Guide to Eurovision: Julia Zemiro's 10 favourite destinations

If there's anything that seven years hosting Eurovision for SBS has taught Julia Zemiro it's to grab each moment on the road with her trademark gusto and do some prep before leaving Australia. No tourist trap bucket-list ticking-off for her. 

Before the French-born host leaves Australia she learns the language and then seeks out the underbelly of a city. And when she's not hosting Eurovision, RocKwiz or appearing in theatre productions, Zemiro is doing a writing course in Paris or volunteering in Romania.

"Because I love Eurovision so much, I thought, 'I don't really know a lot about the little places,' so I went volunteer teaching in Romania a couple of years ago and taught English, French and theatre there," she says.

Together with co-host Sam Pang, Julia has been all over the continent, spending any free time exploring.

"Travelling is important," she says. "The whole point is to go over there and experience it but I do bring back recipes.  I do make a lot of Danish open rye-bread sandwiches because that's the thing I love."

Here Zemiro shares her personal European top 10 travel hit parade (plus how each might fare in this year's Eurovision Song Contest).

1. DENMARK

I bloody love Denmark and I love all the Danish TV crime shows. The best thing to do is hire a car and drive from Copenhagen to Elsinore to see the castle from Shakespeare's Hamlet (Renaissance castle, Kronberg). Then you can put your car on a ferry and go to Sweden, where in Malmo on the other side have a hot chocolate or a sneaky cinnamon bun. Then go over the bridge that's in the TV series The Bridge to bring you back to Copenhagen. It's like a little crime drive and you see two countries in one day. Also, the great thing about Copenhagen is you don't have to go to museums to see Danish Modern design, it's everywhere, and the Danes are known for their architecture, it's amazing. See visitdenmark.com

JULIA'S EUROVISION PREDICTION FOR DENMARK

Denmark have won three times in the 60 years of Eurovision. This year they have a cute group of boys, a band called Anti Social Media but I don't know if they'll make the top 10.

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2. ESTONIA

In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia,  an amazing song festival happens every year at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. It's in an open shell, it's a bit like [Melbourne's] Sidney Myer Music Bowl. This is where the Singing Revolution started. When Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were still under Soviet rule, Estonia actually achieved a lot of their freedom through singing. The story is incredible and you can go there and just sit there in that shell and contemplate the fact that people came here, turned up and sang in 1988 for freedom. The other good thing about Tallinn is that there's an old town, an old market town, you can forget yourself in there. See visitestonia.com

PREDICTION FOR ESTONIA

Estonia have won Eurovision once and have been in it 20 times. This year they have a duet, Elina Born & Stig Rästa. I do think the song is great, it's one of the better ones. I predict it will make the top 10.

3. FINLAND

You can get on a ferry from Tallin, Estonia, to Helsinki, the capital of Finland. On that ferry, goodness gracious, you will see some of the drunkest people in the world dancing to a cover band and that in itself is quite hilarious.

Finland is the most extraordinary-looking place, you can go straight to Lapland and see Santa's workshop, I've heard parents take their kids there and even on that cusp of ages 10 to12  when kids are starting to be non-believers  you can almost get them back into believing because it's so incredible.

There's a place in Helsinki called the Kamppi Chapel, an extraordinary-looking building. It's an amazing place to go in and be a bit quiet in one of the busiest areas of Finland. See visitfinland.com

PREDICTION FOR FINLAND

The last and only time Finland won was in 2006. This year the fabulous Finns have chosen a punk rock group comprising four middle-aged intellectually disabled men called Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät. They are amazing, I think it's going to go off in the arena, I really do.

4. ROMANIA

I would give the capital, Bucharest, a miss and go straight to Brasov. This is where I did voluntary teaching a couple of years ago. The Romanian language is not too difficult, it's quite fun to learn and is accessible if you already know some French or Italian. The great thing about Brasov is it's at the bottom of all these hills, and overlooking the city they've got a big sign saying, "Brasov", much like the Hollywood sign. Years ago it used to say "Stalin", so there's a lot of history there. The amazing thing about Brasov is it's a short train trip to all the Dracula-type castles including Bran Castle. See romaniatourism.com

PREDICTION FOR ROMANIA:

They've got a really good and accessible song by a band called Voltaj. I think it will do well. In the past they have come third twice, they've been in 18 times, so who knows, this year could be their year.

5. ICELAND

Now look, every time you Google an image of Iceland you see something you want to visit, the sky is exploding, volcanoes are exploding. I just love the fact that it did have a volcano that exploded and actually stopped plane travel. I love that nature stopped people getting to their meetings and thinking they were very important all over Europe. I'd head to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. Iceland is such a small place you're bound to make friends easily because you'd keep bumping into them. They're also very switched-on people and Sam and I are dying to spend more time there so we really hope they win this year in Eurovision. See visiticeland.com

PREDICTION FOR ICELAND:

They've been in it 27 times and they've come second twice. This year, she's a bit of a favourite. Her name is Maria Olafs and she's got a song called Unbroken. It's an up-tempo ballad.

6. LITHUANIA

When I got to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, I wished I could stay at least another week because there was such a great feeling there. It was the first place I'd been to in a while where it felt chilled and friendly. It has a beautiful old town with great little cafes. In terms of old European medieval, it's quite incredible. I just felt great there. I'm not a traveller who goes and looks at things, I'm a traveller who goes and feels a place out and then might try and find the things that you should go and see but I'm bad at ticking off the touristy things. I would go back there in a heartbeat. See lietuva.lt/en/

PREDICTION FOR LITHUANIA

They have a duet and the song is OK but not as good as the Estonian one that's for sure, but you never know. The highest they have come is sixth.

7. GERMANY

I only got to go to Germany a couple of years ago. I've been to Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich and Hamburg. Berlin is incredible. Standing at the Brandenburg Gate as well as seeing the Berlin Wall is what I would recommend. I am quite obsessed with World War II  history. The must-see for me is the Stasi Museum. I read the book Stasiland  [by Anna Funder] on the plane on the way over and even though I saw the temporary museum as it was being refurbished, it was incredible. Going to east Berlin and seeing the differences for me was like a history lesson imagining what that must have been like. Also, Germany is beautiful in winter. The Berlin Christmas night markets were bloody incredible. See germany.travel

PREDICTION FOR GERMANY

Germany have been in the competition 58 times and they've won twice. This year they have a singer called Ann Sophie, she's very Amy Winehouse meets Adele. I don't think they'll win but they might come top 10.

8. ITALY

I've been to Italy a couple of times a long time ago and if you go to somewhere like Rome it's dirty, busy and crazy. You've just got to throw yourself into the rhythm of the city and it is the one city that I do all the tourist spots. I do the Colosseum, I do the Trevi Fountain.  I've seen them in so many films. You've got to find a cinema showing Italian films when you're there. I just think you need to be Italian for a little while and go to a nightclub and find some great Italian pop to dance to. My favourite area of Rome is Trastevere. It's the art centre, there's lots of life, it's beautiful. See italia.it

PREDICTION FOR ITALY

This year they have three boys, they're called Il Volo and they sound fantastic. Italy have only won it twice, even though they've been in it for 40 times. I think they'll go top 10 for sure.

9. FRANCE

I can't leave out France, obviously. I was born there, it's my country, I speak the language. I love Paris because I can understand everything. I feel like I'm one of them. It's the sort of place where you can go to lots of places for free. To me it is everything people make it out to be. I have never been to a city that is what you think it will be and no matter where you sit, where you stand, where you go, what you smell, what you taste, it's just authentic. Don't ever stay in a hotel, always try and do an Airbnb or get your own apartment accommodation and really feel like you're living there even if it's just for a few days. I don't think it gets better than watching people dancing on the banks of the Seine in summer.  See int.rendezvousenfrance.com

PREDICTION FOR FRANCE

Her name is Lisa Angell and I think she's going to go pretty well. The song is very Les Mis, very revolutionary and Eurovision love that sort of thing. They've won it five  times which is a lot and, gee, they're due, they're really due, to win again.

 

10. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

Ever since I saw the film Welcome to Sarajevo, I have wanted to go to Sarajevo. We were only there for about 36 hours.  We went to visit a band called Regina that had been in the Eurovision 2009 in Moscow, the first Eurovision we ever went to. There are many, many places in Sarajevo where you can go to high vantage points and look down on the city. There are  lots of restaurants. Regina's singer Davor took us up to a little beer garden cafe and the views were unbelievable. When you drive through the city you still see the ravages of war. I'd never seen anything like that before and I felt very humbled by it. The food is extraordinary.  Try the cevapcici – beef sausages served with flat bread, onion and cream cheese, they are delicious. See bhtourism.ba/

PREDICTION FOR BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

They are not in the competition this year as they can't afford it and that's something that you've got to love as well. In the past, they've been in it 18 times and came third once. They'll be sadly missed this year.

JULIA'S EUROPE SURVIVAL GUIDE

1. LEARN THE LANGUAGE

You've got to know some of the language. I just get so  annoyed with people who travel places and don't pick it up. Now with the internet, apps and books, you should know the basics and enjoy it. Get in amongst it.

2. CARRY SPARES

Have spare undies and a spare toothbrush in your handbag. You just never know. You might lose luggage or you might meet someone lovely and have a one-night romantic dalliance and then you're ready to roll.

3. USE TRAINS

Europe has amazing trains and you don't have to go first class. It's all great and you see amazing countryside changing all the time. My advice is forget cars, take trains.

4.  GET A BLOW WAVE

Because I was filming every day, I needed to get a blow wave in each city I went to and the experience was fantastic. I had to communicate for example in Azerbaijani, or in Greek. To go and get your hair done somewhere else is absolutely hilarious and great fun.

5. KEEP UP YOUR EXERCISE

Find the yoga in the town wherever you go. There's yoga everywhere now. There's nothing funnier than hearing what downward dog is in Spanish, French or Bosnian. You'll learn all sorts of things, instant languages. 

HOSTS WITH THE MOSTS

SBS's Eurovision co-host Sam Pang takes his travel cues from a different source than Julia. "All my European travel instruction comes from watching Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's European Vacation so that's where the bar is for me, anything above that is a bonus," he laughs.

Here Julia and Sam recount their highlights from host cities.

DUSSELDORF, GERMANY 2011

JULIA SAYS There's nothing in Dusseldorf. Apparently, the shopping is amazing and it rivals Milan but I'm not a shopper, I'm not into that. I don't want to offend anyone but I honestly have to say I don't remember anything about Dusseldorf.

SAM SAYS I cannot remember anything. But I do remember the four days in Berlin after the event. Berlin was magical. We stayed in a cool area it was like a cross between the best parts of Sydney and the best parts of Melbourne and it as the coolest city I have ever been in.

See duesseldorf-tourismus.de

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN 2012

JULIA SAYS it's a bit of a crazy place, it's very poor in some places and very, very rich in others. But they did build quite a beautiful boulevard on the seafront. What astounded me was that young families and kids would come out every night and go for a walk in summer and just really use that place.

SAM SAYS I also remember the beautiful promenade along the Caspian Sea. I also remember that fact that I could see Engelbert Humperdinck's hotel directly across from my hotel!

See azerbaijan.travel

MALMO, SWEDEN 2013 

JULIA SAYS It's such an eco-city, they're turning into one of the greenest places in Europe and you can see it. It's extraordinary what they are doing. As a visitor you really see what an amazing city could be if it went green. We did a lot of bike riding there.

SAM SAYS My fondest memory was walking down the main street looking to buy a pair of Bjorn Borg boxer shorts. The former tennis player has a line of men's underwear and I thought, "well if I'm in Sweden I've got to grab myself a pair of Borgs!" I've still got them.

And this year…

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK 2014

JULIA SAYS I love the vibe, it's just the people, the way they think, the way they dress, the way they treat one another. It's just a very egalitarian vibe and that spills onto everything.

SAM SAYS I went for a run every morning around a beautiful lake (one of the three rectangular lakes) which is a great way to get to know a city. I was impressed with the lakes and the beautiful running track.

See visitcopenhagen.com

VIENNA, AUSTRIA 2015 

JULIA SAYS I don't know Vienna very well. People keep saying it's picture-perfect so I guess that's what we'll get. I want to find the dirty underside. As far as Eurovision is concerned I do know that Guy Sebastian, without a shadow of a doubt, will make top 10. Guy's got a song where people are going to dance, I'm calling it now, top five. I think Guy will knock their socks off.

SAM SAYS I've never been to Vienna. I hear it's beautiful. Someone described it to me the other day by saying "it's very grand". I like grandness. If the schnitzels are grand that would be handy, I love big, big schnitzels. Plus I'm looking forward to seeing Guy Sebastian perform. He's a great choice, he's got everything you need at Eurovision, it's all about the performance on the night.

See wien.info/en

Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang will be hosting this year's Eurovision 2015 from Vienna, Austria on SBS from 22- 24th May, 2015. sbs.com.au/programs/eurovision. To buy tickets to this year's Eurovision, or to find out about Eurovision 2016, see eurovision.tv

 

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