As this pandemic keeps going on and on with no end in sight & all travels stand aborted for the foreseeable future I find myself searching for new topics to write on. Writing about old travels is always a fun way of remembering the good days & I did exactly that in my last series about our honeymoon to the Northern Parks of Tanzania. But doing too much of the same thing bores me very quickly so I decided to change it up a bit and just ramble on about some of my travel philosophies. So this time I decided to write about what makes me keep going back to another corner of Europe year after year for the past 5 years.
Before someone calls me an elitist I want to emphasise that I still continue to enjoy my birding and sightseeing in India and enjoy it very much. Nowhere in the world can you enjoy so much hospitality and diversity in sights for the amount you spend. India is a treasure chest full of places that I will continue to enjoy till it is possible for me to travel. But when it comes to travelling abroad Europe has come to be my destination of choice.
If you had spoken to me a decade ago I had no intention of ever visiting Europe. Wildlife and wildlife photography was the only thing I was interested in and visiting a continent that is mostly urbanised didn’t seem like my kind of travel destination. But going to Africa every time wasn’t something that my bank account would be very happy about. As I kept on getting more passionate about travel and started to research about places to visit that wouldn’t bankrupt me and at the same time satiate my travel pangs.
We first tried out Turkey as it seemed diverse and interesting enough and also it was what I could afford at the time. I wasn’t very comfortable with travelling on my own then so I chose a small group tour. I have never been comfortable with group travel ( as I have reiterated many times in my posts) as traveling with unknown people who may not have the same interests as us is not something I would like to spend my hard earned money on. Though I must admit that the first half of the Turkey trip that involved just 2 Americans in addition to the two of us was memorable & I remain friends with those guys till this date.
The second half of the trip which included a big group from my country was a pain. They were not interested in any of the sightseeing and drove the poor guide wild with their antics. While on that tour I realised that I could have easily organised the Istanbul leg of our trip myself and enjoyed it more. After that I started to look for destinations that I could plan and organise myself without having to involve a tour company.
Also unrelated to all these events I had a habit of picking up travel guide books ( The good ones and not Lonely Planet!) in book sales if they were going at a throw away price, irrespective of whether I intended to travel to the destination in the near future or not! (The habit still persists to this very date!) So I had a few Rick Steves guide books lying around the house that I hadn’t opened beyond the cursory browsing. So by the time I had decided to become my own travel agent I had a veritable collection of travel guides by Rick Steves to various destinations in Europe. So I started going through a few and realised that I could easily do the organising with a bit of effort. My love for planning trips continues to this date and I even wrote a post about it a while ago – Planning of a vacation – Almost as much fun as the vacation itself (If not more!!)
While growing up I had heard of people going on Europe trips and before this pandemic shut down the travel industry, newspapers were full of advertisements for tours that promised to show you 13 countries in 15 days. That was not something I intended to do as I wanted to experience a place and not just tick a country off a list. So we decided to choose a country or a geographical region and confine our vacations to it. What also helped was the fact that both the better half and I started to become a bit stable in our respective careers and could afford to do this!
The first two of our trips were in the autumn and the remaining three were in the spring. While our trips were dependent on the vacations of the better half it was a blessing in disguise as we found the shoulder season ( Spring and Autumn both count as shoulder season) perfect for our tastes. It meant less crowds than the peak summer season and we got more bang for our buck everywhere as hotels & flights were cheaper at this time.
While everyone should experience the colours of the European autumn at least once, we have come to prefer the Spring for the flowering meadows, warmer weather & as it means less chance of having a day rained out. (Though we have had a few days rained out in Spring too!) Even on a rainy day there is always something to do and if you have the right gear a little rain can’t stop you from having fun.
While we have enjoyed our time in Paris, Rome and Prague a lot we have enjoyed our time more in Varenna, Siena, Villefranche sur Mer, Zakopane, Kaprun. The smaller towns are more personable, less crowds (mostly) and are much prettier in my opinion than the big cities.
Another important reason we continue to visit Europe is the excellent Public Transportation in most countries of the region. With some research you can easily plan out an itinerary using only public transportation. This saves a lot of money and some of the train rides are as memorable as the destination. Even in the big cities the metro and buses are an energy saver and if you have done enough leg work you can zip from one sight to the other effortlessly.
Most people who visit Europe have the complaint that everything looks the same after a while. If you visit one city after another that would be true. We make the conscious effort to mix our destinations so that we have as varied a landscape as possible. Europe has some of the most beautiful coastal towns, lakes and the most easily approachable mountains in the world. Throw that in with your pretty cities and you have a wide variety for your vacation.
Most of our time in the cities are spent in the part known as the old town. These are like well preserved time capsules in otherwise sprawling modern cities. The main drag in the old town that is almost always the part used by the erstwhile royalty and always spectacular, but even the small lanes in this part of the city are beautiful. There is always the main Church/ Cathedral that looms over this part of town but there are always a handful of pretty Churches dotted around the town. Each city has a main square that always have me staring in awe and also the small ones with a fountain in the centre that are also photogenic & then there are the tower climbs.
Every European City and Old town has a place (or three!) where you can climb and take in the view. We are addicted to these tower climbs and have to do it almost everywhere we go. The only place where we didn’t do it (and this may come as a surprise to many) is at the leaning tower of Pisa. In every other European destination we have climbed to the top of the tallest available tower and enjoyed every minute of it.
A big part of any vacation is the food and we have enjoyed the food in Europe wherever we have gone. Even thinking about the wide variety of cuisine – the pastas & pizzas of Italy, the amazing Goulash in Prague, the Pierogis in Poland & the omnipresent ice cream/gelato/lood has me salivating. While it is true that it might be difficult for hard core vegetarians in some countries like Germany where outside of a Vegetarian only restaurant the only Vegetarian dishes available are fries and salads. But everywhere else there is always a vegetarian item on the menu in most restaurants & the better half who is a eggitarian has never faced any problems.
We have always preferred to stay in Small Hotels and B&B s located in the old town at every European destination. In this aspect I have learnt to trust the reviews in the Rick Steves guides and it has never failed me till date. The cute little places recommended are a joy and have all the modern facilities, even the service and professionalism at most of these usually family owned places is immaculate. Nothing can make me go back to chain hotels now!
Even the wildlife photographer in me has always managed to get a few wildlife photos wherever we go so my trusty 300mm lens never feels left out. Europe has been no different. I have great memories of watching a weasel going about his day to day life right in the middle of Salzburg and photographing the local Avian life wherever we have gone, be it starlings in Paris or Chaffinches on the walk to Morskie Oko in Poland or the numerous types of Ducks and geese in the Nymphenburg palace in Munich.
So Europe has pushed all the correct buttons for me in my repeated visits there and always had me researching more European countries and destinations to spend some future vacation in. The pandemic put paid to our plans of having a first European vacation with parents in the Tulip bowl of the Netherlands. But I am hopeful that all this gloom and doom will soon be behind us and we can once again enjoy the joys of the European spring next year.