Portuguese Pastries

My last stop on the four month trip abroad was Lisbon, Portugal. I was admittedly tired and having worn the same outfits across two continents and countless cities, I was ready for some wardrobe variety. I flew from Malta to Geneva for one evening, then headed to the western edge of Europe where I lingered just four days before making the much longer leap back across the Atlantic. 

Sometimes you don't know when you are saving the best for last, and how fortunate that is. Lisbon surprised me with its warmth (in temperature and kindness of the people) and quickly made me wonder if I should rebook my flights home. I took a free four-hour walking tour around the city on my first full day, exploring the ins and outs of each region of the city and getting to know what made this vibrant place so special. I tasted every pastry available in the local bakery, including a surprise shrimp pot pie that was a bit too much for 9 AM, in my defense it looked like a croissant and my Portuguese is lacking. I got a workout walking up and down the endless Lisbon hills in the heat of the day. To future tourists, do not underestimate the size and prevalence of the hills, you will feel defeated at the sight of another staircase ahead, I recommend perseverance because there's always something worth it around the bend in Lisbon. I watched the sunset from a parking garage rooftop bar, wine glass in hand and Golden Gate Bridge in view (okay, so the Portuguese version, but google it, they are identical). Most of all, I savored my last nights as a solo traveler as I mentally prepared to return stateside and visit with family. 

I used Lisbon as a gateway back to reality, dulled by the warmth and fattened by the pastries I was ready to pack my bags one final time. There is a sense of sadness you inevitably feel when you board a flight away from the experience of a lifetime. But as I sat in my airline seat next to a very hipster Australian and his service dog, what I felt most was pride. I had always wanted to travel alone, and I had done just that for nearly four full months. From Thailand to Portugal and all the places I was fortunate to experience in between, the stories and memories will always be a unique part of me. 

 The evening sunset from the roof of a parking garage

The evening sunset from the roof of a parking garage

 the incredible tiles that cover most buildings in Lisbon

the incredible tiles that cover most buildings in Lisbon

 Pastries and painted tiles (Lisbon in four words)

Pastries and painted tiles (Lisbon in four words)

 You're always at the bottom of a hill in lisbon

You're always at the bottom of a hill in lisbon

The Maltese Islands

After lusting after sun and the seaside, I booked a cheap ($34) flight from Sofia, Bulgaria to the Maltese Islands. For someone in search of a relaxing and sunny holiday, this is the place to be. The three islands that comprise Malta are located just 100 miles off the coast of Sicily and 200 miles from Tunisia. Although small, Malta is a strategic naval location and has been ruled by Romans, Sicilians, Spanish and British. Imprints of these ruling powers were left on the landscape of Malta in various forms; Sicilian pasta is the most prevalent food, vehicles drive on the left side of the road, and roman ruins can be found in most towns across Malta.

My Maltese adventure began in Valletta, where imposing fortresses from 1566 stand on the coast of the peninsula. The streets are narrow and hilly, lined with cafes, bars and colorful doorways. I made my first gaff as a tourist when I dined on Sicilian pasta and realized after I was at a cash only restaurant, with no Euros to my name (Swiss Francs wouldn't cut it). It all worked out thanks to a trusting waiter who let me return hours later, but it was the hardest, and quickest, way to learn that Malta is basically a cash only island. 

The next day I went inland from the coast to the city of Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta. Mdina is known as the 'Silent City' and true to the name the streets are narrow and quiet, reminding you of a different period of time. The main street through town bustles with tourists, but since only one bus every hour runs from the coast to Mdina, the crowds inside the walls were minimal. I found myself wandering sand-colored alleyways, admiring baroque and medieval architecture, and passing through small green courtyards. Before leaving the walled city, I stopped at Coogi's for a glass of wine and a view of the Maltese countryside. 

My final day in Malta was spent on a Turkish boat exploring the smaller two of the islands. We spent the day sailing the coastline and exploring the many blue lagoons around the island. Our guide pointed out famous filming locations, everything from Jurassic Park to Game of Thrones, and informed us about the history of the islands. 

Malta was the perfect place to catch some final summer sun and relax on the rocky shores of the perfect blue waters. I loved the mix of beach holiday and cultural excursion that could be found, just within the 122 square mile island heaven.

 

 The Maltese coastline

The Maltese coastline

 Sailing around the three islands

Sailing around the three islands

 Beautiful Maltese buildings

Beautiful Maltese buildings

Sofia, Sofia

The ride from Skopje, Macedonia to Sofia, Bulgaria is an easy five hour bus ride. Of course, one hour of the trip is taken up at the boarder crossing (where your passport disappears twice into a darkly shaded building, but thankfully is returned) and another hour is taken by the time difference between the two locations. This places the actual driving time between the two cities at a quick three hours; I hopped on the bus early on a Sunday and found myself in Sofia by mid-afternoon.

Despite their proximity, Skopje and Sofia have distinctly different feels. Sofia has an interesting Thracian/Roman heritage with an Ottoman legacy and communist influence. The buildings are built in a variety of architectural styles, colors, and dates of conception. Some key sites I visited during my walking tour included the famous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Ivan Vazoz National Theater and the Church of St. Petka and the Saddlers. The main metro station is built into the ancient ruins of Serdika, a city built in 2000 BC by the Thracians who thrived in the area. While it's initially strange to walk by ancient bath structures on your way to catch the train, you soon get used to stumbling upon historic treasures. Much of Sofia was bombed during WWII, Bulgaria was on the side of the Axis powers, but a large number of important sites survived or have been rebuilt. Despite the controversial history in WWII, Bulgaria prides itself on being accepting of cultures and religions. The epitome of this is shown in the 'Square of Tolerance' where a synagogue, a mosque, a cathedral and an orthodox church exist within several hundred meters of one another. 

The people I met in Sofia were exceptionally warm and welcoming, and the food incredible! I recommend checking out Manastirska Magernitsa for a traditional Thracian and Bulgarian meal. My visit to Bulgaria was too brief and I'd definitely like to come back. If I do, I plan to head inland to the medieval city of Veliko Tarnevo and the Dead Sea. I always find the problem with traveling is that you're never crossing places off your bucket list, you are continually adding to it. 

 Alexander Nevsky Catherdal  

Alexander Nevsky Catherdal  

 A meal of Thracian chicken

A meal of Thracian chicken

Off to the Balkans

Arriving in Macedonia showed a stark contrast from Switzerland. I left a place where people washed already spotless windows, commodities were exceptionally expensive, and everything was aimed at efficiency (red and green lights in parking garages so you can tell from the end of the row if spots are free? Genius). Macedonia on the other hand has a much more complicated history of religion, invasion and government; this clearly shows in the countryside and capital city of Skopje. The coach bus from the airport to downtown was clean but worn, the countryside was filled with houses in disrepair, and the streets were dirty. Far from being disenchanting, this immediate change in atmosphere endeared Macedonia to me; there wasn't a cow in sight and my water at the airport only cost $1.50. 

The city immediately left me in awe and confusion, I was admittedly a little disoriented. Here 30 foot tall fountains had intricate water jets and yet a building 50 feet away was in total disappear and another was half built. There are a high number of stray dogs here, they all have tagged ears like cows in Switzerland. When I got up relatively early to start touring (okay, so it was 9:30 on a Saturday), I found the city's main square nearly empty of people, the only noise was the classical music piped through speakers into the empty space. 

My trip to Skopje was just two months after the 'Colorful Revolution' and protests in Macedonia. The remnants of these protests were everywhere in the form of paint covered monuments and bridges. Protesters fired paint-filled balloons at government buildings, statues, and police during the numerous assemblies in May and June. The effect is a stained monument that, although vandalized, is exceptionally beautiful. 

As part of my sightseeing, I toured the Macedonia Struggle for Independence museum with a guide, and since I was the only one in the museum it became a fun private tour. I knew relatively little about Balkan history prior to my arrival, particularly Macedonian history, but I can say I left a lot more knowledgeable. The history of Macedonia is riddled with territory disputes, failed revolutions, work camps, communism and astronomical amounts of bloodshed. My guide did a great job explaining the complex history and highlighting key figures of Macedonian independence, although it's a lot to remember. The museum is definitely worth seeing in Skopje, but be warned the history is violent and the museum doesn't shy away from showing it. 

After a long morning of touring the city, I ate a late lunch at an outdoor restaurant in the old Ottoman bazaar. This section of town is what remains of the Ottoman Empire in Macedonia from 1400-1900 and is comprised of winding streets and plentiful shops. A meal of kebab, beans and bread is best walked off by exploring all the shops the bazaar has to offer. 

My two nights in Skopje were eye opening and entirely unique when compared to my previous destinations. I will always remember it as a fascinating capital city and hope to come back in a few years to see the city again.

 One of the multiple bridges crossing the river in Skopje

One of the multiple bridges crossing the river in Skopje

 Skopje's arc de triumph covered in exploded paint balloons

Skopje's arc de triumph covered in exploded paint balloons

 typical Macedonian food

typical Macedonian food

Gstaad, My Love

Gstaad is a tiny town in the Bernese Oberland known for skiing, hiking and luxury. It also happens to be home to a large number of my extended Swiss Family. I would describe the town, and the Sanaan region as a whole, as 'typically Swiss', complete with endless mountain views and countless Swiss chalets. The downtown is lined with boutique shops and delicious eateries, the chalets dot the mountain sides, and the whole village is nestled among the Swiss alps. My family and I traveled from Lugano to Gstaad by train to attend a large family reunion.

Over the course of the long weekend we made the most of our time in this special place. Adventures included hiking up Blatti to a family chalet for a swim in the woodfired hot tub and raclette lunch, taking the gondola up the Wispile to hike around and watch paragliders, and a hike over a mountain ridge to attend a traditional cow festival. Each day we were faced with stunning mountain views and every photograph we took looked so perfect it seemed photoshopped. My youngest brother enjoyed spending time with the cows on the hillsides and often trailed behind the group while hiking because he stopped to pet as many as possible. We came to call him the cow whisperer as cows followed him across hills and down mountain sides (sometimes at frightening speeds). 

Time spent with Swiss family is always a treat, it isn't often that we get to see everyone all at once and it's fun to catch up. I have over 40 Swiss cousins ranging in age from five months to 24 years and many great aunts and uncles. Unfortunately, no one in my immediate family can speak much Swiss German, it's a language that isn't written and is difficult to learn if you don't live in the region. I hope some day to be able to communicate in Swiss German, or even high German, but I have a long way to go. 

The Berner Oberland is an astounding place to see, although it isn't easy to get to, its well worth the trip into the mountains. A tourist here will be tempted to stay, I know because it's always hard for me to leave.

 My brother the cow whisperer

My brother the cow whisperer

 Enjoying a glass of wine at the cow festival

Enjoying a glass of wine at the cow festival

 View from the family chalet where we stayed for the weekend 

View from the family chalet where we stayed for the weekend 

The Sunny Side of Switzerland

After completing my three week French course at the University of Geneva, I hopped on a flight to the southern Swiss city of Lugano. Although I've spent a fair amount of time in Switzerland, I'd never visited the Italian region. Upon landing in Lugano, I made my way by mountain train (the Swiss love to tunnel through nearly impossible mountains) to meet up with my family. My father, step-mom and two brothers had arrived in Switzerland the week before and met me at our hotel with stunning photos, stories of adventures and a few scrapes and bruises from mountain biking excursions. 

We spent three nights Lugano, a place known as the 'Sunny side of Switzerland' or 'Switzerland's Nice' with palm trees and sunshine to match. On our first day we took a  trip up the funicular to San Salvidore to see the astounding panoramic views of Lake Lugano. Afterwards, we walked the old town of Lugano to discover the secret locations of Italian unification and WWII espionage. Of course, we stopped for gelato along the way, the first gelato my brothers had ever tried. Being the European gelato expert that I am, a title I claimed by eating gelato everywhere I go, I reassured them the cone would not disappoint. For dinner we stopped at a small, hidden Italian restaurant called La Tinèra. While most of the family got pasta and risotto, I opted to be a brave and experienced traveler and order the plate of the day, boiled meat. When the mysterious and unnamed meat was placed before me, my youngest brother exclaimed that at least one of the pieces was cow tongue and the other horse (an item that was in fact on the restaurant menu). Unconvinced, and undeterred, I enjoyed the plate of the day and accompanying condiments. After checking with the waiter we learned that in fact the meat was all cow, pork and chicken, and my brother was a bit disappointed. I will say though that the condiments however, are still a mystery. 

For our second full day we headed out to Bellinzona, a town nearby Lugano known for its three castles. We spent the day walking up hills and through alleyways to explore the 14th century structures that stood out from the hillside. The three castles, Castello Sasso Corbaro, Castello de Montebello and Castelgrande, all had different architecture, history and highlights. It still amazes me that we are allowed to hike up stone towers and walk through tunnels that are over 500 years old; I certainly try not to think about it, or look down or up, as I hike the never-ending stairs. 

Having thoroughly explored Lugano, we boarded a six hour train to Gstaad. We were headed to the Berner Oberland, home of Swiss chalets, mountain grazing cows and our Swiss family. 

 The top of San Salvidore 

The top of San Salvidore 

 Fresh fruit at the market

Fresh fruit at the market

 Checking out the castles 

Checking out the castles 

Cheese is Life

If you know me, then you'll agree with the statement that I am a cheese fanatic. A good cheese plate is my kryptonite and I would enjoy it for every meal if it had better nutritional value, alas a girl still needs vegetables. It makes perfect sense then that I am Swiss, since I'm pretty sure enjoying cheese is a pre-requisite for citizenship. It's not the only thing that defines me as a Swissie (endearing term for a Swiss person, generally employed to describe our relatives, i.e. the Swissies are coming to Boston), but it's certainly a perk of being in Switzerland that the world's greatest cheese is always just around the corner from you.

After two and a half months of traveling, I've settled in Geneva for three weeks. In an effort to make myself more employable in the French-speaking region of Switzerland I enrolled in an intensive French course at the University of Geneva. I am no stranger to the city having studied abroad here during college, but post-grad gives a different lens to this magical place. Geneva is the place of the Protestant reformation where John Calvin sought sanctuary, where international arbitration began with a settlement between the U.S. and England, and where multitudes of international organizations and humanitarian aide groups have set up their headquarters.

The city is located on the far end of lake Geneva and on top of multiple waterways. Walking through the city means crossing a number of bridges and enjoying view of the lake from nearly every place in the city, sounds terrible right? The main feature of the lake is the jet d'eau, literally translated to the 'jet of water', and it rises 460 feet in the air. I spend my days in French class and the early afternoons exploring new parts of Geneva. I particularly love the Vieille Ville, the old walled city that is a maze of cobblestone streets, buildings, and courtyards that date back to Roman and medieval times. Grab a coffee at one of the many sidewalk cafes or enjoy a meal of fondue at Les Armures, and before you come don't forget to brush up on your French. 

Oh, and to clarify, the Swiss do not eat cheese with holes in it. I'm not sure who made that one up, but the cheese here is way better than the holey concoction sold in slices back home. Trust me on this.

 Swiss flag on Lake Geneva

Swiss flag on Lake Geneva

 A city street in the old town

A city street in the old town

 The Geneva coat of arms

The Geneva coat of arms

King's Landing

Walking through the castle gates of old town Dubrovnik feels a bit like entering a movie set. The heart of this buzzing city can be found entirely within the tall, stone  walls that surround the red-roofed buildings. The streets are free from moving vehicles of any kind and getting lost in the small alleyways is a guarantee for all tourists. But as I always say, that's half the fun! Immersing yourself in Dubrovnik should include the following things:

Walk around the castle walls. Tickets for the wall can be purchased near the front gates and the main entry point is nearby. Carleigh and I were sure to walk the wall early in the morning (late afternoon works well too) as it can get pretty hot and there is little reprieve from the sun, or rain, once you begin your walk. Prepare your camera for lots of stunning photos, your body for a bit of height-induced vertigo, and your hair for a lot of wind off the sea. 

Watch cliff-divers. Moving away from the main street, head to the far corner of the interior wall for cold drinks and a beautiful view at Buza Bar. This cliff-side hot spot is known for beautiful sunsets, great drinks, and cliff jumpers. Carleigh and I met some friends for sunset drinks and enjoyed the fading evening light.

Drink some Croatian wines. For our last evening, Carleigh and I went to D'vino for a wine tasting of local Croatian white wines. Our tour included three different regions and three different grapes, one glass was from a winery that creates only 5,000 bottles each year. And of course, being the cheese fanatics that we are, our wine was accompanied by a full plate of varied cheeses and breads. 

Dance in an old fortress. If you're not feeling tired after a day exploring, head to Revelin, an old fortress that now serves as a club. There is something both awe inspiring and confusing about dancing in a building over 500 years old. The interior shows the stone structure of the old fortress and provides a unique atmosphere for a night out. 

After spending a few days in Dubrovnik, it's clear to me why this place is often used as the movie set. I'm not a big Game of Thrones fan, but thanks to 'King's Landing' I think I might start watching again just to get a glimpse of this pretty place. 

 View from the city walls

View from the city walls

 View of ocean and Lapad area from our apartment

View of ocean and Lapad area from our apartment

 Carleigh and me overlooking Dubrovnik

Carleigh and me overlooking Dubrovnik

From Island to Island

After a quick overnight stop in Split, Carleigh and I made our way by ferry to the island port of Hvar. It was easy to immediately fall in love with the town; the water is bluer than the sky and the city square is vibrant with activity and architecture. We lucked out with our rented apartment as it was just blocks from the main square, but located on a hill overlooking the city. The outdoor patio had an incredible view of the Spanish fortress and old city walls across the way. Overall, an absolutely perfect location for dinner and wine every evening. 

Although Hvar is an island itself, the thing to do here is visit other, smaller islands during the day. A water taxi costs roughly $8 and takes 10-15 minutes to transfer you to the destination of your choice. Carleigh and I met up with my Aussie friend (whom I met in Thailand), Angelique, and took a taxi to Mlini beach off the coast of Hvar. It's here tanned bodies lined the rocky beaches, taking turns cooling off in the crystal clear waters. Yachts lay anchored just beyond the shore and small boats putter in to frequent the local beach restaurants and bars. A lazy afternoon in the sun was filled with people watching, swimming, and enjoying the view. 

At night, Hvar shakes off the heat of the day to welcome throngs of yacht week enthusiasts, families, and young tourists. The restaurants are busy and each bar spills their people and music into the city streets. Since, again, island hopping is the thing to do in Hvar, we spent an evening on the island of Carpe Diem. The taxi to and from the island boasted beautiful night views and a refreshing breeze, and the evening beach club was a fun change of pace. 

My top recommendations for Hvar include eating at Fig off the city square (a must), exploring nearby islands during the day, and heading to Hula Hula or Carpe Diem to enjoy the vibrant nightlife. As sad as I am to leave Hvar, I'm already mentally planning a return trip!

 The hilly port of Hvar

The hilly port of Hvar

 Spending time at Mlini beach

Spending time at Mlini beach

 Yachts on the water

Yachts on the water

A Wonder of the World

I have to give credit to my younger brother for introducing me to Croatia, particularly Plitvice National Park. Ever since he did a school research project on this natural wonder he has been talking about visiting Croatia to see the waterfalls. The opportunity to see these natural wonders and spend some time at the coast was impossible to pass up. Our first stop was Plitvice where we stayed south of the national park in a quaint Croatian town surrounded by mountains, just a 20 minute drive from the park entrance. 

Armed with tips from locals on how to best navigate the large expanse of nature, we spent a full day exploring Plitvice (pleet-vee-tsah) Lakes, walking nearly 10 miles around the park. The park boasts numerous pools and lakes, endless waterfalls, and a 'pick your own path' method to seeing the sights. Carleigh and I decided to start early to beat the large tour bus crowds and headed to the giant waterfalls at the north side of the park first. To reach it, you must descend into a small ravine and make your way across thin boardwalks to the far side of pools. The great falls descend over 230 feet and at the right time of day boast a constant rainbow. From there we worked our way south and west around the park paths. The pools are perfectly clear, displaying a bottom filled with preserved trees that found their final home in the water and schools of fish meandering the boardwalk paths as you walk. The smaller waterfalls you see along the way are just as beautiful and impressive as the great falls, they cascade over rocks and giant lily pads into crystal waters below. Every corner you turn there is another beautiful pool, and after eight hours you start to forget there's a world outside this heaven. Tired, but happy, and with more photos of beautiful blue waters than we knew what to do with, we headed home for the night. 

With one additional day to explore the inland areas of Croatia, Carleigh and I hiked up Pljeëevica Mountain trek. The trail was close to where we were staying and a group of seven of us packed lunches, filled our water bottles and set off in search of astounding views. The entire trek took eight hours and we walked a total of 15 miles round trip, it even included a small section hiking in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The path wound through both rocky terrain and wooded coniferous patches; at times the trail was quite steep and I'm not ashamed to admit many water breaks were needed. The view at the top was more than worth it, as we could see far into the distance in both Croatia and Bosnia. Lunch was enjoyed sitting atop a large rocky outpost looking out over the mountainous Croatian countryside. 

Tired from two days of exploring and hiking, Carleigh and I welcomed the travel from Plitvice to Split. Nothing sounded better than our week on the coast to come!

 One of the many pools

One of the many pools

 The great falls with a rainbow

The great falls with a rainbow

 Hanging out near one of the pools

Hanging out near one of the pools

 Carleigh and me hanging out at our lunch spot

Carleigh and me hanging out at our lunch spot

Buda & Pest

I was surprised to find that Budapest is really two distinct cities in one, Buda and Pest. While one is home to the art museums, churches and a large palace, the other boasts magnificent restaurants and nightlife. The difference between the two was best explained to me through the saying 'when Buda goes to sleep, Pest wakes up'. The two cities are separated by a river, although connected by many bridges; the most famous being the Chain Bridge which opened in 1849 before the cities united. True to the saying above, Carleigh and I spent our days in Buda enjoying architecture and history before heading across the river for dinner and drinks in Pest.

Budapest is a very walkable city, if you don't mind hills, and there is a lot to see. A day spent sightseeing is not complete without a walk around the Fisherman's Bastion, Buda Castle, and St. Stephen's Basilica. Not to mention, it's worth a full day trip to the thermal baths for a little rest and relaxation. Carleigh and I chose to take a break from touring the city to enjoy Gellért Baths on the Buda side. The complex has 12 thermal pools ranging in temperature from 65 to 105 degrees, including a giant outdoor wave pool. Unlike the generally mild wave pools of U.S. water parks, this wave pool was not afraid of using a little force and a wave could, and would, knock you down as it swept by. Some might call a day at the baths lazy for a tourist, but in truth these baths have strong cultural and history ties to the history of Budapest and no visit is complete without stopping at one of the many around the city. 

After days in the sun exploring and relaxing, Carleigh and I spent nights at the famed ruin bars in Pest. They are best described as thrift stores with a bar; the decor is cacophonous, but the atmosphere lively. These bars began popping up in abandoned buildings and if you didn't know where to look, you wouldn't find them on your own. Our favorite in Budapest, Szimpla Kert, looks like an unassuming store front on a relatively quiet street as you pass by. It's nearly impossible to tell that beyond the entrance is a large courtyard, two stories of bars and rooms, and hundreds of people enjoying the Budapest nightlife. Ruin bars are a must see when you visit Budapest, it's a glimpse into the unique culture of Hungary. 

Budapest quickly climbed up my list of favorite European cities as both a unique and lively place to visit. Thanks for a great time, Buda and Pest!

 The outdoor wave bath at Gellért

The outdoor wave bath at Gellért

 Detailing at the fisherman's bastion

Detailing at the fisherman's bastion

 Feeding our gelato addiction with roses

Feeding our gelato addiction with roses

The Viennese Way

Vienna, a city of luxurious lifestyles and opulent architecture. My first trip to this city was four years ago and I couldn't help but fall in love, so it's no surprise that I immediately said yes to the chance to return; this time to meet up with a close friend from work, Carleigh. It was Vienna that we chose as our starting location for a two and a half week trip together. Each time you re-visit a city it changes just a little bit, an aspect of travel I absolutely adore. For my second time in Vienna, I got to explore the slower side of the Viennese experience; cafes and vineyards. 

Just outside the city center of Vienna is a small town called Grinzing. It's here that acres of vineyards adorn the mountainside and enjoy an unobstructed view of Vienna. This little town has a huge draw for two wine and cheese lovers like Carleigh and myself. We spent a morning walking through the never-ending vineyards, farms, and back roads. Although many of the tasting gardens weren't open at the time, we didn't leave without stopping at a local heuriger (wine tavern) in town to try the white wine. At €1.8 a glass, you can't go wrong with the local vineyard grape, especially when combined with some goat cheese and Brie. If you're willing to leave Vienna for a day, Grinzing is the place to be.

Although our time in Vienna was relatively short, Carleigh and I made the most of it by walking the city and taking advantage of all it had to offer. After a trip to the Belvedere and gardens, we went cafe hopping to enjoy a meal in courses. Starting with coffee, tea and kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancake with powdered sugar) we worked our way to white wine and caprese. Cafes in Europe were created for people to relax with a drink and watch The world around them, something we took full advantage of. After an unhurried afternoon and very full from what seemed like endless snacking, we grabbed our bags and boarded a train bound for Budapest. I wasn't worried about saying goodbye to the Vienna, I think another visit to the city is in my future. 

 Vineyards in Grinzing

Vineyards in Grinzing

 Tasting local wine and cheese

Tasting local wine and cheese

 A cafe mean of kaiserschmarrn

A cafe mean of kaiserschmarrn

Prague/Praha/Prag

Time spent in Prague can only be described as mesmerizing. The architecture of the old town, the cafes in city squares, and the mix of medieval and communist history create a wonderful and unusual city atmosphere. I had no expectations of the city before my arrival, which might be why it completely blew me away. Prague is a thriving place of history and tourism, absinthe bars and traditional restaurants. There is no other city quite like it!

Early in my visit, I had the chance to meet up for coffee with a friend I knew from elementary and high school. He and his girlfriend had been to Prague several times before and were completing a visit to the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia when we crossed paths. The 'insider' information they gave me allowed me to make the most of my time by checking out the truly unique aspects of Prague. 

If you're headed to Prague, here are my top three recommendations for your itinerary:

Meander Veletrzni Palac - A national museum in Prague showcasing 19th century European painters and modern Czech artists. It's located a bit outside the city center, but is still very accessible. The art ranges from impressionist portraits to darker themed installations grappling with poverty and war. 

Dinner at U Flecku - Founded in 1499, this is one of the oldest restaurants and breweries in Prague and it serves traditional Czech food. You can count on a warm and welcoming atmosphere and a strong pint of beer to accompany your goulash and dumplings.

Relax in a Bier Garden - Summer in Prague means that outdoor beer gardens pop up along the river and in the parks. Head to the riverside in the late afternoon or for the sunset to enjoy a cool beer and live music. There are a few that give you a beautiful view of the Prague castle at sunset!

There's much more to see, of course, and honorable mentions include the peacock garden, Jewish cemetery, and Lenon wall.

 View over the rooftops of old town 

View over the rooftops of old town 

 Art at the national museum

Art at the national museum

 peacock from the garden in the city

peacock from the garden in the city

 The Lenon wall

The Lenon wall

London, Post-Brexit

I arrived in London just days after the groundbreaking referendum in Great Britain to leave the European Union, colloquially known as Brexit. A shock to many, the stock markets included, no one seemed to know what this vote meant and what the timeline would look like. For me, Brexit created a more favorable exchange rate and interesting reading material as a former international relations major. Having just visited Scotland (now potentially re-voting to split from England) and Ireland (now potentially beginning reunification talks with Northern Ireland), I felt like I was living history. 

My trip to London was a brief two days, but in my usual style I walked till I dropped and succeeded in seeing much of the sprawling metropolis. Since I had a friend in London, I was fortunate to have a mix of both touristy and real Londoner experiences. I waved at Big Ben, took a ride on the London Eye, and enjoyed ice cream in St. James's park. The touristy locations were packed with people and though it was fun to see London's iconic locations, I welcomed my afternoon with a local friend and self-appointed tour guide. I got to explore Soho, enjoyed a gin tasting at Sipsmith, and ate at a fun Turkish restaurant in Covenant Garden that featured a live violinist performance. 

Clearly I've touched just the surface of the London experience, so I've put it on my list of places to return to some day; hopefully for a little longer next time!

 Big Ben and the London eye

Big Ben and the London eye

 Classic red phone booth

Classic red phone booth

 The interior of the British Musuem

The interior of the British Musuem

The Boys in Green

Having left Paris just days before the start of Euro 2016, I was delighted to find I wouldn't miss out on all the football (soccer) excitement. Euro 2016 is a bit like the World Cup or Copa America, occurring every four years except with only European nations. To ensure I enjoyed an authentic Irish football experience, I inquired into the best game-watching pub and headed out with a few new friends. The game was Ireland vs Italy and a scoreless first half left the Irishmen frustrated, loud, and ordering more Guinness. As the minutes of the second half wound down, Ireland came through with a goal (the only of the game) and the crowd erupted in their celebratory song. Since "come on you boys in green" is sung in a round, I quickly mastered the tune and lyrics. A win for Ireland meant the Dublin streets were filled with painted faces and much celebration, in typical Irish style of course. 

The following day I was up early for a trip west to the Cliffs of Moher. A three hour ride from Dublin, the cliffs sit on the Atlantic Ocean and brave fierce wind and storms each day of the year. I was warned before traveling that Irish weather was unpredictable and to prepare myself to see absolutely nothing but fog as the coach drove the coastline. As luck would have it, the day turned out to be mostly sun with only scattered and brief rain showers. The view from the cliffs was astounding, various bird species dove and flew along the cliff sides and the sea crashed in varying shades of blue hues. The only downside was the constant fear of being blown off the side, as the wind is relentless and the edge too close for comfort. A million photos and a dead phone battery later, we climbed aboard the coach again to continue along the coast. The full day excursion included stopping for a castle, an abbey, Irish stew, and a chocolate factory. I couldn't have invented a better day in Ireland!

My three day jaunt to Dublin allowed me to meet some of the nicest and most welcoming individuals on my trip thus far. I know I'll be rooting for Ireland in the next Euro game they play; I'm a newly converted, but very committed, fan. 

 The cliffs looking north

The cliffs looking north

 A testament to the wind - a lot of my photos look like this 

A testament to the wind - a lot of my photos look like this 

 Irish coastline with famine walls

Irish coastline with famine walls

 An old Irish abbey

An old Irish abbey

To the Highlands and Beyond

With my phone's photo count passing the 1,000 mark and the days in Scotland quickly winding down, I realize I've been remiss on my self-appointed blogging duties. Now I'm in the terrible position of having a million stories to tell, but only a small amount of space and attention span to express them. 

Recently, Scotland has been living up to its soggy reputation and dumping rain on most of the countryside. The night before a new adventure, my mom and I finalize our driving route and stops along the way, we never check the weather (a chancy habit I've had for years) and yet each day we've ended up driving into the sunshine. My mom is not afraid of a long drive, something I'm grateful for since it means we can truly canvass the Scottish highlands from our back door. She has also nearly mastered the manual Volvo and Scottish roads, but it did take side-swiping one bus and stalling in a rotary; I should note no harm came to any cars in the making of this vacation. 

From our stay on an organic farm just south of Cairngorms National Park, my mom and I attempted a daring, day-long Inverness to Isle of Skye loop: 9 hours and 400 miles. The Scots we told of our plans said we were crazy, and maybe we were, but the double rainbow over the mountains and sunset on the bay will forever be worth it. 

 Driving into a rainbow on skye

Driving into a rainbow on skye

The drives in Scotland show a variable landscape of pastures, mountains, forests and lochs. Sheep dot the countryside like cotton balls, although increasingly less fluffy as shearing season begins here, and castles extend out of the landscape like a fairytale pop up book. We seem to have wonderful luck pulling off the road at random locations to come upon beautiful beaches and delicious restaurants. A personal favorite was a stop made at Elie Beach after a day in St. Andrews. It was low tide when we arrived and completely sunny, the perfect setting for a glass of wine beachside. 

 Enjoying the sun and beach at Elie 

Enjoying the sun and beach at Elie 

 Having a glass of wine at The Ship Inn at Elie Beach

Having a glass of wine at The Ship Inn at Elie Beach

Having stuffed ourselves on fish & chips in the countryside, we prepare to head back into Edinburgh for a few days before our holiday sadly comes to a close. 

In the Land of Wee Lambies

After exploring Edinburgh, my mom and I headed west towards Loch Lomond and the outer isles. Our base for four days was a small mill cottage on the southern edge of Loch Lomond. The estate was filled with sheep pastures and given it was just after lambing season when we arrived, there was no shortage of adorable 'wee lambies' roaming the property. Our days at Loch Lomond were spent with day trips to surrounding lochs and castles and punctuated by bread, cheese, and wine at the end of each day. 

Having a car allowed us enormous freedom to explore as far as we were willing to drive. Or rather, as far as my mom could drive, given that the car was a standard and I never learned this life skill. The roads in the Scottish highlands range from having two lanes to being unpaved, single track paths where you face down large tour buses (at your own risk). Our Volvo's GPS saved us a few times when wrong turns and confusing rotaries led us astray. But the best part of getting lost is finding the unknown, these moments often turn into your favorite memories! 

Highlights of western Scotland include my first ever fish and chips at George's Street in Oban, an abandoned castle left to the fauna, and the overall green landscape dotted everywhere with sheep.

 Sheep near the mill cottage

Sheep near the mill cottage

 Boats on the water along the Coast

Boats on the water along the Coast

 Spending time in the port town of Oban

Spending time in the port town of Oban

 Fresh oysters in Oban

Fresh oysters in Oban

 Delicious fish and chips at George's street

Delicious fish and chips at George's street

Scottish Holiday

After a month of journeying alone, I put a hiatus on my solo travel to join my mom in Scotland for two weeks. Continuing with my newfound love of travel by train, I left Paris Gare du Nord for London Kings Cross where I quickly switched trains to make my way to Edinburgh. The trip itself was lovely, green fields spotted with yellow wild flowers and sheep flashed by my window nearly continuously.

Welcoming us to Scotland was the wonderful city of Edinburgh. It's a small city of about half a million, while the entirety of Scotland is home to about 5 million people. I got used to using pounds, the fifth currency I've used in one month, and adjusted to the exchange rate (not very favorable). I also picked up on some new English terms during my time there; always say wee and never little, there's a difference between chips and crisps, and you say 'cheers now' instead of goodbye. Armed with this colloquial knowledge we explored all that Edinburgh had to offer, from palaces and abbeys to castles and pubs. The city itself is a blend of old and new, although new is entirely relative since the 'new city' was created before America was a nation. 

On our list of Edinburgh must-sees we crossed off the Edinburgh Castle, Palace of Holyrood, Salisbury Crags and Arthur's seat, Leith water walk and the Royal Mile. We have another two days in the city after our highlands adventures where we will attempt to fit in the remainder of all that this city has to offer. 

 View of Edinburgh Castle from the Scott monument

View of Edinburgh Castle from the Scott monument

 The abbey ruins at Holyrood Palace

The abbey ruins at Holyrood Palace

 Picnic on Salisbury Crags

Picnic on Salisbury Crags

 Dream come true: a cheese shop around the corner from our place

Dream come true: a cheese shop around the corner from our place

Paris in 24 Hours

Although it seems a bit sacrilegious, I stopped in Paris for a 24 hour layover between Nice and Scotland. It was just enough time to visit all my favorite spots in the city and enjoy some Parisian wine. I stayed in La Marais, which spans portions of the 3rd and 4th arrondissemonts and is home to exceptional architecture and quaint cafes. I was just a few blocks from the Seine and a five minute walk from the Notre Dame, making it the perfect place to be.

After an hour of being in Paris, I was reminded of the colliding worlds that exist within the city. There is the busy hustle of tourists, the rushing Seine and the liveliness of the streets and shops. There is also quiet alleyways you can turn down and peaceful cafes where one can sit for hours to enjoy wine while people watching. It's how it all fits together that makes Paris such a unique and wonderful city. 

The weather has been unusually rainy in France recently, causing the Seine to flood its banks and the city to close metro lines and art museums, notably the Louvre and Musee D'Orsay. I adjust my plans accordingly and skip a planned trip to Versailles in favor of a picnic at the Eiffel Tower and an afternoon at Les Invalides. With 24 hours in Paris there is a lot one can do, but these are the top five things I recommend:

  1. Just walk. Walk the streets of Paris until your feet are sore and then walk some more. It's the best way to see the buildings and enjoy the vibe of the city.
  2. Grab dessert. Whether it's getting macarons from Ladurèe (fyi-the line is always out the door) or a gourmet eclair from L'Èclaire de Génie, getting dessert is a must in Paris. I took my eclair to go and ate it at a fountain in the Tuileries.  
  3. Pick a museum. Of the hundreds of museums in Paris it's hard to choose which ones to visit, often the over eager tourist (me on my first ever trip to the city) will attempt too many and burn out. Instead, choosing one or two allows you to really enjoy the works of art and wealth of information, and you are still fresh eyed at the end of the day. I picked Les Invalides and explored the world of Napoleon Bonaparte and the various French wars.
  4. Have a long lunch. Arguably the best part about Paris are the street cafes that offer delicious, low cost lunches and endless glasses of wine. It's a great location to people watch and, unlike the U.S., waiters expect you to occupy the table for a large portion of the afternoon and don't hurry your culinary experience. 
  5. Read. If the weather is nice, the numerous parks in Paris offer the opportunity to relax, spread out a blanket and enjoy a good book. As I mentioned in a previous post, I read Tender is the Night during a previous trip to Paris and it was the best break from touristing. Top locations to read include Luxembourg Gardens and the Tuileries. 

No matter how long you stay in Paris, it will never be long enough. I've put it back on my places to visit and hope to do so for a few more days than this trip allowed. 

 View of the Eiffel Tower from the Tuileries 

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Tuileries 

 I came across a Carnaval Tropical parade  

I came across a Carnaval Tropical parade  

 A long lunch with (a few) glasses of wine!

A long lunch with (a few) glasses of wine!

 Eclair options at L'Èclaire de Génie

Eclair options at L'Èclaire de Génie

Travel by Train

Something we have lost in the U.S. is the art of train travel. Sure we have Amtrak, but it doesn't hold a candle to the network of railways that crisscross Europe. In creating my itinerary, I opted for the unusual route of taking a train from Nice to Paris. My life for the past two years was filled with flights from city to city, so I decided to take it slow and see more along the way. The French countryside is alluring and in my opinion, best seen from the ground.

The train trip began in Nice, meandering along the coastline to Marseilles and making various stops along the Riviera. It was after leaving Marseille that the train accelerated to full TGV speed toward Paris. The trees, farms, and mountains whipped past my seat at what can only be describes as full steam ahead. The train ride took five hours in total, giving me plenty of time to get absorbed in my new book, The Bone Clocks. 

Every once in a while I would glance up from my reading to find a castle or chateau on a hill surrounded by a small village of red roofs and yellow stone or a pasture of sheep. The bucolic landscape was relaxing and the perfect change of pace. The only downside of the train ride? I forgot to pack enough snacks. 

 Sunset on my last night in Nice

Sunset on my last night in Nice

 Passing by red roofed houses

Passing by red roofed houses

 One of the many pastures we passed

One of the many pastures we passed