The 10 Most Impressive Things We Saw in Europe

30 Sep

DSCN0887We may have overbooked ourselves on this trip*, packing five cities across three countries in two weeks which left little time to relax and take it all in. The plus side of this is that we saw some truly incredible, jaw-dropping historical sights. I had a feeling The Eiffel Tower and The Colosseum would be our favorites, but most of the places on this list surprised us with their beauty and splendor. We’d find ourselves speechless, turning a corner to see the Pantheon or endless ruins and enormous columns and only able to muster up a, “man … Rome.” What else can you say? Well, we’ll try to put it into words. And pictures. This was our first trip with a camera, so we added mini 6-picture galleries to most of the top 10s. You can click on them to see all six pics quickly.

*Definitely. We definitely did.

10. The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was certainly interesting. Our bike tour leader taught us a lot about how it divided East and West Berlin and the importance of it coming down and how difficult it was to cross and how they had to fly in supplies, etc. Interesting place to visit? Certainly. Should you go if you’re in Berlin? Of course. But when we took a special trip back to the East Side Gallery to see a mile-long stretch of graffiti on the wall dedicated to freedom, we found it a bit underwhelming. Great idea. Some cool stretches. Mostly uninspiring*. Still a must see.

*It’s tough, because I hadn’t had a chance to check out the East Side Gallery the last time I was in Berlin, so it was very, very high on my to-do list. I’m a huge fan of political graffiti (Banksy is my spirit guide), but there was something about the East Side Gallery that just didn’t quite do it for us. It may have been in part that run-of-the-mill graffiti painters had plastered their own personal symbols all over the actual artwork. In any event, it’s worth a look for sure, but I’d say the bits and pieces near to Checkpoint Charlie are actually cooler than the long stretch on the East Side.

9. Piazza San Marco in Venice

Who would have thought that pigeons would give a person so much joy? But there it is — pigeons, the answer to human happiness. At least, that was the case for Zack and I when we emerged into the Piazza San Marco square. First, of course, our jaws dropped because of St. Mark’s Basilica, the impressive and beautiful church that takes up a whole edge of the square. Opposite, you have Doge’s Palace, which I’d love to explore someday in the future, because apparently there are tons of creepy tombs and underground tours you can take in there. But then, we saw the pigeons. People would put a little food in the ground in front of them, and then in their hands, and suddenly, the pigeons would be all over them, standing on their arms and shoulders to get a little nibble. We knew we wanted to try it, so Zack bought a little feed from a guy after talking him down from 10 Euro*, and then we had a picture-taking feast for the eyes. Two pigeons ended up hopping up on me, and even after the food was gone…they just chilled on me. One on my arm, another on my shoulder. I stood there, kind of laughing, and then realizing … wow, these birds really just aren’t going to move. Finally I kind of shook my arm to get one pigeon off, but the shoulder bird was still perched there, just hanging out. In retrospect I wish I had tried to keep him on there while I walked around, but instead I shimmied my shoulders and off he flew. For a second there, I felt like a poor man’s Snow White, and it was glorious. St. Mark’s Basilica itself is stunning, but the entire plaza is unlike every other section of Venice we went to. The rest of the city is so narrow and all of a sudden you’re in this wide open square. It’s a gorgeous view all around and the pigeons are incredibly entertaining. Who knew having birds on your arm would be that much fun. I get it now, lady from “Home Alone 2.” 

*I actually talked him down from 1 Euro to 40 cents. It was just un-popped popcorn after all. 

8. The Trevi Fountain in Rome

You’re gonna see a lot of fountains in Europe. Trevi Fountain is the best one. It’s gorgeously laid out with grand architecture behind it, and is constantly being renovated to ensure it’s sparkling. Sure, it’s a big tourist attraction and you spend half the time angling to get a good picture of you and your sweetheart, but it’s still romantic and thrilling at night and throwing a coin in supposedly ensures your return. Don’t wait long. We felt compelled to come back the next day to see it in the sunlight and throw in another bag of coins. I highly recommend you do the same. Oh, and definitely watch this Vine of Caitlin throwing her coin inIt was absolutely gorgeous, humongous, breathtaking and definitely overwhelming from the crowds — and, in the Italian traditions we’d come to understand, there were some hustlers trying to “help” by taking your photo that we had to turn away quite a few times. We ended up running into some American tourists who helped us with photos for free, and we made a million wishes as we threw in handful after handful of coins.

7.  The Black Forest in Freiburg, Germany

Since I had studied in Freiburg in 2008, I always dreamed of taking the love of my life on my favorite Black Forest bike ride. My good friend and abroad-studying compatriot Lindsy had originally taken me on this tour of the forest one summer afternoon on a whim — I can’t remember how she’d discovered the route, but it was a two-and-a-half hour trek on a bike path that ran along a river and took us past rolling hills, dark mountains, incredible vertical vineyards, dreamy cottages and cornfields until we ended up in a little town on the outskirts of Freiburg and made our way back around. I was worried that I wouldn’t remember how to navigate all of the twists and turns of the route, but hopeful that Zack would love it anyway since he loves an amazing bike ride as much as I do. I knew that he’d appreciate the cool mountain air and the incredible scenery. And, as it turned out — I remembered the route! Much like riding my bike, it all came back to me so naturally, and it felt homey in an exciting way. And, Zack more than appreciated it. He gave me all of the oohs and aahs I could want, stopping to take photos and hide from a fierce rainstorm that hit near the end of the journey. It’s a ride I hope we can make again and again through the ages. I’m thrilled that I’m lucky enough to be the one Caitlin shared this special journey with. You start with a ride along a creek, then climb up toward and through these gorgeous mountains as the ride continues to get more and more beautiful the further you go. Caitlin told me we could stop to take pictures whenever I wanted, which was early and often. We staved off the rain the first stretch, but had to pull over near a farm at the end to get out of a rain storm, but stayed just dry enough to be comfortable and it made the ride that much more of an adventure. A truly unforgettable experience that was stunningly gorgeous at every step.

6. The Gianicolo Hill & Pincio Gardens in Rome, Italy

Climb to one of the highest points in a great city and look out at the glory of it. This is a recipe for success. And Rome being Rome, hiking up some stairs and taking in a grand view of it, well, what could be better? We found two such places, with the Pincio Gardens and Gianicolo hill providing the best views we saw all trip outside of the top of the Eiffel Tower. With a fountain at one site and gardens at another, there’s beauty all around you, but just try to keep your eyes off the view of the city below. Bonus: Accordion players! One of my favorite Vines of the trip. Rome is incredible and these sweeping views made the bajillion of steps it took to get to them worth it.

5. The Napolean collection in The Louvre, Paris

The collection in the Louvre called “Napolean III’s Apartments” intrigued me, but I did not drag Zack there purposefully. I mentioned I’d be interested in checking out the installation, and we sort of accidentally wandered into it. Then, my brain exploded. The fabrics! The furniture! The mother-effing-CHANDELIERS*! Y’all, the chandeliers. I’d see one and go, “Oh my god Zack this, THIS is the best chandelier!” and then we’d turn a corner and there’d be a larger, more magnificent chandelier just waiting for us, and then a larger and more intricate one in the next room, and then a larger HOW ARE THEY SO LARGE I CAN’T EVEN. Zack and I agreed that when we go back to Paris in 2016, we’ll just live in these apartments**. They are the epitome of luxury and indulgence, and although I consider myself a fairly modest person when it comes to that kinda thing in my real life, being transported to that kind of Parisian-dream-home scenario brought out the decadence in me.

*Our trip-long quest of trying to find wind chimes almost became a quest to find chandeliers after these beauties.

**I kinda wanted us to just stay overnight that night in the Louvre, hiding in Napolean’s baller couches. Lil’ dude had the best stuff. 

4. Ancient Rome

With Rome being our favorite city (Paris gets an Incomplete) we have to group a few of our favorite bits into one. Everywhere you turn, this place is a wonder to behold. The ruins are everywhere. Every other street has a massive church or government building or some other masterful piece of architecture that absolutely blows you away. I was more entranced by The Pantheon, Caitlin was a big fan of the ruins we couldn’t determine, but every bit of it was incredible. We kept saying we don’t know how people live here and take some of it for granted after a while. It was breathtaking for us every single moment. It’s emphasized too by the fact that you have this mix of old and new throughout the city. Whereas places like Freiburg and Venice feel almost like theme parks because of how special and unreal they are, Rome was unreal in a totally different way — it is clearly a living, breathing city, but with so much history everywhere you turn.

3. The Venice Canals

As exhausted as we were when we arrived in Venice, worn down from some SleazyJet awfulness (we’ll get to that later), when we crossed a bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice and made our way over the uneven stone walkways, my mind was immediately blown*. I knew Venice “streets” were all water and their “cars” were boats, but until you actually see what that means, you’ve just got some shimmering reflective images in your head. As we walked along past hordes of Venetians selling their wares to even larger hordes of tourists, it felt like we were transported to some magical Disney reenactment world** — except that no, this was real. Venice is just like this. Venice was the first city where Zack and I legitimately relaxed on our vacation***, in no hurry to fit in a thousand activities, but rather quite content to stroll peacefully along the water’s edge, or sit up on the steps of some old, huge church with a beer**** and some ice cream, watching boats pass each other in the light of the night. It’s a storybook, and although we felt ready to leave after our three days there*****, I think the rejuvenation we got from that leg of the trip was what allowed us to enjoy Rome as much as we did. 

*This is the reaction we both thought she’d have for Paris, but the canals really did it for Caitlin. I wasn’t as gaga, but I can’t deny their unique appeal. 

**A world where they still rip you off, but you don’t feel the safe warmth of Disney characters in costumes. Just pushy a-holes selling roses.

***Easily the most relaxing three days of vacation we’ve ever had.

****Or three.

*****Two to two and half days is more than enough in Venice. Day three was overkill, but still a lovely overkill. 

2. The Eiffel Tower in Paris

This could have gone one of two ways. You are completely inundated with imagery of the Eiffel Tower your entire life. At least I know I’ve been. I must have seen thousands of images of it, to the point of overkill in my lifetime. And then you get there and maybe it’s not that big or it’s overcrowded or not as magical as you’d hoped. Not the case for me. I absolutely loved the damn thing. I loved, loved, loved the climb up the stairs (Part 1, Part 2). I loved the safety video they show about strollers. I loved the world-class views we got from the top. I loved the way it lit up at night. I loved it all. Zack’s adoration of the giant tower was infectious, and of course having seen it in films, books, photos, and on my own jewelry forever, I was highly anticipating the Eiffel. Even though I grumped about it on the way up, I’m so glad Zack and I took the stairs instead of the elevator. First of all, the line was like 80% shorter for the stairs. Second, you feel such a sense of accomplishment when you rise to the top off of your own physical labor. Plus, I noticed when I had to run up the steps in my apartment yesterday that it wasn’t as difficult as I remembered! Maybe Zack will turn me into a stair convert after all.

1. The Colosseum in Rome

I’m as surprised as anyone by this, but the Colosseum was hands down the favorite structure we came across in all of our travels*. A place with so much history**, both violently destructive and extraordinarily celebratory, a place that was built up to be so colossal, in a time when cranes weren’t necessarily handy to help make skyscrapers — it’s just incredible. It’s both eerie and alluring at night, but I almost preferred it during the day, when we could look out through humongous arc windows to see out over Rome’s various ruins. We took the audio tour of the Colosseum, which gave us even more insight to the history of the place***. It’s one of those places that pictures don’t really do justice, because until you’re there, experiencing the past in that visceral, hands-on kind of way, it’s hard to comprehend****. Plus, Zack and I wouldn’t get to see Paul McCartney play in a stadium were it not for the Colosseum, so you just gotta pay some homage to that.

*Even when we were at our absolute lowest on this trip, desperately looking for a place to stay at midnight, circling the city in a cab, we first laid eyes on the Colosseum and were blown away. 

**After you’ve seen “Gladiator”, how can you not be super psyched to see this beast.

***I felt like I knew most of this, from that documentary “Gladiator,” but it was still really cool to get the ins and outs of all the particulars of the passage ways and who sat where, etc. 

****It’s so much bigger and more spectacular than you can imagine. The OG stadium.

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