Tag Archives: Eastern Europe

European destinations I have almost been to

I’ve been living in the heart of Europe for over 12 years. In this time, I have visited dozens of countries on countless trips, short and long (the European countries I’ve been to are shown in the map). But some destinations, however classic or accessible, keep eluding me. So, I haven’t been to Paris. From Rotterdam, where I live, its only 3 hours away by high-speed train, and tickets are sold as cheap as 50 Euro, but I somehow managed to miss on Paris entirely. Closest I’ve been was passing by on the Boulevard Périphérique on my way to the Mediterranean sun. Brussels, which is much closer, I haven’t visited too. I’ve been all over Belgium, have flown out of Brussels’s airports many times, but as far as the city itself is concerned, I have only got as far as the Belgian fries stand outside the Central Station. OK, it’s more than the average Contiki “traveller” gets to see, but I still don’t feel like I’ve been to Brussels.

Speaking of airports, the airports of Barcelona and Rome are the only part of these famous cities that I have seen. I honestly intended to spend a few days in Barcelona with my girlfriend (now known as wife), but delays and mechanical mishaps on the way meant we headed straight into the Pyrenees and that Barcelona is still on my wish list. In the meantime, I settle for Barcelona, the neighbourhood tapas bar. Rome I have passed a few times, flying to and from Israel to visit the family. The Italian national carrier, Alitalia, is famous for its strikes, and if I got “lucky” I could have got stuck in Rome for a day or two as a result of one of those strikes. But their numerous strikes seemed always to be unsynchronized with my travels. My luggage, on the other hand, got to spend a vacation without me on several of those occasions – Alitalia managed to lose it on 3 out of 4 flights, delivering it anywhere between 1 day and a week later.

Another European capital that is on everyone’s lips is Budapest. I have, in fact, spent about 12 hours there on another layover on my way to Israel. But I arrived at the dead of night, went straight to a friend’s apartment to sleep a few hours and went back to the airport to catch my flight, so I don’t think it counts. Warsaw, another of Eastern Europe’s gems, I could have reached by a night train from nearby Cologne. I haven’t even seen the airport of Warsaw – like that British pilot in Frankfurt, I flied over several times but never landed.

Last but not least – one of the first European cities I have almost been to was Bucharest, the capital of Romania. I was there way back in 1991, as we immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel. Inside the Communist block, Israel had diplomatic relations only with Romania, so most Soviet Jews stopped in Romania first as they left, before going to Israel. I have spent there a full two days, lodged in former Soviet barracks, which I am sure does not qualify as “have visited Bucharest”. All in all, despite, as I said, having lived more than 12 years in the heart of Europe, in a place with probably the best connections to everywhere and extensive travels, I still have a whole lot of Europe to discover. Lucky me.

Who cares about Paris, when you can go to Sint Oedenrode? This is my stay on the latest weekend getaway - B&B 't Nachtegaeltje.

Who cares about Paris, when you can go to Sint Oedenrode? This is my stay on the latest weekend getaway – B&B ‘t Nachtegaeltje.

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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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European myths and legends

Europe is teeming with myths and legends. Tales of kings, gnomes, elves, wolves and witches are everywhere in the castle-filled Europe. But its not only old myths – modern myths are here as well. As you can probably guess, these modern myths hold about as much truth as the old ones. Here are some of those modern myths about Europe.

  1. Holland is all about drugs and hookers
    When I told my grandma I was going to the Netherlands to study, she started crying. I said: “But grandma – why? You’ve always wanted me to study, so what’s wrong?”. “Its all drugs and hookers there”, the old woman cried – “I’ve seen it on TV!”. I did my best to reassure her. I said: “But grandma – its all drugs and hookers here as well”. That brought her right back to her senses. She stopped crying and said: “You’re right. The TV is all lies anyway”. Despite both prostitution and cannabis being legal in the Netherlands, the consumption of both here is actually around or even slightly below the European average.
  2. London is full of rich people
    This myth is fuelled by the high concentration of Russian billionaires and football players in London. The capital of the grandest Empire of all times is also full of Imperial Glory in the shape of grand buildings, museums and fancy shops. Sad truth is, that most Londoners are poor people. Even those with a good job in the City pay half of their salary to rent a shared apartment (not even their own!) and endure an hour’s ride each way in the rush hour Tube to and from work. You can’t call that being rich.
  3. Eastern Europe is poor
    This myth is especially popular in… Eastern Europe! True, on average, income is significantly lower in Eastern European countries. But the reality is not as black as some would make you believe. The GDP per capita in Bulgaria, for example, is about 7,000 USD. Corrected for Purchasing Power Parity (that is, the actual prices of goods, which are significantly lower in the East), the GDP PPP in Bulgaria is over 15,000 USD! That is still rather low compared to Western Europe, but the differences are not that big anymore. And another thing – the more one moves to the East (and South) of Europe, the higher the share of non-documented economy – the untaxed, unreported income. In Russia it may be as big as the official economy according to some reports! So no, Eastern Europe is not as poor as you might think by looking at the dry numbers.

    Eastern Europe? No, Holland (at -12 C)!

    Eastern Europe? No, Holland (at -12 C)!

  4. Europeans are skinny
    Mostly believed by Americans, this myth is only partially true. Yes, compared to Americans, Europeans are skinny. But Europe is competing with the U.S. for first place in the obesity crisis. In every country in the EU, more than 50% of men are overweight, and almost everywhere more than 40% of women. The UK is hit especially hard, with numbers approaching the USA. Even in France and Italy, countries praised for their healthy food, more than 10% of the population is obese and the numbers are rising dramatically.
  5. Europeans are well-dressed
    Again, a myth mostly believed by a specific group, this time visitors from SE Asia (and, again, many Americans). Compared to SE Asia, where its nothing unusual to do your shopping dressed in a pygama (mint green, with blue teddy bears or purple, with yellow chicks), Europeans are haute couture. In reality, almost everywhere on the continent, people dress casually. Business districts see more suits and there may be less sweatpants and sneakers on the streets that in North America, but outside the city centre in any European country there is plenty of Adidas fashion walking around. Geographically, as you go Eastwards, sweatpants become less and less the exception until, in Russia, they become the norm.

These are just five of the many, many modern myths about Europe. Have you heard any myths you found out to be untrue? Or have a myth you particularly like? Do share it please!

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