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In Europe/ Outdoors

Mullerthal, Luxembourg: Hiking the Rock Formations of “Little Switzerland”

Luxembourg Countryside from the Mullerthal Trail

Mullerthal, Luxembourg. They call it “Little Switzerland” with its sweeping landscapes, streams, and towns that will seem familiar to anyone who’s traveled Central Europe. It’s hardly an unknown region. Tourism is popular in the area, especially so with Dutch tourists, and of course, Luxembourgers themselves.

But Americans will find Mullerthal to be refreshingly serene compared to some of the more well-known natural regions of Europe suffering from mass tourism. In fact, considering how remarkably easy it is to connect the already wonderfully unique Luxembourg City to Mullerthal, it seems to only be a question of time before more travelers take a pass on the familiar and plan a trip to Mullerthal.

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In Europe

Riding Austria’s ÖBB Railjet Train From Munich to Verona, Italy

OBB Railjet Train Hauptbahnhof

The train is already waiting on the platform when I arrive at the Munich Hauptbahnhof on chilly November Monday morning. Today I’m taking the Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB) Railjet to Italy — a relatively new addition to the Austrian rail network.

The dark grays and maroon colors with a brighter streak of red through the center of the wagons catch my eye. It’s built more like an Amtrak or some of the other, slower regional trains I’ve seen around Central Europe.

I’m not at all disappointed to see that it’s not like the sleek, high-speed lines I’ve ridden before. The high-speed ICE I took to Munich, the TGV in France, the Italian Freccia with the sleek nose, or even the king of kings, Japan’s legendary Shinkansen bullet train all come to mind. I’ve seen the maps. I know the terrain we’re dealing with — the Austrian Alps.

The fact that I’ll be arriving in Verona, Italy after just 10 hours of train travel from Düsseldorf is impressive enough to me, considering I grew up and lived most of my adult life without a feasible train option. Add to that the engineering feat of getting passengers housed comfortably in tons of metal across some of the world’s most unforgiving terrain and you quickly realize there are zero reasons to complain.

Through The Austrian Alps

OBB Railjet Train Alps

I eagerly hop on board and happen upon a cabin full of compartments with three seats on each side facing one another and a sliding door that leads to the hallway between wagons. Despite the substantial train travel I’ve done in the past year since moving to Europe, I’ve never done any serious time in the luxurious quiet of a compartment, so I find one with no reservations, toss my blue duffel bag in, and slide my camera bag underneath a seat. I whip open my laptop, as I’m never more productive in my writing than when on a train, and find to my surprise there’s Internet. I log on with ease and am led to a map where I can see the status of my train, like a rail addition of chutes and ladders. Our train icon sat still at zero kilometers per hour.

Not for long.

The internet goes out as soon as we leave the station, but I’m not bothered in the least. I do some writing for, let’s say, 30 minutes or so before the Austrian Alps are visible in the distance. A wave rushes over me, like a bad Sci-Fi effect from the early 90s, and I’m converted into a tourist. My camera is out, waiting to get the best snap between the trees of the passing scenery. It takes me longer than I care to admit to put the camera down and just enjoy the moment.

Trains bring me a kind of joy only matched by a serious hike, hearing a good story, and drinking a tasty, local beer. Simply being on a train, being with that community of fellow train travelers who decided not to drive or fly, reading their Kindles, their books, their magazines, whispering to their significant others on the phone — it brings me palpable bliss.

That’s par for the course for me. Now I can admit that the 10,000 – 20,000 kilometers (5,000-plus of which alone were on The Germany Travel Show over 16 days) I must’ve ridden in the past year has made me grow accustomed to regular train travel. Don’t get me wrong. I still love it and I’m still incredibly impressed by it each and every time, but I no longer need to always stare out the window like an anxious puppy itching to chase the proverbial squirrel. I can read, work, listen to podcasts, or even take a nap. Not so on the Railjet.

Seeing this scenery — the towering, snow-capped mountains with fall-colored trees racing down the sides — and knowing I’d soon be in a tangibly different culture with a vastly different language took me back to my first train rides through Switzerland. I could hardly stop looking out the window or wipe that dumb grin off my face like a schoolboy who just heard his crush likes him back.

Suffice it to say, this route quickly ranks high up there in personal train journeys.

The Brenner Pass

OBB Railjet Train Close Up

As the five-hour journey continues, we pause for 15 minutes before the Brenner Pass. Evidence exists that the Brenner Pass has been in use since the most recent Ice Age. Fast forward a bit, and you get to the Holy Roman Empire and the High Middle Ages when it was the crucial “Via Imperil” — an imperial road connecting the Kingdom of Germany and used for Otto the Great’s March of Verona, which captured today’s northern Italy for the empire. (My intentions for traveling into Verona from Germany, of course, vary substantially.)

The Austrian Empire can actually take credit for building the first railway at the Brenner Pass. Completed in stages between 1853 and 1867, making it the first trans-Alpine railway without a major tunnel (crossing at a higher elevation than today). Humans being humans, the line was used to efficiently move soldiers to more efficiently kill other soldiers.

Austrian ambitions to maintain Venetia and Lombardy ultimately failed. A brief, but bright chapter came at the end of World War I with Italy and Austria agreeing to share control of the pass, but you don’t need to be a historian to guess that things took a dark turn in 1940. Hitler and Mussolini met here to celebrate their Pact of Steel, essentially the start of the German-Italian alliance of World War II. Meant to last a decade, the pact fell apart with the removal of Italy’s fascist government in 1943. By 1945, it was merely part of the ratlines system used by fleeing Nazis at the end of the war.

Now it’s 70-plus years later and we’re all friends now with who knows how many nationalities on board, peacefully sharing this air, this space, and journey into Italy. It’s a nice thought that distracts me in the moment from everything else in the world.

Through the Brenner Pass and firmly in Italian territory, but the neat-and-boxy German aesthetic still reigns supreme. As we’ve covered, there’s quite a bit of Germanic history here and it’s not uncommon to find bilingual German and Italian speakers in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region. The next major stops come with Italian and German signage. Bolzen/Bolzano. Trento/Trentino.

Even when we pull into Verona Porta Nuova, my stop, I still don’t feel like I’m in Italy. That opinion changes drastically once I hop on the bus right outside the station for about 10 minutes and get dropped off at the center of this UNESCO city.

Back To Munich

OBB Railjet Train Passing By

I’m doubly fortunate, because I return to Munich on a positively gloomy day, giving me an entirely different view of the region. The mountains, still with their fall colors, seem ghostly in a way that fascinates me to the point that I start mentally planning a trip to Innsbruck, Bolzano, and Trento. I’m also pleased to have another busy but quiet passenger sharing the compartment with me. She first found me, asking if I knew how to read her ticket in German. She was looking for her seat. I took one quick glance and noticed no seat reservation (you have to pay extra for the courtesy) and I expertly translate “Klasse 2” to “Second Class” and I inform her she’s in the right spot. She thanks me, to which I respond, “Prego.”

Look at me polyglot-ing.

A number of the compartments do have tickets on the doors, noting that you have to move if someone comes in with a corresponding reservation. She says she’ll take her chances and move if someone comes. I meanwhile continue down the carriage and find two compartments with no qualifications and invite her back. To my surprise, she opts to join me rather than have her own. A moment passes and I decide I like this strategy. Surely if two people appear to be quiet and engaged in their work, it would somehow ward off potential noisy people.

(This forcefield did not extend outside of our compartment as I later woke from a nap to hear kids noisily banging against the seats as their mother desperately told them to shh.)

After some reading and note-taking, I trot up to the restaurant wagon for a coffee. I’m saddened to see it mostly empty and decide to come back for a bite — Indian yellow curry with vegetables and rice. Dining on a train is a surefire way to right any cranky mood I might be in.

I do realize that late November is hardly tourist season, perhaps accounting for the small crowd and an empty dining wagon, but I’m also a firm believer in supporting enterprises that you enjoy with your wallet and not just words. Besides, I’m currently battling that insatiable hunger one feels a night after drinking, so curry sounds like a fantastic idea. Plus it’s another opportunity to interact with the absolutely delightful woman working the restaurant wagon. I assume she’s Austrian based on the fact that this is an Austrian train line and her German is just that much more difficult for me to understand. The phlegm she summoned earlier to pronounce “eighty” or “ACHT-zig” for my €2.80 coffee made me smile.

“Is there something else I can get you?” she asks with a bright smile that has me believing she truly enjoys her job.

I place my order, decline a drink, and she bounces back to the kitchen, her blonde ponytail swaying from side-to-side with each step. I return to the final pages of my book, Italian Ways by Tim Parks — a book dedicated to the subject of Italian train travel with the author based in Verona. It’s been a treat to read this throughout the trip, but the food arrives before I can finish. Indeed, it proves to be an immediate band-aid to the strange gurgling brought on by the previous night’s foolish mixture of IPA craft beer, local Valpolicella wine, and whiskey.

I spend the rest of the journey back in my compartment, allowing myself to doze off occasionally. When we pull back into the Munich Hauptbahnhof, the final stop, I don’t bother looking back at the train.

Something tells me it’s hardly my final ride on the ÖBB Railjet.

 

On that note, check out some of the best places to visit and things to do in Verona off the beaten path. Heading to Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guidelanguage tips, and how to ride the train.

All photos courtesy of the ÖBB

In Europe/ Outdoors

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Around Provence

L'isle-sur-la-Sorgue River and Bridge

Cute. Charming.

Repeat.

Cute. Charming. Canals.

Eat.

Cute. Charming Canals.

Drink.

Repeat all of the above.

That’s Provence in a nutshell. Many of the towns dotting the famous French countryside can be characterized by their collection of narrow, charmingly weathered buildings lining pedestrian boulevards that cross the occasional canal. Part of me feels like I’m in Italy, but there’s a palatable ambiance that screams France. The black railings on the bridges swirl like a drawing of a rose petal. No corner of a town center in Provence has been left without thought to the aesthetics of the design. This is, after all, where the antique market and food stalls will be once or twice a week. And yes, there are street musicians passing the day with an accordion-laced melody.

This is true in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, and Saint-Didier. The sizes vary, but the ingredients remain the same. Depending on your interest (or tolerance), you might find yourself saying, “I’m cute town-ed out,” as my wife’s uncle did, at the end of a trip in Provence, preferring to instead go for a hike in the woods. This is also possible, but the region is much drier than you might imagine. Wildfires are an issue here, as a government employee with an orange vest on told me during a break in a bike ride. After which, he gave me a wide smile and wished me a bon voyage in Provence.

Allons en Provence: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

L'isle-sur-la-Sorgue Market Shops

Provence started for me as most trips do in Europewith the train. After spending a day in Marseille, my wife and I took the Trains Express Régionaux (regional train) up to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue — an easy 80-minute ride. Much like in Italy, the regional trains don’t receive half the love the impressive high-speed trains do. Windows were smudged and dirty, making it difficult to see outside to enjoy the view. Nonetheless, the ride was still pleasant enough and easily the most agreeable way to make the trip.

It’s difficult not to feel pleased from the moment you arrive in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The town is surrounded by something of a moat, so it retains its historic aesthetic as a pedestrian-friendly haven where the weekend market can flourish. It was easy to imagine myself in one of those old flats with the typically fanciful French railings outside the patio window. Plus this being Provence, finding a good meal was never an ordeal, like at Le Jardin du Quai near the train station with its garden for outdoor eating and a welcoming ambiance inside for chilly evenings.

Provence and its towns are, simply put, pleasant. They won’t blow you away like the Cologne Cathedral outside the main station, but you’ll be hard-pressed not to enjoy yourself. While the awe of Europe’s main sights will wither over time, Provence will always be perfectly pleasant.

The train was my preferred method of arrival, but a road bike was the best way to explore the hilly countryside. This, too, is something the region promotes the most in terms of seeing the outdoors with maps around the area identifying primary cycle routes. (D57 between L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Saint-Didier ended up being my primary route.) Hiking, however, was much more of a makeshift endeavor. Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon is nearby, but I found it much more difficult to come across an intuitive map online than in Germany where you have the exact opposite problem — too much information.

Hiking Provence to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

Provence Hiking Path

Finding trails was an experiment. Some were merely footpaths to nothing presumably created by other wanderers in search of a hike. The most interesting thing we found was a handful of bories — stone huts first created by French farmers in the 18th Century to be used seasonally. My wife, however, stumbled upon something that appeared to be created on purpose during a run. We returned and ended up hiking along the Canal de Carpentras over crushed gravel trail. All evidence suggested that this was a marked trail. Others were wandering by, too, clicking away on their cameras when they weren’t wiping the sweat off their forehead from the beaming sun.

The evidence proved faulty once we came to a viaduct. There were no signs forbidding us from crossing, though it seemed unlikely that we were meant to. Still, there was a railing on the right-hand side that made us feel safe enough to cross and even pause for a few unique photos. Then once we hopped off on the other side, there was clearly a sign in French noting that such a crossing is a big no-no. (Legality aside, they really should make that a crossing. Some gorgeous views up there.)

L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue Aqueduct

Just as quickly as the hike became illegal, it returned to something of a marked trail. Even as we neared Fontaine-de-Vaucluse there were actual pedestrian signs noting the distance to different towns and landmarks.

Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, like L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, is cute, charming, and all the other familiar adjectives, but on a smaller scale. Nonetheless, cycling tourists and tour groups traveling by bus find their way here to take more photos of the cute and charming buildings and the bridges crossing the water with floral arrangements lining the railings.

A distinctly French characteristic is the limited dining hours. Good luck finding lunch after 2 p.m. or dinner before 5 or 6 p.m. in the evening. So a sign of tourism being present is a restaurant that caters to the ignorant by offering meals outside of typical Franco hours. In Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, it’s La Vanne Marel with outdoor seating right on the river with a perfect vantage point for people watching along the bridge. The view is pure Provence.

Dining in Saint-Didier

Vaucluse Provence France Mountains

Even cozier is the town (village?) of Saint-Didier with, again, more charming (attractive? delightful? inviting?) shops and restaurants lining Rue le Cours. Taking a break from French cuisine, we opted for Restaurant Côte Cours to split different styles of pizza pies among our large group. Unlike Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, there’s a stronger local vibe here. It seems in Provence that the smaller the town, the more likely tourists will have yet to add it to their maps — logically so. Dining families and friends filled the large, gravel patio space with a bit of a beer garden feel to it, enjoying the warm evening weather and full moon.

A gentleman behind me, probably in his 50s or 60s with a balding hairline, wire-framed glasses, and khaki vest over a plaid tee shirt, was clearly itching for an opportunity to join our conversation. He jumped in, having heard our English and making the reasonable guess that we were visitors to the region as well.

The man was German and had been renting out a holiday flat just down the street with his wife, implying this was a regular outing for them. He confirmed my suspicions that not many tourists make it to Saint-Didier by asking how we found the town. It was, as is often the case when finding places off the beaten path, an accident. My father-in-law rolled through on a bike ride an earlier afternoon.

We were so taken by the town that I returned a couple of days later with my father-in-law on another bike ride, spotting the friendly German again shopping for fruits at the local market. Saint-Didier outdid itself in the daylight where it was easier to see, yes, even more of the charm and attention to detail that likely made this man a regular in the first place.

Au Revoir Provence

Vaucluse Provence France

I can’t say why, but it seems clear now that my memory of Provence follows the size of the towns I visited rather than necessarily being chronological. Though my time in Provence did come to an end at our smallest stop — Saumane-de-Vaucluse. During a solo bike ride, I pedaled through this one street town and found a bistro with an excellent view of the sunset. My wife and I sat on the patio overlooking the forest we had just hiked with a glass of wine as the sun dipped beneath the trees.

Our family joined us as the fire of a recently-set sun skipped across the cloudless sky. Below, a rare sighting of a family of wild boars. Even the restaurant owner looked over the edge of the patio in childlike delight as they snorted their way around the grass.

The wildlife spectacle gave way to sleepy conversation and dinner. It was another in an endless barrage of delicious meals, capping our visit to Provence surrounded by the relative quiet and calm of the village stones that lined the path back to our holiday apartment.

More photos from Provence

In Europe

Looking for the Best Way to Travel Europe? Check Out These 8 Tips

Europe is not North America. We’re stating the obvious here, but I’ve realized over the years that North Americans traveling to Europe for the first time (or even on repeat visits) travel the same way they would back home. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path and experience something different, then this is a huge mistake. We’re going to fix that with these tips on the best way to travel Europe.

Two things immediately come to mind that greatly separate the respective continents. First, the visible, concrete history. This is why most of us travel to Europe in the first place. Second, the public transport. No matter how much many tears of frustration my European friends have shed about the train being a couple minutes late (boo-freaking-hoo), the fact is most of us around the world do not have access to such phenomenal connectivity. Travel is, regrettably so, often reserved for people with money and a car. Not so in Europe.

Besides transport, we’re going to go through other cultural faux pas to make sure you get the most out of your European vacation.

Rail Europe

Lyon France Train Tunnel

First and foremost, you do not need a car in Europe. Do not rent a car. Rail is king in Europe.

I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, but what about…” NO. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met people — people who even live in Europe — who would insist you need a car to cover a certain region, but public transit was, indeed, readily available. Wouldn’t you rather be able to look out the window and enjoy the scenery rather than curse in frustration as the GPS tries to navigate you against a one-way street, passing street signs in a language you don’t speak?

Most major cities in Europe these days have their own public transport app that you can use for local public transportation. Just look it up on the ole Google box and your respective app store. They work just like Google Maps.

Of course, some places don’t have their local transport system on the App Store quite yet. In that case, I’d recommend using a combo of Google Maps and Rome2Rio. Rome2Rio lacks the intuitiveness of Google Maps, but I’ve found that it often has better public transport information in smaller towns of Europe. So when you look up transit directions on Google Maps and see nothing come up or some ridiculous 12-hour option, don’t panic. See what Rome2Rio has to say first.

Also, have a look at both Eurail and Rail Europe. If you’re traveling by high-speed train with a large group, tickets can be pricey if you leave purchasing your ticket to the last minute. Shop around before your trip to see what offers might make sense for you. There are options in Germany and Switzerland, for instance, where you can travel public across the country’s entire public transportation network by purchasing a pass in advance.

Quick recap: Don’t rent a car, hop on the train. It’s the best way to travel Europe long-distance.

Bike Sharing App

Marseille France Cyclist

Bike sharing is the cool thing to have in cities these days and for good reason. They’re incredibly useful for both locals and travelers in the middle of a European vacation. Even in Warsaw, where winters can be absolutely brutal, you’ll find one of the most intuitive bike sharing systems I’ve ever come across.

I often make the mistake myself of not downloading the local bike sharing app in advance and it’s something I’m constantly trying to make a habit of mine. Because I’ll admit, like transit systems, there isn’t a universal type of bike share or rental system. So rather than stand around, trying to figure out what’s written behind the finger-smudged computer screen, I’d recommend being prepared by downloading the bike sharing app in advance. After all, cycling is the best way to travel Europe over short distances. (And long distances, too, if you’ve got the legs for it.)

Skip The Hotel Breakfast

Amsterdam Cafe De Blaffende Vis

I’ve come to enjoy the European hotel breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, and cuts of meat, but they’re all virtually the same everywhere you go. Perhaps if you’re staying in a luxury hotel, you’ll get something unique and local to the region. Otherwise, there’s not much variety. Instead, save those euros and go someplace local. Better yet, if you can manage to be an early riser, just grab something at a bakery, because coffee shops that would serve something more substantial (and anything other than coffee out of a machine) don’t open until around 10 or 11 a.m. in Europe.

But trust me on this. Skip the hotel breakfast, because you’ll want to get moving early when you’re traveling in Europe. Why? Read on.

When To See Europe Tourist Attractions

Charles Bridge Prague

When should you head out to see some Europe tourist attractions? First thing in the morning. Historically, mass tourism traces its roots back to Europe. The Brits, for example, brought the Swiss rail lines to Switzerland that we know and love today essentially to fuel their travel agency industry.

The world has since taken notice with travel agencies from India to China offering tourist packages that shuttle travelers around by bus from one tourist attraction to the next. While I’m all for off the beaten path travel, even I can admit that there are certain sights you just have to see when you’re already in town. (Not the Eiffel Tower, but definitely Charles Bridge.)

But the bad news is that these sights are typically flooded with tourists by noon. I remember passing by Charles Bridge around midday and the poor old bridge was wall-to-wall full of tourists snapping photos and posing for their Instagram glam shot. Solution? Go first thing in the morning.

The next day, I got to Charles Bridge by 8 a.m. and it was a completely different sight. Sure, there were some stars of Instagram getting their shots with the morning light, but on the whole, it was an infinitely more pleasurable experience. So when you’re planning your schedule of when to see those famous Europe tourist attractions, plan to go first thing in the morning.

Wake Up Europe

Now that you’ve seen the main tourist sights in the morning, you probably need a bit of a caffeinated jolt. That means it’s probably around 10 or 11 a.m. when the coffee shops and breakfast cafes start opening. Use Yelp, Google Maps, or research local travel blogs beforehand, and head to a highly-rated cafe for a bit of a European wake-up and snack.

Spend this time casually planning your next meals. I know, I know. Where’s the spontaneity in that? Contrary to the popular romanticism behind spontaneity, waiting until the last minute is not the best way to travel Europe. People make reservations here, especially for weekend brunch and dinner throughout the week. If you just stroll into a restaurant at around 7 p.m. looking for a table, you risk getting the evil eye and sent home hungry. Again, this is doubly true on the weekends.

Where to Eat in Europe

Enrique Tomas Jamon Iberico Restaurant London

Not every restaurant in Europe is top-notch. Even in Paris, standards declined (and are currently rebounding) after restaurants relied too heavily on the city’s reputation as culinary king.

First of all, do not eat at the restaurants with waiters hollering at you to come in or with large, cartoonish-looking menus out front that look longer than Les Misérables. It’s worth repeating that spontaneity is not the greatest option when trying to figure out where to in Europe.

Use that time in the coffee shop to look up local recommendations or perhaps even do a little research before your trip. They’re out there and relatively easy to find. Yeah, there’s no beating that time you stumbled into a restaurant without a clue and it ended up being one of the best meals of your life, but that’s like counting on finding the love of your life at a club during closing time. It can happen, but not likely.

Neighborhood Hop

Warsaw's Mała Street, Władysław Szpilman -- The Pianist

Midday is the best time to go neighborhood hopping, because that’s when all the locals are out and other tourists are busy sweating it out at the sights. This is where research beforehand again comes into play, but don’t be shy about asking hotel staff (or your AirBnB host) where to go to travel like a local. Even in super touristy Los Cristianos in Tenerife Sur, I was able to find a local restaurant favorite by speaking with the hotel staff. You might also find that locals are capitalizing on this trend to get off the beaten path and find local favorites by creating their own guidebooks, like in Prague.

Another option to find the neighborhoods is look on Google Maps for those orange-tinted areas that usually mean “pedestrian plaza” or ask the local tourist bureau. I know there’s this odd tinge against speaking with the tourism bureau, but who the hell do you think works there? Locals! And they’re well aware that not everyone sees getting on a hop on hop off bus as the best way to travel Europe.

 

Bars In Europe

Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa Rome Craft Beer

Thirsty? Now is the time to get spontaneous. Bars in Europe don’t follow the same rules as restaurants. Plus you usually don’t have to worry about the quality (unless, of course, you’re searching for a cocktail bar). The wine or beer from a bottle will taste the same wherever you go.

That said, I have a preference for finding craft beer in European cities and drinking locally whenever possible. Luckily these days, craft beer is becoming just as prevalent in Europe as in North America, so you should have no problem searching for a “craft beer bar” on Google or Google Maps and finding something excellent.

So have a few drinks, enjoy yourself, and before you know it it’ll be time for that dinner reservation you made earlier.


How’d I do? Did I miss something? Have your own tip? Let me know in the comments.

In Europe

How I Spent 24 Hours In Marseille, France

Hanging Out at Vieux Port Marseille

Marseille is one of those cities you’ve heard about, but probably don’t know much else. Maybe you know it’s on the French Mediterranean or perhaps you have some vague familiarity with its grittier reputation. Beyond that, the majority of us are working with a blank canvas when it comes to Marseille. But with 24 hours in Marseille, you can at least learn a little something.

A Snapshot of MarseilleMarseille France Stairs

First, a look at the city. It doesn’t take long to get the sense that Marseille is a massive, sprawling city despite doing everything it can to be dense. Restaurants, hotels, and other businesses occupy the most narrow slivers of real estate. Though primary thoroughfares are as wide as you’d expect, everything else — side streets and alleyways — are like a labyrinth or maze of footpaths.

The unfortunate thing is that Marseille seems to have tried to fit cars in where they don’t belong. Those narrow side streets I mentioned? Those would be blocked off for pedestrians in many similarly designed cities. Instead, the majority of us on foot are left with a tiny slice of concrete that hugs the adjacent buildings. Even more troubling, these narrow sidewalks often have a slight tilt — my best guess being a design choice that predates cars to keep rain water from puddling alongside the buildings.

I can’t say walking was an entirely pleasurable experience in Marseille, contrary to Paris. Cars and Vespas frequently ran red lights as passersby on foot started to take their right of way on the crosswalk. I saw at least two or three mothers have to pull back their children in the short time I was there.

Hardly unique to Marseille, but their crosswalk signals frustratingly go from green to red in the blink of an eye with no way to tell how much longer until imminent death as impatient drivers and motorcyclists rev their engines — that is if their eyes aren’t glued to their phone (our airport bus almost got hit twice due to drivers texting.)

None of this is to say that I didn’t like Marseille or that it isn’t worth 24 hours (or more). I hopped on the train at St. Charles station with plenty of recommendations to share. Let’s run through them, shall we?

Where to Go in Marseille

Marseille France Cyclist

After having a good experience with French craft beer in Paris, I wanted to see if the fad had hit Marseille as well. Indeed, it has. Not only has it hit, but two of the more highly rated craft beer establishments in the city are literally around the corner from one another. I’m speaking of Victor and Fiejte in between the Vieux Port and Saint-Victor neighborhoods.

Fiejte will feel familiar to North American travelers with their craft beer taps coming out of the wall behind the bar and a no frills decor that puts the focus on drinking beer. Victor, on the other hand, is primarily a beer seller with a mix of French and other international craft beer offerings. The storefront reminds me of my own go-to for craft beer in Düsseldorf. But in the back, they’ve setup a handful of tables next to a refrigerator where you can enjoy a cold one on the spot. The gentleman on site happily gave us a quick walkthrough on their Marseille (or nearby) craft beer options. My wife and I enjoyed an Amber IPA (La Rascasse) from Bière de la Rade and Marseille’s own Bière de la Plaine Blonde Ale.

Victor Cave and Bistrot Bieres

For dinner, we opted for Sard’In just off the harbor where we split a mix of grilled vegetables and some bread with a kind of marinara spread and slices of serrano. Delicious, but a bit pricey considering the portion size. We were already 31 euros in the hole after those plates and a couple of beers, but apparently still had a pizza-sized crater in our stomachs — one we happily filled with a stop at Pizza Saint Jean. We took our pan-sized cheese pizza to go, eating during the evening walk around the harbor, pausing only to watch an outdoor group tango session — a session we attempted to join, but apparently, one’s moves get rusty rather quickly after just four lessons over a year ago.

The next morning we learned a valuable lesson in French travels. If you’ve looked up a restaurant, make sure to check their Facebook page before committing to see if they’re on vacation. We were let down twice in our search for highly recommended eats. We learned the hangry way not to blindly trust Google.

Luckily it is France, so finding a croissant or tasty quiche at a corner bakery is about as easy as breathing. And so we grazed during our walk back to Vieux Port, including a stop at Green Bear Coffee for a couple slices of cake (almond and green tea matcha, respectively) to go with our cafe americanos, brewed like a typical North American style cup of coffee.

Best View Of Marseille

Notre-Dame de la Garde Marseille View

Since we had a light breakfast, it was easy to work up an appetite by hiking up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, which I can only guess in retrospect is the tourist sight to see based on the number of buses pulled over outside the final flight of stairs that not even the laziest of travelers could skip. The wind had intensified significantly by the time we reached the top of the impressive building. Not being a Christian or one who knows much about Christian pilgrimages, its isolated location gave it the feeling of importance to those of the faith. I could imagine this being a spiritually significant trek centuries ago. Perhaps the significance remains for Christians, but Canon and Nikon greatly outnumbered the crucifixes.

For the heathens and indifferent among us, the trek up to the old church is worth it nonetheless for the spectacular view of the city. Only here can you truly appreciate the size of Marseille. Phrases like “urban jungle” are incredibly overused, but you can’t argue that Marseille doesn’t fit the bill when you’re peering out over a seemingly endless tapestry of tightly packed terracotta rooftops.

Our last stop in Marseille came at Le Panier à Burgers. Le Panier, I had read the night before in what I’m sure was a dubious internet comment, is one of the formerly rougher neighborhoods that is increasingly gentrifying. I certainly didn’t get the sense of abandonment like outside of Coogee, the breakfast joint in 5th Arrondissement we attempted to visit that morning, but then again nothing in Marseille is particularly pristine. You can plainly see the years on the buildings, which I always find aesthetically pleasing same as I do in Rome or Antigua.

At the end, it appeared we saved the best for last because Le Panier à Burgers hit the spot in every sense of the word. We shared the mozzarella veggie burger and a pan-cooked chicken burger. Each came with a small side salad and the option for some tempura-style sweet potatoes. There’s not much more I can say other than it was money well spent and a place I would happily return to should I ever turn up in Marseille again.

Family Walk Vieux Port Marseille France

Writing this from the train on my way to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, I feel a mix of sadness and frustration about my 24 hours in Marseille. Frustration over how much space the city has ceded to vehicular traffic, especially in areas that are clearly meant for pedestrians only. Sadness over the poison that must be seeping into the lungs of Marseille’s pedestrians. This really could be one of the gems of Europe if it became a people-first city again as I imagine it originally was. The character and architecture are already there. All they need to do now is take back their streets.

Click here for more photos of Marseille
In Europe

Planning a Trip to Paris? Let “The New Paris” Be Your Guide

Paris has always been a dream of mine. For all my blabbering about getting off the beaten path, there are still places in this world that I want to see that are firmly on the path. When I saw A Midnight In Paris (and realized that I almost 100 percent identify with Owen Wilson’s character), I knew I had to plan a trip. But I always knew it was just a movie and that the old Paris is gone. That said, there’s plenty of reason to get excited about the Eternal City and inspiration to plan a trip to Paris came with the release of Lindsey Tramuta’s The New Paris, a new book full of all things new, fun, and cool in Paris.

The New Paris as a Guide

Parisian Street

Seeing as getting off the beaten path in cities overwhelmed with tourism is a challenge I love to accept, I dove right into planning a trip. Lindsey’s book largely covers changes in the restaurant industry with no shortage of recommendations that can take you all around the city. I saved names into my phone and planned our lunches and dinners around her recommendations. It should come as no surprise (I’m writing the article, after all), that the new Paris does not disappoint.

First I meandered northward from my AirBnB in the Fifth Arrondissement to La Fine Mousse, a craft beer bar. Few countries have an association with fine wines like France, but The New Paris made clear that the craft beer boom had nevertheless found its way to the capital.

La Fine Mousse is in the Eleventh Arrondissement with a residential location that truly feels off the beaten path. Despite hearing a scattering of English conversations (perhaps fellow Anglophiles who read the same book), La Fine Mousse had the atmosphere of a Parisian local favorite. I opted for a Citrash Imperial IPA from French micro brewery Crazy Hops, following a tip from the bartender. Though I only spent about a half hour here, I see myself coming back each time I’m back in Paris.

Eifel Tower Pont Neuf Paris

While I was excited to dabble in the Parisian craft beer scene, I was equally excited to dive into some of the restaurants featured in The New Paris. Without spoiling too much, Lindsey writes in the book about the decline of French culinary culture. The French were held in such high regard for so long, they became lackadaisical, relying entirely on their reputation as the quality and innovation of the scene went downhill.

A no-brainer benefit of a globalized world is the proliferation of global cuisines. So as an American in Europe, I greatly appreciate the fact that I can find a tasty taco in just about any major European city from Warsaw to Amsterdam. Paris is certainly no exception these days if you know where to look and Lindsey points to Luz Verde in the Ninth Arrondissement.

By this point, anecdotally, mass tourism seemed either non-existent or at least unnoticeable. Again, this felt like a local favorite with the ambiance of a modern Mexican establishment. I also happened to arrive on an insufferably hot weekend, so the cold Margarita proved to be especially sensational – even if only because it was a damn necessity at that point. Perhaps even more necessary for my increasingly ravenous stomach – tacos de chorizo.

I’ve said before that chorizo is the key to my heart. Suffice it to say, Luz Verde now sticks out prominently (and fondly) in my food memory throughout all my travels.

Parisian Jazz Quartet

That covered lunch, but there was still the issue of dinner. So, I asked Lindsey herself over Twitter where she would go if she could have just one dinner in Paris. Her answer? Tannat in the northern edge of the Eleventh Arrondissement.

The inside featured a modest yet elegant atmosphere perfect for a group looking for a dining experience between overly casual and fine dining. The menus were in French only, something that told me they don’t see many see tourists. I don’t know about you, but I’m more than happy to whip out my pigeon French and a translating app if it means I’m eating where the locals eat.

Reviews online hint that the menu changes often, but I can still offer that I got the duck. Now I don’t often order duck due to my continued affinity for all things Daffy Duck and my sympathizing for his being unfairly overshadowed by a rather boring character in Bugs Bunny, but when you’re at a French bistro and the waiter recommends the duck, you listen. Indeed, I was wise (it happens sometimes) to listen and I still chalk it up to one of my favorite meals in Europe.

Daffy Duck Art Paris

Just as France manages to give me a taste for duck, so too has living in Europe inexplicably heightened my thirst for cocktails. The New Paris has recommendations here, too, and I followed one to Little Red Door. You can find a number of writers talking about this cocktail bar. Some even call it one of the best in Europe. I’m afraid I can’t count myself an expert in cocktail bars of the world or even the continent (yet), but I can offer that Little Red Bar nailed the ambiance I look for in a cocktail bar, namely cozy with couches and plush chair for groups.

The twist for Little Red Door is how you order. Rather than giving you names of their different offerings, they give you a menu with artwork depicting the drink and you order based on the mood you get out of the artwork. I’m realizing as I type this how difficult it is to articulate this properly, but it led me to one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. Suffice it to say, I shall return.

When the morning came to hop on the train and leave Paris, I still had only scratched the surface of the new Paris. Thankfully I sense numerous visits are in my future and I’ve already got the rest of Lindsey’s recommendations saved in my phone.

See more photos from the new Paris (and more) here.
In Europe/ Travel

Midnight In Luxembourg: Inside A 1920s Piano Bar

DISCLOSURE: Travel to Luxembourg was supported by Visit Luxembourg. As always, all opinions remain my own.

It was nearing midnight and I was walking over the Alzette River in Luxembourg City on Rue Münster. Michèle, a well-traveled 30-something-year-old local joined me, excited to show off her country’s capital city.

We had just polished off a couple of light beers at a nondescript bar on the other side of the river in the Grund neighborhood. There had been quite a bit of chatter outside with university students celebrating the end of their annual exams. Rather than let the depression sink in of how many years separated those baby-faced drinkers and me, Michèle mercifully led me across the river and over to Café des Artistes where I could feel like a walking fountain of youth. Continue Reading →