What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
The massive amounts of Soviet-era and communist monuments were the strangest. As an American and son of Polish revolutionary parents who were involved in overthrowing the communist government in Poland, it was very interesting to see such communist icons be idolized and celebrated. Most places don’t exactly have Karl Marx statues these days.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
People still drive the Yugo here – commonly known as the worst car in history. I learned a few Yugo jokes while here: How do you instantly double the value of a Yugo? Fill up the fuel tank. Why are there rear-window heaters in the Yugo? To warm your hands while you push it.
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per Federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Bruges is a lovely little time capsule, a prosperous medieval port city that saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The city’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cathedral, cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals, and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the galaxy (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300, the gorgeous Crusader-financed Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the terrific Gruuthuse Museum housed in the former home of a wealthy medieval merchant. Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and then checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night. The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of pralines, a hangover, and a few good stories.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
With a pint of Guinness in hand, I listened to an old, Irish man play his guitar and sing folk songs about Ireland’s beautiful country side, fight for independence and love of drinking while the entire bar sang along. It is rare – and strange – that prior perception and reality are aligned when traveling, but this scene was exactly how I had pictured Ireland in my mind.
A week from now is All Hallows Eve “vigil of All saints” or commonly known in North America as Halloween. The holiday’s roots are of pagan Celtic origin; but it seems to be spreading around the world in modern fashion. When I was young, it meant dressing up in a costume and walking around my small town neighborhood, knocking on doors and gathering more candy than I’d ever eat. On October 31st my three year-old-niece will dress up as a frog fairy princess (her creative idea) and I’ll take her to go trick-or-treating.
But today’s celebration barely resembles the original festival known as Samhain. It was the eve before the official start of winter for the Celtics. It was a huge transition; cattle and sheep were brought in to closer pastures, crops were harvested and stored. Pagans also believed the cloak between this world and the other was thin on that night. Therefore ghosts of the dead could walk freely among the living and all the souls who died that year would pass into the otherworld.
Reminisce of this holidays roots linger today. But what about the belief that ghosts walk among the living…
Are you in a county that observes Halloween?
Have you ever encountered ghosts during your travels?
Please share your stories…
Cost: 80 euros/day
To the casual wine aficiando it may come as a surprise to learn that that most elegant of all wine regions, Champagne, lies only a hour train ride from the Paris city center. In what Hemingway described as “grace under pressure” I took this staggering news in stride, pulled myself together and boarded the Champagne Express which runs like clockwork from Paris to Epernay, the epicenter of bubbly.
Epernay looks exactly as you feel it should, little French houses, quant avenues with wine shops and one enormous boulevard housing almost every major champagne house in France. After touring the catacombs in Paris I was understandably a bit apprehensive regarding underground tunnels, but the champagne caves running under Epernay are truly a thing of wonder. Moet and Chandon alone exists directly above 20 kilometers of tunnels and caves in which they store and age the wine, some decades old. The original Moet was aided in its expansion by none other than everyone’s favorite pint-sized emperor, Napolean Bonaparte. Napolean was a patron and longtime customer of Moet, keeping his court’s enormous thirst at bay. A monument to him still stands below ground in the caves beneath Epernay.
A typical day here would begin on the train ride in, as rolling green foothills pass by the window of the chugging little engine. From there it’s a matter of picking a champagne house or wine shop with which to start. Ten euros will get you three flutes of the good stuff at most smaller shops, and the real magic is sampling wines that cannot be found anywhere outside of France. Lunch spots abound and it’s simply a test of endurance and desire, how many bubbly discoveries do you want to make before the idyllic ride back into Paris. Fear not, there are plenty of grassy parks and flat benches for a short nap to get your strength back up.
Not surprisingly, the locals work in the champagne or hospitality industries for the most part. This means there is never any shortage of good recommendations for wines that one might never know existed. Therein lies the challenge of Champagne…How does one choose?
Really, it’s not necessary. The options are so bountiful and wonderful that most any shot in the dark in your price range will yield a pleasurable experience.
The lesson I learned in Champagne is that regardless of what faults one may find with the way France is governed, the people now how to live and enjoy every second of it.
Although it has been written extensively about at Vagabonding before, now is my turn to bash on the post-travel blues, even if technically I am still travelling. It did not take more than three days into Europe – its Eastern part, possibly the most interesting and culturally diverse – to get “the blues” kicking in. I am almost back “home”, and I already feel like a real tourist pushed onto the umpteenth open roof ride across any of these Europeans capitals. It started in Istanbul and it did not take long for me to realize that Europe, I do not love you at all. For sure, you hosted my birthday parties and taught me how to hate your sophisticated, rich, Lamborghini driving Italian – and surrounding countries – elite, but I am sorry: I cannot stand you anymore.
Please tell me what is so cool about Europe: it is expensive, ultra conservative in a very “white supremacist” sense, and especially, it starts to get frigging cold just now. What is so cool in all of those people sitting at tiny cafes without an apparent reason? And especially, what is so cool about a place where each time I try to talk to any person involved in the hospitality business I feel like I am having an inverted gastroscopy performed directly from the anus? It may be that this famous “end of travelling blues” has a deadly effect when applied to me returning to Europe after 5 years.
Of course, it is not ALL so bad: there are still some nice views, interesting buildings and decent people, a general upgrade in the budget end of the accommodation sector – with an obvious killing price increase -, but hey, Asia is not. The costs alone are just crazy: I recently had to pay for a couple bus rides to make it to an important meeting, and I almost broke my personal bank.
The worst is trying to explain Europeans about my overland trip: they just cannot get it.
“Ah ok, so you took a flight from Singapore to here”
“No, I hitched all the way trough”
“You mean, what place? What city?”
“I never took a single flight”
“Oh. Interesting” and here it comes, another sip of Cappuccino, hiding a somewhat amused smile.
I can understand that for many travelers Europe may seem the best, most fun Lilliputian world inhabited by fairy-tale’s castle dwelling elves, but to me, it reeks like the putrefaction that sent me off elsewhere in the first place. And I am just glad this is only a transitory moment of three weeks and not the beginning of a longer nightmare. In three weeks, I will be on a flight – this time, bound “home” for good.
Travelling and living abroad non-stop for five years can definitely change the perception and needs of an individual. Sometimes, it can radically change him or her. It can turn you upside down and inside-out, like a banana. Me, I think I am exactly like that banana: “white” outside, but “yellow” inside. A perfect description of how I am feeling these days. And now there will be no list of how to ease that post-travel blues, because there is no chance to ease anything: the solution is a one way ticket back to the places I love and I really have chosen to be my “home”, for as much as this word means.
Located in a classy but nondescript building in the Kensington neighborhood of London, the Royal Geographical Society is not your normal tourist attraction—but it should hold a special place in every traveler’s heart. Founded in 1830 as a dinner club hosting lectures from hearty travelers, the Society (or RGS as it’s often called) became a world-class institution for the advancement of knowledge about the planet.
With generous endowments, the RGS evolved into a training hub and planning headquarters for several famous Victorian and Edwardian explorers such as Livingstone, Darwin, Shackleton and Burton. They and other like-minded adventurers—all partially financed, trained by and associated with the RGS—mapped rivers in Africa, measured mountains in Asia, reached the North and South poles, discovered islands in the South Pacific, and carried out zoological studies everywhere. The official creed of the RGS was that no corner of the planet was too remote, too obscure, or too dangerous.
The rich heritage of the RGS earned it a role in my new novel, “Dangerous Latitudes”, about an adventurous travel writer on an extraordinary expedition. As the lead character Matthew Hunt explains to a colleague, “The RGS was the NASA of its time, training explorers and then sending them off on expeditions to learn about the world and return with new insights. Think Dr. Livingston and Darwin. Guys like that were the astronauts to the RGS’ NASA. And the places they went seemed just as remote to them as other worlds seem to us.”
The explorers who survived their journeys brought back amazing tales of new lands, new cultures, and new ways of looking at the world. The well-maintained RGS archives are an array of sextants, telescopes, compasses, charts and diaries comprising a breathtaking chronicle of human exploration—and almost all of them were from expeditions done when the telegraph was new, and airplanes and antibiotics were still just a dream.
Today the RGS promotes research and education as it transitions into the new millennium, and its archives are considered a treasure to historians and scientists alike. The next time you’re in London, get off at the South Kensington tube stop and drop by their headquarters (near Royal Albert Hall) to peruse the collections of hand-scrawled maps, drawings, and field notes made by the astronauts of another era. I dare you not to be inspired.
Recently I’ve been reading, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. When the author was in her mid-twenties she solo hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Her book unfolds as she treks north, nursing her blistered feet and cumbersome heavy pack along a majority of the 2,663mi (4,286km) trail. It initially begins at the Mexican border, passes through California, Oregon, and Washington in the USA and over the border into Canada. Several years ago I’d been gearing up to ride my horses along the same trail, but heavy snows in high mountain ranges and challenges with support team coordination threw a wrench in the trip–so it never happen. But I did ride sections of that trail, along with parts of the Continental Divide Trail, Chilkoot Trail, and the historic Oregon Trail. On foot I’ve graced sections of several other long paths, and driven a dog cart on one pulled by twelve huskies.
Reading Strayed’s book got me thinking about other long-distance footpaths around the world. A popular one in Europe that comes to mind is El Camino de Santiago which starts many different places but ultimately ends at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I first heard of the trail in a novel by Paulo Coelho called, “The Pilgrimage.” Other countries in Europe such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have quite a lot of paths. In Asia I’d looked into hiking the Annapurna Circuit in central Nepal. But it appears that Israel and Japan have many for the choosing as well; Japan’s most popular being the 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Here are the worlds’ best hikes according to National Geographic.
Mark Moxon has an extensive website of information and stories from his long walking adventures.
The UK has a Long Walkers Association.
One Canadian man even walked around the world in eleven years.
Have you ever hiked or ridden on a long-distance path? Or do you have plans to do so?
Please share your stories or plans in the comments!
Loco2 launched not long ago. A site dedicated to train travel throughout Europe. I’ve exchanged emails with its founder, and “the team” has the vision of creating a source of online train booking “as easy as flight booking”—it appears to be well on its way. The site has a video short that explains how to find, book and share itinerary with friends. It also features a blog that covers things like watching the Tour de France by train, photography by Steve McCurry, and interviews with The Man in Seat61.
If you are not privy to that last mention; the man in Seat61 site was created by former railway engineer Mark Smith in 2001, and received many cudos in 2007 (including a blog post on this site.) That site alone is a plethora of information about world-wide train travel.
However, it doesn’t have the unique Engine Room forum which Loco2 has created to offer advice broken down easily by country with the latest information about areas. If you’re considering Europe by train; check into this site. If you’ve travelled the area recently and have suggestions, they are open to building a better, more useful community…