One of the reasons I joined Backroads as a Trip Leader a decade ago was because it was one of the only active travel companies that had trips in Norway. Growing up, my father always loved studying our family genealogy and especially our Norwegian roots. He and my mother had visited Norway in search of family roots on their European travels back in the 1970s, when they were first married. So Norway was an obvious choice for a family trip abroad, back in 1998. On that trip we followed the family tree down to the roots but could only find the small valley our family had come from. Nothing much came from the trip other than a deep feeling of connection for myself and a little more context for our family heritage.
When I first visited Porto on a backpacking trip nearly 20 years ago, my primary interest was to explore the charming neighborhood bars of the Ribeira quarter, enjoy some fado music and savor Porto's namesake wine. Over the years, my returns to this captivating city have matured and each visit has allowed me to uncover another surprising layer of this World Heritage city situated on both the Atlantic and the Douro River. While I originally regarded the Douro as just an ordinary river, I've since come to appreciate its significance for the soul of Porto and as a transport conduit for an entire region. Instrumental in moving goods and people up and down the river were the rabelo boats, a type of cargo boat unique to this river.
"Praha" is Czech for "threshold": a reference to medieval trade taxes, but in many ways still an apt name today. My favorite city in Europe sits on the threshold between East and West, past and future.
Stockholm is not a city that speaks for itself. Like the Swedes, it exists with a quiet elegance and humility that is discovered by the foreigner with the patient peeling away of layer after layer. Its skyline is one of the most striking I’ve seen in Europe, with spires reaching towards the sky and pastel-colored buildings lining the canals and bridges that unite the city across 14 islands. From Lake Mälaren through a web of canals and rivers reaching the Baltic Sea, the Stockholm Archipelago draws city dwellers from the capital’s urban chic into the countryside.
The banks of the Danube are soaked in history, having witnessed the rise and fall of countless empires. Today, within the cities along the Danube, the past remains visible in stunning clarity. An imperial glow is embedded within the very masonry of capitals like Vienna and Budapest. One stands at the footsteps of the Hofburg Palace or the Hungarian Parliament and senses how it must have felt to be a provincial subject from some far-flung corner of the empire, awestruck by their imperial grandeur. The Danube has retained this aura of historic wonder and it flows like a gateway into the past for all travelers who tread its banks.
It's said that long ago in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, there were two monasteries at the top of the world. One, on a peak called the Jungfrau (the virgin), is where the women would stay. The other, called the Eiger (the ogre), housed the men. In the middle stood the most formidable of the three peaks, called the Mönch (the monk), to keep the sexes apart. These mountains tower over the village of Grindelwald. The Eiger in particular, with its steep exposed north face, has long been a test piece for serious mountaineers. Last fall another Backroads leader and I hiked in the shadow of the Eiger--and you can too!
The North Atlantic waters off the coast of Iceland are frigid, rough and can turn on a dime, yet within them live some of the region’s most precious resources: fish and crustaceans. Each year more and more visitors are being exposed to the region's marine cuisine, from pickled herring to dried fish. Eating Icelandic seafood can take a bit of an open mind and an adventurous palate, but when you find your preferred taste it's pure glory.
Beer is a big deal in the Czech Republic. Per capita, the people here consistently consume the most beer in the world and the region's rich brewing history dates back to the mid- to late-9th century.
There's a place in Turkey where I descended into the bowels of the earth, terrified I'd never resurface, then flew to the highest reaches of the heavens, afraid I'd plummet to my doom. I laughed and made jokes, yet I was also silent, pondering the sacred. I felt corporeal and ethereal, often at the same time. Where was I? Cappadocia, of course...
There's nothing quite like hiking in the Swiss Alps. Over the years, I've thought about what makes hiking in Switzerland unique and I've come to the conclusion that it's not merely the perfect signage. Here are a few of the elements that make the land of cheese and chocolate an exceptional place to hike.