December 18, 2017

Paris, France- Drinking Wine from a Baby Bottle

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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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IMG 0277 1024x768 Paris, France  Drinking Wine from a Baby Bottle

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!

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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IMG 4658 1024x768 Budapest, Hungary  I Just Cant Stop Eating

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Prague Cathedral