Wednesday 27 August 2014

The wonderful world(s) of Europe

One of the joys of travelling is being affected by places, having your world view turned inside out, your misconceptions "corrected". I've had my mind changed, and opened, a few times while travelling around Europe these past few months. 

Beautiful, coastal Portugal
For one thing, coming from Australia, I've always thought of Europe as relatively small, and overpopulated. But Europe is bigger, wilder and more blue-skied than I'd remembered it to be. 

I realised my mistake as soon as I started zigzagging from one side of the continent to the other (which cost a small fortune, in different currencies – more on that below): from Germany down to Portugal, over to Croatia, up to Norway (I spent a day and a night on the train travelling north of Oslo, for instance, and still didn't reach the northern tip of the country).

I've learned that much of Europe is uninhabited, or barely inhabited, if you look in the right places. That there are wild landscapes all over the continent: beaches and islands, canyons and mountains. I surfed in Portugal, went sea kayaking in Croatia, hiking in Switzerland and hardly saw another soul.

Good question...
But the main thing I've learned is this: there's more than one Europe. Which can make travelling there tricky, particularly for non-Europeans. Let me explain...

There’s Europe the continent, a land mass that extends north of the Mediterranean Sea to Nordkapp in Norway (mainland Europe's most northerly point) and from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, and includes islands such as Iceland and the United Kingdom. 

There’s the European Union (EU) consisting of 28 countries, though some European countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, aren’t in the EU, and others are in the process of applying for membership such as Serbia and Turkey.

Bear Grylls on
the walls of Zagreb
There’s the Eurozone, made up of 18 EU countries that use the euro. So not every country in the EU uses the euro. The UK is the obvious exception, but Croatia, the EU's newest member (as of 2013), still uses the kuna. Then there are micro-countries that use the euro, such as Monaco and the Vatican City. 

Then there's Schengen Europe. Um, what? I'd never heard of it either. The Schengen Area comprises 26 European (EU and non-EU) countries that signed the Schengen Agreement (in Schengen, Luxembourg) in 1995 to abolish border checks between them. 

What Schengen means for non-European travellers: we can travel in and between any of the Schengen countries without passport checks, and stay in the Schengen zone for up to 90 days within a 180-day period (to stay longer, in other words, you have to leave Schengen Europe for 90 days and re-enter). 

Portugal for sale
The trap for new players is that some European countries (such as Croatia), even some countries in the EU (such as Ireland), aren’t in the Schengen zone, while some non-EU countries (such as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland) are.

Finally, there's "Europe" as defined by Eurail - a Eurail pass is valid in 24 European countries, which is pretty much all of Europe (including non-EU countries like Turkey) except the UK, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, and Iceland.

Some European countries  like Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium – make life easy for everyone by being in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen (and within Eurail Europe).

Other European countries make travel akin to code-breaking (in a good way!). 

To illustrate: In three months in "Europe" I visited 11 countries (eight EU, three non-EU countries), went in and out of the Schengen zone a few times and used eight (!) currencies:
  • Portugal – which is in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen Europe
  • Croatia – in the EU but not Schengen and doesn’t use the euro; the kuna was my first non-euro currency. Because I spent 16 days in Croatia, my 90 days in Schengen stretched to 106 days in Europe, which was an unexpected bonus...
  • Switzerland – proudly, defiantly not in the EU and doesn’t use the euro (enter my second currency, the Swiss franc) but is in Schengen
  • Denmark and Sweden – both in the EU and Schengen, but don't use the euro (they use Danish and Swedish kroner)
  • Norway – not in the EU and doesn’t use the euro (why can’t all Scandinavian countries at least use the same kroner?) but is in Schengen
  • Germany – another “normal” European nation: in the EU, in Schengen, uses the euro. Bless Deutschland
  • Hungary – in the EU and Schengen but doesn't use the euro (I had to buy forints for a too-brief river cruise stopover in Budapest)
  • Serbia – not in the EU (yet), the Eurozone (they use the dinar) or Schengen 
  • Slovakia – in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen
  • Austria – another "truly" European nation: in the EU, in Schengen, uses euros.
The good news is that every country in Europe drives on the right, and uses the same two-pin electrical plug :-) 

The moral of the story: Before you travel in Europe and buy your euros or a Eurail pass, check the status of your destination. Then dive headlong into the wonderful world(s) of Europe.

(Big thanks to Etihad Airways, my new favourite airline, who flew me in style to Dusseldorf and back to Sydney, and Rail Plus, for the wonderful 2-month Eurail pass.)

Tuesday 5 August 2014

The best things in life are free - even in Switzerland

Two and a half weeks housesitting for a friend who lives in a ski village in French Switzerland – how could I say “non”? This is a part of the world that knows how to turn up the dial on mountain landscapes. The weather wasn't all blue skies – only six of my 18 days in Villars-sur-Ollon (near Montreux) were sunny – but when the sun does shine, man, you need a couple of rainy, misty days to recover from the scenic splendour. 

Scenic splendour - from
the deck of the house
The challenge: How to live simply in one of the most expensive countries in Europe and in a mountain town that has TWO of the most expensive schools in the world (Beau Soleil and Aiglon College).

The outcome? It turns out that even in Switzerland, in summer, the best things in life are free, such as:

1. Getting around, if you ride bikes and walk, instead of driving. (The family I was housesitting for have a Tesla electric car, which is ridiculously cheap to run, but since I would be driving on the wrong side of the winding mountain roads, I decided to leave it in the garage, plugged in.) The bonus with walking is that you get to see the details in your surroundings: geraniums in window boxes, heart cut-outs in the wooden verandahs, piles of chopped wood waiting for winter...

Walk this way...
2. Hiking. Even getting up into the mountains is inexpensive, thanks to the Villars-Gryon Free Access Card, valid May-October. Although it's technically "free" only in name, for 10 Swiss francs (about $12), you can use any bus, train or gondola in the area for a whole day. Fifty francs ($60) buys you free transport for the whole summer.

The mountain I woke up to
every morning
3. Looking at mountains. Even after a week of constantly stopping to look at 3000-metre peaks in every direction, I still couldn't wait to open the curtains each morning to see them again. What would they be like today? Is there fresh snow from last night's rain? I started to wonder how people who live here get anything done. How do they not get so distracted by alpine beauty that they forget their jobs, their errands, their children's names? I still don't know.

No such thing as a free lunch?
This comes pretty close...
4. Eating in, and out. This being French Switzerland, the food was a highlight (and probably the main reason my friend Janet flew all the way across the US and the Atlantic to housesit with me...). It was also surprisingly affordable. Lunch was always "the best picnic ever": a fresh and crusty baguette, at least two kinds of cheese, an avocado and some nuts (for some non-dairy nutrition), and a block of Cailler dark chocolate, served on a makeshift tablecloth (in this pic, some red checked paper napkins).

For other meals we cooked instead of eating out (the advantage of having a kitchen) and spent almost as long in the chocolate aisle as in the whole rest of the supermarket. And still we'd always make sure we had a few francs leftover for pains au chocolat from the boulangerie. It was like being in Paris - with clean air and mountain views.

5. Swimming in Lake Geneva (once you've paid the train fare to Montreux). This was another highlight of our stay (even though we had to swim in our underwear, because it had been raining and cold when we'd left the mountains and we hadn’t expected Montreux to be sunny and 22 degrees C and the lake so irresistible). Sometimes the best things in life are spontaneous too. 

Up to my neck in Lake Geneva
Not only that but we swam right next to Chateau de Chillon, an incredible 12th century castle right on the lake, just after watching a ballet company rehearsing for that evening's performance, for the price of admission, a mere 12 francs. Oh, Switzerland, how do you do it?

6. Doing nothing. One of the best ways to save money is to do nothing. Well, nothing more than reading in the sun on the deck, playing badminton on the lawn, talking over cups of tea...

A posy of wildflowers
7. The kindness of strangers. One day we caught a bus (using the Free Access Card) to Solalex, a glacial cul de sac at the foot of an enormous slab of rock called the Miroir d'Argentine. We'd just been tandem paragliding for the first time (which isn't free, of course, but was much cheaper than back home, go figure) and were celebrating with a couple of Boxer beers (who knew the Swiss made beer?) at Le Restaurant du Miroir d'Argentine, when the aproned waiter came over and offered us two slices of peach flan and some freshly whipped cream, as they were about to close. This is what I love about travelling. Kindness, and dessert, when you least expect it.

8. Speaking French. Practising my schoolgirl French – priceless. Attempting to speak another language in a country that speaks it all around you is a little-known form of entertainment, and not just for the locals (!). I love places where you can live simply but still have another language and culture to keep things interesting. 

Freshly picked strawberries
 9. Summerberries. I learned a new appreciation for summer by picking strawberries in the garden of the house where we were staying - so precious when you know the ground will soon covered in snow. We also met hikers picking wild strawberries beside the trail.

10. Friends. Having friends in high (as in altitude) places makes even the most expensive destinations affordable (big thanks to Keith and Yvette for opening up your home to us while you were away). But even when you don't know anyone where you're going, there are other ways to housesit, like Trustedhousesitters, which has assignments all over the world and you usually stay for free in exchange for looking after the owners' house, garden and/or animal friends.

Got any tips for travelling on a budget in expensive countries?