December 18, 2017

Capri, Italy- Island Life

The view from dock

I first visited the island of Capri, seven years ago with my family. We had gone in the spring, when it was just beginning to bustle with tourists. The weather was perfect mix of sun and clear Carolina blue sky, with a constant cool breeze brushing up from the shore. I remember how quiet and naturally beautiful it was; everything felt so serene. We spent the day wandering through the slender streets and archways buying knick-knacks at various shops along the way. We had taken a ferry boat over from the mainland, so our time there was limited, but I never forgot how perfectly picturesque it was, which is why I made it a point to revisit.

Living in Gaeta at the time, made it surprisingly easy to get to this lush island. I travelled two hours south to Napoli, and then hopped onto a Ferry heading to Capri. It’s important to note, you can get to the island by hydrofoil (50 min), as well as by Ferry (60/90 min) from both Naples and Sorrento. Whichever form of transportation you decide to use, both dock at the Port of Marina Grande. My Ferry ride cost about 13 euro, and although I did get a little sea sick, there was enough room to spread out and try to relax.

Once I reached the island, shook off the nauseous feeling, and started walking towards the harbor, I was struck speechless by the dramatic landscape. The array of pastel painted buildings in comparison to the arching cliffs and blue-green water just looked stunning in the morning sunlight. After walking around the harbor, and finding a few shops, cafes, and an info center, it was obvious that the island’s main attractions were up in Capri town. So, the next task was finding the cheapest way up the mountain. I’m a poor college kid, remember? Rather than spend a small fortune on a cab, or bus, I decided to take the funicular. The station is situated right across from the docks, and you can buy the tickets nearby. One way on the funicular costs 1.30 euro; if you plan on venturing all over the island I recommend buying the day pass for 8 euro.

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The island of Capri is known for being a major tourist attraction, as well as one of the more expensive destinations in Italy. With that said, I think it is a must-see, and you will be missing out on a breathtakingly beautiful experience if you decide to skip it.

Locals were shocked when I said I was staying on the island for a few days, rather than just doing an afternoon visit like so many others. But, due to the timing of my trip (Fall) I was able to find several hotels at a discounted price. It was one of the few times I got to stay in a hotel, rather than a hostel, and damn do I cherish those nights in a big bed all to myself. Any backpacker/ traveler knows the feeling.

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The only downfall of visiting during this time of the year was that many of the shops and boutiques were closed. Since it is a touristy place, the island is more-so lively in the spring and summer months.

With the island being small, there are only so many places to eat and grab a cappuccino. Although this café is right in the center, and a little pricier than some others, it proved to be the perfect place to sip my coffee, have some lunch, and people-watch. Not too shabby, don’t you think?

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The main way to get around the island is to walk. Although the island is broken up into three parts, the port, Capri town, and Anacapri, each section is relatively flat, and is comprised of small cobblestone walkways that branch out. Although it would be difficult to get lost on such a small island, I do recommend taking a map from the hotel so that you have the places of interest highlighted.

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The main piazza in Capri town is the perfect place to sit and watch the sunset. The benches are always occupied by people taking in the view, and yet it never feels crowded.

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As I walked around Capri Town, I came across Giardini Augusto, which was a must-see garden on the map. Although it is small, it provides stunning views of the island’s landmarks, such as Faraglioni, and is filled with colorful flowers and intimate walkways.

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Of course you can’t go to the island of Capri without making you way up to Anacapri. After taking a very scary bus ride through some narrow streets, I finally arrived at the top of the island, or so I thought.

Anacapri, like Capri town, has a variety of shops selling souvenirs and luxury items. Perfume is a specialty. I ended up purchasing a small bottle of “the flowers of Capri” for twenty euro, but if I had more money to spend, i definitely would’ve mixed several different flavors to create my own scent. If you continue to walk along the side street next to the shopping center, you will eventually come to the Villa San Michelle and the church of San Michele Arcangelo. Both are recommended by locals, and the villa is known for having a beautiful garden out back. Further down the road I came to a steep set of stairs that I found out lead down to the Marina Piccola. This is a ‘beach’ comprised of rocks where people layout and swim in the summer.

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After taking a little stroll around Anacapri, I personally think that Capri town has more to offer, but it’s still got the island charm. The best part of Anacapri is the chair lift, which runs to the highest peak on the island, Monte Solaro. It was 10 euro for a round trip ticket, and just like when skiing, I practically fell into the seat as it rounded the corner and held on for dear life.

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From the top, you can see the entire island.

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With the island being so small, it is easy to walk around and stumble upon one hidden Eden after the next. This particular area was my favorite.

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Lemoncello is sold in many of the shops on the island, and a few local shop owners even offer tastings. I tried this sweet liquor a few years ago, and loved it, so I decided to buy this little bottle for the family back home.

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In all of the travel books that I’ve read, a visit to the Blue grotto is an absolute necessity. The turquoise colored are supposedly stunning, and it was one of the main things I was looking forward to doing during my time in Capri. Unfortunately, due to unsteady sea conditions, the boats refused to run all three days I was on the island. Since the grotto can only be entered by a rowboat when the tide is low enough, the locals didn’t want to risk the journey. I did price it out, while I was standing on the dock and for 3 hours it is 12 euro. So, the next time I visit this gorgeous island it will be during the summer, and I will see the grotto.

Every time I visit Capri I love it more than the last. It’s the perfect escape. Although, it is not a beach scene per-say, the views, shopping, food, and hospitality will make you feel like you’re at an exclusive resort. It’s high-end taste and elegance, makes it a must-see in my book.

 

Paris, France- Drinking Wine from a Baby Bottle

front-of-the-restaurant

There have been many places that I’ve visited over the last year and a half that have left an impression, but one particular restaurant, down the street from the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris, left me wanting more. Les Refuges du Fondue is one of the few restaurants that I make a point of visiting every time I return to Paris. My parents had originally gone, and they wouldn’t stop talking about it for months, so when my time had finally come to visit this fantastic city, I knew Les Refuges du Fondue had to be one of the first stops. Located at 17 rue des Trois-Freres, this hole in the wall fondue restaurant makes dinner an unforgettable experience.

front of the restaurant1 Paris, France  Drinking Wine from a Baby Bottle

When you initially enter this venue, don’t get discouraged by its size and graffiti filled walls, it’s part of the restaurant’s ambiance. With two wooden tables running the length of the room, on either side, it only leaves enough space down the center for the servers; therefore, diners must wait outside to be seated. Since there are only two tables in the entire restaurant, it is important to note that this is not a romantic, private type of setting; locals and tourists alike come here for the rowdy communal experience. Part of this restaurant’s appeal is the fact that all of the guests are sitting next to one another. And what’s even more fun, is that if you’re against the wall, you have to climb over the table to get to your seat, with the help of the waiter of course.

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Being in such close proximity with people, it’s easy to socialize. The first time I went, my friends and I were seated next to two teachers from Colorado on our left and a group of young French students on our right. Instantly, our table hit it off, and we spent the night laughing, exchanging stories, and taking pictures.

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The restaurant has a set-menu and price. Both times I visited, it was 15 euro for the set menu, and anything extra was an additional cost. The servers start out by bringing over an appetizer filled with olives, cheese, pickles, and different types of sliced meats, as well as a glass of fruity sangria.

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From there you have the choice of a cheese or meat fondue. Unfortunately, on both of my trips I was accompanied by vegetarians, so I have only tried the cheese fondue. But, according to my parents the meat fondue was equally delicious.

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You also have the choice between red or white wine. And one of my favorite things about this restaurant is that it is brought out to you in a baby bottle. I later was told that they use the baby bottles because in such tight quarter’s people’s drinks get knocked over, and the bottles prevent some of the mess. Whether that’s the real reason or not, I think the bottles add a fun comedic factor to the dining experience. There’s only one place in the world you can get drunk, while sucking on a baby bottle and this is it.

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This venue has a young, lively atmosphere, but it doesn’t mean it’s only appealing to the younger generation. Both times I’ve gone, I have seen people of all ages thoroughly enjoying themselves. If you go into it with an open mind and a sense of humor, it can be a ton of fun.

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The owners and waiters are known for being a bit rude, but don’t take it personally. To be honest, I was having such a good time with my friends; I really wasn’t paying any attention to them. I would recommend larger parties to make a reservation ahead of time; otherwise you’ll never get in. Also, it is important to note that this restaurant does NOT take credit cards, so make sure you have enough cash! It is only open at night from 7-12pm, but I highly suggest stopping in; it’s a French experience you don’t want to miss out on!

Sciacca, Italy- The Spa Day from Hell

Sciacca's Bath house

During our six week backpacking trip, my sister and I made it a point to stop in Sicily. When we were younger, our parents had taken us to Italy’s mainland to meet my mother’s family, but we were unable to venture down south, which is where my father’s family is from. Therefore, after visiting Palermo, we made it a point to spend a few days in the small town of Sciacca, where our great grandparents had lived. Amazingly, both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather lived in this small town, never met, immigrated to Massachusetts at different times, and ended up meeting and falling in love in Boston. With a bizarre love story like that, how can you not believe in fate? Anyway, Jenelle and I decided it was time to reconnect with our Sicilian roots, and that’s just what we did.

We had anticipated Sciacca being a small town and community, and with few sightseeing opportunities available we decided to get creative with our time. My sister settled on the idea of going to an old Roman Bath that was still in use. During the Ancient times, Romans would come to southern Italy to relax and bathe in the healing waters, and it is a tradition that the locals continue to uphold today. We left our hotel under the impression that we were going to swim/sit in a cave-like mud bath, based on the pictures we found online; however, what we paid for would be considered a form of punishment in some countries.

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Jenelle and I walked into the Bath, and quickly found that no one spoke any English. We stupidly had not taken along a phrase book to help guide the conversation, and neither of us knew a word of Italian. After I spent a half an hour trying to do charades so that the woman understood that we simply wanted mud rubbed onto our bodies, another woman took us into a consultation room. She jabbered away in Italian, as Jenelle and I nervously exchanged glances. She proceeded to take our blood pressures, at which point my sister looked at her and said, “Is this dangerouso?” For all the readers out there, a piece of advice: this is not Italian, and if you say it native italians will merely laugh at you, just as this lady laughed at my sister.

After our blood pressure was taken, the woman happily scribbled onto our charts. My sister, looking like someone was about to perform surgery on her, proceeded to ask if she was okay blood pressure-wise. The woman understood, and gave her a thumbs-up. I decided to ask the same question for myself, and the woman literally looked at me, smiled, and then made a so-so sign with her hand. Um, excuse me? What does that mean? Am I about to get roasted and go into cardiac arrest? With the woman happily ignoring my clear paranoia, and Jenelle and I wondering what the hell we just paid money for, we were led through a separate set of doors.

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Now, I’m all for trying things, obviously or I wouldn’t have found myself in this wonderful institution; however, the long hallway reminded me of an insane asylum and although I don’t watch many horror films, I started to feel like I was in one. As soon as we walked through the doors a pungent odor smacked my senses into overdrive. It was a grotesque mix of rotten egg and mold, that instantly made me want to plug my nose. The woman directed Jenelle towards one room and forced me to go into another. Now I know I thought it was going to be a spa treatment in a somewhat clinical setting but the room consisted of a shower, tub, and bed, and with the asylum décor of bare walls and white linens, it made it difficult to relax. I stripped down to my bathing suit, and laid on the bed. As I’m laying there, trying to remain calm, I hear my sister yelling down the hall. I instantly jump up and put my ear to the wall straining to hear what is going on. Thankfully by the sounds of it, she doesn’t seem to be dying, just in a little bit of pain. As I stride towards the hall to go check on her, my room door swings open, and a woman is standing there with a metal barrel on wheels. She starts motioning me back towards the bed, and although I was insistent about going to see my sister, this woman blocked my progress and with her arms flailing and her yelling in Italian it was way more intimidating and domineering than my urge to check on my sister.

I sat there as she flipped the cement-looking mud around in the barrel, and then watched as she plopped a large blob onto my table. I was definitely not prepared for what came next. She reached into the barrel, took another blob of mud, and then slapped it onto my back. To say it was hot would be an understatement, it literally felt like lava on my bare back, and I was thoroughly convinced I would have a burn to prove it. She chuckled as she spread the mixture all over my back, and I just started yelling ‘Muy Caliente, Muy Caliente!’ Yes, I am aware that this is the phrase for ‘very hot’ in Spanish, not Italian, but when your skin is being torched, you just hope they understand, and for the love of God, would stop. Unfortunately, my lady was having too much fun watching me squirm, and proceeded to put blobs onto my feet, my kneecaps, my stomach, and arms, and then pushed me down into the initial blob she had put on the table. I laid there as the mud started to harden and she wrapped me in three different types of heating blankets.

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Twenty five minutes later, I lay cocooned in this heat wrap, no longer feeling my body, just the weight of the cement. I could feel the sweat trickling all the way from my hairline to my toes. Within that half hour I had to of sweat out at least five pounds. By the time the lady came back to me, I felt like I was about to pass out. She unwound me, and then helped me into the shower, which pelted me with jets that shot Sulfer water. So now I not only felt tarred and dehydrated, but I smelled like rotten ass too. She scrubbed the mud off of me, and then helped me into the bath. I had hoped the bath would be better than everything else I had endured, but that was a little optimistic. Once again it was sulfur water, so instead of feeling calm and refreshed, I felt irritable, lightheaded, and nauseous. Once she drained the bath, the woman wrapped me in more heating towels and said I was finished.

I know tons of people that love having spa days, I’m one of them, but the Italians have a skewed sense of what is considered ‘relaxing’. After I gathered myself together and stumbled down the hall, the funniest part of this experience was my sister’s expression when she opened the door. With sweat marks down her neck, her bangs doing a major cowlick to the right, her mascara making massive rings under her eyes, and her looking at me all doe-eyed, I couldn’t help but laugh. All she said to me was, ‘What the hell just happened?’ and my response: ‘No idea.’ Although we were starving and parched, we refused to sit in a café smelling and looking the way we did. So instead we sprinted home so that we could shower. It literally took us a week to get the stench out of our clothes, and I don’t think either of us will ever recover from that day in Sciacca, but it’s definitely an experience we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Perugia, Italy- Every Chocoholics Dream

City of Perugia

Have you ever wished for a day solely revolved around eating chocolate? Or that all your favorite sweets could be found in one place? Well you can stop dreaming, because it’s actually a reality in the Umbria region of Italy. Every October, the Eurochocolate festival is held in the small town of Perugia, attracting thousands of tourists and chocolate lovers for an entire week (this past year it was from the 14th-23rd).

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Fortunately, I had been living in Gaeta, Italy when a friend had first mentioned it. I had been to several different types of food festivals to date, but had never heard of one consisting mainly of chocolate. Once I started doing some research, I realized it was an Italian tradition that I just couldn’t pass up. So, I decided to pack my little red carry-on and make a two week trip out of travelling northern Italy, starting with Perugia.

After a four and a half hour train ride of propping myself between the bathroom and the exit, with people climbing over me to board the train, I had finally made it to the chocolate city. That was also the first and last time I was too frugal to reserve a seat on a train. After I left the station, I hopped onto a bus, which took me up the hill, and dropped me right into the center of the festival. Between the stunning countryside, beautiful architecture, and hilly landscape Perugia embodies quintessential Tuscany.

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Luckily, I was able to book a hostel down the street from San Lorenzo Cathedral, which stands next to the Fontana Maggiore, and is virtually at one end of the festival. With so many visitors bombarding the city at once, I was lucky to have found a room at all. If this festival is of interest, I highly recommend booking a room far enough in advance to avoid difficulty later.

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With hundreds of tents lining the streets promoting both local and regional chocolate producers, I initially felt a bit overwhelmed. Luckily, I had met some girls staying at the same hostel as me and we decided to wander the festival together. We had been told to go buy an exclusive pass that would enable us to purchase several different types of chocolate at a discounted price. In my honest opinion, I wouldn’t waste your time or money on this ‘deal’, unless you planned on buying in bulk. Many stands hand out free samples, and for the most part you can buy pieces of chocolate along the way for very cheap. I’m not one that can consume an extreme amount of sweets in a short period of time, so it was great to buy a piece here and there for less than a euro, and snack until I reached another tent of interest.

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In addition to the outdoor sampling tents, there is also an education section dedicated to the history of chocolate and the cocoa bean located underneath the City Hall building. Here I learned about the production of cocoa in third world nations, and how it is picked, traded, and cultivated into chocolate. With demonstrations and exhibitions on cocoa beans from all over the world, it was interesting to learn about the process and the nutritional benefits. I was even allowed to try a cocoa bean from Brazil, but I would recommend my readers to break off the shell first because I stupidly didn’t, and man was it bitter.

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As you walk through the underground maze, you will also find several booths selling an array of breads, cheeses, oils, meats, and liquors. Although this particular section of the festival is small and does not revolve around chocolate, it acts as a nice break from all the sweets.

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Between the chocolate demonstrations, classes, and competitions this festival exerts a highly energetic environment, perfect for any age group.

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At different tents you can find every kind of white, dark, and milk chocolate. They offer fudge, chocolate dipped cookies, truffles, flavored fudge sticks, cakes, hot chocolate (flavored or spiked), and they even sell exotic chocolate flavors like lemoncello and Sambuca. Anything chocolate you can think of, they have it.

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They even go as far as selling chocolate pizzas, chocolate flavored grappa, and chocolate flavored pasta (I know it sounds bizarre, but apparently you eat it with a mascarpone cheese sauce).

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Every piece of chocolate I tried was different from the next. But without a doubt, my favorite stop was the tent with the chocolate kebab. Yes, you read correctly, it is in fact a kebab swirled with white and milk chocolate. The chef shaves some of the kebab into a crepe, drizzles some caramel and chocolate sauce, and then tops it off with some whipped cream. It is absolutely to die for, and surprisingly is not overly sweet.

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Whether you’re a chocoholic or merely visiting the festival to see what all the hype is about, I recommend making a day of it. It is entertaining to walk the streets and see what crazy creations they could invent next. As a broke backpacker it is the perfect place to meet people and spend little money. Furthermore, although the chocolate is the main attraction, there are other sections of the town that have markets selling purses, hats, clothes, and souvenirs. Just a warning, keep track of time, because the trains will be shut down once they get too crowded; I was forced to reroute and take a bus out of the city my last night there.  And finally the most obvious piece of advice is to pace yourself; it may not look like you’re eating a lot, but if you’re not careful, your stomach will feel it later. Bon Appetit!

Budapest, Hungary- I Just Can’t Stop Eating

Ruben's

Everyone that knows me or has followed my blog knows that I’m an avid eater. My attitude is you only live once and if you have to buy bigger pants from time to time so be it. After living abroad for a year and a half and not stepping on a scale once that entire time, I’ve decided I’m okay with stuffing my face. I’m not looking to be unhealthy or gluttonous, but sometimes you just need to indulge to hit the spot. I find that when I’m traveling I indulge a lot more than when I’m home, but I kind of reason it out with the fact that I’m walking my ass off and that I’m entitled. If I had to pick between accommodation and cuisine, I’d pick traditional food every time; I’m okay with staying in a hostel rather than a ritzy hotel, as long as my stomach is full and happy. Not every traveler would agree, but that’s the beauty of it; I’m not like everyone else.

After I graduated with my Masters in the UK, my mother and I ventured over to Budapest. I definitely get my love for food from her, which makes for tasty travels together.The first night we were advised to eat at a place called Rueben’s, around the corner from our hotel. The staff explained that they ate there frequently, and that we should give it a shot. I’m so happy we listened to them, because it was one of the best meals I had had in a long time. With the restaurant being a lovely mix of modern and classic décor, it made it easy to relax and enjoy the meal. Starting out with a bowl of traditional Goulash soup, I barely came up for air, as I shoveled the delicious chili-like stew into my mouth.

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For the next course, we decided to ask the waiter for his favorite dish. Sometimes the waiters are taken aback and other times they’re full of recommendations, but I love doing it regardless, because it means I’m getting a real traditional dish. He decided to steer us towards a dish that had chicken, pesto, spinach and gnocchi in a white wine sauce. Its mix of flavors and herbs left my taste buds wanting more. Mom and I were happily grunting through the entire meal.

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Hungarian food mainly consists of ground beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and vegetables; with rice, dumplings, and potatoes as side dishes. The stews/ soups are extremely popular, we found Goulash to be on every menu, and although meat and potatoes are known as being a ‘hearty’ meal we didn’t find the food to be overly heavy. I noticed while I was there, that many of the foods had a spicy kick to them. Normally, I’m not one to jump at a ‘hot’ dish; I usually have to have a large glass of water next to me and a napkin to wipe my eyes, but in Budapest I loved every dish I tried, hot and mild.

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We only spent a few nights in Budapest, and on the last night I decided to really jump out of my comfort zone, and try frog’s legs. I had wanted to for a while, and my friends that had tried them said they tasted like chicken. And yet, when I stared at the plate in front of me, I struggled to wrap my head around what I was about to do. It looked like the frog had just been cut in half, breaded and fried, and all I kept thinking was ‘I’m actually about to eat Kermit’. After a long internal debate, I decided to give it a try. It did in fact taste like chicken and actually was very delicious, so for all you doubter’s out there, you can do it too.

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I think it is important to note that on this trip, my mother and I also visited Prague and Austria, and Budapest by far had the best dessert of all three. With a wide variety of tortes, cakes, and pastries, who wouldn’t have a constant sweet tooth? Between the chocolate hazelnut sponge cake drenched in hot fudge and the Crème Brule with chocolate covered cherries I felt like I was a bite away from heaven. Although they were absolutely delicious, the best part was that they were light and easy to eat. I definitely have to give credit where credit is due, and Budapest, you deserve an award for your sweets.

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Discount Airlines: Cheap flights that make your life easier, or do they?

Ryanair flight

European airline companies such as Ryanair, Easy Jet and Wizz Air pride themselves on having the cheapest flights around. As a poor college student or frugal backpacker these are usually the first websites you visit when booking a trip. Unlike the mainstream providers back in the U.S, these discounted airlines advertise monthly specials for twenty pounds (around $40) or less. By forming partnerships with hotels, hostels, trains, and car hire companies, customers do not only get deals on flights, but they receive help with all of their travel needs. As tempting as these “special offers” sound, it is important not to fall into the typical travel trap.

2 20 09 ryanair plane Discount Airlines: Cheap flights that make your life easier, or do they?

Anyone that has flown with Ryanair, Easy Jet, or Wizz air, knows that it is never a smooth ride, unless you come prepared, and even then sometimes you have a strong urge to yell at someone. The number one mistake newcomers make, when dealing with these airlines, is to bring a bag that fits regulations. I was just as guilty as the next person in thinking that an average sized carry-on was perfectly suitable to bring on one of these smaller planes, I was wrong. All three airlines state that each passenger is permitted only one piece of cabin baggage for free, including handbags, briefcases, laptops, cameras etc. So everything you have essentially has to fit into one bag. Ryanair and Wizz Air demand that the carry-on have the maximum dimensions of 55x40x20, and doesn’t exceed a weight of 10 kilograms. Which essentially means, if you pack like I do, you’re shit out of luck. Luckily, Easyjet allows a slightly bigger carry-on at 56x45x25 and no weight restrictions, making it my favorite out of the three.

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Obviously, for people that don’t mind spending the extra money, checking bags is the easier route. However, for me, checking bags seems like the absolute worst thing imaginable when traveling. It must have something to do with the fact that Continental airlines lost all five of my suitcases when I moved from the U.S to London two years ago. I loved having my entire life floating around two different airports on two different continents; yea, good times. Also, when you travel alone, and you plan on hopping around a lot, the best thing to have is clothes, not an irritated lady on a phone telling you they will come in a few days.

Ever since that particularly stressful move, I force myself to only travel with carry-on’s, which is especially difficult with these airlines. However, even with all of the ‘small print’ and added fees, these flights are worth it, so get used to packing light. For most of my trips, I would bring this little red square rolling carry-on that I knew met protocol, and then July of last year I went backpacking and was forced to bring something different. My sister and I backpacked for six weeks throughout Europe and most of our stories come from our airport experiences. Now instead of my perfectly sized red suitcase, I had a slightly wider and longer backpack that pretty much became the death of me. On several occasions I had meltdowns in the airport trying to reorganize my bag, so that it would fit within the bag regulations case. Yup, my underwear and bras laying out in airport security was definitely one of the highlights. I was constantly trying to flatten my bag and wear as many clothes as I could just to board the plane. Let’s just say at two flights a day, it was a stressful experience that could’ve been made easier with a smaller bag. So next time I insist on packing the high heels I never wore, or the 18 tank tops that were overkill, my sister has promised to remind me of this hell we endured together.

IMG 0419 1024x768 Discount Airlines: Cheap flights that make your life easier, or do they?

The worst moment was when we were flying from Milan to Athens, and we were both already sweating to death underneath layers of clothes, and Jenelle realized Ryanair had a scale out. I thought I was going to cry right there. After I weighed my bag at 14 kilos and Jenelle’s was much the same, we spent an hour ripping everything we could out of our bags and putting it onto our bodies. After wearing almost everything I owned at once, and my bag still was 1 kilo over I threw it down and started to undress. Ryanair charged us 40 euro each to check our bags which total averaged 150 dollars.

IMG 0977 768x1024 Discount Airlines: Cheap flights that make your life easier, or do they?

 

Often times, when you approach the gate, the stewardesses’ will size your bag, and if it doesn’t meet protocol, they will put it into the hold and charge you 60 euro. Other times, I’ve actually seen passengers meet protocol, but there isn’t enough room on the plane so they will take your bag, put it into the hold, and still charge you anyway. If you’re not careful, all of the added fees can actually make the flight cost more money than if you’d originally gone with a different airline.

Destination-wise, Wizz Air has the most flights to the Eastern countries, like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey. Wizz Air also flies to the mainstream parts of Europe, but it is most popular for covering so many eastern countries. Ryanair is known for flying basically everywhere; the only advice I want to pass onto my readers is that they usually fly into the second popular airport in each country, rather than the first, which can make it difficult transportation-wise. Sometimes, the second-rate airports don’t have train stations and only cabs or buses, so you just need to be prepared and research beforehand. As for Easyjet, it doesn’t fly to as many places as Ryanair, but when it does fly, it typically goes to the main airport.

No matter how much frustration I have flying with these airlines at times, they can save you a pretty penny, if you can abide by the rules. And although package deals seem great, someone other than you is walking away with a profit, so use these flights to your advantage and plan your own vacation. Get risky, fly to new places, and whatever you do pack smart.

Greek Islands – Sunset in Santorini

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When my family and I visited the Greek Islands last summer, specifically the island of Santorini, there was one place the locals kept referring us to, Oia. According to the Greeks, this small town has the best sunset view on the island; I was instantly intrigued. What photographer would pass up the opportunity to snap some pics? Furthermore, what traveler would pass up an adventure? None that I know off. So, we were off. Since we were staying in Fira, the main city on the island, it was only a twenty-five minute drive to this picturesque village, making it a wonderful little day trip.

With my mother driving, me navigating the map, my sister snacking in the backseat, and my noni (that’s Italian for grandmother) complaining she had to pee, the ride there couldn’t have been more entertaining. Three generations of Reale women trekking through the island’s grasslands, with a winding dirt path as our compass, it’s lucky we didn’t kill each other or even better, end up at sea.

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As we entered the village, there was a small parking lot as well as a few paved streets that several cars parked along. The parking lot is not overly large, so I recommend heading into town earlier rather than later, undoubtedly you’re not the only person interested in this small town’s charm, and especially at sunset. As we walked up through the town’s narrow streets, it became clear this was a walking town. It looks small because the streets are so slim and clustered together, but in actuality, it was a decent walk from one side to the other. Amazingly, Oia is filled with cafés, galleries, boutiques, restaurants and souvenir shops, yet it still maintains a quaint calm environment. Its houses and buildings are mainly painted in white and blue, but there are the occasional pale pinks and yellows. The center square is rather small, but it houses a rather large church, and as you walk across the square, away from the church, you approach a beautiful Cliffside. From here, you can see the volcano as well as the island of Thirasia.

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During our stay in Fira, we visited Oia twice. Both times, our goal was to eat at places that had balcony seating and a clear view of the skyline. With people standing on the stairs to our restaurant, patiently positioning their cameras, and tourists and locals alike waiting for the sun to set, it felt like the entire town was holding their breath in anticipation. Once the sun started to set, the cameras started flashing and most people eating took a moment from dinner to take some of their own pictures, including me of course!

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On both nights the sunset was gorgeous, and totally worth the trip out.

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The skyline was splashed in yellow, orange, red, blue, purple, making it look like a painting rather than real life.

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The second night we ate dinner there, we met a couple that loved staying in Oia as much as we loved visiting. Since we were visiting in June, I was expecting every town on the island to be overflowing with tourists, but amazingly the couple reassured us that it had been a relaxing get-away, and oddly quiet. If I ever get the luxury/ privilege of revisiting this fantastic island, I wouldn’t hesitate to book a hotel here for a few nights.

Greek Islands – Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

Lamb, Rice and Veggies

 

Coming from a big Italian family, I definitely know how to eat. Growing up, my mother would cook dinners suitable for a small army, even though there were only four of us. And around the holidays, forget it; we’d have lasagna, meatballs, pork, and gravy as leftovers for weeks. With my mother being such a wonderful cook, I learned to appreciate food at an early age, and it’s one of the first things I love to do when I reach a new place.

Personally, I feel like you haven’t really seen a country or city in its entirety until you’ve tried the food. Food defines particular regions and their traditions, making it essential to understanding the culture. When I visited Greece for the first time last June, I realized that like Italians, the Greeks love to eat. Although both Italian and Greek cuisines share a similar Mediterranean flare, they’re very different.

The Greeks predominantly use vegetables, olive oil, meat, breads, olives, cheese and yogurt in their traditional dishes. Some of the more famous foods originating in this country are the pita chips with hummus, the Greek salad, lentil soup, grape leaves, and feta cheese with olives.

 

IMG 14742 1024x768 Greek Islands   Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

Some of my personal favorites were the spanakopita, which is a pastry crust stuffed with spinach, feta cheese, and onions. It is delicious both hot and cold, and I pretty much ate a piece a day during my trip. Another favorite of mine was the Moussaka, which was a ground beef and eggplant casserole; very popular among the locals. The gyro is an obvious pick, and although you can get these at your local pizza joint in town, the gyros in Greece are absolutely wonderful. And finally Gemista, which is backed stuffed vegetables; in most cases it is a pepper hallowed out and filled with ground beef and rice (as shown in the picture below).

 

Here are some more yummy dishes, I was lucky enough to try while there:

IMG 11551 1024x768 Greek Islands   Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

IMG 14731 1024x768 Greek Islands   Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

 

IMG 13481 1024x768 Greek Islands   Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

 

IMG 1393 1024x768 Greek Islands   Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

 

IMG 12531 1024x768 Greek Islands   Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

IMG 12241 1024x768 Greek Islands   Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

 

And with food this good, why stop yourself from trying dessert? I’m sure as hell not one of those girls that passes up a piece of chocolate cake; the diet can start again tomorrow. The most popular sweets I came across on the islands of Mykonos and Santorini were various types of cookies, pies, baklava, and crepes. Almost everything was drizzled with honey and nuts, giving it a natural sweetness. The crepes, in my opinion, were the most delicious, because you could fill it with whatever you wanted: fluff, nutella, coconut, hazelnut, caramel etc.

 

IMG 11941 1024x768 Greek Islands   Damn these Greeks sure know how to Eat

Like many European countries, after dinner the Greeks like to take a shot, usually it is of ouzo. I’m not entirely sure how or why the locals like this alcoholic beverage, considering it reminded me of lighter fluid, but nonetheless it is very popular. It is typically served with a glass of water, and is known for being ‘deadly’. If you’re anything like me, and want to experience everything a particular place has to offer, hold your nose, suck it up and enjoy!

Santorini, Greece – My Date with a Donkey

My little friend

Of all the adventurous things to do in Santorini, taking a donkey ride down the side of the volcano was one of the best. Donkey’s, mules, and horses are part of what give the Greek islands their charm. What used to be the main form of transportation from the old harbor to the town of Fira, is now a cultural pastime.

My fellow travel mates and I were lucky to stay in a gorgeous hotel at the very top of Fira, and so it was only a short jaunt over to the holding area that kept the donkeys. Naturally, we smelled them before we actually saw them. Once we came through the clearing, I was amazed at how many donkeys were actually standing in front of me.

IMG 14301 1024x768 Santorini, Greece   My Date with a Donkey

We approached one of the older men feeding the donkeys and yelling in Greek. He said we had two choices: one, was to ride the donkey down and then take the cable car back up or two, take the cable car down and ride the donkey back up. There was a group standing behind us, so we decided to join them, and head down the cliff-side on donkeys. We paid the man five euro each, and then he told us to pick out a donkey.

This one instantly caught my eye. What a cutie! For some reason, I always thought donkeys were like camels and that they spit, kicked and bit (shows you how much I know about animals), but I was pleasantly surprised at how friendly he was.

IMG 14291 1024x768 Santorini, Greece   My Date with a Donkey

After I managed to situate myself on top of my new donkey friend, the old man tied all of the animals to one another, forming a line. My sister was in front of me and my mother was behind me. When our line started to move, I could feel my donkey’s hooves slip on the slanted cobblestone walkway, and I had a brief moment where I thought I was going over the side of this very beautiful cliff. What a way to go eh? Luckily, my new little friend caught his balance, and trotted the rest of the way down perfectly.

IMG 14491 1024x768 Santorini, Greece   My Date with a Donkey

With the mid-day sun tanning my back and the magnificent mountains and ocean glistening in front of me, it was as close to perfection as you could get.

IMG 14341 1024x768 Santorini, Greece   My Date with a Donkey

During our final days on the Islands, I found out that the donkeys are used in traditional Greek weddings; the bride will ride a well-dressed donkey to the church, reception and then home. As adorable and stylish as this ride may be – Just a guess but I do not think it would be a big hit in Boston for my wedding.

Although I’ll be wearing my white dress in the good old USA, it won’t be my last visit to Santorini, and definitely not my last donkey ride.

IMG 14431 1024x768 Santorini, Greece   My Date with a Donkey

Prague, Czech Republic – Trip Summary

Prague Winter Festival

Prague, Czech Republic

This town was made for walking

There’s something about Prague that keeps bringing me back. Although most people, if given the chance to travel to Europe, would choose Paris, London, or Rome, I find this city enthralling and it has been proven over the past decade that this thriving city has slowly become a major tourist destination. In my opinion, the fact that this beautifully rich and diverse city is often times overlooked makes it THE hidden gem of Europe.

old town square winter1 400x200 Prague, Czech Republic   Trip Summary

Prague Winter Festival

With the center of Prague dating back thousands of years, this city embodies aspects of the Medieval, Old World and 15-17th century, even today. The city center is adorned in ornate architecture and filled with cultural attractions, which is a strong contrast to the stark outskirts, found just a fifteen minute ride east by tram. The center of Prague is comprised of narrow cobblestoned streets, lavishly decorated bridges and the biggest Castle in all of Europe; whereas the outskirts of the city reflect the years after World War II, when Communism was the social order. As you head East the effects of Communism become apparent; the building are cold gray slabs, and the land is bare. For the longest time, the Iron Curtain prevented people from entering or leaving the country, but with the fall of the Berlin Wall came the destruction of the neighboring Communist regimes, and all the barriers they had built. In the last twenty years, Prague has rebuilt itself into a political, cultural, and economic powerhouse for central Europe.

I have visited Prague twice over the past couple of years. Once in late November, and once in Mid-January. My advice to fellow travelers and bloggers would be to go in the Fall, right around Thanksgiving. Although the city was freezing on both occasions, Thanksgiving weekend is when the locals start to set up the outdoor Christmas markets. Seeing this already stunning city lined with little wooden huts selling everything from mead (honey wine) to sausages to souvenirs’ is an absolute treat. Fifty-foot Christmas trees stand in the center of town as well as by the commercial district, and the entire city feels illuminated. Even with the bitter cold whipping at your body, people have a friendly, airy demeanor about them. The first time I went, I was with my father and as we entered Old Town square, we were surrounded by locals serving food, a band was singing German and Czech holiday songs, and a pig was roasting on an open fire. A few goats, lambs, and Ponies wandered around a larger wooden stable nearby for children to pet. Locals sang, ate, and danced in the street, making the atmosphere a memorable one.

prague clock 400x200 Prague, Czech Republic   Trip Summary

Astrological Clock

My favorite area of Prague is Old Town; one can walk for hours wandering in and out of souvenir shops, galleries, and restaurants. This is one of those places where you don’t care that you’ve wasted a half of a day buying goodies or taking pictures; with few ‘must see’ attractions, it allows the traveler to spend the time as they like, rather than rush to fit everything in. Old Town square is one of the most popular places to visit, with the Astronomical Clock standing in the center and colorful elaborate buildings surrounding the circle, it is unlike any other square I’ve visited, especially during market season. The peculiar looking clock has been ticking since 1490, and as crowds gather at the base of the tower to take pictures, many don’t realize you can climb to the top. For only a few Czech crowns, you can take a lift to the top of the clock tower and take in some amazing views.

Prague is known for having the largest castle in the world, and after walking the grounds I understand why it holds that reputation. The easiest way to get to the castle, believe it or not, is to walk, especially if you’re staying in old town. There are also trams and buses that make trips up the hill stopping near the grounds, for those visitors staying in the newer part of town. The castle houses the crown jewels, St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, blooming gardens, grand halls, and the Golden Lane. On the street leading up to the grand castle, are palaces that used to be owned by the Royals. For additional costs the Castle provides guided tours, and for those broke backpacking students like myself, there are maps with numbered buildings so that you can find your way. There are two types of tickets you can buy for the castle, one is a longer tour including entrance to the Royal Palace, the exhibition, St. George’s Basilica, the National Gallery, the Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower, and the Prague Castle picture gallery for 350 Czech crowns ($19) a person. The other ticket is a shorter tour, allowing entrance to the Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, St. Vitus Cathedral, Golden Lane, and the Daliborka Tower for 250 Czech crowns ($14) a person. There are also other tickets available to get into the Galleries. It is important to note that several areas of the Castle do not allow photography, and if they do, it has to be without flash; I learned that one the hard way.

IMG 4925 400x200 Prague, Czech Republic   Trip Summary

Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge, which links old town to the Castle grounds, is absolutely the most picturesque location in the city. It crosses over the Vltava River, and is lined on either side with 30 Baroque statues. With all of the religious statues covered in smog from WWII, the bridge takes on a gothic feel. Every time I revisit this bridge, another statue has been scrubbed clean, and it is amazing to see how the marble has discolored over time. During the night, the bridge is quiet and eerie. But during the day, it has a completely different feel; with painters, kiosks, vendors and tourists crowding the walkway, it is the bustling place to be.

A place like Wenceslas Square, is great for grabbing a cup of coffee and people watching, or doing a bit of light shopping. This area is the commercial district, and has some of the more expensive restaurants and stores. The Jewish quarter has the old Jewish Cemetery, a Synagogue, and is mainly known for their garnets. Garnets are sold all over the city, and it is possible to find deals on jewelry anywhere, but the Jewish quarter is undoubtedly known as having the best prices. Prague is also known for producing Bohemian crystal, and it can be found even in souvenir shops for a pretty penny. The outdoor markets and souvenir shops also thrive off of selling beer steins, fur hats, and art. If architecture is your thing, most definitely visit the Dancing House; it’s one of the coolest building’s I’ve ever seen. If art strikes your fancy, I recommend visiting The Museum of Decorative Arts, The National Gallery, or the Lennon Wall.

On my first trip, my father and I wandered up the Petrin Hill unknowingly, and fell onto The Petrinska Rozhledna, an observation tower resembling the Eiffel Tower. It is reachable by funicular and by foot, but we only found it because we became curious once we saw the tracks. The lift within the tower is only for disabled customers and it is about 300 stairs to the top, so I would definitely recommend you go at the beginning of the day when you still have some energy. Because the tower is perched on top of the hill, it actually is quite high, giving visitors the ultimate panoramic view of Prague.

IMG 4905 400x200 Prague, Czech Republic   Trip Summary

Czech Food

When I travel around to different countries, transportation is one of the main things I look at. From the airport there is no public transportation into the city, at least that’s what the woman behind the desk decided to tell us at midnight one Wednesday evening. This means that from the airport, you must take a cab into the city; it is about a twenty minute ride and costs around 40 U.S dollars. Once you are situated in the city, whether it is in Old Town or New Town there are several forms of transportation that make it useful to get around. There are trams and buses that run continuously throughout the city, and there is a subway that is fast, clean, and efficient. There are three railway lines, Red, Green and Yellow, and between the three of them you can get anywhere in town. I highly recommend buying a tourist pass if you are there for three days or more. In the train stations, they sell 24-hour passes for 110 Czech Crowns, and 3-day passes for 310 Czech Crowns. Day passes and long-term passes are also available within the station. The passes are good for all forms of transportation and are highly worth the money. DO NOT be fooled; locals walk on trains and trams without swiping tickets all the time, because during the communist rule transportation was free. However, on random days the police will check for tickets and if you do not have one, you will receive a hefty fine.

IMG 4900 400x200 Prague, Czech Republic   Trip Summary

Czech Pilsner Beer

The main kind of cuisine found in Prague is anything having to do with meat, sauce and dumplings. Although, they do dabble in cooking duck, fish, and chicken, they mainly specialize in dishes involving pork and beef. At traditional Czech restaurants it is normal to order pork knee or knuckles served to you on a wooden slab. They are famous for their onion and garlic soup as well as their beer. Any restaurant that is branded with the name Pilsner on it means it serves the traditional beers. Prague also offers a slew of other types of cuisine ranging from Italian food to French food, so you are not only limited to the traditional plates.

Prague’s beautiful architecture and quaint streets make it one of the more peaceful trips I’ve taken. With little stress to fit in a billion sites, this city allows you to pace yourself. It’s one of the few places where I felt like I had the time to wander and just enjoy my surroundings. I feel like this city has something to offer everyone, it has a booming nightlife for the younger generations, while still maintaining a quiet and clean environment for families and older individuals. If this city wasn’t on your list before, it should be now.

IMG 4956 433x325 Prague, Czech Republic   Trip Summary

Prague Cathedral