My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

“What a long strange trip it’s been”… and although there was no hallucinogenic drugs involved, Jerry Garcia could not begin to understand the wild, spontaneous romp around Europe that I had.  What was supposed to be a studious two months making progress with my PhD in Loeben, Austria turned into explorations anchored in two workaway opportunities (helping a student prepare for her English exams in Passau, Germany and hippies on their love farm in middle-of-nowhere Belgium) turned into a lot of moving around, not always in the most logical manner. So 18 countries and 44-ish European cities later, I conquered much of the continent that I have publicly denounced as boring, over-priced and over-rated.  It’s definitely true for some places but overall, my appreciation for the region has grown.  Since I didn’t do as much writing during my travels as I should have, I figured I’d leave you with a list of my top ten favorite cities to travel and a brief mention of some of the biggest disappointments.  I’ll probably commit a travel blogger crime by linking some of the titles of my Facebook albums, but I know a picture is worth a thousand words so feel free to click. But first, here’s the grand unveiling of how the final trip turned out: (Vienna) Austria, (Passau & Munich) Germany, (Budapest & Szentendre) Hungary, (Ljubljana & Bled) Slovenia, (Trieste & Venice) Italy, (Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb & Dubrovnik) Croatia, (Budva, Kotor & Perast) Montenegro, (Neum, Mostar & Sarajevo) Bosnia, (Belgrade & Vrsac) Serbia, (Timisoara, Sibiu, Brasov, Sighisoara, Viscri, Valencii & Cluj Napoca) Romania, (Amsterdam) Netherlands, (Antwerp, Balen, Ghent, Bruges & Oostende) Belgium, (Deux Caps, Paris) France, (Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund) Germany, (Krakow, Wieliczka, Wroclaw) Poland, (Prague) Czech Republic, (Zurich) Switzerland, (Innsbruck) Austria, (Bratslavia) Slovakia DISCLAIMER:  For all of you amazing couch surfers whose city didn’t make the list, my top cities to travel don’t necessary reflect the cities where I made the best memories or met the most incredible people.  I’d mostly recommend these cities to slightly adventurous, twenty-something travelers on a budget and these recommendations apply to people who want cities easy to navigate independently, friendly locals and plenty of student-friendly free/cheap attractions. 1) Sarajevo, Bosnia The cities of Bosnia barely compare to its natural beauty but I still found Sarajevo a fascinating place to visit.  Every time I traveled through this country, my nose was pressed to the glass to see turquoise rivers, rolling hills on fire with fall colors, sprinkled with rustic farmhouses. It’s a wildly beautiful country with relatively nice roads that lacks Western chain stores and industrial sprawl… until you get to Sarajevo. When the bus first began to approach the city, the shoddily constructed apartments reminded me of Brazilian favelas. Even when I switched from a bus to a tram through some central city streets, I found crumbling and decrepit buildings covered in graffiti, barbed wire and pockmarked with bullet holes. The grassy hills on the city outskirts could have added color and cheer to the city but instead were blanketed with gravestones, which added to the eeriness of the place. I checked into my hostel, and the receptionist gave me vague recommendations to spend the rest of my day: climb through graveyards to a lookout from an old fortress (now covered in graffiti and inaccessible) and check out the mosques and markets in the Old Town. I grabbed the map and marched off with the goal of racing through these sites as quickly as possible since even doing work seemed more appealing than spending time amongst a depressing remains of a city that was under siege a couple decades ago. I don’t know exactly when and where it happened, but some time during my afternoon, I fell in love with the resilient beauty of this city. Maybe when I stood looking out on the city, trying to mentally erase the cemeteries from the natural beauty of a place nestled between hills with rivers running through. I stood for quite awhile, alone except for a few hungry crows, with silent tears running down my face, wondering how the world’s largest genocide since the Holocaust could happen during my lifetime. I tried to compose myself on the walk down the hill, distracting myself by peeking into metal shops, where the rat-tat-tat of artists resulted in ornate plates and Turkish tea sets. I landed amongst the Ottoman market, where the glow of mosaic lamps danced amongst the silver, spices and teas. The stalls exploded with goods from the East, greasy bureks enticed people into same cafes and the sounds of the muezzin call from the mosque kept the time. Eventually, the carpet covered stalls evolved into re-purposed Turkish...

Things to Know About Traveling The Balkans

Things to Know About Traveling The Balkans

If you’ve been keeping up with my continuous stream of photos on facebook, you would understand why I’ve been rather negligent on updating my blog. I’ve been too busy having adventures to write about them so Richard Burton may be proud but I think it’s time for me to take a step back and summarize some of my experiences, since traveling in this part of the world is different. “If we stop moving and try to explain everything, we truly die; if we pause, if we take our gaze off the shimmering horizon for an instant, if we abandon the path in order to reflect or to plot our silly course, we go into exile” -Richard Burton This whole trip evolved into something different than I planned when I booked my flights and I’ve been living one day at a time, planning by path based on what I’ve heard from others and what countries pique my curiosity. Since this trip is probably my last venture before getting my PhD and potentially entering real life, I’ve been moving fast, trying to survey the land in hopes of finding a place that speaks to me. I know you can’t claim to know a city or a place after a few hours, nose buried in a map as you follow the well-trodden tourist pilgrim path. Since I’ve been spending only 1-2 days in each city, that’s kind of what I have been doing. But I’ve also made a point to get lost, meet locals (or at least current residents of a city), sample the street food and most importantly, absorb the energy of a place. It’s amazing how quickly you can get a general feel of a place, and admittedly, first impressions may not be perfectly accurate, but I think they can lead some insights to the spirit of a place that isn’t easily captured in photographs. Since I’m so behind on my writing, I doubt I’ll be able to catch up on entries from everywhere so here’s some of the things that stuck out about each country and followed by commonalities for this area in general. I entered the area through Slovenia, the wealthiest country of ex-Yugoslavia who escaped the socialist empire relatively unscathed, both economically and psychologically. Slovenians share a café culture like the rest of the Balkans but you can see a spunk and an intelligent sparkle in their eyes that is largely absent in the faces of countries hit harder by the war. In Serbia and Bosnia, wrinkles create craters in the faces of people whose only source of daily solace and pleasure is found chain-smoking cigarettes and nursing sludgy Turkish coffee. Serbia even created their own trademark caffeinated beverage, a milky espresso, to make drinking coffee occupy a larger portion of the day. In Slovenia, I also didn’t hear any of the catchy but excessively mindless “techno-folk” that entertain Zagreb and Belgrade club goers. Even I found it impossible to resist their bouncy beats but it became a guilty pleasure once my Croatian friend started translating the lyrics, something along the lines of “I don’t want love, I only want money. If you come to my bedroom, bring your wallet…”. He seemed to think these songs accurately expressed the current priorities of society, “Croatian girls are like this. They are just looking for a rich man to save them”. Slovenia didn’t seem to be as stuck in this desperate sense of helplessness as the other countries, probably due to better educated occupants who were more equipped to help themselves. Next I visited Croatia, which tried desperately to emphasize its European-ness and disassociate with its Yugoslavian past. In Zagreb, you’ll find people sipping cappuccinos in Ban Jelacic Square, instead of Turkish coffee. The 19th century architecture, carefully painted in complementary pastels, racial homogeneity (except for its gypsies) and popular opera all serve to exaggerate the more aristocratic air of this place. According to “Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the War”, even during the war, Zagreb largely lacked any evidence of conflict- no sandbagged buildings, no gun emplacements on the roof of commercial buildings or fixed checkpoints. The city’s occupants look rather happy, filling wide pedestrian streets on the weekend with almost every kid munching on cones of popcorn and roasted chestnuts. Intermission Song of the Moment: Tango– Vatra (a band from Croatia who filmed their music video in Zagreb) As you leave the city, the coast is beautiful but there’s not much evidence of industry, prosperity or much going on. Like its occupants whose dreams are expressed in folk-techno songs, I think the country of Croatia itself is wistfully waiting for the...

Travel in Bosnia & The Balkans Where War Is Not A Distant Memory

Travel in Bosnia & The Balkans Where War Is Not A Distant Memory

Leaving Kotor, Montenegro after a four-hour drive that takes six because of four border crossings (entering Croatia, entering Bosnia, entering Croatia, entering Bosnia), we pull up to an impressively sized Bosnia bus station for Mostar, a city of *** people. The two friends I made at the Kotor bus station have a driver waiting to pick them up. The directions to my hostel were ambiguous, “a two-minute walk from the bus and train station. For further directions, contact us” so I asked the driver of their hostel whether he knew where it was. “Whoa ho!”, he exclaimed, like a drunken pirate, “That’s my neighbor! Come along, come along, I’ll drop you!”. We piled into his worn minivan, squeezing in next to a baby seat in the backseat. He put then key in the ignition and turned up the tunes, “I am from Bosnia, take me to America”, the singer jauntily begged, in a Fiddler-on-the-roof-esque animated plea. The driver took a moment to make the car dance to the beat, pounding on the brakes to match the song’s staccato rhythm. Then he tore out the parking lot full-speed, just to break at the sharp corner with a dilapidated, bullet-hole covered building two feet in front of us. The minivan’s engines roared and it looked like we were going to crash into another concrete wall then he stopped again suddenly and inch his way perpendicularly down the claustrophobic, constricted, dimly lit street. He presses heavy on the accelerator again, stops one second later and turns up the song again to an eardrum bursting volume, enough to wake the whole neighborhood. The weathered, scraggly owner of my hostel stumbles down a dark path, “What the hell?” and kind of, dubiously ventures off in the direction of the hostel, which is just a few meters away but its entry is unclear. I follow and plop my bag in the middle of the kitchen where the hostel’s occupants are busy cooking a Korean feast. The grizzly man I followed pointed to a bearded man, supervising the cooking while perched on a barrel, “he’s the boss. Check in with him”. I speak slowly, “I have a booking. One night”. The bearded man looks at me in silence and after a few moments admits, “I’m not the boss. Not sure why he thinks I am”. Meanwhile, Mr. “What the hell?” Grizzly Beard is pouring me welcome shots of homemade raki, another relic of Ottoman occupation. “The rules here are easy to learn. There are no rules. Have fun. We are a family. The only rule is have a good time and stay as long as you like”. He vaguely gestures to the sleeping area, disappears, reappears and orients me to the place in a three-part tour, split into short spurts of random information, mostly centered around having a good time and being part of the family. “Take Mr. Businessman for example,” wiggling his arms in the direction of a Korean guy in a flannel shirt and gold-wire glasses, “He said he would stay one night. And he’s stayed four. And counting! You need food? I’ll make you food. Well, just come to the feast! I can’t eat… too much coffee and cigarettes but it will be delicious, I promise you. Welcome to the family!”. I spent a little time chatting with my new “family members”, three Koreans (who didn’t know each other) and a couple Americans, who were all shooting advice back and forth about travel in Bosnia and Balkans that they came from and planned to see… Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo… everyone had approached these places from slightly different directions and for varying lengths of time. After handing over my wrinkly map of Kotor and its key attractions to a guy from Maryland, I waved goodbye and met 18-year-old Toni, a Croatian born and raised in Mostar. As a young guy in a country where people don’t have much money, he hadn’t traveled much, except for an annual summer trip to visit family in Northeast Croatia. But, as a video gamer and metal music lover, he was obsessed with all things Asian and Scandinavian and he was firing questions at me about all the places I’ve been. After fielding some of his inquiries, I was able to get some information about life in his country, which echoed many things I had read and heard from a Bosnian I met in Montenegro. I told him about my warm welcome here and that I read that Bosnians were the fourth most hospitable people worldwide. “Yes, people from Bosnia are nice to foreigners and tourists but they aren’t nice to each other. Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims,...