Thursday, July 18, 2013

Back in America

As most people should have realized, I returned to the U.S. on July 2nd. Since getting back I've been catching up with old friends, traveling a bit, and spending some quality time with my family. It's been really nice being back and I haven't had many problems readjusting. However, often times there are things that throw me off. The first time I went into a food establishment and saw all the prices in U.S. dollars confused me. I've had many other instances similar to this, but nothing too overwhelming.

I am currently still living at my parents' house outside of Philadelphia, but next month I'm moving to D.C. and I'll be starting grad school at the end of August. I know I've mentioned applying for grad school before, but I don't think I ever posted anything about my final decision. I'll be going to American University getting a masters in International Economic Relations.

As for this blog...well, despite the fact that several people have told me I should continue writing, I think I'm going to stop. That's not to say I won't necessarily pick it back up at some point, but for the time being I don't really know what I would continue blogging about. However, if I ever find a time where I feel like my life is interesting enough to talk about in a public forum, you may see me back here. For now, this is the end. I hope you've enjoyed it. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Some Final Thoughts...Europe

I feel like now that I've been to so many different places in Europe I should try to rate them a bit and pass on my suggestions. I had intended to give you my top ten and my bottom 10, however I came up with a top twelve and a bottom five, so we're going to go with it. The top twelve include my favorite places, places I would like to live, and places I would definitely enjoy going back to. (They are rated with the best places starting at 1.) The bottom five include places that I think are over-rated or just simply disappointing. These are mostly places I have no interest in returning to. (They are rated with the worst places starting at 1.) These lists are not only from my most recent travels in Europe but also from when I was here several times in the past. I will also list my next top destinations. These are the places in Europe I would like to go to next.

Before getting to the ultimate lists I also would like to share my suggestions and tips on traveling in Europe or, maybe more broadly, backpacking. There are certain things to take advantage of that you may not know about.

First of all, plan well. For example, when you are trying to pick a hostel and you are going back and forth between one with breakfast included or one without, think about whether you will actually be there for breakfast. Know when your trains leave and what time breakfast is. Many hostels have a fairly short time frame for breakfast and most breakfasts don't start until after 8.

Secondly, as far as hostels go, you may want to come up with specific specifications that you feel you really want and find out if they are offered at your hostel. Don't be shy to email hostels before committing to staying there. One thing I wish I did was to find out whether or not all my hostels had wi-fi in the rooms. Many hostels will advertise “free wi-fi”, but it may only work in one specific place in the hostel.

Other things you may want to specify with your hostels could include things like 24 hour desk service, luggage storage and laundry. If I'm arriving before check-in or sticking around after check-out, I always take advantage of luggage storage, but you need to know when someone will be at the desk to take your luggage. Sometimes its more convenient for me to leave my bags locked up at the train station. This can be very useful, but you really need to make sure that these services are offered before you just show up at the train station. It seems to me that this is often offered at most train stations (major and minor) in main land Europe. Sometimes its lockers and sometimes its an actual luggage check, but lockers seem to be cheaper. I have also discovered, however, that these facilities are rare in the UK for security purposes.

Now if you are planning on backpacking, I'd suggest getting a good backpack. This may sound stupid or redundant, but you wouldn't believe how many people I've seen staying at hostels with huge rolling suitcases. You may think it is easier to roll your stuff as opposed to carrying it, but think about getting on and off the train. Think about steps (sometimes narrow spiral staircases). Throughout most of Europe lifts are not always real common, especially in hostels. And even when you do find them they are often very small. One more thing to consider is the people around you. You would not believe how many times I might be running for a connecting train and I'm held up by someone who can't get there rolling luggage off the train quickly. You're not only hindering yourself, but you're hindering others as well. My best rule of thumb is to carry you luggage (by yourself) up and down a flight of stairs before you leave. If you can't easily do that you are probably bringing too much stuff and/or the wrong type of luggage.

Next, take advantage of free tours. There is a company called “Sandemans New Europe”, which offers free tours in 15 cities throughout Europe. I've taken these tours in Munich, Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Liverpool. In my opinion, these are the best free tours. I have taken a few other free tours with other companies (in cities where Sandemans doesn't currently operate) and they just aren't quite as good, but nonetheless they aren't bad. You may be wondering how someone can offer a few tour. Well, the concept of these tours is that they work on a tips only basis. So at the end of the tour, you can tip the guide whatever you think the tour is worth. Sandemans also offers paid tours for more specific things, but I haven't yet taken any of these.

My last tip is about paid tours. I'm a big believer in doing things yourself. When you take the train or the local buses and you navigate the city yourself, you really get a true feel for how the locals do things. I also feel that when you navigate a city yourself you can actually feel as if you understand the city a bit better because you did it all yourself. However, I'm not totally opposed to paid tours, but only on a limited basis. Sometimes, you just wouldn't be able to see certain things as well or at all if you don't take a paid tour. You also have to give your brain a rest sometimes, especially on an extended trip. You can't truly be on your game all the time. That being said, in the past two and a half months I can count the number of paid tours I've taken on one hand. I tend to do almost everything myself.

Now that I've given you my best advice, we are on to the best of the best and worst of the worst...

Top Twelve Best
  1. Santorini, Greece (a must visit if you are ever in Greece)
  2. Stockholm, Sweden (an amazing city on the water, but very expensive)
  3. Mount St. Michel (you just have to go to see what I'm talking about)
  4. Budapest, Hungary (I would love to go back and/or live there)
  5. Ireland. (the entire island, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland...from the cities to the towns, the cliffs to the castles...its amazing!)
  6. Hadrian's Wall (it's one of those place where you can have a surreal moment of sheer silence in the vast field with this ancient piece of living history)
  7. The Coast of Wales (simply breathtaking...a great place to visit)
  8. Zagreb, Croatia (and Croatia in general is a great place to go or live)
  9. London (I loved visiting and living there)
  10. Lisbon (beautiful coast lines and an exciting city)
  11. Salzburg (gives you that small town feel that you just can't get in Vienna)
  12. Bruges (a quaint little town that is nice to visit and fun to wander)

The Bottom Five
  1. Naples (dirty and unexciting)
  2. Athens (also dirty and unexciting)
  3. Prague (way too touristy and totally over-rated...this took me two visits to figure out)
  4. Verona (not much to it...I guess it didn't help that it rained the entire time I was there)
  5. Paris (it's not the worst place I've been but the people are generally nasty and the town is a bit over-rated, although there are some good museums to see)

My Next Destinations (in Europe)

  1. Southeastern Europe (including Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania)
  2. Turkey (especially Istanbul)
  3. Scandinavia (more than what I've already seen, especially Norway and Finland)
  4. Iceland

Monday, July 1, 2013

Ireland (Part 3)

July 1, 2013 7:20 PM—En Route to Dublin

What a great day to end this trip with! I took a tour with Rail Tours Ireland. These tours are unique because they utilize the trains to get you from one end of the country to the other, which I believe is faster than driving. So this morning I was up before 6 AM and I was at the train station at 6:40. Our train left at 7 and we were on our way to Limrick.

When we got to Limrick, we met our bus, which provided us transport for most of the rest of the day. We started off at Bunratty Castle. Bunratty Castle is a restored castle with a reconstructed Irish village surrounding it. When we first arrived our guide showed us a few houses in the villages, one of which had women inside making scones. Then he took us to the castle, where we had a brief tour with a different guide. This second guide was quite lively and he liked to make jokes and jump around, despite the fact that he was pretty old. After he introduced us to the castle and showed us a couple of rooms, we were free to explore the castle and the village on our own for about an hour. I first explored the entire castle and then I moved on to the village. The houses were nice to wander in and out of. And before I went back to the bus, I just had to have one of those scones, so I got a scone and a cup of tea.


An Irish Dog

The Castle

The school house

The Doctor's House

Next we were off to lunch. We stopped in a small village called Doolin to have lunch at a traditional pub. Despite not being very hungry, I got some Irish stew, which was amazing! And then I had a wander around the few small gift shops there. After lunch our bus drove us down to Doolin pier where we got a good view of the water and some of the cliffs of Moher.

After we left Doolin, our next stop was the cliffs themselves. We had a little over an hour to wander around and look at the cliffs and the visitors center. They were pretty amazing looking. There was even a castle at the top of one of them.

Once we finished at the Cliffs of Moher we started driving towards Galway. On the way, we were driving through the Buren National Park. This park consists of a lot of rocks and barren land. It is similar to the surface of the moon and because of this it is a protected area. We also got some good views of Galway Bay.

The Buren

Galway Bay

By the time we got to Galway, we only had about an hour to look around. So I ended up just wandering around some of the little pedestrian shopping streets. And then at 7:15 PM we got the train back to Dublin. I won't be arriving in Dublin until close to 10 o'clock.

I really loved Ireland. It is truly the Emerald Island. I wish I had had more time almost everywhere I went. Unfortunately, this is the end of my trip. I have to go home tomorrow. So by 3:30 PM tomorrow afternoon I'll be back in the great old U.S. of A. for the first time in about 2 and a half years. I hope you're ready Philadelphia!