Switzerland and Austria: the crossroads of Europe

clock tower tall pointy church zurich switzerland

With all the times I’ve visited Europe, I’ve actually never been to Switzerland and Austria. Well, except for airport transfers and one brief rental car mishap. So as I was heading to Prague to meet up with Chris, I decided to go overland through these two beautiful countries. With such multi-faceted cities and ages of history within each, I barely had time to get more than an overview of the places I visited, and make a list of things to see next time I’m there. Here’s my favorites for each.

History lurks behind every corner here in Switzerland

Zurich

It was cool and rainy in Zurich, but not actually raining yet- perfect weather for a walking tour in my one full day in the city. My favorite part of sightseeing Zurich was the overall charm of the city center- 1200 drinkable fountains, cobblestone streets, small shops, community gardens, and the smell of roasting coffee everywhere.

Just one of hundreds of small squares throughout the city

Basel

I headed to Basel specifically to see an old friend, even though it was a bit out of my way (I will always make a detour for a friend!). Happily, I arrived there on the day that Art Basel began, a sort of scavenger hunt for 20 contemporary art pieces scattered throughout the city. It was a great way to spend the day there.

“Study for Stairs for a Theater” by Caitlin Keogh

Bern

The next day, Adam and Anna and I took a train to visit the town of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, although still a very small city. We saw the bears, took selfies with Einstein, and had Raclette for dinner. Best of all, it was a day spent with friends.

In front of St Peter and Paul church

Munich

Okay, so I didn’t actually visit Munich, but my bus from Basel to Salzburg had a transfer in Munich. I hopped to it, and in my two hour layover, I was able to visit the Hof Brau Haus and have a Bavarian beer.

That smile pretty much says it all

Salzburg

I enjoyed seeing Mozart’s birthplace and various scenes from The Sound of Music, but to tell the truth I was feeling pretty run down and fighting a cold. My favorite thing that day? Eating this soft pretzel covered in dark chocolate. That, paired with a Viennese coffee, got me through the morning.

It was a tough choice but chocolate always wins

Linz

Salzburg was crazy crowded because of the Mozart 100 race (who in their right minds want to run 100 km? Up and down three mountains, no less?) so I headed to Linz to seek a little more peace and quiet. It was here, between the beautiful churches and along the Danube River, that I finally learned how to ride a Lime electric scooter. Sight-seeing game changer!

Now I totally want to buy one of these

Vienna

In one of life’s ironies, I booked an AirBnB just 200 meters from the main train station. And then I wound up arriving at the west train station and departing from the international bus terminal. But the good news was that, in addition to seeing the churches, palaces, National Library, and gardens of the city center, my accommodations were just steps away from the Belvedere palace and their beautiful grounds. I enjoyed walking through their gardens each morning and evening I was in Vienna.

I spent a fair amount of time imaging what life would be like living in this palace

With Europe’s amazing travel network, such as Ryan Air (my flight was 19€), hundreds of trains a day, and the ubiquitous FlixBus (Vienna to Prague 14€), there’s an excellent chance of passing through one of these cities again in the near future. From one day to one week, I’d recommend any of these for a visit!

Monaco in One Day

picture frame monaco yachts harbor

Monaco is the second-smallest microstate in Europe, but is still the most densely-populated country in the world- is it possible to visit for just one day and see it all? Of course not. But you can see the highlights, even if you’re on a budget. Here’s how.

The Port of Monaco

Where to Stay

Unfortunately, Monaco does not have very many budget hotels. The Hotel Forum, literally on the border of France and Monaco, has one of the best prices I could find. There are tons of options in the city of Nice- an easy train or bus ride to Monaco gets you there in 35 minutes. I chose the charming Marcellin Hotel in Beau-lieu Sur Mer, halfway between Nice and Monaco, and wished I had more time to explore the seaside town.

Getting There and Around

Most people arrive to Monaco by bus or train from France or Italy. Once in the principality of Monaco, you can ride any bus (including the harbor “bateau bus”) for €2, or get an all-day pass for 5€- a great value. There are five bus lines inside Monaco going to its neighborhoods: Monaco-Ville, Fontvieille, Monte Carlo, and Condamine.

Of course you can also just walk around all day, enjoying the pathways that loop through gardens, old forts, historic staircases, and even along the Formula 1 track. Because Monaco is a rather vertical city, be sure to take advantage of the many elevators and escalators that are free and open to the public.

Taking a “shortcut” through the Japanese Gardens

If you really feel stylish, for about €100 per person, you can arrive by helicopter from Nice airport (this price increases dramatically during Formula 1 and the Cannes Film Festival). From the heliport, a town car will take you to your hotel.

Highlights

A good place to start is the Place d’Armes in Condamine. This is where the SNCF train stops, or if arriving by bus from Nice or one of its quaint suburbs, you can take bus 100 and disembark at this stop. There is a morning market here every day, so grab some fruit and a coffee and get ready to walk.

Changing of the Guard in front of the Prince’s Palace

Across the street from the Place d’Armes is a staircase of long, flat steps- the Ramp Majeure– which will take you up to the Palace Square, the heart of Monaco-Ville. Here you can watch the changing of the guards at 11:55 am every day, and you can visit a few rooms in the Palace if you want (€8). From one side of the Palace Square you can look down upon Port Hercule, usually with a cruise ship in dock and mooring space for up to 500 yachts, as well as the stands from the Formula 1 Grand Prix visible. From the other side of the Square you can overlook Fontvieille Harbor, which can hold 60 vessels that are up to 30 m in length.

Overlooking Fontvieille, created in the 1960s from reclaimed land

Atop “le rocher”, or The Rock, are both the Palais Princier and the Old Town. It’s nice to wander through these cobblestone streets, although the shops are mostly cafes and souvenir stands now. The beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate, built in 1875, houses the remains of the princes of Monaco and Princess Grace. Winding through the compact Old Town, at the opposite end of The Rock are the government buildings (Monaco has a Minister of State, rather than a Prime Minister), and the Oceanographic Museum, where you can watch sharks being fed, see models of ships, and view over 4000 species of fish (14€).

Outside the Oceanographic Museum

To leave Monaco-Ville, you can take a bus down to the harbor area, or walk down through the Jardins St Martin. You’ll end up at Fort Antoine, and then you’ll be at sea level. From here you can walk the track of the Grand Prix (or take a bus) and then visit the Brasserie de Monaco for a refreshing Bavarian beer (check out their half-price Happy Hour specials). Directly behind the Brasserie is a supermarket, if you need to pick up any supplies.

Not just drinks: this brewery is 50 meters from the Grand Prix finish line

Of course a visit to Monaco would not be complete without seeing the casinos and the fancy cars. Take the Bateau Boat across the harbor (€2), and then ascend the escalators up towards the Princess Grace Theater. You’re now in Monte Carlo, home of some of the most famous hotels and casinos (and shopping) in the world, as well as the Opera House and the Rainier Auditorium. Be sure to bring your passport (locals aren’t allowed to gamble) and in most cases, expect to follow a list of prohibited items such as shirts, sneakers, cameras, etc depending on the time of day and the establishment. But many of the hotels will let you in the lobby to gaze at the sumptuous interiors, and of course you’ll inevitably see the fanciest of cars parked out front.

The Monte Carlo Casino
I’ll take the one on the left

If you’re an art lover, there’s the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco just below the Monte Carlo casino, which is free every other Sunday, otherwise 6€. The Grimaldi Forum has rotating exhibits, currently one on Salvador Dalí (6€, now through September). The Marlborough Fine Arts Gallery (4 Quai Antonie) also houses some major works by Picasso, Matisse, Chihuly, and more, and is free.

All that should take most of the day! If you have a bit more time, consider taking one of Monaco’s buses to one or more of the following:

The Prince’s Car Collection, which is not actually a museum- it’s literally a private collection of over 100 cars. 6€ for entry, and it is located in the commercial center atop The Carrefour supermarket (also a good place to grab a sandwich and a drink).

The Prince’s Car Collection

The Jardin Exotique (€8) houses thousands of rare plants and has amazing views. It’s a bit far, so take bus number 2.

Visit the beach at Larvotto. There are both public and private sections. The beach can be a bit gravelly in some places and in early June is still quite cold!

Walk the Parcours de Princess Grace. You’ll probably have already encountered bits of this walking path along your day, featuring 25 photographs and descriptions of some of Princess Grace’s activities and her life.

The Fairmont Grand Prix Hairpin Curve

Whether you have a free day in your France or Italy vacation, or a day in port on your cruise, it is possible to see the best of Monaco, so don’t skip it! Do you have a favorite sight in Monaco? If so, tell me in the comments so that I can visit on my next trip!

Failing On the Camino de Santiago

Boots cairn peton Camino Santiago Spain

I had a few weeks’ time to fill in May, so I decided that I would hike the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. My husband Chris had done it two years ago, and he said it was great, I’d love it, after our Nepal hike it would be a breeze. So I flew to Madrid and took a bus to Burgos and got started.

A dawn start from Burgos with my new friend Araceli

The Camino can be started at almost any point in Europe- some paths start from Germany, France, or even Rome- although generally peregrinos start it in St Jean Pied de Port, at the border of France and Spain. From there it is 800 kilometers to Santiago de Campostela, and it takes around 5 weeks. This year approximately 22,000 pilgrims are estimated to hike the trail.

Heading west

I only had three weeks to spend hiking, so I decided to start in Burgos and hike 500 km to Santiago. I was issued my credencial, a passport-like booklet, and told to get at least one stamp a day, and two stamps a day in the last 100 km. The only requirement to get a certificate at the end is that you walk the last 100 km, so the Camino can get quite busy with people doing that final stretch.

It’s fun watching the credencial fill up

The first few days went pretty well. I made some friends along the way, I listened to the birds chirp in the mornings, and the weather was nice- crisp in the mornings, warm in the afternoons. I had Spanish ham at almost every stop, wine or beer in the evenings, and creamy cafe leches every morning. Since we stay in alburgues with restaurants each night, there’s no need to pack a tent or cook your own food. And since we’re hiking four to seven hours a day, we can pretty much eat whatever we want and still burn those calories. It’s a win-win situation!

Just slice off some of that ham and hand it over
A frosty Cerveza- at ten am- is not uncommon, even with a backpack still on

On the third day I developed a blister on each foot, and a sore knee. Blisters are the most common peregrino problem, so I wasn’t too worried. I bought some blister care, and a knee brace at a pilgrim store (they have everything a hiker needs, and there’s one in every so-many towns). Life was good again. Then a couple of days later, I developed a second set of blisters, and ankle pain. When I stopped after a particularly long day (29 km), my ankle was super swollen.

Rows of hiker shoes and boots line an alburgue entryway

I made it to Leon- I had hiked 170 km in a week- and took a rest day. I saw a physiotherapist, who massaged it, taped it, and recommended that I take it easy for a few days.

Getting my ankle looked at- but still smiling

I wanted to finish in the three week time frame I had given myself, and I wanted to try to mostly stay with a group of friends I had made that would all be finishing around June 5 as well. Finally, with a heavy heart, I bought a bus ticket that would speed me 40 km up the road. From there, I’d hike a few half days, and then hopefully be strong enough to get back on schedule and finish.

The bus becomes part of my Camino

I felt like such a failure taking the bus that day. I had set out to walk 500 km on the Camino, and after only 170 km I was facing the choice of dropping out completely, or having to skip sections in order to finish.

The Camino provides me a timely reminder

After the bus dropped me off in Astorga, I walked just 10 km to Santa Catalina de Somoza. I walked slowly, mindfully. No music, no podcasts. I thought about the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James. After Jesus’ death, his disciple James came to Spain, and preached the Gospel in the province of Galicia. He died and was buried here, and in the 9th century, a shepherd had a dream and discovered the bones of James. A cathedral was built, and pilgrims came from across Europe to receive a blessing, pay penitence for a sin, or to show their righteousness. The thing is, it is said that in the time James preached in northern Spain, he only converted eight people. Which made me wonder, did James consider his endeavor a failure, or did he call it a success for getting it started in the first place?

The seashell, it’s shape like an open hand, is a sign of the pilgrim

In fact, many of the people I knew on the Camino felt like we “failed” in our own way, by having to take a bus, having to fly home for a family emergency, or getting ill and having to radically change plans. I choose to think that James, with his eight converts, and all of us with our grand plans and less-grand results, are a success. It is better than not trying at all. I may not have been able to do the whole Camino, but I was able to do My Camino. And that’s all any of us can do.

Arriving in Santiago… 409 km hiked in 20 days

Ultreia. Beyond.

The Camino de Santiago

Georgia 🇬🇪

Geographically in Asia, politically in Europe, Georgia is the perfect base for exploring the Caucasus. We visited Georgia before, between, and after visiting Azerbaijan and Armenia (Americans can enter Georgia without a visa for up to one year). Each time we visited, we explored a different part. We both really liked Georgia and hope to visit again one day. It’s beautiful, it has a rich history, and it has nice weather. And they are the oldest makers of wine in the world. What’s not to like?

“Tamada”, or toastmaster statue

Old Town Tbilisi

As usual, we hit the ground running with an Old City walking tour. It helps us get oriented, and the guides usually suggest some good spots for drinks and dinner. We visited old churches, a rare mosque that welcomes both Sunni and Shiite worshippers, and a fortress up on a hill. We saw the Mother Georgia, the ancient sulfur baths, and the ultra-modern Peace Bridge.

View of Tbilisi from the hill-top fortress

Afterwards, we had khinkali, khachapuri, and traditionally-made red wine with our new friend Miranda, and wound up pretty much drinking the night away at a jazz cafe called Singer, where the shelving was made from the parts of an old Singer sewing machine table.

Pro Tip: stab these khinkali by the neck with your fork and take a bite while holding them aloft to keep the steaming hot broth from getting all over you

On another night, we were able to catch up with our friend Maia, who we last saw in Myanmar on our visit there, and previously in Khartoum. It’s fun catching up with old friends in new cities!

Dinner with Maia at G. Vino

Tbilisi: Opera House area

On our next visit in town (after going to Azerbaijan), we visited the Opera House area, where we rented a small apartment from a woman who only spoke Russian and Armenian. It was small but cozy, and we were able to do our laundry there. It was near both the Opera House, and the History Museum, which had several good exhibits, including one on Soviet oppression. We also took the funicular up to Turtle Lake over in Vake Park, overlooking the Memorial to the Great Patriotic War. We did a walking tour on the north side of old Tbilisi, which focused more on old Soviet art and architecture. The walking tour meets at Fabrika Hostel, which is a really cool old Soviet sewing factory building that’s been turned into a hostel, featuring an amazing breakfast spread (open to visitors for 19 lari/$7).

At the Museum of Soviet Occupation
Memorial to the Great Patriotic War
Fabrika Hostel

Signaghi and Khakheti Wine Region

Along with Miranda, we took a day tour out to the wine-making region of Kakheti. Unfortunately most of the wine tasting of the day went to waste due to our debauchery of the night before- we could barely look at the stuff. Still, it was interesting to learn about how they make the wine, which is fermented in huge clay pots, with the seeds and skins still on the grapes.

The wine is strong here and the chacha is even stronger

We stopped for a visit at a church and nunnery at Signaghi, an old city. The town is lovely, with the picturesque wall of mountains in the distance separating this region of Georgia from Dagestan in Russia. The old church, Bodbe Monastery, is dedicated to St Nino, a young woman who brought Christianity into Georgia in the early 4th century. She made a cross out of two bent grape vines, tied together with her hair, which is why the Georgian cross is usually shown with bent arms. The church here houses a reliquary of St Nino and is a popular pilgrimage spot for Georgians and visitors from around the world.

Sighnagi

Mtskheta and Gori

Chris and I took another day trip to visit several sites northwest of Tbilisi. We stopped at the Church of the Holy Cross, perched atop a high plateau overlooking the confluence of two rivers, where the nation of Georgia was baptized in 337. Inside the nearby city of Mtskheta, we walked through the Old Town to the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli (Church of the Living Pillar), a World Heritage Site and the burial place of Christ’s mantle. The current building has been in place since 1029, but sadly lost many of its priceless antiques, such as Middle Ages frescoes that were white-washed by Russian Imperialists.

The confluence, with the cathedral visible in the old town

We also visited the caves at Uplistsikhe, where people lived all the way from the Bronze Age up to the late Middle Ages. It was an important capital city of the Kartli empire, long before the Georgian state. Worshippers from the Iberian peninsula came here to worship their pagan gods, and thrived until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. A bakery, prison, apothecary, living quarters, and a church are still visible there today, carved out from the rocky caves.

Uplistsikhe Caves, 15 km from Gori

From there, our day tour went to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. We visited a museum about the man, which also featured the bulletproof train car he rode in to go to the Yalta conference and to Potsdam. It was an interesting visit, which prompted a discussion about how much a nation should memorialize a public figure who figured so prominently into history but also caused so many deaths.

The many faces of Stalin

Tbilisi: Cathedral area

After taking a minibus down to Armenia for a visit, we returned to Tbilisi to get ready for our flights out. We rented an apartment in the Trinity Catherdral area of town, which is across the river from Old Town and near the Avlabari metro station (where you can catch the bus to Armenia). Our two bedroom, two-story apartment was just $31 a night and literally across the street from the beautiful cathedral, which is the largest one in the Caucasus. We really enjoyed being able to spread out a bit, work on my blog, work on taxes, and kind of take a rest from traveling for a few days. The views of the Cathedral were amazing.

Trinity Cathedral at night

So now we’re rested, researched, and ready for the next leg of our adventure: two weeks’ tour in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Follow along with us as we head down the Silk Road!

Country costs:

Flight from Dubai on FlyDubai: $200

Visa: none

Daily cost: $75 for two people

Armenia 🇦🇲

Armenia Zoravor Church Yerevan

We’ve just passed the nine-month mark of our trip, and our travels have brought us to Armenia. Did you know there’s over 4000 monasteries in Armenia? That’s a lot! As the first country in the world to formally adopt Christianity, much of Armenia’s identity is tied to St Gregory the Illuminator, and his conversion of the king and the nation in 301 AD- as well as conflicts with empires of other faiths ever since.

The Armenian Cross is a symbol found all over the country

Yerevan

We caught a minibus out of Tbilisi to come to Yerevan (one of those few occasions where we walk right up, and we’re the last two passengers the driver was needing for the run, so we left immediately- usually we wind up waiting ages and ages for the van to fill up). The van left from the Avlabari metro station and cost 35 Georgian Lari ($13 USD). Six hours later we were in Yerevan, with just a 20 minute stop at the border. American citizens do not need a visa for Armenia. As we passed through the mountains surrounding Yerevan, a light snow was falling, and our first few days in the city were a bit chilly and rainy- I was glad I had purchased a warm woolen scarf at a second-hand shop.

“Mother Armenia”

We went on a walking tour with Vako, one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever had. Art, architecture, history, politics- he was a font of information as we traversed the capital city and then had drinks at a bar afterward. If you’re ever in Yerevan, be sure to sign up for his tour, which is free (you tip at the end however much you thought it was worth).

Yerevan Opera House
King Gagik of Armenia

We got an apartment in Yerevan, and it was really nice to have some space to spread out and relax a bit. We spent more time wandering down smaller side streets, eating at basement tavernas and having coffee and sweets at cafes. We also visited the Cafesjian Center for the Arts twice, for a look at the beautiful art there, as well as the fantastic view of Yerevan from the hillside.

Top floor of the “Cascade”, or Cafesjian Center for the Arts
Looking out over Yerevan

Garni and Geghard

We took a public bus out to the small village of Garni, to see the Greco-Roman temple there. Dedicated to the god Mhir, it is the only temple remaining from that time period (1st c AD) in Armenia. Partially reconstructed, it has nonetheless withstood fires, earthquakes, and dozens of invading empires. From the Merecdes Benz bus station, just take matruyshka 226 to visit (250 dirhams, about 50¢, takes one hour).

Temple at Garni

From Garni, we shared an old Lada taxi with two other travelers to go further up the mountain to visit Geghardavank Monastery, a beautiful 4th century church that claims to have a piece of Noah’s Ark (which landed at nearby Mt Ararat) as well as a piece of the spear that the Romans used in the crucifixion of Christ. I didn’t see either of these relics, so I can’t say for sure that they are there, but I can say that it is a beautiful church carved into a rocky cave, and I’m glad we went. Our shared taxi to get us up there and back down to Garni was 3000 dirhams, split four ways ($1.50 USD each).

Geghardavank Monastery (“Monastery of the Spear”)

Nagorno-Karabakh

Historically an Armenian region, in the time of the Soviets this province was added to Azerbaijan on the maps, which caused big problems once the USSR broke down. In 1988, Soviet Armenia demanded the area be transferred to them, away from Soviet Azerbaijan. Over the next six years, roughly 35,000 people were killed as both sides fought it out. In 1994 there was a cease-fire, which remains to this day. Azerbaijan says the regions is theirs, and visitors are not allowed; but it’s quite easy to catch a bus from Yerevan in Armenia and visit (7 hours, 4500 dirhams – $9 USD from Kilikia Bus Station). When leaving Armenia and entering the “Republic of Artsokh” (which is defended by the Armenian army), visitors receive a slip of paper with the address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where for 3000 dirhams you can get a visa (they won’t put it inside your passport, so as not to cause problems with Azerbaijan or their allies).

“We Are Our Mountains” monument

Did we visit? Well, I’m not saying, but here are some photos. It’s a beautiful region and some of Armenia’s oldest churches are there, as well as rolling hills, meadows, mountains, and picturesque villages.

Armenian Cathedral at Shoushi, reliquary of the right arm of Grigoris, and symbol of the fight for independence from Azerbaijan
Gandzasar Monastery, home to thousands of manuscripts and supposedly also the resting place of John the Baptist’s head
Triganakert, a city named for King Tigran the Great 95 BC
People used to live in these villages but fled during the war

And that was Armenia for us. We will enter Georgia one more time, spend a few days there, then head for Turkmenistan. I’ll be posting about Georgia in just a couple of days, so if you haven’t already, click the “Follow” button below to get a notification when I post a new one!

Country costs:

Bus ride to: $13

Visa: free

Per day costs: $75 for two people