Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Personal Best & Worst of Europe, 1998-2014.

With a mere five days left in my European adventure, I thought it might be fun to take a look back and relive some of the highs, lows and other things during my years here. Remembering that all travel is subjective and tastes are all different, here we go...

1. Favorite City:  Admittedly I have vacillated between Rome and Venice over the years here but in the end, La Serennissima wins out. Rome is great but Venice is unique, there's nothing like it in the world.

2. Most Disappointing City: Brugge, Belgium. I have heard countless people over the years extoll the virtues of Brugge as the "true hidden gem of Europe", "The Venice of the North", etc. but I was completely unimpressed by it. Given the choice I would take Brussels over Brugge any day.

Brugge: Overrated.

3. My Choice for Hidden Gem of Europe: I'm going to surprise some people here and say Wurzburg, Germany. The only people who know it seem to be Americans who were stationed there but Wurzburg more than holds its own as a tourist destination. The Residenz and the Marienburg Fortress are up there with anything I've seen in Europe and the city itself is beautiful and perfectly laid out to wander, take pictures, sample the famous Frankenweins and just generally enjoy yourself. The views of the fortress from the city are impressive. Likewise, the views of the city from the fortress are phenomenal.

4. Favorite Country: Not surprisingly, Italy wins out for me here but it's a lot closer than you think. Germany and Austria are up there as two of my favorites as well but in the end, nothing compares to Italy.

5. Least Favorite Country: I actually never found one that I didn't like. I will say however that Liechtenstein was very disappointing for me personally.

6. Most Underrated City: Bologna, Italy. My love of Bologna is well documented. Best food in all of Italy. Best gelato in all of Italy. Surprising amount of interesting things to see and do for any tourist. Interesting and quirky history. Fantastic nightlife. I've never understood why Bologna isn't more famous as a tourist destination but I'm kind of glad it isn't. I like it just the way it is.

Bologna: Underrated.

7. Favorite Tourist Attraction: Tie: Vatican Museum and Checkpoint Charlie Museum.  The Vatican Museum is epic. There's no other way to describe it. You could go several times over several days and still not see it all. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum for me is more personal. Since I grew up smack dab in the middle of it and was old enough to witness the end of it, Cold War history has always interested me and Checkpoint Charlie was pretty much Ground Zero in the Cold War. I get lost reading about all of the escape attempts and some of today's dictators would do well to read about the lengths people will go to be free.

8. Worst Tourist Attraction: Tie: Oktoberfest in Munich and Gondola rides in Venice. I know,  I know, it's Oktoberfest, blah blah blah. I went once and hated it. To say it's overcrowded doesn't even begin to describe it and unless you have a reservation for a seat in a beer tent, you ain't getting a beer. I've had much more fun at the smaller fests around Germany. As far as the gondola rides in Venice, I think I've complained about them enough over the years. We'll leave it at that.

Gondolas: Just say no.

9. Best Food: Bologna. They don't call it Bologna La Grassa (Bologna The Fat) for nothing.

10. Favorite Wine: If you know me, you know that my favorite wine in the world is Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany. I have honestly never pulled a bad - or even subpar - bottle.

The hallowed hills of Montalcino, from whence will come the nectar of the gods knowns as Brunello...

11. Favorite Activity: Without a doubt, it has to be driving through the Alps. I've spent a lot of time over the years going between Italy and Germany for work and since my unit is too cheap to fly me, I usually have to get a rental car and drive the 8-9 hours but I can honestly say I've enjoyed every single trip immensely. There's just something about the Alps, driving through them has always given me a sense of freedom and adventure. My preferred route takes me through the Brenner Pass in Austria, around Innsbruck, and then up through the Fernpass.

12. Favorite Castle: I know it's cliche but I still have to go with the Neuschwanstein Castle. It really is just breathtaking to see from the outside (the inside, not so much).

Neuschwanstein Castle: worth the trip.

13. Best Airport: For me, it's probably Venice. It's not terribly large which means it's very, very easy to get in and out of quickly.

14. Most Bizarre Experience: Without a doubt, New Year's Eve, Amsterdam, 2000 (the Millenium). I was trying to sleep outside the train station at 3 am when a black junkie with dreadlocks crawled under my legs and lit up his crackpipe.

15. Most Expensive City: Overall, probably Monte Carlo. I wanted to sit in the Cafe de Paris and do some celebrity watching but the prices were prohibitively expensive for a single soldier. I've never felt so unimportant.

Monte Carlo: not for us common folk.

16. Cheapest Country: Portugal. Spent a couple weeks there back in 2004 and really enjoyed it because we ate good and did plenty and it was all so cheap compared to most other European countries.

17. Gayest City: Probably a tie between Amsterdam and Berlin.

18. Most Scenic City: It really is impossible to pick just one so I'll name my favorites: Venice, Zurich, Naples, Heidelberg. People are surprised when I name Naples as one of the most scenic cities but when viewed from a distance with the bay and Mt. Vesuvious framing it, Napoli is a sight to behold. Heidelberg is well known but sadly most tourists miss the best views, which can only be seen from up on the Philosophenweg across the river. If you haven't seen Heidelberg from up there then you haven't really seen Heidelberg.

19. Best Country for Beer: Belgium. Germany is good but Belgium has the best beer and it's not even close for me. And no, Stella Artois does not count as a good Belgian beer.

Sorry Germany, Belgium does it better. 

20. Best Beer I Ever Drank in Europe: Allsop's Stout, John Bull Pub, Rome. Found it by accident but loved it so much that we rearranged our schedule for the night to stay and drink more and then went back in the morning before catching our train to drink as much as we could since I doubted that I'd find it again, it was that good. Sadly, the John Bull Pub changed hands soon after and I never found Allsop's Stout anywhere else.

21. Best Pizza: Napoli of course. The pizza there is on a whole different level than anywhere else in the world.

22.  Biggest Surprise: Believe it or not, I found the people in Paris to be extremely friendly. It was the first of many European stereotypes to be shattered.

23. Scariest Moment: Overall, I've always felt pretty safe in Europe even though most of the time I was traveling around by myself. However, there were two moments in particular where I feared for my safety. The first was in Amsterdam on Queen's Day, 1999. I was crossing through an empty street and was passed by a group of British skinheads complete with the shaved heads, black boots and white t-shirts. I tried to ignore them as I passed but they started taunting me loudly. I quickly surveyed the situation and figured I could probably outrun them at least to the main street but it was quite nerve-wracking. The other moment came in Frankfurt. I was heading back to the train station and had no desire to walk through the red light district so I walked along what I thought was a parallel street. The street was deserted with most of the buildings boarded up and halfway down I spooked a junkie in a doorway who was in the process of shooting up. He was probably more scared than I was but I kept looking over my shoulder as I walked just to make sure he wasn't coming after me with a syringe.

24. Favorite Tourist Trap: Has to be the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. I met a college student there one time and she told me that Muncheners have a saying about the Hofbrauhaus: "the only people who go there are tourists and assholes". That notwithstanding, I absolutely love the place, it's just plain fun.

25. Most Sobering Experience: Dachau Concentration Camp. It was difficult to see and imagine what happened there and even more difficult to fathom that mankind could be capable of such evil.

The ovens at Dachau: Sobering. 

26. Favorite Traveling Companion: STEVE-O!

Steve-O and the X Man at the Heidelberger Herbstfest, 2008.

27. Favorite View: Probably the view of Vernazza in the Cinque Terra as you're approaching on the hiking train from Monterosso al Mare. Just plain breathtaking.

Vernazza: worth the hike

28. Favorite Restaurant (Italian): So many great ones to choose from but I would say Il Castello in Vernazza, Cinque Terra. Great fish and seafood accompanied by good wine and the most spectacular views of any restaurant I've ever seen.

29. Favorite Restaurant (Non-Italian): The Schnitzelhaus, Heidelberg, Germany. 103 different kinds of schnitzel to choose from. That's ONE HUNDRED AND THREE different kinds of schnitzel. Try to wrap your mind around that.

30. Favorite Pub: The Dubliner, Heidelberg, Germany. Probably not a surprise to people who know me. This place was my second home during our time in Heidelberg. I've never found such a great pub anywhere and I'll always feel like part of the family there, at least as long as Niall owns it...

The Dubliner and good friends...always a winning combination!

31. Most Famous Person Met: Roberto Baggio.

32. Favorite Cheese: I love Asiago and Gruyer. Parmeggiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are also up there. But there's one made locally in Vicenza called Colina that's probably my favorite.

33. Best Piazza or Town Square: Some might say the Piazza San Marco in Venice but for me, nothing comes close to the Grand Place in Brussels, one of the absolute highlights of Europe for me.

La Grand Place, Brussels: Grand, indeed.

34. Place I Most Regret Not Seeing: Sicily.

35. Fastest Speed Reached on the Autobahn: 230kph (142 mph). Scared the hell outta me too.

Gut Fahrt!

That's about all I can think of right now...



  1. Where did you eat the best pasta? And what was it?

    Btw, I can't imagine living in Italy for YEARS and never visiting Sicily. I'd love to see the church where young Vito Corleone was secreted out of the country. I read it's in Forza d'Agrò.

    The best Berlin Wall movie is the 1962 "Escape From East Berlin." To my knowledge, it's never been out in VHS or DVD. A great movie.

  2. Kitty, it is nigh impossible to pick one favorite pasta however, I will single out one that will go down as one of the best tasting dishes I've had anywhere in Europe; the homemade tortellini marinated in balsamico in Bologna. I dream about it to this day...

    1. Is it anything like this recipe:

  3. hahahaha, Rik I remember the Y2K Amsterdam travel experience!! Good times

  4. I agree with most of your list, especially #22.