Bratislava, Slovakia

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Hlavné námestie (Main Square), Bratislava, Slovakia

Did you know that Bratislava and Vienna and the closest (geographically-speaking) capital cities in Europe? Just one hour by train, and only 55 miles as the crow flies! Bratislava is also directly between Vienna and Budapest. There are Americans commute that same distance every day! Therefore, there is no excuse not to add Bratislava to your Austrian/Hungarian itinerary. Not only that, but Bratislava is still relatively “undiscovered.” While Vienna and Budapest may be grander and more inherently beautiful, they are also unavoidably touristic. In many ways, this is a good thing (i.e., foreign languages such as English, French, Spanish, Russian, etc, are prevalent), but this does take a way a little from the experience. To really get into the heart of central/Eastern Europe, Bratislava provides an excellent gateway. A smaller, and easily walkable city, Bratislava affords a quaint Old Town, a magnificent and glowing castle on the hilltop, many fine restaurants for very affordable prices, a lovely promenade along the Danube, funky statues and street art (including Cumil), and an overall fun and relaxed scene. During winter, everything is covered in a light layer of snow, pure and white. At Christmastime, Christmas markets abound, full of handmade gifts and trinkets. Meanwhile in the summer, sunny days blanket the city, glistening off the Danube–reminding us that it is, indeed, the Blue Danube.

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Chateau de Montmelas, France

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Chateau de Montmelas, France

Owning a ruin in the 19th century was a big thing. If you didn’t manage to own your own ruin, well, that’s no problem because you could always build one! History and authenticity was obviously not nearly as important then as it is today. What mattered more was its aesthetic value. More than that, the 19th century saw owning a ruin (real or not) aligned with owning a piece of history, being in control of the past. So if you couldn’t afford to build your own ruin, but still wanted to jump on the ruin-owning, history-controlling bandwagon, you could turn an existing building into a ruin. We saw it with Sham Castle in Bath (a folly; 100% modern), again with the Gravensteen in Ghent (modified ruin), then later with Kreuzenstein Castle in Austria (a new castle was constructed from old bits of other castles). There are countless other examples (one more: Hungary’s Vajahunyad Castle, based on older ruin).  Now, we see it again here, with Chateau Montmelas. Montmelas began its life as “chateau fort”; that is, a fortified manor house, in the 13-14th centuries. Then, some 500+ years later, crumbling and forlorn, the previous residence of Louis XV’s mistress, it was restored in the Neo-Gothic style. Turrets, crinolines, a keep, courtyards–all very medieval. And in fact, it still retains many qualities and original stonework from the Middle Ages, despite the modifications! Not only that, but it’s appearance is breathtaking. And its current purpose? A winery in the Beaujolais, as one can tell from the surrounding vineyards. While privately-owned, the castle can be visited at certain times of the year. I  guess owning a ruin in the modern day–a real ruin, mind you–is still a pretty big thing!

Valencia, Spain

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Valencia, Spain

Do you like to eat? Do you like paella? How do you feel about Spain? Or sangria? How about beautiful Spanish architecture both ancient and modern? You’d like to visit a Spanish city…but the plenitude of tourists in Barcelona are getting to you, and Madrid is too far from the sea for your liking…so how about Valencia? Search the centre of town amongst the beautiful buildings and ancient plazas. Find yourself a nice little place to eat on a terrace with gigantic paella pans the size of monster truck wheels, and plop yourself down at a table overlooking a view like this one. Now, choose your type of paella. The main types include: Valenciano (traditional, made with chicken, pork, and rabbit), marisco (seafood; below, first image), mixta (both traditional and seafood), vegetariana (self-explanatory), or paella with arroz negro (black rice made with squid ink of all things; below, second image). It’s all marvelous and mouth-watering, and while of course, you can eat paella outside of Valencia, it is 100% obligatory to eat paella while in the city…because this is of course where you will find the highest quality of this traditional Spanish dish! Order a sangria to accompany it, kick back, and relax. Amongst all the eating, drinking, people-watching and chatting, you’ll be there awhile!

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Lyon, France

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Lyon, France

Bouchon.” What a funny word. In French, it could mean either “cork” or “traffic jam,” “stopper” or “plug”…or  even, strangely enough, “typical Lyonnaise restaurant.” Lyon tops the list for highest concentration of restaurants as there are over 1,000 places to eat in Lyon. This, of course makes sense–Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France! But how did this come about? One important factor dates back to the sixteenth century. Catherine de Medici imported cooks from Florence, and combining their skills with local products and recipes, they created a revolutionary idea: regional specialties that were consumed by nobles and royalty. This tradition carried up through the centuries, shaping Lyonnaise cuisine into what it is today. In addition to the Medicis, the “Mères lyonnaises” gave birth to Lyon’s gastronomic success. These women, 19th century middle-class cooks, rose up and decided to put their extraordinary culinary skills to use. The rise of tourism connected with the automobile (the newly-formed Michelin Guide helped a bit), brought more and more hungry mouths to their tables. Today, France is well-known for its fine cuisine, but it is Lyon that wins the first-place ribbon. A “bouchon” refers to a traditional Lyonnaise restaurant, where you can find such items as andouillette (type of sausage), duck breast, the salad “chèvre chaud” (a salad with baked goat cheese wrapped in puff pastry), foie gras, “saucisson chaud” (literally ‘hot sausage’; it’s delicious!) or Lyon’s specialty, the quenelle, (a mixture of creamed fish and chicken, with an egg binding and covered in cream. It’s mouth-watering!). Of course, you can visit a high-end Paul Bocuse restaurants where the food will be of the highest quality–but nothing beats the snug feeling of the quaint restaurant terrace with checkered tablecloths and cobblestones underfoot. Not only is the atmosphere fantastic, but the food is so delicious you’ll never want to leave–and it never seems to stop coming!

 

 

Torino, Italy

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Po River in Torino, Italy

Known for once hosting the Olympics, and probably more importantly, for hosting the infamous Shroud of Turin, Torino is still often overlooked. Far from the hills of Tuscany, the ruins of Rome and the canals of Venice, Torino does not fit into the typical Italian mold. And yet—Torino can hold its own. It is a superbly beautiful and elegant city. The banks of the Po River (here) are charming. The streets are grand, everything is clean. Because of its location in northern Italy and on the doorstep of the Alps, even the air feels cleaner. The city has a pulse; it doesn’t take much to hear its beating heart. If you continue across the river, you reach the Chiesa della Gran Madre di Dio which rather looks like the Pantheon, and just past that, a hill that leads to a monastery. From there, you can see the whole of Torino, and, just beyond, the Alps. Torino may be a big city, but it is also a mountain city. The simplicity and tranquility often associated with Alpine towns can be found here, in one of Italy’s largest cities!

Kazimierez Dolny, Poland

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Kazimierez Dolny, Poland

Sweeping views of the Vistula River, piqued steeples of orange tiles on a church’s roof and slightly browning leaves as fall descends on the little medieval town of Kazimierez Dolny. Located in eastern Poland, Kaz. is well-known for being one of the few Polish towns to survive demolition during the war and the years that followed. Small, quaint, picturesque, it as historic as it is beautiful. Once an important merchant town in the 16th and 17th centuries,  the die-down of the grain trade along its river coupled with invasions from the formidable Swedish army caused the town to be preserved in a Renaissance-shaped bubble. While this wasn’t particularly good for the Renaissance-era and post-Renaissance-era residents, this is great news for the modern tourist looking to catch a glimpse of the culture and history of Poland. As most of small-town Poland was destroyed and rebuilt in the styles of the 20th century, and most historic city centres of Poland were also destroyed and rebuilt following the guidelines of memories and paintings, the pockets of historically-authentic (and mightily beautiful!) towns such as Kaz. Dolny are a rarity. Kazimierez Dolny is a rare opportunity to glimpse the life of medieval and Renaissance Poland as they once existed in their golden heyday.

 

Moscow, Russia

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Moscow, Russia

The golden sun sets on Moscow, sliding over the top of the cathedral’s gilded domes as it sweeps into the river, leaving a glistening reflection of the boats passing alongside. There is no doubt that Moscow is a beautiful place. Why then, are there so few people who feel compelled to visit this city? Part of it is that the image of Moscow during the 20th century continues to persist. One thinks of the KGB, Russian mobs and the evils of communism. It is not only Behind-the-Iron-Curtain, it created the Iron Curtain. Hammer and scythe building nuclear weapons, placing sleeper cells throughout America and Europe, and plotting to take over the world. I’d like to say that that’s the old Russia, an attitude long gone—but recent activities in Crimea, Georgia, and eastern Ukraine have forced us to consider otherwise. Regardless, this is all on a governmental level. Moscow—on a human level—is nothing like its portrayal in the news, in spy novels, by Hollywood. It is a shrine, beautiful yet reminiscent of an old life, nostalgic. It is also filled with communist-era buildings, marshutkas (small, ancient bus-vans that service the outskirts and are run word-of-mouth), and power lines that criss-cross endlessly. This is a city at the tipping-point of modernization—one still not 100% sure it wants to be modernized. Regardless, Moscow emits an indescribable and fascinating beauty. It is full of history and memory and grandeur. It is the eastern gate, the last holdout laying at the feet of the East, and it is beautiful one–especially during the sunset.

Train station in Antwerp, Belgium

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Central train station in Antwerp, Belgium

Trains whistle as they slowly puff to a halt inside the light and airy station. People hurry to and fro, a newspaper or novel tucked under one arm, a cup of coffee or sandwich in the other. Like any major train station, everybody is either hurrying to board a train or waiting listlessly for their train to arrive. There is an air of travel about the air, as everyone in the station is either coming or going. You, the intrepid traveler, can’t help but feel nostalgic in this slightly old-fashioned station, reminiscent of bygone times when steam engines were chic and classy. What makes Antwerp’s station special is its sheer beauty. The Belgians regard it as the highest quality of railway-related architecture in their country. If you don’t think that that’s impressive enough given the small size of Belgium, how about this? The world-renowned American magazine Newsweek named Antwerpen-Centraal “the world’s fourth greatest train station” in 2009, and just this year, the Anglophone magazine Mashable ranked it the number one most beautiful railway station in the world! With not only its gorgeous facade but also this massively beautiful clock presiding overhead, I think we call agree that it’s one heck of a place to catch a train!

Edinburgh, Scotland

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Edinburgh, Scotland

Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…Here in Lyon, now that the deluge has started, it seems determined to continue for the duration of the weekend. Therefore, it only seems fitting to post a photo of a rainy day. As everyone in the world already knows, the UK is a rainy place. What many people don’t know is that it doesn’t actually rain that much there when one looks at the accumulated inches/centimeters of rain (in fact, London and Washington, DC have similar annual accumulation). No, most of the time, the UK is just grey and drizzling. This, of course, can be frustrating, but it can also be beautiful. All of these drizzly days make for green grass and an abundance of flowers. Since there are less of them, they make you appreciate the sunny days like never before. And in some ways, you love the British Isles for their rain, because really, how can Scotland be Scotland without a few grey skies? Edinburgh, arguably the prettiest of Scotland’s main cities, seems to sparkle like a diamond after a bout of rain showers especially here on the city’s beautiful High Street. Umbrellas with fun colors and designs are as much a part of the local fashion here as coats or shoes. And really, the occasional rainy day can be fun! A rainy day means curling up with a good book and a cup of joe in a snug coffee house. It means hitting up museums and cinemas. It means watching a TV/movie marathon. It means spending two hours baking cookies or muffins. It means a fantastic excuse to have that delicious hot chocolate or fancy latte. So stop frowning, grab your umbrella, and jump in a puddle!

Neue Schloss, Stuttgart, Germany

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Stuttgart, Germany

Some cities are beautiful, some aren’t…right? This seems like a clear-cut (black and white!) concept, but it’s not necessarily true. Some cities are simply beautiful (like Venice or Prague or Tallinn). Some are outwardly beautiful but have negative qualities that become transparent when you dig a little deeper, taking away from their beauty (like Barcelona as a result of the pickpockets). Some, though, just don’t seem beautiful on the surface. Instead, one must put in a little work to search for the city’s beauty. But when you do find it, why, eureka! You are heavily rewarded. This is true for many rebuilt Central and Eastern European cities (like Warsaw, Kiev or Berlin). It’s also true for this little-known German city, Stuttgart. If you’re a Porsche fan, you may know it as Porsche’s hometown (still hosting a museum). Or if you’re a castle buff (like me), you may know it as the closest city to the fantasty-esque castle, Hohenzollern. While both of these places have their merits, Stuttgart has more to offer. It’s not overly touristy. It’s small, easy to discover on foot. And while much was destroyed by war (and not always beautifully rebuilt), Stuttgart offers a look into the real Germany, far away from the crowded, touristy streets of Berlin or Munich. This is where you’ll find out how the Germans live, eat, breathe.  This is where you can shop without fear of getting the tourist treatment. Then of course, there’s all the beautiful architecture that managed to survive (or at least, managed to get rebuilt following the original). The lacework on this gazebo overlooking the Neue Schloss (New Palace) is particularly eye-catching. As it was almost completely destroyed and later rebuilt in the original Baroque style, the palace is certainly an amazing feat; it makes one appreciate humanity and its dedication to history! You may have to put a little more effort into falling in love with this place…but hopefully, it’ll be worth it!

Budapest, Hungary

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View overlooking Budapest, Hungary

Imagine if it was you sipping your coffee here. Imagine, in fact, that this is where you were taking your breakfast, perhaps a traditional Hungarian breakfast composing of an open sandwich with butter or cheese, perhaps cold cuts or sausages or bacon, and a cup of strong coffee. Imagine that this sweeping view of the grand city of Budapest is what your table overlooked. Imagine that you can afford to do this. Oh wait—you probably can. Perhaps this particular location is a bit more pricy, as it is an elegant café located on the famous Fisherman’s Bastion, a castle-like wall rising up just next to the castle. But Budapest is one of the cheapest places you’ll find in Europe—and also one of Europe’s most beautiful, elegant, and charming cities. Full of markets, Magyar cuisine (spicy and meaty), elegant edifices, magnificent cathedrals, splendid cafés (full of equally splendid cakes and pastries), grand baths (the Széchenyi Baths are world famous !), remarkable palaces and castles, street performers that play classical music, and bars that never seem to run out of cheap alcohol—and all at completely affordable prices! Budapest, one of Europe’s most amazing cities. So  now the only question that remains–what are you waiting for?

Gdansk, Poland

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Gdansk, Poland

Light blue skies hang over the waterfront buildings of this Polish city. Located in northern Poland, Gdansk is one of the “trojmiescie” cities. Together with Gdynia and Sopot, these three cities make up the “Tricity” region thanks to their close proximity to each other. In fact, they are so close that the same tram/bus network services all three, and it is quite normal to live/stay in Gdansk and party in Gdynia then shop in Sopot the next day. Once part of Germany (‘Gdansk’ was called ‘Danzig’ and still is called so by German tourists), this region on the Baltic Sea is today known for its beaches (in Poland, that is), and its amber production (worldwide!). It also happens to be beautiful. While the city isn’t exactly on the Baltic, (the water here is the Motlawa River), it’s only a hop, skip and a jump away from the infamous sea. A visit to Gdansk during the summer months will be pleasantly spent, no matter whether you’re sitting along the river, digging your toes in the sand of one of the surrounding beaches, eating at one of the many pleasant cafes and restaurants on the main street or dancing your heart out in one of the Tricity’s many nightclubs!

 

Roads in Western Norway

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Twisty roads in western Norway

Hopefully, you’re not afraid of heights. Oh you are? Hmm, well, perhaps it’s best to avoid driving in rural areas in Scandinavia, especially on the western coast of Norway in the direction of the fjords. This is the kind of place where you’ll find zigzagging roads that curl back and forth, criss-crossing each other time and again. These are the kinds of roads that cut through cliffs, chipped away by Norwegian laborers using rough tools and dynamite. These are the kinds of roads that plummet suddenly downwards, seemingly trying to follow the path of the countless waterfalls you’ve already passed along on your drive. Curving around cliff sides, these are these kinds of roads that leave you hanging over steep drops, with the sound of thousands of tons of water pounding onto the rocks below. These are the kinds of roads where you can imagine literally falling off the face of the earth, disappearing into the cavern far below. And yet—these are the kinds of roads that leave you excited and exhilarated by the end, dumbfounded at the wonders you’ve encountered along the road and breathless with the magnitude and sheer danger of driving on them—because at the end of the day, it’s the journey not the destination that matters. And this, you must admit, looks like a pretty unforgettable (if slightly terrifying!) journey.