December 18, 2017

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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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Interlaken, Switzerland – Ziplining- Heights are so NOT my thing

Zipline

 

As I have mentioned in several posts, heights are not my thing, and yet I find myself continuously trying to face my fear of them. For half my life flying was a process. I’d have a panic attack waiting for the plane to take off, and once it was in the air, I would have to drug myself with sleeping medication just to survive the trip. Then when I moved to England and started traveling around to different countries, flying became second nature. Sometimes I’d even take two flights a day. So, you can imagine my surprise to find that my fear of heights hadn’t diminished in the least, when I attempted to zip line.

Whenever someone in the past had told me they have gone zip lining, I instantly pictured a tropical setting, with someone at the top of a mountain strapping you into a harness, flying over the treetops of a jungle, and then sliding into the finish point, where another person unclips you. I envied those people, thinking about how beautiful the views must be as they sliced through the air; feeling completely free and weightless. My experience in Interlaken, Switzerland didn’t exactly go as smoothly, but it’s definitely an experience to write about.

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It was the last day of our weekend trip to Interlaken, Switzerland, and a group of people had decided to go to a place called Seilpark. Both guides from Bus2Alps and locals alike agreed it was worth trying if you were looking for something fun to do at a lower price. With only a few hours to spare before heading back to Italy, I decided to join in the fun.

zipline 400x200 Interlaken, Switzerland   Ziplining  Heights are so NOT my thing

Getting up there

The main activities center in town, literally around the corner from Balmers Herberge Hostel, where they sell all of the snow sports equipment, was the meeting point. A van shuttled customers to and from the park throughout the day. As our van ventured out of the city and towards the countryside, I started to get anxious, like I always do when things involve heights. How high would I actually be? How sturdy is the line? Has anyone died on this thing before? What the hell did I sign myself up for? And by the time we pulled up to the site, I had decided I was never making a rash decision while intoxicated again.

 

From the ground looking up, it actually didn’t look too intimidating. The Park had created an elevated obstacle course, using the surrounding trees to build wooden platforms as resting points. Overhead, there were people tightrope walking from one tree to the next, others were clinging to nets or making their way across circular wooden planks fifty feet in the air. It looked like the course consisted of obstacles testing ones endurance with zip lines intermixed, rather than just zip line.

IMG 4326 1024x768 Interlaken, Switzerland   Ziplining  Heights are so NOT my thing

After being helped into a harness and given a set of gloves, the guide explained that the entire course was made up of blue and red bungee wires. Blue meant it was a zip line section, and red meant it was an obstacle section, which told you which set of clips to use off of your harness. He explained there were eight different rope trails connecting over 50 platforms of height, ranging from beginner to difficult, and you choose accordingly. The one rule of the course was to always be clipped in, and with the ten minute explanation we were on our merry way.

As I approached the first course (one of the easier ones listed) all I could think about was “I can’t believe I don’t have a guide with me. If they knew how clumsy I am, they would not be letting me do this alone.” I tried to swallow my nerves, and climbed up to the first wooden platform. The minute I started to walk across the tightrope, I knew I had been stupid to wear fashionable boots rather than rent grungy hiking sneakers, bad life choice.

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The difficult part about the courses, are that you can’t just quit in the middle, or turn around and go back; you have to keep pushing forward, facing the obstacles until you finish. Although all of the obstacles push your body to be agile and alert, two of the sections really freaked me out. One obstacle in the easier course, where you had to walk across circular planks, had me fearfully frozen in place, holding onto the bungee cord for dear life. This forced me to break the rules, and use my zip line to get across to the other tree, rather than painfully walk. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but this is how much of an idiot I looked like:

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The other moment, where I questioned my sanity, was when I was standing 70 feet in a tree about to zip line across a stretch of land. I actually think Paragliding was less scary than being up in that tree. I was inches away from peeing myself, when friends on the ground talked me into clipping myself in and just making the jump. I closed my eyes as the wind whipped my face, and although my nerves were shot, once I got to the other side, I felt empowered.

IMG 4337 1024x768 Interlaken, Switzerland   Ziplining  Heights are so NOT my thing

I’m not going to lie, this obstacle course was definitely a challenge, both mentally and physically, for me. Like most things in life, some people will excel at it and others may find it takes them a little longer to complete it, but the goal is just to finish. Sometimes it’s good to take a risk and push yourself. At 69 francs a person, it’s definitely an adventure worth taking.

 

Interlaken, Switzerland – Canyon Jumping- Channeling my Inner Daredevil

Dang
IMG 3564 400x200 Interlaken, Switzerland   Canyon Jumping  Channeling my Inner Daredevil

Welcome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you thought skydiving, bungee jumping, or running with the bulls was scary, you’ve never heard of canyon jumping. I hadn’t either until I started planning my trip to Switzerland. Apparently they only do this adrenaline-rushing death defying free fall in two places in the world: Interlaken, Switzerland and Queenstown, New Zealand.

The Original Alpin Raft Company in Interlaken is known for servicing the canyon jump year round, sending a van to pick up the jumpers at their accommodation. Although I am petrified of heights, I had considered making the jump with some of my friends, even at 129 francs a person, which for a backpacker, is a bit expensive. I wanted to mainly make the jump to prove to all of my friends and family back home I could do it, but in the end I decided I may have a heart attack in mid air if I threw myself off of a cliff, and I’m too young to die.

the platform where you 298x200 Interlaken, Switzerland   Canyon Jumping  Channeling my Inner Daredevil

Canyon Jump Platform

Although Canyon Jumping is not my ideal adventure, my friends were blown away by the experience. After signing a death waver (yes, I’m serious) and walking onto a metal grated platform almost 300 feet in the air, any person would be feeling the fear. One by one my friends stepped into a harness that wrapped itself around their torso, and got a thick rope clipped to the front of them. That’s it, a rope; no professional strapped to your back or a parachute, a single strand of twisted fiber is meant to save your life, that’s reassuring eh?

When it was my friend Jen’s turn she looked at the group of jumpers, waved, walked towards the edge, did the sign of the cross, and jumped. After dropping the 300 feet, a five second free-fall to be exact, the rope swung her quickly through the narrow canyon. From above, her body looked like a rag doll being jolted around; it was one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen. Two of my guy friends actually held onto cameras while they jumped, so they could film the trip down. Don’t ask me how they did it, because if it was me, I would’ve chucked the camera the minute I jumped, glued my eyes shut, and screamed bloody murder, if not throwing up on the way down; yea, I’m that girl.

After the rope comes to a stop, the jumper is lowered to a bridge/ walkway nearby, where all of the daredevils wait until the group has finished taking the plunge. After we returned to our accommodation, I asked her what it had felt like, what had gone through her mind as she jumped off the ledge, and she said, “I literally felt like I had just committed suicide, and wanted to turn around and grab something, anything.”

1 269x200 Interlaken, Switzerland   Canyon Jumping  Channeling my Inner Daredevil

Oh Man!

Some other friends spent the weekend on ATV’s, paragliding, snowboarding on glaciers, and undoubtedly they all felt that canyon jumping was the best thing they did. Every one of them. So either I have a bunch of crazy people as friends, or there is some fun to this sport and I just can’t see past the height thing. Regardless, if you are a thrill-seeker this is a definite experience worth crossing off the bucket list.

So, I’m going to leave you with this: It’s recommended to wear bright colors, so that they look better on the photos, but I think it’s just a way for them to identify the body’s when this thrill seeking death trap is over…think about it.

Interlaken, Switzerland – Trip Summary- Plucked from a Painting

Plucked from a painting
Jungfraubahn 400x200 Interlaken, Switzerland   Trip Summary  Plucked from a Painting

When a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join her on a trip to Switzerland in November of 2011, it took everything inside of me not to place the bottle of red wine I was holding back on the market’s shelf, grab her arm, and head straight for the airport. For me, Switzerland had always been an intriguing country; with the chocolate and fondue, and beautiful scenery, how could you go wrong? But my trip to this breathtaking country exceeded all of my expectation, making it one of my favorite trips of the last year and a half.
IMG 4192 433x325 Interlaken, Switzerland   Trip Summary  Plucked from a Painting
Although typically I organize and book all of my trips, this adventure was done through my friend’s study abroad program in Florence. The company was called Bus2Alps, which travels to Switzerland from Florence, Rome, Paris and Munich. Although we rode a bus from Florence, Italy to Interlaken, Switzerland that lasted about 8 hours, the company did a great job of accommodating the students and guests. Bus2Alps gave us the choice of two popular hostels in town, Balmers Herberge (which is ranked number one on several sites; having a full bar and dance club downstairs) and Backpackers Villa Sonnenhof (which is a five minute walk from Balmers, and a more modern, quiet accommodation). Since Bus2Alps gave all of the guests’ free admission into the bar/nightclub at Balmers, I decided to stay in the Villa for the weekend.
interlaken overhead 400x200 Interlaken, Switzerland   Trip Summary  Plucked from a Painting
  With the help of Bus2Alps, I was able to sign up for   weekend excursions and activities at a discounted price. When I had originally signed up for the trip, I thought Zurich was the place to be; the place that truly embodied the Swiss experience. Not having heard much about Interlaken, I was slightly apprehensive. Surprisingly, it proved to have a little something for everyone.
An hour outside of Zurich, this small sleepy town with a population of a mere 5,429, provides activities such as skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, snow shoeing, and night sledding for those winter lovers, and even extreme sports like canyon jumping, zip lining, hang-gliding, bungee jumping, rock climbing, skydiving, and paragliding for the risk-takers. They offer private lessons for beginners, and take experienced skiers to a glacier up north. If sports aren’t your thing, Interlaken also rents out ATV’s, bikes, and small two-door vehicles to gallivant around the city in. Located in central Switzerland, in between the two Alpine lakes, Brienz and Thun, Interlaken offers Scenic hikes up through the Swiss Alps, relaxing Alpine spas, and trips up to Jungfraubahn, also known as the top of Europe.
The crystal blue lakes, brown and white capped mountains standing side by side, and random waterfalls scattered throughout the land make this location a stunning vacation spot. Small log cabins are perched on cliffs as you climb to higher altitudes, and the buildings in the local towns resemble gingerbread cut-outs. As you walk out of the center of town towards the mountains, have your camera ready, because the combination of the colorful landscape with the array of paragliders floating down to the ground is spectacular.
Harderbahn funicular 400x200 Interlaken, Switzerland   Trip Summary  Plucked from a Painting
Interlaken Ost, is the main train station in town, providing trains that travel out of town as well as up the mountain, stopping at Winderswil. In Winderswil, there is a funicular that travels even further up the mountain to a quaint little town called Lauterbrunnen. I went up the mountain in search of a good hike, and Lauterbrunnen provided just that. Once one exits the funicular station at Lauterbrunnen, it becomes all too real that this little town is perched in a valley on the Alps. Massive rocks tower above you on the right and green meadows stretch out to more mountains on your left. Breathtaking waterfalls pour out of nearby cliff faces almost 1000 feet in the air. With 72 waterfalls in Launterbrunnen, it makes the small resort town look like it was plucked straight from the jungle. There are several seasonal accomodations and restaurants that make this area worthwhile. Since I was looking to take in more nature than city, it was recommended to me to hike from Lauterbrunnen to Murren. As you walk more out of the town and more into the mountains, there is a path that provides benches along the way to stop and take in the unbelievable view. The path weaves up two different hills, ultimately stopping at a tram that takes hikers back down to Lauterbrunnen, if they choose not to walk. Overall, the cost of transportation up to Murren and back down to Interlaken Ost was around 27 francs, which is equivalent to 30 UD dollars.
Typically, Switzerland is known for their watches, chocolate, cheese, army knives, cow bells, cuckoo clocks and woodcarvings. Luckily, most of these goods can be found in the local souvenir shops, ranging from lower scale to higher quality. The main street that runs between Interlaken West and Interlaken Ost Railway stations, called Hoheweg, has several souviner shops lining the sidewalks. Places such as the “Swiss Knife Center” have a wide range of knives for sale, and “Bucherer” offers up an assortment of traditional Swiss brand- name watches, including the lower-scale Swatch. Often times, you can buy a watch or Swiss army knife in one of the Souvenir shops, and they will engrave it for free. Unfortunately, I was unable to make my way over to Brienz, which is 30 minutes by train from Interlaken Ost, but they are known has being the center for Swiss woodcarving.

swiss chocolate 400x200 Interlaken, Switzerland   Trip Summary  Plucked from a Painting

Awesome

The locals pride themselves on having the best sweets, so be on the lookout for an hour chocolate show, where you can taste-test and learn how Nestle creates such yummy goodness. I was able to attend one at Schuh, which is also located on Hoheweg, for a reasonable price. After the show your ticket becomes a 10 franc voucher to purchase some chocolate.
Switzerland is ranked as having one of the most powerful economies in the world. And although I knew this country was going to be expensive, I wasn’t prepared for how expensive the price of living actually was. Typically the exchange rate is better than when I went last Thanksgiving, but I will warn fellow travelers that between excursions, daredevil activities, and eating, the wallet can take a beating. In my opinion, this trip was worth every penny, and although I have been to other places for cheaper, nothing really compares to the Swiss experience.