Well, our travels are over. As I write this, our flat is being stripped down and sold for parts. All of our European and UK travels are behind us and we’re getting ready to move back to the USA. After 2 years of living in England, we’ve managed to get to quite a few places, both in the UK and in Europe. Having never been across the Atlantic before venturing over to England for a 2 year assignment, I think it’s safe to say that my travel tastes have evolved over our 2 years. Nonetheless, I think it’s only fitting that I try to sum up the best and worst things about our travels. I got my inspiration for this post from, who else, Mr. Rick Steves, who wrote his own best and worst article.
I’m going to miss living in the UK. Tara and I have both made some great friends and great memories over here. Upon arriving, we tried to jump into English life over here with both feet and tried not to look back at what we were missing back home. Tara joined a local tennis club and I joined a local basketball club. We started spending our weekends driving to random UK towns to see the local sites and take long walks. We ended up making friends from all over the place. Just off the top of my head, we now have friends from France, Spain, Germany, India, Mexico, Ireland, The Netherlands, Italy, Greece, and even Yorkshire. My work colleagues often say that I’ve seen more of the UK and Europe than they have. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m glad we made the most of our time here. I don’t think we could have traveled much more than we did without burning out.
So without further ado, here are Doug and Tara’s Bests and Worsts:
In 2 years, we managed to go to 25 countries. Some of them multiple times: England, Wales (x3), Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany (x3), Italy (x4), France (x5), Spain (x2), USA (x2), Portugal, Monaco, Ireland (x2), Austria, Hungary, Belgium (x2), Czech Republic, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Greece, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Red = We didn’t make it there
Disclaimer: This is all just the opinion of me and Tara. We haven’t been everywhere and do not claim to know it all. Let me know if you disagree! Tara certainly does. Also, Singapore and Malaysia have snuck into this best and worst post. I’m aware they are not in Europe. Let’s just pretend like they are.
The Best thing about England: There are pubs EVERYWHERE. And as such, you can get a pint no matter what you’re doing or where you’re at without having to worry about driving. Just finished a 5 mile hike in the middle of nowhere? Just look to your left and you’ll probably spot a friendly warm pub.
Best Chocolate: Belgium. I don’t know what it is that makes it so good, but it is. Go get some.
Best Beer: Also Belgium. If you’ve read my post about Brussels or Brugge, you’d know that I am a little partial to Belgian beer. There just isn’t anything else like it. It’s so crisp and bold at the same time. Every sip is like a party in my mouth that has been meticulously planned by expert party monks. Those trappist monks know what they are doing and have inspired the whole region to make an amazing style of heavenly beer. Second place is Germany and Czech Republic
Best Scenic Views: Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland and Isle of Skye, Scotland. I had been told that Switzerland was incredible and it did not disappoint. Every step we took in this region was full of breathtaking views and soothing chimes from the giant cow bells. Isle of Skye was a surprise. The views we got on our Old Man of Storr hike made us feel like we were in the Lord of the Rings.
Best Live Music: Ireland. More specifically, all the small towns that we visited on our SW Ireland trip. Every pub had live, local music. It spilled out into the streets and sounded great. It really made you want to come inside and have a wee pint (or 3).
Best Public Transit: Singapore or Germany. Until we went to Singapore, it was a no brainer that Germany was the clear winner. When compared to the chaotic and under-signed Italian trains/subways or London’s efficient but outdated Tube, the Germans have got it figured out. Even a caveman could figure out how to ride Germany’s public transit network. Then, we went to Singapore. Sorry Germany. I guess if a country of 5.3 million is smashed into a region 3.5x bigger than Washington DC (population 630,000), you better win. Otherwise, it probably wouldn’t be a very good place to visit. It was inconceivably clean, organized, and cheap. Even though I was afraid for my life every time I forgot about the no food or drink rule, it still wins.
Best Cheap Eats: Malaysia and Prague/Budapest. If you thought southeast Asia and Eastern Europe didn’t have anything in common, think again. Malaysia’s hawker stalls were filled with spicy, meaty, delicacies. When the bill came, I found myself wondering why I didn’t order something more expensive. But I didn’t wonder long because everything was so good. I remember one dinner costing $8 for the two of us. Prague and Budapest had similar styles of hearty food that reminds you of that warm meal your mom would cook when it was freezing outside. Once again, when the bill comes, it’s all smiles. These examples are polar opposites to London where a decent Mexican meal cost 92 GBP for 4 people ($150).
Best Driving Tour: Ring of Kerry, Ireland. One word, GREEN. Touring around the lush Ring of Kerry was full of great landscapes that could be enjoyed from the dryness and warmth of the car.
Best Boat Cruise: London. Wait really? Yes, the informative cruise from Tower of London to Greenwich (25 minutes) was a great cruise with excellent commentary. Honorable mention goes to the cruise ship ride into Stockholm through tons of tiny islands, but the category is best BOAT cruise, not best SHIP cruise, so it can’t win.
Best Church: La Sagrada Familia. I’ve seen my fair share of churches in the past 2 years. Every town you go to has the world’s *insert adjective* church. Whether it’s the largest church by square footage, the tallest church built in the 17th century, the oldest gothic English church, or the oldest Neo-gothic church still in operation, it’s hard to find a church that doesn’t have a grasping claim to fame. Barcelona’s poster-child has an actual claim to fame: It looks like something out of a fantasy world and is an architectural masterpiece. It’s just plain cool. Hands down, my favorite.
Best Palace: Versailles. The winner for the most extravagant palace goes to the palace of Versailles, outside of Paris. Apparently the people of France thought so too because they beheaded the inhabitants because it was too expensive.
Best National Trust Site: Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. This place is a spectacle. It’s hard to believe this is a natural rock formation. What made it even better is that we beat the masses of tour busses so we could explore it on our own.
Best Market in London: Camden Market. I was quite skeptical when Tara started dragging me to all these London Markets, but some of them are pretty cool. Camden is a crazy assortment of EVERYTHING, run by hipsters, in an old horse warehouse district, and it spills out all over the whole neighborhood with every type of food you could think of. Rick Steves should give this place 3 Triangles on Sundays.
Best Rick Steves Audio Guide: Venice Water Bus. Public transit in Venice is done via boat. This audio tour takes you down the heart of Venice’s grand canal for the cost of a bus ticket. It was so good we did it twice.
Best Hike: Switzerland: Muren to Gimmewald. The views experienced on this hike are what give Switzerland the best scenic views award. Absolutely breath taking.
Best Train Journey: Scotland’s Jacobite. aka the Harry Potter train to Hogwarts. This old steam engine was a really cool treat. The views were great and it might be the only steam engine I ever get to ride on.
Best Way to Cross the English Channel: The Eurostar. We’ve driven across (via the train), we’ve taken the ferry, and we’ve taken the Eurostar as passengers. Kicking back on a fast train while sipping a bottle of French wine is definitely the best way to cross. If you factor in cost, then putting your car on the train is your best bet. If you just want to go for awesomeness, then kick back and be a passenger.
Best Sporting Event: Wimbledon. Tara isn’t forcing me to write this. We tried to experience as many European sports as we could. We saw a couple football (soccer) games, went to a Rugby match, attended a horse race, and even went to a Cricket 20/20 match. On top of that, we went to the French Open and Wimbledon (twice). Wimbledon was the best. The atmosphere, grounds, food, drinks, weather, and prestige all come together perfectly.
Best Place to Get Lost: Venice. It isn’t possible to go in one direction for very long. Even if you try to use a map, or even google maps, you’ll end up somewhere that you didn’t expect, and it ends up being a lot of fun. A street will turn into an alley, which will seem like a dead end, but then open up in to a secret square with a great wine bar.
Best House Wine: Provence Region, France. I think everywhere we went in Europe had great house wine. I’m not a wine snob. I like it all. I really really liked the red wines in the Provence region of France.
Best Entertainment: Book of Mormon in London. We tried to see a lot of live entertainment to get a sense of the local flavor wherever we went. We went to a Flamenco show in Spain. We did the weird black light show in Prague. We went to lots of live music venues in Ireland. We saw a few London musicals also, and Book of Mormon was definitely the best out of everything. I’ve never laughed so much in my life.
Best Stately Home: Chatsworth House. I think the massive gardens are what set it apart. Yes, the house is great, and was used as a set for a bunch of movies, but the expansive and well maintained garden is great to explore on a nice day.
Best Airport: Singapore. Best airport ever. It’s huge, immaculately clean, orderly, and it doesn’t feel crowded or rushed. I had gold status when we were here so we checked out the Singapore Airlines Lounge. It was nice, but the regular departures lounge was also really really nice. They gave everyone free coffee and the airline mascot came around to greet everyone.
Best Airport Lounge: Lufthansa Senator Lounge in Frankfurt. While on the topic of airports, why not mention the best lounge. I haven’t been gold for that long and it will expire soon. I haven’t been to a great deal of lounges (probably only 6 or so). But the Frankfurt Senator Lounge is definitely the most luxurious and spacious.
Best Museum: Late night at the Natural History Museum in London. I like museums a lot more than churches. The last Friday of the month in London, there are live music and bars that setup in the museums. That giant whale is a lot more interesting after a few cocktails. Trust me.
Best Pub in Derby: The Greyhound. We’re probably biased by it’s proximity, but it gets my vote nonetheless. It has a great selection of local and world beers, good atmosphere, and good food.
Best City: London. I know what you’re thinking. I’m giving the UK preferential treatment because I live here. Nope, I am very critical of the England, just ask my work colleagues. London is the best city because it is so huge and diverse. We’ve taken 10 separate trips and had a different experience each time. You can truly get any type of food in the world here. Despite the crazy expensive prices, London wins.
2nd Favorite City: Seville, Spain. Sunny, historic, laid back, great food, great atmosphere. Those are my memories of Seville. And, any place that gives you a free small plate of food when you order a beer is good in my book.
Best Souvenirs: We tried to resist buying too much because we knew we’d struggle to fit it in our shipment back to America. The few things that we’re making room for are our authentic beer steins from Frankfurt, our Czech beer glasses that we picked up in Prague, and Tara’s authentic English tea set that she was able to pick up for next to nothing at local charity shops. For most everything else, we’ll just have our memories and a lot of pictures.
Best UK Airport: None (Trick Question). We’ve been to quite a few: East Midlands, Birmingham, Manchester, London Luton, London Heathrow, and London Stansted. They are all bad. After going through security, you are forced to weave your way through a maze of retail while dodging department store style perfume ladies who try to spray you. After you make it through the perfume jungle, you realize that there are only about 3 chairs that aren’t part of a restaurant/pub so you are forced to pay money to sit down. Why not just go wait at your departure gate you ask? Great idea! Except for the fact that your gate will only be announced 10 minutes before boarding is closed. This causes a mad dash and a long queue. Luckily, because you are in England, the queue is orderly. Once you’ve waited in the queue for a good 20 minutes and all of the oversized baggage smugglers have been pulled out of line and publicly shamed, the queue begins to move and you board……the bus. That’s right, jetways are a luxury reserved for non-budget airlines and America. The crowded bus is almost the last step. Sometimes you have to wait inside the bus for a period of time while you stare at the plane. This is to build up the excitement of flying. After you are released from the bus, another mad dash ensues, and then you’ve made it through the gauntlet of an English airport.
Full Disclosure: Stansted is relatively new and not that bad. Although we still had to take a bus to get to our plane. This really aggravates me. If you have to take a bus at an airport, something, somewhere along the way was done wrong. It’s like no one ever thought that airplane passengers would need to get to their plane, so at the last minute they just hired a bunch of busses because it was easier than building it right the first time.
And now comes the other side of the coin. We couldn’t have a list of bests without a list of worsts.
The Worst Toilets: Malaysia. I’m sorry, but a hole in the ground is not a toilet. A rubber hose with a steady flow of water is no substitute for toilet paper. It is simply a recipe for an incredibly wet room with a bunch of holes on the ground, aka an Asian bathroom. Malaysia, you fail.
Most Overrated Tourist Site: Mannekin Pis, Brussels. I guess this tiny statue may have some history behind it, but don’t expect amazing things. On the plus side, it’s free to see and it’s in a city with amazing beer and chocolate.
Worst Boat Ride: Santorini Volcano Tour, Greece. So you see that brown water over there about 100 yards away? Swim to it. It’s slightly warmer than the freezing cold blue water. It will stain your clothes brown, but don’t worry about that. Everyone on this boat can swim 200 yards right? Okay have fun. There were 3 people that needed flotation devices thrown to them to avoid drowning and everyone else got their bathing suits stained brown. I would give this boat tour a miss. Great choice Megan!
Worst Beer Prices: Singapore. I guess this is the flip side of having the cleanest, most orderly society. All fun must be excessively taxed to avoid……. something. What, I’m not sure, but a pint could cost you over $15. Go figure. At least the toilets were emaculate.
Worst Church: Rosslyn Chapel (aka the Scottish Da Vinci Code Church). Talk about winning the famous church lottery. This church was featured in the 2006 Tom Hanks movie and has been milking the cash cow ever since. For a meer 20 GBP per person, you can see the most unspectacular church ever made. This is a definite must miss. Sorry Mona, I know you liked this place.
Worst Live Entertainment: Opera in Vienna, Austria. Granted, we got the 3 Euro nosebleed seats and I have about as much culture as a can of Budweiser, but this was BORING. The story line could have been a good one if they would have just got on with it. It would take 2 minutes for the singers to spit out one sentence. Geeze, we haven’t got all night.
Most Underwelming Tourist Attraction: Lands End. In case you are wondering, the most southwest point in England is no different than the rest of the 399.9 miles of Cornwall coastline. Save yourself 5 GBP worth of pay-and-display parking and 20 GBP to get a picture with the “Lands End” sign, and go for a nice coastal hike. There will be a pub at the end.
Top 6 Epic Travel Fails
Compressing city trips into a long weekend or a couple of days means that you are always pressed for time and trying to figure out logistics in an unfamiliar place. We’ve definitely gotten better as we’ve traveled more, but there were still some pretty epic fails along the way. It’s inevitable, and it usually ends up with a waste of time and money. At least you get the consolation prize of a great story and a memory you’ll never forget.
6. Running out of Gas/Petrol in Greece. I wasn’t too stressed over this, but Tara was. For some reason, our 4×4 didn’t come with very much gas and our gauge didn’t really work. We got stranded at Super Paradise beach and were forced to relax on the beach while Megan and Hamish journeyed into town to fill up water bottles full of gasoline.
5. Getting on the wrong train in Cinque Terre, Italy. We were only a 2 minute train ride away from our destination of Vernazza. We tried to be clever and hop on a 5 minute earlier train in the same direction we were heading. Little did we know that this train would wizz by our town and not stop for another 45 minutes. Then we had to wait another 45 minutes, buy another ticket, get delayed by rain, and take the slow train back to our town. Lesson learned. Do not try to outsmart the Italian train system.
4. Huge Bus Delay On the Way to our Xmas Break. We booked a bus to the Manchester airport with hours of buffer time built in before our Xmas trip through Germany and Austria. Heavy rains and an extra long bus driver tea break delayed our bus arriving and departing from Birmingham (our connection point). That, along with ridiculous holiday traffic turned a 1.5 hour journey into a 4+ hour journey. This was incredibly stressful and we just about missed our flight. If it wasn’t delayed, and if we didn’t cut everyone in every queue, and run through the airport, we would have. Lots of stress had here. Lesson learned: Do not use a bus to get to the airport.
3. Forgetting the Passports in Brussels. We drove from Brussels to Brugge on our way back to England after a fun weekend of beer drinking. As we were taking the shuttle from the parking lot to the center of Brugge, I realized that I left the passports in the Brussels hotel room. Luckily we had a car, but no way of calling the hotel to see if they still had our passports. 60 stressful miles later, we were back in Brussels and luckily the passports were waiting for us at the front desk. I’ll never live this one down.
2. Hotel de Ville Misunderstanding leads to meetup Fail in Provence, France. Did you know that in France, City Hall is known as Hotel de Ville and it is always located in the center of town? Seems like a pretty easy place to arrange a meeting, right? We tried to meet Tara’s friends Ana and Christian at a Hotel de Ville in a small Provence region town, but they never showed. We waited for 3 hours at a local pub
drinking worrying about what could have happened to them. Eventually, while eating dinner in some family’s living room (weird situation), we got on to their unprotected wifi network and realized we were in the WRONG TOWN. Ana and Christian were 2 miles down the road at the correct town/Hotel de Ville wondering what had happened to us. Talk about missing the boat!
1. Air B&B Scam at Wimbledon. Everyone I know who has used Air B&B sings its praises. We’ve even successfully used it in Paris and Greece with great experiences. So you can imagine our surprise when we showed up to our rental home on a Friday night in Wimbledon with 4 people and a car full of luggage/groceries….. only to find out that the house we were meant to be renting for the weekend was occupied by Chinese exchange students for the year. The owner had no knowledge, nor ever gave anybody permission to put his house on Air B&B. The house was wrongly listed on Air B&B and we got scammed. And to top it off, Air B&B’s customer service moved as quickly as the M25 at rush hour. Our state of homelessness was in limbo for a good 5 hours. I spent most of that time on the phone in useless conversations with the Air B&B hipsters who must have been working in Austin or San Fransisco telling me how my situation “really sucks, man”. We started to work out the best car sleeping positions. At 11:30 pm or so, Air B&B was finally willing to admit they’d been scammed and agreed to pay for our hotel, but it was quite a stressful 5 hours.
Top 3 Weather Debacles
This is a category devoted to things that we were really looking forward to doing that ended up getting completely ruined because of bad luck with weather. I’m not talking about a little rain. I live in England and am used to a little rain. These particular weather related fails are a cut above.
Honorable Mention: Voilent Hail Storm on Millenium Bridge, London. It had just started to rain with some light winds when we decided to cross the bridge. About 10 steps on to the bridge, it started hailing BB sized ice balls. Then in another 10 steps, the wind went from strong to holy shit it might blow me off the edge. This made the hail hit you straight in the face and it was hard to look up. This was the most violent 10 minutes of weather I had ever experienced. The bridge shook with the wind and I thought someone may actually get blown off. 2 minutes after we were across the bridge, the storm was over and my jeans were as wet as if I’d jumped into a pool.
3. Dingle Peninsula Whiteout. This 10 mile wide peninsula in southwest Ireland is filled with untouched green beauty, amazing cliffside views, and some of the best Irish scenery that can by seen while driving in a car. Have a look.
At least the rain didn’t bother us because were in a nice warm car.
2. Lake District Drenching. Tara and I had a goal to hike the top 3 peaks in the UK. We successfully made it to the top of Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis on a gorgeously sunny summer day. That was where our luck ended. We tried to hike Wales’ highest peak, Snowdown in February, but a freak snowstorm and lack of crampons prevented us from reaching the top. That didn’t even make the top 3 because it wasn’t that miserable or unexpected. Our attempt to hike England’s highest peak did however make it to number 2. We set out bright and early, despite the heavy rain. The rain did not cease. It’s strength was consistent, if not increasing as we approached the base of the mountain. After a few miles trudging up the grassy/marshy/muddy path in the pouring rain, all of our waterproof gear could no longer claim that it was actually waterproof. Jeff, Kerry, Tara, Megan, Chris, and I were all thoroughly soaked to the bone, head to toe, and the rain showed no sign of stopping. We decided to turn back before ever going up the mountain. All in all, it was the most miserable 6 miles of my life. Even Kerry, who was prepared with wellies, ended up with a pool of water in her boots.
1. Cinque Terre Tropical Storm, Italy. The 5 Mediterranean facing towns of Cinque Terre are made for walking. In fact, that’s all you can really do because there are no cars allowed. We managed to pick the weekend where the water was a code red because of a large storm that rolled through for the exact duration of our visit. Heavy rains and high winds closed all footpaths between the towns and all boats were banned from the water. We got soaked trying to experience what we could, but it was miserable. This was one of the places that we were really looking forward to, but in the end, we just had some bad luck.
I’ve ended with the bad stuff, but I’ve really enjoyed my time in England and the opportunities that it has provided to travel throughout Europe. Even the epic fails and weather debacles are fun to look back on.
I will miss all the new friends we made along the way. We came over here not really knowing anyone, and now we are sad to leave everyone. This is the case for Tara even more so. She has had a different leaving party/dinner every night of the week for the 2 weeks leading up our departure. I’ll also miss Guinness, meat pies, Indian food, Belgian beer, French wine, cheap cell phone plans, great grocery store eggs, roundabouts, lamb, late night kebabs, and my basketball club. I won’t miss the rain, our combined washer/dryer, the price of gas/petrol, the fact that all retail stores close at 5pm, the price of electricity, the traffic, and the 3 sets of stairs leading up to our flat.
So there you have it: Our synopsis of our traveling adventures. I hope this blog proves useful for anyone else who takes any similar trips. I’d like to think that we provided useful tips, decent photos, and humorous descriptions of our failures and frustrations.
This is my last blog post. Keeping up with the blog has been a chore, but I’m glad that we stuck with it so that we have something to look back on when we’ve forgotten our time as UK residents.
So long England….. Cheers.
Doug and Tara