This post is a bit overdue, but relaxing days in Bangkok and Chiang Mai allowed some time to reminisce and share some of the highlights of the first half of the journey. Here they are…in no particular order, of course.
- Vienna – Deciding to fly from Spain to Vienna was initially more due to it’s geographic proximity to the center of Europe and the chance at seeing some legendary Christmas markets (with a hope of a Krampus sighting) — instead the city ended up showing itself as one of the most livable and dynamic cities in Europe. The mix of the majestic Austro-Hungarian architecture and the modern amenities of amazing bike paths, an extremely developed mass transit system and a food scene to rival anywhere in the world makes it a place that you can really imagine living or staying for a while.
- Brasov – Thinking of this place as just a stopover en route to Transylvania would be a huge mistake. What a surprise it was to walk into the old town and even in winter time see the streets buzzing with life, and this was before the Christmas market even started! The shops are a unique mix as well, as it’s not just the typical chain shops…many “made in Romania” places occupy prime real estate in the old town. Tasty steak dinners can be had here at a fraction of their cost elsewhere in Europe with some perfectly palatable wines at bargain basement prices.
- Novi Sad – The initial draw for visiting here was really more to see a region not yet visited in the former Yugoslavia…Vojvodina, and also to check out a city that is decidedly on the map today due to the EXIT festival started after the NATO bombings. Then, we found that our new favorite band/friends we met in Kotor, Loco, were performing when we would be there so that sealed the deal. What we found was a truly unique city with one step in the past with beautiful architecture in the old town and fortress overlooking the city and Danube and one step definitely in the future with a burgeoning arts scene and local designers. Novi Sad was the perfect location to start our Christmas shopping… it enabled us to buy only locally made gifts that were truly unique! We discussed it a bit and one way to sum it up would be to explain that Novi Sad feels like the Portland of Europe. Go NOW – and stay at Lidija’s Place like we did steps from the heart of the city on Kosovska. You get your own rooftop terrace!
- Belgrade – Having been previously, the addition of Belgrade to our trip initially was done based on a good flight connection home, and the cachet to start and end this leg in the same place…. Instead we found a lively city complete with remarkable local shopping at places like the Belgrade Design District and Grubin shoes (Birkenstock quality made in Serbia). It even has a burgeoning hipster scene, and I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed Sunday brunch at Supermarket. Spending a weekend afternoon wandering the high street into Kalemegdan and sitting with the local watching the sunset was beautiful… there is nothing better than seeing a city who’s people appreciate their city and enjoy it. Belgrade has a special place in our hearts after this trip…. and it’s one of those places that you hope doesn’t change too much. Novak’s apartment is almost at too perfect of a location….. just stay here and thank us later.
Best Culinary Experiences
- Kofein (Prague) – Czech/Tapas fusion concept place…local ingredients….incredibly reasonable prices and neighborhood atmosphere. Definitely not on the tourist trail and an absolute must go for lovers of good food. A killer recommendation from our AirBNB host Tereza, who has a great little place located just past Vinohrady where you will feel like you are living in a real Czech neighborhood, and still be able to walk downtown if you want.
- Project 72 Wine Bar & Deli (Novi Sad) – I can’t put into words what a value this place was. For <$30 we had a dinner that in NYC would have been $200. Incredibly innovate cuisine, waiters who want to explain the chefs intentions in the cuisine and a great atmosphere. Why can’t I ever live down the street from a place like this….
- Enrique Tomas (Barcelona) – Cones of shaved jamon, jamon sandwiches on fresh bread drizzled with spicy Spanish olive oil…..
- Cal Pep – Full credit to our friend Kara on this one… she kept insisting that we eat here going so far as to say she would never speak to us again if we didn’t. Thankfully on our last night we did, and wow…just wow. You sit down at the counter once you wait your turn and tell the chefs what you like and what you don’t like and they cook tapas for you. Wine is sold in some sort of mysteriously wonderful way where they just refill your glass and charge you a fee at the end. The freshness compiled with the overall experience truly made this place unforgettable and unlike anything else we had in Spain.
- Zurek & the soups of Poland – It’s hard to pick a specific restaurant to credit for these as they are simply a national treasure. From the humble white borscht known as Zurek to other delightful soups like the Cauliflower soup my family made for me in Winnica as well as Bigos….Poland is Mecca for the soup lover. It’s hard to imagine a better soup than Zurek — a white fermented rye broth with vegetables & a piece of sausage. It might sound odd, but it’s incredibly addictive and once you have you first bowl, it will become a habit. You can try a classic version at U Babci Maliny.
- Sava’s Black Risotto – You are going to have to stay with Sava at his picture perfect apartment (I know… it’s hard, the sacrifices you will have to make…) If you are lucky and you stay long enough…maybe just maybe he will make this treat for you.
- Risa’s BBQ Montenegrin Veal – Take 2 veal chops from the Roda Grocery store in Kotor…. coat them in a generous slather of olive oil, garlic, and some secret spices…. so I’m told. Couple this with some Vranac wine and a perfect view of the Bay of Kotor and you have for yourself quite an evening.
Most Beautiful Spots & Best Memories
- Looking at the Fjords of Kotor bay and the walls of the city from the middle of the bay on a perfectly sunny day while swimming in the crystal clear warm waters.
- Gazing over the rooftops of Dubrovnik high above the city atop its walls
- Sarajevo after a gratifying walk up her hills through increasingly smaller and smaller streets
- Arriving at Lake Bled just in time for sunset thanks to Gregor’s planning after we just arrived to Ljubljana on a flight.
- Swimming in the sea from the seemingly endless city beaches of Barcelona….. I’m thankful to Risa that she encouraged do this even if it meant changing in the middle of an open beach.
- Gazing out upon the endless Medina of Fez for the first time from our Riad’s terrace.
- The endless desert…the feeling of vastness and warmth from the sand that turned to almost an icy feeling after the sun set.
- The beaches of Mirleft & Sidni Ifni in Morocco. I complained the whole awful night bus ride there, but Risa’s knack for picking out a perfect beach is remarkable. It was worth the trip and then some.
- The Christmas market at Vienna’s Schönbrunn palace
- The views from Novi Sad’s stunning fortress at sunset. Sometimes things just work out and you get to a place like this at the exact right time of day without trying at all.
- Sighisoara on a crisp but absolutely stunning winter morning. The streets were empty of all traffic and people and the colors of the building seemed almost too perfect.
- Rakia in the bars of Pristina. Somehow this homegrown liquor is 10X more delicious in Pristina than anywhere else we’ve tried it. Sadly not even certain of the name of the type we had, but believe it may have been distilled from quince.
- Shopping in Serbia – a complete unexpected surprise. There are few places you can get locally made goods that go beyond “traditional crafts” for tourists. In Serbia we were able to come up with nearly all our Christmas Shopping as the boutiques teem with local designers — special mention to Lagami which we discovered down the street from our apartment in Novi Sad.
The kindness of ‘strangers’
- Arriving to Sarajevo late at night on a packed train from Mostar, I had simply assumed we would take a taxi from the train station and deal with the extra cost. I didn’t expect a man who we only started talking to in the last 10 minutes of the trip to share a cab with us and insist on paying — as so long as we met up with him for drinks another night.
- After a bizarre mini-bus ride from Targu Mures to Sighisoara quite late at night, we finally made our way into a taxi to our lodging for the night – Casa Lia within the city’s old town. Not only were we warmly greeted by the innkeeper and his lovely wife, he insisted on making us food since we were hungry after a long day of travels. He initially told us this probably would just be some bread and apologized profusely, but instead he offered us a hearty goulash and shared his homemade liquor with us. A perfect introduction to the friendliness of the Romanian people.
- Personally I’ve never been one for hiring a guide when in a city…but something I read about the Saxon villages near Sighisoara Romania seemed like we would need a local to really see them. After some contact with ‘Your Guide in Transylvania’ – Emanuel, we arranged a meeting time for the first full day we would be in the city with a goal of exploring some of the ancient Saxon villages nearby. I never thought that in the course of the half day we would have to visit the home of the key-master of the Saschitz fortified church, thus allowing us a rare glimpse inside Romanian village life. We saw a new born pig being kept warm by a fire, just birthed moments before our arrival a midst a courtyard filled with every farm animal you could imagine. Emanuel rolled with the punches when things were closed or different than they would be “on season” and we really had a good time with him! The tour concluded as he took us to a Romanian Orthodox Monastery on the outskirts of the city which we would have never found on our own and he explained his faith to us and the importance of each part of the monastery. I’ve been in countless churches, mosques, and temples but this experience was so different as it gave me a true understanding and respect for what I was seeing. Emanuel followed up with us days after the trip to see how our travels were and told us we would call from anywhere in Romania if we had troubles and he would help. Just a great guy and a wonderful ambassador for Romania!
- Meeting my “Family Fabisiewicz” in Winnica Poland was the subject of it’s own post…and for good reason. There aren’t many times in your life when things go better than you could have ever possibly imagined, and this was certainly one of those.
- After hearing a band covering Macklemore from across Kotor bay late into the night the first few days we arrived in Kotor we knew we had to learn more… with the first question being — who covers Macklemore!? One night strolling the town we went to what we thought was the source of the music, but it ended up being a private party playing traditional Serbian music. From above however we heard Loco Band covering something else and immediately wandered down. At the end of the show we found ourselves having drinks with the band and hanging out till 4am trying to figure out the next time we could see them perform as it was such a blast. We ended up staying in great touch with them and saw them perform in Novi Sad and Jovana gave us her own tour of Belgrade a couple days before we flew home. In a trip with many things constantly changing — new cities, new people, new foods….Loco was the music that carried us through the entire summer.
Most Underrated Cities
- Novi Sad — This city had a unique character to it….like I mentioned earlier, something like a European Portland, that makes it stand out beyond the legions of cities with a ‘cute town square’ and other similar attractions. Prices are incredibly reasonable here and tourism outside of the EXIT festival season is quite low. NS is definitely one of those cities you will want to relax and stay a while in.
- Brasov – Mostly I mentioned the reason for Brasov’s inclusion on this list earlier when I mentioned it as a best surprise so I won’t repeat myself, but I didn’t want to deny it a well deserved place on this list.
- Kotor – It’s not that Kotor is underrated in any way…it is part of so many cruise ship itineraries and ‘excursions’ from Dubrovnik for tourists that some days the city seems overwhelmed by the tourist hordes. The charm of Kotor though is if you stay a while and see local life. As the sun sets and the ships pull away, locals and Serbian tourists fill it’s squares to enjoy delicious pizza and cheap wine and talk the night away in stunning surroundings. Come daytime, the same people swim in the crisp waters of the bay and enjoy seaside restaurants far from the hustle of Kotor’s center, out near Prcanj where the days catch is served only moments after being pulled from the bay.
- Vienna – It seems almost absurd to include a city like Vienna on this list as it’s certainly not ‘underrated’ by most accounts, but the livability of the city is something that deserves a mention. Vienna this trip seemed much more than it’s grandiose Austro-Hungarian museums and Palaces….it is a dynamic mixture of diverse neighborhoods that all blend together into one city that is remarkably easy to get to know and love.
- Gdańsk and Sopot – The Polish tri-city area is well known as a summer destination within Poland, but may often be overlooked by travellers hitting the typical sites of Poland. Gdansk offers much more than memorials to the Solidarity movement….you will find great bars and streetlife after dark in the old town, along with some new restaurants that really break the mold of the typical Polish cuisine. You would be remiss to not take the short local train to Sopot and walk along one of the longest wooden piers in Europe to see the beautiful seaside. Sopot feels like a beach resort town, somewhat like a classy version of the Jersey Shore.
- Ulcinj’s Old Town – I must admit that our time here was limited…only a short stop on the way back from Velika Plaza in the absolute south of the country. We almost missed the old town in fact as wandering from our parking spot it wasn’t at first clear where the “modern town” turned to old. All of a sudden we saw a large staircase carved into the rockside and on a hot day, I certainly pondered if it was worth the climb. At the top we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Adriatic and winding streets and alleyways with nary a tourist in sight. We stumbled upon a hotel with a perfect view and swimming pool perched above the water and seriously pondered staying there for a night spontaneously. While the town certainly doesn’t have the development of many old towns in the region and thus lacks a bit of a tourist draw, it’s well worth a visit, and well worth time spent.
The Best Beers of Europe
- I was crushed when the Czech Republic joined the EU years ago and my favorite Radegast Pivnice which was previously located a stone’s throw from Old Town Square was closed due to health violations. While I’ve had Radegast since, I’ve never had it on tap until finding Radegastovna Peron located in Prague’s trendy Smichov neighborhood. As hard as it is to admit….this location is even better than the original as the food is absolutely fantastic and the beer is of course just as good as remembered.
- I had honestly written off Romania in my mind as a place with unremarkable beer until I tried the offerings of Ursus. Not only do they have a god damn bear on their bottle…which is respectable as hell…they make a tasty beer. I started with the dark varietal, but the light is delicious as well, and pairs perfectly with the hearty meat dishes of Romania.
- After spending 2+ weeks in Morocco without a drop of beer, the first swig of whatever beer I had in a 0.5L mug in La Linea De Conception earned itself a place on this list.
- Poland might be better known for it’s delicious Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, but Zywiec is certainly no slouch in the taste department. In fact, go for a double Z combo and pair a glass of Zubrowka with a Zywiec as a chaser. Clearly this is a match made in heaven.
- The delicious and cheap Vranac red wine of Montenegro distracted me from beer during our time in Kotor, but by the time we made it to Serbia at the end of our trip I must have been in a beer state of mind as Jelen stuck in my head long after leaving. A slight sweetness to this national brew makes it the perfect pairing to the rich meaty Serbian cuisine.
Touristy, but ‘must-do’
- Ever since learning about the downfall of Ceausescu and the gratuitous waste of Romanian resources he was responsible for in the building of the ‘House of the People’ in Bucharest I knew I wanted to visit it one day. You can look at all the pictures in the world of the place but nothing prepares you for the size. Imagine endless banquet rooms attached to one another and furnished. The tour probably wouldn’t have been that interesting if it weren’t for the fact that ours was somehow a private tour given by a Romanian guy with very similar political views to my own. This is an absolute must see, and it gives you an appreciation for how entire parts of modern Bucharest were built with absolute disregard for the local people by a leader who attempted to create his own ‘cult of personality’ and parts of the city he could show off to foreign leaders in a way that would elevate his failed plans to that of grandeur.
- Perhaps absurdly, I knew I wanted to visit Granada after hearing tales of it’s beauty from those who have been before — but I did not know that the Alhambra was an absolute must see. I believe Risa at some point pointed out to me that it sounded amazing and I had to play along like I knew all along of its greatness. Typically I’m not one for seeing palaces or castles, but the Alhambra really lives in it’s own category. It dominates a privileged position overlooking the city and one could easily spend the afternoon or morning, or perhaps the entire day exploring it.
- Regardless of how cheesy it might have sounded I absolutely knew that a ‘desert night’ was a must for our Morocco itinerary. To me, this lived up to all the expectations…. everything from the drive off a paved piste into the sand by our host on the way to the camp to watching the sunset over an expanse greater than one can imagine. There are many choices out there in desert camps, but from reading the reviews something about Ali & Sara’s spoke to us. It’s as good as it sounds and then some.
- Honestly I have no idea how I knew about the Sagrada Familia…. clearly I had either read about it at some point in the past, or some traveller had told me that this unfinished work of Gaudi needed to be seen. Typically the last thing I would do would be to pay to visit a church….let alone one that is somewhat out of the way of where we were staying in Barcelona and technically unfinished. The Sagrada Familia however is absolutely worth the exception. The size, scale and scope of the place can not be understood without a visit, and it is one of those rare locations that gives you peace among even the hordes of tourists. Don’t balk at the cost of admission or the complex time scheduling needed for a visit, it is absolutely worth it. A sort of second mention here has to Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. I stumbled upon this on a walk through El Born just after sunset and the dimly lit cathedral with baroque music playing softly in the background truly sent my mind away to another world.
- The whole experience of crossing the border to the UK and walking across the airport runway of Gibraltar from La Linea is really unique. I can’t imagine there are few ‘first world’ to ‘first world’ borders like this in the world where you feel like you are crossing from one place to another so definitively, yet so easily.
- There is something that just doesn’t get old about a Christmas Market. We managed to visit tons of these at the end of our European leg of our trip, starting with Vienna and followed by: Bratislava, Budapest, Sibiu, Bucharest and finally Belgrade. I don’t understand why every North American city doesn’t have one of these and allow its inhabitants to have the experience of walking through a gingerbread-like Christmas wonderland while swilling a large cup of Gluhwein and eating some roast meats. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but the Schonbrunn Palace Christmas market must be one of the best in the world. Bratislava’s was also a really unexpected pleasant surprise and Budapest puts on quite a show.