Euro Travel Coach Best of Europe Pandemic Edition

The COVID 19 Pandemic has drastically affected all of us and will likely continue to do so for years to come. Our plans of traveling Europe for most of the year and spending summers in Canada were completely thrown into disarray.   

From the marina in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy in June 2021

But in retrospect the last two and a half years have been pretty amazing. We have had to rely on family and friends for lodging for most of that time which has also been a blessing. We have done some amazing road trips and seen parts of the US we wouldn’t have if we’d been traveling abroad.

We started our third year of vagabonding in late September of 2019 in Budapest. After a week of getting to know this amazing city a little better we took Viking’s Passage to Eastern Europe cruise from Budapest to Bucharest.

After exploring Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania we led a Small Group Tour of Piedmont, caught an ice hockey game in Cologne, tasted wines in the Mosel Valley, and spent a few weeks in Bristol, England. Not bad for a couple of months!

We were back in the States for December, January, and February and at the end of February 2020 we headed back to Barolo…in Northern Italy. You can read some of thoughts about the beginning of the Pandemic in our blogs A Letter from the Langhe in the Time of Coronavirus and My Reflections on Our Time in Italy During Coronavirus.

After two weeks we had to come back to the US. We have spent lots of time with family in Madison, Wisconsin, and Wooster, Ohio, visited friends all over the country, hiked in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, skied in Colorado, and house sat on Orcas Island.

In April of 2021 we had the opportunity to help a friend in England and spent most of the next two months in the lovely British countryside. And in June we came back full circle to Northern Italy.

On August 9, 2021 we celebrated our 35th anniversary by driving to our lake house in Quebec, Canada on the day the border opened. We really are fortunate to live and travel the way we do.

There is one more minor thing the pandemic has changed in the way we do things. My first two Best of Europe blogs corresponded with academic years. This one gives me the opportunity to change to a summary of our European travels in a calendar year.

Be sure to read the North American Addendum at the end of this post! Enjoy.

Best WORKAWAY Experiences

Winner

La Giolitta – Barolo, Italy

La Giolitta is our favorite spot to stay in Barolo and the winner of the Hotel/B&B category in our Best of Europe 2017-18. However, in late February 2020 we returned not as guests. The idea was to help around the property and work on our Italian and help Daniela and Franco with their English. I helped refinish some woodwork and Betsy did some work on their website. We also got to meet their friends, take some lovely hikes, and begin to understand what it is to live in this part of the world that we love so much. Sadly, the pandemic shortened our stay considerably but it was a remarkable time.

Franco and Daniela, our friends from La Giolitta

Runner up

The Parish – Bristol, England

Our daughter Chelsea, who is also a partner on the Euro Travel Coach team, and her husband Sam, moved to Copenhagen in the Fall of 2016. In December of 2017 they moved to Bristol, England. Their flat was in a building called The Parish in the Southville neighborhood of Bristol. We actually helped find the apartment while they were still in Copenhagen so it only seemed appropriate that we help when they moved back to the States. We spent most of November 2019 helping pack up the apartment while they traveled in Southeast Asia. This Work Away experience was extended as we came back to the US with them and helped renovate their first home in Madison, Wisconsin.

Favorite Cities

Winner

Bucharest, Romania

This was our first visit to Bucharest. It is still recovering from years of Communist rule but the city is vibrant and rebuilding. The people are friendly and welcoming. See our Five Days in Bucharest blog post for details.

Taking a walking tour in Bucharest

Runner up

Bernkastel, Germany

We came here to the heart of the Mosel Valley on Chelsea and Sam’s recommendation. Bernkastel sits on the bank of the Mosel River which is home to some of the best wines in the world. We walked or biked to all our wine tastings and excursions, took hikes up the steep banks of the valley, and enjoyed hearty meals in the evening. See our Take It Easy in Germany’s Marvelous Mosel Valley post.

Favorite Hotels/B&B

Winner

Robinia Apartment – Budapest, Hungary

You will not find many big hotels on our favorites lists. This is much more our speed. Robinia is a self-catering apartment with a small kitchen and laundry in a residential neighborhood close to many of the sights and public transportation. We like staying in a place like this where we can cook local foods, make our own bed, watch the neighbor kids head off to school, and at least have some idea what it is like to live like a local. Oh – and at $67 a night, the price was right!

The kitchenette of our apartment in Budapest

Runners up

Fereinwohnung Röschen – Bernkastel, Germany

Conveniently located on the Mosel River just downstream from old town Bernkastel, this little apartment was perfect for our needs. It was neat and clean, and complete with a small kitchen, a couch, good Wi-Fi, and it even came with the use of bicycles which we took great advantage of.

RooMartina – Vernazza, Italy

Our room in the Cinque Terre was located right on Piazza Marconi by the marina in Vernazza. When we arrived, we rang the bell and were soon greeted by the owner, Martina, and her brother, who picked up Betsy’s bag, threw it over his shoulder, picked up my bag, and led us up four stories to our room! It was a lot of stairs, but you must climb stairs everywhere in the Cinque Terre. The reward was a breathtaking view from our private terrace over the piazza and out to the Mediterranean. Martina is a lovely host who gave us advice on where to eat and what to see. We even got a bottle of the family’s wine!

Cannot beat the view from our terrace at RooMartina

Best Restaurants

Winner

Le Case della Saracca – Monforte d’Alba, Italy

This restaurant/wine bar/hotel is the brainchild of Giulio who bought the ancient building and has creatively restored and renovated it all himself. We ate there for the first time on our last visit with our good friends Daniela and Franco from La Giolitta. Giulio gave us a tour of the space including the wine cellar and all the rooms. It is spectacular! Add to that great food and an amazing wine list and this is a must when you visit the Barolo region.

Ancient and contemporary architecture mingle at Le Case della Saracca

Runners up

Mazel Tov – Budapest, Hungary

I can best describe this as a cross between a ruin pub and a middle eastern restaurant. With dishes like Tabbouleh, Babaganoush, Grilled Cauliflower with Tahini, and Moroccan Lamb Soup, you have plenty of interesting dishes to choose from. You are surrounded by plants and trees growing in the space and might even catch a live jazz combo like we did.

Pâine si Vin – Bucharest

Bread and wine, what more does one need? How about great pizzas, locally sourced artisanal charcuterie, a hip setting, and friendly staff to talk you through the menu and extensive Romanian wine list.

Favorite Winery Visits

Winner

J.J. Prüm – Wehlen, Germany

We had been wanting to visit the Mosel Valley for a while and Joh. Jos. Prüm was on the top of our tasting list, and they did not disappoint. Our gracious host Mihailo guided us through a tasting of the house wines while we traded stories of our wine adventures around the world. If you still associate Riesling with a certain blue bottle from the past, you owe it to yourself to try a bottle of this wine!

Mihailo was a wonderful host at J.J. Prüm

Runners up

Virna – Barolo, Italy

We had planned to visit Virna Borgogno at her winery after enjoying a dinner with her and friends way back in March 2020 before we were rudely interrupted by a certain virus. Some 15 months later we finally had the opportunity. Virna is the first woman in Italy to earn a degree in oenology. She took over from her father who founded the estate in 1950. The tour and tasting was conducted all in Italian, pushing our knowledge to the limit, but her wines are divine and she is just a lot of fun to be around!

Budapest-Etyek Wine Tour – Etyek, Hungary

On our first visit to Budapest I had read about City & Wine, a company that did a wine tour to the Etyek region outside of town, but I was somewhat skeptical about the quality of what we would taste. On our second trip we decided to give it a try and I’m so glad we did! The wines were really quite good and the three wineries we visited, Anonym, Vizi, and Gradowski were all smaller, family run places, exactly the kind of spots we love to visit. We tasted four wines at each location, met the wine makers, and enjoyed an included dinner at our last stop. The Pinot Noir from Vizi was a particular stand out.

Best Wine Shop

Winner

Corks – Bristol, England

We really enjoyed our visits to Bristol when Chelsea and Sam lived there. We all miss the sense of community and almost daily visits to the green grocery, the bakery, the butcher, fishmonger, etc. Luckily, the local wine shop was a good one, a very good one. Corks actually has three locations in Bristol but ours was the North Street location. They have a small but great collection of wine, beer, and spirits and a friendly staff who would always help with suggestions.

Corks of North St. was our go to spot in Bristol

Runner up

Enoteca Sciacchetrà – Vernazza, Italy

Just up the main drag from our room in Vernazza sits this little wine shop with bottles from local vintners as well as food and some crafts. The proprietress was friendly and helped me pick out several bottles of local wines including an outstanding Sciacchetrà, a dessert wine made only in this area.

Best Markets

Winner

Obor Market – Bucharest, Romania

We love going to open air markets when we travel. From the one day a week village markets in Italy and France to long established markets like the fish market in Venice, the sights, sounds, and smells are intoxicating. The Obor Market in Bucharest is a decidedly Eastern European version and it is huge. With sections for produce, meat, fish, and garden plants, outlying buildings have clothes, hardware, tools, and almost anything else you can think of. It is also home to Terasa Obor where you can get the best mici, little Romanian sausages, in town!

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Obor Market Bucharest

Best Bars

Winner

Good Spirit Bar – Budapest, Hungary

A top-notch cocktail bar with great bartenders who can make a classic or suggest something with a local spirit. It features a limited but tasty bar menu and a great atmosphere to spend some time enjoying conversation and drinks.

Good Spirit Bar, Budapest

Runners up

Zāganu Craft Beer Bar – Bucharest, Romania

If I had one complaint about our time in Bucharest it would be the quality of beer we had most places. Finally on our last night we discovered Zāganu. This place embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that makes this such an exciting city to visit. The brewing team and all ingredients are 100% Romanian and the beer is really good.

Small Bar – Bristol, England

Exactly what a dive bar should be. An amazing rotating list of craft beers, some great greasy bar food, and picnic tables that fill up early. Don’t miss the Dirty Fries.

Best Concerts

Winner

“George Enescu” Philharmonic – Bucharest, Romania

One of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic is live music and looking back on these experiences has been fun. This was an evening of music by Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, and Dvorak as well as the eponymous Romanian composer Enescu, all set in the gorgeous Romanian Athenaeum.

The Romanian Athenaeum is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic

Snarky Puppy – Bristol, England

By the time I saw Snarky Puppy was playing Bristol when we were going to be there, it was sold out. But Betsy managed to find tickets on Facebook Marketplace. We bought them from John who we met at a pub before the show. We ended up hanging out with him and his friends during and after the concert. This was just a few days before Snarky Puppy’s Royal Albert Hall gig where their Grammy winning album was recorded. The band was smoking!

Favorite Theater Experiences

Winner

Much Ado About Nothing, Tobacco Factory Theaters – Bristol, England

Like concerts, live theater was hit hard by the pandemic so we want to promote some of the excellent theater companies we saw. The Tobacco Factory Theater was just down the street from Chelsea’s flat in Bristol and their production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing was outstanding! And the performance was in such a cool venue!

Main stage at Tobacco Factory Theaters

Cyrano, Bristol Old Vic – Bristol, England

This historic theater had recently been renovated when we visited, and the space is spectacular. We took advantage of the lobby restaurant and had a tasty meal before the show. The production was excellent and included a lot of music and great acting.

Best Hikes

Winner

Alpe di Siusi – Dolomites, Italy

We have always tried to incorporate some hikes into our vacations, but I feel like we’ve really upped our game the last couple of years. A recent highlight was our first trip to the Dolomites. We spent five days in the Alpe di Siusi area which is a ski resort in the winter. The hiking is amazing and the infrastructure of cable cars make getting up the mountains even easier. It was spectacular and we are anxious to explore more of the Dolomites. See our Why You Want to Visit the Dolomites in Italy.

Hiking the Dolomites June 2021

Runners up

Cinque Terre, Italy

We have wanted to return to the Cinque Terre ever since our first visit in 2006 and after spending several weeks in England, travel to Italy was an easy no-brainer. With cruise ship traffic way down and very few US tourists, the area was relatively uncrowded. We spent five days here and used it to explore some of the higher trails we didn’t do last time. Our favorite was from Manarola to Corniglia. There were steep climbs on either end, but the scenery was brilliant. See our How to Hike the Cinque Terre.

Bernkastel to Traben-Trarbach – Mosel Valley, Germany

The banks of the Mosel River are impossibly steep making it all that more amazing to see vineyards cascading down these hills. The river also has huge bends where it turns and goes almost the opposite direction it had been going. This hike took us over the hills cutting off one of these big segments of the river.

Best Museums

Winner

The Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest

It is hard to explain how massive Ceausescu’s self-aggrandizing pet project really is. While not technically a museum, the tour and history of the structure is fascinating. And although entire neighborhoods were demolished to build it and people suffered greatly while money was poured into the construction, today’s Romanians have an odd love/hate pride in this grandiose structure.

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

Runner up

“Dimitrie Gusti” National Village Museum, Bucharest

In a completely different mode in a beautiful park on the outskirts of Bucharest lies this open-air museum. In fear of losing their heritage, old buildings, mostly wooden, were saved from villages all over Romania, moved to this park, and rebuilt and refurbished. The buildings include homes, churches, barns, and meeting halls and is a fascinating look at folk architecture and history.

Best Free Experiences

Winner

Dancing Fountains, Unirii Square – Bucharest

We only heard about this because it was suggested during a walking tour we did. We only went because we thought the fountains would look nice at night. When we arrived, the whole area was packed with local families waiting for the 45-minute show all choreographed to music over an amazing sound system. People danced and sang along to music that ranged from classical to pop as we were all surrounded by the colorful fountains.

Photos don’t begin to do justice to the Dancing Waters at Unirii Square, Bucharest

Runner up

Chain Bridge at Sunset – Budapest

Watching a beautiful sunset over the Danube while people gather on the bridge, some playing guitars and singing, others drinking a beer and just taking in the atmosphere, is one of the delights of Budapest.

Best guided tours

Winner

Truffle Hunt and Lunch, tra Arte e Querce – Monchiero Alto, Italy

During our Small Group Tour of Piedmont, we went on a truffle hunt with Filippo and his dog, Lola. It was so fun to watch these two work together as we tramped through the woods. We found quite a few truffles and then went back to the family restaurant where Filippo’s father shaved truffles over our pasta for lunch.

Lola and Filippo finding us lunch during our truffle hunt

Biggest Surprises

Winner

Eastern Europe-Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania

When we took our Viking River Cruise on the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest, we really wanted to learn more about the history of these Eastern European countries. Viking does a really good job of making it possible for their passengers to meet local people and it was fascinating to talk to some who had lived through the Balkans War, Ceausescu’s dictatorship, and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Their resilience and aspirations made this trip truly remarkable. The photo below of a building in Vukovar, Croatia riddled with bullet holes yet with flowers flowing out of the windows is a testament to the people of this region.

Vukovar, Croatia

Runner up

Bremerhaven Pinguins Hockey – Cologne, Germany

We love getting see our friends from home when we are traveling abroad. After our Tour in Piedmont we traveled with friends from our lake house to see their son, who was playing professional hockey in Germany, play a game in Cologne. We had a great day visiting the Cathedral, eating sausage, pig knuckle, and sauerkraut and drinking Kolsch at a Brauhaus before going to the game where the mighty Pinguins won! Christian is slightly taller than us!

North American Addendum

Best Work Away Experience

Winner

Tiny 2 – Madison, Wisconsin

We have spent much more time living with Chelsea and Sam than any of us dreamed of. However, we have had a lot of fun renovating their first home. Tiny 2 was the nickname the house got when we were house hunting, being the second very small home they looked at. 

Best House-Sit

Winner

Orcas Island, Washington

We had never spent much time in the Pacific Northwest and were very fortunate to be offered this house-sitting opportunity for nearly two months. Orcas is part of the San Juan Island archipelago about 100 miles north of Seattle. See our What I Learned from Traveling to Orcas Island During a Pandemic and Whale Watching on Orcas Island blog posts.

We absolutely loved hiking Orcas Island

Favorite City

Winner

Madison, Wisconsin

Chelsea and Sam have lived in Chicago, Copenhagen, Bristol, and now Madison. What lucky people they are! We have enjoyed visiting them in all and love the city they now call home.

Favorite Restaurant

Winner

Off Broadway, Madison, Wisconsin

We love this place right around the corner from Chelsea and Sam’s house featuring an amazing beer selection and supper club food like fried chicken, pork chops, great salads and Friday Night Fish Fry. I love the fried cheese curds!

Runners up

Madison is really a great foodie town. Here are a few more of our favorites!

The Harvey House, Sardine, Tornado Room, Tempest, Mint Mark, homecoming, Nook, Taqueria Guadalajara

Favorite Winery Visits

Winner

American Wine ProjectMineral Point, Wisconsin

I was knocked out by the quality of the wines at AWP, who sources all local, cold climate grapes. The owner Erin had worked and studied in California and New Zealand before returning to her home state to champion local grapes. She makes great whites and reds with grapes such as St. Pepin, LaCrosse, and Marquette but my favorites are her sparkling Pet Nat and Piquette.

Best Wine Shops

Winner

Square Wine Co., Madison

With views of the Capitol building outside the front window, this is everything you want a wine shop to be. The owner Andrea has curated an excellent selection of bottles focused on small family run wineries from around the world. She is very knowledgeable and is happy to help pick out the perfect wine for any occasion. She greets all her regulars as they come in the door where they can order wine by the glass as they shop or open a bottle and enjoy it on a couch.

Runner up

Doe Bay Wine Co., Orcas Island

An excellent bottleshop in Eastsound focusing on wine, beer, and cider from the Pacific Northwest with a concise collection from around the world. Cheese and charcuterie are also available.

Best Bar

Winner

MuskelloungeMadison

Set in an unlikely strip mall this a great spot to catch the Sunday game, play a few rounds of Jenga with friends, or even catch a live bluegrass session. With a fantastic collection of beers on draft, a great cocktail menu, and outdoor seating, this has become a favorite spot to unwind and even bring Andy (Chelsea and Sam’s dog)!

Best Hikes

Winner

Cascade Canyon Trail – Grand Teton National Park

The National Parks really are national treasures and we took advantage of our time in the US visiting several of them. We loved all our hikes in Grand Teton with the spectacular scenery and wildlife, but this one really stood out. Thanks to advice from one of the Park Rangers, we accessed this trail from Jenny Lake Lodge, avoiding the crowds who cross the lake on the ferry and only go up as far as Inspiration Point. Best of all we saw several moose!

Grand Teton National Park is spectacular!

Runners up

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Gorge – Yellowstone National Park

Another suggestion by one of the helpful Park Rangers, this amazing hike took us along the gorge rim before plunging down to the river’s edge where we ate our lunch. The views were fantastic and we hardly saw another soul all day.

Orcas Island

During our seven weeks on Orcas we hiked every day and covered every mile of established trails in Moran State Park, Obstruction Pass State Park, and Turtleback Mountain Preserve, some trails more than once. The Pacific Northwest forests, full of giant Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir, streams and waterfalls, and isolated paths made our time there magical.

Best Free Experiences

Winner

Time with our family and friends who have hosted us throughout this time. We cannot thank you all enough for giving us shelter and sharing your love with us.

The fall colors were amazing at the lake this year

We were especially happy when the Canadian border opened and we were able to get to our own place. After almost two years we were glad to sleep in our own bed surrounded by the beauty of the lake and lifelong friends. Never having been there late in the year we really enjoyed the fall foliage and feeling somewhat grounded again.

Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to all of Europe. We are experts in creating custom travel itineraries and leading small group trips in Europe. Feel free to reach out via email — we are always available to talk about travel!

Greg Ball – Greg is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group tours to Europe. In his previous life he taught Woodwinds and Jazz at the university level for 30 years. As a professor he took his bands to England, Ireland, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, and England. Since “retiring” he and his wife/ETC co-founder Betsy travel Europe nine months out of the year. Together they have visited over 40 countries and counting! He loves cooking, hiking, listening and playing music, and wine and holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.

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