Author Archives: Andy Hayes

Best New Year’s Fireworks in Europe?

I’m sure everyone will have their vote for the best New Year’s fireworks in Europe.  Some may vote Edinburgh, with their huge Hogmanay festival (complete with excessive drinking and also-excessive cold temperatures).  Others might say London, who’s fireworks display is a big and impressive as the city’s skyline.

But my vote has to go for Amsterdam.  Here’s why.

Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities, in general.  During New Year’s, many locals host fantastic parties in their home, complete with endless buffets and a bar that looks like it is an entire aisle of the liquor store.  (Ok, I’m exaggerating, but just slightly.)

The food and drink starts mid-afternoon, but during the day you’ll notice a boom, a whizz, and a bang now and then.  The uninitiated might assume it’s just all some fun and games before a bigger celebration happens in the evening.

The thing is, though, Amsterdam doesn’t really have one big massive fireworks display.  People run amok in the streets lighting their own fireworks.  As you can see from the photo above, I’m not talking about sparklers or a small firecracker.  I’m talking about a hot flame that goes screaming by your face as you dive to the ground, since not everyone has very good aim.

Things turn in to pandemonium come midnight, as fireworks are launched from nearly every direction, and the sound competes for the dazzling lights display that seems to show up the next direction.

It is crazy.  It is perhaps slightly scary.  But it is Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve, and it has to be the best new year’s eve in Europe.  Ever.

The Next Morning

It’s worth battling a hangover to go for a wee stroll on January 1st, early in the AM.  That’s because you can see the aftermath – the city is silent, and covered from one end to the other with leftover firework.  It’s interesting.

Also very interesting – look at the cars.  You’ll notice all the fogged up windows – people are sleeping in them!  I’ve been in Amsterdam for several New Year’s, and every time this was the same, and I can’t say I explain it – it’s mostly French and Germans looking to save money on a hotel for the night.  But I can’t explain why there are so many – they’re everywhere.  Must be a rough drive home the next day.

What’s your favourite New Year’s event in Europe?

Photo Credit: jayembee

European Culture Capital 2011: Tallinn, Estonia

Last week I highlighted one of the two European Culture Capitals, Turku, who is throwing a blow-out bash next year.  Most years there are at least two culture capitals, and this year’s other  capital of culture is the charming little town of Tallinn.

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, just 50 miles south of Helsinki on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, making it a great daytrip from Helsinki (or vice versa).  I loved Tallin, and this gorgeous medieval town is no stranger here at Europe a la Carte.   Sian points out that it a great place to get hot chocolate, Gloria’s wine bar is also recommended as is a meal at the tasty restaurant Old Hansa.

But those things are there anytime.  What can you expect for the European City of Culture festivities?  The official website suggest a few interesting things going on, including:

  • Stories of the Seashore: a forum where writers from all of Europe and globally can share stories
  • Rooftop Cinema:  sounds great – bet the stars are beautiful at night up thr!
  • 52 Surprises & Ideas: a weekly arts and cultural event
  • Maritime Days:  a festival in July celebrating harbour culture

A few other things sound interesting – such as the “60 seconds of Solitude in Year Zero,” but unfortunately much of the content isn’t available in English so I can’t tell you more.  But I can tell you that, European Capital of Culture or not, you’ll love it here.

More Tips on Things to Do in Tallinn

You’ll find more tips in our Tallinn guide.

Click here for the lowest prices on Tallinn hotels

Turku: European Capital of Culture 2011

I always love reading about the new European Culture Capitals every year, because typically those cities get lots of cash to put on a good show and upgrade their tourism infrastructure.  This year is no different, with two great nominees in the line up.  Today I’d like to highlight Turku, Finland’s former capital city.  I’ve mentioned it before as a great daytrip from Helsinki, and by the looks of it, Turku is planning on a wizz bang party for most of 2011.


River Aura inTurku by Joni-Pekka Luomala

Turku is one of the larger cities in Finland, so you’ll find a lot of great restaurants and bars/pubs.  There’s a lot of old world architecture as well – a great balance between an urban area and a quiet town.

What’s on for the culture capital?  Well, here are some things that caught my eye:

  • A special event for Easter at the Museum of Agriculture.  Something about Easter eggs perhaps?
  • Live jazz nights all spring and summer
  • A “modern electronic” music festival – Turku has a thriving club scene so I suspect this will attract some good European talent
  • The Tall Ships regatta, which I’ve seen in Amsterdam and loved, will be in Turku in August
  • “Pitch Black” gallery nights, where you’ll be led around a guided tour of an art gallery…in the dark.
  • Comics Rule: over the summer, some of the road signage will be turned into comics.  (It looks like they might be in Finnish, or Swedish – the city is bilingual – so they might be more funny if you ask a local for the explanation.)

So looks like Turku should be on your travel itinerary for 2011.

Click here for the lowest prices on Turku hotels

Europe’s Longest Wooden Bridge: The Dragon’s Tail, Germany

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned, somewhat in jest, Europe’s need for longest/shortest/highest/lowest features, such as these “longest” streets in Europe.  Today I’d like to suggest one reason to head to Ronneburg in eastern Germany, where you’ll find The Dragon’s Tail, claimed to be Europe’s Longest Wooden Bridge.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

The bridge was opened in 2006 as part of a gardens festival with the two towns nearby the bridge.  They call it the “dragon’s tail” due to its unique look (some say best seen from afar).  It is nearly 750ft long, and it is now part of the German cycling path network.  It’s near Ronneburg, which has a beautiful castle that is also worth a visit. The town on the other side is Gera, a town full of beautiful churches and a few small museums. There’s a good selection of hotels in Gera.

The Dragon’s Tail took the claim from the timber bridge in Wyszogrod, Poland, which I believe was torn down and replaced in 1999.  (I’m not sure who took the longest bridge claim from 99-’06.)

If you Google “longest wooden bridge in Europe,” you’ll find a number of other places that have bridges that lay to the same claim – including a bridge that connects Germany and Switzerland!  Sigh.

Tips for What to Do in Germany

We’ve lots of travel tips for what to do in Germany.

Planning on Skiing in Europe this Winter?

If you are planning on skiing this winter, then you’ll want to read this recent post by Wanderlust.  I have to say, it was an eye opener for me, because while I do try to ski or romp around in the mountains at least once every winter, I never stop to think about my travel insurance needs.  Maybe I should?

Ski at Les Contamines

by covarit

The survey is a reminder that if you’re planning on skiing, you really should buy insurance.  You never know.  BUT, here’s the thing: most policies don’t cover anything off-piste.  I suspect you’d need to talk to your agency because most policies come with a “standard” set of coverage – I know mine asks you to look through and call them if you are planning on doing anything a little more adventurous.

The policy also mentions that for those with European Health Insurance Cards, this card only has minimal coverage. (For example, it does not cover getting you home, if you need that.  Nor a helicopter- god forbid you need that either.)

It’s just a good wee reminder that when it comes to travel, if you want to plan on a budget, great, but sometimes you need to spend the money to be better off safe than sorry.  You can read Karen’s “6 Tips for Buying Travel Insurance“.

The British Crown Jewels Experience at the Tower of London

I enjoyed visiting the Crown Jewels in London. One thing people ask me a lot is where are the crown jewels, anyway? One might assume mistakenly that they’re in one of London’s several mega museums, which isn’t correct – they’re actually in the Tower of London, near Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge, a different place entirely.)

The Tower of London

Seeing the jewels itself is a great experience – albeit a brief one – you actually step onto a moving walkway so you are forced not to linger to long.  While this somewhat cheapens the experience, I can see why, after having to fight the throngs that surround Mona Lisa and other famous works.

What most don’t know (and why would they if they don’t even know where the jewels are), is that there are tons of other interesting historical insights  at the Tower of London.  When you take the guided tour, you learn about the ceremonies and rituals of the Beefeaters, the guards who’ve been here for ages.  Our particular guide was as cheeky as you can get, but such an interesting story teller.

Tower of London Welcome Centre

The Tower of London is perfect to combine with a visit to the bridge or to walk along the Thames Path and visit any of the other riverside attractions (Tate Modern, London Eye, etc.).  On a sunny day it’s the best walk in town.

Best of London Tips

Read our Best of London Travel Tips, to help you get the most from your visit to the city.

Click here for the lowest prices on London hotels

Dunnet Head, Most Northerly Point of Great Britain

Despite what it looks like on a map, the mainland of Great Britain and the Orkney Islands aren’t that far apart. This is the view from Dunnet Head, which is the most northerly point on the British Mainland.

From here, Orkney is only about 9 miles away.  You can’t see it in this photo very clearly, but if you’re a bit further west (such as, say, Scrabster) you can make out the Old Man of Hoy.  On a sunny day, that is.

Dunnet Head is rather unremarkable, but it is a peaceful and enjoyable drive.  From the A836, which runs along the north coast, Dunnet Head is down a narrow road that follows the miniature peninsula that juts out into the sea. There’s of course a lighthouse here, as well as a marker indicating the point (in some references it is called Easter Head).

John o’Groats is another small stopping point to the east.  It markets itself as the “last house north in Scotland” which confusingly makes you take it to mean it’s the most northerly point.  This is where the tourists ferries (pedestrian only) leave from, but this is not the most northerly point – Dunnet Head is.

In 2008, Karen reported on a planned makeover for John o’Groats.   Unfortunately I can report that it is still the same tatty, tawdry, and filthy car park it was two years ago.  If you must come here to catch the tourist ferry to Orkney, so be it, but otherwise avoid it if you can.  Dunnet is out of the way, but if you’re in the area and it’s a clear day, it’s definitely worth a stop for the view.

Photo Copyright Andy Hayes

Lille Christmas Market, France

Last year I mentioned that Lille was one of my real favourites in France, the perfect balance of Parisian cosmopolitan atmosphere and small town French feel.  While my suggestions for long walks in the park might not be as appealing in winter, there’s another reason you should consider a trip to Lille soon:  the Lille Christmas Market.

Photo Credit: Darounet

What’s On for Christmas

Lille’s two large city centre squares burst into life as the long dark nights of winter become alive in colour.  The ferris wheel you see above seems to tower above the city – standing underneath it you feel as though you should be able to see it for miles.

Underneath the wheel is the Christmas Village, which your typical array of food, drink, and Christmas-inspired souvenirs.  The French add their own flair – as a self-proclaimed hater of mulled wine, I found the spicy stuff on offer here very tasty.

In Vieux Lille (Old Lille – the old town), you’ll find another big party going on.  Or so you’d think – the streets are lined with massive ribbons, and see if you can find the big disco ball outside.  It’s crazy.

While the city centre is hopping, I do suggest a stroll over to the Euralille shopping centre.  As you may have noticed if you arrived here by train, the boulevard running from the station to town is lined with hundreds of lights, encouraging those on the train to hop off and at least have a quick peek!  The huge mall at Euralille is decked out for the holidays as well, though most of the shops have the same products and few discounts, so this is better window shopping if you’re on a budget.

If you need more info, including opening times and dates for this European Christmas Market, visit the official Lille website.

You can find the best deals in hotels in Lille using the HotelsCombined price comparison site.

Is Plzen (Pilsen) Worth Visiting?

Plzen is the Czech town that’s home to Pilser Urquell, a (in)famous Czech beer.  If you’ve had a Czech beer, you’ve probably had this one.

But is it worth trekking your way all the way to Plzen (which isn’t exactly on the beaten path – it’s a bus ride, which can be tricky if you don’t speak Czech, or a train ride, which takes awhile.)  The short answer?  Yes, definitely worth it.


So you’re probably here to enjoy a cold draft of beer and see those two iconic arches that up the stamp that’s on any bottle of Pilsner.  I have to say, though, that the site itself is rather unremarkable.  The arches are nice, but it’s all just kind of industrial.

Having said that, if this is your favourite beer, I’d be remiss not to tell you to go and have a look.  It’s an inexpensive tour, and they do highlight some other brands of beer they sell in the Czech Republic you might not be familiar with.

Oh, and the souvenir shop has some nice t-shirts with funny Czech sayings on them.  Ask a friend to translate!

Other Stuff in Plzen

At first glance, if you only see the bus station and brewery, you’ll think this is nothing but an industrial layover, because behind the bus station is the enormous Skoda plant, a popular Czech car.  But I’d encourage you to linger and walk around the history city centre, which has other highlights, including:

  • The 3rd largest synagogue in the world (second only to Budapest and Jerusalem)
  • The tallest church spire in the country, which you can climb for a bird’s eye view.

The city also has several very tasty restaurants, where you can have another beer if you so wish.  Plzen isn’t a place to spend a week, but for a day or two, it is a very lovely trip indeed.

Photo by bad9brad

Do you know what’s on your Euro?

Much of Europe is now on the Euro, a single currency intended to make trade and commerce more seamless across the continent.  But do you know what’s on those coins and bills that you, in a rush, just stuff into your purse and pockets?

If you’ve got some coins and currency, go and get them.  Don’t rush – I’ll be here when you get back.

You’ve no doubt heard the arguments and controversy about changes to currency within your own home country.  But imagine trying to debate such things for a currency that covers such a vast swath of land, politics, and traditions?  The basic principles that the Euro operates on now are pretty clear; here are a few things you can look out for on your next trip.


Euro Coins are not standard across Europe.  One side of the coin is, which contains the geographic outline of the continent.   The other side is dependent on the issuing country,which will have its own specific design for the opposing side of the coin.

No worries – a Monaco Euro coin works just fine in Amsterdam, and vice versa.


Unlike the coins, countries have no control over what’s displayed on Euro bills issued by the country.  You can tell where a note was issued by the leading characters on the serial number, otherwise it’s just like any other.

But what about those images?  These are meant to represent architectural periods throughout European history.  Here’s the full list, since you more than likely won’t see all of these when visiting (unless you are richer than Karen or I – if so, please send some bills.)

  • 5EUR – Classical, grey colour
  • 10EUR – Romanesque, red colour
  • 20EUR – Gothic, blue colour
  • 50EUR – Renaissance, orange colour
  • 100EUR - Baroque and rococo, green colour
  • 200EUR – Iron and glass, yellow colour
  • 500EUR – Purple, modern/20th century architecture

Useless Trivia: It seems that the country that printed a Euro coin or note isn’t always the country that issued it.  Sorry, I just report the  news, I can’t explain why.

Photo Credit uggboy