7 Unforgettable European Travel Moments

With true joy and pure unbridled happiness comes a sense of clarity. In this clarity, I realize in the moment that I am having an experience I will never forget. A wave of serenity washes over me, and a faint smile crosses my lips. Every worry and every ounce of apprehension is lifted, leaving only the profound realization that I am overwhelmingly content. They’re the moments you know you’re going to miss and the memories you feel nostalgic for while they’re happening. They’re your deepest treasures, and the ones you hope will never fade with age.

These types of memories can happen anywhere. The moment springs to your mind when you’re at your most comfortable, or your most vulnerable. There is no pattern to follow and you never know when it’ll happen — until it does. Like the greatest surprise, that clarity comes and you know you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. I often return to these memories, especially on the most mundane of days. They are an escape, a reprise from the dull and uninteresting. Memories are a companion I can always count on, and I can only hope I am allowed to keep them for my entire life. When I’m old and grey and my mind starts to go, I hope I can still escape to that night of laughs in Berlin, or those joyful tears that accompanied pizza and sunset in Italy.

Many great memories are made in places I consider home, but the most tantalizing ones have all happened while abroad. When you start to fill your passport with stamps, you also begin collecting unforgettable experiences. Being across the ocean, far from my comforts and usual surroundings, I find myself more often struck by just how beautiful the earth and life is. So, without further a do, here are the top seven travel memories my mind keeps wandering back to.

1. Watching the Sunset from Michelangelo Square with a Bottle of Wine

Sunset over Florence, Italy with a view of the Duomo.
Michelangelo Square is the perfect place to see a stunning sunset. Florence, Italy. May, 2019.

To say Italy is special may be the understatement of the century, only to be tied with the claim that Florence is charming. The way that city comes alive with culture and beauty is a spectacle to admire. This certainly isn’t a revelation — the art, culture and overwhelming beauty has a history of inducing Stendhal syndrome (also called Florence syndrome).

While so many parts of Florence offer irreplaceable memories, the one I may cherish most dearly isn’t technically one memory. It’s more of a routine my travel companion and I established during our five day stay there. Each night, we would hike up the steep winding roads to Michelangelo Square to watch the sun set over the city. Seeing the red rooftops glowing, and the walls of the Duomo reflecting an opalescent orange before disappearing into the night was, simply, magic. Even now, that image is easy to evoke in my mind and a familiar sense of calm washes over me.

Hands uncorking a bottle of wine.
Florence, Italy. May, 2019.

Each night we would make it to the square and crack a bottle of wine. Although it was a popular spot, the memory is still one of serenity. I see myself with a smile painted on my lips as bright as the setting sun, an unmatched joy in my heart, and a thrill for life that I’m still chasing. This isn’t some dramatic romanticism, it’s really just the profound effect Florence has.

2. Sitting Under the Eiffel Tower at Night

Face silhouetted by Eiffel Tower.
The way the Eiffel Tower sparkles leaves no questions as to how it’s captivated travellers for generations. Paris, France. February, 2019.

These first two memories are both common occurrences for the frequent Europe traveller. Neither of these spots are hidden or some well-kept local secret. But, the classics are classic for a reason. In a normal year, Paris welcomes more than 40 million tourists. For most, seeing the Eiffel Tower is near the top of their to-do list. Although the charm of Paris can be found down the smallest alleyways and tucked away in the tiniest cafes, the Eiffel Tower is an icon of the city. When you think of France, La Dame de Fer surely comes to mind.

On my first visit to Paris, two friends and I packed wine and cheese before catching the metro to Champ de Mars. We sat in the grass drinking French rosé and soaking up the Parisian atmosphere. It was a surprisingly warm February evening, but perhaps it was the wine or the thrill of being there that kept the cold away.

Eiffel Tower at sunset with flowers.
Paris, France. April, 2019.

It was already a beautiful evening, I had a good view and better company — I was counting my lucky stars. Then, as the clock struck the hour, my jaw dropped and my heart soared. The Tower began to sparkle — just as it did in every movie I’ve ever seen that takes place in Paris. The twinkle lights made a beautiful memory a perfect one. Seeing the Eiffel Tower shine so bright for the first time is irreplaceable. Each time I’ve been lucky enough to see the tower since has still been beautiful, but there is nothing quite like the first time.

The City of Light sure knows how to make an impression.

3. New Friends and Early Mornings in Dubrovnik

High vantage point of Old Town Dubrovnik.
Looking over the rooftops of Old Town Dubrovnik, Croatia from the city walls. Dubrovnik, Croatia. April, 2019.

I truly love solo travel. I’ve been independent my whole life, I know what I like to do and I love being able to create a trip that only has to check off my own boxes. Eliminating the need for an itinerary to accommodate an extra person can really feel like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. However, there certainly are times where I wish I had a companion. When a hostel is full of good friends travelling in a pack, I can feel like the only person without a best friend by my side. Or, when a sweet cafe full of pairs catches my eye, I wonder if I have it in me to take a table for one. I know both those situations aren’t totally grounded in reality, the joy of solo travel is doing what you want when you want. So, yes, I did order an affogato to my cozy table in the cute cafe with an empty chair across from me — and it was truly lovely. But, the truth holds that sometimes the beauty of a new location gets crowded with the thoughts of being lonely.

In 2019 I spent four days in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The ancient streets and crashing ocean waves were a vision straight from my dreams. It was my first trip to a warm destination after spending a rainy and dreary winter in The Netherlands. The sun felt amazing on my face, and getting lost in the maze of alleyways and hidden shops was an amazing experience. But, alongside the explosion of gratefulness that life allowed me to explore such a stunning location, the hints of loneliness began to creep in. I had just spent a wonderful week with my family, and now I was alone in this beautiful city.

On my second day there, after returning from a day trip to Montenegro, I climbed the steep flight of stairs to the hostel I was staying at. I walked into my shared accommodations to find two girls chatting. They were quick to introduce themselves to me, and soon I was wrapped up in their conversation too. We shared travel stories, and one of the girls proudly showed off her collection of pressed pennies. It was such an easy conversation, and one I was so desperately in need of. I was invited to join them the next day to explore the city before the tour busses arrived. The plan was to wake up at 6 a.m., take some photos at the most popular spots, and then walk the famous city walls. It was like they had read my mind, they had planned the exact same morning I had intended on doing. I immediately agreed to going.

Sitting on steps in Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik, Croatia. April, 2019.

The early morning came fast, but the three of us pulled ourselves from under our covers and stepped on to the cobblestone streets shortly after sunrise. Aside from a few delivery vehicles dropping supplies to local businesses, the streets were empty. There were no throngs of tourists winding their way down the streets, no queues to take pictures at legendary spots, and hardly another soul walking the city walls. We had a great morning. We laughed, we saw some stunning views, and we took such joy in the company of strangers. It was one of the most pure instances of human connection I have ever experienced — and it came to me at a time of such need.

4. Arriving in Dubrovnik Knowing Nothing About the City

Looking through a stone window to Dubrovnik
The gorgeous red rooftops and winding streets make the Old Town a charming area full of hidden gems. Dubrovnik, Croatia. April, 2019.

I’m typically such a planner, I treasure my agenda like gold. I love having a schedule and I take such pleasure in researching destinations before I arrive. My trip to Dubrovnik, however, was quite a different experience for me. I knew Croatia was supposed to be a gorgeous country and I knew I wanted to visit. While searching for flight deals out of France near the end of a trip to Paris, I found a super cheap flight from Nantes to Dubrovnik. Instead of doing my typical deep-dive into history of the city, spots to see and reading travellers reviews, I did a brief Google Image search. I saw images of the bluest sea crashing onto dramatic shorelines, and stunning sunsets painting medieval architecture. That was all I needed to convince myself to book the flight.

Once the flight was booked, I got a bus ticket to take me to Nantes and arranged for my accommodations in Dubrovnik. I read a couple blog posts about the city, but didn’t really get the chance to fully research my next destination. Three days later I had landed in Dubrovnik, with only the address of my hostel and a backpack full of well-worn clothes. Since my flight had landed pretty late, I decided to call an Uber to take me to the hostel. I typed in the address and was swiftly brought to a seemingly random spot near a bend in the road. In front of the car was a stone archway — one I would later learn was a part of the city walls originally erected in the 13th century. Sensing that this was as close to my destination as the driver could get, I grabbed my backpack and stepped out into the warm night and through the gate.

Dubrovnik streets at night.
Dubrovnik, Croatia. April, 2019.

It was like I had stepped back in time. I knew Dubrovnik was old, but I had virtually no other information about the city. I didn’t even know the Old Town was carless! Warm lights affixed to stone buildings lit up my route to my accommodations. It seemed like I had walked down four flights of stairs and up six, the weaving alleyways and steps made it feel like I was walking further into an impenetrable maze. Despite feeling lost and wandering alone at night, I had a big, goofy smile on my face. This city was like nothing I had experienced — I thought I had time travelled to a time before the invention of cars and skyscrapers. I was lost and happy beyond words, my lack of research had led me to this wonderful surprise. I climbed dozens of steps and backtracked more than once. But, the joy of finding new little streets to walk down and being bathed in a mix of warm lamplight and cool moonlight made every wrong turn all the more enjoyable.

This was the surprising start to a wonderful few days in Old town Dubrovnik. My time in that wonderful city still brings a wistful look to my face, I can recall so many smiles and beautiful experiences that have really cemented Dubrovnik in my heart as a very special place.

5. Walking Through Berlin With a Beer and a Kebab

A bar-filled alley in Berlin.
Exploring vibrant, creative Berlin. Berlin, Germany. March, 2019.

While I was going to school in The Netherlands my course had a mandatory field trip to Berlin. Since this was all a part of an assignment we had to turn in a few days upon returning, the days were mostly scheduled by the instructors. This meant walking tours, museums and art galleries all day long. Although I generally enjoy those types of activities, not having control over which museums or walking tours we went on made this trip majorly different than my other travels. Despite this, one moment remains stuck in my mind as a prime example of simple joys brought by new experiences and good company.

One night, after a day of visiting art exhibits and learning the history of Berlin, a friend and I decided to go on a walk around the city. She’s from Germany and was happy to be my translator and first point of contact for learning the cool things we had to do while in the city. One of the things she described as “a must” was getting a kebab after a couple drinks. Being vegetarians, we ordered two giant falafel sandwiches with all the toppings. We ate our big, messy sandwiches in the shop and continued our tour of the neighbourhood we were staying in. We stopped into a corner store to grab a couple beers, after paying and heading back out to the sidewalk we realized we had no opener. After a kind stranger opened our drinks for us, we started sipping our drinks as we wandered city streets.

Sunsetting against an old building.
Berlin, Germany. March, 2019.

This moment was so simple; food, company and drinks. But, despite the simplicity of it all, it was just so indescribably nice. Seeing world-renowned art, insta-famous sights, and historical landmarks definitely has its appeals. But, spending an evening walking through the city with a good friend is so special in its own right. I have no photos from this night, no way to visually transport myself back to that wonderful evening in Berlin. So, I must rely on this wonderfully simple memory. I can think back and almost feel the same smile creep on to my face. I can imagine my friends laugh and feel the cold beer pass my lips.

6. Coffee in a Smoky Vienna Coffee Shop

Vienna at sunset, looking down a pretty street.
Dubbed the most livable city in 2018 and 2019, Austria’s capital has a lot to offer. Vienna, Austria. February, 2019.

So many of these memories involve connection with another person. Sometimes that person is a friend I knew before reaching the destination, but sometimes the person I spent a memorable and amazing time with was a brand new friend. I have made wonderful memories with people I didn’t know before arriving in the city. Despite the connection not usually blossoming into a deeper friendship, their contribution to cherished memories keeps them in my heart. One such memory happened when I was visiting Vienna.

I decided to join the walking tour that the hostel I was staying at had organized. I hadn’t had any luck yet making friends at the hostel and hoped that maybe I would meet someone on the tour. I kept my eye out for someone I could chat with as we wandered the streets listening to the guide tell us about the history of beautiful Vienna. About halfway through the excursion, I began talking to a German girl who was similar age to me. She was easy to talk to, and after the tour ended we decided to go for a cup of coffee together. Seeing as she spoke the language, she had no worries about visiting a shop that was tucked back from the tourist centre, and had more of a “locals only” vibe. She led me through a maze of small streets before entering a small cafe.

As soon as I had stepped into this coffee shop, I was enveloped in a sense of comfort and warmth. The red velvet decor and dim lights made the space feel like a jazzy speak easy from decades past. I looked at the menu board and realized there was nothing named just “coffee”, so I took my new friends lead and ordered a melange. It was amazing. The coffee was so rich and smooth, it felt like the finest brew I’d ever had. The smoky atmosphere made it feel that much more special, it was very apparent I was in a coffee shop very unlike any in my hometown. At a communal table we sat with a local man dressed in a suit, who was sipping a coffee with one hand while the other held on to a lit cigarette.

Sipping a to-go cup of coffee.
Sipping a coffee at the train station in Vienna. Although not the fanciest coffee I have ever drank, it was very delicious. Vienna, Austria. February, 2019.

Although second hand smoke isn’t my idea of ‘charming’, something about this atmosphere made it feel so appropriate. For this one moment I felt like I was on the set of a romantic European film. Light music mixed with the cigarette smoke, creating an atmosphere of intrigue and an air of mystery. There I was, sipping the most amazing coffee, chatting with a new friend, surrounded by a cozy, foreign atmosphere.

Since my visit to Vienna, the city has banned smoking indoors. So, perhaps it’s nearly time to return and discover jazzy cafes without the second hand smoke factor.

7. Spotting Mountains for the First Time

Mountain range seen across a lake.
Mountains as seen from Hallstatt, Austria. Hallstatt, Austria. February, 2019.

I am certainly not alone in being absolutely mesmerized by the sight of mountains. Seeing the big, gorgeous formations dot the horizon is really a special kind of magic. The sight is so fantastic that I distinctly remember the exact moment I spotted a snow-capped mountain for the first time in my life. I was travelling from Vienna to Salzburg by train, and had my eyes glued to the window for practically the whole journey. As the train flew down the tracks at 200 kilometres per hour, I began to notice interruptions in a fairly flat landscape. As they appeared to come nearer and nearer, my excitement only grew.

I was filled with such child-like joy that I could not stop smiling. Around me, people were reading, working on laptops or napping. I couldn’t understand how someone could be doing anything else but staring at the gorgeous mountain range coming in to view. I was so ecstatic that I couldn’t stop snapping pictures, even though I knew the train’s high speed was making them all blurry. I just had to capture the gorgeous peaks from my window seat.

As my cheeks began to hurt from smiling so hard, and my unbridled joy kept growing, I started to understand more clearly why I was mesmerized. Seeing these mountains for the first time proved to me something I knew to be true — the world is full of sights that can take my breath away and reinvigorate my sense of wonder and amazement. I always knew this big, beautiful world had so much to show me, and this glimpse of jaw-dropping mountain peaks proved it. I was just starting my travel journey, and in that moment I knew I could keep chasing mountain tops and pursuing moments that would strike awe and wonder in my heart. The world is full of magic, and I’ve only experienced a little drop.

Austrian mountain homes on a foggy treed slope.
Hallstatt, Austria. April, 2019.

How amazing is the human mind? With the power of memory I can travel back to a specific moment and place in time. I can taste the wine on my lips in Florence, and feel the early morning sun’s rays on my face in Dubrovnik — all without leaving home. Life is a series of memories, and all I want to do is collect experiences to fill my hall of records. To see sunrises and sunsets, feel warm sand in my toes and snow on my fingertips, and to cherish each experience to the deepest extent.

A Case for the Return of the Pen Pal

When was the last time you licked an envelope closed? Peeled a stamp off the roll to affix to an envelope? Even wrote the word “dear”?

In pen that is, email formalities don’t count.

showing a postcard against a blue sky, postcards are just one type of pen pal mail you can send and receive.
Finding a letter or postcard tucked between bills can instantly make a trip to the mailbox more exciting.

Perhaps reading those questions the answers quickly come to you. Maybe you fly through stamps like others fly through their Netflix queue. Perhaps placing letters in the post box is a part of your weekly routine. If that is the case, you probably read the title of this post then surmised the biggest eye roll you could manage. I get it — saying letter writing is rare is such a Gen Z thing to claim.

“Back in my day we had no cellphones or video chats! We talked in person or sent snail mail!” you scream at your screen while shaking a fist, outraged by my preposterous assertion. But please, just hear me out.

On the other side of things, maybe you read this title and thought it was an outrageous claim not because technology has rotted our brains, but because technology exists. You’re not shaking your fist at my claim no one sends letter, you’re confused as to why we would. So I ask the same thing of you, please hear me out.

According to Pew Research Centre, the volume of packages USPS delivers annually has doubled. This is undoubtedly thanks to the surge in online retailers and the consumer convenience of getting products delivered to your door. The same study found that since 2000, the postal service has seen a 31.4% decline in the amount of mail it processes. This figure includes letters, postcards and packages. So, the higher online shopping rates aren’t even offsetting the decline in paper mail we used to send and receive.

Postcard with note to show sample text.
Jot down some thoughts and grab a stamp, nothing beats a hand-written note.

In a sense, that can be a good thing. Certainly more people choose to get their bills and documents sent electronically, which saves a lot of paper from ending up in the bin. But, the switch to digital communications for personal matters means the joy of receiving a handwritten letter or a scrawled on postcard is being diminished.

Instead of sending a postcard to our closest friends about our travels, we can post a photo on Instagram. This way, all of our friends get to know what we’re up to. And our acquaintances. And exes. And strangers. Instead of sending letters to keep in touch with friends, we can shoot them a text–ensuring they constantly stay updated about what is going on in our lives.

The instantaneous communication revolution is miraculous, it is easier than ever to maintain social relationships over long distances. Given that social relationships are a key component of our happiness, I would never wish for that ease to go away. I am simply recommending complementing the texting, posting and video chatting with the odd handwritten note.

We are constantly bombarded with digital messages. They come from friends and family, and also commercial entities we really don’t care too much about (looking at you retail email lists). Even in our paper mail we get commercial communications (looking at you Subway coupons that show up every month). So, receiving a letter from a dear friend or family member can be such a pleasant surprise.

Two envelopes ripped open and a postcard.
I like to keep all the fun mail I get, it’s a nice reminder that my people care about me.

The price of postage is worth it for the happiness a good note will bring a loved one. The act of writing the letter can be good for you too. Writing is therapeutic, and although you may not want to treat that distanced friend as a therapist, writing down some thoughts and feelings is a good way to process events going on in your life. But, what if the friend you’re writing already knows everything going on thanks to that instantaneous communication we were discussing earlier? That’s okay! Talk about a nice memory, tell them a song you’ve been listening to, suggest future plans. When you put pen to paper you’ll be amazed at what comes out.

A postcard collection can grown from many pen pals.
Another benefit of a pen pal: your postcard collection can grow! It’s like receiving a note and a piece of art.

If it’s motivational to you, start romanticizing letter writing. Be intentional about how and when you do it. Conjure in your mind the image of yourself cozied up with a cup of tea in one hand and pen in the other. Make establishing a pen pal a type of self care. It is a moment to connect with yourself in a way that also allows you to connect to others.

Keep letter writing low pressure, do it because you want to bring a smile to a friends face, or because you want to express yourself. Please, just try it for yourself and see how giddy you get when a letter arrives in return. Ripping open the envelope to devour the words written in your pal’s handwriting is a special feeling. It’s a feeling that can’t be easily replaced by emails or texts.

A Kitschy Legacy for a Historic Fortress: The Real Story of Bran Castle

Surrounded by dramatic rolling hills and lush green forests stands a fortress, perched strategically to act as a guard over the commune of Bran. Its red-tiled roof and steep staircase create a gothic appearance, and its rich history since the 13thcentury create the fantastical idea that it may have been a place where people met their gruesome end. 

            A setting fit for a vampire? Some may believe so. But, the truth to Bran Castle is steeped more in bureaucratic property trading and strategic positioning than fantastical creatures featuring fangs and a hatred for garlic. A contrast that makes current day vampire-tourism seem even more kitschy and out of place.

            So, how did this mostly-false narrative become so ingrained in the legacy of Bran Castle? I suppose it began with the publishing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.The 1897 gothic horror novel has spawned quite a legacy in its own right. Many tropes of vampire fiction have origins in the story of Dracula and Van Helsing that Stoker penned. 

            Before writing the book, Stoker spent years researching the folklore of Europe, including the 1885 essay Transylvania Superstitions by Emily Gerard. It is said that this essay is what Bran’s imagination was most influenced by –not the castle reaping the rewards of vampire-tourism today. For some fans of literary-tourism, stories of bloody battles and imposing castles are more interesting of an origin story than an essay. 

Nor, was Stoker much influenced by the gruesome acts of Vlad the Impaler, who is often attributed to being the inspiration for Dracula. However, nothing is truly certain about the connection between the falsified Dracula and the real-life Vlad, except for the shared name. Vlad the Impaler was also known as Vlad Dracul, a clear predecessor to the name Dracula.

            Despite this, a tendency to attribute the origins of the blood-sucking creature to the real-life ruler who had a tendency to stick his enemies’ heads on spikes, is still pervasive in tourism today.

            Given the immense success of the novel, and its continued legacy well into the 20thcentury and beyond, its roots in the stunning Transylvania landscape have been exaggerated. A very precise, and conscious adjustment of facts has made Bran Castle the popular tourist destination it is today. Although not all tourists show up in capes and fangs (the management maintains that some do!), it is an undisputed fact that the legacy of Dracula brings in a lot of foreign tourism—and therefore a lot of money to Romania’s economy. 

Princess Ileana wanted the castle to feel “light and airy”, hence the many windows.

            Located just 25km from Brasov, it has become a national monument that registered revenues of nearly 5 million euros in 2017. Over 60% of that income is estimated to have been generated from foreign tourists.

            This growing tourism industry began in the 1970s. In this decade, the communist party of Romania was developing more of a connection the West. Attributed to this closer relationship, is the nation’s renewed focus on marketing for tourism. Bran Castle’s dramatic influence, its perhaps erroneous relationship to Vlad the Impaler, and Vlad’s ties to the Bram Stoker novel, influenced the Romanian government’s decision to market Bran as the “real Dracula’s Castle.”

            That marketing move has made Dracula’s castle a quintessential stopping point on one’s tour through Transylvania. Leading to an industry of vampire-tourism, and spawning the dozens of souvenir shops that surround the castle. In these small spaces, you can find Dracula on magnets, postcards and bottle openers—you know, if you need to indulge in a drink after being exposed to the falsified spooky history of Bran Castle. 

Local vendors have turned the castle into a mini-market place.

            In 2006, the castle was awarded to the royal heir Dominic Habsburg, and converted into the nation’s first private museum. Habsburg, the grandson of Princess Ileana who grew up in the fortress after it was traded to the Kingdom of Romania in 1920, doesn’t relate the residence to anything fantastical or spooky. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he said he sees it as the light and airy residence his grandmother turned it into. 

            “Why would anyone want to focus on an invention, when it had its own rich history?” Habsburg asks. 

            The answer to that question is quite evident in the legacy Bran Castle can’t seem to shake. An industry of “vampire hunters in Romania, and tourists dazzled by the fantastical history will continue to arrive by the busload. 

Located between Transylvania and Wallachia, the castle has a strategic vantage point.

            The old idiom “truth is stranger than fiction”, may not apply to this particular legacy. Though the history of the grounds is indeed fascinating and complex, there’s something about the possibility of the impossible that is captivating. Stirring one’s imagination with stories of blood-thirsty vampires, and the possibility it has truthful foundations in the story of Vlad the Impaler, will undoubtedly continue to draw crowds. 

            Fans of Stoker’s Dracula will still see Transylvania first as the setting for a novel that has captivated readers for centuries. Although historians agree there is no evidence Stoker had ever even heard of Bran Castle, the same academic community has to contest that there was no way to know that he definitely didn’t know of the castle. And so, in that small possibility lies the imaginations of the visitors that tour the grounds. 

Perhaps they hope that they’ll see a bat dart away from the crowds, or that they’ll stumble upon a coffin precariously left ajar—spoiler: there’s no coffins in Bran Castle, just collections of furniture collected by Queen Marie. 

Regardless of what the tourists hope to get out of their visit to the castle, many locals applaud the sensationalized account of the castle, for its ability to give Romania more exposure, and to shed light on the legend of Vlad the Impaler.