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! Continue reading
You could say that the Roman Empire lives on though the Vatican. It was Emperor Constantine the Great who converted the whole of Europe to Christianity and 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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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.
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!
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! Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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!
“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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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.
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!
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. Continue reading