A few weeks ago, I went on what I can only describe as a trip of a lifetime. I traveled with my husband through central and northern Europe, to places we’d both dreamed of visiting. We spent more money than I care to talk about, but our experiences, as you can imagine, were worth every cent.
As much as I’d love to hop a plane right now and head on our next adventure, I know it’s unrealistic. And I know there’s always going to be that point at the end of our travels where we have to come home.
On our recent trip, I came up with a little pros/cons game that went like this: for every time I took mental note of something I loved (in a place we were visiting), I also thought of something I was missing from home. It seemed like the perfect way to take in my surroundings while making that transition out of “holiday mode” easier when the time came for it. Here’s how our destinations fared:
Our entire purpose for stopping in Munich was Oktoberfest. John wanted to get the true experience of beer, pretzels and Bavarian culture. Also, both of us really needed a break from our crazy-stressful jobs, so we thought, what better way to do that than to party and drink to our hearts’ content.
As expected, Oktoberfest was a blast. I would compare it to K-Days in Edmonton, but way more awesome and filled with Bavarian-themed tents and food. Also, instead of people dressed in casual summer clothes, think dirndls and lederhosen.
Our day at the festival started at 11 am and ended close to 4 pm. We were advised to get there early as it fills up quickly with people. When we went, it was a calm, 24-degree day with clear blue skies. We opted out of rides, but spent the entire time drinking in one of the beer lodges. The place was roaring with excitement, and was overall a great atmosphere to be in. If we weren’t listening to the traditional German band playing , we were hearing people cheer each other on as they chugged 1-litre steins of beer while standing on wooden tables.
Both of us loved the festival, but where we started to get nostalgic for home was when we were watching groups of people having a good time, conversing in German. None of us speak the language, and that certainly made things difficult for us. Even ordering a meal or drink took a fair bit of effort. Luckily, we met a sweet, English-speaking American couple who made our time at the festival a lot more fun.
The second moment we longed for home was when we were trekking back to our rented apartment after the festival. We were both drunk (to say the least), and all we wanted to do was to was head back and crash. The thing about being that drunk is that it’s way more uncomfortable when it happens away from home. And especially in our case, when it happens in an apartment that we’re sharing with other people. In Munich, we booked an apartment room, because that was our best and most affordable option.
Overall, I enjoyed our short, 2-day stay in Munich. For the time we had, we used it well. I also felt as though I could live there. I loved how green the city was, I thoroughly enjoyed the meals we ate and I appreciated how friendly the locals were in spite of the language barrier. That said, I was ready and excited to head to stop number two, Budapest.
Ever since my best friend told me about Budapest and how it was her favourite city she had visited in Europe, I knew I wanted to see it for myself. I had heard of the city’s interesting blend of culture and architecture with its two sides: Buda and Pest.
When I first stepped off the train from Munich, I was in awe. I thought: “If the train station is this beautiful, I can only imagine what the rest of the city looks like.”
And I was right. In fact, it is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. The majority of our time in Budapest was spent walking the streets and taking in all the sites we could without having to pay for a guided tour. Some of my favourites were the Liberty Statue and the panoramic tour at the top of St. Stephens Basilica.
What I loved most about Budapest was the fact that we didn’t have to spend a lot of money to experience the city to its fullest. Some of the most memorable buildings and restaurants were ones we stumbled across during our daily walks. I also really enjoyed having an apartment (and a spacious one at that!) all to ourselves, unlike the shared one in Munich.
My only complaint was the fact that it was difficult to get any sort of vegetables when ordering food. I would call it a meat and potatoes kind of city. On the other hand, John and I ordered, quite literally, the best burgers of our lives while there.
John and I also discovered that Lays Paprika and/or “Cheese” flavoured chips are not worth buying just to satisfy a junk craving. We’re definitely snack people, and we both longed to eat chips in flavours we know and love like Ketchup or Salt and Vinegar.
I missed the luxury of being able to eat anything I want from home, but overall, I was very happy with our stay in Budapest. After spending four days there, I was certain nothing could top it, that is until we went to Prague.
I didn’t realize how few visitors there were in Budapest until we arrived in Prague. The city was jam-packed, wall-to-wall with tourists, but with good reason. Simply put, Prague is gorgeous. This was apparent to me from the moment our taxi dropped us off outside of our apartment.
At first glance, I felt like I was staying in New York. Our area, Wenceslas Square, had a modern look to it and was full of trendy shops, restaurants and hotels. Aside from the cobblestone sidewalks and older style to some of the buildings, you would never guess you were in Europe.
Once we stepped out of Wenceslas Square and into Old Town, just minutes away, that’s when Prague started to come alive for me. Among a sea of people, I could see all sorts of action happening from singing to dancing to selling of goods from outdoor vendors. All the buildings were colourful and of Neo-gothic style, with pointy, castle-like spires. Enchanting is what Old Town was to me.
Yet, that wasn’t even my favourite part of Prague. My breath was taken away when we walked over to the Charles Bridge. The pedestrian-only, popular attraction oozed with romance as live bands blared their instruments and artists sold a variety of handmade crafts. And those views from the bridge were unlike anything I had seen before. I bought a stunning piece of art to keep the memory fresh in my mind.
Along with the Charles Bridge, I also fell in love with a site I found in one of our Lonely Planet travel books: the Strahov Monastery and Library. While the one-hour, cobblestone-lined, uphill walk to get there was intense and the entrance fee to get in exorbitant, the whole experience was worth it. Not only was the Library beautiful, but the walk on the way down from the Library boasted panoramic views of the city.
Day or night, I never felt bored in Prague. There way always something magnificent to see or do. I did, however, miss the peace and quiet of home. I forget how wonderful it is to live in a country with so much vast, open space and such a small population.
The masses of tourists in Prague were often overbearing. And so were the neighbours in our terrace-top apartment who smoked like chimneys and stayed up all hours of the night. I’m all for having a good time, but it’s tough to travel when you don’t get any sleep.
All the noise and activity in Prague made it that much more exciting to head to our last (and total opposite) destination of the trip: Reykjavik.
Truth be told, Iceland wasn’t at the top of our list when we first planned our itinerary for Europe. It just so happens that the Edmonton International Airport offers a connection to Europe (through Icelandair) that’s cheaper, and in some cases shorter, than flying with other airlines. Icelandair was the reason we could afford our trip.
Once John and I started doing some research into Iceland, we went from being lukewarm about it to thrilled. There are so many natural wonders there, that it’s impossible not to be enamored by your surroundings.
On our first day in Iceland (out of four), we explored Reykjavik. We walked around downtown and up to the coast, where we had a great view of the mountains. The city’s quaint and peaceful vibe was a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of Prague. We instantly felt comfortable and at ease there. We also loved our cozy, downtown apartment.
Reykjavik reminded me of small mountain towns in Alberta like Jasper or Canmore. The main difference, of course, was the architecture, which I found to be very unique. Some of my favourite buildings were the Hallgrimskirkja Church, with its sleek column walls and the Harpa Concert Hall made of glass.
On our second day, we went on a night tour called, “Warm Baths, Cool Nights.” The first part included a trip to the Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths, of which all I can say is “ahhhhhhh.” The baths were incredibly relaxing and exactly what John and I needed after two weeks of travelling. For the second half of the tour, the bus drove us to nearby areas in pitch black darkness in search of Northern Lights. While the Lights are nothing new for us Edmontonians, they were still a delight to see.
On our third day, we went on a tour called, “The Wonders of Reykjanes,” where we had the opportunity to see a variety of landscapes and coast lines. Some of the best parts of the tour were the Seltun and Gunnuhver Hot Springs. The sheer magnitude of those Hot Springs impressed me. I also loved learning that Iceland is self-sustainable entirely through geothermal energy.
On our last day in Iceland, we went on the popular “Golden Circle” tour where we stopped at four renowned sites: Geysir, Gulfoss and Pingvellir. For me, Gulfoss waterfall was the highlight, and perhaps my favourite site of our whole trip. My eyes were drawn to the raging waters, flowing from all sides of the Hvita canyon.
There wasn’t much about Iceland I didn’t enjoy, except for the biting winds and bone-chilling cold. Coming from Edmonton, it’s strange to hear myself complain about weather in other places, but I’m just not accustomed to humidity. John and I were freezing the entire time we were in Iceland, to the point where we both had to buy overpriced toques at a gift shop.
Believe it or not, it was the brutal weather in Iceland that made it easiest to come home to Edmonton, where ironically, we had an unseasonably warm fall.
More than anything else, my travels, both recent and past, have taught me to love where I am, whether it’s at home among familiar routines, or away from home into the exciting and unknown.
I’m lucky enough to be able to go anywhere in the world, for any period of time, and always have so much to look forward to when I get back.