Thursday, 27 December 2012

Eric's Uninformed Travel Tips: Germany Edition

Guten tag!  In July we were visited by the Moulands and were all whisked away to the land of beer and bratwurst...and beer...Did I already mention the beer?  (PS, there was a lot of beer)

Locations visited in July, 2012: Munich and the Bavarian countryside, Germany

Dates of trip: July, 19th-23rd, 2012
How did we get there: Flight, about 1.5 hrs from Paris to Munich with Luftansa, good airline although not a lot of frills.  Cost was about 150 Euros return.  We also took a bus tour of Bavaria for about 70 Euro/person.
Where did we stay:  We stayed at the Derag Livinghotel Max Emanuel which was about 100 Euros/night.  The rooms were basic but clean, and the staff was friendly (A mixture of friendly and efficient that I have found is uniquely German).  I would say however, that the location was a bit farther from the city center than I would have liked.  Ideally, I would have preferred to be on the western side of the river.

On our first day in Munich we did some exploring in the old town and I must say I was impressed.  I learned through my explorations that about 90% of Munich was actually rebuilt after the wars as it was pretty heavily bombed.  However, I can say that either they did a really good job rebuilding in the old style, or there are still quite a few old style buildings standing in the downtown core.  The churches in particular were spectacular.  To this day I rank the interiors of the German churches to be the most impressive.

Theatinerkirche...spectacular church...not so spectacular name...
Being what could be referred to as a "fan of all things beer", I was looking forward to visiting the home of Octoberfest...granted we were there in July not October...But as I have learned, even if we were there in October, we still would have missed it.  Octoberfest is actually in September...write that down you drunks!  The good news is that even though there was no festival guiding them, the people of Munich have a thing for beer halls all year round!

The unfortunate side of this is that on our first full day in the city we decided to visit the most famous of these beer halls (Hofbrauhaus, for those of you who are wondering) at about 3pm...This would have been a great pit stop, however, as I have already mentioned, I am somewhat of a beer connoisseur...and so...I may have drank a few too many...It also should be pointed out that when beer is served in 1L servings, "a few too many" can have dangerous consequences.  So, 4 beer later I found myself being poured into bed at about 9pm...with a serious case of the spins...It was like university all over again.

The next day we were off for an early departure for our bus tour of Bavaria...always good with a hangover...But I would tough it out and see the sites, although maybe not as sprightly as I normally would have.  This turned out to (narrowly) be my favorite part of this trip as the castles we visited were truly two of the most impressive I have seen in all of Europe.  The first of the two castles was Linderhof, which turned out to be simply a "small hunting lodge"...or at least that's what it was if you were the king of Bavaria I guess.  Though it was small, the interior of this castle is the most impressive I have seen period.  There was goldwork, glasswork, porcelainwork, even ivorywork and every manor of painting, drapery and statue...really spectacular to see.

 The next castle was Neuschwanstein, which I have wanted to see in person ever since we bought a Lonely Planet Europe guide with a picture of it on the cover.  For a frame of reference, think of Sleeping Beauty's castle from Disney as apparently its design was based on Neuschwanstein.  Set on top of a hill in the mountains, this castle was truly built to be impressive looking, and it really was.  Although, I must say that when you are up close or even in the castle you don't get the same stunning view...You need to see the castle from the bridge a 20 minute hike away to truly get "the shot".  Once this visit was over we returned to Munich and unfortunately, my hungover got the best of me and I retired early to sleep it off.

 The final day was spent like the first, exploring the sights of Munich.  As I already said, there are some very nice churches and old buildings, however, the real gems in Munich are, and will always be the beer halls...I recommend visiting them, but pacing yourself...

So what were my top 5:

1.   Hofbrauhaus, for beer, music and salty food, it can't be beat.  Be prepared to share your table though as communal seating is how these beer halls work.
2.  Standing on the bridge across from Neuschwanstein castle.
3.  Standing in the room of mirrors at Linderhof castle...really cool.
4.  Watching the clock tower show at Neues Rathaus in the central square...It's like a giant coucou clock!
 5.  Seeing beer steins be used for a practical purpose and not just for decoration.

Munich and Bavaria:

Affordability: 7/10 (3/10 during Octoberfest) hotels aren't too bad as long as you stay out of the central downtown area...I've looked into them around Octoberfest though and it's scary...
Entertainment: 9/10, there's plenty to do if you book trips to the countryside, and if you like to drink...If you are not a drinker, you will feel out of place here though.
Ease of Travel:  8/10, not a long flight, but a flight nonetheless.
Overall:  10/10 if you are a beer fan, otherwise I would say 8/10.

Well, we're making progress now...Next up, Switzerland.

Eric's Uninformed Travel Tips: Canada Edition

Another article you say!?!  A Canadian travel article you say?!?  Poppycock I say!

In the effort of continuing our monthly march through the countries, I have to include Canada in the list.  However, I am going to change up the method a bit on this one...I will mention a few travel highlights in Canada, but all in all, this article is going to be more about the rewards/punishments of traveling home from abroad.

Locations visited in June, 2012: NS, NB and PEI, Canada

Dates of trip: June 14th-July 4th, 2012
How did we get there: Flight (Duh): Paris - Montreal - Moncton on the way there, and Moncton - Toronto - Paris on the way back.  As a note, if you are entering Canada through Europe, go through Montreal over Toronto if possible...less traffic and customs are MUCH more lenient.  Also, flight prices for this trip usually vary from 700 - 1200 dollars depending on the season.
Where did we stay: We started off our trip by attending a friends wedding and stayed at the Pictou Lodge Beach Resort for about $150/night.  Later in the trip we also went to PEI for Canada Day and stayed at rental cabins on the island...I don't remember the name of the company (in my defense I didn't do the booking) but there are plenty of companies to choose from, so take a look...either way, it was on the south shore close to the bridge.  Oh, and for the rest of the trip we stayed with our families of course.

  As I said, I won't focus on the actual travel in this article but I will mention a few things and still do my top 5/ratings at the end.  So here we go!

Pictou: We were really only here for a wedding so it was a bit of a hurried visit to Pictou, however, I must say that the resort was really beautiful and I would highly recommend it for a weekend getaway.  Beyond a weekend it may start to wear, as if you are like me, you will want to be closer to Halifax.

PEI: I actually had not been to PEI since I was a child, so it was like a new province for me.  I must say, it didn't fail to impress...Sand, sun, golf, friendly is really a great location for a Canada Day getaway.  If, like me, you have kind of forgotten this little island exists, I recommend you remember and get out there, it really is a gem.

Now, onto the focus...a few thoughts on traveling home for a rest (you see what I did there?  Slick...)

For almost 7 years now, I have been traveling home to visit family from at least a 5 hour flight away, and I would like to think that it has enlightened me a hasn't, but denial is a hell of a drug...that and heroin.  Anyway, in that time, I have gathered what I believe to be an adequate sample size to make some hypotheses on the pluses and minuses of traveling home...So lets explore shall we.

1. Seeing your family: pretty self explanatory really.  Let's just say that absence really does make the heart grow fonder...I have truly found that real relationships between people grow stronger when they are separated geographically.  When you only see people once a year, you focus on the positives, and I think this makes the relationships ultimately stronger.

Kayaking...the tie that binds...
2.  English break:  I cannot stress how necessary this is when living in a foreign, non-English speaking just get worn out after a while...

3. Culture break:  Same as above, but I should also point out that even when we lived in Calgary we found the cultural differences enough that it was nice to get back to the East Coast way of life for a break.

4. Keeping in touch with friends:  It's always good to see friends, but it is harder and harder to do as the years go by.  Permit me to sound like my grandparents for a moment, I think we all rely on technology too much now a days, and put less effort into actually seeing and talking to friends.  When we go home we try to always dedicate at least a day to friends, but even that seems like it is not enough at times.

1.  There is never enough time:  As I eluded to in the last of the pluses, there is simply never enough time to do everything you want to...Is that definitely a bad thing...not sure...but I always feel like I am missing out on things.

2. Traveling between families:  This is a big one for Juls and I as her family live in Quispamsis, NB and mine live in Chester, NS...This means that every trip home we have at least a 5-6 hour drive to look forward to...It also means that we have to very clearly plan the sections of our trip and decide which family to visit at which time (this is a bitch at Christmas).

3. TRYING TO SEE EVERYONE:  Impossible, exhausting, frustrating and disappointing...this is the worst part of traveling home...Everyone wants you to visit them and you want to visit everyone but it is simply not possible...

4. Not getting to travel:  This is another big one...If you only have a limited amount of vacation time (not a problem in France, but a big one in Canada) and you spend it all visiting home, you never get to travel anywhere else.  This is always the part of visiting home that pains me as when we are planning trips home we are always making the decision not to go to other places we would love to visit.

In the end you could say that the pluses and minuses even out, but as evidenced by the number of flights we have taken to the Maritimes in the last 7 years, obviously family wins out.

The things you do for family...
 So, as promised, here are my top 5 from our trip in Canada...
1.  This is an obvious one...Visiting family
2.  Seeing old friends at the wedding...worth it every time.
3.  Driving South Shore Nova Scotia...I grew up there and I still enjoy this drive every time.
4.  Canada Day on the beach in PEI
5.  Golfing in PEI...great courses...I am a horrible golfer...but great courses...

The Maritimes (NS, NB, PEI):

Affordability: 9/10, gotta love the affordability of a depressed economy/workforce...also, staying with family/friends helps.
Entertainment: 7/10, you have to look a bit harder and travel a bit farther to get it, but the Maritimes do have everything available.
Ease of Travel: 5/10, unfortunately, like in my post on Norway, there is no short way to get around the Maritimes...there is a long and beautiful way though if you have the patience and time.
Overall: 10/10, do you really think I am going to give my home less that a 10/10?

Home sweet Home...
 Up next, Germany!

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Eric's Uninformed Travel Tips: Norway Edition

Well, I have decided to extend the 1 day that the French are given to celebrate Christmas...ridiculous I know...They could at least include Boxing Day...Anyway, because I took some extra time, I find myself with the ability to once again beguile you all with another tale of travel...And failing that...Look a pony!!!

The meat is a little gamey, but it tastes like Skittles and dreams
 Now that that's over with, on to the 2nd of our May 2012 trips, the land of my namesake...Norway!

Locations visited in May, 2012 (2nd half): Oslo and Flam, Norway

Dates of trip: May, 25-28th, 2012
How did we get there: Flight, about 2.5hrs to Oslo on Norwegian Air @ 150€/person return.  That got us into Oslo and then the train from Oslo to Flam was about 5hrs and about 300€/person return...Although I must point out that the train was part of the experience and was well worth it...more on that later.
Where did we stay:  In Oslo we stayed at the Rica Travel Hotel, which was located right off the main street of Oslo (Karl Johans Gate) and so, was close to the palace and also the central station.  We found that, all in all, it put us right in the mix to experience the city, and that the hotel itself was clean and quite nice...for a budget travel hotel.  

In Flam we stayed at the Flam Marina and it was absolutely spectacular!  We had gigantic rooms...actually our room was for 3 but we didn't realize it when booking so we had several beds to choose from...The real selling point however was the balcony overlooking the fjord, that, and the fact that the sun never fully set at night, made for some spectacular vistas over the waters of the fjord.

Spectacular...and this is at 3am
 Let me just start off my recap by saying, I have always wanted to visit the Scandinavian countries and Norway has always been on the top of my list.  So, for me, this was a trip I had been looking forward to for a long time.  I also had a very specific idea of what I wanted to see on this trip, and to be perfectly honest, it wasn't Oslo.  No knock against Oslo, it's an okay's clean, the people are friendly, and the bars are good...but I don't think that's the reason anyone, myself included, goes to Norway.  I wanted to see the country, and mostly I wanted to see the fjords...and that is how I set about planning this trip.

Luckily, I happen to have a director at work who is Norwegian, so I leaned on her a bit to give me some ideas.  In the end, she recommended I focus on the Sognefjord, and that the best areas to do that were either at Flam or Bergen (or both).  As we were severely limited in time (Hello...3 days!), I chose Flam...Half because it was the closest of the 2 to Oslo, and half because it was a small village whereas Bergen is a city.

So, in the end our whirlwhind trip to the land of Vikings looked like this:

Day 1: Arrive in Oslo late after evening flight.
Day 2: Leave early for train...arrive in Flam in late afternoon.  Take in the sights/get the heck onto the fjord!
Day 3: Repeat day 2 then leave in late afternoon for same train trip in reverse.
Day 4: Explore Oslo then depart in evening for return flight to Paris.

I can honestly say that this may have been ambitious planning on my part, however, to this day I cannot think of anything I would have left out to make the trip less hectic...For the sake of this blog not being 25 pages though...I will leave things out...I think I am actually going to give you a day by day highlight reel instead.

Day 1: What kind of highlights can you really say about rushing to the airport after work and arriving at your hotel at midnight...I guess the only thing of note here is to say that if you are flying into Oslo, be aware of the distance from the airport to the hotel!  The airport is seriously the farthest from the city it services of any airport I have ever been through (and that's a large list)...To get from the airport to the city you have 3 options: Shuttle, tram or taxi.  We took the shuttle both ways though in hindsight the tram was probably faster...however, don't take a cab!  Especially if, like me, you are bad at doing money conversions in your head.  To simplify a bit, it was about 850 Kroners to our hotel from the airport (had we gone this route) and at a 7/1 exchange rate that is about 120ish Euros!

Day 2: This day saw us jumping on a train to Myrdal and then a connecting train to Flam.  I must point out that these are not just any trains, in fact, the one between Myrdal and Flam is considered to be one of the nicest train rides in the world...and it doesn't disappoint!  For me, the most impressive parts of these train journeys was simply the change in environment as we traveled.  Within the 5 hours, we went from lakes and oceans (not unlike in NS), to rugged snow covered highlands (not unlike AB) to the lush green fantasyland that is the bottom of the fjords (not unlike a nature enthusiasts wet dream).  The one downside I would note about this is that, not unlike every other cool thing in Europe, the train from Mrydal to Flam was absolutely jam packed...and this kind of lessened the impact of the ride for us...although we lucked out on the way back up. 

Just a bit full...yeah...
Finally, when we did arrive in Flam we were greeted with a beautiful clear sunny day and the most amazing vistas I have ever seen.  I took hundreds of photos to try and capture it, but honestly, the fjords, more than anything I have photographed this year, cannot be captured in an image.  When I close my eyes I can still picture the cliffs rising 360 degrees around me all the way to the sky and 100s of waterfalls flowing down over them from the glacial literally gives me chills.

We spent the rest of the day really just exploring the town and surrounding area.  I rented a bike and did some hiking, while Juls and our 3rd traveler, Andrea walked around the town.  Later at night we went to a local viking beer hall (AEgir...Don't ask me how it's pronounced) for some viking ales in what still ranks as one of the coolest bars I have ever been in.

Day 3:  This day saw us finally get out on the fjord...and I mean the water.  We took a fjord safari jetboat tour that crisscrossed the fjord for about 20kms.  It was incredible and Julia still claims it as one of...if not her favorite travel experience of this year.  I can't really sum this one up except to say that it's magical...If I was Norwegian, I would never leave the fjords.

Let's go fjordin' now, everybody's learnin' how...
After the ride was done we then decided to rent some bikes and go for a spin around the fjord on land.  Again the vistas are really the impressive part here, and I am running out of adjectives to describe them, so I won't...I'll just say, biking is fun...stay in shape kids.  Once this was done, we were pretty much done in Flam and had to catch our 5 hr train back to Oslo.  On y va!

Day 4:  Our final day saw us exploring Oslo finally.  I hate to downplay this part of the trip because Oslo is a very pretty city, with lots to offer.  But after you have been jet-boating on a fjord, cities just don't sparkle the same...Needless to say, we did hit the highlights in our 2/3s of a day there and honestly, I think that was enough.  I would say my own personal highlight was the Viking Ship Museum where we saw the 3 oldest viking ships in existence...the history nerd in me rejoices!

Finally, after the exploring was done, we hopped on the plane to return to Paris...another successful trip in the books. 5?
1.  Freaky singing girl show at the gigantic waterfall halfway down on the train to have my attention Norway...go on.
2.  Sitting on a bear pelt, drinking beer on a bench carved from wood with dragon heads on either end, and a gigantic fire pit in the middle of the beer hall...If that doesn't make you feel like some pillaging, nothing will!
3.  Jet boat on the fjord...nuff said.
4.  Beer on the patio overlooking the waters of the fjord at 3am while there is still some light out.
5.  That first moment when you are at the bottom of the fjord and look around at the absolute majesty surrounding you.

Flam (and the fjords):

Affordability: 5/10, Norway is NOT cheap
Entertainment: 10/10 if you like nature, otherwise 3/10 (what are you doing there?)
Ease of Travel: 7/10, there may be no quick or easy way in, but there is a slow and beautiful way, if you have the patience.
Overall: 10/10, this is a must do for anyone who is a nature lover...absolutely, without an ounce of doubt...must do.

Affordability: 5/10, allow me to reiterate, Norway is NOT cheap
Entertainment: 9/10, as with any big city, Norway has plenty to do and see.  Although, it may have a bit less than some of the larger European centers.
Ease of Travel: 9/10, surprisingly easy and cheap to fly to Oslo from Paris.
Overall: 6/10, as an entry point into your fjord adventures it is great, but I can't imagine going to Norway to visit Oslo alone...

One final shot...

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Eric’s Uninformed Travel Tips: Barcelona Edition

Ahoy hoy rabid blog enthusiasts...I am still alive, and will attempt one last time to convince you that I will be recommitted to this blog...It's a bold faced lie, but we are.

So to continue my elongated voyage through our travels of 2012, we come to May...the month where we traveled to not just one, but two different countries...Spain and Norway.  I will start by covering the southern voyage to the dusty, slightly greasy city of Barcelona, Spain.

Locations visited in May, 2012 (the first half anyway): Barcelona and Montserrat, Spain

Oh those crazy kids...
Dates of trip: May, 4-7, 2012
How did we get there: Flight, about 2hrs to Barcelona on the Air France @ 250€/person return.  Train is probably possibe but bank on a full day of travel.
Where did we stay:  We stayed in the Hotel Fira Palace located close to Placa d'Espanya.  The hotel was not cheap (about 150 Euros per night), but was very nice.  The only downside I would say about this hotel would be that it is not centrally located.  Being close to placa d'Espanya, it has access to certain parts of the charm of Barcelona, but you can count on a 45min-1hr walk to get to locales like Las Ramblas or the waterfront.  This means that you are unfortunately a little out of stumbling range if you have a night out on Barcelona's ramblin' street.

I should also note that this trip was the consolation prize for Julia having to give up her "3 continents in 3 weeks" challenge because of a couple of nasty oil spills in the North Sea and Nigeria (those are two different locations for those of you who are geographically challenged).  So, congrats, we win a trip to Spain to bask in the Catalonian sun...woot woot!

We landed on Barcelona simply because it seemed cheaper than Madrid, and because we heard that the beaches are nice...the interesting thing that I found when we did arrive was that neither of these things were true.  Barcelona was not wasn't super expensive either, but Madrid is definately cheaper.  And the beaches are nice...but they would be nicer if I was interested in purchasing any of the massive amounts of hard drugs that were constantly pushed on me for the hour that we were there...seriously...I think I was approached to buy coke 25 times in 1 hour...I felt like I was in an episode of Miami Vice.

All that aside, there were definately some major selling points of the lively capital of Catalonian culture.  To keep this post reletively simple...and to stop it from being rediculously long...I will try to focus on some of the areas I would highlight and why.

1. The first locale we went to when we arrived in Barcelona was one of the most impressive was the waterfront area.  This region was truly a treat, and in fact, about 30 minutes into actually wandering around Barcelona we found ourselves on a Catamaran ride on the Medeterranean that we found in this area.  Complete with a saxophonist and 1 Euro glasses of Sangria!  The other bonus of this area is you get the stereotypical Medeterranean feel here...palm trees, green water, overly tanned cougars with small dogs...To Do here: Catamaran cruise, sit by the water with a Sangria, buy cheap Spanish designer brands (Desigual at half price!  Encroyable!)

2. Las Ramblas: I honestly did not even know this existed before we started researching our trip...but man!  What a street!  As far as I could tell, pretty much everyone in Barcelona wound up on this street at one point in each of the 3 nights we were there.  I did notice that there were some definate tourist traps here, but if you stuck to the tapas rules you wouldn't be in each place long enough to notice...PS, the rule is that you only get 1 tapas per restaurant then move on. To Do here: Restaurant hop, check out the living statues and other street performers, people watch.

Just a Ramblin' Man
3. Placa d'Espanya: This area was next to our hotel and it actually turned out to be incredibly nice and led into the Montjuic area, which provides some of the best views of the city and also some great open green spaces to explore.  To Do here: Visit the musical fountain at night (It had an all Disney theme when we were there!  The circle of life in Spanish!), climb the mont to the Castell de Montjuic to watch the sunset and sip sangria, just take in the ambiance around the Placa at night when it comes alive.

4. The Gothic Quarter:  I found this region particularly interesting because Barcelona as a whole (and in comparison to other European cities) is not that old outside of this quarter.  So, when you enter this region you get that European old city feel that one generally expects in Europe...gotta get my history fix after all!  To Do here: Take the elevator to the top of Catedral de Barcelona, Check out the Santa Caterina market, wander down the countless little gothic streets.

5.  Sagrada Familia region:  OK, I don't actually know the name of the region, but seriously, visit the Sagrada Familia...It is just incredible and unique and can't be missed!

Not mentioned:  The beach...seriously, it was a bit disappointing how sketchy it was there and how many times I got approached for drugs...I wanted to like it more than I did...

Aside from cramming in as much as we could in Barcelona, we also took a day trip during our short time there.  To start I will just say that it was surprisingly easy to book/take and turned out to be my favorite part of the trip.

The town/region/mountain? that we visited was called Montserrat, and it is known mountains and the amazing monastery that is nestled on top of one of them.  To get there we took a train (basically a go train) then a cable car up the mountain from the town of Montserrat.

Honestly, the monastery itself was only mildly interesting, the thing that made the trip were the hiking trails that crossed every peak of mountain and circled every cliff face and rock outcropping...really amazing!  We decided to hike the longest trail which ended at the highest point on the mountain and it was definitely worth the blisters.  After a few hours of hiking we opened up to a rock with rickety stairs reaching on for hundreds of meters to a platform at the top...the view was amazing.  Also, for us Canadians who may be spoiled by our Rockies, I can honestly say that these mountains are completely different than anything I have seen in Canada, and that made the experience that much better.

So, there you have it...a great trip all in all, so now, what were my top 5?
1.  Spanish mountain climbing: This isn't your dads mountain climbing...unless your dad work silk shirts and drank sangria while climbing.
2.  Catamaran cruises on the Med: How did the sax player on this boat get his job?  Really, I hate my guidance councilor...
3.  Tapas tasting:  1 per restaurant and move on...its worth it.
4.  Hot Chocolate and Churro breakfast:  I almost had a heart attack when they told me this was traditional...And then I did have one after I finished eating it.
5.  Sagrada Familia:  Re-donk.

This is what happens when God goes on a bender...
Barcelona (and Montserrat):
Affordability: 5/10,Things are cheaper in Spain in general although a city is still a city
Entertainment: 10/10, it depends on your taste and on the season, but Barcelona is a big city and has plenty to offer
Ease of travel: 8/10, it's a flight...but not a long or expensive one
Overall: 9/10, Its not the traditional Spanish experience, for that go to Madrid, but it is fun, crazy, sexy and all kinds of other adjectives.