Summer of Europe 2010: Part I
// August 17th, 2010 // Travel
BY STAN BASHMASHNIKOV — SMB.COM. It’s hard to put into words what my six weeks in Europe were like. My go-to, responses have been to the effect of incredible, eye-opening, sobering, culturally-shocking, and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. These are all strong words and statements. I know this sounds cliche, but sometimes, words don’t necessarily do enough justice when trying to convey, to both your friends and loved ones, just what you experienced. And yet, all of them seem to encompass what the trip was like – and much more.
I kept a travel journal throughout the trip. Mine had a specific catch. Not only does it contain my personal entries, but also those from the people I met along the way. The concept came about when I realized that I wanted to create something authentic that I can take back and reflect from this trip. Souvenirs and gifts are great, but they only go so far. With my “black book,” I can look back to specific days and bathe in the nostalgia. Living in the past is no good, but when it comes to visiting Europe, I mean c’mon, I think most would make an exception. Whoever I met and shared an experience with, I would ask to write in my book. I’m sure I uttered the words “Do you want to write in my book?” at least a hundred times. While some people were completely turned off to the idea, the majority embraced it. Trust me – there are very good entries. They are confidential of course. Special thanks to those who were able to be a part of it.
This article, along with Parts II and III (coming soon) are meant to be both a personal account and a rough-guide for Western Europe. Some parts you may not agree with. Other parts may not be relevant to you in any way, shape, or form. Hell – I began the trip nearly eight weeks ago and here I am, sitting at my desk, trying to recollect everything using just my memory and my book. Take it for what it is. Just know the underlying message I am trying to convey — everybody needs to take an extended trip like this at least once in their lives. You will not regret it.
London — June 24th – 28th
Have you ever been to New York City? London is a smaller NYC with a really cool accent. It seriously felt like I never left Manhattan. The city is divided into neighborhoods that all have their own, unique little personalities and vibes (The West End, Uptown, etc.). Much like NYC, there is a theater district, grunge scene, art district, etc. Then you have your very own Times Square called Piccadilly Circus. Okay, its not as over-the-top annoying as the real times square, but it still gets the award for an awfully large, touristy area with an abundance of pickpockets. Wallets in your front pockets at all times. For this portion of my trip, it ironically didn’t feel like Europe, but merely an extension of back home.
The actual city and what is most popularly known as London is actually divided between the City of London and the City of Westminster. All of the major tourist sites reside within these two cities. The free walking tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe are the best. You get an enthusiastic, witty tour guide who takes you and a group around the major sites. If you are traveling alone, make sure to take these tours and make some new friends.
London is very serious when it comes to maintaining their security. There are over 40,000 CCTV cameras positioned in every street corner imaginable. The police presence is unmistakable. You will always know Big Brother is watching. Be careful — because they are very strict about almost everything, and out of all of the cities I visited, were the least lenient when it came to “fun.”
One of the highlights of this part of my trip had to be when England v. Germany was broadcast. The city was a ghost town – every living soul crowded the local pubs in town. Me and an Australian buddy of mine, James, visited a place uptown. What an experience. Talk about the definition of the word “rowdy brit.” English football fans live and die by their team. Although their team was eliminated from the World Cup playoff round, they still celebrated. We walked to Trafalgar Square where dozens of fans jumped in the fountain and began singing. London 2012 anyone?
The nightlife scene was fairly standard for a major city. I say this because it was well within the comfort zone. I’m used to the bars and clubs in Manhattan and this was no exception. The higher-end places demanded strict dress codes. You had your college bars where 2-for-1 drink specials encouraged playing tonsil hockey with somebody you had met about an hour ago. The hole-in-the-wall dive bars welcomed you with pints, and pints, and more pints of their finest house brews. Truthfully, it was nothing out of the ordinary. NYC is a little more classy, which suits my preference. But hey, to each his own. My only complaint – everything shuts down around 1am. You win again, NYC, and remain far ingrained in my heart.
I must say – London is a good starting point for Americans planning on traveling through Europe. It’s almost unfair to travel to Europe and be in a city where English remains the most common language. The adjustment is subtle but still enough to force change. Be prepared to see the sun set at 10:30pm and rise at 4:00am over the summer. Also, don’t get turned off when the British scorn at your American accent. And please, attempt to speak with a British accent as often as possible. While you may get some looks and ruffle a few eyebrows — it’s so worth it! Some tension may still exist several centuries later. But over a pint, everyone becomes each other’s best friend.
Paris/Versailles — June 29th – July 3rd
Ah, Paris. You weren’t even supposed to be part of my trip. I visited you back when I was a wee-lad in my 13th year of life. Ireland was supposed to be the next stop. Yet, how glad am I to have so spontaneously changed my mind – because this was potentially my favorite city of the whole trip. Everyone should visit Paris.
The actual city itself is huge. It is so spread out that it took me a good 20 minutes on the subway everytime I needed to get to a major destination. Every train is local. The concept of “express trains” really doesn’t apply here. As most urbanized, metropolitan city dwellers know, these big cities get really humid in the summer time. Paris was no exception – I don’t weigh much, but I swear I must’ve sweat out a good five pounds over six days. Every day, walking around with a travel backpack on, logging at least 5 miles a day — there will be sweat. Additionally, be prepared to get harassed by street vendors selling.. you guessed it.. designer handbags, sunglasses, and watches! I mean, its got to be real Gucci if they say it is right!? Just walk by and ignore – it will save you valuable time.
But on to the good stuff. My trip consisted majorly of lodging in Hostels. Some of you may have cringed when you saw that word. Others maybe immediately thought of the movie. It’s completely not what you have been conditioned to think. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Hostels offer limited amenities, much like Motels do here in the States, but make up for it with a great social environment (lounge, on-site bar, game room, etc.). Remember when you lived in those crammed college dorms your Freshman and Sophmore year? Imagine that, but people from literally every corner of the world. Plus, everybody is also traveling, thus is in the same adventurous mindset. Great experience. If you’re a twenty-something traveler and you like meeting new people, don’t think twice. This is easily the way to go.
Paris was my first realization of how truly lucky I was to be traveling Europe. And additionally, how perfectly convenient that it was also during the World Cup! The Spain v. Portugal match was on later in the day and a group of new friends and I decided, why not watch it? Wouldn’t you know – there was an enormous TV screen set up in front of the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t until I was sitting there with my new friends – with our bottles of Merlot, at least 6 different types of cheeses, baggetes, crepes, assorted cold cuts — watching Spain score that first goal amidst a crowd well over 100,000, and the Eiffel Tower in the background. Hearing “Waving Flag” and “Waka Waka” play while people were waving their countries flags and dancing like Shakira. Yeah – that was one of those moments I will definitely not forget for a long, long time.
A day-trip to Versailles is a must. I hear visiting Normandy an hour outside of town is too, which I unfortunately didn’t get to do. Bear in mind, you will be doing a lot of walking through the gardens at Versailles. Fun history facts for you history buffs (Yes – I still remember these off the top of my head). Versailles is where France was ruled during most of the 18th and 19th century by King Louis XIII and later on, the XIV. The country was essentially a monarchy. The palace at Versailles is comparable to Buckingham Palace where the Queen “rules” in England. It is also where the Treaty of Versailles was signed that ended WWI. And last but not least – back in the late 1800s, a document was signed that created Germany in the Hall of Mirrors. Let me say this again – Germany was created in France. No kidding right?
Hopefully the brief history lesson didn’t bore you. It’s okay if it did. Onto more stories. A great place to go at night is, believe it or not, anywhere along the River Seine. Try and get close to the Cathedral de Notre Dame. Hundreds of people come out to sit by the water and listen to these mini-concerts that go on. I went with a friend on a Wednesday evening and the river was alive. Believe me when I say, sitting near the water with the cathedral directly in front of you, observing the French culture with your bottle of.. you guessed it.. wine: little sappy, but memorable nonetheless. Another memory is my last night at the Sacre C’Oeur (Sacred Heart). The Sacre C’Oeur is less popular than Notre Dame, but once you see it, you immediately appreciate it. It sits atop a hill in Montmartre. During WWII when Paris was bombed from the sky, legend has it that numerous bombs were dropped all around the church but not one soul perished. It feels like the most peaceful part of the city. Watching the sunrise on the steps of this place with the opposite sex was something out of a movie. I’m extremely classy. If you have the chance – stay up and make some memories at the Sacre C’Oeur.
You’re probably asking yourself, well what about the touristy stuff Stan? I want to be a tourist. You’ll need to spend a good amount of time at the Louvre. I forget the exact fact, but it goes something like this: If you were to spend 30 seconds on every painting and sculpture in the Louvre, you would be there for 25 days. The place is enormous. Know what you want to accomplish, grab a museum map, and go. I spent about four hours there and was thoroughly “museumed-out” afterward. Obviously, you’ll want to climb Tour de Effiel. You can muscle it and walk up to the halfway point like I did. Or you can take a lift to the tippy-top, which I didn’t have time to do. Either way, it’s best way to catch a panoramic glimpse of this beautiful city. Some other notables include Museum D’Orsay, where you will find Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait. Moulin Rouge is a good show to catch if you are willing to spend 90 Euros. For authentic French culture and cuisine, climb to the Montmartre district. It’s easy to find – the Sacre C’Oeur (Sacred Heart) Church is the centerpiece.
Brussels — July 4th – 6th
Chocolate and Beer. Seriously, these are literally the only two reasons to visit Brussels. I’m not trying to sound closed minded, but the culture and sense of nationalism seemed to be absent here. But the former two words? The city thrives on it! Any street corner or local store that you turn to, you are immediately being enticed into purchasing either a chocolate something or a nice, cold, delicious, Belgian ale. I can’t blame them. The chocolate comes in various shapes and sizes, ranging from little, bite size truffle candy to 3 foot candy bars. I bought a waffle, strawberry, banana, raspberry, chocolate syrup concoction that left me in a sugar coma for a good half hour. Don’t forget to bring some back home, or your parents will be very angry with you.
Belgian beer is a thing of beauty. I fell in love with blondes all over again – Blonde Belgian Ales such as Duvel really go down smoother than anything back in the States, and taste phenomenal. Leffe also sticks out in my mind as something that I recall being really great tasting. Trust me, you can’t go wrong walking into a Belgian pub and getting a pint of whatever is on tap.
A 20 minute subway ride north is The Atomium. Built for the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair, it provides the best view of the city. You walk through the different spheres on your way up, learning about the history of the city. Personally, it was interesting but only for a few minutes. Still worth it to go.
Stay Tuned for Part II including Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague.
Stan Bashmashnikov runs stanmichaelbash.com, focusing on industries such as creative marketing, online media, and social networking. Please visit the Contact Me link at the bottom of the page for more info.