My and JoEllen’s mutual desire to travel is one of the things that brought us together as a couple. It is also the main reason we decided to move to Europe last July. I am proud to say that we have made the most of our decision and visited 12 different countries since moving to Sweden! Keep reading to find out more about where we went and highlights from our travels!
Our first trip and fourth wedding anniversary was spent in our Nordic neighbor, Denmark. After spending three months in Sweden, my first impressions reminded me how lucky I am to call Stockholm home. The streets weren’t quite as clean and the city views did not strike me the way Stockholm’s do. This was also our first trip in a while and our travel skills were a little rusty. However, after settling in I began to appreciate several things about the city.
To me the highlight of the city was Christiania. This is an independent “hippie commune” in the middle of the city with its own rules and regulations that are separate from the rest of the country. When you step inside, you feel like you are entering another world. JoEllen and I also enjoyed an escape from the expensive yet not so great beer choices in Stockholm. On our walking tour we even heard about a “once in a lifetime” Cantillion Brewery beer tapping which we decided to check out. Other highlights of the city included the best breakfast that I’ve ever had, street art, watching a seagull try to swallow a waffle cone whole! Oh, and did I mention the beer?
Croatia: Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik
Höstlov (fall break) was spent in Croatia. We truly got an unforgettable fall experience by visiting Plitvice Lakes. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has some spectacular views of waterfalls, lakes, and flooded forests. The trees were in the middle of changing colors, so JoEllen’s tree hugging heart was happy. On the other hand, my history loving heart was happy when we spent a few days in Split, a city formed out of the remains of Roman emperor Diocletian’s palace. We also had the best meal of the year in Split. Our next stop was a city that Game of Thrones fans would know very well: Dubrovnok. Since the city is a tourist town, it lacked some cultural depth, however, the views were incredible. JoEllen and I especially enjoyed counting stray cats (we saw 54 in one day)! We also took on the rough sea waters and spent an afternoon kayaking.
The city we flew into, Zadar, is well worth a visit. It is far less touristy than the other cities and has an amazingly unique outdoor sea organ. Have a listen! The views of Croatia that we saw while driving along the coast from one city to another were lovely. However, the view of the parking lot we sat in for nearly three hours because I left the headlights on was not. Husband fail. Also, it was quite terrifying when we almost broke down in the middle of nowhere while driving to our third country, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar
Probably the most impactful city that we visited all year. JoEllen did a fantastic job capturing the trip here.
I absolutely loved Riga! This very short trip to Latvia tops my list of our 12 visited countries. For JoEllen’s 31st birthday, some friends and I decided to so surprise her with a weekend boat trip across the Baltic Sea to this tiny country. I had no idea what to expect from Riga; I guess I imagined a dark and gritty place with not much to offer. Boy was I wrong! Even though I was getting over seasickness plus not feeling my best from a night drinking with friends on a boat, I was energized by the city’s charm. It was full of color and interesting architecture. We walked through parks and along lakes, photo opped with some neat statues, popped into some rustic cafes, and ate a delicious dinner for a great price. It is a shame we only had a few hours in the city, and I can’t wait to go back.
Our first visitor to Stockholm was none other than my best friend Stephen Rutledge! Since he had been to Stockholm once before, we also wanted to visit somewhere new, so we took an inexpensive train ride to our neighbor, Norway. Similar to how I felt about Copenhagen, this Scandinavian capital just does not compare to Stockholm. We enjoyed stopping into a few Christmas markets and trendy bars, however, the most unique part of the city was Vigeland Park, a park packed full of naked statues. My biggest takeaway about Oslo was how unbelievable expensive everything was! After walking into a few restaurants, we realized we weren’t willing to pay that much for food and ended up eating street hot dogs for several meals. Yum!
Nothing beats Christmas time in Europe, especially the Germanic countries. This is why we chose to spend Jullov (Christmas break) in Germany and Austria. Our first stop was Munich, and this entire city turns into one giant Christmas market! If you have ever watched The Office, you know all about Dwight’s interpretation of Krampus. JoEllen and I were lucky (or unlucky) enough to run into a few of these mischievous beasts on our first day in the city. They could sense JoEllen’s trepidation and zoned right in on her. We also had a good laugh visiting Pink Christmas… use your imagination on this one.
If you want to eat vegetables, Munich is the wrong city. JoEllen spent the trip enjoying the five German food groups: pork, beer, bread, pork and beer. Can someone get me a salad? There were a lot of highlights to this trip including: drinking beers at Hofbräuhaus (the most famous bar in the world), learning history through walking tours (we even stepped into the room where Hitler announced the creation of the Nazi party), eating delicious food at an international festival, sipping drinks that were literally on fire, and a strange Michael Jackson memorial. I even had time to do something I missed out while studying abroad and took a day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle while JoEllen worked from the AirBNB. This is the castle that Cinderella’s was modeled after.
Austria: Salzburg and Vienna
While our families and friends may have woken up on Christmas day surrounded by loved ones and extended family, JoEllen and I had a different experience. The two of us choose to spend Christmas day alone in the small and cozy town of Salzburg, Austria. Salzburg did not disappoint; it fully delivered the Christmas spirit. The Christmas market here was my favorite of the year (sorry Pink Christmas). JoEllen and I even split up for a few minutes to do some shopping for each other. There were definitely moments of homesickness; I especially missed loving on our nieces and nephews.
We ended our Christmas break with a trip to Vienna. This was the first time I had returned to Vienna since my semester abroad in 2007. Considering that this is the city that instilled in me the desire to travel and led me to eventually live in Europe, my feelings were mixed about returning. Since my memories and love of this city were are profound, I was worried that visiting again wouldn’t live up to my expectations or have the same impact. Then again, this is Vienna we are talking about, my favorite city on Earth!
Since my experiences of studying abroad were so closely tied to the people I was there with, things truly did not feel the same. The excitement and nuance of being away from home for the first time and exploring a new world had faded, JoEllen and I had been traveling alone together for 10 days and were beginning to get a bit sick of each other, and my beloved Rathaus Christmas had market closed for the season the day before we arrived. Don’t get me wrong – I still loved being in Vienna! It has has this classical, refined feeling that is unmatched. And though JoEllen may not have been as excited about it as me, I even found another house designed by artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser to match my favorite travel gem of all time, the Hundertwasser Haus.
In 2007, studying abroad in Vienna changed my life. An immature college student began to open his eyes to travel and culture. Now, almost 10 years later, I call Sweden home. Instead of going to classes everyday with a group of 32 incredible friends, I have have a career and wake up every day next to my lovely wife. I am deeply thankful for both of these experiences.