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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Europe 101: Plan Perfect!

Europe is an icon of the travel world. With so many places to choose from and so many details to consider, any traveler can become overwhelmed! Fear not Euro-traveler! We are here to answer the most important questions! Let’s make your trip to Europe plan perfect. If you are just getting started, we highly recommend checking out our first Europe 101 post and podcast to get your basic plans started.

What can I do to make my trip to Europe better?

Hundreds of destinations and thousands of experiences await anyone traveling to Europe and the best advice we have is to go with your gut and create a balance of activities that you know you will truly enjoy. We love to share our ideas to help you decide if an icon or smaller experience is just right for you. With so many details to consider, here’s our list of starting line tips to make your plans work for you!

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  • When considering booking an Airbnb, be sure to check out if the owner is local instead of a corporation that has a resident manager. It puts money back into the local economy. Ask your Airbnb if they have bikes or other equipment to use. Airbnb is also taking donations to help out Ukrainian refugees so, if you can, consider donating a night or two.
  • Driving a standard can be one of the biggest cost savers in Europe (or anywhere for that matter). The reality of rental car pricing means that more efficient cars like standards are cheaper to rent. Learn to drive the standard!!
  • Be mindful of Spring events surrounding Holy week. Many festivities and closures could put a damper on your best laid plans and create quite a hiccup. Conversely, seek them out! They are fun!
  • Be a responsible shopper and always buy local especially when you are looking for travel souvenirs. Check out where things have been manufactured and only reinvest money into the local economy. There’s no reason to make someone on the other side of the world money.
  • Look up and go down! Europe is full of so much! As you make your way through your trip, be sure to check out Europe’s fascination with ceilings. Then again, plan a few excursions to see what’s under your feet. Here are a few examples: in Rome, look up at all the church ceilings, in Edinburgh, check out the cool closes, in Paris explore the sewer museum, in Nuremberg learn the history of the WWII art bunkers, and in London, take a ride on the mail rail.

Are hop on hop off busses worth it?

Yes and no. Hop on, hop off busses are incredibly popular and there are a few cities where we think they are totally worth it. On the other hand, there are quite a few cities where they clog up the roads and make life miserable. We think that so many choices come down to whether or not there is a good reason to take the bus other than just ride around. Here are our picks and why:

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Yay!

  • Edinburgh: Use it to go out to see the Brittania
  • Rome: The bus links all of the major piazzas together in a efficient ring
  • Paris: but only at night to see the uplit magic of the city of lights

Nay!

  • Dublin: they clog up the streets with the Viking tours
  • Athens: traffic! traffic! traffic!
  • Amsterdam: the canals are far better to get around
  • Munich: bikes or a bike taxi are a better choice

What are the best city passes in Europe?

It’s a decision we go back and forth on often. Is it worth buying the big city museum pass or should we skip it? Our rule of thumb is if you are staying for more than three days and you are attending at least three venues that are included in the pass, then there is a good chance that a museum pass is for you. We do, however, have some favorites:

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  • Paris City Pass: It covers hundreds of places both big and small including The Louvre and Versailles. It does NOT cover the Eiffel Tower.
  • London Oyster Pass: Everything that’s not part of the Royal Household including transport.
  • The Vatican: If you want to see anything past St. Peter’s Basilica, you NEED this ticket!
  • Krakow City Pass: Art, archeology, WII sites and more are included.
  • Amsterdam City Pass: Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum are both included making it well worth the price.

What tickets do I need to get before going to Europe?

As much as we would all like to just hop on a plane and wing it, the truth is that some of the most popular venues sell out weeks and months in advance. Here are some of the most popular as well as some popular places that really don’t need pre-planning.

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Pre-plan it!

  • Nueshwanstien Castle, Bavaria
  • Anne Frank House, Amsterdam
  • Sagrada Familia, Barcelona  
  • The Vatican Necropolis (St. Peter’s Tomb) Please see our information on Rome by clicking here.                                

Wing it!

  • Blarney Castle
  • Auschwitz
  • Parthenon
  • Mont Saint Michele

What destinations in Europe need a car rental?

  • Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way awaits and the public transport in this area is not that great. It’s time to drive on the other side of the road.
  • Bavaria, don’t get us wrong, German trains are super great. But, driving these back roads lets you stay on your own time schedule and, quite frankly, they are super fun to drive!
  • Tuscany, a car is certainly needed to explore this countryside. Use the great trains to get you close then pick up a rental near the train station.
  • Normandy, you can also pick up a rental at the Bayeaux train station and then explore the coastline on your own time. This means that you are not depending on public transport to get you to the most important sites.
  • Scottish Highlands, yes there are trains but like Ireland, Normandy, and Bavaria, a car will allow you to coast through the countryside at your own speed.
old medieval ruins of dunluce castle on ocean coast in northern ireland famous place in uk
Photo by Iain on Pexels.com

6 last tips about very specific places:

Lots of little tips can help you feel more comfortable as you travel. For example, using “international” words like photo and toilet can be far more productive than saying picture or restroom (isn’t that a room where you rest?!). Here are some more little gems that might apply to your next European adventure:

  • Bullfights in the Azores do not kill the bulls! It’s an ethical way to experience this culture.
  • Worst traffic in Europe is in Istanbul!
  • Royal Ascot tickets may be available through your embassy in London. Google their site because you need to apply.
  • You can river raft on the lochs of Scotland! Just on certain days. Check out our coverage of Scotland here.
  • The Notre Dame is scheduled to open back up in 2024 just in time for the Olympics!
  • Your Louvre Ticket will allow you to leave and come back throughout the day whether you use a City Pass or not.
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Photo by jimmy teoh on Pexels.com

We can answer:

  • Where should I rent a car in Europe?
  • What tickets do I need to buy in advance in Europe?
  • How can I decide on what to preplan for my tip to Europe?
  • What are the best travel tips for Europe?
  • Should I use a hop on hop off bus in Europe?
Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

France 101: Remembering Our Fallen

Memorial Day is here. In our family, like so many others, it is the kickoff to our summer season. The holiday seems iconically American as Memorial Day has its roots firmly planted in the Civil War. As time marched on, the day of wartime remembrance became the bank holiday we all know today- the official start of Summer. While fun and sun seem to dominate the landscape, this is the most solemn of military honors. It is meant to assist us in remembering our fallen in battle. It’s a moment of gratitude. While the US honors the fallen, our allies wish to say thank you as well since so many of “our boys over there” paid the ultimate price for their freedoms as well. Join me as we travel to France.

Understanding military family sacrifice…

One way other countries honor the military sacrifice is to honor the sacred battlefields of both WWI and WWII. A great example of this is what you can find when you travel to France. Last summer, I had the honor of meeting two heroes while I visited and the experience was life changing. My mom and I hopped into a sporty euro rental in Belgium and made our way west across the French border to an area out in the middle of nulle part– that’s French for nowhere. We were stopping to visit Private First Class Thomas McGovern. His address is one I can share: Plot B, Row 18, Grave 11, Somme American Military Cemetery, Bony, France.

Thomas is my great, great uncle and died in the famous Battle of the Somme on September 27th, 1918. Visiting the cemetery is quite amazing. The superintendent escorted us out to the grave, among impeccably manicured grounds and explained to us the play by play of the battle and exactly what fate my uncle met. He produced a small container of sand from Omaha Beach to rub across the marble stone so that Thomas’ name was easily read. There, in the summer sun out in the French countryside, I became the first family member- military or not- to come and pay my respects to him. I was all at once proud, connected, elated and humbled. It was a once in a lifetime experience!

My journey to understand family connections continued the next day. While the Somme had 1,100 bright white graves, Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery holds 10 times as many. And it is here at Meuse-Argonne that I meet another uncle. John McGovern also died on that fateful September Day. He is Thomas’ brother. Attached to a completely different unit, it’s hard to imagine their mother losing both of them on the same day. But, it happened. And I pay my respects with sand and flags.

This WWI cemetery has very few visitors but it is far from empty. And on this Memorial Day I remember. I think of those McGovern Boys and many others from my family- for they are not the only ones. I look at this picture of a wild poppy so bold in color and so fragile to touch. It is a metaphor for each marble stone. I take time this Memorial Day to remember.

Where do you start to find your ancestors?

Many families look to make their travel more meaningful by connecting with their destination in a bevy of ways. Visiting a relative who sacrificed is definitely a great place to start. But how? First, check out your family tree. Once you have some information to work with, connect with the American Battle Monuments Commission. This is the governmental office that maintains all of these military sites overseas. They will point you toward the correct site for your ancestor. If you find that you do not have a familial connections, try choosing someone from your hometown. Contact your local VFW to get started. Good Luck! You won’t regret your experience!

American cemeteries are all over the world but the ones that you are most familiar with are ones that you will see when you travel to France.

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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Switzerland 101: 4 Northern Cities

Northern Switzerland is modern Europe at it’s most efficient. It’s a bit like the highways in New England. Sometimes picturesque and sometimes full of commercial buildings. All of the cities that we discuss today are all about an hour to hour and a half from each other by train

Basel

Basel is an art centric river port where so many of the river cruises start or end their voyages. With a few sites to see, Basal is a one and done kind of town. Walking through the busy downtown makes this working city a cement jungle. Much of the old world charm and creative art lies just under the surface past the utilitarian feel. Use it for its transportation hub.

  • Look for Basel to host the best festivals and have some of the best outdoor art.
  • Take a walk around the historic area for the few old world gems including the town hall.
  • Maybe stop at one of the many cosmopolitan stores and grab lunch from the deli. My favorite part was sitting by the fountain below. 
  • Above all know where the train station is to catch your train to the next destination. 

Zurich

Zurich Modern Switzerland: Lots of buildings and perhaps missing a little bit of the charm that’s plastered all over Instagram. While the lakeside definitely is pleasing to the eye, the downtown and cement laden suburbs are built for swiss efficiency and modern living. That said, as always, the local people are so very nice and it makes the experience beyond worth it. Use it as a layover city.

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  • Enjoy a walk through the downtown lakefront while you wait for your plane.
  • The food is great and the ever efficient swiss train system will speed you right to the airport.

Lucerne

Lucerne is simply lakefront perfection, This gateway to the south of Switzerland does not disappoint. the entire lakefront and riverside areas as well as the surrounding countryside.  Use it for a perfect day trip.

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Photo by Gotta Be Worth It on Pexels.com
  • Use the Rick Steves’ walking tour to enjoy a lap around the historic old city center including the iconic bridges.
  • Enjoy a cruise on the lake whether by taking a charter or using your own power on a pedal boat.
  • Have your camera ready!

Bern

By far, Bern which is full of bears and boasts the unbelievably beautiful Aare river is a capitol well worth the time. The picturesque streets that begin at the main train station and continue all the way to the river views are full of interesting sites and wonderful shops. Bern is the perfect gateway to the south where some of the more famous vistas can be seen. Make it a home base for many of your day trips by train.

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Photo by Leonard Dahmen on Pexels.com
  • Check in with the Bern bear!
  • Enjoy the riverside square perched above the river just behind the cathedral. Then, get a book at the tiny library or take on a local with a game of Patong.
  • Join in the Swiss outdoor fun. Take a swim right down the Aare River like the locals. Here are the instructions.

Getting Around

The Swiss train system is one of the best in the world and well worth the time it takes to arrange a pass. Using the train system is very easy. Simply check the multilingual boards, find your track and hop on. Late trains are a rare bird so connections are sometimes close but totally doable.

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Driving in Northern Switzerland is a breeze. Modern roads and highways make this an enjoyable road trip country. Southern Switzerland is full of mountains covered in windy switchbacks. If that stresses you out, use the train and enjoy the view.

Where To Next?