While Marseille does not have the best reputation in the world, this does not mean it doesn’t have beautiful places worth visiting, such as the Old Town, the Old Port, Chateau d’If, beautiful cathedrals and abbeys, a rugged coastline, not to mention this little inlet harbour. Don’t let the reputation scare you away from visiting Marseille–but don’t let your guard down, either. It has one of the highest rates of petty theft in Europe and much of the police force is concerned with small-time crime. So what do you do if you want to visit a place where crime exists? Cities such as Barcelona, Rome and Paris are also known as pickpocket hangouts, but you still may want to visit them, same as Marseille. But how? Well, avoid taking more than you need when you leave the hotel, i.e., only the money you will need that day, no credit cards if possible, NEVER a passport. Try to dress down. Don’t read a map out in open and if you must, lean against a wall when you do so you can keep an eye out. Be vigilant, do online research beforehand to familiarize yourself with common scams. Always hold on to your stuff and avoid talking to strangers in tourist places or on public transit. Just because a city has an issue with petty crime does not necessarily mean you should skip it; you might miss out on something really cool. So go, enjoy, and be careful. Don’t let the pickpockets win!
Antwerp is a diamond in the rough. No, seriously–this little Belgian town is Europe’s diamond capital. Fun fact: supposedly, the amount of diamonds in the world isn’t as small as they’d want us to believe–diamond epicenters like Antwerp apparently limit the number of available diamonds in order to keep prices high and create the illusion of supply and demand. But even outside the diamond shops, (in the area around the beautiful, art nouveau train station) Antwerp is worth a quick stop when already in the area to visit beautiful Bruges and hipster Ghent! It’s funky, full of chocolate and Belgian waffle shops, and downtown walking the cobbled streets under the shadow of the cathedral spire, one can find plenty of charming places for a Belgian beer. Unusual meets traditional here in this little-known Belgian city otherwise known as the European diamond mine.
If you happened to be in Europe, northern Africa, or in select parts of northern Asia and you happened to be outside this morning, you had a chance to see a total or partial solar eclipse! Seen here in Lyon, France just outside the downtown tourism office is the waning effect of a partial solar eclipse (at its maximum, the sun was covered 70%)–despite belligerent clouds determined to block the view. If you were lucky enough to be in either Svalbard or the Faroe Islands, you got to experience a total solar eclipse, ie a phenomenon that occurs when the moon completely covers the sun. Fun fact: we only experience solar eclipses occasionally because the moon’s orbit is tilted at more than 5 degrees from our planet’s orbit around the sun (so the shadow normally passes us by)–but if the moon were orbiting a little closer to earth, we’d experience a solar eclipse every month! Regardless, hopefully you took a moment to appreciate this magical phenomenon because the next partial eclipse visible all over Europe isn’t until 2022–and the next total eclipse here is in 2090! Just be careful about your eyes–the sun’s rays can be very bright and dangerous. Hopefully you enjoyed the beautiful display of sun and moon, and if you missed it, here’s a website showing you upcoming eclipses, and where/when they can be seen!
Russia does not have the best reputation in the world–and Vladimir Putin is not helping. The current conflict, mingled with the administrative difficulties in visiting Russia is a crying shame because St Pete was once one of Europe’s–and the world’s–top cultural centers. And it still could be, if only they’d let it shine they way it is meant to! The Trinity Cathedral with its beautiful blue domes is only one of many, many beautiful buildings found in Russia’s centre of culture. You can wander the streets all day and STILL find beautiful buildings and elegant boulevards and magical cathedrals, even far from the centre. Aside from Paris and a few other large (and lucky!) European cities, most of the continent’s finest cities lose some of their splendor a short walk from the centre. Here, the beauty lives on. Not only that, but the city is alive with bustling streets interspersed with peaceful parks, busy churches with weddings spilling out on their lawns, cafes and restaurants bubbling over with charm and vivacity. The Russians are stereotyped as cold and hard and rude, and while that may be true of the lady selling metro tickets (but let’s admit, anyone forced to spend uninterrupted hours in a tiny box underground making repeated sales would be a bit charmless), once you get past that hard exterior, the Russians can be quite fun, certainly hilarious, and even adventurous (or is that recklessness?). No matter; a sojourn to discover Europe’s finest art, cultural and religious centers cannot be complete without a visit to St Pete. It is hands-down one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. And as a teensy tip–one can avoid the tedious visa process by visiting on a designated tour (usually by cruise) for up to 72 hours without a visa.
Not to be confused with “Vienna, Austria” (despite both having the same name in French), is this little town in central France, lost somewhere along the route from Lyon to Marseille. Vienne would be a typical, mildly-attractive French town if not for a few distinct features…namely, the gigantic Roman temple located in the main town square, not to mention the Roman amphitheater and a “pyramid” (though not at all what you are currently picturing). It’s a strange sensation, wandering through a maze of streets, streets one finds in most French towns and cities, and then rounding a corner and–suddenly–coming upon this ancient, free-standing temple that seems as if it tumbled off a page in book on the Roman Empire. The Temple d’Auguste et de Livie was designed in the Corinthian style and was erected by the emperor Claudius around 20 BC. The main reason why it survived when so many of its sisters were destroyed was its conversion to a church and renaming to match the rise in Christianity, “Notre Dame de Vie.” Additionally, it was briefly converted during the Reign of Terror to celebrate the new god, the “Supreme Being,” and the new “order of Reason” created by the infamous Robespierre during the dechristianisation of France. Today, it resides in this sleepy French town, unconcerned about change or modernity or the passage of time, content merely to exist.
Rarely celebrated for its modernity or eccentricity, Europe is known for old, historic and elegant buildings. However, there are a few odd pockets here and there, treasure troves of modern oddities that are worth seeing for yourself. Places like the Guggenheim Museum, anything by Gaudi, the Singing House in Dresden, Valencia’s City of Art and Science, Sopot’s Crooked House…and the Hundretwasser House here in Vienna are a few such examples. Created by Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1983 to 1985, the house represents the expressionist style. Inside, there are 52 apartments, four offices, 16 private terraces and three communal terraces, with about 250 plants growing on them. Today, it remains one of Vienna’s most celebrated (and visited) landmarks–which is certainly saying something as Vienna is a large and beautiful city. It’s beautiful, funky, enticing and dizzying all at the same time!
A little-known part of Spain is the northern coast running from Bilbao on one side to Santiago de Compostela on the other. One of the rainiest parts of Spain, it is also one of the greenest! Little towns like Santillana del Mar and San Vincente de la Barquera hug the coastline, famous beaches such as the one at Noja dot the coast (ironically this frequented surfers’ beach is located just next to a large prison…), roads sporting the shiny, yellow “El Camino” signs connect the towns (Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage). Winding grey roads, large green fields, limitless blue waves and bright orange roofs weave the patchwork quilt that is northern Spain. This is a region of tranquility, rarely frequented by tourists, colorful, happy and green. Whether you’re doing the Camino, surfing the waves, biking the coastline or merely soaking up the history and culture of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia, you’ll fall in love with northern Spain in moments.
Often, the most arresting part of a small village is the church spire–which holds an even more special charm when it rises against the backdrop of a dramatic mountain range. Italy in particular is linked with a supposed record-high church attendance–though in actuality, only 31% of the country (in 2004) attends mass on a regular basis; Poland nails first place, with a winning 54% in the same year. According to this article, the head of the Catholic Church so often associated with reverence and faith actually has a lot less churchgoers than the 50% they’ve traditionally claimed, with regular attendee percentages even less than the stated 31%. But regardless of all this, Italy (like most of the continent), has no shortage of churches. Every village has one, and the rest of the town center and little houses spiral outward around it. In large towns, there are more than one; there are big ones and small ones, stone ones and wood ones, plain ones and pretty ones, famous ones and unknown ones. Churches–no matter your faith–are places of devotion, of tranquility, of architectural splendour. Even if you aren’t interested in the religious part, they are magical, beautiful and graceful buildings full of history and culture and faith, and one can’t ignore the allure and sheer power these steeple-ed buildings hold over us travelers!
The setting sun over the Swedish capital shines off the facades of the buildings on this neighboring island in Stockholm’s massive archipelago. As the largest city in Sweden, it is also the most populous city in the Nordic region with nearly 1.5 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area. As Stockholm also happens to be one of the most expensive European cities, the best way to spend a quiet evening is to sit out on the quay with a beer in hand and watch the sun set over the Swedish skyline before ambling back into the center of the old town (Gamla Stan) in search of a cozy cafe. If, like so many others, you’ve been watching the recent outburst of Nordic noir series and films (such as The Bridge, The Killing, Borgen, or any one of the many films), explore the city after dark to get a new perspective on Stockholm. But don’t worry; despite the dark nature of these series and films, Scandinavia is a relatively safe place. Just don’t forget to bring a jacket and scarf; the combination of its northern location as well as its proximity to the water makes for chilly air !