Feb 24, 2015

European Superlatives: Part 1

I've had this post in drafts for so long. Since a few weeks after we touched down in Florida, in fact. While D and I sat on that last incredibly uncomfortable 10 hour plane ride from Germany to our new home in the Sunshine State, we kept our minds busy reminiscing about all the things we'd done during our 3 years in Europe. Our conversation lasted for what seemed like hours. That's how amazing our time abroad was…of course, you already knew that though. As we talked, I jotted down a list of things I wanted to tell you guys…our favorite restaurants, the worst tours we took, the destinations we can't stop daydreaming about…and then it hit me. A European Superlatives list! Just like high school, only we won't talk about you behind your back and draw mustaches on your senior pictures. We're adults now, ahem.

This will likely be a series of posts, because let's be real…we've got a lot of favorites out of the 28 countries we visited and you guys need to know about them all so you can, in turn, email me and let me plan a trip to get you there (shameless plugs are my new favorite thing, but will not make this favorites list). Moving on. Keep in mind, these picks are purely based off our own experiences. Some destinations we had just a taste, others a full 4-course meal. Even so, we enjoyed every second of coming up with these superlatives...and reliving the memories that go along with them. I guess you could call this the Team Coté's European Superlatives of 2011-2014. 

Opening lines reading...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." 

…or something like that.

    Positano, Italy
I literally can't look at this photo without drooling. Italy may not have been our favorite country, but it did prove to have some of the greatest food we ate while abroad. How could you not love pasta, wine, bread, and more pasta?? Positano, however, reigned supreme in our food memories. We only spent 4 short hours in this Amalfi Coast town, but it left such an impression on our taste buds. Fattoria La Tagliata, we still dream fondly of you.

     Doner Kebab in Istanbul, Turkey
I LOVE a good Doner Kebab. Germany was chock full of tasty doner stands and we tried a lot of them over our 3 years in Wiesbaden. So, imagine my surprise when I visit Turkey, the region of the world delicious doners originated from, try one and then HATE it. From the bread all the way to the tiny pepper on top, it tasted like…what did Veronica Cornerstone call it? A used diaper filled with Indian food. Ok, maybe not that bad. But it was no Germany doner. I was sufficiently disappointed. A handful of people have mentioned that Germany perfected the doner kebab and I'd wager to say those folks are right, because I'll never eat a doner in Turkey ever again if they all taste like this one.

Innsbruck, Austria
Imagine wandering around in the pouring rain, snapping photos and trying your darndest to enjoy your one and only day in a beautiful Austrian town. Suddenly, your soaking feet just can't walk anymore and you've had just about enough umbrella tourism for the day. A tiny cafe comes into view (angels audibly rejoice) and your sanity returns with one sip of a cocoa-heart dusted cappuccino. That's how I remember this little cup of heaven found in one of the tiniest alleyways in Innsbruck. So tiny, in fact, that I can't even remember the street nor the name of the coffee shop. My chances of finding it ever again are probably slim to none, but at least I had a that one moment of coffee bliss. 

  Free coffee on the cruise ships we sailed on.
Hey, it was free...I honestly shouldn't complain. But when you're the type of person that falls asleep at night already looking forward to the cup of coffee that awaits you come morning, then a bad cup becomes a big deal. We got smart after our second cruise and sprung for the specialty stuff at the coffee shops. So worth the extra money. And when we got a beverage package for free included with our final European cruise last May, we milked that coffee bar for all it was worth!

    Zermatt, Switzerland
Zermatt wins this title, but almost by default. We only went a handful of cold places during our time living in Europe. But that doesn't mean it wasn't cold as ice...it was! And the ice on the slopes proved it. D and I skied in almost white out conditions (fog and snow flying errrwhere) and I slipped an slid over patches of ice down a handful of slopes. Even with the cold and ice (and aching quads), Zermatt also takes the cake as one of the most gorgeous snow-laden destinations we ever visited...even more beautiful than our Austria ski-cation our first year abroad (sorry, Austria). If you've never been, I'd highly recommend a romantic winter getaway! TIP: stay at this hotel...the view of the Matterhorn is just too much!

  Riquewihr, France
You're probably thinking, huh? French wine country...the warmest destination? NO WAY. Well, how does 108 degrees sound? Yeah...hot as Hades! D and I spent a weekend (our 6th anniversary weekend) exploring charming Alsatian wine towns during the hottest heat wave Europe had experienced in, well, almost ever. Salzburg, Austria (for example) reached record highs of 101, unheard of for the area. We stayed in the adorable town of Riquewihr on the 3rd floor of a sweet-as-pie NON-AIR CONDITIONED hotel. We had one fan in our room and it just blew around hot, humid balls of fire. We both soaked through our clothes while touring and took multiple cold showers a day...but even so, we LOVED Riquewihr and the Alsace wine region. It was gorgeous (the vineyards had me smitten), even though we were sure we were burning alive. 

  Amsterdam, Netherlands
Not to beat a dead horse, but yes, Amsterdam was the one and only city D and I ever got totally lost in. Lost in the sense that we weren't sure we were ever going to be able to find our car again. I was only slightly freaking out (ok, a lot freaking out). It's no surprise that it's one of the cities I'd love to re-do, because our day there was just not the loveliest. Getting lost is no fun. Getting almost run over by multiple bicycles is annoying. And the Red Light District, well, you know.

   Idstein, Germany
When you're a cute German town with two main streets and the square footage the size of a modest Wal-Mart parking lot, you win the award for easiest to navigate. Idstein was a town all the expats in Wiesbaden liked to visit when they wanted a quiet day of beautiful scenery and cafe sitting. While there wasn't a whole heck of a lot to see, it was a super charming town (or village, maybe?). We enjoyed a handful of days strolling around, eating gelato and just marveling at the German quaintness. 

I had no idea it was possible (or even plausible) to fall in love with doors. Seems like a weird thing to love, but man, Europe is the continent of beautiful, photo-worthy entryways, is it not? Large, small, old, new, painted, rustic...you name it, there's a door for it...and I could not get enough! I've got dozens upon dozens of door photos from our travels abroad. So many, in fact, that I really need to make a cute photo book of them all. When I think about beautiful doorways, Germany always pops into my mind. It's where I first fell in love with them and it's where the majority of my door photos come from. This photo is currently hanging on the wall of our family room (Rothenburg swoon!). Maybe I'm partial because we lived in the country, but even so, no one can deny Germany's adorable doors. No one.

Totally different style of doors than Germany, but beautiful all the same. Colorful, worn, rustic, CHARMING. The kind of doors that make you wonder what lives could be behind them. Greece had to be mentioned as my runner up of door favorites. All of these were taken in either Santorini or Mykonos. I die over them every time.

I really feel like there is no need to elaborate on this. Belgium is and will forever be the country of amazing beer. The locals love it, the tourists love it...if you're a beer fiend, you lust over Belgian beers. I didn't love beer before living in Europe. But after multiple trips back and forth to Belgium, sitting through beer tastings and lounging around at Bruges bars, I quickly developed a fond appreciation and haven't looked back since. Our group of American friends we hung out with while we lived abroad were also smitten with Belgian brews. We used to have at home beer tastings and took "drinking trips" to Belgium on the regular. D and I even made what I like to call a "beer pilgrimage" to Westvleteren for highly coveted monk-brewed beers...and then shipped back 14 crates of various Belgian beers upon moving back to America. I guess you could say we love the stuff...just a little. ;)

We realize we might be a bit biased seeing as we lived in German wine country, but it makes no matter...German wine is delicious. From dry to the sweetest of sweet, German Riesling (among many other varieties) grabbed hold of my heart (and wine cabinet) very quickly. We loved visiting wineries around the Rhine and Mosel River regions and every wine fest we could find, we attended. I also count our day picking grapes in Nierstein as one of the highlights of my adult life (thus far). If you thought I loved Belgian beer, multiply that love by 5 and that's my affinity for German wine. We brought back over 100 bottles upon moving to Florida and I've been slowly savoring my stash ever since.

    Burano, Italy
Seeing the island of Burano in person is really something special. Hands down the most colorful floating village I've ever wandered through. The rows upon rows of brightly painted houses against the blue sky and watery canals is an Italian gem I won't soon forget. Venice is gorgeous, but when a day trip is in order, Burano is the island you've got to visit. I spent two wonderful days here snapping gobs of photos and enjoying the beautiful lace handicrafts of the locals. I'd spend another 100 days here if ever so lucky.

    Athens, Greece
A delicious gyro meal including beer at a sit down restaurant for $4. A hand-painted ornament for $5. A day filled with ancient history and gorgeous vistas...PRICELESS. Cliche, but Athens was the most affordable city we visited while abroad. I'm sure Greece's economic turmoil has much to do with it, but either way, it's a dream for any tourists wallet. I remember walking the Plaka and gasping over the souvenir and meal prices (compared to other cities on our Med cruise). I could have shopped in those stores and made a serious dent in my Christmas gifting list for minimal cost. I was very impressed with Athens, both in affordability and in overall awesomeness.

    Stockholm, Sweden
It was late when our flight arrived in Stockholm. After 10pm, if I remember correctly. After taking the train from the airport to the city center where our hotel was located (20 minute pre-booked train ride for $50...yikes), we were starving. The quickest and seemingly cheapest meal option was the McDonald's a half block down the street. Who would have thought those two double cheeseburgers, fries, and drinks would be the most expensive fast food meal we'd ever eat ($20 equivalent). We knew in that moment that our time in Stockholm was going to cost us. Thankfully, we never had to eat major meals here (thank you, cruising!), but Stockholm's reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the world still made itself evident to us in our hotel stay, train ride, souvenir shopping, and cheeseburgers. Would I go back? Of course. I'll just have to work double time first. ;)

...More European superlatives to come!...

Feb 17, 2015

5 Cities That Deserve a Second Chance

I have a lot of shoulda, coulda, woulda's for our time in Europe. Seems pretty normal for any avid traveler or expat to have that ever-growing bucket list...as well as a list of places you wish you would have never visited in the first place. I like to refer to that list as my "never again" list. It's ok to have a list like that! Not everyone will love every single destination they visit. Flying home on our last transatlantic flight from Germany to Florida, D and I talked about all those places we wanted to visit but never made it to...about destinations we made it to, but didn't love...and those places we absolutely never ever wanted to see again. Happily, there were none on my "never again" list, or at least, I've changed my mind since having time to reflect on those places. Today, I've shared that list with you and I've affectionately labeled these 5 cities as those that deserve a do-over. Everyone deserves a second chance, right? If you've visited any of the places below and loved them, let me know what you loved about them so when I get the chance to have those do-overs, I'll look forward to better experiences!

(The list below is purely based off of my experiences in each city over 3 years living & traveling abroad. These are my opinions and literally have nothing to do with the general consensus of traveler reviews. So, basically, read ahead and go to these places anyway.)

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I wanted to fall in love with Amsterdam so badly, but alas, it just didn't happen. Why? Well, there are a few reasons. We literally only had one day here. That seems to be a reason why many of these destinations made my do-over list, but nevertheless...with such a short amount of time to stuff in loads of iconic sights, we couldn't handle the pressure. Amsterdam also proved to be difficult to navigate. It's still the only city in Europe that D and I have ever gotten seriously lost in. The place is like a labyrinth of canals and row houses. It all looks the same after you've wandered around for hours. Couple that with bicycles zooming past you constantly and trying to get places quickly because of limited time, well...we had the perfect recipe for vacation disaster. I remember coming back to the hotel that night and telling D how disappointed I was with the whole darn day. Yet, everyone who visits seems to love Amsterdam. I want that same feeling! This city is my #1 do-over dream.

Rome, Italy

Rome, I truly liked Rome (what I remember of it, at least)! But again, we had a hurried visit there. One absolutely cannot do Rome in a day (it wasn't built in one, after all). Sure, Rome is a bit dirty and run down to the eye, but it's chock full of history and ruins...it's old, but for good reason. That being said, we spent our one and only day in Rome on a guided tour with 8 of our closest family members, the majority of whom had never ventured to Europe before. STRESS-FUL. Our guide was awesome and got us to every sight we wanted to see in 10 quick hours (except the Spanish Steps, wah wah), but she talked A LOT...I needed less talk, more aimless wandering. Hard to have the best of both worlds in one day, I know. Additionally, while the Vatican is a must-see, we spent way too much of our time there (for my taste, at least). I also felt compelled to keep checking on my family, making sure they were all having a swell time and not getting lost in the Roma tourist crowds (I'm a people pleaser, even on my own vacation). So, between rushing, death by history lesson, and people pleasing, I felt like Rome was a total blur. Re-do destination #2, and rightly so.

Florence, Italy

The Duomo in Florence is super cool. The views from the top after you climb the, oh, 450+ stairs, is worth the workout. The rest of Florence to me was...ehhhh...not memorable. This was one of those cities I had super high expectations for because of one reason...study abroad students. They RAVE about Florence being such a dreamy place. Good food, great history, gorgeousness nestled in the Tuscan countryside...YES. Florence has all that, but it still left a lot to be desired in my mind. True, I had my 8 feisty family members in tow on our visit here as well, but even so, I wasn't blown away. Still, though, I feel like I need to give it one more chance. Maybe a long weekend away there with D would have shined a more romantic light on Florence. Who knows? One thing I know for sure...the Uffizi Gallery is boring as crap, unless you like that sort of thing. I'll be sure to skip it on my next go-round for sure.

Helsinki, Finland

I've mentioned this a time or two before, but the Baltic cities I've visited in Europe didn't wow me as much as I'd hoped. Stockholm and Tallinn, Estonia being the two exceptions (out of the very small handful I was fortunate enough to see). Helsinki, well, I know I liked the beer there. And the Rock Church. And of course, this gorgeous white cathedral. But I remember getting back on the cruise ship early because we'd simply run out of things to do there. In this case, one day was enough? I hate thinking that, because Helsinki sounds cool. They eat reindeer after all (it's pretty tasty, mind you)! We had a nice time there and liked what we did see. Maybe our flippancy towards Helsinki was due to lack of research (although I had my trusty Google Map itinerary)...or maybe there really isn't a whole heck of a lot to see, I couldn't confidently say. Either way, I'd like to give Helsinki another try. Maybe next time with a local guide who knows a thing or two about the city and could show us all the things that seemed to hide from us during our visit. 

St. Petersburg, Russia

If you've been a reader of my blog for a while, then you know the story of our time in St. Petersburg. Again, I wanted to be wowed by Russia. RUSSIA! I couldn't believe we'd made it to Russia. But Russia looked like every other European city I'd seen...except for the Church on Spilled Blood. That screamed Russia to me. I'm still not sure what that even means, but I do know I was disappointed after our time there (minus the midnight sunset...that was a true highlight). I really, really need another St. Petersburg visit. One that's NOT on a tour with 30 old people who complained about bathroom stops and aching feet. Next time, private tour guide and a much longer stay. I'm positive there's more to love in St. Pete than we saw, we just experienced it the wrong way. Hey, when you have the opportunity placed in front of you, you take it...even if it isn't the ideal way to travel there. At least I can say I've seen it. Looking forward to the day when I can say I LOVED it. It could happen.

What cities are on your list to "re-do?" 
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