How to Eat Like a Dane at Christmas

“There is no word in any other language for hygge,” Maria says quite matter-of-factly. “The closest we can do is ‘cozy.'” The rain was coming down outside Copenhagen’s new Torvehallern food hall, and hygge, pronounced hyu-guh, was definitely not what I was feeling.

In the 24 hours I’d been in the Danish capital, I had become convinced at once that the Danes do everything better, from architecture to mulled wine. And, hell, they even did coziness the correct way (because the sun sets at 3:30pm and they have little choice but to hole up at home). I looked longingly at a gløgg stand just a few paces away.

Typical foods from Copenhagen Food Tour

For the first weekend in December, the lack of snow on the ground didn’t detract from my heart swelling for Christmas time. Everything seemed to have an extra sheen, from the glossy windows of Scandinavian design shops to the pop-up Yule markets. And there were evergreens. Real, prickly evergreens for purchase. Enough to make this Grinch’s heart grow three sizes in one day.

So, knowing nothing about Danish cuisine but pickled herring and a thing for open-faced sandwiches, I hopped onto a Christmas cuisine market tour with Food Tours Copenhagen

Torrehallerne Food Market in Denmark

Inside Torvehallern, the marketing wasn’t just humming; shoppers popped between shops selling everything from Scandanavia’s one fresh winter crop, kale, to organic wine and exotic spices. One of the glass and steel buildings held a full-on food hall; the other promoted products in small shops. Maria led us to a corner shop peddling food from the island of Bornholmer, a far-flung island south of Sweden.

“These are the inventors of our hygge,” Maria says, passing out paper plates with several small treats on them. “They had no choice but to become self-sufficient and make most of their goods at home, many of which we eat at Christmastime. Don’t be shy; grab a plate or the food will be nabbed by someone else in the market!” Starting at the top, we tried ground mustard spread over a flaky rye cracker, a sweet toffee and black licorice, followed by a lingonberry jam and a berry liquor. 

Typical food from Bornholmer Island

All this in under 90 seconds, lest a market-goer get a free sample. Maria followed up with a 40-proof grain liquor called Acqua Vit and a shout of skål! Oh, so that’s how the Danes stay warm in winter, I thought to myself as I shuddered from the taste.

Gløgg, an even more potent version of mulled wine, was ladled out for us at a nearby stand that faced a courtyard between the market’s two main buildings. The Scandi sort also includes vodka-infused raisins and almonds at the bottom of the glass, and I could feel four liquid ounces of hygge give me a boost of warmth as we tackled an outdoor stand.

traditional gløgg mulled wine in Copenhagen

Kanuts Kitchen, a free-standing food truck bridging the food hall and market by way of Viking-insprised dishes. The owners use only ingredients that existed in the first millennia – think pork sandwiches and root vegetables. We sampled aebleskiver, an apple dumpling made over a naked flame. Lingonberry jam and powdered sugar brought them into the 21st Century (and the food truck, which is a thing of its own on Copenhagen’s Paper Island).

Apple turnovers at Torrehalvern Copenhagen

aebleskiver Danish pastry

At this point in time, I’d figured savory treats would not be included on the tour, so I let my sweet tooth have a field day. Back inside the market, Maria led us to Grød, the Danish word for porridge. Smells of leeks and carrots wafted in our direction every time a frazzled shopper opened the heavy glass doors behind us, bringing in a gust of chilled air.

Rice porridge typical Danish food

She handed us a cardboard cup of rice laden with cinnamon, sugar and a hunk of butter. Legend has it that Danish children once believed that gnomes helped clean the house and look after the livestock, and grateful parents asked their children to leave them a small bowl of rice porridge, risengrød. It was probably my favorite dish of the day, even though my blood sugar was through the roof!

It seemed that everything I’d heard about the new Scandi food movement was wrong – we’d eaten porridges, enough butter to put a cow into retirement and had heaps of grain liquor. What happened to the fresh, inventive cuisine I’d been expecting?

Scandanavian food is having its moment of glory, thanks to the NoMa revelation in the early 2000s. What was once known as a butter-heavy, bleak gastronomic landscape was transformed thanks to local products, a focus on what’s fresh (again, just kale in December, often paired with – what else – herring) and the mastermind of René Redzepi. A restaurant of the same name – the hybrid of Nordic Food, or Nordisk Mad – is consistently among the world’s best.

Nørrebro Bryghus Brewery in central Copenhagen

After a quick stop for more chocolate and a spicy chai tea at an exotic spice market, we braved the cold once more to head to the Nørrebro brewery. As it turns out, the Danes begin their Christmas season a month earlier than Spaniards with the annual J-Day, or Julebryg beer day. 

Only on the market for 10 weeks, the special Christmas brew kicks off the first Friday in November with bars offering the first few rounds on the house. Nørrebro treated us to their version.

Dios, these daneses even have the Christmas spirits market cornered.

After two more rounds, I left the brewery and started back for the market, determined to find some food souvenirs and maybe another snack. Unlike most food tours, I wasn’t ready to roll home but had snacked enough to be comfortable. I did as Maria suggested – a hot dog on the street, mustard and fried onions dripping all over my hands.

Danish hot dogs typical lunch in Copenhagen

It would still be another few days before I got an open faced sandwich, called smorbrød, and I justified more than one pastry a day on account that a snegl was cheaper than a burger. After four days in Copenhagen, I’ve got little idea what the Danes eat but have pulled out Christmas cookie recipes for my family’s upcoming visit for a very Spanish navidad.

My Christmas memories as a kid tasted decidedly more Scandinavian than Spanish – gingerbread, warm drinks and a few sips of schnapps when I reached my teenaged years. Two hours and probably more alcohol than I needed at that time of the day, I was ready to hole up for hygge and feel nostalgic for my homeland, where snow falls for Christmas and it’s dark before dinner on a stark winter night.

Food Tours Copenhagen kindly offered me a discounted tour, though I was under no obligation to write a review for them. That said, I learned that Danes ALSO do Christmas better than we do, and that is an opinion Maria shares. Find out more about their tours in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo on their website.

How to

Torvehallern is located at Frederiksborggade 21, close to the Norreport transportation depot and only steps from Rosenborg Castle. You can find the Nørrebor Brewery at Ryesgade 3 across the canal, and buy candy in bulk at Somods Bolcher at Norregade 36, just around the corner from the market.

Have you ever been on a food tour on your travels? Do you eat any typically Danish Christmas foods n your family?

Photo Post: Colorful Copenhagen

My knowledge of Denmark was relatively small: the Danes created my favorite childhood toy and eat their fair share of pastries, and that they and the Swedes enjoy a hot-cold relationship. And that traveling to Copenhagen in December would mean thermal underwear.

Over four days, the Danish capital quickly became a city I’d love to live in – even with the sun setting at the same time I eat lunch in Spain. I found that what I expected out of my trip didn’t prepare me for the beauty and the colors of Copenhagen. And it went further than postcard-esque Nyhavn:

Nyhavn harbor colorful houses

Between twinkling Christmas markets and two rare days of sunshine – not to mention pristine old buildings juxtaposed between modernist architecture – Copenhagen’s colors won me over. And with the cost of street food being more expensive than two beers and a montadito in Seville, I spent a lot of time outdoors (and ate a lot of hot dogs!).

Little Mermaid statue Copenhagen

Nyhavn harbor

Rosenborg Palace Copenhagen

Danish crown jewels Rosenborg Castle

Amalienborg Palace guards

Christiania Free Town Denmark

Christianshavn Copenhagen canals

ferris wheel in Copehagen

Copenhagen sunset over Christianshavn

Tivoli gardens at night

Christmas time in Copenhagen

The trip was expensive, despite a free plane ticket and a favorable euro, but all of the feels and sites and smells of baking cinnamon snegl were free.

12 Images

Have you ever been to Scandinavia? Which picture is your favorite?

Confession: I’m Nervous to Travel After the Paris Terror Attacks

After a late night trip to the bathroom, my hand fumbled across the nightstand looking for my watch. As my fingers crawled over a pack of Kleenex and the smooth, cold case of my laptop. I found my phone first, lit up with notifications from Instagram and Facebook.

There was one whatsapp from my mother:

“did u c travel alert? <3″

Being halfway across the world, my daily news intake usually comes as I’m eating lunch in Spain. I get the highlights from Facebook when I wake up – from sports to mass shootings to birth announcements – but often find that I’m behind when it comes to the heavy-hitting stuff back home because of the time difference. As 5pm news programs are rolling the opening credits, I’m typically sleeping. As the BBC reported that the US had issued a worldwide travel advisory, I had long since been asleep.

Confession_

When Paris nightclubs and restaurants were under attack on November 13th, 2015, I was dozing on the couch after dinner. The following morning, my entire newsfeed was burping up messages of disgust and horror and changing their profile pictures to shots of them at the Eiffel Tower during college study abroad

I studied journalism and have a piqued interest in developing news stories. Settling in that Saturday morning with a mug of tea and my laptop, the news stayed switched on for hours as I read hard and soft news related to the incident, including this haunting HuffPo piece on European mothers of ISIS.

But it took some time for it to sink in: I am a person living in Europe. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target for terror. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target who is traveling to city with known, active terror cells in three weeks.

The Colors of India - Lonely Planet Guidebook

Ten years ago, I was studying abroad in Valladolid when bombs rocked the London underground. A friend and I were in Barcelona long before travelers had smartphones or tablets, unable to reach our family but blissfully unaware of any real danger (meanwhile, our parents were manically trying to track us down). And Spain, at that time, was no stranger to terror – there were mass casualties the year before on the Cercanías commuter lines in Madrid. Our parents, once they finally reached us at a seedy hotel in El Raval, pleaded us to walk instead of ride the subway, and we did so with cans of San Miguel in our hands. Blissfully unaware of any danger.

Nothing hit home as closely as Paris has – not 9/11, not European terror, not the war in Iraq – at age 30. 

When I was a kid, I was fearless – riding my bike at top speed down hills, attempting dangerous gymnastics tricks, convinced I was made of rubber. As I’ve gotten older, however, fear creeps into my head every now and again (and I sincerely blame driver’s ed for this). I say a silent prayer to the Virgin of Loretto when a flight taxis and raises its nose into the sky, and I am constantly nervous for the Novio in his high-risk job. Anxiety nags at me, low in my stomach, whenever I sense that something could do horribly wrong.

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

But I have yet to let fear foil any plans, be it travel or otherwise. While my family wasn’t thrilled about me traveling to India with another female companion, I looked at it as an adventure, a “level up” sort of accomplishment as a traveler. Europe was child’s play to someone who had to have more passport pages affixed after six years of living abroad, and after getting stranded in Romania on NYE and traipsing through rural Morocco, I was in for a challenge anyway.

And India was rewarding on so many levels. I decided to travel less, but to more far-flung places before settling down with a family. But thanks to a new house and a wedding, I’ve been grounded and holed up in Spain. 

Choosing a solo trip to Copenhagen over a long weekend was something I considered being on the right airline website with the right amount of airline miles. It seemed like it’s been ages since I went anywhere outside of the US or Spain, and my feet were seriously itchy to use a free flight on Vueling. Málaga to Copenhagen and back cost me less than three nights at a hostel in the center of the Danish capital, so flights were booked without batting an eye in mid-September, along with a flight to Sicily

On my second solo trip to Croatia

On my second solo trip to Croatia

Life next year is still unpredictable between work and possible relocation. But as I saw it, it would perhaps be the last solo trip I took for a long time.

Following the Paris attacks, I didn’t think Denmark, often dubbed ‘Happiest Nation in the World,’ posed much of a threat. Still I located the American Embassy, copying down contact information into my phone and my notebook to be on the safe side, and I asked the Consular Agent here in Seville if he’d heard of any threats in Denmark. Negative. I went back to finding low-cost activities and places to try reindeer meat and proudly announced I’d take the train to nearby Mälmo, Sweden and find an IKEA.

As a week turned into 10 days, news that threats in Brussels had shut down the city’s museums and public transportation didn’t rattle me. But waking up at 4:32am to a travel alert issued by the US took me aback. Yes, it’s vague and doesn’t pinpoint any cities or countries or even news of a rumored attack, so why was I suddenly reconsidering a trip? Is it silly of me to worry that a Christmas market could end up as a target? Or that many ISIS sympathizers have been raised in Denmark? Am I safer in Spain than in the US or in Copenhagen?

I began reading an English language newspaper straight out of Copenhagen, The Local. Like it’s counterpart in Spain, news relevant to expat and travelers spatters across the pages and, buried under news about footballers and an imminent cold front, there were a few isolated articles related to terror, and only one spoke of an incident. It seems the happiest people on Earth are more about accepting potential radicals and using a soft method to wean them off of their jihad-fueled conviction.

So, I’ll go.

I’ll admit that I’m nervous, the same way I sometimes get nervous in Chicago because of gun violence. I feel safe in Seville, but who’s to say that something couldn’t happen here? Or who’s to say that I won’t be the victim of a gun crime in America? Or fall out of bed tomorrow and hit my head on the same nightstand where my phone had been blitzkrieged with safety messages 24 hours earlier?

We live in weird times, and I’m more convinced that just about every country, race and religion is having an identity crisis.  

My brand-new passport has 52 free pages in it. When I woke up at 4:52am, I couldn’t fall back asleep and began punching out this post, perhaps as a way to sort through my feelings. Six hours later, I am 98% sure I’ll be on a plane come December, albeit with the anxiety rumbling low in my stomach. Could just be my stomach asking for reindeer meat and a Carlsberg, though.

American travelers seriously concerned about threats should copy down information about their home country’s consulate or embassy abroad and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program with the US Department of State. While it’s certainly important to be aware of where you’re headed and what the risks are, only you can ultimately decide whether or not you go. And I’m in the former camp – go, but proceed with caution.

In the midst of global terror attacks, are you still planning to travel, or stay home? Am I silly for feeling nerves?

The Truth About Traveling in Sicily

“This is the part of Catania I wanted you to see,” the Novio cooed as we passed a fifth consecutive butcher windows displaying carne di equino. To be fair, I’d seen little else than the local airport, a roadside bar and enough near-traffic accidents to turn me off from getting into a car in Sicily. And now, before we’d hit the beautiful Piazza del Duomo or even had a slice of pizza, my husband had brought me to the back streets of the immigrant section of Siciliy’s second city. It was not what I had anticipated on a weekend I let him have complete control over.

Italy has never been to foreign a concept to me – my mom studied in Rome in the late 70s and brought her love for the Eternal City back to Chicago by way of spaghetti and meatballs and an addiction to ice cream. But traveling in Sicily is not for the novice traveler or faint of heart. I felt exhilarated as many times as frustrated and that it was equally the most beautiful place on earth and a dump. But overall that I’d barely scratched the surface (and one cannoli in three days is simply not acceptable).

The Truth AboutTraveling in Sicily

Sicily is like every place you’ve been, and nowhere you’ve ever been

I was unimpressed with Sicily at first glance. The chevron shaped island didn’t have any destinations I could recall outside of Palermo, and the little research I’d done online left me with only a few places jotted down on the inside of a book cover. I was willing to let the Novio recreate Driving Miss Wifey and usher me around.

After a harrowing ride into the heart of Catania, we parked nearly two kilometers from the attractions. The Novio led me down darkened alleyways that reeked of garbage and urine until we’d reached Via Plebiscito. Catania was shabby, with lopsided houses teetering amongst overgrown bushes and converted car parks. We saw no one until we’d reached the main drag, which, at nearly 8pm on a Friday night, was buzzing with commercial activity. 

Catania street scenes

To me, this slice of the city felt like the roadside markets of Jaipur, with butchers and barbers sharing sidewalk space. Vespas weaved in and out of the sidewalk displays of plastic toys and ripe vegetables. Shopkeepers yelled at one another across the busy street. It was as much Jaipur as it was Istanbul, feeling familiar for a city I’d only begun to know. 

And Catania continued to surprise me – its city piazzas had me reminiscing about its northern counterparts. Its shopping streets might as well have been Madrid or Paris. The pizza we ate as good as I remember it in Naples, fifteen summers earlier.

streets of Catania, Italy

The following day, as we drove to Siracusa and Agrigento, the landscapes changed dramatically, from neat olive groves that neatly backed up to rolling hills – just like in Andalucía – to towering hills crowned with castles. Sicily could have been Tuscany or it could have been the Côte d’Azure. It could have been the Greek countryside. It could have been Northern Africa. 

Yet at the time, Sicily was unlike any of these places as far as flavor and flair. The natives we came across were jovial, and we were never scammed or overcharged. I could barely find a place to buy a postcard. Maps are unreliable, and I found one person that spoke enough English for me to ask and be answered. Sicily is a little more “off the beaten path” than you’d expect, especially once you’re out of the ports of call.

Sicily felt worlds away from the Italy I’d gotten to know in three previous trips, anchored to the boot by little else than the common language and the pizza. It’s like the underbrush, or the boonies, as far as Italy is concerned. And for as backwards as it seemed, the way Sicilians live all made sense.

Let’s just say that when boarding my plane on Sunday, I didn’t feel ready to go.

Driving is like dangling your mortality right in front of the devil

I was clued into the manic driving practices in Italy when I was 15 and was nearly taken out by a moped in Naples. Half a lifetime later, as we pulled out of the Fontanarossa Airport, I said a small prayer to Saint Christopher.

Whoa.

If you’re in a roundabout, be prepared to stop. Don’t trust stoplights. Park where you feel like. Most highways are not lit at night. And Exit ramps are perfectly acceptable places to drive up when you’re not exiting the highway. 

Our Saturday plan was to wake up early and check out the catacombs in Syracuse, the Greek temples in Agrigento and the preserved mosaics in Piazza Amerina. Syracuse was easy enough to reach, but we’d have to return to Catania to reach Agrigento. After an hour on the A-19 that snakes between Catania and Palermo, we turned off just after Enna. As it turned out, the entire section between the motorway and the city famous for its Valle di Templi is under construction – we were driving behind trucks on gravel highways, making it nearly impossible to pass. 

Three hours after leaving Syracuse and air braking until my ankles were sore, we finally arrived, though we’d have to scratch the Villa Romana del Casale off the itinerary. 

Exploring Siracusa Sicily

That said, renting a car is far more reliable than the bus system, and there are few trains that operate between the major sites. I had worked up enough courage to take the car to Piazza Amerina. I got the feeling that the car was made of cheap plastic as it rattled and hummed to life. I immediately stalled. And stalled a second time, vowing to obey speed limits and turn around if necessary.

We had looked in earnest for a gas station when driving back from Agrigento, and let me warn you – Italian highways are not the places to run out of gas. Though I had one-third of a tank when leaving Catania, within 50 kilometers, there were no bars left, only a piercing beep every ten seconds.

Syracuse Italy

Like getting stranded in Romania, I was glad to not be a novice traveler. I remembered seeing a service station the day before, just past the turn off for Piazza Amerina. I was nearly confident that I could make it the 12 kilometers, but my heart was racing. I had bought data, so I could Skype the rental car company and try to speak to them in Spanish. The Novio was working until noon, four hours from that moment. I had a credit card to pay a towing company.

I watched the miles tick down to the service station, pulling up to a self-service station. “CHIN-QWEN-TI…espera,” I spit out, cramming my hand into my pocket and looking for a scrap of paper with the word for unleaded gas, “BENZINI.”

“Benzina,” the attendant corrected as another washed my windshield. Whatever.  

fusball table

I grew more confident in the car, taking turns past Pergusa with more speed, eventually arriving to the Villa Romana del Casale, my third UNESCO World Heritage site of the weekend. I’d long given up the use of the Italian GPS and instead used my phone’s. After an hour traipsing around 2500-year-old mosaics, I jumped back in my car, set to avoid the steep climb through postcard-esque Amerina.

I was again taken through dirt roads to reach the highway, convinced the plastic car would fall apart around me, cartoon style. I won’t even get into the thrill ride that was the trip to Acitrezza that afternoon – my eyes were transfixed on the GPS! 

The colors are more vibrant than you’d imagine

I was still in a haze from an overnight trip and two planes when I touched down at Fontanarossa Airport, and Mount Etna was veiled in its own smoke. After a nap, I gasped at how regal the volcano was, midnight blue against a clear day with smoke curling out of the top.

Sicily and Italian flags

Sicily has some serious bragging rights when it comes to the rich colors of its landscape. My book stayed packed in my purse as we drove through low-hanging vineyards and climbed steep mountains will houses and church spires dripping down and rolling towards the Mediterranean. This place is seriously jaw-dropping. The smoky ombre of ancient buildings, the dusty green of cyprus trees, and turquoise blue of the ever-present sea.

The outskirts of Syracuse, known as Siracusa locally, are nothing exciting, but its city center is spectacular. Once the center of commerce on the Ionian Sea, the city has 2,700 years of history and was one of the few places we saw Anglo tourists. Think cobbled alleyways, massive fountains and a spotless marble Duomo. 

Duomo de Siracusa

center of Syracuse, Italy

Valle dei Templi, which we arrived at just after 4pm, shone in the waning light.

Greek temple in Sicily

Valle dei Templi Argigento

And Acitrezza, a small beach neighborhood with port side osterias and craggy black rocks, enchanting.

port of acitrezza

I only wish we could have has a panini or arancini with these views!

Sometimes, you have to make your own plan

I’d been warned that Sicily was kind of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure type of place. Reliability was not necessarily something to be expected, and that frustrations were rampant. Because I hadn’t done the planning, I was ready to roll with the punches.

mosaics at Villa Casale Romana

Food was the first – I’d been on an overnight trip, and my cheese bocadillo was a thing of the pat by the time I hit Fiumicino and chowed down a croissant and a macchiato. The Novio had been raving about a pizza place across from the first hotel he’d stayed at, but the place was shuttered for the winter season. It was either loading up on pastries, or eating at a hit-or-miss restaurant down the road.

We went with the latter, and it was a hit. Five tables were crammed into what looked like the family’s living room, and there was no menu. We had four pieces of bruschetta placed in front of us as soon as we’d sat down, plus a plate of pasta piled high with clams, shrimp and fresh parsley, followed by a plate heaped with fried fish. I fell into a coma-like nap later, and it would be the first in a series of small victories that were almost immediately followed by a travel mishap.

Typical Sicilian Fare

The most notable: when we finally made it to the Valle dei Templi after several wrong turns, dirt highways and slow-moving vehicles (and maybe a few near accidents), I was over seeing Greek temples – that’s why I’d gone to Athens. At the foot of a ridge lined with cyprus trees, the columns of the Temple of Heracles pierce the sky, so we drove up the road adjacent to them.

“No, no, you must to pay parking at the next road,” a souvenir stand attendant said. There were bus loads of cruise guests and a very exasperated Novio. Looking at his watch, he announced that we’d never make it to Piazza Amerina before it closed, but that he didn’t care to pay the entrance fee for the temples. I suggested the castle at Enna, but he flashed his teeth and grabbed my hand.

Valle dei Templi walking paths

Construction signs blocked a walking path that would have otherwise been open. I devised a “play dumb” plan should we get caught, but after around 300 metros, the path led to the Temple of Concordia. We spent over an hour walking around the seven temples and the ruins of Olympeion Field, snickering to ourselves when passing guards and other tourists. 

Sicily wanted to play hardball with us, so we threw them a curveball and did things according to our terms.

Valle dei Templi Sicily

We got the payback the following day: first with my no gasoline coasting, and then in Acitrezza when we couldn’t find a place to eat, much less have a beer with a view. We ended up at a self-service bar with overcooked pasta. You win, Sicily.

Much like the south of Spain, Southern Italy is its own place. It’s more rugged, more of a challenge. But it’s delicious and sensual and downright different to most of the other places tourists flock to. I’d love to make a trip back – if only because I didn’t get to eat nearly enough.

Have you ever been to Sicily? What did you like about it? Check out my Bobby Pin map of the places I saw (and where I ate) in Western Sicily for more!

How a River Boat Changed My Mind About Cruises

My two experiences on cruises were enough to have me docked on dry land forever: at 9, we braved the Big Red Boat’s Disney cruise, where I was too old for the kiddie activities and too obnoxious to hang with my parents near the pool; seven years later, I became the babysitter to all of my younger cousins while everyone else spent the night at the disco.

My dad had been looking into river cruises since I’d announced I was moving back to Europe, gathering information on routes and rivers, sharing tips on saving money for a cruise and mapping out a time when all four of us would have overlapping vacation time. I kicked and screamed digitally, instead convincing them to do Ireland, Northern Spain and even Morocco.

how a

An itinerary for the so-called Danube Waltz popped up in my inbox two years ago, announcing that my parents would be meeting me in Munich for eight days of river cruising past castles, vineyards and quaint villages stuck in time along Europe’s most fabled river. I lost out and continued digitally screaming and kicking as the countdown to our trip ticked from months into weeks.

I was skeptical, having become more jaded about travel and packaged tours, and cruises had seemed like a cop out for people who couldn’t be bothered planning their own vacation. But I hadn’t seen my family in a year and was eager to visit Vienna again and experience Budapest in the wintertime. 

Viking Magni Ship

A few months later, I picked my parents up at Franz Joseph Strauβ and set off for Passau, the City on Three Rivers. It was Christmas Eve and we’d missed the markets, several shops and bars were still open so we could stretch our legs before setting off.

A Luxury Experience at a 2-1 Deal

The company runs amazing deals, offering two-for-one cabin rates and airfares. Sure, it’s pricey when you add it all up, but the devil was in the details. A state-of-the-art longboat, comfortable and stylish cabins (even our double in steerage!) and a fleet of friendly staff sets the company apart.

viking state rooms

Oh, and they spend THREE TIMES the money on food per passenger than the average ocean liner! Between free local beers and wines, incredible bar snacks (and a barkeep who just handed us an entire bag of them when he saw us on approach) and regional dishes on every mealtime menu, we practically rolled down the gangway each morning at port.

Customer service was also willing to discount my airfare from Spain and still honor the two-for-one discount – a gold star in my book.

Breaking the Cruise Rules

Two of my biggest issues with cruises are the schedules and the forced sense of community that entertainment directors try to create. Choosing a river cruise meant far less people aboard and more interaction between my family and the staff.

Each afternoon before dinner, we had a briefing on the next day’s city and entertainment of some sort, but that was it. Dinner tables were not assigned and there were no required meetings – instead, a schedule, optional activities and language guide was left on our beds by housekeeping each morning. My sister and I spent plenty of time catching up in our state room over local beers and a barrage of movies available on our TV when at see, or my dad and I sat on the upper deck, bundled up, to watch the castles perched atop cliffs float by.

Cruising on the Danube

Melk Abbey

I’d long thought that these sorts of cruises, which feature older people in their publicity, were for the AARP crowd, but we had about a dozen of us between 18 and 30. No disco, casino or gift shop aboard – these spaces were filled with elegant viewing decks, a library full of books in several languages and larger rooms for passengers.

History, not just Beaches and Booze

My travel style has evolved greatly over the past few years – I went from ticking places off a never-ending list to focusing on more local and meaningful travel – and immersion is important to me. I spend my euros on visiting cities and not beaches, which is one of the reasons that cruising has never appealed to me much.

Being Christmastime in Europe, we packed long underwear and thermal shirts rather than sunscreen, so we were already on the right track.

alleyways in Vienna Austria

munich christmas market gluhwein

Vienna at nightfall

The cruise company’s curated activities included making gingerbread in Passau, visiting home stays outside Bratislava and wine tasting near Dürnstein. We’d take advantage of morning tours with guides over walkie talkies and then meander until we found a place for lunch and a beer. Afternoons once we’d lifted the anchor meant food demonstrations, lectures on composers and local lore, or even optional tours of monuments. 

Local Guides and no Required Activities

The company uses local guides – we had a university lecturer guide us past Rococco buildings in Passau, a grade school teacher and life-long resident of Bratislava recount stories of a Communist upbringing and our cruise director himself gave us tips for his favorites cafés and food markets in Budapest. Even with just a few hours in the cities we visited, we skipped over the glossy tourist spots and went straight to the heart of a city.

christmas market in Salzburg Austria

Plus, we were given 100% freedom to take the tours or not, and those we did take were done via Whisperbox. No annoying umbrellas, recited monologues or enormous groups – and in each port-of-call, we found ourselves with different families. We skipped Vienna’s bus tour to see the Spanish Horse Riding School and have lunch with my cousin and passed on a guided tour of Salzburg’s city center in favor of the merry Christmas market adjacent the cathedral.

Family in Budapest

Our trip through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary (uh, and then my jaunt in Romania) felt like a perfectly planned vacation that we didn’t have to actually plan ourselves that still left room for us to make the trip our own. The pace, comfort and customer service was unbeatable.

While in Chicago this summer, I flipped through the 2016 promotional brochure, which announced open seas trips to Scandanavia. Maybe it’s time to start considering cruising vacations.

Have you ever done a river cruise? What were your impressions, and where did you go?

My Top Tips To Stay on a Budget While Traveling

It’s officially summer when I’ve had my first granizada, a lemon slushie synonymous with the sweltering season. Summer means freedom from work, from alarm clocks and from all of those ‘adult’ things for two blissful months. And, if I’m lucky and have applied for unemployment, a trip!

Saving Money in Europe

Many ask me for tips on staying on budget when traveling around Spain and further afield, which I’ve rounded up into seven quick travel tips:

Timing is Important

Even if you are visiting a swanky destination, you can stay on a budget if you time it right. You should visit your preferred destination after high season times if you want to save while you travel. Prices skyrocket in Spain in July and especially August, so if you can, travel outside of these periods, particularly if you’re headed to the coast.

Plan your meals

If you know that the restaurant around the corner is expensive and the food served isn’t really good, you should look for options and save money. For this, it is important to do some research and find some economical restaurants that taste great, too! Search blogs, Trip Advisor and newspapers for the skinny on where to chow down (or, check out my section on Food in Seville).

wine on the table in spain

Another alternative is to cook while on vacation. Spain is truly Europe’s fruit basket, and shopping locally and spending an evening in cooking with a glass of wine could mean more money for an experience or day trip.      

Rentals

It is important to be specific with car rentals and look for car rental coverage. Take advantage of insurance and credit cards that have car rental coverage. Here in Europe, the size of the car even matters. Choose the smallest car possible because it will help you save money when refilling gas, and note that automatic cars are generally pricier.

If you are traveling around with kids, you might think of bringing the car cheap and adding it to your luggage. However, it is advisable to ask the car rental company about their rental prices for the same and compare them. Choose an alternative that is cheaper. Remember, if you are adding it to your luggage, you might have to bear the charges for extra luggage.

Transportation

Rail, metros, and subway are often the best alternative because it is quite cheap, especially if you are traveling to Europe. However, it is better to choose a slower mode of transport if flying is too short. This gives you an advantage of sleeping while traveling, too.

Learning in India - Riding the Train

Even while moving around, it is better to avoid taxis and use public transport instead. For travel between cities, consider Bla Bla Car, a car sharing program in Western Europe that will automatically calculate your fuel charge.  

Currency

Watch out for the exchange rate and keep checking it regularly. Avoid exchanging dollars from such exchange centers, and instead exchange money at home to have cash at hand, or take from an ATM. Most big banks will have a partner in Europe from which you can withdraw at no charge. If they don’t, take larger amounts to cut down on silly charges.

The dollar is quite strong against the euro, so now really is the time to travel to Europe!

Mark the tourist spots

If you know where and when are you planning to travel, you will spend less time wandering around. This will help you save time and money on touristic sites, transportation and maybe even a pair of walking shoes!

bring a map on a trip

Always make the local tourism office you first stop for free maps and discount codes. Many museums in Spain have free days or afternoons that you can take advantage of, thus significantly reducing your spending.

Plan in advance

Air tickets and hotel bookings should be done in advance when possible. There are a number of sites that offer exclusive packages that can help you get the best prices on your bookings. Expedia is one of the best options available for you, and you can even use discount coupons for Expedia.

Note: If you are booking your tickets in advance, check your airline’s site regularly for updates or set up a price tracker.

madrid street signs

Budget travel is possible in Europe, even in the peak summer months. Your main ammunition is research, planning, and price comparison! Spend those American dollars here in Spain, please!

If you wish to contribute with a tip or two, please post them in the comments!

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