My First Eurotrip: Part 2

Here’s the second and final post about the trip I took to Europe this past July. It was nice to look back on it one last time. I actually learned quite a bit about some of the things I saw that I didn’t know about before.

I’m looking forward to my next trip somewhere in Mexico in April. I’m going to make a list of the top 5 places I want to go in Mexico and try to cross at least one of them off the list during the two weeks of vacation I’ll have.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy. Please feel free to send me a message or leave a comment if you want to talk to me about anything you read. I’m always open to having a conversation.

Paris, France

“We’ll always have Paris.” That’s the line that was famously spoken in the 1942 film Casablanca. Hollywood romance is completely out of touch with the reality of love, but it’s a nice one liner from the black-and-white days of film. The meaning of the quote is simple, memories of Paris never parish. I’m too young to know if that’s true, but I’ll do my best to remember the visit I paid to the French capital 7 months ago. 

Paris is a hectic city, unsurprisingly, as France is the top tourist destination in the world, hosting 89.4 million international visitors in 2018. TripAdvisor listed the Louvre Museum and the Eiffel Tower as the fourth and fifth ranked tourist attractions in the world. Add those numbers up and you get a city that’s constantly filled with tourists. As in many cities, the summer months are the busiest, which makes sense because the weather was beautiful in July. I’m still nursing a tank top tan from the burns I suffered while walking around each afternoon.

A cancelled train from London meant a late arrival in Paris. As in most major cities, Uber is the most convenient option to get around an unfamiliar city, especially when you can’t be bothered with the time and energy that taking transit often requires while you’re carrying heavy luggage. That’s the option I’d recommend if you ever arrive late in the evening to any city you’ve never been in before. The hotel was nice, it was located south of the Eiffel Tower, if I remember correctly. The room window had a nice view of the streets outside, making it nice to open in the morning as you sip on your coffee, and to watch the sunset in the evening with a glass of wine. The concierge spoke, who was an older man and a grump, spoke broken English. The next morning I mentioned the grumpiness to the next concierge working the desk and he kindly apologized.

The following day was the first time using Paris transit. It’s easy enough to get around when you use Google Maps as a crutch. It essentially does all of the work for you, telling you which train or bus to catch and where and when to catch it. Guiltless selfies in front of a damaged Notre-Dame Church happened. 

As in any major city beware of scams. If you search on Google you can find the top ten most common ones in most cities. Making the top of the list of one I searched for Paris was the “gold ring” scam. I experienced it firsthand, as an old woman stumbled towards me with a gold ring in her hand. I didn’t understand a word that she said and ignored her and continued walking. It wasn’t until I searched for scams on Google back at the hotel that my suspicions were confirmed. I think if you’re going to be spending some time exploring any big city that it’d be worth quickly checking out what common scams you might encounter. 

The metro blasts announcements, warning travellers to keep an eye out for pickpockets. Some of them are blatantly obvious. I saw a young man staring at the back pockets of people buying metro tickets. In the evening I saw some guys who sell souvenirs on the street shouting that a woman who was looking to buy something had been pickpocketed. You need to be cautious about that, which sucks. It does subconsciously stay with you as you walk around through foot traffic.

The Eiffel Tower really is a beacon of energy in the city. Whether it’s day time or night time, people surround it with bottles of wine and crepes. Rather than watching the sunset beneath the tower, I’d definitely recommend paying the entry fee and watching it from atop the Arc de Triomphe. You get a beautiful panoramic view of the city and the sunset was one of the most memorable I’ve experienced. Maybe I’m romanticizing it because it’s Paris, but I won’t soon forget that one. After the sun does set, it’s worth going to the tower and watching it light up at night. Grab a crepe and enjoy the view.

On the first day I walked something like 23 kilometers. The second day was more relaxing, and the afternoon was spent at Jardin de Luxemourg. It’s a perfect spot to spend an afternoon, really. Although it’s busy, there is space to be found to relax and take a break while enjoying some beautiful gardens, statues and fountains. People freely hold picnics there, something I’d definitely partake in on my next visit. Souvenirs are a lot cheaper if you buy them from the guys who make their living selling them on the street. That’s an easy way to avoid overpaying for miniature towers and trinkets. 

All in all, things never seem to be as bad as they were in hindsight. I honestly didn’t think Paris was that great while I was there, but looking back now I have fond memories and would return some day if the opportunity comes.

Rome, Italy

Rome must be one of the most adored cities in the world. It’s historic, as one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in Europe. It’s also home to the smallest country in the world in Vatican City. Upon arriving in the afternoon at the train station, the hotel was a walkable distance. The hotel was in an old apartment building, where apartments have been renovated in a way that they contain a few separate rooms and a hallway as the lobby area. It’s a bit of a strange setup, but it’s essentially not much different than the experience you get from a hotel while you’re travelling. They’re pretty much just used as a place to store your luggage and to sleep, not really a place to spend much time in. The entire city is quite walkable so you won’t spend much time on the train as you would in other cities.

I’m not sure when or if it was resolved, but in July there was an issue with trash collection in Rome. Trash wasn’t being collected due to shutdowns at some of the local landfills. There were health warnings, rat infestations, and people began to resort to lighting dumpsters on fire to get rid of the trash. It was a pretty embarrassing problem for a city that must see a ridiculous amount of tourism money. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t leave an impression on me about how nice of a city it is. 

Rome has 280 fountains, none more famous than Trevi Fountain. Over 700,00 euros worth of coins are tossed into it each year. I don’t know if that’s enough money to cover the cost of making the wishes made in the process come true (mine hasn’t yet). Good luck getting a good photo of yourself there in the afternoon, it’s filled with about 500 other people trying to do the exact same thing. I think it’s better to just enjoy the view and snap a picture of it from an angle where less people will be visible. The same TripAdvisor list that ranked Paris’ main attractions as the 4th and 5th most popular tourist attractions in the world also ranked the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums as the numbers 1 and 2. If you’re going to get into the museum, be prepared to wait in line for a long time (I wasn’t prepared for that so I didn’t). The Colosseum, though, is pretty incredible. I preferred how it looked at night as it was illuminated and there was much less foot traffic. I got some nice night photos of it.

The Spanish Steps were built early in the 18th century to connect the Trinità dei Monti church that was under the patronage of the king of France, with the Spanish square below. Nowadays the Steps are popular for painters, artists and poets. People also love to sit on them. I’ve noticed this in pictures I’ve seen of the Steps, but that didn’t appear to be allowed anymore, as officers blew whistles and chased away those people who were making attempts to sit down to either eat their lunch or have a photo taken. They’re worth seeing as there’s a certain romance to them.

Everyone told me you have to visit Rome once to say you’ve been there. That’s the exact feeling I got from it. I don’t feel the need to ever go back, but I’m glad that I went. 

Milan/Lake Como, Italy

I’ll start by saying aperitivo is pretty much the best thing ever. It’s like happy hour, but with food involved. You pay a certain amount of money per head, and get a nice cocktail and access to a buffet for a couple of hours. Milan is supposedly the best place in Italy for it. Bars and restaurants fill up and the nightlife begins. According to some articles that I read, the food and drink selection for aperitivo in Milan is known as the best in the country. It’s the only place I got to experience it in Italy, but I have to believe that opinion. Apparently the more south you go in Italy, the more difficult it is to find an aperitivo that’s comparable to the ones you can find in Milan.

Milan is one of the “big four” fashion capitals of the world (London, New York and Paris round out the list). It was settled 2500 years ago by the Insurbes (a Celtic tribe of the Italian peninsula) under the name Mediolanum. It was conquered by the Romans in 222 BC and subsequently renamed Milan. Milan was ruled by the Spanish in the 1500s and by the Austrians in the 1700s. In the Second World War the city fell victim to bombings carried out by the Allied forces, and following the war in the 50s and 60s, began its growth into the city you see today in the 50s and 60s. Urbanization became a global trend at that time, so Milan wasn’t unique beginning its sporadic growth in the middle of the 20th century. 

You can’t visit Milan without paying a visit to one of the largest cathedrals in the world, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nascente. The locals simply call it Il Duomo. The interior is strikingly different from the exterior. The exterior has 2,245 marble statues. The roof has 135 carved stone pinnacles that give it its unique look. The entry fee gives you access to the roof and the interior. The walk on the roof gives you a nice view of Milan and gives you a close look at the details of the marble and carved stone. The interior is dimly lit and home to the largest stained glass windows in the world. 52 large pillars act as a skeleton to Il Duomo. You can access the crypt, the tomb of Gian Giacomo Medici. Mercidi was an Italian Condotierri (contractor in English), who captained Italian mercenaries and was named the Duke of Marignano at one point. Mercidi’s life story is worth reading about if you’re going to view his tomb. You also get a view of the treasury where you’ll see gold and silver work that dates back as far as the 4th century. 

Upon leaving Il Dumo, you can walk to the left and quickly access one of the most luxurious shopping centres in the world, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. You can grab a gelato (ice cream) and window shop at stores that you’ll never end up actually venturing into. When it was finished being built in 1877, it was the largest shopping centre in Europe. It’s utterly impressive to look at when you realize the date of its construction. It’s thought of as the beginning of modern architecture in Italy.

Lake Como is the perfect spot for a day trip while staying in Milan. By train from Porta Garibaldi you can get there in just over an hour. Upon arriving in Lake Como you can take a ferry that has different drop-off points all around the lake. If you’re into Hollywood, George Clooney’s villa sits lakeside. As you walk along the quiet roads you see amazing houses and luxurious sports cars parked in their driveways. When you finally find a beach to relax on, you likely won’t be impressed by its size. The sand is littered with weather glass and the water is chilly, but tolerable. I can’t imagine how many wine bottles have been tossed overboard from boats over the years. The ferry might run a little bit late so many sure you get back in time to make the train back to Milan. I remember running through the streets of Lake Como trying to cut a ten minute walk into a five minute run in order to make the train, which ended up being delayed anyway. 

So long as I have friends in Milan, I’d gladly go there again to join them for aperitivo, and an espresso at Lake Como.

London, England

London was the first and final stop on this Eurotrip. Spending three weeks constantly moving cities did get exhausting, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The train from Edinburgh to London was just under 5 hours and was a comfortable and relaxing ride. The accommodations in London were very close to Wembley Stadium, and quite a long train ride from the centre of London. I think the train ride was roughly 40 minutes each way. It was a nice area, though, with a shopping centre around the corner. The Yankee Candle store made some money off of me as a result.

I was immediately surprised by London’s size. It’s the third most populated city in Europe and covers a huge geographic area. Getting around can take awhile depending on where you want to go. It’s important to plan out which attractions you want to see and map them out so that you’re not going back and forth to different destinations, or too far out of the way. 

The first afternoon was spent exploring the city centre and photographing some of the main attractions like the London Eye and the Tower Bridge. Big Ben is still under construction so it sadly wasn’t exactly worth photographing. The weather was nice for the entire three days, with sun or variable clouds during the day. The evening was spent having some pints at a couple of bars and then heading back to the hotel. It gets cold at night in London and the climate reminded me of back home on Vancouver Island. The breeze off the water is cool enough that you’d be uncomfortable without a light jacket or sweater when the sun goes down.

The second day included a visit to Buckingham Palace. I’ve been seeing the Queen’s face on every piece of cash I’ve ever spent in Canada, so it was nice to finally get a look at where she lives. It’s quite incredible how much attention the royal family gets. I don’t blame Prince Harry for moving his family to Vancouver Island, very near to my dad’s house. It’s so much quieter and I think the people are more respectful of privacy back home. The evening was again spent with some overpriced London pints. The Anchor pub on Thames River was a beautiful spot to chill out and watch the sunset. I took advantage and grabbed some nice night photos of the river.

By the final day, the exhaustion had hit and it wasn’t worth going back down to the city centre. On a long trip, and on the 20th and final day, I don’t think you’ll regret spending a day doing nothing spectacular. Flights between Vancouver and London are typically cheaper than I see to anywhere else in Europe, so there’s a good chance I’ll be back there sooner rather than later.

Top 5 Places I’ve Been in Mexico

Since this is essentially for friends and family back home, here’s an update. I started writing this earlier in the week on Monday after my last trip, but on Tuesday I went to work feeling extremely tired. I then went to a weekly appointment and realized something wasn’t feeling right. I spent Tuesday night tossing and turning and couldn’t get to sleep. At 5 a.m. I texted work and told them I wouldn’t be coming in as my body began to ache and my stomach began to feel nauseous. I didn’t go to work the rest of the week and spent it on my couch recovering from an apparent stomach virus. I would assume that I caught it in Mexico City.

Anyway.

Oddly enough when I speak to many people from Mexico, I find that I’ve visited more places in their own country than they have. I can see how that would work. Back home, I’ve only been in B.C. and Alberta and have never been to the eastern provinces of Canada. I’m actually a bit embarrassed sometimes when people ask me what Quebec is like and I have no answer for them. I generally tell them they have poutine and speak French. The next question that they ask me is, “what’s poutine?” 

I wanted to write a list of the top 5 places I’ve been in Mexico just as a way to reflect on some of my past experiences and maybe give myself an idea where I’d like to go next. I’ve been to some of these places more than once and I’m just basing it off the experiences I’ve had at each place. 

5. Cancun, Quintana Roo

Like many tourists, this was the first beach I visited in Mexico (for spring break, shocker, I know) and it didn’t disappoint. The first time was with a group of around ten friends. We rented a villa and took turns rotating who would sleep on the floor each night (I somehow ended up on it a couple of nights in a row). We went to a different nightclub every single night and it was one of the most memorable and hilarious weeks I’ve had in all my years in Mexico. Four of the guys in the group ended up on a documentary titled Crime, Carnage and Cancun that aired on the BBC in the UK (that should tell you how the trip went).

The second time I went was pretty much the same deal, with a smaller group of us renting a house again for the week-long bachelor party for one of the best friends I’ve made while living in Mexico. Being in our 30’s, we had to take a couple of nights off in that trip. Anyone who’s in their 30’s knows the hangovers last a little longer. The groom lost his wallet on the first night out, and then proceeded to donate the new pair of sunglasses his future wife bought him to the Caribbean waters on what I think was the third day. I’m not sure at which point he lost his dignity. He’s still happily married, luckily.

4. Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco

I was torn between putting Puerto Vallarta or Sayulita on this list. I decided on Puerto Vallarta because I’ve been there twice now and it’s a place where my late grandmother would drive her motorhome down from Canada and spend her winters, so I have a connection it.

The first time I went I spent most of my time in Nuevo Vallarta for the wedding of one of my best friends from my hometown. It was a special week because it was the only time all of my childhood friends have all gathered together outside of our own country. Growing up with the Pacific Ocean always a five minute walk from where I slept at night, it always feels nice to get close to it again.

The second time I went was with my mom last year during spring break. Puerto Vallarta has a large expat population, with a lot of Canadian snowbirds calling it their part-time home (beer is expensive in Canada), which makes it pretty easy to feel at home there. The airport is a lot more central to the city than some of the other beach cities (Cancun, Los Cabos, Playa del Carmen), so it’s nice for a quick visit. I would say it’s also the least expensive of those aforementioned beaches. You don’t get the Caribbean water, but I found that it’s a more relaxing atmosphere than Cancun or Playa del Carmen. 

3. Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo

I’ve been to Playa del Carmen twice now and I’d describe it as a mini-Cancun. Part of me actually prefers Cancun because you can walk along the beach in isolation because it’s so much larger than the beach in Playa. What put it ahead of Vallarta and Cancun on my list was the experience I had when I was there visiting Mayan pyramids at Coba and riding through the jungle on bicycle to swim in a cenote (an underground cavern of fresh water). I also got to visit some Mayan ruins at Tulum that trip. That was an awesome experience and one I’d like to try again.

The second time was for the wedding of my friend from the bachelor party in Cancun. It was a beautiful wedding and very memorable. I even donned a traditional Scottish kilt (my friend is Scottish) and won’t soon forget the bagpipes playing while his wife walked through the white sand to say “I do” to him. A beautiful wedding and some beautiful memories.

The nightlife isn’t as wild in Playa del Carmen as it in Cancun, which is fine for me these days. We ended that trip with a night out at Playa Del Carmen’s branch of Coco Bongo, which essentially offers the same show as the one you get in Cancun.

2. Tequila, Jalisco

Most of my friends and family back have a love/hate relationship with the gift provided to us by the blue agave plant: tequila. Generally, it’s from some rough nights out they’ve had with Jose. I guess it’s called a tequila sunrise because you can still taste it in your mouth long after the sun rises the next morning. 

The town of Tequila in Jalisco is certainly more pleasant than a hangover. Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico, and one I’ve visited numerous times is just under an hour and a half drive away from Tequila. Alternatively, you can take one of the express trains from the center of Guadalajara which cost roughly the equivalent of $100 Canadian that will get you there and back. The train ride includes several stops along the way at distilleries and restaurants. I’ve never done it this way, but next time I’m in Guadalajara it’ll be on my list of things to do.

When I visited Tequila it was only for an afternoon, but I explored it on foot and went around to various stores and asked for a taste test of their tequila. Some of them were the best I’ve ever tasted and I would have grabbed a bottle had I not had a carry-on only ticket booked to return home. Something about sipping a tequila cocktail while walking around its hometown felt very Mexican, and it’s something I think everyone who loves the spirit should experience at some point. 

There’s a great Mexican series on Netflix titled Tequila worth checking out if you’re into foreign language television (this is a recommendation for my grandpa). It gets into the sometimes brutal nature of doing business in Mexico, as it revolves around a wealthy family whose tequila based corporation has roots planted in the town I’ve written about here.

1. Guanajuato City, Guanajuato

Celebrating the Mexican independence in Guanajuato was a very special experience. The city is found in the state of the same name, which happens to be the state known as the birthplace of Mexico’s independence. Guanajuato was the site of the first battle in the war for independence, providing a just reason for it to be named a World Heritage Site in 1988.

Cinco de Mayo is probably the most well known celebration outside of Mexico, but it doesn’t hold nearly as much significance inside the country. The independence celebration is easily the biggest celebration of the year and takes place every September 16th. Based on its history, Guanajuato is understandably a popular spot to celebrate the occasion. When I attended it, I somehow managed to get a great hotel room that overlooked the iconic yellow church by showing up without a reservation (I wouldn’t recommend doing that). If yellow church is too difficult for you to say you can call it by its real name, Parroquia de Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato. It’s the largest building in the city and was built in the 17th century. The city has an awesome market named Mercado Hidalgo where you can find local crafts, souvenirs and food.

The city itself contains dimly tunnels that run underneath the city that I experienced firsthand when I drove through them. It’s easier to find a parking spot on the outskirts of the city, which is quite common, and leave your car there and spend your stay walking around on foot. I don’t think there’s a better place to celebrate Mexican independence.