Kraków, POL—One word sums this place up; stunning. The old town is simply magic. Beautiful buildings and history on every street and corner from medieval times up to the 20th century. From Wawel Castle through to the market square there is always some new detail to be picked up by the discerning eye, even after several visits to the city. There's a real romanticism about the town at night, with its gas converted street lights and the beautiful buildings it as though you're walking around in a movie or a painting that had sprung to life. The park surrounding the old town in autumn is beautiful with all the different coloured leaves adding a whole new splash of colour. Krakow has a young population so there’s a palpable energy from the tourists and young people as you stroll around. Every street has tons of restaurants, bars, and cafes hidden in its courtyards all with their own unique brand of design and charm. There are tours operating out of Kraków to Auschwitz, Zakopane, and other regional highlights like clockwork so there's no way to feel bored here. It's a real gem of a city!
Gdańsk, POL—I had no idea Gdańsk was going to be as beautiful as it was. Kraków blew me away, but I was still not ready for how lovely Gdańsk is. I’ve since been calling it the Amsterdam of the Baltic because of the Flemish architecture and its dissecting river and small waterways. It has survived as a royal city, a free-state, been at times a part of Germany, Prussia, USSR, and Poland and truly boasts the luxuries of multiculturalism in its presentation. WW2 broke out here and the city paid a heavy toll, taking 70 years to be returned to its former glory (that's non-stop restoration straight through until 2015!). The city centre is beautiful and the town hall shares the limelight of the sky line with the spires of St. Mary’s church. Every time I was out exploring I found something new to marvel at or a new building to be impressed by. Part of the city walls are still standing, and I was staying outside of them in the “new” area of the town, so my walk was always lined by beautiful sights. I even tried to come home new and different ways, but each time the city found a way to surprise me with a hidden gem. It is truly beautiful and were it not so far away from everything I would be back in a heartbeat.
Nürnberg, DEU—I spent a few days in Berlin before heading to Nürnberg, but there's enough travel information on Berlin that I don't feel the need to go into it. I got a tram and a bus down to my next stop in Bavaria. Famous for the nazi rallies and the trials after WW2, I knew little else about the town before arriving. The main bus station is located just outside the old city walls, and I was blown away by how nice the town is when I passed through the medieval fortifications and walked in. With the huge imperial castle looking down from the hilltop to the beautiful market spaces, Nuremberg is a wonderful town. For 500 years all new kings of Germany held their first court in Nuremberg, so it holds a special place in German history. This imperial importance or effect is visible in the craftsmanship of the many beautiful churches, bridges, and buildings that dot the old town area. They really convey a status of importance and that true expense was paid in their realization. The market was amazing everyday for cheap local food, and I had some great Bavarian style dishes during the evenings (and beers too!). Touring the remaining and unfinished nazi rally ground was quite an event for me. The information displays are powerful, no matter how many books or articles you've read or documentaries you've seen, there is always something new to learn. Something I found I really enjoyed, but that people might not like was really getting to practise speaking German on a daily basis. I found there to be fewer English speakers compared to the other German cities I’ve been to. All in all, if you're heading through Bavaria to Munich, it's definitely worth a stop off!
Zürich, CHE—Switzerland was on my bucket list, and I remember thinking I wish I had gone to a more alpine town than Zürich, but when I got there I was once again blown away by the beauty of the city. Divided by the Limmat river the old town crawls up the embankments and hills around lake Zurich. There are so many beautiful buildings complimented with hundreds of little cobblestone alleys and laneways snaking between them. It gives the impression that the city just grew so fast and out of control that buildings were just springing up anywhere! I had a few days off in Zurich and was able to get out and explore much of the old town and its narrow roads, and had a few lovely strolls around the river. A big plus was being able to see and old friend from my hometown. She lives in the nearby town of Zug and I went down for an evening to hang out and catch up. The town is small but just insanely gorgeous. It’s one one side of lake Zug with the mountains in the background on the other side. Looking out while walking along waterfront presents a lovely panoramic. We sat outside and had a few drinks and caught up on each others lives. It was great to see an old friend and one of those necessary reminders of how small the world can be! Though I only saw two towns I got the impression that even a Swiss landfill would be beautiful.
Barcelona, ESP—Everybody needs to go there at least once in the spring. The temperature was a perfect low-mid 20s with constant sun, the food was amazing, the jacaranda trees were just starting to bloom their cartoonish purple petals, and there felt a buzz about the city. We spent our days lounging on the beach, strolling slowly along the waterfront, hopping between patios and restaurants, and just walking around the city without a care in the world. The jump in temperature and being on the ocean really gave our time there a care-free element. We hit the main tourist hotspots, but did a lot of time in areas more off the beaten path which was great. There’s so much tourism in Barcelona that it has started to almost become a tourist city, with many families moving or being forced out for Airbnbs. There has been so much development towards tourism that there isn’t a huge industry there so jobs are starting to become scarce. You feel as a tourist that the place you’re visiting benefits from you being there, but for the first time I noticed that there was an audible portion of the inhabitants who didn’t want us there. It’s an interesting time for Catalonia, and I hope everything works out for the best for locals and tourists alike. Their city is so beautiful and diverse with a real appreciation for artistry and presentation it deserves to be prosperous for everybody.
Marseille, FRA—Marseille was a greek colony and has been welcoming people of all walks of life since 600 BC. This was the salient fact that brought me there (as well as a dirt cheap flight from Barca). I spent my days walking around the ancient harbour/seaside fort. Of course no trip to the city is complete without making the ascent to the basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde; perched high above the city on a rocky hilltop and looking out into the Mediterranean Sea. I stayed in the Camas region of the city, on one of many streets developed during la Belle Époque in France (1870s-1910s). Rows of adjoining townhouses on either side of the sloping streets point to a time of great expansion and creativity that would have rendered them quite impressive in their hay-day. I stayed in a cool ground floor loft-like airbnb with a courtyard separating me from the main part of the house. The bed was in the loft above, and the kitchen/living area was below with a wee tiny toilet and shower area! These funky little treasures sometimes can make or break a trip as they are more or less non-existent in my experience in North America. It was so cute and small, but for a solo traveller it was just perfect size. I also went to a football match, which was great fun. The home fans are on either end of the stadium, and were chanting back and forth at each other before the game even kicked off! Balotelli netted a brace and Olympique de Marseille won, meaning everyone left in good spirits. For being the second most populated city in France it felt more impoverished than I expected. The Parc Longchamp was incredible, and the old port and surrounding areas had some lovely buildings and little side streets, but I didn’t get the sense of wealth or economic importance that I anticipated. That being said, it still holds a special place for me though as its where I bought Jaimes engagement ring and changed my life!
Lyons, FRA—I got a bus for 1€ from Marseille. Unbelievable deal. I hadn’t researched the city at all before arriving, I only went because of the cost of the bus. When I arrived however I was so pleasantly surprised by the dreamy old town area. It was the first place in France to have its old town protected and properly cared for, and Lyons is so well to do for that decision! The narrow cobbled streets are packed with shops and restaurants, there was ivy running along the walls, flowers in bloom, and I got that familiar feeling of being back in time as I aimlessly meandered through the alleys and streets. The place I stayed was a bit of a let down, so I really tried to be out as much as possible. I went on a cool haunted tour of the town and learned all about its origins, symbology, etymology, and local legends that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. I ended up being the only person on the tour so I felt like a VIP being ushered around in style. Something totally unique to Lyons is a series of hidden tunnels and passageways known as the “Traboules.” They run through buildings, staircases, and courtyards all over the old town and some are still open to the public. It was a great trip because I had zero expectations and found the city to be beautiful, the food delicious, and of course I love having the opportunity to speak French; which, for the most part, everyone did with me rather than reverting to English. I always find it a more immersive experience when you’re able to speak in the language of the country and Lyons delivered in spades.
Athens, GRE—I heard so many negative things about Athens before arriving. That it stinks, the people are rude, there’s nothing to do (apart from the obvious), there’s no transit, etc etc. So, once again I had tempered expectations upon arriving. How could it not be worth travelling to a place with so much history? Luckily I was far from disappointed. When I arrived it was mid-spring and everything was in full bloom. When I walked up the steps from the underground I was hit with an aroma that I had never experienced on such a scale before. The whole walk to my Airbnb I could smell this beautiful floral, citrus scent on the air. The streets of Athens are lined with orange trees but the oranges are too bitter to eat, so they are allowed to naturally ripen and fall off. When they fall the branches start to flower with white petals and it produces a beautiful image and the intoxicating aroma that welcomed me. Everyday I tasted incredible coffee, had locally grown organic fresh fruits and vegetables, and munched on freshly baked bread. It felt like a real authentic experience to be in a city from antiquity and eating all local foods bought from the people who grow or make them. It was warm and sunny all but one day (where it PISSED down rain) and I walked everywhere. After I made it about five minutes from my flat the views were incredible. The Acropolis, the Parthenon, temples and churches of antiquity, ancient neighborhoods, Plato’s academy, where Socrates received the death sentence, the Agora, Roman ruins… I was a kid in a candy store. I walked around in the sun with my mouth open gazing at places I have read about for years and which hold staggering historical and global impact. It’s the oldest place I’ve yet been and I honestly loved it. The food was cheap, everybody I interacted with was nice, and the weather was a dream. Right outside my building was a huge street market one day of the week that had everything I could ever want. I left feeling like it was a place I would be happy to call home, and really lit a flame of desire to see more of what Greece has to offer.
Cluj Napoca, ROM—Romania wasn’t high up on my list, but once again the price was too good to pass up, and I got a flight for under £30. Cluj is considered the capital of Transylvania and has been part of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. My time there didn’t jump off to a great start as I had a completely anti-semitic cab driver drone on about his racist views while driving me to my flat, and when I got to the building I was staying in, the nazi SS logo was spray painted on the front! I was staying on the outskirts of the old town, in what seemed like a very soviet influenced area. Wide streets with big ugly square tower blocks. I wasn’t really that impressed with anything to start off with, but knowing I wasn’t in the city centre I figured I’d give it the benefit of the doubt and got out to see more of the area. Thankfully I was greeted by some beautiful buildings in the old town and some great weather to boot. The main area is very charming and there are some great parks within walking distance as well. Of particular interest to me was the medieval town wall that is still standing and outlining the original city. We certainly got off on the wrong foot, but after being out in the town over a few days it started to grow on me. I felt like I was probably there a little too long as it’s quite small, but there really are some nice buildings and restaurants to enjoy. Overall it didn’t do much to sell me on Romania, and if it wasn’t for all the good things I’ve heard about Bucharest I’m not sure I’d be fussed to go back. Who knows, maybe next time will be a completely different story!
Wrocłow, POL—Rounding out my journey was a trip back to where it had begun, Poland! Once again I caught a dirt cheap flight, and landed in Wrocłow. I can’t say enough about Poland. The food is delicious and the beer is cheap. The cities are beautiful, and for the most part people seem genuinely nice. Whenever I struggle through a poorly pronounced and bastardized Polish sentence, I usually get a smile or a grin and someone who genuinely wants to help. Wrocłow had all of this plus it boasted a lovely main square with beautiful pastel shaded buildings, an impressive medieval town hall, and huge churches dotted all around. I sat out on a Saturday in a pub courtyard with a tasty pint and the sun beating down on me. I altered between reading a book and pausing to think how lucky I was to be outside in April in a t-shirt! It was Easter weekend and there were crowds of people at all the restaurants and bars, and everybody seemed to be in a great mood. I learned that Easter is a bigger holiday than Christmas in Poland, and the festive atmosphere was kicked into overdrive by the beautiful warm weather. Wrocłow is a bit out of the way from other big tourist centres, so it doesn’t get the footfall it would if it was located closer to a bigger or more popular destination, which is a shame because it’s truly worth seeing the old town area. After a stay that felt too-short, I was back to London on a plane, before crossing the ocean back to Canada.