Europe, the continent with a thousand different cultures. We’ve written about it plenty of times, whether it is on places to visit or restaurants to dine at. The tourism hotspot has over 600,000 establishments offering weary travellers a cosy bed to rest in, according to Eurostat. While that may be true, travelling in Europe is a feat in itself. You could always join a tour group, which is convenient but unfortunately limits the time you get to spend at each stop. Or you could get in touch with Elgin Xiao, Chief Destinations Planner at Amala Destinations, and work out a personalised itinerary.
“If you just want to see something that’s created for tourists, sometimes it loses the personal touch, or it doesn’t give you the sense of place,” said Xiao when we sat down with him to plan our ideal European trip. We can safely testify to that — we recently joined Amala Destinations on a journey to Gal Oya in Sri Lanka. For those few days, we disconnected from the grid and entered an untainted realm that seemed to belong in another time.
Organising a week in a national park is child’s play for the veteran planners at Amala. Xiao, who was formerly in the banking industry, always had the travel bug. During a sabbatical, he decided to make the career switch, and he hasn’t looked back since. Strangely for a frequent flier, he used to get anxious when boarding a plane, until he found ways to cope with his aerophobia. “What I do is to read on how safe aircraft are, how they’re made to withstand shocks, and that flying is generally safe,” he explained. “If I can avoid flying, I will. In Europe to get around I’ll take the train or drive.”
To get a glimpse into how Xiao gets around Europe, we tasked him to plan a month-long itinerary that takes us from Iceland to Turkey — without taking a single flight. The ideal season to start this journey is from end-August to September/October, where it’s quieter and more pleasant, said Xiao.
(Illustration by Nadine Christmas)
Begin your journey in Iceland aboard Ponant’s luxury cruise Le Lapérouse on a nine-day adventure. It starts off at Reykjavik, before heading off to explore other Icelandic ports like Heimaey and Seydisfjordur. Then, you’ll be brought to the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. This leg of your itinerary ends at Bergen in Norway. The cruise departs on 14 August, so book your suite quickly.
Norway is home to spectacular scenery with its fjords and beautiful landscapes. Xiao recommends seeing the fjords on a day trip, with a hike to Trolltunga (pictured) being a must. The sights to see include the local apple farms and Stave churches that date back centuries. He recommends staying at 29/2 Aurland Hotel, a boutique establishment by the Aurland river founded by a former journalist.
(Photo: Elgin Xiao/Amala Destinations)
The coastal city is one of Sweden’s underrated destinations. There, you can visit Liseberg, an amusement park, as well as the Universeum, Scandinavia’s largest science centre that boasts a rainforest inside within the compound. If you want to see the town in a unique perspective, take a canal tour on a Paddan boat.
Other than hitting up the typical tourist hotspots, Berlin is great for its alternative scene as well, says Xiao. The infamous nightclub Berghain immediately comes to mind, although getting past the doors into the city’s most exclusive club might require some finesse. If you’re unable to get in, you can always register to visit the dome of the Reichstag Building (pictured).
Stepping into Dresden is like going through a portal in time. The architecture, for starters, is a lot more ostentatious and elaborate with its baroque and rococo styles. Xiao recommends visiting the formidable Dresden Palace and breathtaking Bastei Bridge, the latter of which was a filming location for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Retreat to the Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski located in the city centre at the end of your day.
The capital of the Czech Republic has been nicknamed ‘The City of a Hundred Spires’ for its many gothic churches and baroque buildings. Instead of sharing the Charles Bridge in Old Town with half of the tourist population, Xiao recommends that you go to the colourful spa town of Karlovy Vary for some much-needed pampering in its natural hot springs.
Thanks to Mozart and Beethoven (among many others), Vienna’s musical legacy is unparalleled. During the day, take a stroll through the many palace gardens in the city. And when night falls, take Xiao’s advice and get tickets for two at the Vienna State Opera, one of the world’s most famed opera houses. Before you leave, rejuvenate your senses at one of the city’s famed thermal spas.
The capital of Hungary is lesser known, but should be explored just the same. It is an extraordinary mix of cultures, as it was founded when two distinct cities, Buda and Pest, merged in 1873. Make sure to hit up one of the many ‘ruin bars’ (bars located within rundown buildings and unused spaces), including the mecca of all ruin bars, Szimpla Kert.
The cultural shift as you transit into Eastern Europe becomes more clear-cut, as seen in the Hungarian town of Eger. Xiao recommends visiting the medieval fortress, the Castle of Eger, which now houses a museum. The region is also known as the ‘Valley of the Beautiful Women’ and has one of the best vineyards in Hungary.
“When you’re in Maramures, do a minimum of three nights,” says Xiao. While there are over a hundred Orthodox churches varying in architectural styles for you to visit, eight of them have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You should also go for a ride on Europe’s last steam forestry train, the Mocanita.
The region is known for the sweeping landscapes of the Carpathian mountains and the rich history. If you’re driving (as you should be), don’t pass up on the opportunity to explore the winding Transfagarasan Highway, which was proclaimed by Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson as the best road in the world. Those feeling adventurous should visit Bran Castle (pictured), the inspiration behind the fictitious Count Dracula.
Your last stop in Romania would be the country’s beating heart, Bucharest. Spend a day or two here and take in the colossal scale of the Palace of the Parliament (pictured), the largest building in Europe. There are also no licensing hours in Bucharest, so after-hour shenanigans tend to run until dawn breaks, making the city’s nightlife particularly active.
The medieval Bulgarian old town is where you can get active after all the sightseeing. The hilly ‘City of the Tsars’ has one of the best hiking trails available in Europe, and you can start at Rusenski Lom National Park, as Xiao recommends.
Head down towards southern Bulgaria towards Plovdiv, an ancient city built around seven hills. It is one of Bulgaria’s hidden gems. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the magical magnificence of the Bachkovo Monastery, which has stood steadfast for almost one millennia. Come 2019, it will be crowned as the European Capital of Culture, so get there before all the others do.
At last, you’ve reached one of the easternmost points of Europe. The intricate marriage between East and West in this cultural hub is something that has drawn over 9.2 million visitors in 2016. A myriad of minarets will greet you as you enter the bustling city. Take your time to visit the many mosques, including the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. You can also retreat to one of the many Turkish baths, also known as hamams.