Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Best of the Best

And so we come to the 129th and final entry in what has been a truly epic adventure. The story of our journey will one day become history, then history will become legend, and legend will become myth. Until then, let's get the facts right. Here is the best of the best.

Let's Stay Forever Award for Best Region

Bronze Medal: Normandy, France

Half-timbered houses, sleepy cider-producing villages, Monet's gardens, 11th and 20th century history, bucolic green grass, golden canola fields, white cliffs and some nice town centres. We visited Normandy in Spring and enjoyed every aspect of it.

Silver Medal: Andalusia, Spain

Everything you think of when you think of Spain, is either from Andalusia, or better in Andalusia. The beautiful Southern region is home to flamenco and bullfighting, and the centre of Spain's Moorish history and architecture. We loved the food, the people, the lifestyle and the endless fields of olive trees.

Gold Medal: Tuscany, Italy

Perhaps it's a bit cliché but Tuscany really was all it's cracked up to be. The rolling hills of alternating vineyards and olive trees, create a wonderful patchwork landscape. The towns all share a common style but each has it's own unique character. And to top it off is magnificent Florence.

P.S. If you want to see this beautiful landscape with fewer tourists, then go to neighbouring Umbria. It's essentially Tuscany but without the draw cards of Florence and Siena.

Little Miss Sunshine Award for Cutest Micro-Country

Bronze Coin: Gibraltar

Beating the ancient San Marino and extravagant Vatican City is the British dependency Gibraltar. There are a surprising amount of things to do in this country which can be circumnavigated by foot in a few hours. In addition to the English pubs and 18th Century fortifications, there are Europe's only semi-wild monkeys.

Silver Coin: Liechtenstein

Mainly winning the Silver Medal for its incredible views of Switzerland is Liechtenstein. As the last nation in Europe where the monarch has significant power, this is truly a unique little spot on the map. We also did an awesome hike and survived the highest hostel prices of the trip.

Gold Coin: Andorra

We spent more time in Andorra (464km²) than Finland (303,893km²). This was of course because we went skiing for a week on the huge and affordable slopes of Grandvalira. So if you find yourself in Andorra, why not go skiing for a week? We highly recommend it.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume Award for Place Off The Beaten Path

Bronze Medal: Soomaa National Park, Estonia

We spent an afternoon in Estonia's bog lands; picking berries, floating down streams and bouncing up and down in the mud. What more could you want?

Silver Medal: Castiglione di Sicilia, Italy

Due to circumstances not worth mentioning, we spent three days in a small town in Sicily which probably exists in only the most detailed of guide books. We got to know all five restaurants, small streets and a few local characters too. In general, something we wish we'd done more of on this trip is staying in one place long enough to experience a slower-paced lifestyle. So we'll remember Castiglione fondly, but really this could have been any hilltop Italian village.

Gold Medal: Maramureș, Romania

In the North-West of Romania, hugged against the Ukrainian border is a small region which remains linked to a simpler time. Despite a recent increase in wealth, people still wear traditional clothes, decorate their houses with traditional wood-carvings and ride traditional horses. We had no expectations of what life would be like here, but found a beautiful landscape, intricately painted churches and a hilarious cemetery. The only problem was that the hospitality of the friendly locals meant we drank way too much complimentary home-made fruit brandy.

Auld Lang Syne Award for Best Old Town

Bronze Medal: Strasbourg, France

Never really a must see location, we visited Strasbourg from Germany's Black Forest as more of an after thought. But we were pleasantly surprised to find that the neighbourhood known as Petit France was très/über cute.

Silver Medal: Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn's network of baroque and renaissance houses have evolved within a framework of medieval walls and towers, giving the false impression of an intelligent design. Adding to this, and the cobblestone streets and squares, are the local market merchants who dress in ye olde garments. It's overflowing with tourists, but this actually just adds to the life of the town, and at night when the cruise ships have left, you can experience the charm of Tallinn in peace.

Gold Medal: Prague, Czech Republic

No "Old Town" can compare with Prague in terms of size or variety. With almost no damage from World War II, it's great to see what all of those reconstructed cities are aiming for. It's not just that there are buildings from the 12th Century, but that there are several from every century since. Any of its several huge squares, churches, synagogues or bridges would be a centrepiece in other cities across Europe.

Do Fence Me In Award for Best Walled City

Bronze Bastion: Carcassonne, France

Easily worth 16 points, it's the stunning fortress town of Carcassonne in South-West France. There's not much to do there, but it has an atmosphere worthy of a film set, and looks super pretty, day or night.

Silver Citadel: Fez, Morocco

With 9,000 narrow streets, the city of Fez is one of those classic places to just walk until you're lost and then make friends as you ask for directions home. With so much to see and do within the city walls, it was only worth leaving them to get this photo.

Golden Gate: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Known as the Pearl of the Adriatic for a reason, Dubrovnik has been wowing travelers since its heyday in the 15th Century. The walls are huge and well maintained, and the walk along them was unforgettable. We were lucky enough to be there on our sunniest day in December, which meant the crystal blue water, bright red rooftops and wall-coloured walls looked absolutely smashing.

Quintessentially Quaint Award for Best Village

Bronze Medal: Bruges, Belgium

Technically larger than a village, Bruges wins the Bronze by feeling like an old market town even when full of tourists. With large open squares, beautiful stone buildings, picturesque canals, quiet streets and some friendly swans, this really is the best reason to visit Belgium (other than for chocolate and beer).

Silver Medal: San Gimignano, Italy

Of all the hilltop towns, in all of Italy, we had to choose San Gimini. It looks just as good when viewed on the horizon as when viewed from its centre. With 14 towers left from an original 72, we can only wonder how the place looked at the height of its glory. Today, rather than being symbols of wealth, the towers are simply a great way to view the town's unique layout and position among gorgeous Tuscan fields.

Gold Medal: Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Sometimes, a city or a village is beautiful just because of where it's located, like Rio de Janeiro or Hobbiton. But when they built Český Krumlov on the hill in a bend of the Vltava River, they went one step further and made the village beautiful in its own right. With a castle overlooking steep cobbled streets and taverns serving the finest Czech beer, this is more than just a stopover, it's a destination.

The Lower Case Award for Best City (Non Capital Division)

Bronze Medal: Marrakech, Morocco

Having already won gold for its main square, Marrakech wins a second awards for its overall good times. Its endless souks, its archeological sites and tasty tasty cous cous were a fantastic, if overwhelming introduction to Morocco. It was a great base to explore the Sahara, and has inspired us not only to return, but to see the rest of North Africa too.

Silver Medal: Seville, Spain

There were only a few places that within hours of visiting, we wanted to stay for months. Seville, with its winding streets, late-night lifestyle and Andalusian passion, was one of those places. There was nothing specific about the city that we can say we loved, it's just the vibe of the place.

Gold Medal: Istanbul, Turkey

Having been one of the world's great capital cities for the last two millennia, Istanbul is kind of cheating by winning this category. But considering we spent seven days among its gigantic mosques and hectic markets and still didn't do everything we wanted, it wins a well-deserved Gold Medal.

The Upper Case Award for Best City (Capital Division)

Bronze Medal: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We started and finished our odyssey in Amsterdam and for this it will always be fondly remembered. Not many cities can boast as wide and varied array of reasons to visit as Amsterdam. You have enthralling canals, world class art, laid-back coffeeshops, accessible history, an amusing sex culture, deadly cyclists, yummy cheese, cute boutique bars and a whole lot more.

Silver Medal: Paris, France

Having already won awards in several categories, it may come as no surprise that Paris is our choice for Silver City. When we planned this trip, we were disappointed that most people recommended the obvious and cliché destinations, such as Paris. But we were happily surprised each day here, and we stayed long enough to get to know a few different areas. And we should mention too, that not once was an experience ruined by a stereotypically rude Parisian.

Gold Medal: Berlin, Germany

As we said in our Berlin blog entry, we didn't take any good photos because we were too busy enjoying everything the city had to offer. From the early days of the 20th century the metropolis has been a centre of liberalism and artistic ingenuity. Now that it exists in a free and unified society, this bohemian culture has exploded into every street, park, restaurant and bar. We had an incredible time there and if we ever learn German by mistake, then we're moving to Berlin in an instant.

Well, there isn't much more to say about our trip, as we have now used every positive adjective in existence, but if you want to contact us and ask any questions, please do. We really have had the adventure of a lifetime, but we now look forward to a lifetime of adventure.

Thank you very much for following the blog. We wouldn't have been motivated to keep it going if it wasn't for you, and now we're so happy to have all these entries to look back on. So thank you. Or should we say Grazie! Shukran! Efcharisto! Gracias! Kiitos! Tänan! Paldies! Blagodarya! Dank je wel! Hvala! Tak! Tack! Takk! Mulţumesc! Ačiū! Obrigado! Gràcies! Blagodaram! Tesekkür ederim! Köszönöm! Dakujem! Dêkuji! Dziękuję! Faleminderit! Danke schön! & Merci!

That's all Folks!

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Best of the Rest

In this installment we cover some random categories that don't fit under any umbrella term. They're the rebellious categories that don't like to be placed into a box by society. We're covering music, accomodation, food and sport.

 Honorificabilitudinitatibus Award for Hardest to Pronounce Location

Bronze Medal: Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

A pretty little village recreated in the style of Holland's Golden Age. We rode our bicylces there and luckily didn't get too lost, cause asking for directions would have been a challenge. When the Dutch pronounce it, it simply sounds like they are coughing up an entire kitten.

Silver Medal: Chișinău, Moldova

Since we're still arguing about how to say the name of Moldova's capital, it has to make it into the list. While not many look back on the days under Soviet Russia with nostalgia, the Russian name Kishinev was certainly easier to pronounce.

Gold Medal: Wrocław, Poland

In a category of hard to pronounce place names, the top spot must go to Poland. There are places like Rzeszów (pronounced Zheshuff), Wałbrzych (Vaubzhech) and Świeradów-Zdrój (Shferaduf - Zdrui) but since we didn't visit them, the winner is Wrocław (Vrotswhaf).

Sleeping With the Light On Award for Weirdest Accommodation

Bronze Medal: Lorenc Guesthouse, Berat, Albania

It's hard to decide what was stranger, the fact that the owner wouldn't let us use the heater or that his octogenarian mother would burst into our room at random intervals with a conciliatory hot water bottle. Not only that, but she would insist on placing it under out feet for us, while chatting away in Albanian.

Silver Medal: Visby Prison Hostel, Visby, Sweden

Cell 13 in a 17th Century prison on an island. What more is there to say?

Gold Medal: Institut for Kunstterapi, Gadbjerg, Denmark

No receptionist, no other guests, no idea where in the world we where. We found a place online called "Institut for Kunstterapi" which, with our poor Danish, we could only guess was some kind of therapy institute. Later we found out that it was for art therapy, which doesn't sound that scary, but you'd think differently if you had to spend a night with some of the creepiest paintings outside of a Goya exhibition.

Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy Award for Best Snack

Bronze Medal: Stroopwafels, The Netherlands

Delicious, affordable and bad for every part of your body. This Dutch snack was almost the first thing we bought every time we went to the Netherlands.

(Note: We did not take this photo. In fact we have no photos of stroopwafels because it's hard to take a photo when your fingers are sticky with caramel syrup and you're stuffing your face with stroopwafles)

Silver Medal: Pastel de Nata, Portugal

All over Portugal are delicious pastries made with copious amounts of butter. But the best of them all is the Pastel de Nata, an egg tart pastry invented by monks. And the best place to try them was at Antiga Confeitaria Patisserie in the suburb of Belém.

Gold Medal: Pintxos, San Sebastian, Spain

Whoever said "Snacks can't be savoury" was a character invented for the purpose of this very sentence. That particular character was wrong! Bar hopping around San Sebastian's old town and feasting on tasty Basque tapas known as pintxos was a great culinary experience.

No Award for Biggest Disappointment

Participation Ribbon: New Year's Eve, Paris, France

New Year's Eve always seems to be either incredible or an incredible failure, and for NYE 2012 we had the latter. The European financial crisis on the whole was great for us, because it kept our Australian dollar high and hotel prices low. But the austere celebrations put on by Nicholas Sarkozy were lame, and being left to make our own fun led to a majorly disappointing evening.

Wooden Spoon: Skagen, Denmark

The Lonely Planet told us to "Watch angry seas collide above luminous Skagen". As you can see from the photo, the two hour drive to the tip of Denmark's mainland was not exactly worth it.

Laterne Rouge: Floriade, Venlo, The Netherlands

In Australia, Floriade is an annual flower show held in Canberra which, being a lover of flowers, Yaz has often enjoyed. Hearing that the Dutch version, which is held only once a decade, was on in 2012, she obviously got very excited. However, it turned out to be an overpriced gardening exhibition that made no sense and had no relevance to us as we had no space for a garden in our Fiat Panda. The ride on the cable car (view pictured) was sadly the highlight.

Good Times Award for Best Event, Festival or Holiday

Bronze Medal: Barcelona vs Sporting de Gijón, Barcelona, Spain

Sharing an arena with almost 100,000 fans of the same team is an awesome experience. And when it's a team with as much passion and history as Barcelona it's double awesome.

Silver Medal: Hultsfred Festival, Sweden

The Cure, The Stone Roses, The Gaslight Anthem, Slash, Gorillaz, Justice, Kasabian, Noel Gallagher, Garbage and loads of local acts. The festival atmosphere was really cool even if most Scandinavians prefer to enjoy live music standing perfectly still and having no facial expressions.

Gold Medal: Queen's day, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

If you love the colour orange then you'll love Queen's Day in the Netherlands. You never really know how much people love their Queen until you see them riding bicycles, holding a bottle of Heineken in one hand, a mysterious bag of plant clippings in the other, wearing a giant foam hat and yelling at people who are dancing throughout the city in overcrowded canal boats. We give it three stars.

Grammy Award for Best Group Performance

Bronze Medal: Flamenco show at Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus, Seville, Spain

We love singing, dancing, guitar playing and rhythmic hand clapping. So of course, when we discovered flamenco we were pleased indeed. We caught a couple of shows while in Seville, but the most pleasing and authentic was this one.

Silver Medal: The Cure, Hulstfred, Sweden

We aren't the biggest Cure fans, probably not even in the top 25. But seeing them close the second day of Hultsfred Festival at 3:15am as the sun came up just seemed like one of those great music experiences that you tell your grandchildren about as they say "Who?".

Gold Medal: Le Lapin Agile, Paris, France

It's hard to find a genuinely traditional performance in a place like Paris which has more tourists than rats. But at the Lapin Agile, where typical Frenchies sing typical French songs with a typical French disregard for their audience, you can get exactly that.

My Ears are Burning Award for Song We Heard Way Too Many Times

Bronze Record: Euphoria, by Sweden

Those of you not from Europe probably wouldn't know this song, but it won Eurovision the night before we entered Sweden, and we never heard the end of it. On the plus side though, singing the line "We’re going up-up-up-up-up-u-up" is a lot of fun while trying to drive up a steep mountain.

Silver Record: Somebody That I Used to Know, by Gotye feat, Kimbra

It began as a song we actually liked when we left Australia. Then in Belgium we thought they were just playing it cause Gotye is half Belgian. But in France it got much worse. One morning we saw it on TV, heard it on radio and then in the supermarket all before 10am. And one day it will just be a song that we used to know.

P.S. For those of you unfamiliar with Gotye's earlier work check out Learnalilgivinanlovin from 2006.
Gold Record: Someone Like You, by Adele

This is another song that's actually quite good and of course we can't say a bad word about Adele. But European radio stations have a special ability to suck the magic from any song, obliterate any artist's integrity and fill the listener with hate and despair. They played this so much that when if we tuned into the end of it, we'd stick to that channel, knowing that we wouldn't hear it again for the next 20 minutes.

Life is But a Dream Award for Best Boat Trip

Bronze Medal: Thames River Cruise, London, United Kingdom

We went to England three times during the odyssey but didn't do much sightseeing. One sunny afternoon spent on the Thames was a nice way to get acquainted with our future home.

Silver Medal: Sea Kayaking along the Nærøyfjord, Norway

In the Nærøyfjord, named for its narrowness and its fjordliness, we spent the afternoon kayaking past sleepy villages and gushing waterfalls. We've probably said enough about fjords in The Best of Natural Europe, so read that for further details.

Gold Medal: Navagio Beach and Blue Caves, Zakynthos, Greece

We'll probably remember the trip to the shipwreck beach as fondly as we will our actual wedding day. The water is actually as blue as in the photos, and having the beach to ourselves and sixty of our favourite people was truly extraordinary.

Award for Best Non-Motorised, Non-Pedal, Non-Floating Journey

Bronze Medal: Horse Riding through Transylvania, Romania

Because it's way more comfortable than a camel and faster than a donkey, we have to give horse riding the Bronze Award in this nonsensical category. The ride through the tranquil Carpathian forest was perfect when mixed with the amusing swearing of our local guide.

Silver Medal: Cycling Around the Netherlands

Just as the continent was beginning to heat up, we spent three days in May cycling across the Netherlands. It really is the perfect country to enjoy a relaxing ride past canals, fields of tulips, windmills and forests.

Gold Medal: Ballooning over Cappadocia, Turkey

It's one of those things that you just have to do once, and if you get the chance to do it over Cappadocia, then why not? The views over this crazy landscape in the middle of winter were gorgeous.