You could say that the Roman Empire lives on though the Vatican. It was Emperor Constantine the Great who converted the whole of Europe to Christianity and built the original church on Vatican hill, over the grave of Saint Peter himself. After the Western Roman Empire fell, the Catholic Church acted as the principal force of unity in the Western World. In the Middle Ages, the Pope was considered greater than all the kings and rulers of Europe. Even today, the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.2 billion followers. Vatican City has become one of the most popular attractions in the world, drawing over 5 million tourists a year to its priceless works of art and opulent architecture. Despite one’s religious beliefs, one cannot deny the cultural and historical importance of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican. Continue reading
Throughout our European travels we have found evidence of the greatness of the Roman Empire; from Hadrian’s Wall in the misty isles of Britain as far as Ephesus on the Aegean shores of Turkey. Every church, every castle, and every European city we visited was built upon the foundations of Roman temples, forts, and towns. Roman language, culture, and technologies spread all across the western world and are still used today. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when at last we had arrived at the centre of it all, the birthplace of western civilisation, to which all roads once led: Rome.
It’s hard to know where to start with all that Munich has to offer. Bavaria’s capital and largest city holds the bar high as an economic powerhouse, popular tourist attraction, and a major centre of arts and culture. Despite being bombed into oblivion during World War II, Munich has rebuilt itself stronger and better than ever. In 2015, Munich was rated fourth city in the world with the highest quality of living. It’s a home to global corporations like BMW, Allianz and Siemens and has the lowest unemployment rate in Germany. Its historic architecture, rowdy beer halls and elegant parks make Munich a desirable place to live, play, and visit. Oktoberfest, the largest folk festival in the world, alone attracts 5 to 7 million tourists to Munich a year. All things considered, Munich seemed to be the perfect place to end our Bavarian adventure!
Fixed like a giant spider-web on the map, Milan stands out as one of Italy’s greatest, and most dazzling, metropolises. We had heard people say Milan’s a commercial capital without much else to do but shop for Gucci purses and dine in exclusive restaurants. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of renaissance art and architecture, marvellous churches and green spaces Milan has to offer. You don’t have to be ‘rolling in the dough’ to spend a couple of enjoyable days strolling around the city (or using its cheap transportation system), revealing the cultural riches of Milan around every corner.
We scored a pretty sweet Airbnb place in Sibiu, right outside the old city walls. It was in a perfect location for us to explore the old town and, since it was still pretty early in the year, the area was relatively quiet with just a few out-of-season tourists like ourselves.
Sibiu (“Hermannstadt” in German) was the largest and wealthiest of the citadels built by the Transylvanian Saxons: German merchants who settled in the area around the 12th century. The vast amount of wealth accumulated by the guilds allowed Sibiu to flourish, and permited/encouraged construction of the city’s impressive fortifications. At one time, Sibiu boasted 39 defensive towers, four gates, and five artillery batteries in addition to the walls surrounding the city. Nathanael and I were lucky enough to be staying right outside from one of only three of the remaining defensive towers, the Carpenters’ Tower. Pretty hard to beat that, eh?
We had finally arrived in fascinating land of Transylvania, Romania. We had been eager to visit for quite some time, even more so after speaking with Gabor, a big fan of the Transylvania region, back in Budapest. In my head I was imagining haunting castles perched on mountaintops, farmers still using traditional tools, and horse drawn carts rattling through towns; a mysterious, romantic country tucked away on the edge of Europe.
When we arrived in Salzburg, Austria on Dec. 5th, Christmas had already come! The streets were lit up with brilliant lights and the smells of baked goods wafted deep into our senses. Around every corner Christmas carollers galore sang traditional tunes, accompanied by brass bands and accordion players. Mulled wine was being quaffed in sickening amounts and temporary stalls, set up in several of Salzburg’s squares, were selling a multitude of bees-wax candles, holiday decorations, and mountains of sugary sweets. Little did we know that all of these familiar festivities were leading up to something strange…. and possibly terrible.
Our very first Couchsurfing experience began in Budapest and we were privileged with meeting such a wonderful host! Gabor met us at the train station and took us into his family home, a hundred-year old apartment building with a beautiful, enclosed courtyard, quite near to the Danube. His parents were extremely friendly, offering us tea, biscuits and breakfast, and Gabor himself was a wealth of knowledge about the history of his city.
Ahhh, the Emerald Isles! Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and I felt like we had barely enough time to scratch the surface. Still, enjoy checking out some of my favourite things we saw/did in our short stay!
Glendalough Valley is a glacial valley nestled in the Wicklow mountains south of Dublin. Filled with spectacular hikes and scenery, it’s also home to the Monastic City. The Monastic City is the remains of an early Christian settlement established in the valley n the 6th century. In addition to it being free to enter the Monastic City (always a plus), you can also use the ruin as a starting point for a walk along the lake or into the nearby mountains to get an even better view of the Round Tower. To top it all off, the nearby fields were filled with adorable new lambs when we went! So cute!
It was midnight on January 20th when we landed in London Gatwick airport. We were tired from our lengthy, cramped flight, sandwiched between airplane seats, and wanted more than anything to get through customs and be fast asleep in our London hostel.
Having filled out our landing cards we waited nervously in line toward the customs gate, preparing ourselves to face the intimidating officers. We were a bit anxious, not that we had anything to hide, but the mere presence of a customs agent tends to make one feel as if one does. We were both called up to one of the kiosks and were greeted by a wary face with eyes that peered deep into ours in an attempt to read our very souls. The Agent found us, a young Canadian couple, to be extremely suspicious and possibly a risk to the security of the country. He threatened to tear our bags apart in search of CV’s or other papers that would give evidence that we were seeking to work in the UK and trying to immigrate illegally. For at least 15 minutes we tried to soothe his suspicions and convince him that Canada is just fine for us and we have no desire to move to the UK. I brought up the fact that I have relatives in England (though I’m still not sure just how distant they are) and that I was interested in seeking them out, which for some reason seemed to calm the wrath of the customs agent. Perhaps he couldn’t think of any reason why someone would simply want to tour England.
“I’m going out on a limb trusting you blokes here….” said he, and after stamping our passports, we were at last allowed entry into his realm. What a relief!
What could be more enchanting than a skyline of medieval buildings, cathedrals, stone walls, and spiralling towers? Tallinn is an amazing blend of medieval history and young, party vibe. Nathanael and I can’t wait to grab a few friends and come back in the summer!
Our first night in Tallinn couldn’t have been better. We arrived in Tallinn on the ferry from Helsinki around supper time and set off for our hostel in the heart of the Old Town. The harbour was only a 15 minute walk from the hostel, but we took a bit longer. The streets wound and intersected haphazardly, coupled with the fact that everything around us looked so achingly beautiful in the falling snow.
A little tired, but enthused from our mini-cruise, we arrived bright and early in Helsinki harbour on December 20th. The ferry pulled in, and after snapping a few nice shots from the ship, we got our packs on and off we went.
We were meeting our Finnish host about an hour west of Helsinki a little later that day, so we didn’t take much time to look around this time. That ended up being fine though, because it was raining anyway. The route to the central train station went by a lot of nice buildings too, so we could do a little bit of sight-seeing as we walked.
My Top Five of Sweden
Gamla Uppsala, Uppsala
Gamla Uppsala is the original site of the city of Uppsala. The present day location of the city was originally called, “Östra Aros,” and overtook Gamla Uppsala in importance in the 1200’s. Prior to that, Gamla Uppsala had been an important religious, economic, and political centre since as early as the 3rd century AD. Today, around 250 barrows (including the Royal Mounds) and the old church finished in the 12th century remain, along with a newer museum. It would have been even better in the summer, when the property would have been filled with staff in costumes and the restaurant would have been open to the public, but we still had a great time. There were a lot of signs telling us about the area, the Royal Mounds, etc. and we had the place mostly to ourselves! We could walk around the grounds for free, and paid to go into the museum as well. The museum was small, but had some neat photos of the area back when it was a public place to downhill ski (!).
We arrived in Stockholm bright and early, eager to get the most out of our stay. We had planned on a two-night-extravaganza-adventure in Stockholm before taking a ferry to Helsinki. We lucked out and found a great deal on a hostel right in Gamla Stan, the historic old town!
We couldn’t believe how affordable it was considering how ideal the location was. Everywhere we could possibly want to go was within walking distance or a short train ride. Added bonus? We had booked two beds in a four bed mixed dorm, rather than a private room, to save a bit of money, and no one ended up booking the other beds so we had a room to ourselves anyway! Perfect!
My Top Five of Norway
Hiking in Frognerseteren, Oslo
The paths were a little rough in some areas, but the hike was beautiful. Cute little signs were posted at every intersection to let you know where the various cross-country skiing and hiking paths led. I could see these trails being fantastic on skis in the wintertime. Partway through our hike we were bombarded with golfball-sized snowflakes, making it seem even more like a mysterious winter wonderland!
We crossed the bridge from Sweden to Copenhagen. In the water towered several wind turbines, blades spinning silently in the distance. The bridge snaked to the other side of the border and we saw Denmark stretching out, a flat plate of land the Danes call home. We were dropped off near the central station, and swinging are packs onto our backs we set out to figure out where we were going to go next.
Sweden, Sweden, Sweden! We had a brief stop in Gothenburg on our way to Copenhagen, so here are some pictures! We decided on staying just two nights since we weren’t thrilled with our hostel and we were eager to see Copenhagen. Besides taking a moment to make the obligatory Batman jokes, we also found time to take in a rather interesting art exhibit (you’ll see what I mean).
Our next stop was Oslo. After having a chance to explore the smaller city of Bergen and the even smaller communities in Nordfjord, we were eager to see what the Norwegian capital was like. The morning we left Isane was hectic; we were worried about whether our 8:30 bus would wait for the 8:15 ferry we were taking. Fortunately, the bus was waiting for us (as Anne Britt and Roar assured us it would) and off we went. The bus ride was long (about 10 hours) but beautiful, with snowy hillsides and pretty houses. At the lunch stop we even got to run down the street and snap a couple pictures of the local stave church and surrounding area.
“Then, when it was least expected, Gisli turned around and ran from the ridge up onto the crag known as Einhamar. There he faced them and defended himself. Everyone in Eyjolf’s party was badly wounded, and Gisli died with so many great wounds that it was an amazement to all. They say he never once backed off, and as far as anyone could see, his last blow was no weaker than the first.”
Gisli Sursson’s Saga
Our last thing to do has been done today. We visited “Viking World” near the Keflavik airport. Though the name sounds like some rip-off carnival, it was an absolutely fascinating museum in which I learned a lot about the epic history of the Vikings.