Being my first trip to Europe I didn’t quite know what to expect, of course you hear about it from others but once you get to experience it first-hand you see what all the fuss is about. My trip was a bit of a whirlwind; 8 people, 5 counties, 10 cities and trying to fit as much as we could in 25 days, including a music festival, Yacht Week and Michelin star restaurants. Here’s how my trip started…
I flew Lufthansa from Vancouver to Brussels, Belgium with a 45 minute layover in Germany. Lufthansa is a fantastic airline and they even have a daycare on board which was fantastic as a couple with a young child seated in front of us switched with (a very willing) couple to the back daycare area! We left Wednesday night and arrived in Munich at 1:55pm on Thursday and it turns out that a 45 minute layover is very hard to work with, our flight was on time but the security and customs took so long we missed our connecting flight by 15 minutes, however Lufthansa protected us on the next flight which was just a little over an hour later.
We flew into Belgium on a Thursday and that afternoon we walked around Brussels, which was is beautiful. We hung out in the main square which is surrounded by beautiful buildings trimmed in bright gold. That night we had dinner at one of the restaurants on the patio right in the square and of course washed it down with a delicious Belgium beer. The square was just as packed once the sun went down as it was during the day, there is dancing, live music, food vendors and little shops set up. I would have loved to venture around the city more but we couldn’t find the time.
We started our trip in Brussels because a big reason for our vacation was to attend Tomorrowland (http://www.tomorrowland.com/home) which ran from Friday July 24th-Sunday July 26th and has become one of the biggest EDM (electronic dance music) Festivals in the world since it was founded in 2005. It takes place in Boom, Belgium which is 32Km north of Belgium. The festival takes place from 12:00pm-1:00am all weekend and there is a shuttle to and from the event, however we ourselves decided to take taxi to and from. Tomorrowland was the first music festival I have ever been to and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of music, it was one heck of a weekend.
We flew out of Brussels to Spilt, Croatia on Monday morning, three of us had an early flight which was fun for the rest of the group to bug us about, however we ended up getting the last laugh (we 3 are the only ones who didn’t lose our luggage that day). A two hour flight and we were in Split where we then headed to the Marina where we met our friend, boarded our boat and waited for the rest of our group to arrive. The later flight from Brussels ended up being delayed a few hours so we took that time to go do a little grocery shopping to stock the boat and then we had dinner at the Marina restaurant.
On our first day after we docked the boat we all rented scooters for the day and toured the whole island by ourselves, this I highly recommend! Our first stop was to a private beach, we parked along the side of the road and there was about a 15 minutes hike down to the beach. It proved to be a bit too hard of a hike for some of our group so they decided to drive to a different beach about 15 minutes back down the main road with much easier access. If you make it through the hike you are rewarded with a beautiful pebble beach with beautiful clear water which is perfect for a dip after working up a sweat on the hike down. There is even a little bar set up during the busy season so all sat and had a beer after our swim. After the beach we headed back to the scooters and crossed paths with the rest of the group about five minutes later who were on their way back to meet us. Once all back together we headed to a vineyard for a wine tasting and a little snack. Once done there we continued along the road touring the island stopping for photos along the way before returning our scooters just after sun down.
Croatia was having a record breaking heat wave and it was up to 45 degrees the week before we arrived and it had cooled down a bit from that when we were there but not by much. We were two days late too, because Tomorrowland ran into Yacht Week. I could not imagine 7 days on the boat – 5 was tough enough. We had no air conditioning on our boat and it 35+ weather sleeping felt like you were trying to sleep in a sauna. The final two days were by far the most fun, we met and tied up with six other boats and our boat had a DJ, so it was a mini party in the middle of the ocean. The morning we got off the boat, half of group were catching a flight out later that afternoon but my fiancé and I decided to spend the night in a hotel and catch a flight the next morning. On our last night we took a cab from our hotel into town to meet the other two who decided to spend the night and our cab driver pointed out a castle that was used in Game of Thrones. I found this all very exciting as I am a huge fan of the books and TV show.
Split is a really cool city which is built around an ancient palace which was built in the 4th century for a Roman Emperor as his retirement home. It is still in remarkable condition and acts as the main center for the whole city, within the stone walls it is filled with galleries, hotels, shops, restaurants, bars etc. Croatia has a lot of Italian influence especially when it comes to food – which was delicious – and I had some of the best truffle pasta here the whole trip. Croatia is known to have some of the best tasting tomatoes in the world, which I will gladly attest to (the tomato soup was especially good).
Florence: From Croatia we flew to Florence for some much needed downtime, we didn’t do much our first day had dinner and then everyone retired early for a good night’s sleep. Day two was much more productive, we took a direct bus to “The Mall” https://www.themall.it/en/outlet-italy/homepage.html (about 45 minutes) which is Luxury Outlet shopping with some of the most exclusive designers in the world such as; Tom Ford, Gucci, Moschino, Prada, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga just to name a few! We spent most of the day here walking around store to store and made a few purchases of course. We took the last bus back into Florence and went back to our hotel to nap and freshen up before dinner.
The next day we rented bikes from our hotel to get around the city, it was 38+ degrees that day so walking was out of the question. We stopped for lunch, checked out the local market and got some great Italian leather goods for ourselves and for some souvenirs. Later that night we went to a local bar and hung out drinking beer and speaking to locals we met. Once guy we met didn’t speak a word of English so we used a translator app which we all found quite amusing even our new Italian friend. Our last night in Florence we watched the sunset disappear behind the Ponte Vecchio which is a famous and very old medieval stone bridge over the Arno River. The bridge is over 2000 years old, although it has been reconstructed over the years due to flooding, wars, etc. Today the bridge is host to merchants and shops and you can see how they are built right along the outside and you can actually see the wooden beams holding the buildings up.
From Florence we went on a quick trip by train to Pisa because a trip to see the leaning tower is a must! We weren’t there for very long, mostly to take a few pictures and bragging rights.
Again from Florence we also took an overnight tip to a very small town called Modena. Although small it is a quite wealthy town, Modena is known for their Blasamic Vinegar and is the birth place of Enzo Ferrari and is home to the Ferrari Museum. One of the first models of the Ferrari to ever be shipped was the “Modena”, which of course was named after the town. With that being said, our trip to Modena had nothing to do with cars and everything to do with food!
Modena also happens to me home of Osteria Francescana which is the 2nd ranked restaurant in the world! The restaurant is owned by head chef Massimo Bottura who is featured in the first episode of the Netflix documentary “Chef’s Table” and our reservations were made over 6 months in advance.
Our group split up from Modena for a little bit, five of us caught a train to Venice and spent the night there but we all wish we had stayed a bit longer. We took a 15 minutes water taxi ride from the train station to our hotel and got to see how pretty Venice is. It was interesting to see how a busy city like Venice operates without one car in sight, In fact there is only one parking lot in all of Venice! We walked around the city that night and we were planning on doing one of those gondola rides you see in the movies, but at €100 each we decided against it. (Editor’s note – next time Charlotte will book her gondola ride in advance with Air Canada Vacations and save lots of money in the process!)
From Venice our group split apart again, my fiancé and I headed by train from Venice to Rome just the two of us. I loved Rome, it was my favorite part of Italy that we saw everything is so old and there is so much history! We were in Rome for three nights and it was very nice to be alone after traveling in a group for so long, the first night we went to an all truffle restaurant called “Tartufi and Friends” and if you love truffle (like we do) then I highly recommend it. We sat outside on the patio and had truffle pasta, truffle mashed potatoes, truffle mini pizza (I think you can see where this is going…) and we washed it down with a delicious Italian bottle of vino! After dinner we bought some truffle salt to bring home and checked out the Spanish Steps as it was very close to the restaurant.
Our second day we found a juice and salad bar for lunch, which was very welcome after eating nothing but pizza and pasta for days, from lunch we went to the Vatican City. The Vatican City is a walled enclave within Rome and has a population of about 900 people and is the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world. We paid extra for a guided tour of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, which probably wasn’t necessary but you do learn some pretty neat stuff about the history of it all. However at 2.5 hours and in 40+ degree weather, we left the tour early and walked through the rest by ourselves to the chapel, due to the religious nature of the Chapel everyone must have their knees and shoulders covered upon entry into the actual Chapel itself. Even though I’ve heard about the Sistine Chapel it really is something you have to see for yourself the painted ceiling is indescribable!
On our last night we went to another restaurant our friends suggested called Felice a Testaccio, we ordered their signature dish “Tonnarelli cacio e pepe” which is Tonnarelli pasta with pepper and parmesan cheese, which they mix all together table side for your enjoyment. Although the dish sounds simple it was by far one of my favorite meals the whole trip, I had finished by the time the waiter came back to check how everything was and we had a good chuckle about that. After dinner we went a saw the Colosseum we didn’t go during the day because it was currently under renovations and parts of it were closed off however, even at night it is spectacular it is lit up at night once the sun goes down.
From Rome we caught a flight to Barcelona to meet back up with the group. Barcelona is a very popular tourist destination, as the 10th most visited city in the world and 3rd most visited in Europe, averaging about 8 million tourists a year. Barcelona is a lot of fun, it boasts a number of historical monuments including 8 UNESCO heritage sites, a lively market with fresh fruit and seafood plus it has one of the best beaches in the world. Barcelona also has a GREAT nightlife, the clubs are great and had a headlining DJ every night we were there. The clubs don’t start to fill up until about 1am, the main DJ hits the stage around 2am and they close around 7am.
The first day in Barcelona we stayed mostly around the area of our hotel which was conveniently located by the Arc de Triomf which came in handy when having a cab drop us off. The Arc de Triomf (not to be confused by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris) was built as the main gate for the 1888 Barcelona world fare and leads into Ciutadella Park which during the day is full of other tourists and street performers. During my time there I was quite surprised by the influence of Japanese and Chinese cuisine. We did of course one night have dinner at a Spanish restaurant and we had the national dish, Paella.
On our second day in Barcelona we walked around the main strip, Las Ramblas, which has tons of shops and great statue performers who don’t realize are people until they jump or move and scare your pants off! We also went to the market which is similar to the ones we have here in Vancouver but it is a bit bigger. They have tons of candy, seafood, fruit and veggie all set up beautifully on display. After the market we continued down the main street stopping at a few stores until we made it to the big fountain and Marina at the end. As you can imagine the Marina is a very lively place with tons of fancy boats/yachts, lots of tourists and of course people trying to sell things like any Marina really.
Last but not least Paris, this is the last place we visited before heading back to Vancouver and in my opinion we saved the best for last. I LOVED Paris between the shopping, the food and the atmosphere what’s not to love! I have always heard that the Parisian people are rude and unhelpful but I never noticed or experienced that myself, it was perhaps the place with the least English spoken out of everywhere we visited but it was still easy enough to communicate. I would have loved to have spent more time here. We were only there for 4 days, and we fit a lot in during that short period of time.
Our days were spent just walking around the city, eating, drinking, and shopping everything you think of doing in Paris. We checked out The Louvre one day and we were hoping to see the Catacombs which is basically an underground tomb which holds the remains of over 6 million people whose death range from war, famine or diseases such as the plague. During World War II the tunnels were used by the French Resistance, the tunnel system is very intricate and to this day there are large parts which have not yet been discovered. In fact there was a fellow name Philibert Aspairt who got lost in the Catacombs in 1793 and his body wasn’t discovered until 11 years later! More recently, in 2004, police discovered a movie theater in one of the caverns equipped with a large screen, projection equipment and even seats for an audience! However the lineup to see the Catacombs was over three hours long and all in the blazing sun so we decided against it, but it is definitely something I have added to my bucket list!
During our walking we found another Truffle restaurant called La Maison de la Truffle, this one was bigger than the one we had gone to in Rome. It was beautiful inside and they had more truffle items then we could try; truffle wine, truffle champagne, truffle chocolate all made in house. The chocolate was much better than I had imagined it which I was quite please about, after we ate we left with just a few jars of truffle mustard to bring home with us. After we ate we went to St. Germain Des Pres which shopping area in Paris which has luxury designers such a Karl Lagerfeld, Ted Baker and Moncler. From there we caught the metro train back to our hotel and we relaxed before meeting our friends that night at the Eiffel Tower.
Sometimes when you hear about things your whole life they don’t live up to expectations, to my delight the Eiffel Tower was not one! I loved it, we took the lift up, because we though walking it didn’t seem to appealing after we had been walking all day, and it was only about €10 to get to the top. There is a gift shop and even public washrooms but the main reason of course is for the view, which is as breathtaking as you can imagine. Although we took the life up it was a very quick ride so we decided to take the stairs down which was much quicker than it looks. We decided to see the tower at night because once the sun goes down every hour on the hour the Eiffel Tower lights up in a spectacular twinkling light show!
On our last day in Paris we filled up on croissants, which when people say you don’t know a croissant until you eat one in Paris they are telling you the truth! Also as a Pulp Fiction fan we couldn’t leave without a trip to McDonald’s to have a Royal with cheese. Then we met our friends for our last night out and went to the Moulin Rouge district, we didn’t actually catch a show but we did sit at a lounge with live music. In all, it was a perfect way to spend our last evening in Europe.