Overview of a first-time Europe trip

For many years, I often had to say to people when talking about travelling, “I’ve never been to Europe.” Well, I no longer need to say that because I finally did go to Europe.

Specifically, I went to the UK, France, Italy, and Germany in October. My destinations were mostly cities – London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Berlin – since those are among the most famous places in Europe, plus I like cities, not to mention my lack of familiarity with Europe and my wonky foot meant I couldn’t really do any hiking. I stayed a few full days each in most of the cities so it was not one of those whirlwind, 10-day, 8-city kind of trip. Actually the trip was a little over 3 weeks but it did feel too short. Originally I was planning a shorter and less ambitious trip but then my mother asked to come along (we went to London and Paris, then she went back first) so I extended it and decided to go to Italy.

It was a real eye-opener and I left with a positive impression, that Europe, or at least those countries I went to, despite all the news about struggling economies and old societies, is still very much a beautiful, modern and advanced continent. It was easy to see and feel the history all around, especially in cities like Paris and Rome, which was integrated with modernity in a way that was charming and different from cities in China or Taiwan. The sights were beautiful, the food was great, people were courteous in general, the service was good, despite expectations about supposed French haughtiness which were proven wrong. On the other hand, what was not so charming was the lack of toilets in places like the Louvre or the old subway in Rome. I also had strong concerns about pickpocketers and scammers, which I read a lot of worrying accounts about. I had a few encounters with the latter, but luckily I was unscathed. I should also say it was good to have gone to Paris before the terrorist attack last week, as some things may never be the same security-wise in the short term, with even other countries like Belgium affected.

In short, I found Paris to be the most beautiful city, Rome the most historic and impressive, and London the most modern. Germany was good though I was a little disappointed by certain aspects of society (surly service staff, people walking into you etc). However, I liked each country I went to, and could have easily spent more time in each of them.

I may have missed out on Spain, and Northern and Eastern Europe, but hopefully I will get there another time.

The itinerary
I started off in London, where we stayed for a few days and did a daytrip to Cambridge. Then I took the Eurostar to Paris, stayed for a few days, then moved on to Chambery, a town near the Alps in southern France, by train, stayed one full day, and crossed into Italy by train. I stayed in Milan for two full days, then went to Rome, again by train. After three full days, I flew from Rome to Berlin, stayed for two days, which I admit is too short for that city, then took the train to Frankfurt, stayed one full day, then flew back to Asia.

The highlights

England
London
-I’ve been to a few good museums but the British Museum was pretty impressive, the first of many great museums I’d visit in Europe. It features famous objects like the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles taken from Greece, and a Egyptian gallery, plus it’s got a cool African section.
-Tower Bridge was attractive, with the Tower of London on one side, while crossing the bridge provides nice views of the river Thames, HMS Belfast, moored lower down the Thames, and London’s weird towers like the Shard and Skygarden.
-Westminster Parliament with neighboring Westminster Abbey were both large, grand buildings
-Trafalgar Square was much livelier than I expected, and the National Art Gallery, which is at the square, was full of nice paintings.
-I’m an Arsenal fan so Emirates Stadium was a great place to visit. As a bonus, it is near one of the oldest and most attractive subway stations I’ve ever seen – red-brick Holloway Road station.
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France
Paris
-The Louvre was great (I only saw about one-third of the exhibits).
-St. Chapelle doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside, it has the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.
-Looking down across Paris from the Montparnasse Tower (it’s much less busier and actually lets you see the Eiffel Tower)
-The Champs-Élysées by itself is not so spectacular but walking on it to reach the Arc de Triomphe was really cool, especially as the avenue becomes more busier the nearer you get to the Arc.
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Italy

Rome
-The Colosseum is magnificent, but the neighboring Forum ruins are more interesting and the neighboring (all three are right next to each other) Palatine Hill lets you have a good view of the Forum.
-The Piazza Navone is a large, beautiful square surrounded by attractive buildings, restaurants and a large church. It is in the middle of a historic district with the Pantheon just east of it.
-The Castel Sant’Angelo (St. Angel’s Castle) is a round Roman imperial fortress that overlooks the river Tiber and the Vatican.
-Vatican Museums feature so much great art that it was almost too much for me to take in. There were impressive sculptures of Roman emperors, huge masterpieces and fantastic painted ceilings, such as the Sistine Chapel’s painted by the great Michelangelo.
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Milan
-Milan’s main attraction, the massive Duomo cathedral, is an impressive sight both inside and outside and on top. The cathedral is next to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, an open-air luxury mall which is strikingly beautiful.
-Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle) is a formidable 15th century castle that serves as a museum. It’s actually a collection of mini-museums ranging from art to furniture and also features Michelangelo’s last project, an unfinished sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus.
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Germany

Berlin
-German historical museum is only two floors but is full of interesting exhibits and paintings that range from the Middle Ages to German reunification. It also has World War II items such as Nazi posters and newspapers about the Allied victory.
-Gendermenmarkt is a square flanked by the three awesome old buildings – the Konzerthaus (Concert Hall) and the French and German churches.
-Berlin Cathedral is one of the most attractive cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Its green dome-shaped roofs make it different from all the tall, stern, rectangular cathedrals you see all over Europe.
-East Side Gallery is an over 1km-long stretch of the Berlin Wall that is covered with crazy and beautiful graffiti “masterpieces.”
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Frankfurt
-Romer is a historic square that features distinctive picturesque traditional wooden buildings.
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A fantastic and flawed World Cup, and good football reads

The World Cup starts in one day (Thursday June 12) in Brazil, and it might be one of the most exciting and eventful ones in recent time, but for both good and bad reasons.

First, it’s being held in Brazil, for whom football is like a national heritage and is fittingly the one most strongly linked with the sport. All the other big nations like Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Argentina will be there, as well as regional powers like Mexico and Ghana, as well as dark horses like Belgium and Colombia. The world’s best two players, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, are in their primes and desperate for World Cup success. Most desperate for the World Cup will be Brazil, whose last turn as host was all the way in 1950, when it lost to Uruguay in the final, a tragedy it has never recovered from. I mention all this in my column about the World Cup.

But the country has been rocked by huge and frequent protests and strikes, all fuelled by anger over the massive spending (over US$11 billion) on hosting the World Cup. The issue isn’t just the spending, but that the money was needed for more important services such as hospitals, schools, and other social resources. These problems had been ongoing for years, but the World Cup spending served to highlight this issue and serve as a lightning rod for many Brazilians’ anger. It might seem strikingly ironic that so many Brazilians are opposed to a World Cup in their own country, but it also shows the extent of their anger. There are underlying tensions in the country with racism, poverty and inequality.

I have to say all this took me by surprise.While I am slightly aware of some of these issues in Brazil, I was surprised by the protests and by the anger behind it. For instance, for the last World Cup in 2010, South Africa did not face such large protests despite being in a similar situation as a third-world country with serious poverty and inequality having to spend a lot on hosting the tournament (ultimately it was only about one-third what Brazil has spent). Don’t get me wrong, there were many South Africans who didn’t appreciate the government spending either, especially on fancy, new stadiums that looked good but were useless after the World Cup. For years, I’d been reading about how good Brazil has been doing economically and that its international profile had been growing to the point where it’d become a member of the BRICS emerging powers (the others being Russia, India, China and South Africa). Now, I suppose I hadn’t been paying enough attention but also, I’d say the news and journalism I’d come across on Brazil hadn’t been too accurate.

The situation in Brazil is hugely interesting but there’s also some good stuff on other issues in football. Here’re two great articles that show there’s more to football than just sport. The first is about racism in Italy, which sadly is still strong in parts of the nation and society, especially football. There’s some touching account of the blatant racism black players, which even star Italian striker Mario Balotelli faces, as well as revolting descriptions of deep and unabashed racism in parts of the country. To balance this, here’s a nice feature about Belgium and multiculturalism, which is most apparent with its young, talented team made up of players with roots in Africa and the Caribbean. Belgium is well-known for being a wacky sort of nation, one that’s almost artificial and deeply divided on ethnic and linguistic lines, and the article confirms this, but it also raises the prospect that the team represents a new generation that bridges this.

Finally, just as how exciting, fun and incredible the World Cup can be, the organization that runs it is equally as corrupt, dastardly and shady. Don’t take it from me, take it from British comedian John Oliver and his hilarious, but mostly true and apt take on why FIFA is so appalling.