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Every time I look into booking a trip, I always look to see if we can knock out at least a couple countries if possible. When I looked at booking a trip to the Baltics, I knew it would be quite easy to see Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in a short amount of time. I also looked at adding Belarus to the trip, but after learning about the visa hassle, I decided against it. So we were off to the Baltics, not to be confused wit the Balkans, and during our trip we would hit our 40th country! When I said I wanted us to visit 50 countries before we settled down, I didn’t really think we could reach it. But at the time that I wrote this, we were already sitting on 43 and had plans to already be on 47 before the end of summer. I think we’ll hit 50 and keep going strong.

Orthodox church atop the hill in Tallinn

So we started the trip in Tallin, after a 2 hour flight on Estonian Airlines, yet another one to add to the list. I should put together a list of airlines that we’ve flown as well, that could be quite a list as well. Anyway, so we were coming in for landing, and I got deja vu as the area looked in pretty bad shape, and in fact the airport looked like it was surrounded by a ghetto! Well, it actually was a ghetto, and one of the poorest parts of Tallinn. Good thing the old town area was the exact opposite of this, otherwise I fear we would’ve been on the first flight out of Estonia, stat!

“Make sure the Church is in the middle or off to the side…ok thx!”…ugh

We were only staying in Tallinn for one night, so in our typical style, we needed to conquer the city quick. Well, not knowing that old town was as small as it actually is, we conquered all the sights in about 3 hours, tops! We spent a majority of the time at a cafe on the square drinking, and enjoying some of the best soup we’ve ever had. It was smoked gouda cheese soup with bacon. Now, meat is a staple of the Baltics, and it’s everywhere. I don’t know how the girls stay so thin, but you can’t escape meat here. Vegans, collect your and keep moving because there is nothing to see here. We had a nice dinner, although very heavy even for our tastes, and crashed for the night so we could be fresh for our bus ride down to Riga, Latvia!

old town square in Tallinn

We hopped the bus, which was actually quite nice, and headed to Latvia. The scenery between the two cities was, well, dreadful. There is nothing to see, and nothing to travel back for either. Then again, didn’t expect much, so just wanted to get to Riga. We pulled into the bus station, and nothing looked that great to be honest, but we had to walk for about 10 minutes to reach the old town area and our hotel. We turned the corner, and it we did a 180, as the old town area was beautiful and what we expected. Our hotel was quite unique, as it was built within the walls of an old building that was either torn down or bombed out. The backdrop of our bed was actually the original brick wall of the old building, quite unique actually.

our room at Old City Hotel in Riga

The old town area was great, and very easy to get around. Don’t think many cars have ever made it through Riga’s old town area, as the stones were still pretty jagged in areas, and hadn’t been worn down much. The architecture was very similar to Tallinns, as was the craving for meat 🙂 The weather was great, so we just walked around all day, looked at about a dozen church’s, and then once again, sat in the square and had some drinks while we people watched. After heading back to the hotel just to change, we headed out to some popular local stop for dinner, which was extremely cheap for the amount of food they gave you. Cheap is a word that is synonymous with Eastern Europe, and still holds true in the Baltics somewhat, but I can see prices creeping up slowly as they become even more popular. Glad we stopped by when we did. After taking a late stroll through town and admiring everything lit up, we crashed out and got ready for our trip down to Vilnius, Lithuania!

Freedom Tower in Riga…guarded 24/7 by two people

Morning came, breakfast was had, and we were off to the bus station one last time to head to Vilnius! This is a country that I always heard about growing up, especially during the Barcelona Olympics when their first national basketball team was allowed to play following the end of the Russian occupation. They were made famous by the tie-dye basketball shirts they wore as warm ups. Anyway, we arrived in Vilnius around 4pm, and again, I looked around and had thought I made a huge mistake, since everything looked very drab and dreary. A local man actually spotted us, and pointed in the right direction to our hotel. We walked down the road and saw a gate-like opening on the right side. We walked through it, and immediately things changed. All of these old towns in these cities are shut off because they were walled in like a fortress, just seems strange that nothing outside those walls ever developed as nicely.

Vegans Welcome??

So we roll in to Vilnius and walk around a bit, and much to our surprise, find the city very appealing. It was quiet that day, seeing it was Easter, but we could tell the city was pretty lively none the less. We had dinner at this basement restaurant, that was a favorite among the locals, and came on the recommendation of a business colleague. It lived up to its hype, and even made it’s own beer, which made it more special for me. Again, the food was extremely heavy, and we left quite a bit on our plates, but that’s ok, since again, it was cheap. We tackled the city early the next day, and hit every spot we read about and more, including walking through the part of town that is still identical to the time it was Russian occupied. You will be able to appreciate what we saw a bit more by the pictures we took, but fair to say that Vilnius was a surprise to us, and the highlight of the trip!

sign as you enter the “Russian Occupation” part of town

Also on day 2, we headed out to a small town about 30 minutes outside of Vilnius called Trakai. The town is famous for and old castle that lies on an island in town, and is extremely well preserved. It was the off season, so we figured we could get some good pictures that would make it seem like we were the only people there. I think we succeeded:

Trakai Castle

All in all I really enjoyed Vilnius, and would like to see other parts, especially Klaipeda on the coast, but that was all the time we had for this adventure. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to Belarus now seeing it’s not the easiest country to get to with the visa situation, and there is nothing near it that would be easy to go to either, but that really has never stopped us, so who knows.

Our snack outside the castle…deep fried garlic bread with cheese….nom nom

Keep on traveling!

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Now not every trip is going to be a winner, but we have had quite a bit of luck from our traveling over the last 5 years. Almost every trip has had more good than bad, and that would declare it successful. However, our trip to Poland was summed up in one simple word: FAIL!!

Maybe it came from the lack of real planning on my part? Maybe the weather didn’t really cooperate, and in fact got worse as the trip progressed? Maybe it was the fact we didn’t have actual seats on our 3.5-hour train ride between Warsaw and Krakow, and then the return as well? Or maybe it came down to the fact that for my wife’s 31st birthday we celebrated at….Auschwitz? Yes, these all are contributing factors of the worst weekend trip we have ever taken, but on the flipside, we saw some interesting things, and if was under any other circumstance, I would love to go back and spend some more time in Krakow.

So, the real reason we headed to Poland for a weekend back in March was we had never been there…and I found some cheap plane tickets on LOT Airlines. We had to fly into Warsaw, which was unfortunately a 3+ hour train ride from Krakow, our ultimate destination. I knew the trip was going to start out rough when we got to the train station, which wasn’t the main station, and it looked like something out of the Cold War. There were no signs in English, it was freezing, the building was falling apart, and at any time you felt like you were about to be in a sequel to Hostel. Luckily, we found a nice girl who spoke enough English and pointed us to the right train to get out of that hellhole and head down to Krakow. Too bad that it was the slow, miserable train!!

The scenery on the way to Krakow was, well, for lack of a better term, ugly! There really is not much to see between the two cities, especially when you make a million stops at miniscule towns and the train moves at a snails pace. It truly was the worst train ride we have ever been on….well up until that point! 😉

We finally made it into Krakow, and it was an oasis. You would never think that this beautiful old town area of Krakow was only steps from the train station in town, or anywhere near the desolate landscape we had just traveled through. Either way, we walked into town wide-eyed, made it to the hotel, and headed to dinner. Dinner was on recommendation from the hotel, and it didn’t disappoint. I have no idea what we ate (need to update blog more frequently) but it was good, especially after a long travel day. We decided the next day that we were going to head to the concentrations camps since we were in town, so we called it a night early.

This way to Schindler’s Factory

I could go on and on about our trip to Schindler’s Factory while in Krakow, but it was an experience I’ll never forget. I had never even seen the movie until after we visited, since the intrigue was quite high. I highly recommend anyone visiting Krakow to take the time to stop over there, as it’s a piece of history that everyone should see, but again, I could go on for days about it, so won’t get into any deeper in this brief overview.

Schindler’s original desk

Anyway, I had found this travel guide on TripAdvisor named Bob. Yes, his name is Bob, and his company was called, “Bob, the Taxi Driver.” He had received great reviews, so I was a bit cautious we would even get him on short notice, but we did. So at 11am, he picked us up from the hotel, and we were off to see the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. I have to be honest, I had never heard of the second one, and I’m not sure why, but glad we saw both. Now what can you say? They are depressing, with Auschwitz being set up more like a museum and memorial, whereas the latter is in the same condition as it was founded 60 years ago. That made it a bit more eerie, and surreal to know that thousands of people were trapped in this place. On top of that, it got dark, cold and started snowing while we were walking around, which made it even more uncomfortable knowing that people could never leave, and they were stuck in this man-made hell! Safe to say, we ended our trip a bit early and got out of there, since at one point we were the only ones in the place, and that didn’t sit well with either of us.

Even though the day was really depressing, Bob made it quite informational and taught us quite a bit about the area. He drove us around to areas that tour groups wouldn’t go, and showed us monuments that 99% of the people who visit would never see. That made it 100% worthwhile to have him around, and made up for the stupid jokes he told for about 4 hours straight.

Main square in Krakow

“Work Shall Set You Free”….the lie that ran through thousands

We headed back to Krakow then, walked around for a bit, and then got some dinner, which again was amazing. It’s really bugging me now I can’t remember what we ate, but it was phenomenal from what I remember. We didn’t have a ton of time the next day since we had to train it back to Warsaw to catch our flight, but the sun finally came out and we were able to take some better pictures, and have some breakfast out on the old town squre.

one of the better shots I took in Krakow

At least it ended on a high note, right?

Well, been a while, so there are going to be quite a few posts in a row to sum up our travels from the past 3 months, where we hit another 6 countries! After we were in San Marino, we decided we must check out Venice before heading back to Milan for the Champions League match between Tottenham and AC Milan. Anyway, after a shorter train ride, we dropped into Venice around 7pm, dropped our bags and got some dinner before hitting the city the next day.

Crazy bird guy in San Marco Square

We hear all the stories about Venice sinking, smelling bad, and pretty much falling apart. Well, all of those are true unfortunately, in one way or the other. Venice is sinking, but not in the way we think. The water keeps rising because of the oceans, and the fact that Venice still doesn’t have a good lock system surrounding it. If they ever get that up and running, I think Venice will be safe, but that’s only the first step to preserving that city. The whole city has fallen into ruin, and is dilapidated everywhere you look. Yes, it’s not as easy to maintain a city where everything can only be accessed by canals, but it must be done. The city is not built for children or the elderly either, so if you have them or are so, don’t visit Venice.

We stayed at a small hotel right on the canal, across from the train station. It actually was nice, but you could tell they are always under the constant battle of humidity, especially since it seemed all the wood in the building was being replaced with composite wood. Anyway, it was a good location and the next morning we set our sights on the city. Venice is very small, but at times seems large because you have to walk everywhere, and some of the streets are so small (3 feet wide) that you feel like you’re walking forever in a maze at times. Well, in fact you are, since you technically can never get lost in Venice, albeit we tried a few times and ran into the same thing each time….water!

the view of the Rialto Bridge from our gondola

Now, we did the few things that ever person “should” do when the visit Venice. Have dinner at a nice little restaurant, walk across the Rialto Bridge, sit in San Marco square, and take a ride in an overpriced, and less charming than advertised, gondola! The latter is the most famous thing to do in Venice, as heard by tourists for years, but we’ll confirm that it has lost most of its charm. There are hundreds of gondola’s around the canals, and they all bother you like a peddler on the beach in Mexico. Second, they are vastly overpriced. $85 for a half hour is robbery, but it’s for the experience right? Then, when you think that the gondoliers are going to sing, they actually get on their mobile phones and chat with their friends…..who are also gondoliers! Was it nice going down the Grand Canal on a gondola, sure. Would we do it again, no!

Getting lost in the streets of Venice

Venice is extremely expensive to live in, so rates like these need to exist for these workers to live. The problem is I didn’t think Venice was that great, and didn’t live up to the hype. On the other hand, it’s a unique city, and does have hidden gems to see…like riding away on a boat to see Murano Island, the home of the famous glass makers, which surprise, is also vastly overpriced! We thought we found a killer piece for our home, wherever that might be in a few years, only to find out that it was about 10x the price I had in my head….and there were thousands of pieces in this one store on the island. Safe to say, I can see why their business is hurting as well.

Worker molding out some pieces on Murano Island

The food we had for a few nights there was extremely good, taking away the joint we ate on the first night that was some of the worst Italian food I’ve ever eaten, let alone Annemarie who is a critic beyond critics when it comes to her favorite food. The little trattorias that we found the other nights were great, and tucked away in corners as we expected they woud be, spoke zero english, and everything was homemade. That will stick with me as my fondest memory of Venice.

Best shot of the weekend!

After 2 nights in Venice, we headed back over to Milan to only encounter some terrible weather, which continued throughout the whole day and night. Good thing there was some cover, and that our seats were covered at the match, otherwise it would have been a pretty miserable day. It was a great end to the trip, as Tottenham upset AC Milan, 1-0, with the winner coming in the 80th minute. Standing up and cheering in the middle of a group of Italian fans is not the smartest thing to do, but with the amount of police around, I had no fear. Of course we left the match before most of the Tottenham fans did, and disguised ourselves until we made it back to the hotel 🙂

Great match & a great win for Spurs!

After fiddling with this blog for the last couple years, it’s pretty well documented that I want to see every country in the world. Some people want a big house, a lot of cars, a nice watch, designer clothes. I wouldn’t mind some of that, but those are all depreciating assets, and in the end, most people don’t care what kind of car you drive or if your hand bag was made in France. You can always strike up a conversation about travel. Whether it’s where you’ve been, or where you’re going, there is always a common chord in people who like to know or hear about travel. Now I know most people don’t have the same luxury, for lack of a better term, that I have when it comes to traveling so freely. I must admit I travel a bit more than the average person would even in my position perhaps, but when it comes to travel I firmly believe in the “you only live once” philosophy. I’m not sure where I got this urge to constantly travel, but if every person has some kind of addiction hidden in their DNA, I’m glad I found mine, and I’m glad this is it.

That being said, how many people, outside of people who love geography and seasoned travelers, have ever heard of San Marino? I’m guessing not many, which is made it that much cooler that we were actually going to go there, and see what the third smallest country in the world had to offer!

a view of Tower #1 and most of San Marino

Now, there are a handful of micro countries in the world, with most of them being in Europe. Up to this point, we have visited most of them (Vatican City, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein). With Andorra, Monaco and Malta still to conquer, I was going to take any opportunity to see San Marino that I could, especially since it’s not the easiest place to get to. Here’s a quick rundown of how we got to this tiny place. We flew into Milan, which was about a 90 minute flight from Amsterdam. We then had to take a 45 minute bus to downtown Milan to the main train terminal, where we then had to hop on a 3.5 hour train to Rimini. We then had to wait around 45 minutes, to then hop on a bus for another 45 minutes to get dropped of in the center of San Marino. Then after walking aimlessly for about 15 minutes and finding our hotel, we were settled. Up to this point I think both of us would’ve said it wasn’t worth it, but in the end we both ate our words.

The only proof San Marino exists when you arrive in Rimini

San Marino, as I said, is the third smallest country in the world, behind Holy See (Vatican City) and Monaco. It actually has one of the oldest running governments in the world, and people from there do not consider themselves Italian, but rather Sanmarinese! You could honestly drive right by the country without ever knowing it, other than the fact that the old town is situated up on top of a hill, which is one of the higher peaks in the area, so that’s a bit hard to miss. Anyway, we checked in and realized that we might have been one of the few guests at the hotel that night since it was off-season. We strolled down the street, and found which we think was probably the only busy restaurant in town that night, and it was good, or at least we thought it was since we had been traveling all day. We walked the streets a bit, but closed shop early so we could conquer the country/city the next day before we took off.

Dinner spot….it’s cold, everyone is inside

So we get up, grab something small, and hit the…country. The old town area is great with the cobblestone roads, secrets in every alleyway, and the views over the countryside all the way out to the Adriatic Sea were breathtaking. As far as landmarks, there aren’t a whole lot in this little place, but the two towers which look over the whole place were pretty impressive, especially since they were built on top of this rock and anchored into the earth….mind you this was over 300 years ago!

We’re in San Marino…and Annemarie is smiling 😉

I’m really just going to let the pictures do the talking since the views and the architecture were the most interesting things while we were here. And of course the remainder of the pictures are in the album. We spent about 15 hours in this country, and saw everything it had to offer, but nothing that most people would remember, besides the towers and the views. We liked it of course, but there really is no reason to go back, unless they get a train station right in the country, which won’t happen, and even then I can’t see it happening either. It’s a country that 99% of people I talk to will never visit, let alone hear of, but glad to say that we saw it and that we’ve been there….and of course got the magnet and tourist passport stamp for proof!

Smallest tourist info place I’ve ever seen

Ciao!

View from up top

The public transport from the new town below to the old town above

Since we have now moved to Europe, of course we are going to take advantage and see as much as we can over here. We’d like to see every country in the world of course, but would definitely like to cover the whole EU while we are here. That being said, when I see a good deal on airfare to a country that we haven’t visited as of yet, I’ll try to find a way to book it and get over there ASAP. And what did I find in the middle of January….a good fare to Istanbul, Turkey!

Hagia Sophia

I’ve always read that Istanbul is a city you must visit, but of course I was a bit skeptical with all the news about the mosques, and how important religion is there. Those things have never really scared me, albeit maybe they should, but I’ve never seen an issue traveling somewhere just because some others are nervous. I wanted to take full advantage of being in Turkey, so we booked a 3 day trip to Istanbul with an open mind and hoped for the best.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque…otherwise known as the Blue Mosque

First, we took Turkish Airlines….one of the best airlines we’ve been on to date. Unlike airlines in the states, they still serve full meals in coach, full drink service, etc. We even had a laugh when the flight attendant thought Annemarie was Turkish. Note, Annemarie has now been asked if she was the following: Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Dutch and Hispanic. Quite the renaissance woman I married don’t ya think? Anyway, we got into Istanbul right on time and made our way through customs. We had a bit of a snafu with the transportation, as the hotel was supposed to pick us up, but to our surprise when we arrived they had upgraded us to a suite, on the house. While they were getting the room ready, they invited down to the lounge for a glass of house wine, and showed us the lay of the land. I’ll be the first to recommend Hotel Amira to anyone that ever visits Istanbul. The service was impeccable, great location, the works.

As usual, we wanted to crush the city as we like to say it, or see as much as possible in 3 days. We read up on a walking tour of the city that was supposed to take 6 days. We finished it in 6 hours. I’m not sure if the tour book was geared toward people who were over the age of 70 or blind, but I think they need to update their book. Now, we are some of the craziest travelers I know, so maybe to the average walker it would’ve taken 2 days tops, but in no way would it take 6 days. Since our hotel was in the Old Town area in Sultanahmet, we were pretty close to all of the major sites. Our first stop was over at Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia is an old mosque/church that is no longer in commission because it’s not that structurally sound anymore. It’s huge, and quite unique on the inside, but after seeing St. Peter’s in Vatican City and La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it’s not the most incredible thing we’ve seen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still unique and quite an amazing structure, we’ve just been spoiled by seeing some of the world’s most incredible holy buildings. After stepping out, and walking across the street, literally, we headed over to the Blue Mosque, which is the largest active Muslim mosque in Istanbul. This again, is quite incredible….from the outside. The minarets that surround it are lit up at night which allows you to see it from any part of the city, which by the way is enormous. The first night we were in town we walked by it at night and were in awe, and then the call of prayer started, and we were floored. I’ve never heard a loud-speaker system like that, and you can hear it from all points in the city. You have to be there and experience it for yourself to really appreciate how loud and clear it is.

entrance to Topkapı Palace

Since we got in kind of late, we wanted to grab some dinner, and of course we like to eat at local joints versus tourist spots or any place that has a “tourist menu.” The hotel made a couple of suggestions, and we hit one up. There were probably only 6 people in the place total, as January isn’t exactly the high tourist season in Istanbul. We were told this place was famous for its clay pot dishes, so of course we had to order one. DAMN! I don’t like lamb all that much, but whatever spices they added to this, and on top of that cooking it in the clay pot, it was unbelievable. That along with some appetizer dish that I can’t quite describe now, but I know I also ate more eggplant on this trip than in my whole life combined. We knew from this point that our trip was going to be great!

having some lamb cooked straight from the clay pot

The next day we got up early, got some breakfast downstairs, and hit the city. Since the weather was perfect, we wanted to hit everything that was outside and keep the Grand Bazaar for the final day since that was covered. As I mentioned above, we hit both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, which both were unique and massive. We also went inside the Blue Mosque, where women are still supposed to cover their heads, and no shoes are allowed. So pretty much all you see is a ton of tourist, walking around with plastic bags filled with shoes, and women with scarves or hooded jackets on. We both said “wow, this is really nice carpet!”…but it better be since hundreds have to kneel down on it multiple times a day to pray. The architecture and design on the inside is kind of ruined by all the wires and such that hang from the ceiling so there can be light closer to the floor, but we got the general layout of the place. It’s actually not that big on the inside, compared to the massive structure you see from the outside.

After we hit both of those up, we headed over to the Basilica Cisterns, which are underneath the city. To this day, they are still unsure why exactly they were built, and how two Medusa heads, that most likely came from Greece or Italy, are down there as well. Today it really seems to be used just as a tourist destination, a place to take strange pictures, and act as a giant fishbowl (tons of fish swimming down there, with no predators, so they get quite large.)

Why is this here? And why is it sideways?

While there, we also went into the new city area, where the Galato Tower is, which has one of the best views of the city from the top. Of course they had to ruin it by putting a restaurant at the top with highly overpriced drinks, but I guess that was a no brainer for them. The new city area is where all the high-end shopping is, the “modern life” of the city you could say. There is a shopping row there, which is pedestrian, which seems like it goes on for miles. You start at the top, which is reached by a funicular, which in my eyes, seems a waste of money as it’s only a 45 second ride to the top, but I guess it warrants enough daily travelers to be worth it. Some things I just don’t get, and especially this one since it wasn’t built for tourism, but for locals. Oh well, moving on. We decided to then walk back to the old town area, and across the Galato Bridge, where hundreds of fisherman are lined up catching dinner and then sell it on the bridge. I’m not sure what kind of fish they were catching exactly, but you knew one thing, it was fresh.

Getting the catch of the day!

After finally getting across the bridge, we walked around the spice market, and through a maze of streets, up and down hills, until we made it back to our hotel to get ready for restaurant #2, which once again, was fantastic. This time we ordered way too much food, but again, was fantastic. I can’t even remember what I had, but I do remember the service once again being amazing and finishing the night with some shots of grappa. We then took a late night stroll around the Blue Mosque and stood there wide-eyed at the lit up minarets once again. Istanbul had won us over.

On the final day, we of course wanted to check out the Grand Bazaar. Now, we’ve been to markets all over the world, but this place is enormous. It’s something like 600 acres of real estate….and it’s the same store repeated every 4 stores! You’d have a lamp shop, a carpet shop, a scarf shop, and then a knock off shop. That’s it! And there were at least 1,000 stores inside this bazaar, so after about 15 minutes, I got a headache and wanted to get hell out of there! I don’t mind these markets that much, but when they are constantly in your face and yelling at you to buy, I get a little put off.

Lack of indecision would work well in this store!

We ended up getting a lamp ourselves, and shipped it back where it met us at home only 4 days later. Not bad for not really having any definitive proof that it would ever show up at all. I recommend anyone traveling that wants to see something a tad different and expose themselves to a completely different culture to visit Istanbul. I know it doesn’t represent the whole country, let alone the other half (Asia) of the city, but from what we saw, it definitely will stick in our memory. You can see all of our photo’s in the photo album link at the bottom of the page.

This blog post is long overdue, about 6 months, but there are good reasons for it. One, I just got lazy since I had been blogging so much about our travels. Second, I was putting together preparations for our move across the pond. For those that don’t know, we relocated to Amsterdam back in October, and love it. We intend on using this new location to the fullest, and travel as much as we can since many new places are a lot closer. Weekend trips to new places is something that really intrigues us. Anyway, onto the last new country we visited, Liechtenstein!

This map shows you how large Vaduz is...or how small really!

Now, I’ll first say that about 90% of my friends had never even heard of this country, let alone be able to point out on a map where the hell it’s located! Being a geography freak myself, I always wanted to visit all the tiniest countries in the world. Europe has a handful, and we’ve seen a few: Vatican City and Luxembourg. We plan in 2011 to see Andorra, Monaco and San Marino….and maybe Malta….and Cyprus. Who knows, I’m known from time to time just to go somewhere because I’m bored.

The Royal Castle of Vaduz

This visit was easy, as we were staying in Zürich, and it’s only about a 1.5 hour trek over to Vaduz by train and bus. The train ride scenery was spectacular, as it glides through Eastern Switzerland which is full of mountains, waterfalls and the clearest lakes you’ll ever see. Switzerland passed an ordinance way back that allows no sewage dumping in any lake. Some of the locals say the lake water is cleaner than the tap water. Not sure if that’s true, but it sure looked like it was. We took the train for about an hour until we got to Sargans. From there, you had to catch the “Liechtenstein Bus” that would take you into Vaduz. Now many people thought we were crazy for traveling over to Vaduz for what was about 3 hours, but I can tell you now after doing it, that’s what most people do. There isn’t a whole lot to see there, but it’s worth the day trip for sure.

Watching the match in town square...hot tub for kids??

The weather was pretty dismal that day, but that never stopped us before. Vaduz is quite small, with a nice town square, some restaurants, museums, etc. The royal castle is also in town, and sits overhead the town. It was pretty cloudy that day, so we didn’t get a great view of it, but I was told we didn’t miss much as tourists are not allowed inside, as they royals still use it as their personal residence. We realized there wasn’t much to do, so we grabbed a bite to eat in town, headed over to the store to get our country magnet, and then sat in the square as many were watching a world cup match on a big screen. I assumed if the weather was better the square would’ve been packed, but oh well. One other thing we did which is customary for tourists in Vaduz is to get your passport stamped with a “tourist” stamp. Liechtenstein is part of the Schengen Zone, and doesn’t have an airport, so officially you don’t need to be stamped when you visit. The country has taken advantage of this “tourist” stamp that they give people, just to show proof that you visited the country. Well, we had to get one, and 3 euro’s later, we both had one in our passports. I’ve already been asked where I got that and “where is that place” many times, so I guess it’s a conversation starter.

 

Always try out the local beer....this was good...and from Hell!!

All in all it was a quick trip to Vaduz, and I’m glad we went. It really is a nice little town, but unless you’ve got extreme wealth and are trying to escape taxes, or are naturally a resident of this tiny country, there aren’t too many reasons to visit….of course unless you want that illustrious stamp!

The tourist booth....really just the place to get your famous stamp!

The 2011 travel schedule is starting to take shape, with our travels kicking off in January with a trip to Istanbul, Turkey! I plan on getting us to more countries this year than ever before, with the goal being around 18 or so, with a trip to continent #5 in the works. My old goal of reaching 50 countries before we settled down I think is a goal of the past now, and now I want to hit 75! I think we can do it, just have to work a ton before we can do so. Cheers!

If you haven’t already figure about by reading this blog that we are travel obsessed, I’m not sure what you’re reading. How many people on a vacation would visit Luxembourg….and Liechtenstein? Half of my friends had never even heard of the latter country, so that made me think of course, “this place is going to be something special.” But we’ll get to that in a bit, because this leg of the crazy trip lands us in Zurich, Switzerland. I honestly was shocked after looking at our travels in Europe thus far that we had never been to Switzerland, but had traveled to every country surrounding it. I guess we just never had a reason to go. Then again, we didn’t have one now either, but we both like to see new things, so it seemed like a good stop. We hopped our train in Luxembourg, only to find out that our direct tickets to Zurich weren’t direct, and that we had to change in Basel…good thing someone told us…in Basel…after we sat on the train for 10 minutes wondering why it was not moving. But, we made the train connection, and an hour later we were in Zurich….where once again, it was pouring!! The weather on the start of the trip was definitely a 180 compared to the weather at the end of the trip, but that was fine. We headed off to the hotel, checked in, and crashed hard.

On the train to Zurich from Luxembourg

Now, we stayed at some sort of business hotel where they kind of treat you like you’re at a B&B, but there really is no staff or regular hotel services around. Yet our room was enormous, had a full kitchen, and a deck looking over the river that flows through Zurich. Mind you, Zurich is one of the most expensive cities in all of Europe, so this hotel was a relative bargain with location and size of the room being the top factors. Anyway, we at some breakfast and then set out on the city. Zurich is pretty nice, and very upscale. Pretty easy to get around too, as most of downtown is packed into a really tiny area. There really isn’t a whole to see in Zurich, it’s just a nice city to kick back in for a couple days, eat some overpriced food, drink some overpriced beers, and buy some overpriced chocolate, which by the way, Annemarie thought took a back seat to Belgian chocolate, but I wouldn’t know. I will say this though. The stores had this one chocolate treat called a Luxembourgli, which was pretty damn good, but very rich, and I could have a few. They come in a ton of different flavors, so I figured we’d try almost all of them. Then after I realized I was paying around 1 euro per chocolate, I kicked myself for buying them in the first place. When in Rome I guess.

Along the water in Zurich

We honestly didn’t know what to see in Zurich, so when all else fails, you take the HopOn/HopOff bus tour that the city has. Zurich might have the worst city tour I’ve ever been on, and for those that know about our Salzburg tour from 4 years back, this was even more boring. There’s really just not that much to see, and the stuff they do point out, does not have a “wow” factor. Again, one of my best memories of Zurich would be getting a pretzel bread sandwich….for 8 euros! This is the equivalent of their street meat, but they overcharge like crazy for it. Why? Because their taxes are ridiculous. We were told before even getting to Zurich to not make a dinner reservation, because you’d break the bank. That was then confirmed when we spoke with some locals and said no one eats out, everyone cooks, because it’s too expensive! One thing I do enjoy in expensive cities though: car spotting. I saw quite the lineup of high end cars, and probably didn’t see a car that more than 5 years old. So for any car lover out there, Zurich is a nice spot.

Luxembourgli's for days....about 15 flavors

All in all, I’m glad we visited Zurich, but I don’t think I’d put it on anyone’s “must hit list.” And there are many other cities in Switzerland I want to visit, like Basel, Interlocken and Zermatt. I assume I’ll be back for business one day, but pleasure, I think not.

After traveling for yet another 15 hours between country stops, we finally made it to Brussels. Now our blog only goes back about 18 months, but we have been to Brussels before and it included a detainment at the border control. It was nothing serious other than a little passport tampering done by yours truly. Who would’ve thought that drawing the lines back in for Euro stamps would be against federal law? Luckily, the immigration only detained us for 90 minutes, after going over all of our travel history. They said to never return to Europe with that old passport, and to be careful smoking weed in Amsterdam. Good advice, now let us go so we can catch our flight to Barcelona. And that wraps up our first trip to Brussels.

The main square in Brussels

Anyway, after traveling all night from South Africa, and then connecting in Madrid, again, we made it to Brussels. We only had about 7 hours there before our train departed, so we had to get a move on, and we did. Now, I never know how big these cities might be, or how much we could do there, so I thought 7 hours would be enough. It was about 3 hours too long, as there really is not that much to do in Brussels. We saw the main attractions, that being the back alley Red Light District (wrong turn) and the infamous square where all the trendy restaurants and bars are, stopped at a traditional Belgian waffle shop, and then saw the Mannekin Pis. Brussels actually is a very nice city, and reminded me of a cross between Paris with it’s long straight roads through the city, and a little of Prague with it’s squares and old buildings. None the less, I like the other two more, but I’m glad we saw it. Honestly my fondest memory while being there was getting a sub sandwich, freshly made, for 3 euro’s. It was so good I bought a second one for the train ride to Luxembourg, which was then devoured after being on the train for 10 minutes.

The infamous Mannekin Pis...how you doing buddy?

That being said, we headed back to the train station and hopped our train to Luxembourg. Now most of my friends said “what the hell is in Luxembourg and why are you going there?” Well, I always have a pretty simple answer for those. One, I’m not sure, but I’m sure something is there, and I’m going there because I’ve never been there! Now, after getting on the train, I started to overhear some conversations and learned that quite a few people that work in Brussels actually live in Luxembourg. I’m not sure of all the reasons, but I’m sure taxes play some part, and even though Luxembourg, the city, is the capital, it feels more like a village compared to a big city like Brussels. It’s about a 2.5 hour train ride, and the train station is pretty small and leaves you on the edge of the “city.” I had mapped out before we got there our route up to the hotel, yet not knowing that it would be primarily uphill the whole way, damnit. Nevertheless, we made it up to the hotel, which actually was in a killer location. Hotel Simoncini was our home for the night, and we were right off the main square in the middle of town.

Inside the Casemates...all carved out by hand

Now, we always like to knock out the big tourist things immediately, so we dropped our bags, took a shower since we had traveled through 4 countries in the last 24 hours, and headed out to dinner. We found some little french restaurant (main language in Luxembourg) and sat on a square where an orchestra was playing for the locals. It was pretty cool, and the food wasn’t bad at all either. Now, most would’ve considered it touristy, but Luxembourg isn’t the most frequented stop by most travelers in Europe, so we didn’t really feel that it was touristy. We felt that we were with the locals, which was good. We had been on the go for 24 hours, so we decided to head back to the hotel after dinner and crash hard for the night, and then attack the city the next day before we grabbed our train to Zurich. So we got up, and bam, it’s pouring. Really the first day of our whole trip where rain was going to affect our schedule. But did it? No. It was on and off all day, so we had to make the best of it. We knew that we wanted to see the old caves in the city, or otherwise known as the Casemates, which were used in the wars. You’d never think it, but the city of Luxembourg had quite an elaborate system, and quite a bit of leverage if someone tried to invade them. Hence, nothing was ever overtaken, and no buildings were ever destroyed. It was pretty cool to see the system of caves and tunnels that they used to prepare for battle, and to see that they haven’t changed since they were created years ago.

Nice weapon to use from a cave I'd say

After seeing those, which really was the highlight of the whole city unless you are addicted to seeing high end retail, which Luxembourg has plenty of, we had to head over to a shop to get our customary country magnet. One day I hope to have a magnet from every country in the world and then do something with them, but for now we just needed one. We stepped into a store, and they had a few, but they were all behind glass. So we couldn’t check them out, strange. Then Annemarie likes to collect postcards, and she started checking them out, and the lady in the shop spat out some French, which I translated into “read the sign, don’t touch that.” So I looked over and there actually was a sign “don’t touch the postcards.” You gotta be kidding me, how are we supposed to check them out and browse through them if we can’t touch them?? So she got the appropriate scowl from Annemarie, and walked right out. These people obviously didn’t want to make any money. We walked down the street, found another shop, better magnets, and cheaper, picked up our goods and got out of dodge. Luxembourg was all that we imagined….not much, but we saw the highlights and had a good meal. Will I be back? Probably not unless necessary. Next post will be about our fun times in Zurich and Vaduz, which I’ll have up tomorrow. Playing some catch up.

You can see the Casemates built into the rock

Au revoir!

There comes a day in every trip we take that we just like to relax and pretty much do nothing. Well, Day 2 in Cape Town was just that. We woke early and headed downtown to look around, see what the FIFA Fanfest was all about, and maybe find some good souvenirs for the trip. Well, we made it downtown, and picked up a few things as we had planned, but one thing I really wanted was a World Cup scarf with the South Africa logo on it. Now, mind you, this was DAY 2 of the World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world. How much inventory did all the stores and street vendors have of these particular scarves………NONE! I spoke to a couple of vendors and store owners, and they all said they were sold out of them a few days before the World Cup even started!!! You’d think that they’d stock up on what would be the most popular selling item at the World Cup….besides the vuvuzelas of course!

Cape Town FanFest

So with the morning being a disappointment looking for these items, I pretty much decided I wanted to hit the pub to watch the matches for the day, especially the USA vs. England match that would be on…8 hours later. I had read about an English pub downtown that was the most popular place for ex-pats to watch matches, but we were there just a tad early….in fact early enough that no one was at the pub yet. Seeing that it was off the beaten path a bit from the rest of the area, we decided to head back to the V&A waterfront and watch the match from the Ferryman, which is an infamous pub which shares a center wall with Mitchells Ale House, which is also a pub popular with ex-pats. Safe to say, 8 hours before the England match, Mitchells was already filling up, so we sat outside at the Ferryman.

Mitchell's Ale House and Ferrymans

To pass the time, we had to watch a lot of sports, so we did. First there was the end of a rugby match that we didn’t really pay attention to, but there was a soccer match up next, so we didn’t really care. Well, that would’ve worked out fine if it hadn’t been for the big Springboks match that was on immediately after the current rugby match. Now for those that don’t know, South Africa rates rugby much higher than soccer, and it is the national sport if you speak to any locals. South Africa was playing France, whom they hadn’t beaten in 5 years, so this was a big one, and it was at home. I mean, why wouldn’t you schedule a huge rugby test match in Cape Town at the same time of the World Cup. Seems logical, no? Anyway, South Africa killed France, and reassured everyone at the pub, which was full now, that they do have the best team in the world. We had followed rugby a bit when we were in Paris back in 2007 when the Rugby World Cup was going on, but not much since. Well, I think I might follow the Springboks a bit more now, as I started to get into it again while were watching. My old man would be proud, but I have a million questions about the rules again, so there’s our first conversation when I get back to the states Dad.

This was about 6 hours into the night!

After that match, there was a soccer match, which included Nigeria. All the teams from Africa have quite a bit of support down here, but the locals are pulling for all of them as well, as they want to see their continent do well, and hopefully have a few teams progress. At the time of this blog post, the only team that looked good after the first round of group play was Ghana, who had won on a penalty.

We finally get to the USA vs. England match, and the pub begins to fill up again. Fans from England, USA, etc surrounded us. We sat next to a couple people that were in from NYC, and had just landed in Cape Town a few hours before after a 30-hour trip that included a connection in Dubai. Again, if you traveled to the World Cup this time around, you were a true fan I feel. Well, the match started out well for England, as they slipped one by Howard only 5 minutes into the match. But in true England fashion, they have an unmemorable blunder by their goalie, which allowed the USA to tie it up, and ultimately get the draw in the match. All in all, I was quite disappointed in the match, as I thought England would rip through the USA, but they didn’t show much desire after they gave up that terrible goal, but at least they got the point, and will play Algeria next on June 18th in Cape Town.

After the match, we decided at that point it was time to turn in for the night, as we had been at the pub, for what my friend Iain would call, a solid 10-hour “sesh” of boozing. We also had some big plans the next day, as we headed to the Cape of Good Hope and planned to spend some time driving up the west coast of the cape. More of that day in the next post.

Cheers

WURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! WURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! That’s the first sound we heard when getting off the plane in Cape Town, coming from the vuvulezas that are a staple with South African sports. They were especially noticeable the day we got in since we were 24 hours from the World Cup starting, and South Africa was in the opening match. It was more electric here than I remember at any sporting event than I have ever been to….and the game wasn’t even in Cape Town!!! This country is really behind their team, or as they call them, Bafana Bafana (which means “Boys, Boys”).

There were two games on the first day of the World Cup, and we had tickets to the “other” game, which was being hosted in Cape Town at their new stadium, France vs. Uruguay. But we’ll get to that a bit later as we packed in quite a bit during the day before we hit the match.  We knew we only had a little less than 5 days, so we wanted to do as much as we could while down here, seeing this isn’t exactly the easiest locale to visit. Note, we flew from Madrid, and it was still another 5,000+ miles to get down to South Africa. For all the fans that made the trip, they definitely put on the travel legs to get down here. Anyway, on to the day.

Top of Table Mountain with Cape Town in the back

We were told the weather in Cape Town can change every 10 minutes, so if it’s predicted that the day will be clear for the most part, you should take advantage and head up to Table Mountain, because you might not get another chance. Friday was a perfect day. Not a cloud in the sky, about 60 degrees, and no wind. So to combine two things we wanted to do, we hopped on the bus tour around the city, as we usually do, to knock out a lot of stuff in one package. Table Mountain happened to be a stop, so we could get dropped off, check it out, and then hop on another bus when we were done, as they came around every 20 minutes or so. The bus tour actually wasn’t bad, as it was a double-decker bus, and it was open up top, and with the perfect weather, it just made for a great time.

cable cars going up and down from the top of Table Mountain

They showed us a couple sites around town, explaining how Cape Town came to be, the struggles it has gone through, and the effects pre and post apartheid. That time took quite a toll on the city, and still rears it’s ugly head today when you look at District 6 in the city, which to this day still hasn’t really been rebuilt from the time when the government decided to level it and make 60,000 homeless….instantly. After seeing that part of the city, the tour only could get better, and it did, as we headed for Table Mountain. Now what did I say about good weather and getting up there as quick as possible? Yeah, everyone knows that, so of course it was busy, but I knew it would lay off a bit as the South Africa match was on at 4pm, and there was no way any locals were going to miss that, so I think crowds were a lot lighter than they could have been had there been no match. So we get in line, and get to the cable car, only to be stopped for a private group to go up by themselves.  I think most people would’ve been mad we were cut in front of, especially the guys, but it was the WAGS from France who were in front of us, and naturally they were posing for all the cameras. It also made sense that they were there, as France was playing that night, and the team is not allowed anywhere near their women for 24 hours prior to the match. Here they are below:

The Wives and Girlfriends of France

Now being at the top of Table Mountain, you get to see what has been voted the last 3 years, the most beautiful city in the world. I’m not sure if this is the best view of the city, as pictures from the ocean and out on Robben Island looking at the city from the water tend to look a bit better, but you can see how unique the city is, and how amazing it is that the mountains literally run right into the ocean, and everyone lives on the flat area between. I had seen pictures of this city for years, but couldn’t really believe I was there until we snapped some pictures. The views from up top are incredible, and the luck we had seeing it on a clear day was even more amazing. Just for the picture opportunities alone, I suggest getting up there. I thought the cable car would be a bit scarier, but it’s very stable, and the floor actually rotates inside as you’re going up, so everyone gets a chance to see all the views it has to offer.

Sippin' a Castle while watching Bafana Bafana

After taking about 500 pictures up top, we headed down to see the rest of the bus tour, which took us around Lions Head mountain, and then through the ritzy neighborhoods of Cape Town, which were much different from downtown, and had their own vibe as well. I can see why many who are from Cape Town never leave, because the landscape of their city is so unique and beautiful it would be hard to beat. The tour ended, and we had about 15 minutes to get to a pub or anywhere that had a seat to watch South Africa play Mexico in the opening match of the World Cup. Of course, it was rather hard finding a seat, but we took a back way into a restaurant, and ended up having pretty decent seats outside to watch the match….and of course grab a few beers. We took off about halfway through the second half, as we had to drop off our bags, and then head to the stadium to see our match, but we were there long enough to see Bafana Bafana score and the restaurant went crazy. Dancing, cheering, blowing their vuvulezas, singing songs, and everything else you can imagine. It was something we’ll never forget.

Locals watching the match at a big screen at the V&A

So we head over to the stadium, which is only about a 10 minute walk from where we were staying, although with security checks and the volume of people, it took more like 30 minutes to get inside, but none the less, it was close. Now, the seats for the World Cup were split into three categories, and I had one match in Category 2 and one in Category 3. The only thing was you had on idea where in those sections your seats were until you printed them out in South Africa. Well, we got lucky for the first match, as we had 2nd row in the club level of the stadium!! Our seats couldn’t have been any better for Category 2 tickets. You know you have good seats when you can hear the ball being kicked, even with 60,000 people screaming and horns blowing everywhere. On top of that, the new stadium is a work of art, and extremely modern. The match ended up being pretty dull, 0-0 draw, and in the following week it has been dubbed the most boring match of the tournament, but I really didn’t care, as we were there, and had great seats….albeit for a boring match!

Not a bad view for the first match, eh?

That really covered what our first full day in Cape Town was like. The best part at the end of the day was we knew we had 3 more days, another match to see, and whatever else sparked our curiosity. We knew if the rest of the trip was anywhere near as great as this day, that this trip would be one for the books.

WURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! WURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

Best banner at the match...too bad they were forced to take it down!