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Europe trip summary (2009)

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009


July 7 – I’m finally getting around to a summary of our May trip to Europe.



Everyone asks what our favorite places were on this trip and I always have a tough time with that one because it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Lauterbrunnen and the Berner Oberland (in the Swiss Alps) were the geographical highlight, Venice was incredible culturally and architecturally and we really enjoyed the way the Italians love their food and wine (we want to come back to Italy). Bacharach is a fairy tale German town with great white wines, it was almost perfection for us.

I would go back to any of the places above. I would also go back to Regensburg (where I met up with my mom). The biggest itinerary regret that I have is that we didn’t build in a couple of days in the Berchtesgaden / Lake Kognissee area, would have loved to do some hiking there. Also wish we had spent another day in Reutte exploring the castles and hiking.


Biggest disappointments: Lucerne without a doubt. The town of Fussen was nice but the castles in nearby Hohenschwangau were overrated tourist traps.


General impressions

Lissette (who had never been to Europe prior to this) commented sometime during our travels that “Europeans have a really good quality of life”, refering to the ease of travel (trains were fabulous – more on that later), overall cleanliness and organization, the natural environment, and standards (and even pricing) of food. I’ve been to Europe many times but the last time was almost 20 years ago. I don’t know if North America has slipped or if Europe (Western Europe to be precise) has progressed at a faster rate during that time, but I had the same impression – the overall standard of living in Europe has surpassed North American standards. It just seems richer.

People: Europeans have a reputation as brusque and even unfriendly. We visited 4 countries and while we noticed general differences, we never encountered “unfriendliness”. The Italians are the easiest to like; outgoing and relaxed. I found that initial contact with Germans felt like an awkward first date at times; they don’t always smile initially or make eye contact and they can be a little short. But after the initial contact we found they warmed up and were very friendly and helpful. We got to really like the Germans. I can’t really comment on the Austrians because we didn’t spend much time there (although they go to great lengths to distinguish themselfs as Austrians and not Germans). The Swiss? Hmm… they make great chocolate and must work really hard because Swiss towns/cities die after 6pm…

Below: Public toilets can be found in most places – unlike North American public toilets they’re really clean.

Train travel

In Montreal they’ve been talking about building a train line from downtown to the airport for the last 30 years (it’s 20 km from downtown to the airport). All levels of government point fingers at each other and in the end nothing ever gets done. I’m sure we won’t have any public transport out to the airport even 10 years from now…

In my first posting for this trip I wrote about planning train travel in Europe and the pros and cons of rail passes (I initially had my doubts that they were worth the hassle). My experience is that they are totally worth it; passes do save you money, plus you get to sit in 1st class.

For all that I had heard about train travel in Europe, I was still surprised by how comfortable and hassle free it was. Sitting there, in comfortable seats, watching the world going by was a pleasure in itself. Trains had restaurant carriages, clean toilets (I keep talking about clean toilets but you just don’t get very many clean toilets when traveling). First class seats even had electrical outlets so I could plug in my computer. Trains were on time, tracks were well identified at train stations, help was always there if required. We were just blown away by the ease and comfort of it all. I would never travel Europe by any other means.



I researched hotels using a mix of Lonely Planet, Rick Steve’s “Best of europe 2009” Guide, and I pre-booked all hotels which I believe was the smartest thing to do on the whirlwind kind of trip we had. All the hotels were aesthetically fine, but we were in some cases disappointed with outside noises; the most common problem we encountered was that hotels didn’t have AC (even expensive hotels) – so we’d open the windows wide and would at some point wake up to drunks yelling loudly / dropping beer bottles or cigarette smoke wafting in…We found our hotels in Heidelberg, Munich and Venice particularly loud. Next time I would bring industrial-strength earplugs. Apart from that (oh, and I shouldn’t forget the bitchy Hotel des Alpes in Lucerne) we were pretty happy with the hotels on this trip.

Planning resources

I’ve mentioned for hotels. Lonely Planet is good for logistical information but weak in recommendations (everything is “quaint” or “lovely” or “ideally nestled between majestic peaks” – you can read the whole guide and still not figure out where to go). I never bought a Rick Steve’s guide but gave it a shot and really like the detailed advice. He’s got some really good opinions and recommendations, not just on where to go but restaurants /hotels to stay at for unique experiences. I wish he would tone it down with all the self promotion though, you can’t go anywhere in Europe without seeing Rick Steve guides / videos, or “recommended by Rick Steve’s” posters or seeing the dedication to Rick Steve’s in the museum in Reutte (and is it just me or do you get sick of seeing pictures of him wearing those nerdy polo shirts? and the goofy haircut?). Nevertheless, I think his guides are a very good resource in planning any trip to europe.


We wouldn’t change much about the trip we had (the weather could have been a bit better in the first 2 weeks though..). The great thing about Europe is the great cultural and geographic diversity within a relatively small region (relatively as compared to North America). We met some nice people, saw beautiful places, and enjoyed lots of great wine and food.

Next: Some hikes in Quebec. Still looking for some recommendations!

Salzburg, Austria

Sunday, May 24th, 2009


May 24, 2009 – A pretty city filled with churches, squares with fountains, a huge castle that looms over everything. Lots of trendy cafes and restaurants filled with well to do tourists – Salzburg is definately a up scale tourist town. In the background, behind the city are snow covered mountains. Perfect right?

Salzburg; brief history and interesting facts;

  • A settlement in Roman times (around 15 BC), but fell into ruins until around 700 AD when “Salzburg” (literally Salt Castle) grew on tolls extracted from barges carrying salt on the Salzach river.
  • In 1077 work started on Salzburg’s prime attraction, Hohensalzburg Fortress (the biggest completely preserved middle-age castle in Europe), which was initially for use as a base for troops of the Holy Roman Empire. The fortress was built up more in 12th and 13th centuries in response to disputes with Austria and Bavaria (Salzburg was independant), then again in 15th century because of threat of invasions from the Turks.
  • One-third of population died of the Black Plague in the 14th century. Jews were expulsed from the city in 1492.
  • In 1730s Protestants were also forced to leave the city.
  • Salzburg became rich in 17th and 18th century on increased salt trade (salt helps preserve food). It transformed Salzburg into one of the world’s most outstanding baroque city with magnificent palaces, churches and gardens.
  • In 1756 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born here.
  • In 1816 Salzburg becomes part of Austria, then in 1918 becomes part of German Austria. Bombed in World War II, but much of its baroque architecture was not damaged.



    Actually, while the town is pretty and very walkable, there is little WOW factor here. Lissette an I both agree that a day is sufficient – I would actually (knowing what I know now) make it a day trip from Berchtesgaden/ Kognisee (more on another posting). I think Salzburg should be seen when in the area, I just wouldn’t make it a major highlight.


    We took a walking tour offered by the tourist office. An hour long, it covered the main sites in the old town, the most memorable being the Salzburg Cathedral and the cemetary at St. Peter’s Cathedral. We went up the mountain and toured around Hohensalzburg fortress which had great views over the town and the mountains in the back. We tour a quick tour of the Panorama museum – the panorama painting of Salzburg taken in 1829 was impressive. Good way to fill in half an hour between doing other things. There are 2 major Mozart museums in town, the one where he was born (in the old town) and the other where he lived his teenage years (across the river in the new town). My Rick Steve’s guidebook said the 2nd, the “Mozart Residence” was the better of the two. We toured it and were very disappointed – the family’s furniture had been sold by auction and the residence is essentially empty…if you like to look at scrolls titled “Mozarts D minor, sequitur 5 from the concert played at Salzburg Catheral” (I made that up but that’s basically the kind of stuff written. Boring). Lissette is a Mozart fan and she was dissapointed – better off watching the movie “Amadeus”, much more informative than this boring museum tour (Like I said to Lissette, at least we get to see a bit of tit in the movie).



    Summary: Lots of history, pretty, worth a visit but not a lengthy stay.



    We stayed at the Weisse Taube hotel in the old city (98 Euros/night for double breakfast included). Basic but clean and comfortable. Location was perfect, and the hotel staff was great. Excellent place to be in the old town. I give it a 4 out of 5.

    “Da Pippo” restaurant on main street recommended (has a large Italian flag) on outside. Food was great, atmosphere superb, prices relatively cheap. We had a great Italian waiter, a middle aged man who looked right out of The Sopranos. When we told him that Venice was our next stop he looked envious “Germans and Austrians, it’s da right or it’s da left. No fantasy. In Italy is fantasy”. We thought it was a nice introduction to our next

  • Reutte, Austria

    Sunday, May 17th, 2009
    ruta1.jpg May 17, 2009 - Reutte is south of Fussen, about 20km into the Alps in Austria, in a large green valley surrounded by snow capped mountains. Just fantasticly beautiful. rut91.jpg I had ... [Continue reading this entry]