Travel

Europe’s Best Countries: #5 – #1

It’s here! Welcome to the third and final part of my countdown of Europe’s best countries. After revealing numbers 20-11 and the first half of the top ten, it’s time for the top five!

Before we jump into the big reveal, here’s a reminder of places 6-20. Let’s give them a round of applause, they’ve all been great haven’t they?!

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Ready? Let’s go!


05 Belarus 🇧🇾

Where? Minsk in July 2013.

Anyone who knows me, will know that I have some sort of twisted obsession with the Soviet Union; the ideologies, the propaganda posters, the whole secretive, closed-off society idea – it all completely fascinates me. So it is little wonder that Belarus, a country which even today prides itself on being a remnant of the Soviet Union, is amongst my favourite places in Europe. The red star is everywhere to be seen, there are statues of Lenin and Stalin galore, and propaganda posters line the streets and metro stations around the capital. Visiting Belarus was unlike anything else I’ve ever done, akin to travelling back in time and getting a glimpse of real life in the USSR. I’ve been to many places, sure, but none quite like Belarus, and the uniqueness and quirkiness of the country is what always sticks out in my mind and places it so high.

  • When you arrive in Minsk’s Central Train Station, you are immediately greeted by the menacing and imposing Stalinist City Gates – the perfect introduction to Belarus.
  • There’s one 24-hour McDonald’s in Minsk which was absolutely heaving with customers each time I went past it. I went in once because I couldn’t find anywhere else open, and no lie, I queued up for over an hour because it was that busy.
  • There is, from what I could find, just one place out the GUM megastore selling souvenirs in the entire city. As Belarus is one of the least-visited countries in Europe, there just simply isn’t a market for it. I made sure I bought something from each of the four vendors though, in the true communist spirit of equal shares for everyone.
  • The currency rate in 2013 was just under 14,000 Belarusian rubles to £1 which made buying anything a complete pain. I withdrew the equivalent of £30 from a cash machine and I swear it gave me about 50 different notes.
  • The main street in Minsk, called Independence Avenue of course, is 15km long and hosts many humongous buildings on either side of its eight traffic lanes. The city’s entrepreneurs have filled the underpasses with shops and stalls selling all kinds of random things.
  • Walk a little further out of downtown Minsk, and you’re faced with Soviet-style housing structures decorated with propaganda posters in support of the Belarusian identity and, more strikingly, the ‘last-dictator in Europe’ President Lukashenko.

04 Georgia 🇬🇪

Where? Tbilisi, Gori, and the Georgian Military Highway in June 2016.

Wow, where to begin? I had no idea what to expect when I went to Georgia, taking a shared car across the border from Yerevan and into the Georgian capital Tbilisi, and when we arrived there was a massive rainstorm which made me long for the Armenian sunshine I’d just given up. The hostel I was staying at was quite far up one of the hills in the Old Town and steep walking and rain after a six hour journey aren’t ideal, but when I got to the top and looked back at the city down below I was really excited. Tbilisi is a bustling, modern city with plenty to do and it’s sort of done away with the Soviet influence, or at least hidden it as best it can.

Going to Gori was a challenge in itself as there isn’t any public transport there, instead you have to go to what is essentially an enormous car park and find the illusive old guy shouting “Gori Gori” to hitch a ride. But Josef Stalin’s hometown is one of those places that I’ll never, ever forget. I went with an American girl I met on the way over to Gori, Heidi, and we just couldn’t work out what was going on. The entire place was almost like a Stalin theme park, but the bizarre reality is that it was all entirely real and serious. We did get glittery Stalin plaques there though, and who doesn’t want/need one of those in their life?!

I saved the best until last in Georgia though – The Military Highway, even the name of it is perfect. An eight hour journey through the snow-capped mountains and stunningly blue lakes of the Caucasus on the road that connects Georgia to its big brother Russia was just incredible. Getting to the top of the Jvari Monastery, a little church on top of a huge mountain, requires being driver up there by highly-experienced drivers in sturdy off-road cars and the views over the mountains were just stunning. The personal highlight for me was the Aragvi River which flows with one half in black water and the other in white – I’ve never seen anything like it, and still don’t really understand the science behind it! Georgia was just wonderful, the capital is great, the cities outside of the capital are great, and the nature and scenery is amongst the best in Europe.

  • The huge, metal statue of Mother Georgia stands on the highest hill in the Old Town of Tbilisi with a sword in one hand and a bowl of wine in the other. The wine is for those who come to Georgia as guests, the sword is for enemies.
  • Georgian red wine is the best red wine, and don’t you forget about it!
  • The National Museum opened at 10am but I had a memory-lapse and forgot that much of Eastern Europe doesn’t actually abide by the rules of time. Even though the museum doors were open, nobody was actually there so I had to stand and wait inside for the clerk who came in ten minutes later, then went to put her stuff away and make herself a coffee before coming back out. I admire her audacity and completely understand her need for caffeine.
  • Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, is the most bewildering place I’ve ever been to. The entire city is basically a shrine to “the son of Georgia” with numerous statues of him, a museum dedicated to him and his belongings, and even a Stalin Supermarket.
  • In Gori’s train station, there’s a locked room with bright pink and green walls housing only a pristine Stalin statue.
  • The Georgian Military Highway is the most incredible and breathtaking excursion in all of Europe!

03 Germany 🇩🇪

Where? Cologne in July 2010, Düsseldorf in May 2011, Berlin in February 2013, Berlin in July 2014, Munich in September 2015, Hamburg in January 2016, Dortmund in January 2016, Bremen in January 2016, and Berlin again in March 2016.

Ich liebe Deutschland! I love it so much that I’ve been there so many times, exploring six different cities and going to Berlin three times. Many cities are often tagged with “there’s always something to do” and most of the time that is incorrect. For Berlin though, it’s entirely true. There really is always something going on, it’s the most alive and inspiring city in all of Europe, and easily one of the best too. Munich is sort of the jewel of Germany, richer and more majestic than the capital and very proud of it. Even the smaller cities around the country each have something to offer, and for that reason Germany is the perfect country for a city-break – pick anywhere and you’ll likely have a great time.

  • Despite being a completely boring city with almost nothing to do, Düsseldorf somehow managed to host the best Eurovision week I’ve ever been part of. The Euroclub was absolutely mental, and some of the nights I spent at Quartier Boheme were the best of my life. One highlight was bumping into a very drunk Lee Ryan and Simon Webbe from Blue.
  • Being in Berlin when Germany won the World Cup in 2014 was a brilliant experience. The whole city threw this impromptu party and went absolutely crazy.
  • The National Socialist museum in Munich is one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever been to. Whilst being careful not to condone the actions of the Nazis, it very intelligently tells the story of how the Nazis came to power and why the people at the time aligned themselves with their views and voted them in. It provides a disturbing reminder of the past, which we sadly seem to be trundling towards once again.
  • One of the guys in the hostel I stayed at in Dortmund was ecstatic to hear I was from Liverpool and told me “that city has my two most favourite things in the world: The Beatles and Jurgen Klopp”.

02 Bosnia Herzegovina 🇧🇦

Where? Mostar in July 2010, and Sarajevo in September 2015.

Bosnia Herzegovina is the most magical and humbling country in all of Europe. When you think of Bosnia you, sadly, associate it with the atrocities of the Balkan Wars in the nineties but beyond the history and the pain that comes with it is a country striving to move forward while keeping hold of the memories. I found that, even now, parts of Bosnia Herzegovina still show the scars of destruction but the country has kept many of these shells of buildings as they are, as a sign of pride and strength. To show to the world that they survived. Likely because of the war the Bosnians have adopted a care-free and happy-go-lucky attitude to life which is infectious when you’re visiting. It’s hard not be sucked into the relaxing lifestyle of drinking coffee and smoking copious amounts of cigarettes for hours on end while chatting to anyone who walks by. A country steeped in history, with a strong identity of who it is, and whose people are amongst the most charming I’ve ever met – Bosnia Herzegovina is my runner-up!

  • The Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar is one of the iconic landmarks of Bosnia Herzegovina. Originally built to connect the Christian and Muslim parts of the town, it stood for 400 years before being blown up during the war. Now rebuilt, locals dive off the bridge in the summer which was great because who doesn’t like seeing strapping Bosnian men in speedos?
  • The Former Front Line in Mostar is an extremely haunting and devastating glimpse into what the country has been through, with streets of destroyed houses that people once called their homes. I went here with four friends, and all of us experienced something unusual and, one may suggest, paranormal while we were here. I am absolutely adamant that I had stones thrown at me from one house that I got a little too close to.
  • The Sarajevo Roses, whilst adding uniqueness and intrigue to the city, are actually scars left by mortar shells which have been filled with red paint to mark attacks during the three years siege.
  • The story of The Tunnel is just heartbreaking but also extremely inspiring. Read about it!
  • I met a wonderful Canadian girl, Sarah, in the super cool Franz Ferdinand hostel in Sarajevo and after doing the Siege Tour, we went on a mission to find the Winter Olympics Arena. Despite Google Maps telling us it was a 38 minute walk, it took closer to two hours but it was definitely worth it. I still want to know whether the painting of the mascot, Vučko (little wolf), on the side of the entrance is the original because it sure looked like it.

01 Russia 🇷🇺

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Where? Moscow in May 2009 and September 2015, and Saint Petersburg in September 2015.

Mother Russia. The Motherland. My favourite country in Europe. Russia is where I went to see my first Eurovision Song Contest back in 2009 and is the country that, for seven years, has been top of my list. In fact, I’ve been to every country in Europe since my first trip there and it has held on through all of them. Moscow, the Red city, has stunning architecture both old and new – the buildings here are huge and intimidating, and walking below them reminds you of your place in the world. The plethora of landmarks are enough to keep anyone occupied; there’s the much-loved St Basil’s Cathedral, the winding bright yellow wall of the Kremlin, and Lenin’s Mausoleum – and that’s just Red Square, or Krasnaya Ploschad in Russian! Saint Petersburg, on the other hand, is the more cosmopolitan, European-facing destination with its artistic and creative flair. The architecture is much similar to what you’d find elsewhere on the continent, and the fact that it sits on the riverbank makes it that little bit prettier and enchanting. The latter is certainly the more beautiful and aesthetically pleasing of the two, but Moscow is king here in Russia.

What I love about Russia is that it’s a bonafide adventure. Getting a visa isn’t exactly straightforward, understanding the customs and way of life can be a struggle, and if you can’t read Cyrillic then you’re as good as done, but it’s these things that make travelling so appealing in the first place. It’s easy to go to a new country and seek out the home comforts, in Russia you’re almost forced to adapt and forego these comforts and do as the Russians do. Sure you can get lost and explore any place if you try hard enough, but it’s almost the only option in the largest country in the world. That isn’t to say Russia is difficult for a tourist, certainly not. Common sense still prevails and many there speak English and will be more than willing to help out if they can.

I would urge anyone and everyone who has the opportunity to visit Russia to see past the politics and propaganda and to go and judge the country for yourself – I guarantee you’ll love it too. The moment you get off the metro at Okhotny Ryad and see those beautiful, glistening domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the atmospheric Red Square, you’ll know you made the right choice. на здоровье – to Mother Russia!

  • The Moscow Metro is an ode to efficiency, each of the immaculately decorated stations have clocks counting down to the next train’s arrival and they’re spot on every time.
  • Being in the Olympic Arena to see t.A.T.u. sing their hit Not Gonna Get Us with the Red Army Choir was one of the most spine-tingling, mesmerising experiences of my life!
  • Going to the toilet in the world-renowned GUM department store in Red Square is an experience in itself. For the tidy sum of 200 roubles (£2), you get access to a large marble room with golden taps and your own personal hand towel. I’ve never wanted to need a wee so much.
  • I can read Cyrillic and so I noticed that there was free entry for students to The Hermitage, because this part was conveniently not translated into English. I walked up to the counter and boldly told the lady “Ya student!” – she looked bewildered, then laughed, and then gave me a ticket for free!
  • Me and my friend Ruth stayed at Godzilla Hostel back in 2009 and made friends with Scott, the American guy who worked there. When I went back in 2015, he immediately recognised me and asked me if I still liked Eurovision. What a guy!
  • Expect to have a near-death experience when navigating the metro, because they’re so far underground the wind can so strong that the huge glass doors at the entrance can’t even withstand them.
  • The bridges in Saint Petersburg go draw up at night to allow ships to pass through to the port, so if you’re one the wrong side of the city when they do then you’re stuck there until morning – oops.

Thanks for reading my Europe’s Best Countries series!

Check out part one and part two if you haven’t already. And don’t forget there’s also a super cool gallery featuring one photography from each country in Europe to whet your travelling appetite too.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Sharleen 23rd November 2016 at 18:33

    I’m so glad you are blogging all this – its fascinating and I’ve bookmarked it so that when I start my own travel business next year I can link to it. I think it will inspire my clients to travel to some of these places (which I also share a love for. You are so right about Bosnia and Georgia and Armenia and… well, endless locations!)

    • Reply Michael Lowther 23rd November 2016 at 20:02

      Wow thanks Sharleen, I’m really pleased you enjoyed reading it so much! As you’re well aware, Europe is a fascinating place but it’s the hidden gems of the East that are the most memorable and most exciting to visit!

      I wish you all the success with your travel business and I’m sure you will inspire many to visit the lesser-known countries of this beautiful continent!

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