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Europe

Belgium

I’ve not spent a lot of time in Belgium. I have visited numerous times but always to the city of Brugge which was the lunch stop on the way back to London on my whirlwind Europe tours. That being said it is a lovely city and a great place to try Belgian chocolate. It has a great museum and the architecture is very colourful, it also boasts a spectacular clock tower in the heart of the city. Don’t be fooled by the Move “In Brugge” though, the view you get from it is different to the view in the movie, which is actually Rohmer Square in Frankfurt. Brugge also has some enchanting winter markets around Christmas, so if you are in Europe around Christmas, make sure Belgium is on your list.

Bosnia

The country that can’t make up its mind whether it is in Europe or the Middle East, walking through the main streets of either Mostar or Sarajevo you could be forgiven for thinking you were walking down the street in Turkey. At time you could also be forgiven for thinking you are in the middle of a war zone, as people are still living in buildings which have suffered significant destruction due to bombing. The scenery in this country is amazing, trust someone who took a public bus to Sarajevo which is more like a little mountain town in the middle of the Danaric Alps, than a capital city. Many of the hostels and apartments for rent look very similar and you could get VERY lost, make a note of the name and address.

Croatia

Although the last few blogs on this place haven’t been favourable (mainly due to a negative experience with the company I was working for at the time), this is an absolutely beautiful country. Amazing blue water on the Adriatic coast, a great party scene on the Islands of Krocula and Hvar and staggering history in Split and Dubrovnik, and even a chance to glimpse small village life on Brac & Solta. I don’t like wine, but I’ll make an exception for Croatian Dingac, which has a vanilla flavour and is produced in places like Trstenik. Croatia is a place where a tour leader can easily become a god, especially on the small islands, if you can get the gig (with a good company) grab it with both hands. If you visit as a tourist try a small cruise through the Dalmatian islands, swimming in the coll Adriatic sea never gets old.

Czech Republic

The Food! I’ll say it again. The Food! I have NEVER and will NEVER eat McDonalds in the country. The street food is better & cheaper (and probably cleaner!) Burger, chips all manner of European sausage, meat of the bone… I could go on, but you get the picture I hope. The architecture in this place is something else gargoyles, flying buttresses, stained glass and home to my 3rd favourite church, St. Vitus’ which is part of the Prague Castle complex as well as the unreal and creepy “Church of human bones” in Kutna Hora. The communist history is interesting, as well as its current vibrancy. This is the home of Absinth (pronounced Absent because you will be after drinking it) so if you end up in Prague, make sure you go on a pub crawl to have the best time you’ll never remember.


Estonia

Like a step back in time, places like Tallinn will make you think you have either accidentally gotten your DeLorean up to 88m/ph. or that you have stepped into some kind of medieval renaissance faire. Home to the most complete walled citadel of the medieval period, which is also the main town Tallinn is sure to make you feel as though you have taken a step back in time. Estonia, by far the most advanced of the Baltic countries has no state religion and the vast majority of the population are atheist and also speak English. That being said it is still home to some spectacular Russian Orthodox cathedrals, which have miraculously survived the rebellious attitude to their former Russian overlords. One particularly spectacular cathedral (St. Nicholas cathedral) only survives because it was considered too expensive to demolish. Estonia is also a great base from which to access Scandinavia with ferries to both Helsinki and Stockholm as well as St. Petersburg in Russia.

Finland

Finland was a little bit of a shock coming from Estonia, I’ve never seen so many vowels in a language. Signage was almost indecipherable, but still some people speak English and Helsinki is quite easy to get around on the trams. The main cathedral is amazing, but be prepared to walk up some steps! The food was also quite different to Eastern Europe and there was quite a bit of seafood, including pickled herring which you also get in Estonia for breakfast. Be warned Scandinavia is EXPENSIVE and Finland is no exception, if you plan on traveling here for more than a couple of days don’t forget your wallet. From Helsinki there are good connections to the rest of Scandinavia via the main station and onto Russia by overnight ferry.

France

Paris. City of Love and City of lights. What an amazing, beautiful place to visit. From museums, to fabulous sites, to entertainment this place has it all. If you can make it out of the city, you will be rewarded with pretty French country side and impressive Chateau’s. Don’t believe what you hear about the French (my dad would have a heart attack reading this!) they are not the rude and unhelpful bunch people make out. The patisseries, wow, you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a huge slice of lemon meringue pie in your hotel room with nothing to eat it with but your hands, trust me! Warning, especially in Paris, watch your pocket and your phone! In recent times Paris has become a hub for petty for criminals who can out smart even the most seasoned traveller. As yours truly found out on her last trip.

Germany

Like France, don’t believe everything you hear about the Germans, they are not a stuck up bunch with no sense of humour. I’ve found the people to be quite helpful and actually fun loving on occasion, especially in the southern regions of beautiful Bavaria where Castles abound. The food is spectacular, pork, pork and more pork it’s probably not a good destination for vegetarians, but if you’re a carnivore like I am you’re sure to love it. Sometimes overlooked by tourists because of its northerly locale, don’t miss Berlin. Up there with my favourite Europeans cites, it is the perfect blend of new and old world Germany. You can also catch a glimpse of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world in the Pergamon museum, as well as get your passport stamped at Check Point Charlie the entrance to East Berlin.

Greece

What can I say about Greece? What does one say about one of the most spectacular places on the planet? Even as I write that I have to pause and remember all the wonderful times I’ve had in this country. The thought of going back to Greece for a 5th visit actually sends a wave of euphoria through me at the thought of the greatness of its history, the relaxed, friendly nature of its people, its pristine beaches and warm sea, as well as its sunsets which will stagger you with their beauty. It’s islands are famous for their holiday lifestyle, but don’t rule out the mainland or the road less travelled, everywhere you look in Greece there is something spectacular to see or an adventure to be had. No trip to Greece could possibly be complete without a trip to the volcanic island of Santorini, my favourite place on the planet. (Pictured)

Hungary

Impressive is a word that springs to mind. I remember conducting walking tours on the streets of Budapest and clients pointing at a random impressive building and asking me what it was and me telling them it’s just a random impressive building because all the buildings are impressive in Budapest. Budapest is a great place to base yourself if you fancy seeing the rest of Eastern Europe, Kelletti station has connections to a wide range of places and best of all the staff speak English and are very helpful. While in Budapest, also known as the Spa City you must try the Szechenyi baths the largest bath house in the city. Ladies, try the pedicure, where you will be led into the beauty room which looks like a medieval torture chamber for the best feet treat you will ever have.

Italy

La Dolce Vida. The Sweetness of Life, never a truer phrase to describe a country such as Italy. This is another place that will just leave you speechless. I’ve visited a few places in Italy, but feel I have barely scratched the surface. Out of the cities I have visited, Florence is my favourite. Don’t miss the Ufezi Gallery and be sure to try the lasagne at the little self-serve place next to the Ponte Vecchio. Pisa is great for photos and is usually a lunch stop on most coach tours. Rome, what can you say, make sure you allot a decent amount of time, because it is huge, impressive and has a lot to see. As for Venice, the first time you see it you will be left with the opinion that a city that beautiful cannot possibly exist. Make sure you go to the Piazza San Marco at night, it will bring tears to your eyes as it did mine.

Latvia

The things you can get up to in this country! Shooting a 15mm SPA combat cannon and AK-47 Kalishnakov in an old abandoned Soviet bunker springs to mind. Riga can also be a relaxing stop on a busy itinerary as it was for me, with many hours spend napping next to the river in the shade of weeping willows. The old town is not very big, but there is a lot to see, make sure you visit the Cat House and the three brothers. Riga is also home to many small casinos and bars and has a really good nightlife. Again, another one that is easy to move on from, with the Lux Express bus taking passengers to nearby Lithuania, Estonia and Russia.

Lithuania

Out of the three Baltic countries, this one is probably the least visited, but one I always looked forward to during my tours of Eastern Europe. This may have been because there was an old Soviet bunker in the grounds of the hotel we stayed at or it may have been because my favourite restaurant in the world is in Vilnius. Kaimas. Make sure you go, I’ve never been so full in my life, and I’m talking so full that I couldn’t slouch because my stomach was so full of food! Lithuania also has some fabulous churches and the hill of crosses which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It is also home to one of the oldest European cultures so make sure you visit the museum in Vilnius to learn about the start of civilisation in Europe.

Netherlands

I once saw a man smoking a joint at a gas station on the outskirts of Amsterdam. That being said, the Dutch are trying to move away from their image as the pot smoking capital of the world and so they should. There is a lot more to do in the Netherlands, besides get smashed. As much as I love Amsterdam, with its bright lights and bars, that are not bars, I also quite like Volendam. A quaint little town which showcases Dutch culture far more than the nation’s capital does. Try going for a paddle in the freezing sea if you dare and be sure to try Proffertjes, small pancakes made in most ice creameries. Another wonderful thing to do it to go and see the windmills and Zaanse Schans and go to a “Cheese and Clogs” demonstration where you are show how they make the famous wooden shoes.

Poland

Not sure what to say about Poland, it really is your stereotypical Eastern European Country, mind you I spend far too much time in Warsaw and not nearly enough time in other places such as Krakow. There is so much to see if Krakow, and some great walking tours to do. There is a salt mine on the outskirts of the town, with some really cool sculptures inside, remember to bring a jacket. In Warsaw, I was always surprised to find the bears at the Warsaw Zoo, in an enclosure that opens onto the footpath. Just walking along, minding my own business and all of a sudden there are bears. A word about the concentration camps, beware it’s an emotional experience.

Romania

“I vant to suck your blood!” Ahem. No really, this place gives me the creeps (in a good way) especially at night. Home of course to the original vampires, no trip to Romania is complete to the Historic Bran Castle, once home to Vlad the Impaler thought to be the historical character Dracula was based on. The Castle lies just outside the quaint little town to Brasov which can be reached easily via overnight train from Budapest. Brasov also offer quant hotel rooms that look like something straight out of a 60’s horror show. (Stay at the Pension Flamingo for an authentic experience.) Bucharest is also a nice city, albeit crumbing from the effects of a corrupt government, the city looks like it is falling apart in places. Bucharest is home to the world’s heaviest building, (no you did read that correctly) which is an awesome sight. Take my advice, don’t go in summer, its close to what I believe hell would be like.

RUSSIARussia

A country like no other, a first world country where up means down and down means sideways. Think about your expectation and then totally reverse them. This is a country which has been portrayed as the bad guy for a long time, mostly by U.S propaganda. Think about every spy movie ever made, the last Die Hard movie and even James Bond has portrayed the Russians as the villan of the story. There are two sides to every story and I think you’ll find the Russian point of view interesting to say the least. Despite what people would have you believe it is a 1st world country, with all of the conveniences of home, albeit sometimes delivered in different and surprising new ways. As an example you might need to get used to the fact that the mayonnaise won’t be in a “condiments section” in the supermarket, it will most likely be next to the toilet paper. Just as an example of Russian randomness. You might think people are overly miserable looking, but this is just a left over effect of communism, where Stalin told the people that smiling at strangers was a sign of weakness. Most Russians are only too happy to assist a traveller, especially the younger ones who, in my experience will go out of their way to help you. If you get the chance to travel though out the country take it, people in remote places like Siberia are especially friendly and some of their cities and towns are incredibly beautiful

Serbia

I was gutted I wasn’t able to spend a bit more time in this country, which kind of sits half way between Europe and Russia. If you can read the Russian Cyrillic letters, don’t bother trying to work it out here because it’s a different language and they use it differently. Serbia was the home of Nicola Tesla, a scientific genius and you can go and visit his museum in Belgrade. Belgrade is an interesting city, some parts new and then you walk past another building with a giant hole in it from a being bombed in the Balkans War. Right now the city is very cosmopolitan and young people are only too keen to hang out and have a good time.

Slovakia

Pretty little picture. I spend most of my time here in the High Tatras Mountains, which were always a welcome change from the cities I used to visit on my European tours. Fresh mountain air, hiking and seasonal skiing await all those who travel to this part of the country, not to mention hospitable people in the local pensions and hotel, who treat their guests like family. Bratislava, made famous by the horror movie “Hostel” is anything but a horror show. It is a lovely quaint little town that is worth spending a bit of time in.

Spain

I have not spent a lot of time in Spain, but the time I did spend in Barcelona I liked. As my mother said “You have to attend a Flamenco Show!” I did and it was well worth it. I attended a small one in La Ramblas in Barcelona which was a fantastic cultural experience. Speaking of La Ramblas, you will be offered drugs, especially as a woman travelling alone. Look out for various men of African appearance try to sell you everything and anything. The Sangrada Familia, the church that Gaudi built, (well, built if he managed to finish it) is a spectacular site and is so tall that you almost have to stand in the road to see it all. Try the Sangria and Tapas, and throw a coin in the magic fountain in a city that is not only fun, but really easy to get around as a tourist.

Switzerland

Perfect country, with people who are absolute perfectionists. The trains run to the second, something absolutely foreign to a Sydney girl. It's a place of great heights, and I'm not just talking about the Alps...I'm taking about some of the best and safest sky diving in the world. It's also a drivers paradise with the Susten Pass, a winding mountain road leading in to Italy, that has the best heights twists and turns in Europe. Beware thought, as one of the prettiest and neatest countries in Europe it is also one of the most expensive, so remember to pack your wallet.

All Photos & Content by Kristina Wilson ©