Thursday, February 27, 2014

Planes, Trains & Funiculars

A few years back a co-worker had returned from Europe and was telling me about all of the different cities in which he had the chance to visit. I asked him if he took the train… a logical question I assumed, Europe = cheap & efficient train travel, right? Apparently not always. He went on to explain how the train was (expletive) expensive.

On my recently completed European adventure I had the privilege of taking all sorts of transportation in my short 10 days there. I will tell you that all are not created equal, granted location, company and a slew of other variables do exist. With that said, here are some musings about my experiences:

-As mentioned in a previous blog, if at all possible, fly direct on your trans-Atlantic journey. Create your itinerary around a direct-flight access point (something like Paris, London, Rome, Frankfurt, depending on your origin). It will save worlds of time and hassle. 

-We had a fantastic experience with bus travel between Munich and Prague with DB Bahn. The bus was spacious and barely half-full and the ride was extremely comfortable. Price was more affordable than the train option and also faster! 

-Our travel between Bergamo and Venice with TrenItalia was less than stellar. Our assigned seats were taken and we were forced to wander the train looking for a spot while hauling luggage through tiny corridors.

-Unless your Venice hotel is way out in left field, don't bother with the overpriced Vaporetto (water bus) pass or taking a water taxi. This gem of a city is much better explored on foot. It's not particularly large and it's fun to get lost! 

-When considering travel between two distant locations in Europe, check out regional low-fare airlines like WizzAir or Ryanair, their prices might surprise you. 

-If a city has a funicular (cable car) chances are it's worth checking out. Bergamo was no exception. 

-Subway access at the Prague central train and bus station is extremely confusing and they only accept Czech koruna. If your hotel is near Old Town Square you are better off walking, just watch out for luggage wheels on that cobble! 

-The Munich S-Bahn rail system is a marvel of efficiency. Never has transportation between a city's airport, main train station and downtown been so painless. 

-What's the deal with segways? 

Mike @ Palms & Pints 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

La Serenissima

By the time our train had rolled into Venice, we had already experienced so much of what Europe was famous for. Delicious beer in Munich, complex history in Prague and the tranquillity of the Italian alpine foothills. The end of the trip was in sight, but not before a visit to the itinerary's most renowned stop.

Venice is a fascinating city. 100% car free (or anything with wheels for that matter), it comprises of small canals, narrow alleyways and historic squares. It's only "highway" being the picturesque Grand Canal snaking through it. Within moments of being there, it becomes clear that no other place is quite like it. 

Venice - where the streets are paved in water!

Due to it's relatively small size and colossal popularity, Venice is often quite crowded, especially near the main tourist sights of Piazza San Marco and Rialto Bridge. This doesn't mean that you can't lose yourself down one of her hundreds of quiet alley-ways, surrounded by time-worn buildings that haven't changed much for centuries. 

The Rialto Bridge - The most famous canal crossing in Venice

I found it was these quiet alley-ways, these tiny bridges over shallow canals free from the tourist hordes where Venice really showed her charm. The hub that is Piazza San Marco, while impressive, was underwhelming when compared to Prague's Old Town Square or Munich's Marienplatz as seen earlier on our trip. What these cities couldn't compete with however was the serenity of a quiet collection of mazed streets with dead-ends into bright azure water and majestic old bridges begging for a photo-op. 

Beautiful bridges and canals perfect for a snapshot

Come to Venice for a gondola ride? 80 euro is the base fee which doesn't take into account premium time of day or music. Why not save that cash and catch a gondola go by a tiny canal while you and your lover stand and watch on a bridge? The city is a maze and even the best of maps will lead you astray. Forget about the planned tourist trail throughout the city and instead let yourself wander. There is no wrong way, and there is something to enjoy around every corner. 

The quintessential Venetian image

If you are coming to Italy for the world famous cuisine, I can't offer my recommendation of Venice. There are more subpar tourist trap restaurants per square mile that anywhere I have ever visited. Our first night was spent wandering the city looking for some decent street food, but all we could find was overpriced pizza that had been sitting out all day. With much help from TripAdvisor we were able to find some decent restaurants frequented by locals, but still came away generally unimpressed from a culinary standpoint. The high-point of eating came when we found a fantastic little deli where we were able to get slices of prosciutto, mortadella and local cheeses to make our own sandwiches in the hotel room. The store owner told us that many of the original shops like hers had closed in favor of those catering to the tourist crowds.

The deli we found has no name posted, but was on this street
Venice is on most traveller's European hit list, and it should be. It offers a romantic backdrop that no other place can. Blaze your own trail through the streets without spending too much time stuck in the crowds, and save some of your culinary expectations for your next stop in Italy. Venice is a feast for your eyes and for your heart.

Hotel Review:
Hotel San Cassiano Ca' Favretto

Mike @ Palms & Pints 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Citta Alta

Bergamo probably isn't on your list of "can't miss" Italian travel destinations. I mean, the country is an embarrassment of riches in that regard. Tourists come in hordes for the natural, cultural, culinary and historic offerings of Rome, Venice, Florence, Verona, Milan, Pompeii, Rimini and Pisa just to name a few. When we were looking for a way to bridge our journey from Prague to Venice, a direct flight into Bergamo came onto our radar. Located just outside of Milan, it may have been easy to swing over to the fasionista capital for a couple of days, but upon further research we realized that Bergamo offered a treasure of sights within its own city limits.

The first thing you need to know about Bergamo is that it is infact a tale of two cities. "Citta Alta" the medieval old town, and "Citta Basso" the larger, modern lower town. From a traveller's perspective, everything you want to get out of Bergamo is in Citta Alta.

Perched atop a hill, the old town offers views of both the main part of the city to the south, as well as the towering distant Alps to the north. Our hotel, Agnello D'Oro was a perfect location for exploration through the cobbled, winding streets.

Hotel Agnello D'Oro courtyard

Citta Alta is small, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in medieval charm. First stop was the Piazza Vecchia (old square) with it's towering clock tower, picturesque fountain and historic church. The square is typical of those in many small Italian towns, featuring a cafe, bar and gelateria. We were disappointed that most of the shops closed up before 8pm, as my other experiences with small town piazzas were that they were much more vibrant after dark. We chalked this up to the time of year.

The fountain of Piazza Vecchia

Next stop along the old cobbled streets was to the funicular station. The city offers two funicular (cable car) routes. One that connects Citta Alta with Citta Basso below, and the other which heads even further up the hill from Citta Alta to a small residential area. Unless your looking for a larger selection of restaurants or some shopping, I wouldn't recommend heading down to the main part of town, however a quick jaunt up the north-bound funicular will provide some excellent views.

The Alps as seen from Citta Alta, Alta
The medieval skyline
A final worthy stop is the 13th century fortress. We had a totally private walk around the fortress grounds and took in the spectacular views and history, totally free from the tourist crowds that surrounded the rest of our European sight seeing on the trip.

Sights like the 13th century fortress can almost place you back in time
As a lover of palms, this was quite an exciting find in Northern Italy

If you are up in Citta Alta for only one meal, I highly recommend Da Franco for fantastic pizza. Keep in mind that most of the town, safe from a few restaurants, close up shop between 7pm & 8pm.

Mike @ Palms & Pints

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bavaria and Bohemia

After a happily uneventful flight across the pond, we exited the Munich airport and headed towards the S-Bahn station. We were greeted by a beautiful modern outdoor terrace, featuring no less then it's very own brewery... AirBrau! I had come to Munich for the beer culture, and though Oktoberfest was not in the recent past nor approaching future, I knew I wasn't going to be disappointed.

German beer culture starts at the airport.

First stop was Marienplatz, the historic centre of Munich. You are instantly taken in by an "awe moment" as you raise up the subway escalator and into the square. The towering Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) is the focal point of a magnificent collection of architecture.

There is nothing "new" about the New Town Hall (by North American standards)

German beer and cuisine were an integral part of the stop. We visited two historic beer halls, Hofbrauhaus and Augustiner. Both of which had the expected excellent beer and great authentic eats. From what I had researched, Hofbrauhaus was more famous yet considerably more touristy (probably because of it's location a stone's throw from the square). This turned out to be quite accurate, however I would advise any beer lover, or really anyone interested in Bavarian culture to definitely make both of these spots high priority when in Munich.

PS - Try the pork knuckle!

One delicious litre of Munich's finest.

Our time in Munich wasn't long, so other than wandering the Marienplatz area, the only other outing of note was to Olympic Park. This massive area of the city was designed for the 1972 Summer Olympics, however it was tough to get excited about it in 2014. A sprawling series of facilities that were no longer state-of-the-art, nor even really in use (granted, it was February). We paid about 5 Euro to head up to the top of the Olympic tower. The views of the distant Alps made the admission almost bearable, but all-in-all I would leave Olympic Park off your Munich itinerary.

The next stop on our journey took us to Prague, the historic capital of Bohemia. Prague had been on my bucket list for quite some and it was almost surreal to think I was finally getting there. As we stepped off the bus and began walking down the cobbled streets towards our hotel, I couldn't help but feel more out of place than I had ever felt before. The city felt very eastern to me, sort of how I would imagine Moscow or Belgrade. The streets were constantly intersecting and the names nearly impossible to pronounce. When we finally came into the Old Town Square, we were relieved, but at the same time excited to explore this fascinating city.

The unique language certainly adds to the allure.

The "City of a Hundred Spires" is home to the most beautiful section of urban land I have ever seen. Staroměstské Náměstí (Old Town Square) is a marvel of architecture, a functioning work of art. Each of our three days in the city started and ended with a stroll-about/photo session with the historic centre of Old Town.

Tyn Church & Old Town Square - at it's best at night. 

Coming in an admirable 2nd place on my Prague attractions list is Charles Bridge. The beautiful old gothic bridge connecting Old Town with Lesser Quarter. Hopefully the crowds aren't too thick and you can casually walk across while taking in the immense history and breathtaking views. 

Charles Bridge - Beautiful sites galore in Praha.

Other highlights of Prague included the mammoth Prague Castle complex and the historically important/modern shopping destination Wenceslas Square.

I wouldn't consider Prague a premier destination for foodies, but a great traditional restaurant to sample Czech cuisine was Kotleta, right in Old Town Square. The Czechs do know their beer though, Pilsner Urquell, the original Pilsner is the nectar of the gods! 

While my next venture to Germany will likely see me head north to explore Berlin, I can easily see myself returning to Prague soon, as three days was not enough to uncover it's vast beauty and intricate history. 

Thanks for reading. I'm currently continuing my European adventure in Northern Italy, and looking forward to posting again on Monday, ciao!

Hotel Reviews:
Hotel Stadt Rosenheim - Munich
The Emblem Hotel - Prague

Mike @ Palms & Pints 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Munich - Hotel Stadt Rosenheim

Booking a hotel in Munich was difficult. My wife and I were looking for something above average, but at the same time not grossly overpriced. Within Marienplatz (Munich’s “Old Town Square”, and also the main tourist drag), well-reviewed hotels easily exceed $300 CAD per night. If you take a flyer on a poorly reviewed property you might be able to snag a deal, but that just wasn’t a risk we wanted to take for our 1st wedding anniversary trip. We eventually compromised and decided to go with Hotel Stadt Rosenheim, which was well outside of Marienplatz, but close to Ostbahnhof, a major transit hub in the city. This turned out to be a fantastic decision.

With its location at the doorstep of Ostbahnhof Station, within Munich’s incredibly efficient S-Bahn system, Marienplatz was always only minutes away. Transit to and from both the airport and main bus station were also painless. 

Prime location literally right in front of the Ostbahnhof S-Bahn station!

The building itself is of historical significance. It was built in the late 19th century, held by allied forced during WWII and only recently renovated back into a hotel property. 

The lobby, hallways and rooms are of a creative yet minimalist design (think IKEA), and are in immaculate condition.

Interior felt modern yet 50's all at once.

Breakfast is outstanding. Light and fresh, perfect for kicking off a day of walking and sightseeing. 

The perfect hotel breakfast (just don't expect "American Style")

Staff are extremely friendly and helpful and room cleaning is thorough. Traveller perks like wifi, in-room safe and bottled water are included.  I would not hesitate to stay at this hotel again when back in the beautiful city of Munich and would give it my full recommendation. 

Price – 129€ ($195 CAD) per night + 10€ ($15 CAD) pp for breakfast 
Location – Orleansplatz 6a, Munich, Germany (Ostbahnhof Station)
Website -

Mike @ Palms & Pints 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Euro Bound!

So I’m finally heading back to Europe! Three-and-a-half years after my first soirée to the “Old World”, the time has come to return. Last time I got to see Rome and Vienna (as well as some small central-Italian towns while visiting family members). This time my 10-day itinerary consists of Munich, Prague, Bergamo & Venice. While Bergamo is more of just a “stop-over”  destination (although I’ve heard the old city is beautiful, and can’t wait to see it!), the other three stops have been on my bucket list for quite some time. I have high hopes for this trip and can’t wait to start blogging about it and posting photos on my twitter feed along the way (@palmsandpints). Once home, my European wanderlust should be somewhat tempered. Well, at least enough for me to focus on my bucket list destinations on the remaining continents, …in no particular order:

The Maldives
-As a lover of palm trees, fine sand and azure waters, I can’t think of a better, more exotic place in the world to relax for 2 weeks (or forever!)

-Heard a million stories from friends and family members who have experienced this ancient Incan wonder, and hiked Machu Picchu. Can’t think of a better “adventure” destination.

North Coast of Australia
-Oz is on most peoples’ travel list, but the beaches and scenery of the north is what interests me the most.

-In my home nation, yet a totally different lifestyle. I got a taste of the Maritimes already, but from the photos I’ve seen of this island, it can’t be missed!

North Africa 
-I have not done much research on this region (specifically Morocco & Tunisia), but it looks like the weather and landscape of southern Spain, but with a totally unique culture I have yet to experience.

-A bit of a theme with the beach destinations. Well, when I’m not taking in the history and food of Europe, that’s what I crave! Heard many-a-good thing about this Dutch island.

Honorable mentions
Tahiti, San Diego, New Zealand, Dubai, Costa Rica, Canadian Rockies
Next post coming from the other side of the pond on Monday (but plenty of trip tweets in between)!


Mike @ Palms & Pints 

Monday, February 3, 2014

5 Classic Travel Mistakes

As I get ready for my latest adventure to Europe this week, I took some time to think of a few travel lessons I’ve been forced to learn, through experience, over the years. Whether it was wasting a precious day away at an airport connection, or grabbing a subpar meal at a cleverly disguised tourist trap, it’s never easy to admit you made a bad call or just simply weren’t prepared. Going into this trip I’m sure I’ll make a few more mistakes, but here are five that I think I got a handle on moving forward:

1. Over-packing

A classic rookie travel blunder. Unless your trip is entirely filled with trade shows and cocktail parties, you don’t need a new outfit each and every day. If you are touring Europe, bring comfortable (yet presentable) clothes that you can wear multiple times throughout the trip. Might hit up a fancy restaurant once or twice? Bring a nice dress shirt and a decent pair of pants. Over-packing is even more of a waste down south where you will probably be wearing the same two to three swim trunks all week and the same pair of khakis at dinner. Those three pairs of jeans and four sweaters you brought “in case it gets cold at night” are gonna stay folded up at the bottom of your suitcase.

2. Your eyes can see far better than any camera lens

I noticed on a recent trip to DC that I was looking at the sights through my SLR’s digital screen more than through my own retinas. I remember standing out in front of the White House, trying to get the best possible shot to throw up on Twitter, and neglecting to just enjoy the moment. Photos make for fantastic memories, but so do actual memories. With that being said, here is a rather witty comic that totally contradicts this point.

3. Pay the extra $100 and fly direct

Now I understand this isn’t always possible. From here in Toronto, it’s difficult to get to many US destinations without a connection. But when flying eight hours to Europe do yourself a huge favor and fly direct, instead of saving 10-15% and adding on three hours and significant hassle and stress to your journey. On my last Euro trip we flew from Toronto to Vienna, then a few days later from Vienna to Rome, and finally from Rome back to Toronto. All three of these flights connected in Paris. On one of the connections we had to clear customs and our stopover was only an hour! I would not wish these types of headaches on my enemy. Pay a little more and fly direct. 

4. Research your restaurants

My favorite website TripAdvisor isn’t just for hotels! They also have an extensive collection of restaurant reviews. You won’t feel more cheated than sitting down at a nice Italian restaurant in Rome, only to discover that meal is less authentic than the Olive Garden. (I mean no disrespect to the Olive Garden, it’s a must-stop for me when I’m in Buffalo, …but not Italy.) The food in Italy is outstanding if you know where to go, and a little research goes a long way.

5. This is (probably) not your last trip, you don’t have to do everything

I’m guilty of this on every trip, and probably will be again in Europe this time around. It’s common traveler’s nature to want to see as much as possible. For the majority of us who are not full-time travelers and have a limited number of vacation days, it’s so tempting to plan jam-packed itineraries in one place, or try and ‘day trip’ to one location while staying in another. While this is good for simply checking items off of a bucket list, it will only take away from the enjoyment of your trip. The cliché “stop and smell the roses” works quite well in this scenario. Come away from the city you visited knowing that you walked the streets, explored the neighborhoods, tasted the food and appreciated the culture. That last show or monument you missed, or side trip to the countryside can wait for next time, just enjoy that hour killed at the local café, and relax knowing you're on vacation and the rush hour bustle will be waiting for you back home.

Thanks for reading. Looking forward to my last pre-trip post on Thursday before I board the plane to Munich. Bis Später!

Mike @ Palms & Pints