I still remember the feeling.
It was my first-ever trip to Europe, way back in 1979, and I’d taken an overnight flight from San Francisco to London and had my passport stamped at customs at Heathrow Airport in London. I took a train to the city centre and then transferred on the Tube to the Russell Square station.
I walked out and there it was. A red, British telephone box. Just like in the movies, I thought, with breathless wonder. And then I dropped in some coins and, like a good son, called my parents to let them know I’d arrived safely.
The entire trip was a revelation; the tiny room at my hotel in Russell Square, the Coliseum in Rome, that magical castle high on a hill in Salzburg and a full week with a friend in Sweden, where we played football (soccer) on the beach and toured Stockholm nightclubs where a beer cost the equivalent of $20 in today’s money.
I’ve been back many times since; probably a couple dozen trips in all. I’ve had glorious visits in Amsterdam with my Mom and Dad and my wife, anniversary trips to Italy (where my wife and I met way back when), and trips with my daughter, where we stayed at the Hassler Hotel high above the Spanish Steps and listened and watched as a full-fledged, open-air opera concert rang out at sunset; as magical an experience as I’ve ever witnessed in Europe or anywhere else.
Here a few of my favourite spots. But if you want to find out more and get insights from myself and other travel experts, then tune into my Twitter chat (you can find me @jimbyerstravel on Twitter) and learn how you can use your Aeroplan points and take fabulous trips to Europe. The chat will be on April 29 at 1 p.m. EST, with folks chiming in from around the world about their favourite destinations and food choices, and sending in fresh photos to really whet your appetite.
In the meantime, here are a few thoughts from yours truly….
Travel editors have officially banned the phrase “hidden gem” from any travel magazine. Well, they haven’t, but they should. There’s no such thing as a “secret” part of Europe, for example. And the word “unique” has been banned by my editor at the Globe and Mail Travel section. So I can’t use that.
But I WILL say that Slovenia is one of my favourite, lesser-known corners of Europe. The town of Ljubljana feels like a miniature Salzburg, but without the annoying Mozart chocolate shops and Mozart toy pianos and Mozart boxer shorts. There’s a beautiful river lined by lovely shops and cafes and buildings in creamy, Easter-Egg pastel shades of yellow and green and blue. There’s a small castle, too. And the glorious Slovenian Alps are only a short drive away. As is the incredibly scenic Lake Bled, with its castles and old-style wooden boats and a small island with a church on a hill. Toss in the fact that Slovenia shares a small sliver of coastline on the Adriatic Sea, and you’re talking about one lovely spot I like to call The Tiny Perfect Country.
The Swiss city of Zurich is underrated. It’s not cheap, but you’ll find so many elements of what makes a great European city: old churches like the Grossmunster and the Fraumunster, with its lovely Marc Chagall windows; winding, narrow streets with lovely shops; a beautiful lake and river (the LImmat) and a surprisingly lively and even gritty entertainment/nightlife/arts district called West Zurich. Toss in that great Swiss chocolate, melt in your mouth fondue and those fantastic Swiss breakfasts and you’re really talking.
Again, if you’re looking for something slightly different try a trip to Wales. Cardiff has a great castle and the golf is almost as good as you’ll find in Scotland or Ireland. Nefyn and District is a bit tricky in terms of its layout, but it’s a drop-dead gorgeous golf course. The food in Wales also has a come a long way. Plus there’s the wildly colourful village of Portmeirion, which looks like an Italian village by the sea.
I didn’t get to spend a lot of time there, but I was hugely impressed by the city of Stockholm on a visit years ago. The waterways and islands are gorgeous; a bit like a more natural version of Venice, but with a touch of Canadian wilderness.I love Paris but my favourite trip ever to France was a few years ago the Dordogne River area east of Bordeaux. The food is magnificently rich, especially the foie gras and local breads and jams, and the scenery stupendous. Think long, slow-moving rivers with castles perched on seemingly every bend, plus gorgeous villages built of golden stone such as Sarlat-la-Caneda. Three thumbs up.