Part of what makes travel so rewarding is finding things on the ground don’t exactly fly with outside perceptions. Be it lessons learned from buttoned-up French professionals stopping to help me and my floppy haircut fumble with a pay phone, or frowning Russians accepting me as family just because we booked the same train compartment.
Here’s my favorite European finds while traveling around the continent that loomed largest as a budding traveler way back when.
Italy is the Citizen Kane of travel. No matter how much praise it gets, how much of a caricature we make of flamboyant locals swooning over the sweetness of a pasta sauce, Italy just rewards. Over and over. I particularly enjoyed arriving one December at 5am in Rome and walking about the dark streets as it started to wake up.
In sports, scoring is overrated. Conditioned on a score-first-ask-questions-later regarding sports in the USA, I was slightly reluctant to be consume by England’s Premiership while living in London a few years ago. Then Tom Hall (the UK Travel Editor for Lonely Planet) invited me to a Arsenal-Newcastle game and I was hooked. It finished 1-0 (Arsenal) and I’ve not seen anything in person as exciting. Far more exciting than the NFL. And as close to ‘college football’ in intensity as I’ve ever seen.
Eurail earns its bucks on Swiss trains. Anyone with a Eurail pass should bee-line to some of Switzerland’s remarkable train journeys — the Glacier Express is only the most famous. I sat glued to the window on my ride up from Lucerne to Interlaken, twice. Looking at snow-capped peaks, dandelion-freckled fields out of Sound of Music, cows obediently wearing cow bells. And when I go back, I’ll probably do it again.
Czech Budweiser is better than St Louis’ Budweiser. I might have guessed it, but the answer comes with an exclamation point when a Czech Bud is slammed on a wood table before you in a beer hall in Prague. After two of them mid-afternoon I had to stumble back to my rented apartment. Bit of an adjustment from the US model there too.
A journey into Paris’ guts. A former colleague in New York once said his favorite museum of all time is Paris down-and-dirty Sewer Museum. The steps leading down from the Seine riverbank are unassuming, and the exhibits showing age-old techniques for unclogging Paris’ inner tubes are fascinating, but I was hooked by two things: a video showing Paris sanitation workers respond to a damsel in distress who dropped her keys into a sewer gate (and rewarding them with audbile kisses on their cheeks) and the unbearably cute refrigerator magnets in the museum store.
Bulgaria is pretty great. I’ve already listed my Top 57 Things in Bulgaria, so I’ll add just one: I like Bulgaria — with its mountains, 19th-century cottages, goat cheese, secluded Black Sea beaches (if you look), Roman ruins and head-nodding-means-no locals — more every time I go.