I’m currently in Europe for the shortest international trip I’ve ever taken. I’m cruising through 4 countries in 6 days meeting with the Microsoft subsidiary in each country. Dealing with the time zone changes while diving straightaway into work was tougher than I anticipated, and to make matters worse, I’m pulling double duty working remotely with my team in Redmond in the late evenings.
My sleep patterns are totally erratic with me being able to sleep some nights a full 8 hours, and other nights I’m waking up at 3am and unable to fall back asleep.
Even more disappointing, I haven’t been able to take more than a dozen photos while I’ve been here. The weather was gorgeous in Madrid, which I saw through the office windows. Arrived in Paris yesterday morning and the weather was complete crap with non-stop rain. Ugh.
I have a few blog posts currently in progress related to technology but are all on hold until I get back. I leave for Amsterdam tomorrow on a 6am flight and return to Seattle on Friday.
Unbelievably, I’m still going through photos from my trip last year to Europe. Here is a shot taken while walking across the Millenium Bridge in London. I love how the cables intersect the frame drawing your eye to the top right corner and how vividly blue the sky is in the background.
It suffices to say that I thought Pisa was a dump when Colene and I went there on a day trip from Florence. A quick 1 hour train ride and we walked through one of the most pitiful cities on our European tour. After getting our bearings, we made a bee line straight for the famous leaning tower so we could get our obligatory photograph. After a short 20 mins walk, we exited this side street and saw the huge tower in front of us. Colene and I both uttered “Holy sh*t!” at the exact same time — priceless.
Yes, it really does lean. And yes, it is worth the visit even though the rest of the city is unremarkable and dirty.
Here’s a shot from a Pearl Jam concert when I was in Prague last September that I took hand-held with my Canon SD-450. Tickets on the floor were $45 and 1/2 the price of nosebleed seats. Reason? “Europeans are lazy and want to sit” was the explanation given by the locals.
I took this shot while traveling through the town of Vernazza in Cinque Terre, Italy. Since I was backpacking, I was really travel weight conscious so I took along the lightest tripod I had. This turned out to be a huge mistake. It was so flimsy that I had a ton of trouble composing these night shots because the vibrations from the ground would get so easily transfered to the shot.
I had to find creative ways of weighing the tripod down to dampen the vibrations. Every one of my long exposure night shots took at least 3 times longer than they should have.
I love this particular shots because of the variation in colors that run from left to right. Every time I look at this photograph, I remember the warm breezes at night and the fantastic pesto pizza my sister and I enjoyed at sunset.
On my vacation to Europe, my sister and I spent a couple of days in Cinque Terre were I got some of my most beautiful shots. I love this shot in particular due to the stark contrast between the buildings and rocky mountain side. I would have loved to have had a wider lens but this turned out nice nevertheless. One of my favs from the trip.
Here’s the mother of all brain dumps about Europe based on my trip and probably the longest post in the history of my blog.
Trevin’s braindump on Europe
Travel / Getting Around
Getting a rail pass isn’t your only option. You can opt to buy point-to-point tickets, in combination with flights if neccessary, to save yourself mucho dollars. Our select-saver pass for 6 days of travel in 2 months cost us more than if we just bought point-to-point tickets everywhere.
The rail pass will likely save you money if you’re traveling more than one month and your schedule is more open ended.
If you get a rail pass that has a limited # of travel days, make sure you fill in the dates correctly when/if you take night trains. If you leave after 7pm, you mark the date of the next day. If you leave before 7pm, you mark both the current day and the next day (counts as 2 days travels). Obviously you should choose to take night trains after 7pm to minimize the offical # of travel days on your pass. If you have an unlimited travel pass, ignore this info 🙂
Not every train requires reservation, but if it does, it will cost you €10 per ticket even if you have a rail pass. What a scam.
Overnight trains are a great alternative to travel long distances since you not wasting valuable daylight traveling, but also because you don’t need to pay for that night’s accommodation. We did 2 stints on 6 bed sleepers cars and didn’t have any issues. Beware of night trains in Poland though — all the guide books will tell you to avoid them due to muggings. We met a guy in Prague that had to jump off the train after headbutting a guy on his way to Warsaw at an intermediate stop to avoid being mugged!
Within Italy, there are 3 types of trains — Eurostar, Intercity and Inter-Regional. That is in order of speed to destination. The difference in fares can be staggering. Between Bologna and Florence, Eurostar was €18 where Inter-regional was €5! The time difference? 15 mins.
Inter-europe flights are cheap as heck, if you buy them at least 2 weeks in advance. For example, I looked up a flight from London to Dublin and it was £20 including all fees and taxes. As it gets closer to travel day, the fares will rise by a crazy amount.
Even though everyone has a bitch and moan story about budget airlines like Easyjet or RyanAir, I’ve had no problems and been extremely happy. There are usually no assigned seats, but for that cheap, what do you expect?
It’s a crapshoot whether or not the airplane you’re one will have seats that recline. So if you’re tired, be prepared for an uncomfortable flight.
Despite what you read on the web about a requirement for a smartcard in your credit card, your north american credit card will work in Europe. I didn’t go to a single place where it didn’t work. Opt for Visa and Mastercard instead of American Express for obvious reasons.
Bring your ATM card, make sure it’s only a 4 digit PIN, and withdrawn money in each country in large amounts as possible to reduce your fees.
Forget about travelers checks. The inconvenience and commission charged on cashing them in isn’t worth it.
Use your credit card as much as possible to get the best conversion rates.
Read the bill carefully at every restaurant. I got scammed in Cesky Krumlov by a waiter who added on 60 Kr for no reason.
Hostels / Accomodations
Hostels are not as ghetto as you might think. The quality variance between hostels can be quite large, so use the reviews on HostelWorld.com and Hostels.com to your advantage. Not only should you use the ratings, but also read a couple pages of customer reviews.
Expect to pay anywhere from €18-30 in any of the cities I went to, but keep in mind this wasn’t peak travel season. If you are paying far less than this, you are either in a really small town that doesn’t get much business, or you are going to be staying in a disease infested scum pool.
Other / Misc
I had a 60L pack but could have done it with a smaller one. I just used this one since I borrowed it from Craig. Colene has a 50L pack and did just fine for a month. Many travel guides and websites will say to do it with 30-35L, but I have no idea how that’s even possible for a month!
Most of your electronics (iPod, digital camera, etc) have battery chargers that are ‘world compatible’, meaning they transform the voltage from 110-220V. This means you do not need to buy the expensive and bulky travel transformer and can settle for simple adapter plugs. For every battery charger or appliance you’re bringing, look at it and it should tell you the voltage parameters it can operate in.
Internet kiosks are everywhere in Europe and expect to pay €1-2 per hour for access. Some of the kiosks are super sketch, not even running windows in real ‘kiosk’ mode. Make sure you sign out of everything and delete all cookies!
Bring at least 1 extra camera battery, otherwise you’ll be left at some point charging your only battery and missing that crucial picture.
Bring one highschool-locker-style dudley padlock per person. You will need it as several hostels have lockers for you to use to lock up valuables.
A neat alternative to little padlocks for locking your backpack and daypack zippers is to just use of those those keychain keyrings instead. It’s cheap, yet effective at stopping the pickpocketers.
Bring a cable lock, at least 24″ (preferably 36″) to lock down your backpack while on the train. It’s common place for people to jump on the train, steal your bags and jump off at the same station. Especially true on night trains.
Don’t bother bringing all the toiletries in the world. You can, and should, just rebuy a whack of stuff in every city you go to. You should bring at minimum: toothbrush, toothpaste, deoderant, a bar of soap and nail clippers. Other stuff can easily be bought at one of the local grocery stores. This will save you from having to pack all of it around, and squeeze it into travel size bottles. Girls and your makeup? I have no advice 🙂
If you’re traveling for a month, bring about 1.5 weeks worth of clothes and expect to do laundry. More clothes than that and you are packing too much. If you’re traveling for more than a month, pack 2 weeks of clothes.
Get comfortable doing laundry in the sink to extend time between visits to the laundromat. You want to avoid going to the laundromat too often, as it will eat at least 2.5 hours in wash, dry and travel time.
Bring liquid detergent if possible, otherwise just buy the standard laundry detergent at your destination. Bring a portable rubber sink stopper too, since many sinks don’t have stoppers.
Bring a pair of flip flops to wear in the bathrooms of the hostels otherwise you risk carrying 7 forms of foot fungus around Europe with you.
Despite all the guide books say, disregard the idiotic quest to ‘not look like a tourist’. Seriously, you are a tourist and everyone can tell. Bring whatever clothes are comfortable and that you like wearing because you’ll be wearing the same stuff over and over.
Now we’re onto to info about each destination I went to. Here it is, in the order I traveled in:
Nicoise cuisine is sub-par compared to ‘regular’ French cuisine. Something about anchovy and tuna salad turns me off. If that floats your boat, you’ll love it here.
Beach? If you’re thinking about white sand beach, forget about it. Think more of a beach with a short with full blown rocks.
The city is pretty small, making the hostel situation slim pickings. Although out of the way, I highly recommend Villa Saint Exupery. It’s set in an old church and has a great bar/common area perfect for socializing.
Day trips are feasible (and highly recommended) to the village of Eze and Monaco. If you plan to go to Eze, make sure it’s on a clear day otherwise the trip will be useless as you will have no view. Trust me, I know since it was foggy the day I went 🙂
Monaco better visited at night, since the reason everyone goes is to see the famous Monte Carlo Casino (James Bond anyone?). During the day, the Monte Carlo is very unimpressive although you’ll see some stunning cars parked out front any time of day.
1 or 2 nights is all you really need in Nice. More if you are traveling with a significant other since it’s a gorgeous and romantic city.
One of the highlights of my trip. Charming area with 5 (hence, ‘Cinque’) small cities connected by hiking trails and train.
You can’t go wrong staying in any of the cities, I chose Vernazza since I found it more charming than the others.
Make sure you try Pesto as it originates from this area, thus a local specialty. Pesto pizza is to die for!
Unless its the peak tourist season, you don’t need to book accommodations ahead of time. Every single business has a room to rent. Get off the train in Monterosso and just start walking around asking for a room to rent. Standard price for a private room with double bed and private bath is €50-60 in September after negotiation. If someone approaches you at the train station, pass on their offer as you’ll find a better deal elsewhere. We got approached by a guy at the train station who quoted €80 as his “special deal”.
If you can’t find a private room in Monterosso, try any of the other 5 towns. Alternatively, you can try one of the two hostels that are in Cinque Terre, but I highly recommend a private room.
Water views in rooms are overrated, because you barely spend any time in them. The money you save on your nightly fee can be used toward gelato or coffee 🙂
Don’t let the difficulty rating of the hiking trails fool you. Even the ‘easy’ or ‘slights’ trails can be challenging. The easiest legs of the hike are between Corniglia and Manarola, and Manarola and Riomaggiore. These are 30 and 20 mins long respectively, and mostly paved. The trails between Monterosso and Vernazza, and Vernazza and Corniglia are over an hour a piece and has enough incline to make you sweat. Don’t wear flip flops or 2 piece bikinis like I saw on some of the hikers!
Definitely take the time to swim on Monterosso beach, and rock jumping/diving in Riomaggiore. The water was so warm even in September!
Espresso is truly the greatest in Italy. Go for either straight espresso shots, or cafe freddo (cold/iced). Steamed milk drinks are far superior in Seattle (no joke), but nevertheless still good in Italy. Seattle coffee houses know how to make a dense, stiff milk for lattes!
Eat gelato. Your taste buds will thank you for it.
Weird Fact: A Japanese TV station paid for the restoration and clean-up of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and now consequently own the rights to all images and video of it for 10 years. One of the weirdest bits of trivia on this entire trip.
You can get kicked out of the Sistine Chapel for taking photos. Sheila, a traveler we met in Rome, did in fact get booted. My sister and I, on the other hand, are more stealth at taking photos I guess 🙂
You will debate whether you should pay the money to go into the colosseum. You will be disappointed at the inside, but you are already in Rome. Can you really not pay the €10? You’ll regret it if you don’t go in, trust me. Even if you say afterwards that it was a completely disappointment and a dump inside, like I do, you won’t have regrets!
The paid tour of the colosseum and Palentine Hill is worth it, despite being pricey (€25). The amount of history and information they give you on the sites is extraordinary and well worth it. At the colosseum, paid tours get to skip the chump line where all the penny pinching tourists are.
You will not take the metro as much as you expect in Rome. First, the metro stops are really inconveniently located, and second, the sights are all walkable from each other. Bring comfortable shoes!
If hot weather isn’t your thing, avoid Italy in the summer. I went in September and it was still 2-shower-a-day hot. I’m truly a pacific northwest boy!
Be prepared to not eat many fruits and vegetables. Nearly all the meals you will have will consist of simple carbs like pizza, whitebread and pasta. Whole wheat? Forget about it.
You have to actively seek out and buy fruits, but thankfully, there are quite a few fresh fruit markets and grocery stores.
The fountains you see all over town spewing out water is completely safe to drink. Save your Euros and fill up your water bottles. (However, according to Omar, I might have to reconsider my Nalgene bottle. Yikes!)
2 great hostel choices — Archi Rossi and Emerald Fields. Archi Rossi is a larger, more commercial operation whereas Emerald Fields is smaller and more intimate. Can’t go wrong with either.
For the Galleria degli Uffizi and Gallery Acadamia, make reservations. You’re an idiot if you don’t as you will stand in line watching in awe as other people bypass the line completely. Don’t bother using any of the 3rd party reservation services as they will add a surcharge and the museums don’t guarantee reservations made through them. Just call the official reservation telephone # directly and you will be routed ultimately to a real human that will give you a reservation # that you give at the ticket booth the day of. Every guide book on the planet will have the telephone number that you can call.
If you want to buy cold cuts, sandwhiches or produce, go to the Mercato Centrale in the San Lorenzo area. It’s a few blocks off Via Nazionale. In particular, check out Nerbone, which serves out of this world roast beef sandwhiches. Check out TastingMenu.com’s description of this sandwhich, since I can’t describe it any better myself. Truly one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.
If you have the time, and money, head out to Molinella for tandem skydiving with The FlyGang. It’s 2 hours north of Florence via 2 trains, transfering in Bologna. 175€ gets you the jump, free t-shirt, your own camera guy and a DVD of your jump set to music. The highlight of my trip. Talk about a rush!
Italy truly does have the best gelato on the planet. My sister jokes that she has been eating her way through Italy, but truth be told, so have I. My new favorite flavour? Rice gelato.. out of this world!
Lucca, Pisa and Siena
Florence is a great base camp for day trips to Tuscan hill towns. Lucca, Pisa and Siena are all about an hour by train from Florence.
I would recommend lumping Lucca and Pisa into the same day, and Siena on its own day. Lucca is 1 hour west, from which you can catch another train 30 mins south to get to Pisa. To finish off, you’ll catch an hour train direct from Pisa to Florence.
Pisa is a dirty, grungy town and literally the only thing worth seeing is the leaning tower. Let me tell you, it is breathtaking. We spent a total of 2 hours in Pisa, which included the walk to the tower from the train station (20 mins), lunch on the steps outside of the tower (30 mins) and general photo taking. There is nothing else worth seeing in Pisa.
Lucca is gorgeous, and Rick Steves claims that the tower in Lucca gives the best view in all of Tuscany. Sorry Rick, I have to disagree. The view from the tower in Siena blows it away.
While the piazza in Siena is much, much larger than the one in Lucca, I felt the piazza in Lucca to be more charming. But you really can’t go wrong with either.
Spend the €2.50 to rent a bike in Lucca to ride around the city and the protective wall. Make sure you remember where you rented the bike from, otherwise you’ll be like me and ride around for 20 mins looking for where to return it.
Don’t bother drinking coffee here, it is some of the worst I’ve tasted, no matter where you get it.
Book your acommmodations far enough in advance, everything books early, early. Everyone loves the drinky!
Pace your drinking at Oktoberfest, those 1L steins are the equivalent of 3 beers. By law, the German government mandates that beer cannot contain any preservatives. Trust me, you’ll notice the difference from that crap we’re drinking back home. It’s scary how easy it is to drink.
If you don’t have a table reserved at Oktoberfest, don’t worry. You have 2 choices:
Show up early (~10 am) to get a seat. You will have a long day of drinking ahead.
Show up later in the day, but before 6pm and gamble that you will find a table. We lucked out and got a table for 2 hours.
Remember that they will not serve you beer unless you are at a table. After you get the beer, you can stand up and walk around.
Don’t eat inside the tents if possible as the prices are outrageous. €12 half-chicken anyone? Go for the food outside the tents — can’t beat a €3 bratwurst semmel!
The Deutches Museum is a waste of time. Largest science museum in the world, but over 50% of the exhibits are completely in german. Don’t waste your time.
Prague (Czech Republic)
Don’t even think about coffee here either. I was better off drinking mud.
It is so cheap here to eat and drink, you can’t help but love it. $1.00 US beers anyone?
Czech Inn hostel is the best hostel in the city. Not as central as others, but it’s like a posh hotel for the price of a hostel.
Don’t expect any memorable meals here. Go for nutritional value!
Looking back on our trip, the worst meal I had was on our last day in Prague. Yuck.
Take the time to to spend a night in Cesky Krumlov, which is a 3 hour bus ride away and a UNESCO World Heritage site. A day trip isn’t worth it and you’ll be rushed since last bus leaves for Prague at 5pm.
If you get a chance, check out Cross Club, the best club in the city. Always a good sign that a place is swarming with locals.
It’s almost always a better idea to get a 24 hour transit pass, which is good for metro, bus and tram. It’s surprisingly convenient.
If you have a rail pass, it’s almost certain that travel to Czech Republic won’t be covered since it’s in Eastern Europe. You will get a discount on tickets, but be prepared to fork out some extra Euros.
Get over the fact that it’s so expensive here. The sooner you stop converting the better of a time you’ll have.
Try to find a friend to stay with to avoid the hellish expense of a hostel paying out in pounds.
Avoid the Victoria and Northern tubes at all costs. I can’t believe how hot and stuffy it is in those lines despite it being 70 degrees outside!
Most of your travels will be in zone 1, 2 or 3. A day pass is almost always the best option.
Even though I didn’t get a chance to do it, spend the money to go on the London Eye. The view is worth it!
From London Victoria station, it will take just over an hour to get to Heathrow.
Go to The Roadhouse on fridays in Covent Garden. Great atmosphere, tons of locals and the house band that plays after 11pm is actually a pretty good cover band.
Hopefully this information helps someone on their travels. If anyone has questions, shoot me an email or drop a comment!