Tag Archives: Hiking

Alsace and Schwarzwald – a photo essay

Alsace has been described as “where France crashes into Central Europe”. I don’t know about Central Europe, but it is definitely where France and Germany collide, albeit today the collision is much more peaceful than it was in the past. I just came back from a two-week vacation spent in Alsace and its German counterpart – Schwarzwald. Since I am a bit short on time to write about the trip, and since I have some great photos, I will just show you where I’ve been.

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Colmar itself is not bad at all

Colmar itself is not bad at all

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

Hiking with children in France...

Hiking with children in France…

...and in Germany

…and in Germany

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A young farmgirl :-)

A young farmgirl 🙂

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Alsace and Schwarzwald 6

Radhaus square in Freiburg

Unmistakably Gothic  Freiburger Münster cathedral

Unmistakably Gothic Freiburger Münster cathedral

 

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Am I practicing what I preach? Hell yeah!

I have written on a number of occasions how I find it strange that people who travel are in such a rush. As an alternative, I suggested taking the time, going to less places and staying longer in one destination. But I wondered whether I practice what I preach? To check whether I follow my own recommendations, I looked at a recent example – the Grey Wave camper vacation in Western Europe, and at an older one – the big Round-the-world trip.

“Grey Wave tour”

Our trusty camper

We’ve spent a whole week on this camping and would have stayed longer but they were closing for the winter

Let’s start with the recent trip. In September of last year, we rented a camper van and traveled for 3 weeks, going to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and France. Four countries sounds like a lot, but its less than it seems. Firstly, we’ve been to all these countries before, so we were under no pressure to see as much as possible. Secondly, we stayed mostly in the border region of these countries, which limited the travel times.  All in all we stayed in 5 different locations – on average, that’s 4 nights at a place. So not bad, for a short trip to familiar places, I would say.

Our route for 3 weeks

Our route for 3 weeks

Our big Round-the-world trip took us to 4 continents, 15 countries and countless destinations over a time span of about 10 months. But we managed to stay calm and never (well, almost never) rushed around.

First leg – Europe and the Middle East

Starting with a day in London, just to board a plane, we went to Ukraine, spending almost two weeks spread between Crimea and Kiev. From there we went to Israel for a few days with the family and crossed to Jordan just to see Petra. Excluding the week in Israel, where we were on a family visit and basically just dragged along, we’ve been to 4 ‘destinations’ in two weeks.

Second leg – Indian subcontinent

After a few days in Delhi to acclimatize, we went for a couple of weeks to Rajastan (Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur), and then to Rishikesh. From Rishikesh, we went on a trek to Hemkund and then left India, going to Nepal. In Nepal we mostly hiked (Around Annapurna and Annapurna Base Camp treks), and spent the remainder of our time in Pokhara, Kathmandu and Chitwan. We then returned to Delhi for a few more days, before flying out to Bangkok. All this took us 3 months, with a total of ~13 ‘destinations’, depending how you count them.

Third leg – South-East Asia

Here we’ve been a bit more mobile, going to no less than 5 countries and a variety of destinations I will not bother listing (“the banana pancake trail”). Sufficient to say we’ve spent about 3 weeks each in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. With a few days in Singapore, I count ~17 ‘destinations’ in 3 months, which is a bit busier than our time in Nepal but we were certainly not in a rush.

Fourth leg – Oceania

Most of our 3 months in Oceania we spent in New Zealand, where we drove a lot around, camped on remote beaches and hiked a variety of tracks. After New Zealand we spent three weeks on a remote atoll in French Polynesia, and stopped by at Easter Island. The ‘destination’ count does not really work on this leg, but I can tell you we were in absolutely no hurry.

Pearl farming

Pearl farming can feature on Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs”

Fifth and final leg – Peru

Originally our plan was to make a brief stop in New Zealand and spend more time in South America. We chose the comfort and safety of New Zealand though and cut our final leg down to Peru only (hurray for flexibility!). Our two weeks in Peru were split between Cuzco and Lima, with side trips to the Nazca lines and Macchu Picchu.

 

Sure, we sometimes stayed in a place just for one night and moved on. Overall though, we usually spent between 3 days and a week in a place, taking day trips and/or longer tours before coming back to the “base camp”.

Conclusion

Having critically reviewed my own travel habits I can now safely claim to live according to my own preaching. Of course, sometimes I do travel at a faster pace. But most of the time, I do my best to slow down a bit. I’m not saying this gives me the right to claim moral superiority or something. But I think I can safely say I know what “slow travel” means. Its not like I avoid the tourist highlights. I just not limit myself exclusively to them.

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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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“Europe’s high points” – another man’s view on “what is Europe”

First of all, yes, I actually read books like “Europe’s high points” for pleasure. Briefly, its “A guide to reaching the summit of every country in Europe – driving, walking and climbing routes to the tops of 50 countries in Europe”. I’ve been to some of these high points, and am a hiker and mountaineer experienced enough to enjoy reading descriptions of routes to peaks. Its a bit like I’m hiking there myself, but while laying home on my couch. I find reading passages like “Cross the stream and follow a pleasant shady path through the forest” (Bobotov Kuk, Montenegro) rather soothing. Of course, the book has other qualities beyond the soothing effect – it contains great photos, some interesting background information, and can actually be used as a guide for some of the easier high points. Plus, I intend to use it as an inspiration in choosing travel destinations.

Mont-Blanc - not the highest point of Europe, just of the Alps

Mont-Blanc – not the highest point of Europe, just of the Alps (that’s me there!)

This book is more controversial than you may think. The exact height of some points is debated, borders are disputed and new countries keep emerging. The section in “Europe’s high points” I find most most curious is the one in which the authors make an attempt to resolve “what is Europe”? It is much the same question I’ve had when I started this blog and defined Europe as all those countries that are a member of UEFA (a definition mentioned in the book). The definition of Europe offered by the authors of “Europe’s high points” roughly coincides with mine. But our definitions vary in some points and these are of course the differences that are most interesting.

Bobotov Kuk - contrary to what they tell you, not the highest point of Montenegro

Bobotov Kuk – contrary to what they tell you, not the highest point of Montenegro

“Europe’s high points” excludes Israel and the Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from their definition of Europe on geographical grounds. This argument is a rather peculiar one. Cyprus and Malta are also not “Europe” geographically, Cyprus lying on the Asian plate and Malta on the African one. But Cyprus is included citing cultural arguments and Malta’s geographical belonging is not discussed at all. Iceland’s inclusion can be disputed as well, as Iceland is nowhere near the continent of Europe and is as European as the Azores, for example (see below) Parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan are inside Europe’s geographical definition, being North of the Caucasus watershed, so it would be reasonable to at least include the high points of those areas, like the authors have done for Turkey.

A view on Mount Hermon - Israel's "disputed" high point from Mount Meron, Israel's "undisputed" high point (for as much as there are undisputed things down there)

A view on Mount Hermon – Israel’s “disputed” high point from Mount Meron, Israel’s “undisputed” high point (for as much as there are undisputed things down there)

Speaking of Turkey! Kazakhstan, like Turkey, has a portion of its territory in Europe, the part West of the Ural river. That part is rather flat, I agree, but there must be a high point somewhere. I can’t imagine the authors not being aware of Kazakhstan’s geography, and have the impression they (literally) cut a corner there. The miss is even bigger considering that for the sake of completeness “Europe’s high points” also lists mount Ararat, the highest point of all of Turkey. Including Khan Tengri, the 7010 meters high highest point of Kazakhstan (called “undoubtedly one of the most beautiful peaks in the world” at SummitPost.com) would surely add an extra edge to the book.

The highest point in Luxembourg has been redefined since Dave here ironed his shirt there (now its a couple of km away and a few cm higher)

The highest point in Luxembourg has been redefined since Dave here ironed his shirt there (now its a couple of km away and a few cm higher)

Further, the highest points of the Azores and Canary Islands, that lie outside of geographical Europe are included in the “disputed” section. The reason is that the highest points of Portugal and Spain are actually on these islands, and not on the mainland. If the book will be updated, the highest point of Saba will have to be included. Saba is, since the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, officially a part of The Netherlands. Its highest point, Mount Scenery, is 887 meters high and almost 3 times higher than the previous high point of Vaalserberg (aka Drielandenpunt).

The Vaalserberg is no longer the highest point of The Netherlands

The Vaalserberg is no longer the highest point of The Netherlands, so me (left) and Erik (right) will have to go to Saba some day to conquer the top with an iron and a board

Last but not least, I was delighted to read that “Europe’s high points” lists the high marks of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately. The listing is more due to the Britocentrism of the authors and less due to them sharing my UEFA-membership definition, but its always a pleasure to get an independent confirmation of one’s views. They even provided an entry for Faroe Islands (another UEFA member that I count as a “country”) in the “disputed” section. Djeravica, Kosovo’s high point, was deemed worthy a fully separate entry, despite Kosovo’s debatable status, but I’ll let that one pass.

Ben Nevis - highest point in Scotland, or the UK?

Ben Nevis – did I iron on the highest point in Scotland, or the UK?

I’m glad to have “Europe’s high points” in my possession and I’m sure I will have a great time reading it and following the routes it describes. My adventures around Europe’s high (and low) points will continue being posted here, so stay tuned! And if you have a tale of an adventure on one of the peaks, disputed or not, I’ll be happy to publish it here as a guest post.

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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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Is Luxembourg the biggest microstate or just another small European country?

Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City are usually counted as European microstates. As you may know, I don’t consider Monaco and Vatican City as “countries” or “states”, since they don’t have their own football team, which I view as the basic necessity to be considered a country. On the other hand, Faroe Islands and Gibraltar are members of UEFA, so naturally I do count them as a microstate, too. But some people, including authors of books about microstates, consider Luxembourg a mircostate as well. In addition, Iceland, Montenegro and Cyprus are sometimes considered microstates, although having been to Iceland I don’t know how you can call anything about it “micro”.

Luxembourg is the odd one though. While the “real” microstates in Europe are really tiny, all of them being smaller than 500 km square, Luxembourg is more than 2500 km square, bigger than all the others combined. You can’t really walk through it in a day, like you can do in Andorra or Gibraltar (well, OK, walking 50 km across Andorra is going to be tough but I am sure it can be done). In addition, Luxembourg has a population of about half a million, which I find rather big for a “microstate” (same applies to Malta, but its an island so other rules apply). On the other hand, Luxembourg, as well as the other countries on the list, participates in the Games of the Small States of Europe. So sportswise, Luxembourg considers itself small enough to play in the “Little League”, but does it make it a “microstate”?

Most Dutch only know Luxembourg as the place to buy cheap gasoline on the way to France. I filled up there, too, and gas is seriously cheap there (its about the only thing that’s cheap in Luxembourg). But I’ve been to Luxembourg on other occasions as well, and I think, eventually, I wouldn’t call Luxembourg a microstate. And the reason is – it has what other microstates don’t have. The thing about microstates is that they are rather uniform – they are just not big enough to have a variety of landscape, culture or climate. Luxembourg is diverse. There’s the capital, which has the vibe of a big city with all the banking going on. There are the wooded hills of the Ardennes, which, compared to the rest of the BeNeLux are about as densely populated as the Sahara. And of course there’s the wine-growing valley of the Mosel, which is absolutely charming. As a holiday destination Luxembourg is pretty ideal. Its small enough to get around easilly, big enough to have a little bit of everything and even if its a bit expensive, you can shop for cheap groceries just across the border, like all the locals do.

The biggest of the tiny countries, or the smallest of the small countries, Luxembourg is absolutely worth a visit.

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City

Castles on every corner in Luxembourg

Castles on every corner in Luxembourg

Great hiking, too

Great hiking, too

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Baltic – the only European region I haven’t been to

This is the last of the posts in my series about the division of Europe into travel-ready regions. I’ve originally started this series because so many people go to “Europe” not being aware of the size and diversity of the continent, and try to cover too much in too little time. I hope these posts have been useful to some readers.

The Baltic is the only European region I haven’t visited so far. My review is therefore based entirely on hearsay (and the photo’s used here are from Wikipedia). But then again nobody’s been to Mars, yet it doesn’t prevent people from writing about it, and the Baltic is a whole lot closer. Usually, the Baltic states include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but since I’ve already excluded Finland from Scandinavia and since Finland  shares a history of Russian domination with the other 3 states, I’ve decided to include it as a “Baltic state” as well.

  • Why go there?
    Tucked away in a quiet corner of Europe, this compact region pretty much leads its own life, seemingly unconcerned by the rest of Europe. Although in relative numbers these countries get more tourists that Italy or France, none of them is a major tourist destination. So if you want to experience life in a small European country in its most authentic form, I’d say the Baltic is the right region for you.
  • What’s it best for?
    The Baltic states don’t share a common language or religion like many other regions do. They do share a calm, reserved character which has probably a lot to do with the local nature – long tracks of sandy beaches on cold shores and dark forests with quiet bogs and lakes, the perfect place for reflection.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Autumn is the calmest season in Europe. Summer tourist peak is already gone and the X-mas business is some time away, and since I think the Baltic is best for relaxing, why not experience it at its calmest – in September-October, when the simple melancholy of a small European capital or a bog at the end of the world are entirely yours?
  • How to get around?
    The distances are quite small here, so a local bus can easily be your best bet even on cross-border routes.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    If you’re impatient and look for the fast-paced thrills, you may be better off in more Southern parts of Europe, like the Pyrenees or the Balkan.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    The compactness of the Baltic actually means you can spend a week hopping between the capitals, comparing the subtle differences between neighbouring small European countries, spending one or two nights in each. Or treat yourself to a week-long retreat in a remote rural corner the area is so blessed with and spend some time living the country life in the slowest pace in Europe.

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