm was probably not the happiest place to be in

The Narrenturm was probably not the happiest place to be in

Built in 1784, the Narrenturm is the first psychiatric hospital in the world. Inside is a museum, dedicated to medical pathologies and its as creepy as can be. The collection is full of the disgusting, the abnormal, the obnoxious cases of everything that can go wrong with a human body. Staffed by medicine students in once-white robes, the completely outdated setup and dusty exhibition are absolutely perfect and I hope they won’t change a thing. Its like walking into a freak-show. The museum-shop sells appropriate souvenirs. I stopped short of getting my daughter a cuddly syphilis doll – I got the amoeba instead.

The next day was a bit cooler and with a slight breeze – ideal for cycling! I rented a bicycle via Vienna’s Citybike scheme and off I was. I had just the right destination reserved for this day – Friedhof der Namenlosen. At this cheery spot the nameless dead people who drowned in the Danube were buried for a 100 years. Since it’s located in an industrial area on the outskirts of Vienna, I expected to find a desolated, deserted spot, and I was absolutely wrong. Of course, first I had to get there. The route was a classic example of the road being at least as important as the goal but I’ll let the photo’s speak for themselves.

When I finally reached the day’s destination, to my big surprise I found a guesthouse annex cafe, named after the Friedhof der Namenlosen, and it was quite busy. I completely forgot that it was the 1st of May, which is a big holiday in Austria (and is completely ignored in the Netherlands), so Tout-Vienna was out there, recreating. In fact, having seen the masses everywhere else later that day, I think the Friedhof was probably the most subdued place in all the city after all. The place itself is not what you’d call “spectacular”, and most graves actually have names on them (I guess the victims were identified afterwards). But if you’re in Vienna and looking for a different kind of connection to the city’s history, visiting this site is a unique experience.

So I did enjoy Vienna after all. Perhaps it just needs a bit of an effort and some time to adjust to the leisurely style and pace of the city. And of course being blessed with wonderful spring weather and great insider tips helps a lot, too. I guess what I’m trying to say is – when travelling, take the time, and appreciate good advice. But mostly – don’t be afraid to step off the beaten path.

Crowds enjoying the 1st of May underneath another of Vienna's weird attractions - the Flakturm

Crowds enjoying the 1st of May underneath another of Vienna’s weird attractions – the Flakturm

The Highlander brewery is a delightful spot away from the crowds

The Highlander brewery is a delightful spot away from the crowds

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European weddings are hot

This weekend in Vyšehrad - 37 Celsius in the shade and rising

Vyšehrad, Prague, last weekend – 37 Celsius in the shade and rising

Prague is truly beautiful

Prague is truly beautiful

A couple of months ago a good friend of mine told me he was getting married. I said “Again? Congratulations, make it last longer this time.” His first marriage lasted about a year, so you’ll understand my lukewarm reaction. He said the wedding was in Prague, and that I was, of course, invited. I said “Great, when?”. It was in July. I though he was crazy. But he’s a mate, you know, so what can you do?

Summer in Europe - tourists and tourist traps everywhere

Summer in Europe – tourists and tourist traps everywhere

The sunny weather is good for being artistic with a camera

The sunny weather is good for being artistic with a camera

As much as I enjoy European summers (long daylight hours, wearing shorts, a quiet office), they’re no good for city trips. Tourists and children are all over the place, hotel prices are ridiculous and there’s no air conditioner anywhere to be found. Summer in Europe is also a bad season to get married, as the temperatures are totally unfit for wearing a 3-piece suit.

Charles bridge - the toughest hike I've had in years

Charles bridge – the toughest hike I’ve had in years

My wedding was in August but that was in marine, temperate Holland, and we got real lucky as we were blessed with an ideal weather for it (23 degrees and partially cloudy). But this wedding was in continental Prague and it was hot. Smoking hot. The temperatures got as high as 40 degrees, and although I love my friends and it was great seeing them, we all agreed that this weekend was no fun at all. We couldn’t even get properly drunk, as all the beer we’d drink we’d sweat right out. I nearly died crossing the 500 meters long Charles Bridge at noon.

Prague is a wonderfully beautiful place, but next time someone tells me “I’m getting married in Europe this summer”, I’m going to ask about the location, and if its south of the Polar Circle, I will say “Congratulations, I hope you don’t count on me being there”. In short – planning a European wedding? Think twice about the season.

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Europe’s tipping point

Its the Americans fault again. Not so long ago, in some countries, you’d be chased after and given your money back if you’d leave a tip. They just weren’t aware of the custom and wouldn’t understand why you’d pay more than the bill. But the American tipping habits have spoiled waiters from Iceland to Japan. Now every cafe and bar has these silly cups at the counter, informing you that “Tipping is not a place in China” or inviting you to help the barmaid save for her wedding dress.

I know its different and hard to grasp, but in Europe, tipping is optional. Waiters, taxi drivers, bartenders all over Europe are paid a salary. If you got an exceptionally good service, you may reward it with a little extra. Nobody in Europe is working just for the tips. And if they tell you otherwise, tell them to sue the boss. Wish someone would have told me back in the days, when I was foolish enough to work for tips.

So if you do want to leave a tip, how much is normal? I can’t tell you, since there are no common rules – its Europe we’re talking about. I can, however, tell you what I do, and get away with. In many countries in Europe, service is included in the bill. That means that people have actually already tipped themselves, and I don’t have to figure out how much to tip. When I have something to go, I don’t tip – after all, I didn’t get any service, did I? Same goes for self-service locations, like cafeterias and such. Who am I supposed to tip for service – myself? If I just had one drink, I rarely tip. The prices are high enough, and what am I going to tip – 10 cents? Although some Americans tip as much as 50 cents on a cup of coffee, which is way too much in any European country. In restaurants and bars, I usually round the bill up or leave a couple of Euros, but it amounts to just a couple percent and nothing like the American tips of 15-20%.

Overall, there are big differences in tipping habits between European countries. Although I have discovered one commonality. The richest people I know don’t tip all all. Gives something to think about.

 

How much would you tip on this?

How much would you tip on this?

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Laid back Laos

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

The party began already at the train station. Huge stacks of Beer Lao were being loaded into the train. The Lao association of Civil Engineers and Architects was sharing the night train to Bangkok with us and they made sure they’d travel in style – Lao style. Within minutes from departure the beer cans and bags of chips were being distributed to everyone within reach, including conductors and Thai border guards.

Morning alms in Luang Prabang

Morning alms in Luang Prabang

Communication with the increasingly drunken engineers and their secretaries (Lao professional associations travel as real communists – all or none) was somewhat difficult. Until one of the engineers started apologized for his poor English and sighed: “if only someone could speak Russian…”. To which I could only reply by saying “Так что ж ты раньше молчал?” (“why didn’t you just say so before?”). Seldom have I seen a person become happier at the sound of the Russian language. Apparently, he has studied in Kiev in the 80’s and was rather proficient in my native tongue. Although his Russian was a bit rusty after two decades, several beers and a bit of practice made wonders and we were soon singing Russian songs together as the night train rolled through the Thai countryside.

A solar panel in front of every hut in every village

A solar panel in front of every hut in every village

Unfortunately for him, the beer and the constant switching from Russian to English to Lao also made him lose focus. In a slip of the tongue he has mentioned his wife. Before we could blink, one of the women in the party was beating him on the head with her purse. She was kind enough to explain to us what we already understood: “The bastard told me – he not married!” Apparently, he was working his charms on her the whole evening, and was making considerable progress. Until that fatal slip of the tongue. Fortunately, Lao are laid-back, cheerful people, and the whole incident was over in seconds and cheered to by another round of Bee Lao. For all I know, they might have ended up in the same bed after all. I didn’t stay awake long enough to find out – we’ve had a busy schedule in Bangkok for the next day.

P.S. Apparently, the “tubing” party in Vang Vieng has been shut down – hurray!

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Beer 6666

I still mourn the discontinued production of Kwelchouffe, the best of the La Chouffe brewery. There is even a Facebook group called “We want Kwelchouffe now!!!!!” so I am not alone in regretting this unexplained and tragic event. The brewery still exist and produces other beers, including the classic La Chouffe mentioned previously. I was not able to grade it properly. I will try to remember to re-do the tasting next time. OK, I’ve drank it before and will do so again and I do know I like it, but I like to be formal on this one. In the meantime, here’s a review of two other products of the brewery with the devilish address.

  • Mc Chouffe – disappointing. Pretty much charachterless brew. 4
  • Houblon Chouffe – that’s much more like it. Asked how it tastes, the barman replied: grapefruity. Amazingly enough, it does taste grapefruity and its a good thing! 8

 

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