Tag Archives: Impressions

Impressions of Greece

We drove south from Bulgaria into Greece on our own personal bailout mission for the Greek economy.  Exiting the lush mountains of Bulgaria, we immediately noticed a difference.  Although greener than we had expected (at least in the North), Greece had smaller mountains, larger valleys, and less vegetation.  Here are some things I find interesting about Greece:

  • The Greek alphabet, like the Cyrillic alphabet of Bulgaria, is difficult to read.  My background in mathematics allows me to identify most of the letter names, from which I can often guess their sounds, but it’s a challenge.  Thankfully the names of most towns on signs also have the Latin character equivalents (a requirement of European Union membership), which makes it possible to match them to our map and GPS.
  • Other than Athens, most Greek towns seem very quiet.  There are not a lot of shops open nor activity on the street, other than men drinking and talking at the local coffee shop.  At first we thought it might be a holiday, but it appears that most days are that quiet.
  • Many places in Greece have ridiculously low speed limits and a proliferation of stop signs.  However, after Romania and Bulgaria where roadside police were a common occurrence, we haven’t seen a single police officer on the side of a road in Greece.  The only place we’ve seen them is hanging out in town, sitting on their motorcycles in groups and talking.
  • Perhaps because of the previous point, Greek drivers ignore the rules of the road and the speed limits (e.g. not stopping at stop signs, passing on the right, lane splitting on scooters or with cars, double or triple parking).  In Athens, like in Italy, scooters and small motorcycles swarm about the vehicle while driving (their high pitched engines even sound like bees), and wriggle their way to the front of the line at traffic lights.
  • We were shocked by the first campsite we visited in Greece.  Although it was one that is inspected annually by ACSI (a camping club that we belong to), the place was a mess.  Many people leave their trailers there and awnings up permanently, but many had collapsed.  We decided to move on, but I asked the manager why the mess, and he said that they had half a meter of snow this winter, something they never get.
  • Greece has a growing problem with illegal immigration from Turkey and the Arab Spring countries.  As it is the closest EU country to the Middle East, the short, porous border between Greece and Turkey has become a gateway, an issue for Greece and now for the other members of the EU (another reason to them to complain about Greece!)
  • We visited Syntagma (Constitution) Square in Athens, the site of most of the protests about cutbacks imposed as a result of the Greek debt crisis, the ones we’ve seen on the news.  There were no protests to be seen, nor have there been any anywhere in Greece recently.  Localized protests that make the news leave the impression of something much larger.  The negative press has had a big impact on tourism though.  It is down considerably, reducing Greece’s primary source of foreign income, and therefore its ability to pay back the debt.
View from the top of steps overlooking square filled with normal people going about their business

All quiet on Syntagma Square

  • There are over 2500 archeological sites in Greece.  It is expensive to excavate them, but much more expensive to preserve and maintain them.  Without a direct source of income, like visitor admission fees, many are unsustainable.  As a result, some sites have not been excavated or have even been recovered with dirt to protect them.  It’s ironic that the countries with the legacy of the world’s great archaeological sites are ones less equipped to afford them (e.g. Greece, Turkey, Egypt).
  • Almost 35% of Greece’s population lives in Athens.  For a variety of reasons, Athens grew in an uncontrolled fashion, and in 1990 was one of the least desirable capital cities in Europe.  It was very polluted, noisy, and crowded with cars.  This improved when it underwent a major re-vamp in preparation for the Summer Olympics in 2004.  Major improvements like new Olympic facilities, a new subway, and some pedestrianized streets, along with a lot of general cleanup, have greatly improved Athens.  But it still isn’t a particularly great capital city nor particularly clean.  Most people just spend 2 or 3 days visiting the monuments and museums and then head for a Greek island.
  • There are a surprising number of people begging in Greece, more than we’ve recently experiences in Central/Eastern Europe where living conditions are generally lower.  Like most places in Europe there are Roma (gypsy) people begging here, but others as well. • Like in many places in Europe, graffiti is a problem in Greece.  It’s a bit weird to see it written in Greek letters.  Thankfully most of the ancient monuments have been spared, but not the traffic signs.  Spray paint and stickers placed all over traffic signs often make them illegible, which is not only annoying but dangerous.  In Canada, although we have graffiti, it almost never blocks traffic signs.
Round red traffic sign covered in worn white stickers making it illegible

Can you read this important traffic sign?

  • Greek food is terrific.  In addition to all the foods familiar from our Greek restaurants back home, there is a proliferation of seafood, usually grilled.  The calamari is bigger, the hummus is runnier, and the tzatsiki thicker (due to the Greek yoghurt).  We’ve noticed an alarming trend away from traditional roasted potatoes and towards serving meals with french fries.  Although I enjoy good french fries as much as the next guy, they most definitely do not belong between spanakopita and a Greek salad.
  • Free-camping outside of a campsite is officially prohibited but widely tolerated in Greece.  You can’t beat this free campsite.  Yes, that’s the Mediterranean in the background!
Our white motor home parked on the beach facing toward the camera with blue water and sky in the background

Surf’s Up!

Impressions of Bulgaria

Bulgaria is the last of the formerly communist countries that we plan to visit this trip.  We continue to head south to warmer and hopefully drier weather.  We enjoyed our relatively short visit to Bulgaria.  Here are some things about Bulgaria that I think are interesting:

  • Bulgaria is a former communist country in Central/Eastern Europe.  Since the fall of communism in 1989, it has successfully transitioned to capitalism and it joined the European Union in 2007.
Ruined castle on hilltop surrounded by green trees.  Single flagpole with raised Bulgarian flag.

Bulgarian Flag atop Tsarevets Castle in Veliko Turnovo

  • Bulgaria doesn’t use the Euro yet.  Its currency is the Leva (worth about 66 cents Canadian), each of which is broken down into 100 stotinky (sometimes called ‘stinkies’ by travellers).
  • Bulgaria is very green at this time of year.  May is its rainiest month and the countryside is beautiful.
Diane beside a walking path with lush green grass and trees and a cliff in the distance

Diane walking in the Bulgarian countryside near Ivanovo

  • Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  It was developed in the 9th Century in the land that later became Bulgaria.  The Cyrillic alphabet makes reading menus and most signs here almost impossible.  It has extra letters (30 in total) and several false friends (letters that look the same as our Latin letters, but are pronounced differently) (e.g. ‘p’ is pronounced as ‘r’ in restaurant).
Two black and white signs pointing to Bulgaria's capital city Sohpia, the top one in Cryrillic and the bottom one in Latin charactes

Both signs point the way to Bulgaria’s capital city Sophia. Both are pronouced the same way, but the top one uses the Cyrillic alphabaet.

  • Thankfully, almost all young people in Bulgaria speak some English.  If we need assistance, we ask a teenager.
  • Hoping to annex Macedonia, Bulgaria sided with Germany in World War II, but refused to turn over its Jews to the Nazis, saving at least 50,000 people from the genocide
  • Bulgaria adopted communism more wholeheartedly than other Warsaw Pact countries after World War II.  They were very subservient to ‘Mother Russia’ and in 1973 even proposed that they join the Soviet Union.
  • Under communism, Bulgaria was well known for its wrestlers and weight lifters who were national sports heroes.  Afterwards they often became bodyguards for the countries leaders.
  • With the fall of communism, many of the communist leaders and their bodyguards successfully transitioned to capitalism, and now lead many of the major companies here.  This was almost certainly done with some mafia-style strong arming.  Bulgarians say, “The music changes, but the musicians stay the same”.
  • The vast majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christian (almost 90%), a quick turnaround from Communist days when religion was not allowed.
  • Corruption is more widespread in Bulgaria than elsewhere in Europe.  Although Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, it is monitored and often rebuked by the EU for problems with fraud.
  • Because it is cheaper than most other European countries, Bulgaria is becoming popular as a tourist destination for Europeans but it is rarely visited by North Americans.  Most of the Europeans who come here come for cheap skiing or for beach destinations on the Black Sea coast.
  • There are a growing number of British ex-pats here who can buy homes and live less expensively and with better weather than in the UK.
  • Traditional Bulgarian food is grilled meat and vegetables, stews, roasted peppers, feta cheese, and yoghurt.
  • Bulgaria is the cheapest of the European countries we’ve traveled to.  Last night we had a huge meal, 2 appetizers, 2 large and fancy meat entrees, and 4 beers for about $21.
Hot circular metal pan covered with grilled pork, onions, tomatoes, and yellow peppers.

Grilled meat with onions, tomatoes, and peppers

Impressions of Romania

• Romania appears less developed than the other countries we’ve been to in the European Union, including other former Communist countries Poland and Slovakia.

• It is common to see people driving horse drawn wagons in the countryside and smaller towns.  For many, this appears to be their primary form of transport.

• The roads in Romania are generally poor.  A lot of rural roads aren’t paved.  Even those that are can be bone jarring, resulting in average speeds of 40-60 km/hr.  Despite careful driving (don’t worry Sue and Martin), we had unwrapped eggs break while bouncing in the camper refrigerator door.

• Romania is the home of Transylvania and ‘Count Dracula’.  This should not be confused with Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia, and home of the Tasmanian Devil.

• Transylvania was settled by Saxons from Germany in the 12th Century, who accepted the invitation of King Geysa II of Hungary to come to Transylvania.  They established many of the major towns in the region.  There were over 700,000 Germans in Romania in 1930, but today there are less than 45,000 native German speakers.

• Romania tried to remain neutral in both of the world wars, but was coerced to side with the Allies in World War I and with the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II.

• Nadia Comăneci was born in Romania, and won 3 Olympic gold medals in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.  She was the first female gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event.

• Nicolai Ceauşescu was the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989 when he was overthrown during the collapse of Communism.   He was tried in 2 hours and executed along with his wife on Christmas Day 1989.

• Praising the crimes of totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims is forbidden by law in Romania.  This includes the Ceauşescu regime.

• Romanian houses are often painted in pastel colours of cream, yellow, peach, green, or blue.

Looking down a street with green, blue, and peach pastel houses.

Romanian houses painted in pastel colours

• Hitchhiking seems to be common here.  People on the roadside wave a straight arm up and down a couple of times then bend it to the thumb up position that we typically associate with hitching.  At first I thought they were indicating that we should slow down, but we don’t drive that fast.

• It is illegal to drive a dirty car in Romania.  This is hard to avoid when many roads aren’t paved.

• It is a legal requirement to wear a reflective safety vest when walking beside the road at night or in poor visibility.  This is not just for people whose cars have broken down (which is common elsewhere in Europe), but for everyone.

• There are a lot of stray or feral dogs in Romania, mostly street-smart mongrels about 8-14 inches (0.3 meters) high at the shoulder.  They are large enough to deliver a bite, but not big enough to really intimidate.

Sad mutt with grey and brown tones walking down the sidewalk

Feral Dog

• Romania has the largest wolf and bear population in Europe, but we didn’t see any.

• There seem to be a lot of short women here.  Many of the young woman are petite, but the older women dressed in traditional clothing look squat.

• The Romanian language is a romance language that is related to Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  As a result, it is easier for me to recognize some of the words than in Poland or Slovakia.

• It is common to see people selling things beside the road.  Cheap plastic children’s toys seem to be popular, as are craft and food items like leatherwork, preserves, and honey.  We saw several people selling stills by the road, large copper kettles with corkscrew condensing tubes attached.  Yes, the kind used to make hooch.

Impressions of Hungary

  • The Hungarian language is very different from those of its neighbouring countries which speak Slavic languages.  Hungarian is more closely related to Estonian and Finnish which share a common history from when the Huns invaded the region in around 500 CE.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary existed for 950 years before being absorbed into the Habsburg empire which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
  • World War I was triggered when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie were shot in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb assassin.
  • Hungary was on the losing side with Germany in both World Wars.  After World War I it lost two-thirds of its territory, including its only sea port and most of its population, to other countries.
  • After World War II the Soviet Union controlled Hungary, but not as strictly as in other Warsaw Pact countries.  Hungary’s soft ‘goulash-communism’ lasted until the fall of communism in 1989.
White building with many spires and a large dome beside the Danube River

Hungarian Parliament Building beside the Danube River

  • Hungary is better known for its wine than its beer.  The wine is of higher quality and is more popular.  When in Rome…
  • Hungary has some of the best food in Central/Eastern Europe.  It is famous for paprika (which is also the Hungarian word for pepper, pronounced here as ‘paw-prick-kaw) which infuses most of their food.  It is often classified as édes (sweet) or csípős (hot), but there are actually 8 different grades.  Hungarian specialties include stews, braised dishes, and soups including the famous gulyás (goulash).
  • Hungary is very good at water polo, winning gold in the last 3 Olympic games, and also in swimming (they are 4th in the all-time Olympic medal count).
  • Hungary has hundreds of small lakes and hot springs.  There are hot springs all over the capital of Budapest (pronounced ‘Boo-dah-pesht’).
  • Budapest is a beautiful conglomerate of 2 cities on opposite sides of the Danube river – Buda and Pest.  Buda is the hilly and more historic part, and Pest is flat and more modern.
Hill covered in many old buildings with church spire on top

Castle Hill in Buda

Impressions of Slovakia

We passed though Slovakia for our 2nd time. We were here last October briefly, visiting Bratislava for 1 day only.  Thankfully we had more time and better weather this visit. Here are some of the things I found interesting…

  • Slovakia is a narrow, landlocked country in Central Europe. It is surrounded by the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary.
  • For almost 1000 years, the region that became Slovakia was part of Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian empire. Slovakia then became part of Czechoslovakia, a union which took place after the World War I.
  • During World War II Slovakia separated again and was a fascist puppet state led by Jozef Tiso and controlled by the Nazis. The pre–World War II population of the country included an estimated 90,000 Jews. After the genocide only about 2,300 Jews remained. Tiso was the only European leader to pay the Nazi authorities to deport his country’s Jews.
  • After World War II, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted and was under the control of the Soviets. Jozef Tiso was hanged in 1947 for collaboration with the Nazis. As part of the many population transfers agreed to by the Allies, more than 80,000 Hungarians and 32,000 Germans were forced to leave Slovakia.
  • In 1989 the Velvet Revolution brought about the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. Slovak nationalism was rekindled leading to the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993 (known as the Velvet Divorce).
  • Slovakia has a varied geography with a lot of mountains. 20% of the land is protected in parks. The beautiful High Tatras, in the North of the country near Poland, are the smallest of the high mountain ranges in Europe.
Snow covered mountains reflected in lake with treed green shoreline
The High Tatras
  • We visited the capital city Bratislava last October. It was cold and drizzly and a Sunday, so everything was closed. The castle above the town was a recent reconstruction. I didn’t enjoy it much. It gets praise from many others though, so I’d like to give it another try some day.
Manhole cover with picture of castle and "Bratislava" surrounded by brown tile

Bratislava Manhole Cover

  • Bratislava is only 60 kilometers from Vienna, the capital of Austria.
  • Like its former partner the Czech Republic, Slovakia plays pretty good ice hockey at the international level. Slovakians are fanatical about it, which sounds like some other people I know…

Impressions of Poland

After crossing Germany, we spent time in the south of Poland, visiting a variety of places and driving almost the full width of the country.  Here are some of the things about Poland that I think are interesting:

  • The Republic of Poland is the largest of the previously communist countries in the European Union.  At 38 million it has about 5 million more people than Canada, but has much smaller area.
  • Due to the Nazi genocide and the forced relocations that took place after World War II, Poland is very uniform ethnically.  98% of the people are ethnic Poles.
  • We had thought that Poland would be very different from the countries of Central Europe.  It looks a bit rougher than eastern Germany, but differences weren’t as great as we had imagined.
  • The campgrounds in Poland are plentiful and nice.  They have free wi-fi and the one we stayed at in Krakow even had free washing machines.
  • The Polish language is harder to figure out than German, which seems to have more in common with English.  As a result, food shopping was more of a challenge.
  • In 1795 Poland ceased to exist.  It was partitioned between Prussia (controlled from Potsdam in today’s Germany), Russia, and Austria (controlled from Vienna).  It was not reconstituted until 1918 at the end of World War I, but then immediately had to defend itself from Russia under Lenin who had visions of spreading socialism across Europe and eventually the world.  After the 2nd World War, Russia installed a communist government in Poland, despite its promises to the Allies to hold free elections.  Along with Hungary, it was one of the least repressive of the Communist Bloc countries.
  • While we were there, Poland celebrated the anniversary of its constitution, initially established on May 3rd, 1791.  It was the first set of modern supreme national laws in Europe, and second only to the American Constitution of 1787, which is something the Poles take great pride in despite the fact that their current constitution dates from 1997.
  • Poland is the birth place of Chopin, Goethe, Marie Curie, and Pope John Paul II.
  • Marie Skłodowska-Curie (Marie Curie) was a Polish physicist and chemist born in Warsaw in 1867 who did pioneering research on radioactivity in France.  She was the first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person to receive 2 Nobel Prizes.  She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia caused by her years of exposure to radiation.
  • Pope John Paul II is revered here.  He was born Charles Joseph Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice in 1920.  He suffered various hardships as a child (his parents died young), during WWII (he narrowly avoided deportation and had to study for the seminary illegally), and under the communists.  Despite this, he learned to speak 9 or more languages, became a philosopher, and a thought leader in the Catholic Church.  He took the name ‘John Paul II’ in honour of his predecessor (John Paul I), who died only 33 days after becoming Pope.  John Paul II was generally accepting of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution regarding the human body, but believed that the human soul was created immediately by God.
  • In 1980 the independent trade union Solidarity, which opposed Soviet rule, was formed in the shipyards of Gdańsk, Poland’s largest sea port.  Despite attempts by the government to curtail it, it spread until its cofounder Lech Wałęsa won the national election in 1990, ending the period of communist rule in Poland and leading to the eventual demise of communist regimes across Europe.
  • Many women in Poland try to dress in Western style, but the quality of the clothes and their fashion sense sometimes results in them looking cheap.  A lot of young women (and some older ones) prefer short, tight skirts, revealing tops, and platform heels to the point that they look like prostitutes.
  • In 2011 Poland elected the first transsexual Member of Parliament in European history.  Italy elected the first transgendered MP.
  • Poland seems to have whole-heartedly embraced capitalism.  Many of the big European chains are here (e.g. Lidl, Carrefour, Ikea, Mediamarkt) and there is advertising everywhere.
  • Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by Poland.  Diane described it as a “diamond in the rough”, with lots of potential as it develops.

Impressions of Luxembourg

We recently visited Luxembourg after leaving France.  It’s a small place, so it didn’t take long.  We visited the only major city, creatively called Luxembourg City, in this tiny country of just over 2500 square kilometers.  Here are some of our impressions.

  • Luxembourg is a landlocked country surrounded by France, Belgium, and German.  It only takes about 45 minutes to drive across the entire country.
  • Officially, it isn’t actually a country at all, but the world’s only remaining sovereign Grand Duchy.  It’s a constitutional democracy, but has a Duke as a monarch rather than a king or queen.
Flag with 3 stripes -- red over white over blue

Luxembourg’s Flag

  • Luxembourg has about half a million people, and the world’s 2nd highest GDP per person.  No wonder their motto is “We want to remain what we are”.
  • Luxembourg has historically been considered independent by the major nations of Europe, although it was invaded by Germany in both world wars.  With an army of only 800 people, it can’t really defend itself anyhow.
  • The people of Luxembourg are called “Luxembourgers” (‘bourgers’ is pronounced like the last part of ‘hamburgers’).  They speak 3 official languages – French, German, and Luxembourgish.   The first years of primary school are taught in Luxembourgish before switching to German.  Secondary school is taught in French.  Students must have proficiency in all three languages to graduate from high school.  In addition, English is also compulsory throughout school, so must Luxembourgers speak English also.  Why can’t Canadians learn just 2 official languages when Luxembourgers can master 4?
  • The large majority of Luxembourgers are Catholic, but over 20% are atheists.
  • Luxembourg sells the most alcohol in Europe per capita, but most of it is sold to people from other countries who shop here because Luxembourg has lower taxes. Of course, we bought our share to help keep their stats up.
  • Luxembourg City is a very attractive city on the top of a hill surrounded on several sides with steep cliffs to river valleys below.  We ate a picnic lunch on a bench at the top with a great view below.
Walls of Luxembourg City with river below

Walls of Luxembourg City

  • Luxembourg City was the sight of castle, one of the strongest fortifications in Europe for hundreds of years, and around which a city developed.  Luxembourg City is still extremely safe, ranking first in a 2011 Mercer survey of over 200 cities worldwide.
Luxembourg City walls with openings for cannons

Some of the many Casemates of Luxembourg City

  • The cliff walls around Luxembourg City are honeycombed with casemates (small rooms from which cannons could be fired).  We went on an unguided tour of the same, and it was easy to get lost in the many levels of twisting tunnels.  Thankfully we could always stick our head out an opening to get a sense of where we were.
Diane standing beside cannon in Luxembourg casemates

Diane standing beside cannon in Luxembourg casemates

Impressions of Europe

Here are some common items that we’ve noticed about the 10 European countries we’ve been to.

  • There is an obvious sense of history here. Public buildings and churches can be hundreds or even a thousand years old. Families often trace their roots for hundreds of years and may live in a house that has been handed down for many generations.
  • Generally people dress better than those in Vancouver, and definitely better than we do in our travel clothes. Women are willing to sacrifice for fashion (e.g. wearing high heels on cobblestoned streets).
  • There is a greater focus on food. Europeans purchase higher quality fresh ingredients. Most cities have morning fruit and vegetable markets several times a week where the freshest ingredients can be purchased, the largest typically being on Saturday morning.

    Produce at morning market in Aix-en-Provence

    Produce at morning market in Aix-en-Provence

  • Bread is the main staple. Always fresh and delicious it is heavy and darker in Northern and Eastern Europe (e.g. Germany, Czech Republic) and lighter in the South and West (Italy and France).
  • Beer and wine are cheap. They are often cheaper than soda pop (bad for someone with a Diet Coke addiction) and bottled water, which makes it a tough decision to drink anything else.
  • Pork rules!  Unless you’re Muslim or Jewish, you’re going to eat a lot of pork here.  Far more popular than beef and as common as chicken.
  • Europeans don’t refrigerate their eggs. It is somewhat disconcerting to see huge stacks of eggs sitting in the supermarket aisle. When they get them home, people store their eggs on the counter or in the pantry, not in the fridge as we do in Canada.
  • Although America is one of the most religious countries in the world, Europe seems even more so, perhaps because there are impressive churches everywhere. The most religious countries in Europe are in the East (e.g. Turkey, Romania, Poland) and in the Mediterranean (e.g. Cyprus, Italy, Greece).
  • The Catholic Church is ubiquitous. There are grand Catholic churches in every village, town, and city, becoming larger and more impressive with the size of the city.

    St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

    St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

  • People here ride bicycles a lot more than we do. It is done much more as a means of transportation than recreation. Most people don’t ride fancy road or mountain bikes, just basic bicycles with simple or no gearing, front and rear lights, a comfortable seat, and perhaps a basket.
  • More people smoke than in Vancouver.
  • Homes are smaller. It is very common for people to live in apartments or shared accommodation of some sort. Owning a house (especially one with a yard) is less common than in Canada.
  • Buildings, including houses, are made of brick, block, or stone. As a result, walls and door frames are thick. We haven’t seen any wood framed houses which are the norm in British Columbia.
  • Most large cities have some pedestrian only streets where locals and tourists flock. They are typically full of retail shops and restaurants and don’t have the run-down feeling of Granville street, Vancouver’s singular pedestrian-only street.
  • Little dogs are very popular. For the conspicuous consumption types (like the ‘schickimickies’ in Munich), a small terrier, dachshund, or Chihuahua seems to be an essential fashion accessory. In case you’re wondering, the word ‘schickimicki’ is of German origin and is used to describe the ‘in crowd’, very stylish, superficial, chic, and pretentious.
  • Europe has a graffiti problem. In every country we’ve been to graffiti is common, but it was most prevalent in the former East Germany and Eastern Europe. In a few places it was particularly bad (e.g. on the inside of trains, on historical buildings, etc.)
  • There seem to be a lot of small circuses (mostly extinct in Canada) and traveling amusement parks here. We see them advertised everywhere, and have run across them a few times (in Pont du Gard, Arles, and even in Monaco).

    Tent and sign for a small Circus in Pont du Gard, France

    Small Circus in Pont du Gard, France

  • Europeans use the 24-hour clock. Times are often quoted to us as, “17 hours”, by which they mean 5 PM.
  • Virtually every European capital has a very fancy shopping district, much larger and higher-end than Vancouver. If you’ve got some serious money to spend, head for Europe (or the Middle East).
  • Most pharmacies tend to be boutique shops (no mega chains like Shoppers Drug Mart) with well-dressed staff to help you choose cosmetics and hair products. They often don’t even sell drugs, not even aspirin when I have a hangover.
  • Europe has a lot of co-ed bathrooms. They’re not the standard, but we encounter them frequently. They take some getting used to. I’m not accustomed to hearing the girl pee in the stall next to me, nor feeling the necessity to regulate my body functions so as not to shock her.
  • Mushrooms seem to be popular. Perhaps it’s just mushroom season here, but we see them more frequently and in a much greater variety than at home. There are mushroom sellers in the markets with whole tables of different kinds of fresh and dried mushrooms.
  • Most countries have a Value Added Tax (VAT) of some sort, usually much higher than the sales taxes we pay in Canada, but it’s always included in the price. The price you see is the price you pay. In principle I don’t approve of hidden taxes, but I must admit that I like the simplicity of it.
  • Europe has the most stylish and lavish McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. In Bratislava (Slovakia) and throughout Italy they have very modern styling and décor. The one in downtown Madrid has granite floors throughout. I think they are trying to compete with the coffee shops that have a long tradition in Europe.
  • It is rumoured that body odour is a more common problem in Europe because people don’t traditionally bathe daily. Although we have noticed this occasionally, it has only been slightly more frequently than we might at home. However, traveling by RV, we also haven’t been bathing daily either, so perhaps we can’t distinguish their smells over our own!

Impressions of Spain

    • The central part of the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain is situated, is a large, open, wind-swept plain dotted with small hills. It looks like Nevada in the old Westerns. Between the major cities like Madrid, located in the center of the country, there is a lot of open space between the farms and truck stops. This region is called Castillo because there are many ‘castles’ located on the small hills, a legacy of the 800 years of fighting between Catholics and Moors in Spain. The southern part of Castillo has small windmills on the plain, and was home to the fictional man from La Mancha, Don Quixote.
Patrick driving RV in Castillo

Man from Surrey tilting at Winnebagos

    • Much of Spain has poor soil, rusty coloured or dry and rocky. This is good for growing olives and grapes, but not great for other crops. There are some regions, like Galicia in the north-west, that are green and wet, more like our Pacific Northwest.
    • Spain has greatly varying regional cultures. Like Quebec, some parts of the country (e.g. Basque Country in the north and Catalonia in the north-east) barely consider themselves to be part of Spain. In these regions many people would like to separate, resulting in periodic protests and acts of violence. The European Union, which Spain is a part of, encourages regional diversity, and so separation from Spain is less of a priority recently since the countries formed by separation would presumably all belong to the EU anyhow.
    • It was a surprise for me to learn that although Spain has only 1 official national language (Español or Castillian), it has 3 co-official languages in certain regions (Basque in Basque Country, Catalan in Catalonia, and Galician in Galicia).
    • The Moors were Muslims from Northern Africa who invaded Spain in the year 711 by crossing the Mediterranean from Morocco. For 800 years they occupied portions, sometimes the majority, of Spain and Portugal, and even parts of France. Other Moors from Turkey had pushed as far as Eastern Europe (e.g. the former Yugoslavia, some parts of which remain Muslim today). It took many years of crusades by Catholics from across Europe to finally expel the Moors from Spain in 1492, the same year that Columbus (born in Italy) sailed from Spain to re-discover North America (the Vikings were there first). Under Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain entered a period of intolerance when many Jews and other non-Catholics were expelled or persecuted as part of the Spanish Inquisition.
    • Apparently only 20 percent of people here go to church on a regular basis, but it definitely feels like a Catholic country. There are large Catholic churches everywhere. The largest Cathedral in the world is in Seville (Sevilla) and Christopher Columbus is buried there. He died in poverty thinking that he’d discovered a Western route to Asia.
    • Seville Cathedral

      Seville Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See

    • Spain is very different than Mexico, the Spanish-speaking country that most influences North Americans’ perceptions. The food and water are safe to drink and Spanish food is very different than Mexican food. It is not particularly spicy. There are no burritos, no tacos, and no enchiladas. They do have a tortilla, but is an omelette, usually made with potatoes, and not a round, flat bread.

    • Madrid and Barcelona, the two largest cities in Spain with over 4 and 1 million people respectively, are very clean and cosmopolitan. Although there are many museums, historic sights, and narrow streets in the older parts of town, these cities are very modern with clean efficient subway and tram systems (nicer than Vancouver’s), elegant shopping, and fine restaurants. We did however notice some slums by the river on the outside of Barcelona.
    • The major cities of Spain all seem to have great places for strolling, whether they be large squares, pedestrian-only streets, or tree-lined boulevards. At night there are thousands of people of all ages walking the streets enjoying the night air, and just recently, white Christmas lights have been erected in all major public places, suspended over the streets like stars.
    • McDonald’s restaurants in Spain have automated kiosks where you can order directly, without waiting in line. You then proceed directly to a separate area at the end of the counter to get your food. It’s basically the same as the automated kiosks at movie theatres, self-check-in at airports or self-check-out in large stores. In general I’m against these self-serve options, but it’s handy for us because the kiosks allow you to switch the language to English. Expect to see this coming to a McDonald’s near you in the future. Will there be any service jobs left?
    • Also at McDonald’s in Spain, they have flush-less, water-saving urinals (which I’ve seen before), but these ones have advertising on the top that lights up when you get into position. Something to do while you wait.
    • In Spain, for the first time in 6 weeks, we’ve noticed more heavy people (more than in France or Italy).
    • Spaniards love to eat jamón, pronounced ‘ham-own’. It is similar to Italian prosciutto but is better than any ham I’ve ever eaten. It is carved directly off a cured pig’s leg (cloven hoof still attached) in very thin slices and sells for outlandish amounts (as much $5 or $10 a slice). The best Jamón Iberico de Bellota (also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera) comes from free-range, acorn-fed back Iberian pigs and has been cured for over a year. We had jamón flavoured ripple chips the other day (much cheaper!)
Patrick slicing Jamon from a whole leg of pork

Patrick fondling about $300 worth of ham

  • Spaniards seem to be crazy over lotteries. Tickets are for sale everywhere, even from private sellers on tables on the street. Some nights there have been large lines at lottery outlets. Perhaps there is a big draw coming up?
  • In Castilla, the central region of Spain, they pronounce what would in other dialects of Spanish be an ‘s’ sound as ‘th’. Even with my limited ear for Spanish, it clearly sounds like they’re speaking with a lisp.

Impressions of France

  • The stereotype of French people as snobbish hasn’t been our experience. Most are nice to us.
  • French people kiss when they greet and say goodbye. Usually an alternating kiss on both cheeks, with an optional third kiss on the initial cheek. Both men and women do this, with members of the same and opposite sexes. I saw people at a large business going around and kissing everyone in the morning as part of their daily greeting.
  • We haven’t seen a lot of berets, but both men and woman like to wear scarves. Many men also carry shoulder bags, which can resemble purses.
  • Most of the people Patrick speaks to in French voluntarily switch to English in short order, or give him a blank stare as if his pronunciation is so terrible as to be unintelligible. Perhaps he should have studied harder in high school.
  • People prefer to shop for small quantities of fresh food daily. There are markets several times a week in almost every city, and people pick fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses from the fine selection offered (smaller shops but more selection).
  • Bread is purchased daily. Fresh baguettes cost about 1 Euro ($1.45 Canadian). They have no preservatives and seem to retain their amazing fresh-baked crustiness for 4 to 6 hours, after which they are fit for toasting only.
  • Pain au ChocolatThe baking is excellent. There are even more bakeries (boulangeries) and pastry shops (patisseries) than in Italy. They serve a variety of tasty treats, including the chocolate croissants (pain au chocolat) that Diane can’t get enough of.
  • Yes, they really do eat frogs’ legs and rabbits here. We were in the market this morning and we saw a butcher with a large selection of whole skinned rabbits and rabbit parts in his display case. Diane was shocked when she saw three whole dead rabbits in the case also, still in their fur. The butchers also seem to carry a greater variety of meats including hearts, intestine, etc.
  • French people will drink wine at any time of the day. We’ve seen what appear to be normal people drinking wine at 9 AM at brunch. Generally though, the French aren’t big on breakfast, preferring an espresso and a croissant or other pastry.
  • In many places, McDonald’s doesn’t open until 9 or 10 AM. They don’t serve breakfast either, but they do have free Wi-Fi and cheap coffee for Diane.
  • The famous bouillabaisse (seafood stew) of France’s second largest city Marseilles is too rich for our blood. One serving costs about 50 Euro (about 75 dollars), with cheaper imitations of soupe de poisson (fish soup) abounding.
  • French people are not good at cleaning up after their dogs. In some cities (yes, you Marseilles), you need to be vigilant as sidewalk turds are commonplace. We even saw one that had a small flag fashioned with a toothpick pole stuck in it, perhaps a political statement from a crap crusader. It seems like it would be easier to just clean it up than to raise a flag on it. It reminded me of India, but cow shit is easier to spot.
  • Like in Italy, almost everything is closed on Sundays. Only a few restaurants, some museums, movie cinemas, and the occasional bakery stay open. Museums and some other attractions are often closed on Mondays. Closures and holidays need to be considered when planning what to do.
  • There is a lot of Roman history in Southern France. Some of the best preserved examples of Roman theatres, amphitheatres, arenas, and aqueducts are here. Two thousand years old with little or no maintenance and still looking good. I wonder how long my house would stand if I did no maintenance? 40 years?