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