Guten tag! Welcome to Berlin! We flew into Berlin on a discount airline from Thessaloniki in early July, and the whole city of seemed to be relishing the summer sunshine. We found a very affordable campsite inside the city on the Berlin-Spandau Ship Canal at Hotel und City Camping Nord. It was perfect: well-within our budget, a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle, and with a bus stop just down the street! We settled in before hopping on a bus to meet up with a friend of ours, Katrin, whom we first met back at Makvärket in Denmark! Check out Makvärkets new website here to see what they’re up to. But for now, onto our Berlin adventures!
After bit of an adventure leaving Albania on buses and taxis, we arrived in Macedonia late that evening. Although the peak tourist season hadn’t started yet, it was a warm, summer night and the streets were lively. We had booked an Airbnb apartment just outside of Ohrid and were looking forward to a beautiful, lakeside vacation! Our host had kindly agreed to pick us up downtown and a short drive later we were settling into our little apartment for the next couple weeks.
Something we learned very quickly in Albania is that you kind of have to take a leap of faith when it comes to travel. Public transit options are essentially buses, furgons (“minibuses”), and hitchhiking. All fine and good, but trying to find information for your route online is at best horribly frustrating and at worst outdated/outright wrong. Research your options ahead of time, but make sure you verify pickup locations, fares, timetables, etc. in person or with someone local. I found checking recent blog entries which detailed their route fairly helpful (check out here and here to get an idea). Even then, prepare to be flexible as arrival/departure times can be fairly loose and timetables can be outdated. I’ll elaborate a little more below when I speak about our adventure figuring out how to leave Tirana, but for now lets talk furgons.
It has been awhile since my last post! Life has been busy, but we have long been wanting to continue our blog and finish posting about our epic journey. Leaving the mythology and wonder of Delphi behind, we hopped on a bus bound for Meteora. Meteora is a popular pilgrimage for those wishing to visit one of the most spectacular complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries.
Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world, has been a thriving metropolis for thousands of years. More than a third of Greece’s population sprawls across the Attica plain amidst ruins of ancient grandeur. Athens is known as the founding place of western civilization: its arts, politics and philosophy. It has always been a highly revered city, even to foreign conquerors who would choose not to attack it out of respect. The Athens of today is still the political, business, and artistic centre of Greece and much beloved by the rest of the world.
Tourists visit Greece to explore archaeological wonders like the Acropolis, but they often forget where western civilization truly began: in Minoan Crete. Home to the Minoans long before Athen’s heyday, the kingdom of Crete boasted magnificent palaces, cities, and a rich culture that influenced most of the Mediterranean. Although it is shrouded in mystery and legend, archaeological evidence gives us a glimpse into the rise and fall of this advanced society. During our travels through Crete I made it my mission to visit these ancient Minoan sites and examine the evidence of their greatness firsthand.
Out of all the wonders we’ve witnessed in our travels through Europe, our workaway experiences have been the most memorable. In Finland we lived with an alternative community, constructed a yurt and worked on a straw bale home. In Hungary we helped renovate a 200 year old adobe brick house. We walked dogs through the Balkan mountains, babysat 3 kids in Vienna, helped bring back a lost garden in Scotland, and made caramelized sugar schnapps in Poland. We built relationships with people across the continent through the opportunities provided by work exchange organizations. Workaway forced us to get off the beaten, tourist trail and experience what we would otherwise have ignored. Our 18th and final workaway experience, within our 22 month European journey, began on the island of Crete. It was in the seaside town of Stalida one evening where we met the hyperadobe earth building visionnaire, Michael.
What are we eating in… The Balkans!
I want to start by saying that we LOVED the food throughout the Balkan region. Think rich soups, stews, grilled meats, and pies flavoured with paprika, garlic, and fresh vegetables. This feels like cheating a little bit because the “Balkans” encompass a large, diverse region of eastern Europe. The Balkan Peninsula is surrounded by the Adriatic, Mediterranean, Marmara, and the Black Seas and more or less encompasses all of southeastern Europe. For simplicity, I’ll be talking more about some of the foods we enjoyed in the core region of the Balkans, namely Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
As we prepared to say arrivederci to Italy, we set our sights on the islands of Greece for our next destination. Everyone raves about the rock bottom prices Ryanair offers to fly around Europe, and we figured it was time we give it a try for ourselves! The flights themselves are nothing to rave about. Everything costs a little extra: checking a bag, getting a snack, having a drink, entertainment, etc but when we saw that it was still way cheaper to fly from Rome to Chania than take the ferry, how could we resist? Greece here we come!
You could say that the Roman Empire lives on though the Vatican. It was Emperor Constantine the Great who built the original church on Vatican hill, over the grave of Saint Peter himself. After the Western Roman Empire fell, the Catholic Church acted as the principal force of unity in the Western World. In the Middle Ages, the Pope was considered greater than all the kings and rulers of Europe. Even today, the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.2 billion followers. Vatican City has become one of the most popular attractions in the world, drawing over 5 million tourists a year to its priceless works of art and opulent architecture. Despite one’s religious beliefs, one cannot deny the cultural and historical importance of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican.
Throughout our European travels we have found evidence of the greatness of the Roman Empire; from Hadrian’s Wall in the misty isles of Britain as far as Ephesus on the Aegean shores of Turkey. Every church, every castle, and every European city we visited was built upon the foundations of Roman temples, forts, and towns. Roman language, culture, and technologies spread all across the western world and are still used today. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when at last we had arrived at the centre of it all, the birthplace of western civilisation, to which all roads once led: Rome.
Between the beautiful architecture and delicious wines (just outside the city you will find the Chianti wine region) tourism has become the major driver of the Florentine economy. Florence, or Firenze in Italian, has been at the front of the pack economically for centuries; in fact in the Middle Ages it was the centre for Medieval finance and trade. All that wealth was put to artistic use and the city is considered to be la culla del Rinascimento, “the cradle of the Italian Renaissance” for a very good reason.
Bologna is known by many names because it’s a city with a high reputation. It is called “La Grassa” (the fat one) for its famous rich and fatty cuisine. A view from one of its many towers will show you why “La Rossa” (the red one) perfectly describes the earthy hues of Bologna. The nickname “La Dotta” (the learned one) tips a cap to the University of Bologna, the oldest operating university in the world. With all of this acclaim and more, Bologna has a lot to be proud of.
Looking at a map, you can see the province of Tyrol, the leg of Austria (kicking Switzerland in the face) with the capital town of Innsbruck stuck to its shin. Nestled there in the Karwendel Alps, Innsbruck has become an internationally renowned mountaineering/skiing destination, the two-time host of the Winter Olympics, the Paralympics, and the first Winter Youth Olympic Games. It’s ideal location as a stop-over point for travellers crossing the Alps allowed Innsbruck to flourish into an important cultural and administrative centre of Austria. Although people often overlook the town and head for the ski hills, Innsbruck has its own elegant allure that shouldn’t be ignored. If you’re transversing the Alps between Germany and Italy, stop by and take a peak into Innsbruck before moving on to your next destination.
It’s hard to know where to start with all that Munich has to offer. Bavaria’s capital and largest city holds the bar high as an economic powerhouse, popular tourist attraction, and a major centre of arts and culture. Despite being bombed into oblivion during World War II, Munich has rebuilt itself stronger and better than ever. In 2015, Munich was rated fourth city in the world with the highest quality of living. It’s a home to global corporations like BMW, Allianz and Siemens and has the lowest unemployment rate in Germany. Its historic architecture, rowdy beer halls and elegant parks make Munich a desirable place to live, play, and visit. Oktoberfest, the largest folk festival in the world, alone attracts 5 to 7 million tourists to Munich a year. All things considered, Munich seemed to be the perfect place to end our Bavarian adventure!
Bamberg has stumbled out of a medieval fantasy, trailing the seductive, smoky scent of Rauchbier behind it. If enchantment is the game, Bamberg is top of its class luring you in with hearty food and Bamberg’s distinctive smoky beer. The entire Aldstadt (“Old town”), with its medieval flair and distinctive photo ops, has been designated a UNESCO heritage site. Each of Bamberg’s seven rolling hills are topped with its own church and often a bevy of other historic landmarks. Our couchsurfing host from Nuremberg dropped us off one sunny day, and I couldn’t have been more excited to get started exploring.
If you’re craving the ambience of a quintessential medieval town, look no further. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a vision straight from the pages of Grimm’s fairy tales. Enter through one of the six gateways and take a stroll along Rothenburg’s rough cobblestone streets. Pass under leaning wattle-and-daub homes with intricate timber frames and terracotta shingles. Climb any one of the stone towers and gaze over a forest of feudal keeps, chimney tops, and church spires. A mix of ancient history and olde tyme fairy tales lie within Rothenburg’s walls, just waiting to be remembered.
Nuremberg is a beautiful German city with a checkered past. The second-largest city in Bavaria, Nuremberg’s exquisite, timber-frame buildings and dark beer bring tourists thronging all year-round. The old town in particular is well-preserved and beautifully captures the image of traditional Bavaria. That’s not even mentioning that Nuremberg has been a thriving hub culturally, artistically, and economically for centuries. It was the centre of the German Renaissance and birthplace of the great artist Albrecht Dürer and composer Johann Pachelbel (Pachelbel’s Canon, anyone?). Yet what made Nuremberg such a successful urban entity is also what attracted the interest of the Nazi party.
In an abandoned, Nazi amphitheatre at the summit of Heidelberg‘s Holy Mountain, bonfires burn bright on Witches’ Night. On April 30th, young students from the university town of Heidelberg make the long hike up woodland paths for a glorious night of fire-eating, twirling and juggling. Drunken revelry, drum circles and candle-lit picnic spreads makes for one hullabaloo of a party, though nobody’s really sure of what they’re celebrating. Lucky for us, our well-timed visit Heidelberg allowed us to witness this witch-repelling tradition first-hand.
So you’re heading to Croatia for your next vacation? Great choice! Croatia is an incredible blend of everything you could want in a destination; beautiful natural spaces, rich history, turquoise water, tranquil islands, lively cities, I could go on and on. The list of places you could visit is almost endless, so I’ll simply start you off with a few of my favourites!
After bidding adieu to most of the family, Nathanael, Braeden and I found ourselves having lunch in a bustling square in Freiburg, the first stop on our German adventure. Students filled the cafe-lined plaza and nearby beer garden, taking full advantage of the fact that this cheerful city is Germany’s warmest with 2000 hours of annual sunshine. Ready to say hello to Freiburg?
Ahhh Venice… a labyrinth of stunning architecture and alluring attractions, riddled with canals and trampled by 20 million tourists each year. Everybody wants to come to Venice and realize that romantic image of Italy we have in our heads: wandering the secret campis or grand piazzas, sipping espresso at canal-side cafés, and, of course, riding the gondolas as the drivers sing, “Thiiis is the night, what a beauuutiful night…” Although the dream of Venice has long been propagated through popular media, the reality comes pretty close to meeting expectations. Like Paris or Rome, Venice is a historical masterpiece, a wealth of architectural wonders that will continue to draw the masses for years to come.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the whirlwind of exciting sights, scents, and flavours when you’re exploring somewhere new. Croatia is no exception, with its mouth-watering blend of Mediterranean and Balkan flavours we were all in heaven as we sampled ćevapčići alongside pršut, fresh seafood, and vinegar-seasoned salads. One surprise flavour that we didn’t expect to find in Croatia was truffles. While France, Italy and Spain come to mind more quickly when you hear “truffles” and “truffle-hunting”, the forests of Istria actually boast several species of truffles, including some of the most valuable. In fact, Istria is the only area outside of Italy where the winter white truffle occurs (one of the two species that have stock prices for export worldwide), and is most common in the forests of the river valley surrounding Motovun. Finding ourselves already heading to Motovun, it seemed only natural for us to take advantage of the upcoming truffle season and do some hunting for the golden fungus!
Hugging Slovenia’s miniature coastline, wedged between the borders of Croatia and Italy, sun bathes the seaside town of Piran. Glittering at the tip of a green peninsula, this Venetian village is a gem on Slovenia’s 47 kilometre slice of shore. Piran offers incredible views from its old town wall, opulent architecture within the historic village, and a lively harbour front to sit and soak in the sights.
In the land of Istria: a broad peninsula jutting from Croatia’s northern coastline, one can wander through seaside fishing villages, clamber up to hilltop citadels, and rediscover leftovers from the might of the Roman Empire. Among the many medieval and Roman fortified towns dotting Istria there are four that stand out as wonders of Croatia: Porec, Rovinj, Pula, and Motovun. Though we had been lucky enough to explore most of Croatia’s southern coastline, the Istrian Peninsula promised unforgettable treasures that we couldn’t pass up when the opportunity came ringing.
Because we’re a bit silly, we decided to abandon Italy for the time being, go BACK into Croatia and visit a God’s honest paradise–Plitvice Lakes. Nestled in a valley between densely-forested mountains is a stairway of sixteen, turquoise lakes. Each pool is fed by many small streams and brooks that spill over in foaming cascades and roaring waterfalls. Over the millennia, the eroding waters of these lakes have dissolved the limestone rock and carved out the magnificent valley in which they now lie. Plitvicka Jezera National Park is one of the most stunning, natural wonders in Europe. Don’t believe me? You can go on their website and experience a virtual, panoramic tour or better yet, go to Croatia and witness this true paradise!
A cliff-top castle, an island monastery and alpine surroundings add to the wonderment of Lake Bled. The enchanting scenery of this placid lake, under the colossal presence of the Julian Alps, looks stolen from fairy tale. Visitors from all over the world come to Bled for a day of hiking in its forests, boating to its island, and bathing in its thermal waters. The mineral springs at the north-eastern section of the lake are famous for their healing abilities and have attracted many wealthy tourists over the centuries. All in all, Lake Bled is one magical place.
“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”
… The family finds themselves in a city alive with romance, drama, and the shadows of two of the world’s most famous “star-cross’d lovers“! Ah, William Shakespeare, who doesn’t remember reading at least a few of his works in school? While Verona sets the stage for three of Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juiliet (of course), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew, there is much more to it than the famous writings of an Englishman.
Italy’s infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa attracts over a million tourists a year, so we thought it was time to join the flock and see what all the fuss is about. Embarking with a caravan full of Ashleigh’s family we left the gorgeous shores of Tuscany and proceeded inland to the province of Pisa and its capital city. With Fred behind the wheel of our monstrous bus-van, Braeden navigating and the rest of us back-seat driving, we carefully piloted through Italy’s narrow streets, avoiding reckless Lamborghinis along the way.
What are we eating in… the Czech Republic!
It’s been awhile since I’ve written one of these so I thought it would be fun to post another delicious article to make everyone hungry! Food in the Czech Republic is hearty, meaty, and rich, and you WILL inevitably gain weight on your visit. Blending their own flavours with that of the neighbouring Balkan countries, Hungary, Germany, and others, popular Czech dishes and sweets can be found throughout Europe. Their beer alone could be an article in itself. But for now, enjoy this little glimpse into some food and drinks you need to try when you find yourself in Czech.
After ecstatic hugs and a flurry of gleeful giggles, the whole family piled into the rental van and away we went! There were some hairy moments puzzling out the toll booths (our van had a Goldilocks-situation where the upper toll was too high but the lower one was too low), but soon we rolled into the sun-soaked coast of the Italian Riviera. We were staying in the Liguria region (just north of Tuscany) where, fun fact, pesto originates (mmm, basil)! My parents had found a beautiful apartment with a balcony overlooking Lerici, our hometown for the next several days. Nearby the incredible Cinque Terre was waiting for us, but for now it was time to bring out the wine! Pouring our first glasses of Tuscan wine, we clinked glasses to our family vacation and watched the sun setting over the harbour.
Fixed like a giant spider-web on the map, Milan stands out as one of Italy’s greatest, and most dazzling, metropolises. We had heard people say Milan’s a commercial capital without much else to do but shop for Gucci purses and dine in exclusive restaurants. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of renaissance art and architecture, marvellous churches and green spaces Milan has to offer. You don’t have to be ‘rolling in the dough’ to spend a couple of enjoyable days strolling around the city (or using its cheap transportation system), revealing the cultural riches of Milan around every corner.
We were en route to our new workaway home: a horse farm venturing into permaculture, just a short train-ride from Croatia’s capital of Zagreb. Arriving at Zagreb’s main station, we had the first of what would be many frustrations with Croatia’s transit system. While we were waiting at our designated platform, a mysterious locomotive rolled up. The train had a different number than the one we were waiting for, so we ignored it and didn’t think too much of it. As it was getting closer to our departure time, this foreign train still sat there, the display hadn’t changed, and we started to worry. Is this hunk-of-junk going to get out of the way for our ride? What’s going on? (I’m sure you can all see what’s coming). As the mystery train was finally chugging away from the platform, the screen briefly changed to display our train’s details, and then went dark. What? NO! We frantically emailed our host that we would be on the next one, shooting hate-filled glares at the displays that betrayed us. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long, soon we were off to our temporary home near the Slovenian border.
The city of Split is filled with time-worn wonders, but where most monuments have been left uninhabited, this 2400 year-old colony is still fully-functional and bursting with energy. The stronghold of Emperor Diocletian has been adapted into apartments and cafe-bars, while storekeepers have set up shop its cellars. Halfway up the coast of Croatia, this thriving, harbour town attracts visitors from all around with its well-preserved Roman relics, lush parks, and a sunny-side harbour front.
Bumping and twisting around the mountainous coastline of Dalmatia, the lower region of Croatia, we took a sudden left up Pelješac peninsula. We were racing the setting sun, crossing our fingers that we would make it to Korčula island, and Korčula town, in time to snap a few photos with the last of the day’s light. The bus pulled over in Orebić, and while we impatiently waited for our ferry we got our first glimpse at Croatia’s southern Dalmatian islands. Beautiful. There is a reason why it felt like literally everyone was telling us we HAD to visit Croatia’s islands.
Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, has been the most impressive “old town” we’ve ever visited on our incredibly long journey. An extraordinary citadel set on the rocky shores of the Adriatic Sea, built up out of bleached stone and capped with red terracotta roofs, the splendour of Dubrovnik glistens in the rays of the Croatian sun. The three days we had in Dubrovnik were spent simply meandering through the old town’s maze of corridors, peeking into its limestone dwellings, and striding upon its battlements and bastions (we didn’t even have time for a swim!). It would be hard to find a city that can compare with Dubrovnik’s lavish, Venetian architecture, scale of fortifications and the excellent condition of its ancient monuments.
Top Five of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina was in the back of my mind for a long time before we finally decided to visit. Initially when we were planning our trip we had put it on the back burner, unsure about the state of things, and wanting to focus on other places. I’m so glad that we put it back on the table, because I would definitely put it on my list of favourite countries we have visited. The people were lovely, the food delicious, the natural beauty was more incredible than I’d ever imagined, and just overall it was a fantastic experience. Here are just a few of the highlights of our tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina!
On its way to recovery from the Bosnian War, the beauty and mystery of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been revealed to the world. In the Herzegovina region the town of Mostar lives and breathes again as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Balkans. With its fascinating blend of medieval European and Islamic architecture, cobblestone alleys and slate roof tiles, Mostar is a picturesque town settled peacefully on the crystal clear Neretva River.
Our first stop in Bosnia was, of course, Sarajevo. Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we had been fortunate enough to find a workaway host with the best view in the city. Perched atop one of hills surrounding Sarajevo, Olywood is a B and B/hostel, high enough to overlook the city lights below and to get a peek at the snow-capped mountains filling the horizon. Despite the natural beauty and charm of Bosnia and Hercegovina, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the Bosnian War which once ravaged the country. Sarajevo itself was under siege for 1425 days, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. With the break-up of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that prided itself on cultural acceptance, suddenly became the centre of a conflict drawn along ethnic lines.
Top Five of Romania
Romania is wrapped in an aura of mystery and timelessness. Even today when we mention Romania, people still seem a bit in awe by that sense of wildness we take away from the old stories of strigoi, Vlad Tepes, and Dracula. There’s something darkly romantic about the forests, castles, and the villages standing still in time with their horse-drawn carts and superstitions. We were very excited to visit Romania, and it didn’t disappoint! I would go back and wander those quiet, mountain trails and dark castles in a heartbeat. For now, here were a few of my favourite parts of our time in Transylvania, Romania!
It was love at first sight as Nathanael and I hiked uphill towards the old town of Sighișoara. It had this dark romanticism to it that I love about Romania combined with a pastel palette everybody loves about these medieval towns. The old town is perfect for walking around, but don’t bother with the restaurants. The prices are ridiculous (think double to quadruple what is typical), and just down the cobblestone road running beneath the clock tower are plenty of affordable options. We had some fantastic sarmale and a pork dish with a paprika sauce (which I NEED to learn how to make) in a little place tucked just beneath the old town, yum!
We scored a pretty sweet Airbnb place in Sibiu, right outside the old city walls. It was in a perfect location for us to explore the old town and, since it was still pretty early in the year, the area was relatively quiet with just a few out-of-season tourists like ourselves.
Sibiu (“Hermannstadt” in German) was the largest and wealthiest of the citadels built by the Transylvanian Saxons: German merchants who settled in the area around the 12th century. The vast amount of wealth accumulated by the guilds allowed Sibiu to flourish, and permited/encouraged construction of the city’s impressive fortifications. At one time, Sibiu boasted 39 defensive towers, four gates, and five artillery batteries in addition to the walls surrounding the city. Nathanael and I were lucky enough to be staying right outside from one of only three of the remaining defensive towers, the Carpenters’ Tower. Pretty hard to beat that, eh?
The city of Brașov, with its medieval towers and Saxon architecture, surrounded by gorgeous mountains and ski slopes, stands out in my memory as being a idyllic place to live in Romania.
We were very fortunate to have met Bogdan in Casa de Cultura Permanenta— our temporary home in Cluj-Napoca. Bogdan owned an apartment in Brașov and was gracious enough to give us a place to stay while we were exploring the city. For five nights we had a wonderful home in Brașov, as well as a room-mate named Eduardo who brought us to some of his favourite restaurants and pubs. Eduardo was a young man from Australia who had moved to Romania to start an online business. With Romania having one of the fastest internet speeds in the world, as well as cheap living expenses, settling in Brașov is certainly a tempting idea for anyone who can make their income online.
Just before leaving our home in Cluj-Napoca, in the spur of the moment, we were convinced to hitch a ride with a friend in the direction of Sighișoara: a brightly coloured citadel overrun with medieval architecture.
Like something out of a German fairy tale, the Transylvanian-Saxon village of Sighișoara rests on top of a steep plateau, wrapped in ancient fortifications, and furrowed with twisting, cobblestone passageways. This UNESCO-claimed heritage site, founded in the 13th century, is among the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.
We had finally arrived in fascinating land of Transylvania, Romania. We had been eager to visit for quite some time, even more so after speaking with Gabor, a big fan of the Transylvania region, back in Budapest. In my head I was imagining haunting castles perched on mountaintops, farmers still using traditional tools, and horse drawn carts rattling through towns; a mysterious, romantic country tucked away on the edge of Europe.
My Top Five of Ukraine
Our time in Ukraine was an eye-opening experience. We met some wonderful people who invited us to see Ukraine from their point of view and I felt that was priceless. It wasn’t without its frustrations; my Mom can vouch for how often I called and regaled her with our latest train/bus/general miscommunications as we tried to pick up some of the Ukrainian language. But all things considered, we had a great time in Ukraine! So without further ado, here were my top five favourite parts about our travels in Ukraine!
The man who scouted out the location of the Ukrainian fortified town, Kamyanets-Podilsky (fortress of stone), must have received a shiny, gold star for his brilliance. Surrounded by a 100 foot deep, natural canyon, this citadel has got to be in one of the most defensible positions in the world.
Top Five of Slovakia
Ahhh Slovakia! Imagine the dramatic peaks of the Tatra Mountains, hearty food, and medieval castles– does it get much better? Modern, thriving Slovakia is a popular destination for skiers, hikers, and those in search of a little peace and quiet, but if a good party is more your style go no further than Bratislava. Bordering five other European countries (Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, and Poland) makes it a great platform to explore from, so don’t miss out!
It’s always fun to take pictures with random sculptures, especially when they seem to invite people to pose with them. Who could resist this guy? No one wants to sit alone! Lviv is a fun, quirky little city with a charming, cobblestone heart. It’s hard not to fall in love with a city where you’re stumbling across surprising, little treasures, like this guy, around every corner.
After spending some time workaway-ing at a nearby farm, it was time for us to get back to the big city and enjoy the sights and charms that Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, had to offer. Life was simple back on the ol’ farmstead, and we enjoyed the daily chores of milking the goat, feeding the animals, fetching water from the well and scouring the property for eggs never laid in the same place twice. Evgeniya, our host, had bought this large property in the village of Bobryk and started a farm in order to independently sustain her family. Pretty much all the food we ate was grown from her land, including the delectable chicken eggs (when we could find them) and fresh goat’s milk. As much as we enjoyed having a break from being a tourist, a time to let our minds rest with a few chores to keep us busy, Ashleigh and I were eager to find out what was beyond the outskirts of this small village.
We had written down all the details for our train and set off early in the morning for the station in Spišská Nová Ves, Slovakia. We were going to ride the rail to Uzhhorod, just over the Ukrainian border, and then a night train into Lviv where we had arranged to meet our Ukrainian workaway host so we could all take the train to Kyiv together. We had tried to purchase tickets for our train online ahead of time, but unfortunately the Ukrainian Railways website didn’t accept foreign credit cards (little did we know this would be the first of many credit card misadventures). You could reserve tickets on a foreign card, but you had to come pick the tickets up two days prior to departure, which wasn’t possible. So we decided to prepare as best we could and go with the flow, after all, (cue famous last words) how busy could trains possibly be in the middle of the week?
A cold wind was already blowing when we arrived in Levoča, a medieval, fortified town that became part of the UNESCO Heritage List in June, 2009. Spiš county was our final stop in far eastern Slovakia and we were eager to take a walk-about through Levoča’s historical sites before the day was through. A hideous, dark cloud was building in the distance and rolling out in our direction, so made haste like soldiers on a mission.
“Winter is coming…” I whispered to Ashleigh with a sidelong glance as another gust of cold air spewed icy needles into our faces.
What are we eating in… the United Kingdom!
So this is quite a long time coming, but I’ve finally gotten around to making a sequel to a fun post I made on Scandinavian food. Not many people back home were very interested in what the food was like while we were in the United Kingdom, because in North America it all seems so familiar. But Nathanael and I really enjoyed the food the UK had to offer! So without further ado, check out a bit of what we were eating in… the United Kingdom!
After a spectacular New Year’s in Banská Bystrica, we set off on a whirlwind, couchsurfing adventure through Slovakia. Our goal was to spend about a week making our way over to the Ukrainian border, the next country on our list. We’ve done a bit of couchsurfing here and there, but in Slovakia we definitely had the best luck finding hosts so far. Maybe it was just the right season, who knows, but we immediately found some great people that happily took us in along the way. So here we go!
The day before New Years Eve we set off on a hop, skip and a jump through Slovakia, with only a week before our time to be exiled from the Schengen area, and kissed Austria goodbye. My mind was completely open to whatever this country of former Czechoslovakia had to offer and I was hoping to explore the best parts within our restricted time-schedule. Banská Bystrica was our first target in Slovakia (not counting Bratislava)– a small, university city on the south-western edge of the Low Tatra Mountains.
This is terrible to admit, but before I visited Slovakia the first thing that came to my mind when I thought of “Bratislava” was that funny movie Eurotrip from 2004. Essentially, the lead characters end up in Bratislava by accident after a hitchhiking adventure gone wrong. Stepping out of the lorry they rode in on, they are confronted with a desolate, Soviet-esque block of litter-strewn, grey apartment buildings complete with an old man bathing from a bucket and a dog holding a severed human hand. Awful, eh? Putting that out of your minds for a moment, Bratislava isn’t at all the depressing, desolate capital that Eurotrip pokes fun of. It’s vibrant, fun, and was the perfect weekend-getaway for us while we were living in Vienna.
Top Five of Austria
Next up in my Top Five series… Austria! We spent about a month in Austria this past December, and though we visited only two cities, we still felt like there was something new to see every day. Nat and I both loved the tantalizing collection of chocolate and pastries available in every cafe and bakery, Austria’s transportation is amazing (although expensive), and their wiener schnitzel is delicious! So I hope you guys enjoy a quick list of five of my favourite places in Austria.
Having a weekend off from babysitting duty in Vienna, we were trying to figure out the best place to spend our Christmas holidays– and it had to be somewhere cheap because Austria was killing us! A fine thing about being in central Europe is that you’re rarely more than a couple hours away from the nearest border, Austria itself being closed in at all sides by Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany and the Czech Republic (don’t forget Liechtenstein!). Surveying our choices, we decided it would be fun (and cheap) to take a couples’ vacation up to Brno, Czech, only a couple hours by bus from Vienna. Czech is a country we’ve visited before on our trip to Prague and Karlovy-Vary, and we were more than happy to return to its loving embrace.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Vienna?
For me, hmmm… the Grandeur. Stately, Baroque palaces and government buildings lit by crystal chandeliers, grand ballrooms attached to richly furnished lounges. Considering the area has been inhabited since 500 BC, it’s not surprising that they’ve had some time on their hands to build such a beautiful city. Esteemed artists would come to Vienna from all around to live and work, surrounded by inspiration. Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss (I and II) are just a few superstars I could name that have filled Vienna’s cobbled streets with their music.
When we arrived in Salzburg, Austria on Dec. 5th, Christmas had already come! The streets were lit up with brilliant lights and the smells of baked goods wafted deep into our senses. Around every corner Christmas carollers galore sang traditional tunes, accompanied by brass bands and accordion players. Mulled wine was being quaffed in sickening amounts and temporary stalls, set up in several of Salzburg’s squares, were selling a multitude of bees-wax candles, holiday decorations, and mountains of sugary sweets. Little did we know that all of these familiar festivities were leading up to something strange…. and possibly terrible.
My Top Five of Hungary
We spent a few weeks in Hungary, travelling mostly in the area around Budapest, and I loved it! It was a country I didn’t know much about, but I had been curious to know more for a long time. Especially with everyone raving to us about how incredible Budapest is, I was sold and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. I will hopefully visit again, but for now, here are my top five things we saw this time around!
The Puszta Great Plains
The Puszta Great Plains is a large, incredibly beautiful region encompassing most of southeastern Hungary. We were lucky enough to be volunteering along the northern edge of the plains, quite close to Hortobágy National Park, and flocks of cranes flying overhead brightened up our mornings. The region is characterized for its grassy, treeless plains stretching out into the horizon, but famous for its bird-life, Hungarian Grey Cattle, and the Hortobágy Stud, one of just two breeding centres for Hungarian Nonius horses. While we didn’t manage to see one of the amazing talents of the csikós (mounted horse-herdsman, a.k.a. cowboys for horses) check out the (slightly cheesy) video above for a glimpse into this amazing tradition!
We arrived into Ljubljana a bit earlier than expected, but excited nonetheless. We were right on time to watch the Christmas lights start going up and in just a few days the city would be lit up! In the meantime, time to get to know the city behind the dragon.
Ljubljana is a great mix of everything I love to see in a capital: laid-back vibe, easily walkable, great cafes and restaurants, and plenty to see. The central market was perfect for grabbing everything we’d need. Besides the fresh fruits and veggies, there were cheeses galore, mountains of sauerkraut, fresh flowers, and even, if you so desired, running shoes. The Christmas markets were just getting going, mostly Advent wreaths in every size, shape, and colour possible.
My Top Five of Serbia
We dashed through Serbia in two quick, but busy bursts before continuing on our journey. The former Yugoslavian countries have a complicated relationship with each other, and it was really interesting (and sometimes a bit worrying) to see how influences of recent history are playing out. Local tensions aside, we had a fun time in Serbia and here’s a glimpse at some of the interesting things we would recommend seeing!
A Polish girl we met in Niš raved about Belgrade being her favourite city in Europe, she just loved it. She was a partier, and Belgrade, the city that never seems to sleep, was definitely the city for her! For Nat and I, we found the fortress more our speed (we’re so predictable, eh?). What I really liked about Belgrade Fortress is they have turned it into a diverse, community space with something for everyone. Restaurants, markets, parks, tank exhibitions, and even a dinosaur exhibit! So much fun, and what a great way to incorporate modern life into a piece of the past!
From the top of Šentviška Gora Plateau, Ashleigh and I descended along a walking trail that had been altogether obscured by a passing storm. Felled trees littered the path like strewn match sticks and we had to scramble our way through like an obstacle course. We were staying with English expatriate Helpx hosts who lived in a terribly remote region of Slovenia, amidst the tiny settlement of Ponikve– a carpenter and a hairdresser who decided to make a new home in a strange country. Unable to get a ride, and with no other way to get off the mountain, we set off on our weekend adventure on foot in an attempt to get to the beautiful Tolmin Gorge, about 15 kilometres away.
My Top Five of Montenegro
As I’m sure every visitor has said before, Montenegro is SO beautiful. I would go back again in a heartbeat. There’s something about the fact that there are hikes everywhere but no map to any of them that feels like uncharted territory. While the coastlines are dotted with some pretty ugly hotels, the incredibly blue waters make up for it. Our time in Montenegro was short, but oh so sweet, and here were some of the best parts!
Stari Bar is a romantic, ruin of a town perched above the modern sprawl of today’s Bar. The fortified town has had a tumultuous history, including sieges, explosions, and earthquakes! Today, people can wander through the ruins and learn about the city’s history in the little museum at the entrance. Nathanael and I found modern Bar a bit boring, but Stari Bar was well worth the trip by itself. We loved climbing over the old walls, trying to grab pomegranates sprouting in an overgrown kitchen, and exploring the ivy-strewn alleys. The views of the valley below are beautiful too, in a stomach-clenching, feet-tingling, please-don’t-let-me-fall kind of way. If you’re heading to the coast, check out the enchanting old town of Bar!
Our very first Couchsurfing experience began in Budapest and we were privileged with meeting such a wonderful host! Gabor met us at the train station and took us into his family home, a hundred-year old apartment building with a beautiful, enclosed courtyard, quite near to the Danube. His parents were extremely friendly, offering us tea, biscuits and breakfast, and Gabor himself was a wealth of knowledge about the history of his city.
…Meanwhile, in a remote village somewhere on the Hungarian plains…
Yes indeed, that was a straw bale dressed up to look like a pig from the video game Angry Birds, but wait, we’ve got the WHOLE collection!
The tiny village of Tiszaigar, population of 946, is a cheery, little community near Tisza Lake in the Great Plains of Hungary, a two-hour drive east of Budapest. The Tisza people take great pride in their hometown, keeping it clean, building a beautiful fountain garden, and taking care to decorate according to the holidays. This year there was no particular theme but they chose to create several straw bale Angry Birds characters (including the giant slingshot), a straw bale Mater the Tow Truck from the movie Cars, and a maze for the kids to wander around in and get lost for hours. What were we doing in a wacky place like this you may ask?
Ashleigh and I stepped off the bus into Belgrade’s streets around five in the morning, expecting the city to be asleep. Instead, we were met with a heavy bass thumping from thriving nightclubs, scattered people swaggering with half-drunk bottles in their hands, and a completely smashed sailor who just wouldn’t leave us alone (in a friendly sort of way). Most of Belgrade was still awake from the night before and still rearing to party!
Hello, Montenegro! Time for a last bit of fun in the sun before the winter closes in on us once again!
We arrived in Bar, Montenegro late in the evening after a harrowing bus ride through the mountains. Our driver had been drinking something that looked very suspicious, and the mountain face was literally right next to the road (why bother with any kind of buffer zone in case of falling rocks? Who needs it anyway). Relieved to get out of the bus (and to be alive), we made our way across town to find a place to rest our pretty heads for the night. After walking for an hour, completely lost, we stopped at a convenience mart to ask for directions and grab a snack. They were so nice, they actually called the owner of our guest house and the guy came pick us up! Thank goodness, because driving up a maze of twisting, unlabelled roads made me think we hadn’t stood a chance of finding it on our own in the dark.
We decided to take a bit of a vacation from volunteering to venture through Serbia and get a last taste of summer in Montenegro. First stop: Niš!
Isn’t that the best ice-cream sundae you’ve ever seen? We found this treasure at an adorable cafe decked out in old Tram décor. They had a few other really good ones on the menu. For us it was a toss up between the one above, titled “Adam and Eve,” and one called the “Viking Cup,” which looked like a deluxe sundae with two bananas speared on either side of the glass to look like Viking horns. A little expensive, but the picture alone was worth it.
Ashleigh and I swung back and forth in unison as we wound up the snaking road to the top of Belogradchik, a small village resting on the side of a mountain. The town wasn’t too far from the train station but the taxi ride meandered wildly, taking near 180 degree turns every few minutes, and we struggled to keep our heads on straight as the g-force took its toll. Stepping out into the streets, we were met with a sense of peace and quiet in this sleepy village.
All roads in Bulgaria lead to Sofia, the capital city, so we were bound to cross paths eventually. As it turned out a friend of ours, whom we met in Makvarket, Denmark, was passing through Bulgaria on her travels and so we timed our visit to Sofia to meet up with her. Kat had just finished exploring Istanbul with her companion, Elena, and we were excited to swap stories as well as discover a new place together.
My Top Five of Bulgaria
Want to go somewhere different? With some incredible scenery, friendly people, and wooden monasteries perched on mountains? Look no further than Bulgaria! I loved our time in Bulgaria, and I would say that it has some of the most beautiful natural landscapes that we have seen in Europe so far. Top that off with cheap beer and great vegetable markets, how could you go wrong?
Hiking in the Mountains
The Balkan mountain range is incredibly beautiful. Seriously, it took my breath away (in more ways than one, ugh, so steep). When the sun is shining you can see peak after peak stretching off into the distance, each fading to a lighter shade of blue the further they go on. Hiking along the roughly marked (or more often, unmarked) trails we came across goat herders, meandering herds of horses, and gravity-defying farm fields. We came across this hay field on our way back from a big hike and we couldn’t believe that someone could actually farm the slope. It may not look it in this picture, but I swear the incline was something like 45°! And check out that haystack, it’s so tall!
Two pairs of huge, gooey eyes stared up at me expectantly as I sat on the porch of Little Spring’s Guesthouse, tying up my bootlaces. Even though it was half an hour before their usual walking time, Mečka and Sausage took it upon themselves to wake us up during the early hours with a series of high and low barks accompanied by incessant whining. Wiping the sleep from my eyes and fending off the two energetic dogs, hopping around like giant rabbits, I stumbled down the walkway and opened the gate. Mečka and Sausage took off like a shot with the older (and wiser) black lab, Chester, trailing slowly behind.
My Top Five of Turkey
Our time in Turkey was filled with wonderful people, delicious food, and incredible experiences. We went out and saw as much as we possibly could, and here’s a small taste of some of my favourites from our adventure in Turkey!
Troy was an incredible experience for Nathanael and I; the setting of one of the most famous legends in the world. The English name wavered between Troy, Troya, and Truva, and locals seemed a bit bemused as to why we wanted to visit, but if you’re an ancient history buff it’s a must-see. They have pretty good signage all over detailing what kind of structure you’re looking at and from what time period it’s from (because the city has been rebuilt at least NINE times!). One cliff had signs slowly going down its height detailing at which “Troy” occurred in the sediment layers. Çanakkale is the nearest city to the site and is worth a visit too, you can pose with the Trojan Horse movie prop!
We had been staying a few weeks on a farm near Yalova, just a short ferry ride away from Istanbul. Chevrel and Alan are an English couple building their dream property on the mountainside of the small village of Kurtköy, and we definitely took away a lot of inspiration from their place. My favourite moments though were during tea time with everyone out in the garden. Between everyone laughing, chickens darting in to steal grapes, and the dogs nudging around to say hi, we would all be having a blast over cups of tea. Bidding everyone a fond farewell, we set off on our next adventure… Istanbul!
The Illiad, one of the two popular epics attributed to Homer, is an ancient Greek story set during the Trojan War. The Illiad is probably one of the greatest tales of all time, retold for centuries in the courts of kings, before the thrones of emperors and is still a favourite of today. Although Homer stirred many outlandish deeds of mighty heroes and angry gods into his stories, the Trojan War is believed to have actually occurred and the ruins of the ancient city of Troy still exist.
We were planning on slowly making our way north along the Aegean coast, stopping at two Workaway hosts and a couple historical sites along the way. Our first host in Turkey was Hülya, a wonderful Turkish woman living near the summer resort town of Dikili. Days were blazing hot; I felt like I was sweaty from sunrise to sunset. Lucky for us, Hülya organized the day so that we worked a couple hours early in the morning before it got too hot and then had a break until the evening when it got cool(ish) again. Most of our first week was spent weeding out Hülya’s large yard and mulching the plant beds with a couple of volunteers from the United States. The second week we were on our own helping to clean and patch up the adorable guest cottage Hülya had renovated and build a new oven to use on warm summer nights.
Sometimes more powerful forces than your own direct you down paths you wouldn’t otherwise go, and our plans always seem to change. This time, the great forces of “cheap airline tickets” directed us to Izmir in Turkey. Apparently many Finlanders travel there during their summer holidays to get a bit closer to the sun and work on their non-existent tans, thus there were many different airlines offering thrifty flights to Turkey. Climbing on-board the Sun Express, we set off on our own holiday towards a whole new world under the blazing sun.
Fancy a cup of tea with herbs freshly picked from the garden? How about a snack made with wild nettles and oregano? Back in the land of saunas and Moomin, we found Finland beautifully in bloom! The people of Solbacka strive to live in tune with their surroundings, so they love the chance to use what nature has provided. I was so excited to start learning about all the herbs and food that the Finnish wild has to offer.
My Top Five of the Baltics
Thinking of heading to the Baltics? This is a little different from my other Top Fives because I’m combining Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into a Baltics adventure addition. Please don’t hate me! We spent such a short time in the Baltics, but they’re so interesting that I wanted to write something. Each Baltic country was great, and I wish we had more time to do them each justice. So without further ado, my favourite spots we visited in the Baltics!
Who doesn’t love a beach side vacation? Jūrmala is famous for miles of beautiful, white-sand beaches and we loved taking walks between our community, Sloka, and the touristy district of Majori (whose beach has “Blue Flag” designation). We came kind of at the wrong time of year to do much swimming (as you can see by how covered-up I am above), but we did have a nice day where we managed to go in and the water was great! No seaweed in sight! The neighbourhoods of Jūrmala have different things to offer, my favourites were Kemeri, for the hot springs and parks, and Majori, for the wooden houses and restaurants (read more here). An affordable place to have a wonderful vacation while in Latvia, you should definitely check it out!
Time for a little break from real-life and a sweet, relaxing vacay in Latvia! Wait a minute, haven’t we been on a break from real-life for a while now? Oh well, we went ahead and booked an apartment near the beach anyway. Woohoo!
We had a slightly terrifying introduction to our vacay home. Our squat, little two-story building sat in the middle of a run-down apartment complex. Fences falling down, graffiti, stray dogs laying around, garbage… You get the picture. Walking down the hallway of the building made us even more nervous. The floor boards were uneven and coming up, the door across from ours looked like someone had stuffed a couch in the doorway, and the overall feel was a bit like a drug den. We anxiously watched our host open the door to our apartment to see what we had gotten ourselves into… And it was so cute! It was small, but had been completely renovated and looked great. What a relief!
Early in the morning we bid a sad farewell to Ola and John, our most gracious Workaway hosts in northern Poland, and prepared ourselves for the two week tour ahead that would swiftly sweep us into the unknown. The Baltic Nations, three post-USSR countries sandwiched between Russia and the Baltic Sea, were completely unfamiliar to us and we relished the chance to discover its mysteries first-hand. First on the list: Vilnius.