In 2023 we continued our quest to make up what we lost when the pandemic broke in 2020. Little did I know COVID would play a sizeable role in my experience this year too, but more on that a little later.
We finally took the leap to hit the UK and Ireland last summer, but our original Europe plans in 2020 were for about nine weeks in total; four in the British Isles and another five on the continent. This trip is essentially the five on the continent, but like the UK and Ireland, about a week shorter than originally planned.
We flew out of Vancouver on KLM on May 12th at 6pm and arrived in Amsterdam on May 13th at noon local time. It was a non-eventful flight, on time, and I’d say the only thing that marred it a little was the atrocious vegan meal, which lacked any protein and, for some reason, had a much worse fruit salad than the meals the meat-eaters got.
As you can see from the map above, we did a loop of the northwest-central Schengen Zone, visiting (daytrip, layover or multi-day) eleven places in six countries:
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Brussels, Belgium (+ Bruges daytrip)
- Paris, France
- Nice, France
- Monterosso al mare, Italy
- Venice, Italy (+ Florence stopover en route)
- Salzburg, Austria
- Munich, Germany
- Köln, Germany
- Distance flown (return): 15,400 km
- Distance by train: 3850 km
- Distance by foot: 318 km (79.5 km average per week)
- Places visited: 11 cities in 6 countries
This was a lovely trip in just about every way, but sadly the most notable thing about it for me was being sick for 75% of it. Throughout the pandemic I’ve been pretty careful. I managed to go to the UK during a huge Omicron outbreak and, with judicious masking, stayed healthy. Not so much as a cold in four years, since 2019.
Until, that is, day eight of this trip. By late evening May 20th (the day we arrived in Paris), every swallow was like shards of broken glass. This didn’t feel like the garden variety stuff I get with allergies, and the body aches and chills I developed by the middle of the next day prompted me to do a RAT. Sure enough, I had COVID.
My bout of COVID proceeded like it was checking symptoms off a list. The sore throat was the worst part and lasted a full week. Body aches and chills lasted the first 2-3 days, with night sweats taking over for another 2-3 nights after that. Sweaty sleep and sore throat gave way to a persistent dry cough as the second week of COVID started, when I suddenly realized I could no longer smell or taste anything. At best I could perceive salty, sweet, savoury or sour, but beyond that, no aroma or flavour at all. The cough and dead smell/tastebuds which lingered for days, finally began easing around day 12, or sometime around arriving in Venice.
Somehow, Connie managed to avoid catching COVID, despite sharing my air constantly. Not to be outdone, she caught a nasty chest cold of her own, most likely when we were crammed on a train from Nice to Monterosso on May 27th. Apparently traveling past Monte Carlo on Grand Prix weekend isn’t a great idea. Anyway, within a couple of days of Connie coming down with this thing, my very minor dry COVID cough turned into a major wet cough and by the time we left Venice in early June I was a veritable fontana di catarro. And masking. Again.
This would remain with both of us through the rest of the trip. With previously damaged tastebuds, the cold congestion meant I had a second bout of smell and taste problems from Venice onward. This second bug only finally lifted about a week after we got home. I was sick from May 20th to June 15th, or two days shy of four weeks.
With all the preamble and illness report out of the way then, onto the meat of this trip – the places. Notwithstanding my description of being sick above, I’m going to try to keep the rest brief, but this was also my first trip to ‘the continent’ so everything was new and exciting.
We stayed at the Owl Hotel in the museum district. While this was the first of two major canal cities, we both liked this one the best. Not a cheap stay by any means, Amsterdam was one of my favourite stops. Eating vegan was pretty easy and, similar to having Guinness in Dublin, drinking Heineken in Amsterdam is like a whole different beer, fresh from the source.
The Heineken Experience was good, but paled somewhat in comparison to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. You just can’t equal a rooftop taproom with 360 degree views of Dublin, with a dark subterranean neon and house music taproom with no views of Amsterdam. Nonetheless, I’ll always consider light and smooth European Heineken now as the real stuff, as opposed to the skunky bottled swill we get in North America. It’s completely different.
Bikes rule, transit is tops, Rijksmuseum is rad, Vondelpark is vonderful, the red light district is … something, and cathedrals aren’t as prevalent as in most other cities in Europe. It’s the kind of city I could easily live in. I just love the semi-circular series of canals that really define the place.
– 2 hours by high speed rail, Amsterdam Centraal to Bruxelles Midi –
When I tell people we visited Brussels, I most often get, “What on earth did you do in Brussels?” as if the seat of European power wouldn’t be interesting. We stayed just a couple blocks from all the action in Grand Place, at the surprisingly disappointing Ibis Grand Place, and found just about the best (and biggest) coffee we’ve ever had for our daily petit déjeuner. I saw my only live jazz show of the trip there, Atomium (from Expo ’58) is quite the experience, and the Musical Instrument Museum was a lovely, quirky find.
Luckily I still had my tastebuds, too, because Belgian blonde might be close to my favourite beer now. Also, there is sugar everywhere, and I’m pretty sure there’s a Belgian waffle place for every man, woman and child in the city.
Grand Place is worth a visit all on its own, not only for the spectacular Hôtel de Ville, but as an example of a beautiful lively gathering place. Completely lit up on all building facades at night, there is all manner of food, drink and patio, with street entertainment and music to boot.
I should also note, somewhat sadly, that Brussels was the site of my one and only run on the trip. I try to do at least one run in every city I visit, but being struck by COVID and a chest cold in rapid succession for the final three weeks of the trip kind of put an end to those plans.
Bruges for a day
Bruges for a day was very enjoyable and quite pretty, but if there’s a place I’d built up in my head which isn’t as spectacular in reality, it’s Bruges. It was really just like a much smaller, prettier Amsterdam, without the sex windows. I’m very glad we made it a day trip only, but I did have my first Leffe Blonde (before I lost my taste), so it gets bonus marks for that.
– 1:45 by high speed rail, Bruxelles Midi to Paris Gare du Nord –
To some, Paris is an irresistible city of light and romance. To be sure, la Tour Eiffel was amazing, Musée d’Orsay was beautiful, Arc de Triomphe was … triumphant, the cathedral game was magnificent, and the variety of architecture outstanding, with plenty of examples of Gothic, Baroque, Medieval, and the signature Haussmann style of mostly beige apartment blocks with iron window and veranda railings. It truly is a city of astounding eye candy and history.
We stayed in Montparnasse at Hôtel Montparnasse Daguerre. It was a nice little, very Parisian hotel in a great location. Unfortunately, getting put on the ground floor just fifteen feet past the front desk meant noisy mornings when people checked out, often as early as 7am. The fact that I already wasn’t sleeping well with congestion, body aches and the beginning of night sweats made for the worst sleep of the whole trip in Paris.
Of particular note, while smoking on patios is a big thing everywhere in Europe, it’s really something in Paris. I’m sure having no smoking on patios at home made it that much more noticeable to us, but it often felt like everyone around us was chain smoking while we tried to eat.
A lot of Paris is still traffic-choked, and while transit is very good, buses often got backed up and delayed, only to come 2 or 3 in five minutes. Just going to leave off with Paris at night.
Eiffel at night
– 6 hours by high speed rail, Paris Gare du Nord to Nice Ville –
The first massive surprise of the trip was Nice. After a six hour train ride from Paris, masked and sick, arriving at Côte d’Azur and the Mediterranean in general, was a lovely change. I knew I’d like the area, but I’m not sure I could create a nicer place if I was designing one from scratch.
Still sporting a sore throat, I had yet to develop a cough and was in mid-migration from chills and aches to night sweats. As such, with a dose or two of Tylenol 1 I was able to manage things enough, and luckily COVID didn’t kill my energy to make walking a challenge. Plus, our first three stops all had suboptimal accommodations, and Nice was our first really nice hotel and restful sleep at the Ibis Styles Nice Centre Gare. This Ibis more than made up for the less than ideal one in Brussels.
Bike lanes everywhere, even in quiet neighbourhoods, with the new ones replacing a lane of parking, and adding green space to the separation from cars. The main beach is a giant pedestrian promenade with lots of space on the water side for beach sports, sunning or whatever. We did a ton of walking around Nice. Way up the hill to the residential views of the sea, to the Colline du Château and quartier du port, to just the lovely mild climate and general walkability of this resort town. At least in shoulder season, it seems like almost a perfect city to me.
Promenade, old town, bike lanes & more
– 5 hours by slow coastal rail, Nice Ville to Monterosso al mare –
Monterosso al mare (Cinque Terre), Italy
I’d been mesmerized by photos of these little Cinque Terre villages on the Mediterranean for some time, so when planning our train loop, the goal was to ensure we visited the area and stayed in one of them if we could. I’m not sure if it was a knock-on effect from being Monaco Grand Prix weekend or just that these villages are small and pent-up demand was high, but it took me ages to find a nice hotel for three consecutive nights. Monterosso was the only village with significant beach waterfront, so that was the target village.
We were not disappointed by anything, perhaps with the exception of food. Let’s just say if you don’t eat meat, seafood, or dairy, your options become very limited, very fast. I guess it’s a bit of a saving grace that I had lost my taste and smell at this point. It was also likely this train trip (aka tin of human sardines on rails) from Nice to Monte Carlo, was where my wife caught the chest cold that would hit me just as COVID symptoms abated.
The beauty of the Cinque Terre villages speaks for itself
We stayed in Hotel La Colonnina in Monterosso. The room was beautiful and the staff incredible. A very good breakfast to start our day was also included. We hiked across four of the five villages (1100m of elevation gain over about 14km) on one of the days, and also did a ferry ride on another, ending up south of Cinque Terre at Porto Venere. For the hike, in particular, let me just reiterate how happy I was I had full energy and no chest congestion, in spite of still having COVID. Let me just say, if you don’t like hills, you won’t like Cinque Terre.
Porto Venere castle
Visually, the area is about as close to heaven on earth as I can imagine. Beautiful terraced agriculture, colourful clusters and dotted homes, vibrant little town centres and some of the most intense cliff panoramas and crystal-clear turquoise-azure water I have ever seen. Calling it exquisitely picturesque is actually underselling the area.
– 3 hours by rail, Monterosso al mare to Venice Santa Maria Novella (with a few hours stopover in Florence) –
Florence’s magnificent cathedral
As I said, we had a few hours stopover in Florence en route to Venice, so it was really just a taste. It was lovely, of course, but I found it really odd that cars weren’t more restricted in the walkable city core. Essentially, they could go anywhere and often came bolting down narrow roads full of pedestrians. From what I could see, bikes were really an afterthought there. It was such an outlier from most other Euro cities. However, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore was worth the stopover on its own.
Our second city of canals was … interesting. I wouldn’t say we didn’t like it, but for us, Venice isn’t really a place we feel compelled to visit again. If anything, eating restrictions were worse than Monterosso, with three days of salad, pasta or pizza. My throat was still raw and taste muted, so I was also getting daily gelato fixes. We stayed at Hotel Al Duca Venezia, with another included daily breakfast. The accommodations were really nice again.
Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) & environs
As a first-time visitor a lot of what most people see is at, or near, St. Mark’s Square and waterfront promenade. It’s a huge gathering square, bounded by Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). From here, a huge waterfront promenade heads east on the main waterway that leads out to Lido and the open ocean. A special mention to Murano for amazing glass sculpture and art. Artists are pretty edgy about photos, but I managed a couple that you’ll find in the gallery via the button link below.
While we took some water taxi rides, we opted to skip a private gondola tour. 100 or more Euros for an hour seemed excessive. It’s also worth noting that, with the city literally built on water-logged wood supports and various floats, the only way you really get around quickly is traveling on the canals and this includes all commerce and emergency vehicles. It’s both wonderfully delightful and exceedingly tedious at the same time.
Venice, canal edition
– 6 hours by slow rail, Venice Santa Maria Novella to Salzburg Hbf –
After Nice, the second massive surprise of the trip was Salzburg. I really now wished it had been a three night stay. It’s a much smaller city than any of the others we visited, with only about 150,000 people, but it is one seriously lovely place. For me, it’s probably in a dead heat, for very different reasons, with Nice for my favourite stop of the trip. I also found the train trip from Venice very much to my liking, as the south lip of the Alps reminded me of the Alberta rockies of my childhood.
Salzburg has a long and interesting history, is Mozart’s birthplace, was the setting for the Sound of Music, and reminded me very much of Edinburgh in the way the city is dominated by a massive castle on a big hunk of rock. Hohensalzburg is one of the best preserved fortresses in all of Europe and was an amazing place to tour. My photos make it clear I couldn’t get enough of it. We purposely avoided the very touristy Sound of Music tours, but did lots of walking in the areas that provided killer views of the city and fortress.
My obsession with Festung (fortress) Hohensalzburg
Beyond the fortress though, the vibe of the city was just beautiful. Very walkable with lots of bike infrastructure, a beautiful river snakes through the city with plenty of places to cross by foot and bike. There’s also a distinct ‘old town’ area with lots of food, drink and gelato.
Music on the Salzach
On our second (I think) evening after dinner stroll on the river, we happened upon a lovely string quartet. We didn’t hit a Mozart concert, so this would have to do.
Vegan eating was fine, and we were back in beer territory after the French and Italian beer desert. Sporting my wife’s chest cold, I’d re-lost the taste I’d been gaining back in Venice as COVID receded, but it was nice having lots of food choice again.
– 2 hours by high speed rail, Salzburg Hbf to München Hbf –
We stayed at Premier Inn Munich City Centre and were close to tons of walkable stuff. As one does, we spent a lot of time at or walking through old town, from Residenz to Marienplatz. It’s very walkable, bike friendly with excellent transit, but also probably a little more car-oriented than many other places we visited. Not Paris by any means, but no Amsterdam either.
We visited Residenz, Hofbrauhaus (as big a Bavarian beer garden as you’re likely to see), went up the St. James tower for killer views of the city, and got photos of Frauenkirche and the many large Gothic cathedrals. Oh, and we found what I am very sure is the best vegan sushi we’ve ever eaten. If that’s your thing, I cannot recommend enough a visit to Secret Garden Vegan Sushi. Apparently, they’re also in Berlin. My taste was muted but not completely gone and I could really get the flavours from this meal.
Random Munich, from architecture to bikes
Dachau Concentration Camp memorial
The most memorable thing for me from our time in Munich was a visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial, a short 15km train ride from the city. I’ve never been to that type of memorial before, with probably the closest thing being Fremantle Prison in Perth Australia. However, Fremantle was only an awful prison. When you tour all the displays and read all the plaques at Dachau, taking in the fullness of it being one of the first camps, opened in 1933, and it being the template for the entire Nazi death camp system, the gravity of it is on a whole other level. It inspired me to read more, and I’m currently on the second of two books I bought there.
– 4.5 hours by high speed rail, München Hbf to Köln Hbf (the only train ride of the trip with a significant delay) –
As I was trying to figure out how to route us back to Amsterdam to fly home, Cologne was honestly just a one-night stop en route that would prevent our sitting on a train for 8+ straight hours. Sadly we ended up with a 90 minute delay on our Munich to Cologne train, and it didn’t end up that much shorter than if we’d gone all the way to Amsterdam. However, as Cologne is also the birthplace of kolsch beer, I’m a sucker and figured at least a few hours would allow us to see another place.
Since Cologne to Amsterdam is a fairly short train ride, we could leave late and have a full day to see Cologne. This was the only trip that was significantly delayed, and sadly it ended up being due to a suicide on the tracks. I learned from some of our fellow German rail passengers, people on tracks is one of the very common and very unfortunate side effects of an excellent rail system in Europe.
While it’s another very walkable place built on a river, it’s a much bigger city than I realized, with about a million people. The main things we did were a healthy walk through town, ensuring we had some really nice kolsch (which was, again, subject to my muted tasters) and a healthy obsession with one of the most intense and tallest Gothic cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Cologne Cathedral is absolutely immense and literally the first and only thing you see when you walk out of the central train station.
– 2:45 hours by high speed rail, Köln Hbf to Amsterdam Centraal –
A couple hours on our final train from Cologne, and we were back in Amsterdam by about 8:30pm on June 8th, where it all began 28 days earlier. We really had no time for any additional sightseeing, so after showering off the day’s grime, a late vegan burger and beer and a short canal stroll was about it. We had to be at the airport by 12:30 or so the next day, so it was literally a morning of breakfast, checkout, tram and airport.
The flight was delayed about half an hour, but the flying time was about a half hour shorter than expected so, thanks to the magic of time zones, we arrived in Vancouver about 40 minutes after we left Amsterdam, around 4pm local time.
While we still haven’t reclaimed some time in southeast Asia, as we’d planned originally in 2020, we’ve finally got back most of what we had planned for the first half of the year. We don’t really know for sure what the fall 2020 trip was going to be, but I sense there’s still a South America or African trip in our future somewhere, in addition to some time in southeast Asia. Short of a lottery winning, though, we also can’t keep doing big trips like this every year.
This was another great trip, and while horrible luck with respiratory bugs took a bit of the edge off, we still enjoyed it immensely.