Wrocław, Poland

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Wrocław, Poland

Wrocław (Vrat-swav) is truly one of Europe’s hidden gems. A small city that was once a part of Germany before finally being restored to its rightful home within Poland’s borders, Wrocław today is a vibrant student town practically throbbing with life. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it is extraordinarily colourful. The town centre in particular looks like an artist’s palette, swirls of every colour imaginable decorating the facades. And of course the hidden gnomes spread throughout give it spunk and personality (a gnome treasure hunt is nearly impossible to resist!). Wrocław sports one of the prettiest market squares in Eastern Europe, and the chance to drink a coffee or beer on any one of its many terraces guarantees a moment of magic!

 

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Avignon, France

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Le Parc Rocher des Doms, Avignon, France

It’s easy to imagine a nymph or mermaid or other such mythical creature residing here in this rocky grotto, a little waterfall cascading down through one of the many cracks into the mermaid’s fountain below. Located at the top of the Rocher des Doms, this is Avignon’s main park. Climbing to the top reveals an amazing view over the city of popes and the surrounding countryside (including a view of the Palace of the Popes as well as the Pont (Bridge) d’Avignon, which is famous despite stretching only halfway across the river!) The park was originally inhabited during the Neolithic age, later built up as a Roman settlement, only to be used by medieval shepherds for grazing, and finally converted into a park in the 18th/19th centuries. Today, it is one of Avignon’s nicest spots. At times lively, at times quiet, the park offers lovely paths and breathtaking panoramas–not to mention this semi-mythological grotto reminiscent of bygone times!

Oxford, England

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Punting in Oxford, England

What trip to Oxford is complete without donning a straw hat, getting into a flat-bottomed boat and attempting to push yourself along by digging a long pole into the River Thames? It looks wonderfully picturesque and serene–but it is surprisingly harder than it looks. Oxford, as you probably know, is home to a collection of 30+ colleges forming Oxford University, one of the world’s most foremost institutions of higher learning. Amongst all that studying, those long nights in the library, hours spent in classes or listening to speeches by esteemed professors while wearing dress robes in a banquet hall (yes, this sounds a bit like Hogwarts but it’s all true!)–all of that takes extraordinary amounts of time and energy, so for a couple of centuries, students found that they could take the edge off by grabbing a few of their best friends, ditching their dress robes, and jumping into a punt. Sometimes when they were feeling especially daring, they held races and pushed each other into the water. While the ‘sport’ may pale in comparison to bungee jumping or windsurfing, you cannot deny that it is quintessentially English. And now, on your next trip to Oxford (or Cambridge for that matter) you can see what all the fuss is about too…just try not to fall in!

Beskid Mountains, Poland

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Beskid Mountains, Poland

Snuggled along Poland’s southern border (and spilling over into Slovakia) is an impressive range of mountains called the Beskids. Though no competition for the Alps, the Beskids, which are approximately 600 km in length and 50–70 km in width, comprise part of the massive Carpathian Mountain range (stretching across a large portion of Central and Eastern Europe). Dotted with villages, small farms and wooden houses, they are also crisscrossed with narrow, never-ending trails dipping in and out of the deeply-wooded region. The mountains are big enough that a few minutes after heading into them, you lose track of the 21st century. In fact, borders don’t seem to mean anything, as a glance at the map will tell the surprised hiker that they crossed the border to Slovakia 45 minutes ago (good thing they didn’t ask for our passports!) It is all very rustic. And when you  stumble into the brightly-lit clearing overlooking a pretty, wooden chalet–your destination, of course–you drop your heavy backpack and settle down for some roasted kielbasa (Polish sausage) over a fire and cold piwo (Polish for beer, though watch out–consumed at higher elevations, that single beer will have a much greater effect on you than you’d expect!). Dinner finished, you head inside to discover the reason you hiked for a solid 8 hours that day and 8 more the day before–a traditional Polish folk music concert in the mountains! Inside the simple, barely-lit room, there are two men sporting impressive beards and dressed in threadbare (possibly handmade) outfits, sitting on tree stumps and thrumming fiddles. It can’t get any more adventurous as this!

Vieux Lyon, France

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Lyon, France

It’s funny how, even in your own town, you seem to constantly stumble upon things that you’re not sure how or why they got there. Whether that be a new cafe, a funny little statue probably carved in the 16th century then promptly forgotten about and let to survive the elements, or a new public art display, it’s amazing what you find when you take to the streets. Take these streamers, for example. I won’t pretend to know what they’re for, or who thought it’d be the perfect idea to take people’s portraits, print them out on thin fabric, then string them together in order to attach them to buildings on a side street in the Vieux Lyon (old town). But someone did. And you know what? The street took on a new flavour. The goofy smiles and funny expressions provided character that is sometimes hard to find on this quiet, ancient street. The resemblance to little flags brought on images of the middle ages. The fact that none of this was explained created mystery and intrigue. It was–and still is–interesting. My point, in short, is that the best way to see the world is to wander. Put down the cell phone, hide the map in your pocket, and hit the streets–any streets. Explore a new place–even if it’s your own backyard.

 

Vienna, Austria

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Vienna, Austria

One of Europe’s nicest cities and snuggled right at the top of the World’s Most Livable Cities list is the beautiful capital of Austria. Read the linked page and it will tell you all about Vienna’s perfect scores in education, healthcare, jobs, etc, and one must admit that these things are important. But even more so, one of the things that makes Vienna so attractive to its citizens and foreigners alike is the attitude of the people within its borders. Take this photo, for instance. Taken outside the famous Hofburg Palace, a group of balloon-laden parents take their children to the park, just for the mere sake of doing so. Whether it was indeed a birthday party or other such ‘special’ occasion, think about how incredible that over a dozen adults drove into the middle of the city, into one of the most crowded parts of town carrying armloads of balloons, just to take their kids to the park? Most kids get to go to the local pizza place or ice cream parlor, and these kids get a visit to a palace and have a picnic in a park within a cluster of balloons. The Viennese are just genuinely happy, healthy, sociable, and well-to-do people, and any visit to the city is likely to make the intrepid traveler immediately start looking for ways to learn German, find a job here and rent a flat somewhere along the Ringstrasse!

Prague, Czech Republic

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Prague, Czech Republic

Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve probably heard, read, or watched a fairy tale. Along with similar features involving a royal family, an evil villain, and some kind of magical element, they are all usually set in the same place: Europe. Okay, perhaps they have lofty names such as “Narnia,” “Arendelle,” “the Enchanted Land,” “Riven-dell” or “Wonderland” but after seeing photos of Europe and comparing them with the drawings and paintings found in storybooks,  one can’t help but see the similarities. Prague is arguably one of the most fairytale-esque places Europe has the offer. In the wintertime, the streets are decked in ivy, the markets are set up in every available plaza, hot chocolate and hot wine stands are on every corner, and snowflakes are in the air. The distant husky smell of smoke from wood-burning fires combined with the sweet smell of Czech buns mingle in the air to create a mouth-watering aroma. It doesn’t take long for you to realise that Prague was pulled straight from the pages of a fairytale.

Ghent, Belgium

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Canals in Ghent, Belgium

When most people hear the words “canal” and “Europe,” Venice immediately springs to mind. And while Venice is certainly the most famous and probably the most beautiful, the continent has many beautiful canals flowing through equally beautiful cities, such as Annecy, Amsterdam, Bruges, and, as evident from the above photo, Ghent. Hipster Ghent has seemingly endless quaint waterways streaming through the medieval town. While it’s less “Disney world/honeymoon-paradise” than its neighbour Bruges, Ghent is no less beautiful, and no less short on canals. A simple boat trip will take you on a relaxing trip around the city’s watery arteries, providing a new perspective of the beautiful buildings lining the canals. And not only that, Ghent’s innate and adorable quirkiness will leave you just as much in love with this small city as all of the locals!

Big Ben, London, England

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Big Ben Clock Tower, London, England

Crossing the Thames and walking past the Houses of Parliament for the first time, you feel a shiver run down your spine as you finally come face-to-face with the most famous clock in the world. As Big Ben in all its glory rises above you, its clock faces grin down over the magnificent city of London. Just a hair over 150 years old, Big Ben has become one of London‘s – and England‘s – most important icons. As you stare at this tower you’ve seen in countless films, photos and paintings, you may wonder why it’s called “Big Ben” when the official name is the “Elizabeth Tower” (named like so as it was erected to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II). Apparently, the nickname’s origin is somewhat up in the air and a bit of a debate between historians. Perhaps it is because of Sir Benjamin Bell (the principle installer of the great bell)…others argue that it may be in regard to the boxing champ, Benjamin Caunt (though I’m not sure I see the likeness!?), still others argue that it should refer only to the bell and not to the tower at all. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because as your eyes lock onto the golden sides of Big Ben’s strong tower, you still feel the shivers tingling up your spine as you stand in the shadow of so great a building. Just be mindful of that camera off to the side – London is the most surveilled city in the world, with one camera per every 11-14 people! Smile!

Zagreb, Croatia

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Zagreb, Croatia

Clip-clip, tally-ho! Jump out of the way because the Royal Kravats are coming by for the changing of the guard! The Royal Kravats, Zagreb’s light cavalry, have their roots in the French Royal Army during the 17th century. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of French can probably guess where the name comes from: “Kravat”, or “cravate” in French, means “necktie,” which was a Croatian special forces unit known for both their military prowess and the special scarf around their necks. Today, the position is ceremonial but still very exciting when in  a great whoosh! a dozen speckled horses trot by you and down the cobblestoned streets of the Croatian capital, carrying decorated military officers on their backs, complete with capes, furry hats, and of course, cravats!

Kenilworth Castle, England

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Kenilworth Castle, England

Ah, Kenilworth. This is one of England’s most dramatic ruins. In fact, historian Anthony Emery describes it as “the finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages.” which one must admit is pretty impressive. It is also impressive for its resistance and survival during what is possibly the longest siege in English history : a six month siege during the English Civil War in 1266. Oh, and don’t forget the Earl of Leicester, who was so in love with Elizabeth I that he organised a massive, lavish and bank-busting hosting of the queen in order to impress her, going so far as spend thousands of pounds and renovating the castle and grounds, nearly bankrupting himself in the process. Good ol’ Queen Lizzie brought with her no less than thirty-one barons and four hundred staff for her royal visit to Kenilworth, lasting a grand total of nineteen days, one of the longest visits she ever made. The sad thing is…she was just using him for his castle and his parties. She never did marry the poor guy. Today, the ruins are open to the public, just try not to climb on the walls however tempting that may be! (There are signs everywhere, though to be fair, no one really enforcing them…!)

 

Madrid, Spain

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Street performer in Madrid, Spain

While actual trees are less-than-numerous in Madrid, street-performers are on every corner–and sometimes, they dress up like trees! Unlike many countries where the vast majority of those on the street sit on the corner with a pitiful sign that begs for money, the majority of the buskers in Madrid and other Spanish cities sell (knockoff) products, create a performance, play music, or merely dress up in insane costumes for tourist photo-ops. No where else can you find so many of active buskers. Not only that, but the creativity of some of them is mind-blowing! This tree-man here is one example of many, and while he doesn’t do a whole lot more than stand there, as one walks down the main street to Puerta del Sol, your neck starts to hurt from all the swinging back and forth to stare at the interesting and fascinating costumes these people have created. Madrid (alongside Barcelona’s Las Ramblas) is surely a Museum of Truly Spectacular Buskers. And quite often, one has to see them to believe them!