A whole month in central Europe, driving around historic cities and beautiful landscapes. That was the plan. Forget the sun in Spain, the food in Italy and the beaches in Greece. This road trip was about one thing and one thing only – finding the perfect schnitzel.
Now, I must confess, this was not necessarily Brooke’s primary objective, but somehow I managed to convince her to forgo the typical European hot-spots and instead explore some of central Europe’s hidden gems.
So, let’s start with the main highlight of the road trip – the schnitzels. Varying in quality and quantity, the schnitzels both surprised and delighted our taste buds, proving to be a very popular meal choice during our time in Europe. The top 10 schnitzels are shown in the gallery below, however the standout winner by a long way was… “Wagners Schnitzel” (schnitzel filled with sauerkraut, potatoes and bacon) from Apfelwein Wagner in Frankfurt Germany. What a stunner! Juicy, tasty, delicious and filling – this heart-attack schnitzel had it all. Look no further schnitzel aficionados… book a flight to Frankfurt now and get your shnitty on!
Ok, so I guess we should discuss some of the other things we saw on our schnitzel road trip. Why don’t we continue the current theme and do a top 10 places in Central Europe? Drum roll please ………… coming in at number 10…
The capital of Belgium and the European Union. We walked by some heavily guarded EU Parliament buildings where soldiers with semi-automatic rifles looked us up and down, assessing our threat level – which no surprise turned out to be extremely low. Brussels is a stereotypical European city, consisting of an old town area with cobbled streets, a cathedral and a royal palace that looks like the Adam’s family home. Interestingly though, the main tourist hot-spots are a couple of statues of children urinating; Manneken Pis and Jeanneke Pis – very weird… Apparently, the statues embody Brussel’s sense of humour and independence of mind. Ha! You also can’t visit Brussels without sampling some Belgium chocolates from Mary Chocolatier – which of course we did. And Mini-Europe was another interesting stop. No need to spend a month driving around Europe – just come to Mini-Europe and see everything in one place (miniaturised).
So much interesting history, all in one place. When we drove up to our accommodation in Berlin, we saw a sign next to the gravel car park where we parked our car. It said that underneath this car-park was once Hitler’s bunker – the place where he and his wife (Eva Braun) committed suicide in the final days of World War 2. Wow! The German government had a strategy for ensuring this location remained anonymous and unremarkable, so they turned it into a carpark.
Berlin was full of fascinating points of interest like this. From the Brandenburg gate to the Jewish memorial, the Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie. There is no way you can visit this city without learning about the atrocities of the past. A short drive outside of Berlin was Potsdam where several lavish palaces form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some King or Queen back in the day had way too much time and money on their hands!
We’re sticking with the B’s! Budapest is the crown jewel in the otherwise unremarkable country of Hungary. That may not be fair statement, but from our experience crossing the border from Austria to Hungary, there was a marked difference in road quality, driver courtesy and people friendliness. Once in Budapest however, the mood changed. The grand river Danube flows through this beautiful city. Gothic buildings like the Hungarian Parliament line the infinite riverbanks. You have the usual castles, cathedrals and churches along with unique monuments like “Shoes on the Danube bank” which honours people who were killed by fascists in World War 2. The Great Market Hall is also a delight for food lovers and a walk over the chain bridge gives you sweeping views of the Danube river. Hungary’s capital is must for any European road trip. Plenty to do, plenty to see and plenty of salami’s to sample!
The quaint little German town of Cologne is not so little after all. It’s actually a major university town with a large number of young people. Its main highlight is its Cathedral of course. This is not just any old cathedral though – Cologne Cathedral has the largest facade of any church in the world! It’s difficult to even take a picture of this thing up close unless you have a wide-angle lens! Inside the Cathedral reportedly exists the bones of the Three Wise Men encased in a golden shrine… great marketing by the Catholic Church I say! A perfect complement to the cathedral is the Lindt Chocolate museum located just down the river. Not only do you get to taste chocolate, but you get to see the manufacturing process and can even create your own chocolate bars! More great marketing – by Lindt this time around.
No this is not a city. It’s a spectacular mountain range between Slovakia and Poland. We were not here for long but just like how Budapest was the crown jewel of Hungary, the Tatry were the crown jewels of Slovakia. We stayed right next to the mountain range and had a view of them from our room. Unfortunately, we did not get to drive around them into Poland as originally intended (due to no car rental agency allowing their cars to enter Poland) but at least we were able to admire the Tatry from the Slovakian side.
We chose to spend a couple nights in Luzern and then just drive through Zurich but in hindsight it probably would have been better to reverse that plan. Zurich was small enough to feel intimate, yet busy enough to be exciting. We walked through the old town’s medieval buildings and along the waterfront promenades. We had lunch in town and checked out Brooke’s old corporate HQ, Credit Suisse. Granted, it was a beautiful sunny day so that probably swayed our opinion, but this city seems to have a lot going for it. Brooke even thinks she could live here one day! She just has to learn German first!
“XYZ goes on trial at The Hague”… that was pretty much all I knew about The Hague. It knew it was home to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Well, it turns out it is much more than that. It’s the seat of the Dutch Parliament. It has gothic style palaces and courtyards, beautiful waterways and public spaces. It feels very relaxed, not over-run with throngs of tourists. And if you are a lover of raw Herring then this is the place to be! The Hague was another ‘drive-through’ city where perhaps we should have spent a bit more time. I would highly recommend The Hague for a weekend getaway (if you live in Europe that is)
We were prohibited to take our Dutch rental car into Poland for fear of it being stolen (apparently, it happens so frequently that insurance companies will not insure you in Poland). So instead we booked a couple nights in Ostrava (a Czech city very close to the border of Poland) and then rented a Czech car for a day trip into Krakow. And boy was it worth it. Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland. It is known for its well-preserved medieval core and Jewish quarter. Its old town is centred around the beautiful Rynek Glówny (market square). The medieval Wawel Castle is also pretty cool to walk around.
But the main highlight was its vast amount of Pierogi (Polish dumpling) restaurants. We dined at Pryypiecek, a 24-hour pierogi diner that had a multitude of choice. We stuck with the traditional Pierogi Ruski (cottage cheese and potatoes), Pierogi z kupusta I grzybami (cabbage and mushrooms) and Pierogi z miesem (meat). At around $6 for 10 pierogi, we made the most of it. We also had a tour of the nearby Auschwitz – Nazi concentration camp. Again so much history, much of it very disturbing and horrifying to learn about. It makes you think how lucky we are these days. Very humbling to see and a must for anyone visiting Poland.
Where’s Strasbourg, you ask? It’s in eastern France right next to the German border. It therefore blends German and French influences. We booked one night there to break up our road trip between Frankfurt and Geneva. And boy did it surprise us. The Petite France quarter includes medieval bridges and canals lined with 16th century half-timbered houses. We had a wonderful twilight dinner sitting on the bank of one of those canals. Afterwards, we took a walk around the quarter at night and there was a buzz in the air with little restaurants and shops lighting up the way. It’s a good thing we decided to go to Geneva and stop off here on the way!
And the number 1 place in our entire month of driving around Central Europe was…
Again, not a city but a region in the South of Germany. More specifically, the area next to the Alps. Southern Bavaria is quintessential Germany. It is well known for its scenery and its castles – built by the crazy King of Bavaria, Ludwig II. Schloss Neuschwanstein (King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castle) served as a model for the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland. Linderhof Palace, just down the road, was another one of his ostentatious palaces that he created. The level of detail was unbelievable and the amount of money spent of these buildings must have been astronomical. On the outside, the Bavarian Alps form a beautiful backdrop on a very picturesque region of Germany. Spending some time just driving around this area was the highlight of our whole month in Europe.
The following unfortunately did not make our top 10, but deserve a mention none the less:
Amsterdam was very close to making it into our top 10 list. It has some fantastic museums, beautiful canals and great food, but because of its popularity, throngs of tourists somewhat ruin the experience. Along with all the bikes! It seems like everyone in Amsterdam cycles and bikes have right of way everywhere! We visited the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and the Sex Museum. Funnily enough, the Sex Museum was probably the most interesting. We also managed to get tickets to walk through Anne Frank’s House. Much like Auschwitz, her diary’s make you think how lucky we are these days. We also visited a few regions around Amsterdam to see the famous Dutch windmills. At one of the places, Kinderdijk, we sampled some delicious Poffertjes (Dutch Sweet Pancakes). Absolutely love those things!
Another must see European city, right in the center of the Czech Republic. We had a couple days here but ended up relaxing in our AirBNB for most of it – needing the rest after travelling for almost 6 months! We did manage to climb up to the castle and walk around the market up there. The castle provides a beautiful view of the city. We walked through the old town, crossing Charles Bridge, and we visited Lennon wall – a wall filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles’ songs.
Luzern is a very picturesque little city on Lake Luzern, surrounded by Alps on all sides. Unfortunately, it was overcast when we were there however; the day that we were leaving, we visited Mt Pilatus very early in the morning for some amazing views of the Swiss Alps. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
We visited Geneva for one thing and one thing and one thing only – CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). CERN runs the Large Hadron Collider, which is the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, the world’s most complex experimental facility ever built, and the world’s largest single machine. Wow. Sounds impressive, right? Well, it turns out you can’t actually visit the Large Hadron Collider (something to do with radiation levels) however you can take a tour which gives you a lot of information about the facility and allows you to visit an old decommissioned particle accelerator (Synchro-Cyclotron). It was all very cool to see – something different from all the churches, cathedrals and castles.
I would liked to have experienced Munich during Oktoberfest as I suspect we would have felt a bit differently about the city. Our visit was a rather brief one but the city didn’t really impress us to be honest. We walked around the old town, watched the Rathaus-Glockenspiel put on a show at Marienplatz, and drove out to the famous Nymphenburg Palace.
Frankfurt itself was similar to Munich in the sense that it was just another German city, similar to all the rest. Our stay there however was greatly enhanced by our accommodation – a Castle called Schlosshotel Kronberg. We somehow managed to get a very cheap on-line rate for this 5-star hotel. It was a little bit embarrassing though turning up to a 5-star castle hotel looking all scruffy with back-packs on! When I refused to let one of the porters take my back-pack from me I think he was a little insulted!
We didn’t spend much time in Heidleberg itself, but we did visit the famous Heidelberg Castle – the most important renaissance structure north of the Alps.
The 4th largest city in Austria. Also, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart! So naturally, we visited Mozart’s birthplace, which is now a museum. You can’t take any photo’s inside, but it basically takes you through his early life along with his family background. There are also various musical instruments on display from his childhood. We also took a cable car up to Salzburg castle to get a view of the city.
Following the Mozart theme, Innsbruck is also famous for a hotel where Mozart and his father stayed in the late 1700’s. We however stayed at the Hilton down the street – just for one night! The one street of Innsbruck that we managed to see was very beautiful, lined with Imperial buildings and quaint restaurants. It probably deserved more time than we gave it.
The city of Music! It has after all had some very famous residents including Mozart, Beethoven and Sigmund Freud. I was determined to eat some Weiner schnitzel in Wein (the German name for Vienna). Disappointingly, it didn’t live up to expectations. I’m guessing we chose the wrong restaurant… Anyway, Vienna itself was very much a European capital city. The streets are lined with Baroque buildings and it has its fair share of imperial palaces. We made sure to visit my namesake’s St Stephen’s Cathedral. We also stumbled onto the set of what looked like a major Hollywood movie production (we still don’t know what they were filming). And I remember getting lots of washing done at a laundromat just down the street from our hotel. It’s funny how household chores do not go away whilst travelling!
That wraps up our Central European adventure. Off to Scandinavia we go!