Your experience of a place is influenced by so many things – stories you’ve heard from family and friends who have been there before, what you’ve seen and read about that place, the people you are with at the time, the quality of accommodation you are in and also the weather. As a traveller, I like to think its the people who make a place. As an urban designer, I like to think it is how the place, whether it is a man-made construction (like a city) or a part of nature, makes you feel and the experience it offers. Either or, your experience is always tempered by your expectations.
When we planned our itinerary, I had such high expectations for some cities, and low (or even no) expectations for others. Looking back, I have been both pleasantly surprised and underwhelmed. So I will share with you some of those highlight and lowlights…
I had been told by many people that Athens wasn’t a great city to visit (apart from the obvious ancient monuments). I was told that the city was hot and dusty, the traffic is a nightmare, the night life wasn’t that great and as a consequence of Greece’s economic meltdown, there would be a negative sentiment amongst the people and perhaps it would be little more dangerous than usual (in terms of petty crime etc). The only positive reports I had about Athens were from my boss’s wife, who was born there and travels there often – she spoke of the nice neighbourhoods to visit, what to eat and where to eat it. But overall, the bias for Athens was towards the negative.
We both had low expectations upon arrival in Athens, but by the end of our four days there, I was pleasantly surprised (setting aside the absolute awe of the Parthenon complex, the Panathenaic Stadium, Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch). Perhaps it was because we arrived there in late May, when the weather was warm, and not unbearably hot, and the places we had been to were relatively well kept. We were told by a local that most people who complain about Athens are those who arrive at the height of summer when the city is unbearably hot. We had hired an apartment through Airbnb in a low key, but nice residential neighbourhood which was within walking distance of the major monuments, which meant that we didn’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic nor were we located near tourist traps where dodgy people would prey on tourists. The nightlife wasn’t a big deal to us either – we were so jet-lagged from 30 hours of travelling from Sydney that having an early night was more tempting than going out to a bar or club. The local people we encountered were so friendly and helpful – I guess I can say that for the whole of our experience in Greece. I found Athens (and Greece) to be a great introduction to Europe.
I had no expectations of Naxos, mainly because of its more popular and glamorous neighbours Mykonos and Santorini, which seem to get all the limelight. And rightly so – Naxos isn’t as visually stunning as Santorini nor does it have the vibe of Mykonos. But what it offers is a taste of the Greek islands that isn’t overpowered by sunburnt tourists, first-time holidaying girl groups and hedonistic twenty-somethings.
Its the kind of island where you hire a car, zip around up to the mountainous villages and back down along the coast, to beaches where you can find yourself alone or perhaps there might be just one other couple or a young family.
Again the locals were so friendly and accommodating – or perhaps that’s the raki speaking (typically you’ll get a complimentary shot of raki at the end of a meal…or maybe two or three shots…and then the waiter will ask you if you’d like to have drinks with him after the restaurant is closed).
Our only sketchy encounter we had was with a ‘farmer’ named ‘Costa’ who had his dark red ute strategically parked at a look out point where there stood a little church. He was trying to sell his fruit and ‘organic wine’ – we weren’t interested at all, but we got talking. He was delighted to find out we were Australians, and told us this long story about how his wife came from Australia (Kogarah apparently), and how they had met and fallen in love in Naxos and that now she lives on the island with him and their children on his farm. He told us how tough life is to be a farmer and by the end of his story, he was offering us his organic wine to us at a ‘special price’. To make the deal sweeter, he offered us to try his dried figs, and threw in four oranges and four tomatoes for good measure. When we offered to pay (expecting to pay perhaps around €10) he thought he’d do us a favour by helping us put the produce away in our car. As soon as the boot was shut, he stuck his hand out and asked us for €19.90. Well played sir. So now whenever we feel we are being ripped off in a shop or restaurant, we think back to our farmer friend from Naxos and laugh. (Note: We didn’t touch the wine, but the oranges were delicious).
Naxos is charming, laid back and is the kind of place that lets you have an uninterrupted moment to yourself (I’ll make the point that we were there in May, so perhaps the onslaught of tourists hadn’t arrived yet). We made friends with a lovely Canadian couple who have returned a number of times, and I can understand why. If I find myself back in the Greek islands I would definitely return to Naxos.
After Naxos, we didn’t expect to see the volume of tourists we saw in Santorini. Nor did we expect bad weather.
Our first night was gorgeous – we had dinner along the cliffside with sunset views of the caldera. On our third day, we went on a tour with our newly-engaged friends, which we now reflect of as “the worst tour of the trip”. Much of this was to do with the crazy weather we experienced, but also because we had certain expectations of what we would experience.
The tour started with a boat ride to a nearby volcano. It was mid-morning and the sun was bright and the temperature warm. We expected a relaxing sail, where we would be able to take a seat and enjoy the sunshine and sea breeze on the way to the volcano. Instead, the boat was packed like sardines in a tin, squashed with about a hundred other tourists sweating out their sunscreen.
The volcano ‘trek’ was okay – we were not happy that we had to pay extra to trek up the volcano, as it should have been included in the price of the tour. I had trekked Mount Pinatubo in The Philippines a few months before so my expectations were pretty high. We trekked up the mountain of black rocks and when we reached the summit, I was expecting to see a crater. But there wasn’t anything but more black rocks and views of the surrounding islands.
Next on our tour was a ‘hot springs’ experience. They didn’t tell us when we booked the tour that we would be required to swim about 150m through cold water to the ‘hot springs’, which were not hot at all and tepid at best. Add to that two or three other boatloads of tourists offloaded at the same time. It was like tourist soup, going cold.
After our swim to the tepid springs, we set off to the island of Thirassia for lunch. With only an hour or two for this stop, we opted not to eat at the restaurants along the wharf (clearly set up for cashed up tourists) and challenged ourselves to the arduous climb to the clifftop village of Manolas to eat at a more ‘local’ restaurant. As we finished our meal, the weather turned. The wind started lifting up the table umbrellas, dust and dirt were flying everywhere. So we ran back down to the ferry, dodging donkey poo along the way, rain pelting down and dirt and wind blowing into our eyes and through our hair. My partner had the ingenious idea of wearing his snorkel googles to protect his eyes and nose for all the dust and dirt! By the time we got down to the boat, the rain was pouring down and of course there were already too many people on the boat so we had to wait for the next one. Even on the next boat, we barely had any shelter as we were stuck at the back end, exposed to the elements. There were times where we thought the waves could crash in. And there was no chance of a picture perfect sunset in Oia; the tour company informed us that the boat couldn’t stop there due to the conditions and so would head straight back to Fira. When we got back into town, we were drenched, cold and ripped off.
The weather didn’t improve much more for the duration of our stay in Santorini – more cloud, more rain. I think the only thing that cheered my up by the end of our stay in Santorini was finding a little loukoumades shop and treating myself to a box.
I hadn’t done much research into Croatia before we left Sydney, but had heard good things about it from friends. When I did a bit of googling before we got to Dubrovnik, I discovered that parts of Game of Thrones were filmed in the Old Town, which excited me. I had flicked through images on the internet of the Old Town and its city walls, as well as the coastline, but nothing prepared me for the feeling I would get when I stepped into Old Town.
Old Town is stunning. As soon as we went through the front gate, I was overcome by the beauty and majesty of the place – its white stone architecture, fountains, monuments and streets. The scale of the place and its mix of uses such as retail, restaurants, museums, galleries, and residences work harmoniously. The place assumes a beautiful glow at twilight, which is the time I think it is most beautiful.
What can I say about the people? After the warmth and friendliness of the Greek, at first we thought the locals were cold and nonchalant. But it wasn’t long until we figured out their stoicism reflects the fact that many are still recovering from, and living with, the effects of the war in the early 90s. That being said, we met many friendly and fun-loving Croatians during our travels – it just takes a little bit of time and understanding for them to warm up to you. The best experience we had with locals was not in Dubrovnik, but in Makarska – we were lucky to be there for the opening game for the FIFA World Cup 2014 – Croatia v Brazil. We bought Hrvatska supporter t-shirts/jerseys and cheered for them, and the locals loved it – so many random people asked to take photos with us that night! It was disappointing that Croatia was robbed in that game, as they were definitely the better team.
Dubrovnik Old Town is definitely one of the most beautiful ‘cities’ I’ve visited. It would seem that Croatia is still getting on the map as a tourist destination, which is a good thing in that there are not as many tourists as say, Santorini. I would highly recommend visiting Dubrovnik – but so as not to raise your expectations, I won’t go any further and will let you decide for yourself.
I had the highest expectations of Barcelona, as lot of friends had put it at the top of their list of favourite cities in Europe.
My first impression of Barcelona was that it was the more elegant and worldly older sister of Buenos Aires. The architecture, the mix of people, the shopping and the restaurants. I didn’t realise how much of melting-pot Barcelona really is, which was great in a sense that my partner and I tended to blend in rather than stand out as tourists (which is something we aim to do wherever possible).
I was expecting great Spanish food but we found out that Barcelona is not the place to experience great tapas (they come for free in Granada, or go to San Sebastian for a true gastronomical experience) nor paella (only in Valencia). With Barcelona being such a cosmopolitan city, we found out that a lot of the chefs / cooks are foreign too…most of the cooks in the restaurants we encountered were Filipino or South American.
As the World Cup was on, we were also expecting a certain patriotic party vibe (as was the case in Croatia), until we figured out that the Catalans don’t care much about what ‘Spain’ does. Add to that the fact that Spain was performing miserably in the round of 16, so there were no nights out on the street watching football and drinking with the locals as we had hoped. Our predicament was looking for a bar that would show the World Cup and offer good tapas (well, good ‘bolas de bacalao frito’ at least, as our host informed us that is the specialty in Barcelona). Our host told us, it would be hard to find football together with good food…so we compromised in many places, ending up at Irish Pubs or local dive bars with tapas at that had been sitting at the bar there since midday (when mayonnaise is congealed, you know to stay away) and pokie machines at the door. Our host took us to a cool bar / cafe called Ocaña at Plaça Reial, which is where I got hooked on iced coffee with Baileys (‘cafe con leche con Baileys’), so we weren’t without exposure to a little bit more glamourous and happening places to be at night.
Upon reflection, it would be fair to say that we didn’t get the best out of Barcelona for the fact that we were pretty much exhausted after seven days and seven nights of drinking, partying, swimming and action-packed activities on our Sail Croatia tour. Barcelona has a lot to offer – its a cosmopolitan, vibrant city with elegant architecture, cool shops and heaps of bars and restaurants. But if you don’t have the energy for it, its not exactly a relaxing place be in.
The Barcelona Hop-On / Hop-Off bus offers a great way to see the city without expending too much energy, and the audio guide provides really interesting facts about the various places along the route…but more often than not the music breaks between the stops lulled us to sleep…we were so disoriented waking up at the different stops we didn’t manage to hop-off at places like Park Guell and the gardens surrounding Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), which (I assume) are nice places to relax. Our fault really…We thought perhaps we could hit the beach for a day and even the beaches were too hectic for us – I guess being Sydneysiders we are used to having much more space and clean(er) beaches. (Smoking is allowed on the beaches, so the sand is strewn with cigarette butts and is not very pleasant to lay on, so if you are happy to pay for a sunbed, that would be the best choice).
The only experience which exceeded my expectations was La Sagrada Família. If there was only one thing I wanted do in Barcelona, it was to witness such a masterpiece. I had heard about it before as part of my university studies, but it was an article I read in National Geographic that gave me the desire to go and see it for myself. There is so much to appreciate in this building – the exquisite decoration of the Nativity façade, the starkness of the Passion façade, the soaring heights of the existing towers and those of the towers yet to be constructed, the way internal columns branching out to the sky, the beautiful patterns of light streaming through the stained glass windows that dance around the interior, and so much more. Gaudi was only 31 when he received this commission; which is hard to believe if you were to place him in this day and age. La Sagrada Família is nothing short of impressive and was definitely the highlight of my stay in Barcelona.
SAN SEBASTIAN (DONOSTIA), SPAIN
My knowledge of San Sebastian was at best vague before we got there. We had just been to Bilbao, the highlight of which was seeing and experiencing the Guggenheim Bilbao by Frank Ghery (another design dream come true), so in terms of architecture and scale, I expected something similar.
We stayed in a neighbourhood called Buenavista, about a ten minute bus ride from town. Our host was a big, intimidating man who didn’t speak much English and was easily exasperated by our limited Spanish comprehension. So we tried to spend as much time out of the apartment (and out of his way) as possible. Committed to spending the entire day out, we made the most of it. We walked the streets of the Old Town (‘Parte Vieja’), walked along the beaches, went to museums and actually hopped off the tourist bus at interesting destinations. The main part of town and the beaches are walkable and almost every corner you turn there is something pleasant to see.
San Sebastian has so much to offer – the Parte Vieja is very charming, similar in many ways to Casco Viejo in Bilbao, in terms of scale, architecture and the distinctive Basque fonts that they use for signage. It has great beaches (popular with surfers) and the Mota Castle atop Mount Urgull offers spectacular views over the city and its coastline The castle also houses the History House museum – ‘Casa de la Historia’ – which features an excellent video presentation about the history of San Sebastian, narrated by local children / teenagers. But in my opinion, the best San Sebastian has on offer is its food.
San Sebastian has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world, we found out. We didn’t have a budget to dine in such restaurants, so I googled ‘Anthony Bourdain San Sebastian’ and found an episode of ‘A Cooks Tour’ filmed back in 2001, which featured a number of great pintxo bars. From this, I created my list and set it as our gastronomic itinerary. My partner wasn’t much into pintxos or tapas at all, so he was very reluctant for me to drag him around Parte Vieja in search of bite-size meals. But I’m glad I did, as we discovered so many great little dishes – bite sized sirloin steaks with a fries and a quail egg, wild mushrooms, deep fried cod balls, roasted pork belly, seared tuna…it was like a degustation only that you have to walk in between courses. Such amazing food – I would return in a heartbeat!
What topped off our trip was our last night in our apartment – our host was sitting on the balcony smoking a cigarette and enjoying the view out to the port. My partner showed him the Real Sociedad jersey he had bought and suddenly there were smiles and laughs. He then invited us to joined him on the balcony for Moroccan tea and offered us homemade sweets, and we ended up having an enjoyable time sharing stories about travels and our future plans. The next day, he walked us to the train station to make sure we bought the correct ticket and got on the correct platform. We really didn’t expect our host to turn out to be so friendly, given our first impression of him. It was really nice to have left on such a positive note and a really nice way to end our stay in San Sebastian.
The image of Paris is loaded with so many cliches and I’m not one to fall for romantic notions of cities and places (à la Midnight in Paris, Paris je t’aime, Amélie, etc). I had heard mixed reviews – that it is beautiful, it is dirty, the locals are rude, the food is a rip off and the like. So I purposely set my expectations low – I expected to get ripped off, I expected to step on dog poo, I expected to pay €40 for a hamburger and chips and I expected to be faced with ‘rude Parisians’ everywhere.
With low expectations and limited time to explore such a big city, I looked up Anthony Bourdain and followed his advice on Paris in an episode of The Layover:
‘The vacation gone wrong in Paris is almost always ‘cause people try to do too many things – “Oh we have to go to The Louvre, we gotta go up the Eiffel Tower”. Now already you’re talking about waiting in line, going up the elevator, standing in line with a bunch of other crowds. The fact is, it’s a pretty punishing afternoon.’
‘Look, for everything everyone has said, good and bad, Paris remains one of the greatest, most beautiful, most magical cities in the world. And like a lot of really great cities, it’s entirely possible to have a bad time. Please don’t do that. It’s so easy. Just avoid the obvious. Most of us are lucky to see Paris once in a lifetime. Please make the most of it by doing as little as possible. Walk a little. Get lost a bit. Eat. Catch a breakfast buzz. Have a nap. Try and have sex if you can (just not with a mime). Eat again. Lounge around drinking coffee. Maybe read a book. Drink some wine. Walk around a bit more. Eat. Repeat. See? It’s easy.’
And with low expectations and the best travel advice possible, we had a great time. Our number on city in Europe for sure. Here are some things that I believe made our enjoyable:
Firstly, we attempted to speak French. We made a lot of effort to use the handful of phrases we could grasp – bonjour, au revior, merci, merci beaucoup, l’addition s’il vous plaît, pardon, excusez-moi – to the delight of those who we were addressing them to. We also made an effort to get the pronunciation right…but not always successful. More often than not we would attempt at ordering at a restaurant, only to be replied with in English. Hey, at least we tried, which I think they appreciated.
When we ate, we either ate locally or cooked at our apartment. We avoided eating at restaurants in the heart of the city and / or near tourist attractions. And I’m please to say that we didn’t waste any money on a bad meal. We were staying at the northern foothill of Montemartre, just ten minutes walk to Sacre Coeur near Jules Joffrin metro station. With a bit of research, we discovered that Bistrot La Renaissance, where a couple of scenes of the film Inglorious Basterds was filmed, was a short walk from where we were staying. The prices were reasonable (less than €20 for a main) and the food was excellent – typical French fare such as duck with apricot sauce or steak with bearnaise and chips cooked in duck fat.
We were selective about the attractions we wanted to visit and timed our visits to minimise queueing times. We opted not to go inside The Louvre or Notre Dame. We chose not to go up the Eiffel Tower and not to book a show at Moulin Rouge. Instead, we went to the places that really interested us such as Musee D’Orsay, The Catacombs, The Musee d’ Armee as well as those close by our apartment (i.e. Sacre Coeur, Montmartre).
We did a lot of walking through the back streets. We were going to book a bicycle tour until we realised the route we were walking was almost the same as the bicycle tour.
We also made ourselves aware of the typical tourist scams in Paris. Sign a petition? No thanks. Would you like a friendship bracelet? No thanks. Is this your ring? No – and don’t try to give it to me… A bit of research beforehand meant we could see those dodgy people coming a mile away.
Our accommodation also made our experience – we stayed in a room within an artist’s apartment, which really gave us a taste of what ‘bohemian’ Paris would be like. On our last night, our host took us for night walk around Montmartre and explained to us a number of the public art pieces along the way as well as pointing out Le Bateau Lavoir, a house which Picasso and Modigliani lived in at some stage of their careers. That was a really nice gesture from out host, and again it was something unexpected but truly enjoyable.
To have no expectations…
Expectations form a big part of travelling. We go to a place and inevitably expect something – be it an adventure, an educational experience, to connect with other people from a different culture…the list goes on. I’ve found in my travels that expecting nothing more often than not leaves me feeling less disappointed, makes me more easily adaptable to the situation at hand, more willing to problem solve and makes whatever experience I get in return feel like a bonus.
I’ll leave you with a quote we came across during our visit to Heraklion, Crete. It is an English translation of the epitaph on the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis, a Greek novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher, who is buried in the old city wall near Chania Gate:
“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”