Gee Whiz Impressions of Europe

1. Most beautiful city--Prague. The old section of Prague makes Disney's Magic Kingdom look drab.

2. Best beer--Prague. I suppose Belgium is the country for the serious beer connoisseur, but for just enjoying a great beer at a great price, the Czech Republic is the place, and Prague is the best place in the country to enjoy that beer.

3. Most beautiful women--Prague. Eastern Europe in general has more than its' share of beautiful women, but Prague is definitely the leader. I was constantly seeing women who looked like super models, only with larger breasts. I think this is a good thing.

4. Favorite city--Prague. Big surprise, isn't it?

5. Best Hostel--the Lithuanian Youth Hostel in Vilnius Lithuania. Open during renovations, constant chaos, friendly, helpful, disorganized staff, eclectic bunch of friendly and happy customers--it's a fun place to stay in spite of breaking all the rules of good hostel management.

6. Con to watch out for--The Tourist Police Scam and it's variations. It seems to have started in Bucharest, it was tried on me in Budapest, I talked to backpackers who were hit with a similar scam in Prague, and read in the Lonely Planet Web Page about variations being employed in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands. I suggest if you're traveling anywhere in Europe you read up on scams in general and this one in particular. I describe what I encountered in detail in my Hungary section. I talked to a backpacker who said in Bucharest Romania so many people were trying it that competition for victims forced them to abbreviate the con.  They would simply grab tourists by the arm and say "I am the police, give me two million lei!"

7. Don't go there--any popular tourist destination during anything resembling the tourist season. I didn't know this, but Paris has a miniature tourist season after Christmas. A few days before Christmas museums were empty and lines were short or non-existent. Paris is terrific when it is not choked with crowds of tourists. Unfortunately after Christmas mobs were everywhere and lines were appalling. This is the view of the Mona Lisa I got at this time--

Not all of Paris was this bad, some parts were worse. The Eiffel Tower was effectively inaccessible. Of course Paris was tame compared to Rome during Jubilee weekend, another tourist weekend I accidentally stumbled into. If you go to Europe during the high season, explore places well off the beaten track.

8. Biggest pain in the butt about traveling--laundry. In poorer countries you can't find self-service laundries and the drop off laundries often take two days. This is inconvenient if you run out of underwear just when you're ready to move on. Sink laundry kills a lot of time, plus you need some kind of universal sink plug since most cheap rooms don't have drain plugs. Finding enough room to hang things up to dry can also be a challenge. In places where you find self-service laundromats, they are usually open from early morning until early evening; time you would rather spend sight-seeing or doing other things. When you're traveling with two pants, three shirts and four changes of underwear you go through this every few days.

9. Best work of art--the Sistine Chapel. Photos weren't allowed inside, which is just as well. If you've ever visited the Grand Canyon you know the difference between looking at pictures of it and actually being there. The Sistine Chapel is the same--you've got to be there. It's really worth it.

10. Most annoying beggars--the urchins in St Petersburg. During the day the gypsy kids were all over the tourist areas.  They were aggressive, persistent, and really annoying. At night Russian kids would take over and beg in much the same manner. All of these kids looked healthy and well clothed, especially by Russian standards. The gypsy's were professional beggars and I assume the Russian kids who were begging (only a few were) had nothing better to do and no shame. Whatever their reasons, they were a major irritant.

11. Most likely place to get your pocket picked--the subway in Rome. Without a doubt these were the most aggressive and blatant pickpockets of any of the places I visited. If you travel on the Rome subway carrying luggage and are not targeted by pickpockets you are doing something wrong. Maybe it's your deodorant.

12.  Seen that before--West Europe has a relationship with the formerly communist European countries similar to the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.  The languages and history are different, but the basic situation is the same; people on the rich side of the border look down on people from the poor side, or view them as a threat.  The rich countries are willing to allow in low cost workers to cover areas where there is a shortage of labor, but do not want them hanging around.  People from the poorer countries want to work where they can earn ten times as much money for the same work they are doing at home.  They would prefer to move and work legally, but will cross borders illegally if that is the only way to get a decent job. 

On a related note, a politician here in MFEMFEM has started television ads focused on immigrant bashing. I take this as another sign of an economic slow-down; he's already lined up his scapegoats. How are things elsewhere in the U.S.?

13.  Nice to know before you travel--there are ATM's all over Europe where your bankcard will allow you to withdraw money in the local currency at a good exchange rate from your checking account. However that is all these ATM's allow; they won't let you withdraw money from savings accounts or transfer money from savings to checking. You can't even check account balances.  This isn't a problem if you know in advance what to expect, but I didn't.

14. Most amorous young people--Budapest Hungary, the hands down winner. France and Italy aren't even close.

15. Best second language in Europe--German. It's kind of funny since you can get by fine in Germany without speaking the language--many Germans speak fluent English. But from Estonia to Bulgaria it seemed the most common second languages were English and German. Most of the people in a tourist business speak German, probably because German's are the trail blazers of Europe when it comes to finding cheap and interesting vacation spots.

16. Best time to cross the Rumanian border--day time. I entered Romania at night and the conduct of the officials was suspicious. I left during the day and the officials were friendly, honest and professional. I talked to some other travelers and every one who had problems at the border were crossing at night.

17. Theory of Historical Relativity--How you recall history depends on what your relatives were doing at that time. Austrians remember the time of the Austria-Hungarian Empire as the good old days, Hungarians still resent being the junior partners, and Czechs proudly remember their resistance to being part of the empire. The French think of Napoleon as a hero, the rest of Europe think of Napoleon as a villain. Both views are justified. Of course a biased recollection of history is not a uniquely European phenomena; in the United States we have a very America-centric view of history.

18. Best plan for a guidebook--Get the most detailed, current guidebook for the area you are heading to. If you are going to many countries, get a good book for the country you start in, then find an English language bookstore and get the book you need for the next country before heading there. If you have a good guidebook it will tell you where to find an English language bookstore. Ditch the old books when you no longer need them. Books that cover all of Europe are fine if you limit yourself to major tourist destinations with tourist information offices. They may also have enough information to get you to some of the less visited areas, but won't have enough information to help you out once you are there.

Intro --- Germany --- Poland --- Lithuania --- Russia --- Estonia --- Latvia --- Czech Republic --- Austria --- Slovakia --- Hungary --- Romania --- Bulgaria --- Turkey --- Greece --- Italy --- France --- Belgium --- Netherlands---End