A Travellerspoint blog

Basel

Beautiful town this time of year

sunny 5 °C
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This past weekend we didn’t want to stray too far with school actually getting into full swing, but we couldn’t resist taking just a little trip. We spent Friday night in Basel, and for a small city it really has a lot to offer. It’s a really neat city because it lands right on the point where Germany, France, and Switzerland meet. It’s just too bad the city is in Switzerland; that makes it so expensive! It’s really well connected to the French, German, and Swiss rail lines and easyjet flies in and out to quite a few destinations, so we always end up just passing through and this time we figured it’d be worth a stay. We spent the night with a couchsurfer and had another great experience.

The first day there we just started wandering around a bit and we came across the “Basler Weihnachtsmarkt” – Christmas market. Christmas markets here are a big deal I guess, and every village has one. They sell mostly crafts and treats rather than vegetables like the regular markets, which still go on during the Christmas market season. The Basel one was really great, although expensive. We enjoyed some glühwein there and then went on to the Basler Kunstmuseum. It’s a really fantastic art gallery. It’s three and half floors of the most amazing art; masterpieces from the 15th century all the way to the modern “Arte Povera” work, which I have to say I didn’t really understand. Either way, it was a great experience and definitely a “must-see” in Basel.

The next day we went out for a $6 coffee then ate our packed lunches on the water. We quickly figured out why there was one else around – as soon as we dropped a crumb a pigeon would come, and then another, and within a few minutes there were dozens of them. A few minutes later the sea gulls came, and that’s when we took off, finishing our sandwiches on the go. That day we went to the Basel history museum, which is in an old church in old town. The city/national history museums are always my favourite, because you learn so much about the place you’re visiting.
Another neat thing about Basel, and I think Switzerland in general, is the language. Swiss German is quite a bit different than “standard” or “high” German, and when the locals realized we don’t speak Swiss German, they started speaking to us in English rather than high German. We were talking to our host who had been living in Basel for a while about it, and he said it’s pretty common in Switzerland for English to be someone’s second language after Swiss German, rather than standard German. It’s even more common to be spoken to in French before high German once they realize you don’t understand. It’s a weird thing about German – nobody actually speaks it. Everyone has their own local dialect.

For a small place Basel has a lot to do and is really well connected. Overall we had a great time in Basel, and I’m sure we’ll be back again before the year’s over, hopefully not just passing through!


Here are the pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:16 Archived in Switzerland Tagged art museums markets cathedrals christmas basel couchsurfing Comments (0)

Milan

A weekend getaway

sunny 8 °C
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Since we moved in and got a little settled in Freiburg, we’ve been able to travel a bit. We’ve visited Strasbourg and Colmar, two border cities in France, and we went to Berlin with our class. When we found out November 1st was a holiday in Germany, and since we have no classes on Friday, we decided to take off for the long weekend. At first we wanted to visit Paris, but we started planning a little late (about 2 weeks ahead) and by that time the train tickets were 150 Euros each, round trip. At the right time of year and by booking in advance we can travel to Paris for less than half that, so we decided against it. We looked at Zurich, but figured it’s so close and it’d be nice to go somewhere a little further since we had 4 days off. Then, I remembered looking up discount airlines last summer and coming across German Wings’ “blind-booking” offer. For 66 Euros you get a round-trip flight from Stuttgart, Cologne-Bonn, or Hanover, but the catch is you don’t know where you’re going until you’ve paid and it’s too late to change your mind. You can select different groups of cities, for example there’s “Metropolitain Western Europe” with Barcelona, Brussels, Milan, Rome, Berlin, London, Manchester, and Vienna. There are couple others – the one we chose was “Party”, with Barcelona, Berlin, London, Manchester, Belgrade, Budapest, Milan, and Vienna, mostly because it had the fewest German cities (which we can relatively easily travel to), and because we figured there was the smallest chance of seeing somewhere we’ve already been. This trip was the first time we’ve ever done a blind-booking, also the first time we slept in an airport and our first issue with bed bugs! Milan was neither Mike’s nor my first choice on the list, but it ended up being one of my favourite cities we’ve been to so far. Everything worked out and I loved it there! I can’t wait to go back.

Since we booked the flights only about 2 weeks in advance, we had trouble finding a room. Little did I know both November 1st and 4th are holidays in Italy! We tried couchsurfing and waited hoping someone would be available, but I guess if you have a spare room in Milan, you rent it out for cash, not travel stories. We eventually booked a room with airbnb.com, which is usually a great site and a cheap place to find decent accommodations, but this time it didn’t work out so well. We checked in early with no problems and our hosts even gave us an Italian breakfast – coffee and a buiscuit. Things seemed to be going well but after the second night we noticed we both had mysterious red spots – which is definitely when we should have taken off – but we tried to stick it out for one more night and ended up covered in bites, most likely bed bugs… yikes! We quarantined our bags and washed and dried almost everything we own in the hottest water, so we’ll wait and see whether we start an infestation here in Freiburg. Here’s hoping “no”. The one good thing about that place was the location – only a 5 minute walk from one of the metro lines.

Those weren’t the only interesting accommodations we had this trip. With a blind booking you get to choose the date of your outward and return flight, but not the time. It ended up working out really well for us since we got to leave first thing Thursday morning come home late Sunday night, just in time for class at 9:30 on Monday. The only thing is that our flight from Milan to Stuttgart was delayed about 45 minutes. We figured something was up when there was still no boarding gate listed 25 minutes before the scheduled departure time. It turns out the plane was coming from Rome and there someone had left a bag on board. They called the police and everything else, double checking everything and sweeping the plane. It’s all for safety’s sake, I guess, but in the end we took off almost an hour late which meant we missed the last train to Freiburg for the night! We weren’t keen on staying in an airport hotel for almost $100 for about 6 hours, so we decided to sleep in the airport. It turned out to be a great experience. The cleaning staff were considerate, the bathrooms were clean, and we found a quiet corner with some arm-rest-free chairs to nap on. It wasn’t the best sleep I’ve ever had, but honestly not that much worse than the bug-infested bed we had the previous night. We caught the first train to Freiburg, slept the whole way, and made it to class.

Anyway, it might sound like this trip was a total disaster, but overall it was actually one of my favourite experiences. I loved Milan. In terms of everyday life, it was definitely my favourite city we’ve been to so far. It has great transportation, food, coffee, and shopping, the people are very friendly and laid back, it felt really safe, and it was absolutely beautiful.

One of the first things I noticed about Milan was how laid back and friendly the people were. I think living in Germany for the past two months really made this stand out more for me, but it completely blew me away the first morning we were there when a stranger said good morning to me on the metro rather than pushing me off of it. The general feeling is also just a lot more laid back. For example, the street lights are just a suggestion here, so when there are no cars, the people walk. Of course people in Germany jay-walk, too, sometimes, but it’s completely normal to see people waiting for over a minute at an intersection where there is absolutely no traffic for the light to turn green. Walking before the light, in Freiburg at least, is the “weird” thing to do, not just what you do. Everywhere we went we were greeted with smiles and “hellos”, it was really great.

It’s also a really easy city to get around. Like most big cities they have regional trains, metros, suburban trains, trams, and busses. Sometimes all of these different ways to get around can get confusing, but in Milan we had no problems. There’s a rail connection in the basement of the Malpensa airport which connects directly to the city centre, and from there you can get on the city transit. The public transportation was reliable, cheap, and ran often. One of things I’m going to miss the most about Europe is just being able to go somewhere – you never have to consider when or where the metros or trams are running, because you never end up waiting more than 6 minutes. Another bonus about Milan was that there were tons of (free!) public washrooms which were surprisingly clean for a city of its size. It also felt really safe. Around the main attractions there was a huge security presence, and surprisingly also military. I found that a little odd, but it may have just been something going on that day. All over the city, though, there were police patrolling and SOS stations. Other than these basic things you would want in any city, Milan had tons of bonuses, like great food and drinks!

The food was amazing here and the coffee was delicious. The whole dining culture was really interesting. The coffee and gelato were of course delicious (and cheap – around 2 euro for a cappuccino or a cone with two flavours), but the rest of the food was unbelievable. The best part of all of our eating-out experiences was the Italian happy-hour. It starts around 6 and goes until 10 in most bars, and the drinks are still the same price (7-10 Euros!), but you get a free buffet! Or, you get a buffet for 7 Euros and your first drink is free – depending how you look at it. And it’s not just a buffet, it’s delicious Italian cooking. One of the more expensive ones we went to was 10 Euros, so we each got a cocktail, which usually cost 8 anyway, and the buffet was amazing. They had saffron risotto with mussels, gnocchi with a leek-cream sauce, cous-cous with veggies and nuts, and of course a few pasta dishes. Our last night we did this again, and for 16 Euros we each got a cocktail and another delicious buffet. This time with penne and tomato sauce and hot meatballs. You really can’t go wrong eating out in Milan. The coffee was also delicious, we never had a bad cup – the Italians really have this life figured out.

The other great thing about Milan is of course the shopping. You always hear about all the designers and big names, which are everywhere, but when they say Milan is great for shopping they don’t just mean for the wealthy. In a city as trendy as this one, clothes go out of style pretty quickly, which means you can get “last-season’s” fashions for flea-market prices. I got two silk blouses and two pairs of pants from the summer and fall collections for 23 Euros! Luckily the people in Freiburg don’t seem to follow the runway as closely as the Milanese. There were tons of sales like the one I found and tons of stores selling really affordable clothing, so if you’re going to Milan, don’t worry about having to spend a fortune shopping – you’ll definitely be able to find some great deals.

You could easily spend your whole time in Milan eating, drinking, shopping, and wandering around, but if you want to see historical sites or galleries, there are tons of those, too! On our first day we visited the Duomo, which is one of the biggest churches in the world (3rd-5th, depending on the list), and it is stunning. There are over 3400 sculptures decorating the cathedral and some of the stained-glass windows are over 500 years old. From there we walked through the “Galleria” which is kind of like an extremely fancy hallway, leading out to the Teatro alla Scalla. We didn’t see a show this time around – the only one on during our time there was a Wagner Opera with 6 seats left in a box selling for 180 Euros each! Maybe next time around. Another thing we missed this time was Davinci’s Last Supper. It’s in a church here, Santa Maria della Grazia, but by the time we found out we were going to Milan, the regular priced tickets were long gone. You can still get tickets for a 15 minute viewing of the fresco from various tour agencies, but they sell them at about 6 times the price you would pay normally. For a trip to Milan it would definitely be worth planning well in advance so you could do things like the opera and the Last Supper, because these things sell out months in advance.

Even though we didn’t get to do these two top attractions in Milan, we still had a great time. We did get to see the Brera art gallery, which houses some absolutely beautiful pieces. There are also so many other churches and galleries; this is definitely the place to come if you appreciate religious art. My favourite part of all of it was how beautiful the churches look amid all of the modern city buildings. Milan was mostly destroyed by an air raid in 1943, but some of the churches and monuments were spared. Today the city looks completely modern and new, but you can still see the odd church just sitting between two concrete and glass office buildings as if that’s the way it always was. I think it looks so cool. There’s a castle right downtown, surrounded by new city buildings. These old brick buildings look so out of place yet fit right in to the Milan cityscape.

Even though there were more than a few screw-ups, this was probably my favourite trip we’ve taken so far. I would have loved to have planned it further in advance and have been able to get a decent room, see the Last Supper and maybe an opera, but I don’t think you really need to see these things to appreciate the city. Milan was like all of the best things about all of the cities I love all in one. It had great music and tons of really delicious cafes where you could find locals drinking coffee or wine any time of the day – like Zagreb. Like Berlin, it has world class galleries and a really interesting history, also involving an air raid at the end of WWII. One of my other favourite cities was Strasbourg because of its beautiful cathedral and other religious sites, both of which Milan also has. And of course just like home, the people are friendly and relaxed, which makes it much easier to have a good time. I can’t wait to come back to Italy, and hopefully back to this awesome city, someday.

Here are some pictures!

Posted by kmclean 20:15 Archived in Italy Tagged shopping italy duomo coffee milan Comments (0)

Venice compared to Croatia

Our experiences in both

rain 22 °C
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We’re in Basel now and it’s raining, so I figured I’d write a bit more. I was just thinking about our trip, and I have to say that Venice was all really beautiful, but I found it a lot less enjoyable than Croatia in some ways. The prices were one thing, but you can over that if you know what to expect. We knew Venice would probably cost us more than all of Croatia, and anyone planning on going to Venice is probably not going because it’s a great cheap place to visit. There were just a lot of other little things that took away from the atmosphere of the city. I’m really starting to understand what people mean when they say “don’t go there; it’s too touristy”. I never mind the other tourists – that’s all we are! – but there were a lot of little things about Venice that made it feel like the whole city was just a giant tourist trap rather than a functioning part of Italy. It’s not the same visiting a place where it feels like there’s absolutely no one who actually lives there. In Croatia we saw people every day just going about their lives – in the grocery stores, on the public transit, in the cities. It was always really obvious who was local and who was a tourist. In Venice though, it seemed like there were no locals – we especially didn’t see many Italians.

Another big thing was that there were ads and graffiti all over all of the things you would want to see in Venice. In St. Mark’s square there were building-sized ads for clothing stores and other things hanging, there was even one on the basilica! There were also ads hanging on both sides of the Rialto Bridge and it was covered in graffiti – not nice street art, just white letters and symbols everywhere. It kind of ruins the city when you can’t see the characteristic buildings. I couldn’t imagine seeing a billboard ad for Hugo Boss hanging over the edge of the Dubrovnik City Walls.

Another thing was the “souvenir” stands. There are always tons of gift shops in a tourist city, but in Venice there were stands loaded with kitschy T-shirts, cheap masks, Chinese glass, crappy scarves, and everything else, every few metres! There were also tons of people selling knock-off sunglasses and purses and various children’s toys on the streets, just with sheets laid out and all of their merchandise on the ground. And all over the place, on the sides and in the middle of the road, on the bridges, steps, in the alleys – everywhere! It was really difficult to escape it. Anyway, we knew it was “touristy” before we went, but it was touristy in a different way than Korcula or Dubrovnik. Most of the time in Croatia there only a dozen or so people in the museums, shops, squares, or tours, even in Dubrovnik.

We saw some good artists selling their work on the streets, though, and I appreciate the paintings of Venice a lot more after visiting it, because there are no people or ads in the paintings. I think it would be impossible to get a decent picture of St. Mark’s basilica, or the Rialto Bridge, but the artists paint such beautiful paintings, you can kind of imagine what things looked like before they became full of garbage and tourists.

Anyway, we’ll definitely be back to visit the rest of Italy, but I would think twice about going to Venice again, and certainly never go in August if you can help it. It wasn’t too hot – that would be the only reason I wouldn’t go back to Croatia this time of year – and the accommodations were probably cheapest because you can camp, but there were just so many people, and so many vendors. I’m not sure what it’s like at other times of the year, but it’s really hard to enjoy and appreciate a city as unique and beautiful as Venice when there’s garbage, ads, construction, street vendors, and loud tourists everywhere.

Posted by kmclean 20:11 Archived in Italy Tagged beaches venice tourist croatia souvenirs traps Comments (0)

From Venice to Basel

Our trip is almost over

sunny 27 °C
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So, we’re on our way to Basel to wrap up this trip. We spent the last 4 nights in Venice and had a great time, but I’m looking forward to heading back to Germany and finally settling in somewhere. We arrived in Venice on the bus from Villach with no problems and caught the city bus to our campsite. By that time it had stopped raining, but it was freezing! Not really, but it was about 19 degrees, and coming from Croatia’s 38 degree evenings it was a bit of a shock. The weather for the rest of our trip was very warm, though, so I think we just caught a chilly day. We rented a “tent” at Camping Rialto, about 10 minutes outside Venice, and we had a really great stay. The tents they have for rent are more like the gazebo style covers that people have on their decks – it was big enough to stand up in, had a wooden floor and had room for 2 cots. We had a great time, I would definitely camp this way again. The transportation to and from the city was great, although the public transit in Venice seems a lot less efficient than in Croatia or Germany. The busses and water busses were usually late, or early, and all the doors were always open but the ticket validation thing was at the front of the bus, so I think quite a few people took more than a few free rides.

Overall, though, Venice was awesome. Unbelievably expensive, but once we got over that, we had a great time. It seemed like every little thing was a tourist trap; any way they can make money off of you, they did. One nice thing was that there were a lot of public fountains, so we never had to buy water. Washrooms were 1,50 euro though! And there was nowhere to sit, so we always ended up loitering on bridge steps to eat our packed lunches. We did go out for a couple of meals, which is where we discovered another series of tourist traps: the cover charge and service charge. Cover charge was usually 3 euro, and we had to pay a 12% “service charge”. It usually worked out to only a few extra euros, but the first time we ran into it it was a bit of a surprise. We went out expecting to pay 10 euros for a pizza, but after paying for the water, the cover charge, and the service charge, it ended up being double that! For mediocre pizza. It was disappointing to say the least, but we got over it and stayed out.

There didn’t seem like there was much to do in Venice except spend a lot of money, but we were expecting it so it wasn’t too much of a shock. Even after coming from Dubrovnik (which everyone in Croatia warned us was going to be SO expensive), we were in disbelief when we saw the prices in Venice. Dubrovnik was by far the most expensive city we went to in Croatia, but we probably spent more in Venice in 4 days than we did over the rest of our trip. We figured it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, though, so why not. All the guide books joke that “there’s a chance the water could be knee-deep in St. Mark’s square by the time you visit”, so I’ve got no regrets!

We spent some time in St. Mark’s square; we went into the Doge’s palace, the basilica, and the museums in the square. We also saw the Rialto Bridge and wandered around the alleys. We took an extremely over-priced gondola ride, but that was probably the best thing we did because it’s really the only way to see the canals and some of the really interesting buildings. The water busses only travel up and down the Grand Canal and across the lagoon, but in the gondola we got to see Venice up close. It’s really cool to see steps just going into the water, and to see water washing up against the houses instead of pavement. It really is unique. It’s neat to see people making deliveries in little motor boats, pulling up to the steps and dropping something off. We even saw a UPS boat full of parcels.

We also spent one day at a beach in Lido swimming in the other side of the Adriatic. We stopped at a cemetery on Murano and went further into the island for a while to eat lunch before the beach, and it was a really nice. It looked exactly like the main part of Venice, but much less crowded and with a lot fewer kitschy souvenir stalls. We got to stop by a glass workshop quickly, but there was no one around. It was pretty neat though. The beach was amazing. It was “free”, but the washrooms, showers, water, umbrellas, and loungers were all for profit. Luckily we learned enough over the past couple of weeks to bring lots of water and something to lay on. The sea was really warm and the beach was sandy. It was a great day, and our cheapest!

On our last night we stumbled across a concert hall and for only 20 euros each (which I thought was cheap), we got to see a string ensemble play for an hour and a half. They played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Pachelbel’s Canone, and a couple of other really great pieces, all in full 18th century costumes. The concert hall was beautiful. It was a perfect way to end our stay in Venice.

Now we’re on a plane to Basel where we’re couchsurfing for two nights, and then heading back to Freiburg. We get to move into our place for the year in a few days, and we’re really looking forward to that. It’s sad that this trip is over, but it just makes me that much more excited for our next vacation.

Here are the pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:05 Archived in Italy Tagged boats canals water venice st. palace square italy gondola mark's murano doge's lido Comments (0)

Ljubljana

On our way to Venice

rain 25 °C
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We left Ljubljana today for Venice, and we’re sitting on a bus in the pouring rain right now. Ljubljana was a great city, very beautiful and very European. We had our first experience couch surfing here, and it went so well! We arrived on Friday on a train from Zagreb and our host picked us up from the train station. They gave us breakfast and helped us learn about the city and how to get around it. So far we’ve lucked out with accommodations. We have the nicest hosts and always a comfortable place to sleep. We’re camping in Venice though, and it looks like we’ll be camping in the rain, so we’ll see how that goes.

Anyway, Ljubljana was a great city, except that today we got stuck in a down pour on our way to the train station. We got soaked but we made it. The best part about this city was free washrooms and water! Well, that may not have been the best part, but so far it was the only place where we’ve been served water for free at a restaurant. There are also public fountains everywhere. That was definitely a bonus. The first night there we went to the Ljubljana castle. It’s a great attraction, only 3 euro for students and it’s very well kept. There’s a great museum there and a virtual tour of the castle. We spent the whole night there and then caught a bus back to our host’s house, which went very smoothly. Learning how to use all the different public transit systems has been a fun part of this adventure.

We had one full day in Ljubljana, so we got to see quite a bit of the city. They had a great market on Saturday morning, and after that we went to the Ljubljana city museum. That was definitely my favourite museum so far, they had really great exhibits and a free audio guide to carry along with you through the museum. We also checked out the national and university library, where there happened to be an exhibit on Slovenians in Canada. It looked really interesting but was all in Slovene. After that we went to the parliament building, the Slovenian philharmonic academy, and the University of Ljubljana, but none were open so we kept wandering around town. Eventually we found our way back.

This morning it was raining, but only lightly, so we went to a flea market that our hosts suggested we see. It was really interesting. He said this flea market is only for vintage items and other interesting pieces, and there’s a separate one for anything “imported or plastic”. There was tons of really cool stuff, and a lot of old Yugoslav paraphernalia; money, coins, stamps, army knives. After that we got caught in the rain on our way to the train station and got soaked. There’s no easy connection to Venice from Ljubljana, which I thought there would be, so we had to catch a train to Villach in Austria, wait for an hour and a half, and then catch a bus to Venice. Now we’re sitting on that bus and it’s still pouring, but we’re looking forward to tomorrow.


Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:02 Archived in Slovenia Tagged markets venice castle yugoslavia flea ljubljana Comments (0)

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