The Best and Worst of My Summer in Europe

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I still have a lot to write about when it comes to all the adventures I had in Europe this summer. Istanbul, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, the UK… I still have SO much more cover. So many memories, tips, and photos left to share.

And, while most of my experiences this summer were great, there were of course also some not-so-great bits. Travel is not unicorns and rainbows ALL the time (…just most of it).

Sighisoara, Romania
Sighisoara – definitely a highlight!

So I thought it would be fun to take a break from my regularly scheduled posts to share the highlights — and lowlights — of my 2 months in Europe.

The Fun Stuff

Best Sunset

How can I possibly choose? I definitely saw some great sunsets over the course of 2 months. There was the one I watched from a fortress above the city in Parga, Greece. Or the one that creeped up under the storm clouds as I cruised on Loch Ness. Or one that was the only memorable thing from my time in Albania.

Albania
Albania beach sunset

Worst Weather

I didn't have any snow or sleet on this trip — in fact, I barely even had rain until I got to the UK (and even then, the weather was mostly good). So the “worst weather” has to refer to the heat here. It was HOT in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. But I think the worst heat was definitely in Bulgaria, and Athens, Greece.

In Bulgaria, there were days that I didn't even want to go sightseeing. And in Athens, during a 5-hour walking tour on a sunny, 115-degree (F) day, I drank roughly 9 bottles of water and didn't pee once. It was miserable.

Best Way to Beat the Heat

Yeah, it was hot in Europe. And I definitely didn't enjoy it all of the time. By far my favorite beat-the-heat measure was going to a $5 water park in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, for a day with 2 locals. SO much better than sightseeing in the heat! (Read about it here.)

Aqua Land
Aqua Land in Plovdiv

Best Tourist Attraction

Hands down, Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. This is one famous site that I had no problem paying a steep fee to enter; I would have gone twice if I'd had time. This church-turned-mosque-turned-museum absolutely took my breath away, and is totally deserving of it's status as one of the top attractions in Istanbul.

Hagia Sofia
Hagia Sofia

Worst Tourist Attraction

In this sense, I mean the most overrated tourist attraction. The first one that comes to mind is Bran Castle near Brasov, Romania. Bran (AKA “Dracula's Castle”) is one of the top attractions in Romania — meaning it's also one of the most crowded. For a small, rather unremarkable “castle,” I think the hype is slightly misplaced. I'm glad I saw Bran, but I don't think I'd ever go back again. Instead, I'd go spend more time at nearby (and cheaper) Rasnov Fortress.

Best Educational Attraction

For me, it was going to ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli, Turkey. As an American, I never really learned about this place or the long, bloody battle associated with it. It was both fascinating and sobering to me to learn more about it and all the young men who lost their lives there during WWI.

Gallipoli
ANZAC Cove

Best Beach Town

I didn't go to many beach towns during this trip. But my favorite, I think, was Parga, Greece. It's touristy without feeling overly touristed. It's crowded but not packed. It's got the feel of a Greek island, but without the price tag. And the people? SO nice and friendly. I had a blast hanging out on the beach and chatting with shop keepers during my day there. That, and the views from above the town are amazing.

Parga, Greece
Above Parga

Worst Beach Town

Durres, Albania gets this designation. This seaside town is a perfect example of tourism-gone-wrong. It's overdeveloped and clearly can't handle it — the beaches are dirty, begging children won't leave you alone in town, and it's just very unattractive overall.

Durres, Albania
Dirty Durres beach

Best Castle

I went to a LOT of castles this summer, especially in the UK. But my favorite, I think, was Stirling Castle in Scotland. I had been told to avoid this touristy spot, but my friend Kasey and I decided to check it out anyway. We ended up spending more than 3 HOURS exploring the castle, grounds, and various exhibits, and really enjoyed it. (Windsor Castle in England takes a close 2nd place.)

Stirling Castle
Pretty Stirling Castle

Worst Castle

I'm choosing Edinburgh Castle as the worst. Not because it's actually horrible, but because I really didn't think it was worth the 16 GBP entry fee. I definitely did NOT feel like I got my money's worth, which made me grumpy.

Edinburgh Castle
Overpriced Edinburgh Castle

Best Changing of the Guard Ceremony

I only saw a few (and no, I didn't brave the crowds outside Buckingham Palace in London), but my favorite took place in Athens. The guards there wear quite silly outfits, and make horse-like high-kick movements when they swap positions. Very entertaining.

Athens, Greece
Silly Athens guards

Best Church

I didn't visit as many churches as I would have if I'd been traveling in, say, Western Europe. But I still did visit a few amazing ones. My top picks (because I can't choose just one!) include St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland, because of its pretty ceiling and Trinity Chapel (where you can find a carved angel playing the bagpipes!); the colorful church at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria because of its frescoes; and Westminster Abbey in London simply because it was huge and ornate and incredibly beautiful.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Rila Church

Best Cemetery

Hands down, Merry Cemetery in rural Romania. This cemetery seeks to celebrate life instead of focus on death, and I loved wandering along the colorful grave markers.

Merry Cemetery, Romania
Merry Cemetery – aptly named

Best Monastery

I'm inclined to say Rila, but since I've already mentioned it so many times, I'm going to go with the cliff-top monasteries of Meteora, Greece, instead. Because, come on, cliff-top monasteries are freaking COOL.

Meteora, Greece
Seriously. Cool.

Best Mosque

The Rustem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul gets this distinction. It's slightly more off-the-beaten-track as far as tourism goes, but, to me, it was the most beautiful mosque I saw in the city. It's covered in the prettiest blue and white tiles on the inside, and there were absolutely no crowds. It was very tranquil, and very special.

Rustem Pasha Mosque
Inside the Rustem Pasha Mosque.

Worst Mosque

Sorry, but the Blue Mosque in Istanbul was not my cup of tea. Yes, I realize it's huge and gorgeous and the top attraction in the city. But the fact that I had to wait in line to enter a religious site made me uncomfortable, and the crowds packed inside made the whole experience feel rushed.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The Blue Mosque IS pretty, though!

Best Place You've Never Heard Of

The little village of Gorno Draglishte, Bulgaria. It's where I met my new Bulgarian Babas, and where I had a truly “local” interaction with a friendly woman who spoke no English, but gladly invited us into her home for tea, watermelon, and fresh sheep's cheese. The village itself is small, but gorgeous in that middle-of-nowhere sort of way.

Gorno Draglishte, Bulgaria
The main road into the village.

Best Bridge

The Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana. Because, who doesn't love dragons??

Ljubljana, Slovenia
One of the many highlights in Ljubljana.

Best Museum

While Hagia Sofia was definitely the most beautiful museum I visited, the most interesting/unique was definitely the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. This award-winning museum showcases the end of real relationships from around the world in funny, sweet, and poignant ways.

Best Boat Tour

While it wasn't necessarily a “tour,” whitewater rafting on the blue-green Soca river in Slovenia definitely deserves a mention. We had perfect weather, a fun group of people, and a ton of fun.

Soca River
Can you tell why it's called the “Emerald River”?

Worst Boat Tour

I signed up for what was supposed to be a 2-hour boat tour on the Bosporus in Istanbul. But the first time I tried, no one came to pick me up for the tour. The second time, I ended up going in the evening when everything was sort of hazy. While it WAS cool to watch the sun set over the city, you couldn't hear the commentary and the tour ended up lasting nearly 3 hours — meaning I had to walk back to my hostel by myself in the dark. While I would still recommend cruising the Bosporus in Istanbul, I felt like I paid too much for my mediocre experience.

Bosporus, Istanbul
A hazy sunset on the Golden Horn

Accommodation

Best Hotel

I'll have to go with Hotel Luxe, a boutique hotel I splurged on for a night in Split, Croatia. I stayed here at the halfway point of my trip. It was a great place to recharge after having spent the previous couple of weeks sharing rooms with lots of people. Plus, it was purple. I love purple.

Hotel Luxe, Split
Hotel Luxe

Worst Hotel

The Dorian Inn in Athens, Greece. This hotel SOUNDS really nice. It's clean, modern, has a rooftop bar and pool, and is in a pretty good location. But my experience there was less then stellar. The staff was rude, the Internet cost 15 Euro per day, they would never give us enough towels, the pool closed at 7 p.m., and the air conditioning didn't work. The last point was really the horrible part, considering it was 110+ degrees in Athens both days we were there.

Best Guesthouse

This award goes to Pensiunea Ardelean in Vadu Izei, a village in the Maramures region of Romania. This was the first guesthouse we stayed in, and it was hard to top. The house was nearly brand new, big, open, and incredibly beautiful. Add to it gorgeous balconies and porches, delicious home-cooked meals, and a friendly host named Ramona who loved to talk travel, and it was the perfect place to rest our heads for a few nights. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Romania
The big, open dining room.

Worst Guesthouse

There wasn't really a “worst” here, but I'll choose the guesthouse my Intrepid group stayed in in Bansko, Bulgaria. The house itself was clean and comfortable, but the promised wifi didn't work most of the time (a huge pet peeve of mine), it was a bit far from the main part of town, and we collectively felt more like dollar signs than visitors in the eyes of Ivan, our host. This last part was definitely the biggest let-down, especially since the rest of our hosts were so warm and welcoming.

Best Hostel

Definitely Morag's in Fort Augustus (near Loch Ness) in Scotland. This hostel is associated with Haggis Adventures, the company I did a tour with in the Scottish Highlands. We were at Morag's for 2 nights, and they were definitely 2 of the most fun of my trip. The hostel itself was clean and comfy, offered up tasty breakfasts and dinners each night (for an extra charge), had free wifi and computers downstairs, and was home to a lively hostel bar. The first night we watched the Olympics and then had an epic pub quiz, while the second night we dressed up in kilts and had a dance party.

Morag's
Pub quiz night

Worst Hostel

I don't have a “worst” in mind in regards to true hostels. There were some questionable nights here and there (in old army barracks in Albania, sleeping on a cot in a kitchen in Greece), but none that disappointed me enough to list them here.

Food

Best Meal

I'm not much of a foodie, but I DO know when things taste good. And, looking back at it now, my favorite meal had to be a home-cooked one my Intrepid Travel group had at a homestay in rural Romania. The chicken fell off the bone, the soup was delicious, and we all had extra helpings of dessert. There's really nothing like a home-cooked meal when you're traveling.

Romania
OM NOM NOM.

Worst Meal

No meal actually stands out as being “the worst.” Though, the take-away my friend Kasey and I got from a bakery in Stirling, Scotland, was pretty terrible.

Transport

Best Train Ride

This honor probably goes to the Virgin train I took between London and Edinburgh. I had a reserved seat by a window and right next to a power outlet. The wifi wasn't working for part of the trip, but I was still able to edit some photos and enjoy the ride. Plus, the train was clean, fast, and super comfy.

Worst Train Ride

The train we took to cross the Bulgarian border (going from Bucharest, Romania to Ruse, Bulgaira) was easily the worst one of this trip. It wasn't the dirtiest (that honor goes to an old split-level train in Romania), but it was definitely the most miserable. The train was agonizingly slow, hot, and uncomfortable. To avoid sweltering in my vinyl-upholstered seat, I spent 6+ hours standing out in the hallway, watching the sunflower fields slip by.

Bulgaria
The ONLY good part of this train ride.

Best Bus Ride (Public)

The bus ride from Veliko Tarnovo to Sofia, Bulgaria wins this award — the bus was plush, air conditioned, and came complete with free wifi!

Worst Bus Ride (Public)

We'd been lulled into a false sense of security about buses in Bulgaria (see above). When we got on the bus that would take us from Sofia to Rila Monastery, it looked decent enough — it was an old tour bus with fairly comfortable seats. But it all turned sour once the engine started. The air conditioning didn't work, the windows didn't open, and the curtains didn't really help keep the 90+ degree sun at bay. Add to this a chain-smoking bus driver who kept nodding off behind the wheel as we tackled twisty mountain roads, and this 3-hour bus ride easily wins the award for “the worst ever.” I was seriously afraid I (or, rather, my family) was going to need to use my travel insurance.

Best Public Transport

Hands-down, London wins this award. While the Tube may be expensive, and it may have been more crowded than usual because of the Olympics, there's simply no denying that it's a great public transit system. I will cherish my Oyster Card forever.

London Tube

Best Border Crossing

No border crossing actually stands out as being way better than the rest. But there were two that were certainly interesting — Albania and Montenegro. I crossed into these countries on a Busabout bus filled with 40 people — a lot of people to have go through a slow passport process. So, instead, we bribed our way across the borders. 20 Euro and a few Red Bulls got us in and out of Albania and Montenegro, and, as far as my passport is concerned, I was never officially in either one of them.

Worst Border Crossing

This honor has to go to dear old Bulgaria (is there a trend here?). We took an overnight bus from Plovdiv, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey, which meant a 1 a.m. border crossing. What could have been quick and painless ended up taking hours longer than it should have because Bulgaria's computers went down. For 2 hours. In the middle of the night. We could do nothing more than sit on the bus and wait, with the Turkish border tantalizingly close beyond the fence. When the computers finally started working again at 3 a.m., it was a very cranky busload of people shuffling through the border control line.

 

 

Whew. Had enough yet? I'm sure I could keep going, coming up with plenty more “best” and “worst” items. But I'll spare you.

As you can see, though, my summer was clearly filled with more highlights than lowlights. I've been incredibly lucky these past two months, and it's been great sharing it all with you. Stay tuned for plenty more Europe coverage!

Do any of these surprise you? Is there anything you'd like me to elaborate on?

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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40 Comments on “The Best and Worst of My Summer in Europe

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  1. €15.00 per day for internet? We won’t even think of staying in a place that charges extra for internet, let alone a ridiculous fee like that.

    Yes, London’s underground is a great system. But when you compare it to somewhere like Mexico City, you can’t justify the huge price difference. London is simply too expensive.

      I usually try to avoid staying in places that charge extra for Internet, too. Unfortunately I didn’t have a choice in the Athens instance!

      And as for London… well, everything is too expensive there!!

    Love this post! You certainly did cover a lot of territory and saw some amazing places. Thanks for sharing!

      Thanks, Clare! Yes, I definitely had one amazing summer.

    Intersesting- and I love how you are honest about the things you didn’t like.

    I really want to visit Eastern Europe, especially making a run down the Adriatic Coast from Venice to Athens, but I’ll probably put that off a few years and let their tourism infrastructures develop a little 🙂

    Anyway, there’s always more of New Zealand to visit 🙂

      The way I look at it, I like what I like and dislike what I dislike. No shame in sharing it, right??

      Traveling from Venice to Athens would be AWESOME! And honestly now would be a great time to go – while it’s still relatively inexpensive!!

    Wow- you have definitely covered some ground there. What an amazing trip. I always say to people for the Bosphorus tour to go on the ferries tours instead. 12 lira which I think is about 8USD. Commentary is in Turkish but a good guide book can do just as much.

      I covered a TON of ground on this tour, for sure!

      Thanks for the Bosphorus tip – I’ll remember it for next time!

    Great round up and overview of an amazing trip. you have certainly added a few sites to my list that weren’t on there before, although I’m not so sure Bulgaria will be on the list anytime soon 😉

      Lol, don’t let me put you off of Bulgaria! It’s a fascinating country.

    I find it strange that the Hotel Luxe has a window between the bed and the bathroom…please tell me I’m not alone in this.

      Hahaha. If I hadn’t stayed in similar hotel rooms before, yes, I would have found it strange (it certainly was when I encountered it the first time in Ireland!). I guess it’s just a way to let in some light? That, or aid people with their voyeuristic tendencies…

    Great round up! I’m pleased that the positives outweighed the negatives. Sounds like Bulgaria was a bit of a challenge overall. Do you think it’s worth going?

    I’m bummed that Durres, Albania looks like such a dump. A friend of mine raved about the beaches in Albania and I had just found a really sweet looking apartment in Durres with a pool and a playground.

      I DO think that Bulgaria is worth visiting. As long as you go into it knowing that it can be a bit challenging at times. 🙂

      And yeah… if you want beaches in Albania, I would NOT recommend Durres!!

    Not only is the train from London to Edinburgh great, the stretch between York and Edinburgh is also absolutely gorgeous and offers great views on the North Sea!

      I was bummed that I didn’t visit York on this trip. Next time!

    It’s really nice to see that your visit to Gallipoli was a highlight; it’s a place that means so very much to Kiwis, Aussies and, of course, Turks. Visiting ANZAC Cove was certainly one of my travel highlights.

    And as for the weather – you know you’ve had it pretty good when the worst weather is hot weather! Haha.

      Gallipoli was definitely fascinating for me. I’m still flabbergasted that it’s not even MENTIONED in history classes here in the U.S.

      As for that hot weather… there were definitely days that I would have preferred a snow storm! Lol.

    Interesting you didn’t like the Blue Mosque, although I hate waiting in line for anything so I’m sure I would have had similar feelings.

      It’s not that I hated it or anything… I just hated how crowded it was and the fact that I felt rather rushed through it. After visiting some other mosques in Istanbul that were just a pretty but much less crowded, it was easy to name the Blue Mosque as my least favorite. I would still recommend seeing it, though.

    What a great post Amanda! I love the roundup! And I completely agree with the Athens change of guard! So amusing. I made the mistake of asking my Free Athens Walking Tour Guide why they outfits look the way they do, I was only curious not patronizing, and he said all army uniforms are unique and you can’t ask questions like that!!! hahah Apparently people oft make fun of the pompom shoes!!

      Hahaha! Our guide did explain all the different parts of the outfit (the hat tassels are supposed to represent horse’s manes, I think?), but I don’t remember them all. But HE even agreed that the uniforms are silly (especially the skirts!). Lol.

    Wow, looks like an amazing whirlwind of a summer! You must be chalk full of experiences to write about. Thanks for the glimpse of your highlights, beautiful photos!

    That was a great summer! It was interesting to hear your points. I liked Edinburgh Castle. The fee could be worse 🙂

      Yes, it definitely could be worse. But they also could perhaps offer more for your money! I don’t think I’d ever go again, personally.

    I loved reading your summer recap! I really enjoyed that you stayed in so many types of accommodations and had so many interesting, fun experience with local folks. I’m looking forward to reading more about your adventures!

      Thanks, Ellen! Like I said, I still have a ton to write about – it was a jam-packed summer! But yes, I had a really great variety of adventures all over Europe!

    Great set of extremes there, Amanda, but I think the best and the worst just about evened out. Perhaps, the pros eventually beat out the cons after all. 🙂

    Yesterday (6 Sep), I visited the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra, and while I had already learned about Gallipoli as one of the defining experiences for Australia as a nation, what I didn’t know was that the landing at Anzac Cove was the *wrong place*. They were supposed to go to a landing beach several kilometres away; the primary location was much flatter and whose approach to the holding Turkish forces would’ve been less steep.

    Thanks for your post!

      Oh, the pros most definitely outweighed the cons! I had an amazing time this summer, and am only looking back on it now positively.

      And yup, ANZAC Cove was indeed the “wrong beach”! SO much went wrong at Gallipoli… it’s really sad. (And yes, I’ll be writing about it eventually!)

    I don’t think you missed a thing! Our first stop in Istanbul will be Hagia Sofia – looks beautiful.

    BUT… how did it all compare to TBEX?

      Definitely don’t miss Hagia Sofia! It is ah-mazing.

      Europe was awesome, but it definitely lacked some of that TBEX specialness. 😉

    Great recap, Amanda! You’ve seen so many awesome places this summer – and you got us itching to see more of Eastern Europe. I can totally relate to the pain of sightseeing in extreme heat – we seem to end up in each place at the hottest time of year and it’s hard to truly enjoy a place when you are soaked in sweat 😀

      Glad to hear I have you dreaming of Eastern Europe! You should definitely go!

      And yeah, the heat was not ideal. I wonder if I would have liked a few places better if it hadn’t been to uncomfortably hot…

    Looks like you had an amazing summer. I think it’s great you got to experience this part of the world, mishaps and all 🙂

      An amazing summer, indeed! The mishaps are just all part of the adventure.

    For me the East is really the best part of Europe, so much variety and absolutely stunning. I think I’ve always taken Europe for granted. I’m really gonna miss the proximity of all the countries and cultures x

      I haven’t traveled a whole lot in Western Europe, so it’s hard for me to compare. But I LOVED Eastern Europe – it will be hard to beat!

    enjoyed reading your summary–despite the challenges i’d still really like to see bulgaria, and slovenia is definitely on my list.
    sounds like you haven’t seen the movie “gallipolli”. it’s one of my all time favorites and stars a very young mel gibson. extremely sad, but well worth seeing.

      Slovenia is a great place to have on your list.

      And nope, haven’t seen any movies about Gallipoli!

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