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. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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. Continue reading
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.
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.
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?
We grabbed an evening bus from Prague to Kraków, Poland, thinking we could sleep on the way and be fresh to explore. Well, between the drunk singing in the back of the bus and an overly friendly/socially imperceptive guy thinking our closed eyes meant we were really interested in what he had to say, I wouldn’t say we felt “fresh” hopping off the bus. After a transfer to a quiet but strange little mini-bus (basically a mini-van where they give you a free bottle of water), we arrived into Kraków early in the morning. Off we went to check-in to our hostel in the Old Town. Lucky for us we could check-in right then and there and get some of the sleep our bus friend stole from us before adventuring out into the city.
Poland was a thrilling, financial break for us. After being traumatized by a $30 bowl of soup at a fish-market in Oslo, not to mention the ludicrously lavish living expenses in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and London—Poland was a pleasant dream that just kept getting better. Suddenly, a pint of beer at a bar cost $2.50 instead of $12. Milk Bars, a cheap and excellent source of perogies and sauerkraut, could be found around every corner and offered decent meals for as little as five dollars. In the end we likely spent more money than usual, surrounded by a sea of “good deals”, but we certainly felt better about it.
My Top Five of Poland
Poland is a country rich in culture and full of surprises. Nathanael and I spent about three weeks in Poland, but easily could have spent more if the Baltics hadn’t been beckoning. For people interested in history, Poland is a great country to visit; not only is it so rich in historical sites, but they’re easily accessible even for those on a budget. Just staying in Krakow for a few days we felt like we saw and learned much about Poland’s history and the people of today. Let’s not forget, the food is fantastic, don’t forget to check out the Milk Bars for hearty food on a budget! Anyway, without further ado, here were my favourite spots in Poland!
My Top Five of the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic! What an awesome country; beautiful, rich in history and culture, and we can’t forget the great beer! It was tough to narrow down my Top Five favourite things/places in Czech because we had so much fun. I didn’t even want to start delving into how much I loved the food and beer, because that would never end. But I did my best, so without further ado, my Top Five of Czech!
After three months in the United Kingdom and Ireland Nathanael and I were ready for a completely new vibe. We flew out of the Bristol airport and with a quick glance at our passports, stamp-stamp, we were in the Czech Republic!
The energy, the architecture, the food! I loved it! And the best part… My family was joining us for a week and a half tour! We started in the dynamic city of Prague. Just down the street from our apartment was the Old Town Square, where an Easter festival was winding down. We started our day by walking around the little kiosks selling models of Prague’s famous astronomical clock and beautiful painted eggs while listening to local bands in leather outfits. After a tasty trdelnik, a pastry dusted with sugar and almonds, we were off for a city walking tour.