How Bratislava Surprised Me

There was nervous anticipation on the boat. 

“And tomorrow,” Marek said shrilly, “we tour the greatest country in the world, my home of Slovakia!”

I didn’t share his enthusiasm, though have always thought that their flag is pretty sweet. For an itinerary packed with so many European highlights, Slovakia seemed like a necessary stopover because we didn’t have any onboard entertainment (save Marek dressed as Mozart the night we left Salzburg). All of the opportunities I had had in the past to visit Slovakia’s capital city had been met with the same response: “Skip it, there’s nothing to see there.”

And then, of course, there’s the city’s shining portrayal in the film Eurotrip.

So I wrote Slovakia off altogether until it was part of our Viking Cruise plan; a morning in Bratislava. This also meant my 31st country, one I’d merely passed through on an overnight bus between Budapest and Prague in the past and where I laid groggy eyes on the castle from the gas station.

We piled into buses at the small Danube port. Remnants of Communism remain, but the city proved to be a strange juxtaposition of Maria Theresa’s opulence and Czech repression with a few modern structures thrown in for good measure. 

Climbing into the hills behind the castle, we passed the various embassies, monuments to liberation and elegant states houses, plus TV towers, grungy hotels and decrepit houses. Squat housing developments and factories lay just across the Danube towards Vienna. Our guide pointed it all out, joking about how Communism meant that she grew up getting her knuckles rapped at school for having a shoelace untied, but her kids now graffiti the school without punishment.

Calling the castle an “overturned castle,” she confessed that it was, amidst crumbling buildings and Soviet architecture, quite possibly the biggest eyesore in the city. Maybe because it was glistening white and unspoiled by war and oppressive regimes, but I had to agree (and then took my obligatory picture).

Crossing into the historic, traffic-free center of town through Michael’s Gate, the streets were lined with small shops and cafes. Cannonball holes made for interesting stories about tax payers who purposely mutilated their own homes to get out of fees for a few years, even when the trajectory made no sense. Our guide was quick to make fun of oppressors who had tried to take control of the landlocked territory.

Pressburg’s former glory was reduced to ruins quickly during the last century, but it seems that the iron-clad spirit of the Slovaks have given the city a sort of revival; it was no wonder that every Slovakian staff member on board or ship was colorful and good-natured. The country has seen its share of battles, changing of rulers and didn’t gain independence until 1993. Amidst the cannonball-laden buildings, there are McDonald’s, boutiques and whimsical statues. 

Once we’d tipped the guide, we set Nancy loose in the city to do some shopping, and we joined a family from Maine in one of the city’s most famous chocolate shops. In a city where coffee culture is king, we opted for beers – and the Slovak beer, Zlaty Bažant, was awesome. Bratislava is rumored to have great nightlife, as evident by the slew of bars on Sedlárska Street.

 

While not a dazzling European capital, Bratislava was an easy-going break between regal Vienna and Budapest that gave us a chance to drink in a bit of small-city Europe. It was a place where I, for the first time on a trip that had us in four countries and eight cities, didn’t need to blindly follow a tour guide and tick things off my list.

Between the coffee culture and architecture, I could have spent the entire day popping in and out of locales for a drink or snack. It seemed to blend a tragic past with a hopeful future and a fun-loving, self-deprecating present.

Would it be it worth an entire trip? Perhaps, but as just an hour’s drive from Vienna, it’s definitely recommended for a quick visit (if even just for its cheaper prices, hilarious locals and yummy beer).

Have you been to Slovakia or Bratislava? What did you like (or not) about the city?

Tapa Thursdays: Apple Strudel at Buda Castle

While Spanish food is one of my biggest loves, I am not one to turn down local fare in any of the places I visit. This meant wild boar tortellini in Florence, leubuckhen in Passau and even grasshoppers in China. A happy tummy means a happy Cat.

When I was on a shoestring budget traveling around Europe, I typically ate street food and made sandwiches in hostels and splurged on one meal. Now that I have a big kid job, I find that a far larger part of my budget on eating and visiting local markets.

Then my parents came to Europe and they offered to pick up the tab.

As part of our package on our Viking Cruise down the Danube, we were offered the option of taking walking tours with local guides. As someone who has traveled independently for six years, I tend to stick to a map and my own intuition, but I found Viking’s guides to be knowledgeable and quite humorous.

My most frequent question: Where do the locals go to eat?

Our guide in Budapest, Julia, showed us around the Buda Castle area and directed us to the Ruszwurm, a nearly 200-year old coffeehouse that had retained its recipes ever since. Famous for strudel – apple, sour cherry and even nut – it’s one of the most frequented and most beloved of the Hungarian capital.

When we walked into the cramped café, one of the other families on the cruise was leaving, so we snagged their seats and ordered an espresso for me, a cappucino for my sister, and an apple strudel and tiramisu to share. One thing you have to understand about my family is that we’ve all got a severe sweet tooth, so a certain amount of self-restraint was required to not get an individual pastry and fend off wandering forks.

The strudel was heavenly, flaky on top and tart in the middle. Our bill for two coffees and two cakes came out to 9€ (most places in Budapest accept euros). Warm apple strudel? These are a few of my favorite things.

Marek told us that we should wait until Vienna for apple strudel. Or, you could just wait until Ruszwurm. 

If you go: Ruszwurm is located at Szentháromság utca 7, just steps from the St. Stephen’s Cathedral on the Buda side of the Danube, and is open daily from 10a.m. until 7p.m.

Revisiting Gran Canaria: Driving the Miniature Continent of the Canary Islands

As I prepare for my upcoming Christmas trip, I’ve realized something: for as many years as I’ve run Sunshine and Siestas, there are loads of places I have never written about visiting (like, several stops on my Christmas route). 

One of those places is Gran Canaria. Though a part of Spain, the island chain that makes up the Canary Islands is actually closer to the Western coast of Africa and are a haven for North Europeans – as well as Spaniards – on holiday.

As it turns out, this near-perfect circle of an island had far more than we bargained for. After all, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its biodiversity, earning it the nickname ‘The Miniature Continent.’ Though we went in May 2008 for a wedding, the Novio and I were able to see loads on our Gran Canaria holiday.

Though arriving to the Canary Islands is actually quite easy, as Las Palmas Airport is one of Spain’s busiest, renting a car made the biggest difference. I blindly followed the Novio, as I did in the early stages of the relationship, as he navigated the large airport, stuffed me into a car and drove me right to breakfast.

The GC-1 highway runs the eastern circumference of the island and took us to Maspalomas. Known for its dunes and gay nightlife, we cozied up to an airy bar near the beach. I gawked at how everything on the menu was in big, bold English with tempting bacon and hash browns. The morning was spent walking across the dunes, which stretch on for three kilometers away from Playa del Inglés.

Not surprisingly, then, there were loads of holiday makers and a few who wanted to bare all in the warmth of the early May sunshine.

We followed the GC-1 though the mountains to Puerto Mogan. The seaside village sidles up to a small port and beach, perfect for our lunch stop. We strolled through the streets, avoiding the shade and popping into boutiques.  That afternoon, we had a long lunch with several beers and loads of footsy.  Back on the GC-1 later that day, the afternoon meant relaxing near our hotel’s beach and strolling through the center.

We hopped on the GC-2, the highway that runs counterclockwise from Las Palmas, turning off at the GC-20, a secondary highway that leads to the island’s second-largest city.

Arucas and the cavernous church de San Juan Bautista was the venue for Jose and Particia’s wedding the next day. Like Maspalomas, Arucas is famous throughout Spain, though not for its natural beauty. This village, perched on a mountainside, produces a sweet honey rum called Arehucas. We’d later drink it until the early hours, only stopping once we saw the sun. My first Spanish wedding has always been my favorite.

On Sunday, the Novio had the idea to drive inland, towards Roque Nublo. As the highest point on Gran Canaria, we had to take several small highways that snaked higher and higher into the mountainous central part of the island.

I hated him for it.

From the top, one can see not only the panorama of the whole island (though the northern part of the city tends to be covered in fog), as well as Teide, the volcano on Tenerife and Spain’s highest point. Hiking off the hedonism from the previous night served me well for the return trip to the Iberian Peninsula. 

Afterwards, we stopped in the quaint fishing village of Agaete for lunch and a bit of sun. Located on the west side of the island and a jumping off point to other islands, the bars were a bit rough around the edges and cheaper than the bars we’d been at in other parts of the island.

Though our holiday on the Canary Islands lasted just one long weekend, we felt miles away from everything. It truly is a miniature continent, and has something from every type of traveler.

Have you ever been to the Canary Islands? I’ll be traveling to Tenerife right after Carnavales next year and would love tips!

Paddle Surfing in Calpe

I don’t know what I was more afraid of – the translucent jellyfish that floated near the surface of the water, or the fact that pictures of me in a bikini were circulating around twitter and instagram. Malditos blogueros.

Patricia was quick to offer up the switch: “No, no. You take my spot in the paddle surfing class. I prefer to stay on dry land, or at least sail.”

I was in Calpe on a blog trip, rubbing away the early morning goosebumps on my legs as I agreed to give her my spot in the sailing class for hers in the stand up paddle class, known locally as SUP. Calpe’s location in the northern region of Alicante is planted right on the water, its enormous Peñón de Ifach splitting the old fisherman’s city into two bays. That morning, I’d be learning how to surf standing up.

My legs already ached thinking about the six-hour ride back to Seville and the inability to stretch out after a vigorous morning workout.

I’d tried surfing before in La Coruña, but the lack of waves meant that as soon as I’d paddled out to the middle of the Riazor and stood up on the board, I’d sink. I was thankful that the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean were calm that day.

Chris from Gravity Cartel Surf Shop met us with a dozen boards. Resembling those used commonly for surf, the SUP boards were wider, sturdier and easier to get on, meant not for speed but for stability. He breezed through an explanation on how to correctly use the oars, how to stabilize a board and how to make turns. His abbreviated monologue was due to the calm waters – we had no need to learn how to battle waves nor how to pick up speed for the hour we’d be on the water.

I watched as Miguel Angel, Carolina and Fabio all paddled out, made it to their knees and then stood up without so much as rocking the boat. I cautiously waded out until the water reached the top of my bikini bottoms. Too cold to stay in the water, I climbed on top of the board, gingerly getting to my feet. The others were all paddling quickly through

The day ended up beautiful, the sun already high in the sky and reflecting off of the sea. The other instructors from Gravity Cartel helped me perfect my skills, talking about the village and how long they’d been there – they were all adopted calpinos, drawn to the villa for its sand and surf. Calpe seemed to be a city that has been able to retain its fishing village charm while meeting the demands of the tourism that fuels the local economy.

As Fabio and I began paddling back onto shore nearly an hour, I asked Laura to take our picture. Once she’d done it, a small wave rippled behind my board, knocking me right into the water as Fabio laughed. Turns out I should have stuck around to listen for how to deal with waves.

Have you ever paddle surfed? Are you as deathly afraid as jellyfish as me?!

Major thanks to both the Calpe Tourism Board and the instructors at Gravity Cartel for the lessons and not laughing too hard when  I fell off my board. My opinions, as always, are all my own.

Photo Essay: Driving the Picturesque Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

“Drive. Just drive. Stop when you feel like it, but make sure you’re not the one in the driver’s seat.”

Ryan, Angela and I were sitting in the bright February sun in Plaza de Gavidia while they helped me plan my spring break trip to Croatia and Montenegro. Their suggestion was to rent a car once in Montenegro and drive the staggeringly dramatic Bay of Kotor, a sprawling bay that looked like a butterfly bandage and is denoted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My friend Hayley and I had both been taking driving classes and had bought stick shift cars, so we figured we’d have little problem in renting a cheap coupe through an internationally recognized company. Climbing into the driver’s seat brought back a flurry of memories from when I was a new driver: It was with a heavy heart that I bid goodbye to my old Honda Accord calledthe Red Dragon. Bringing it to Spain was not an option I considered, despite the existence of companies like Autoshippers international car shipping, and my groggy brain welcomed the news that my father had sold it when I arrived to Madrid 12 hours later. Adiós, Red Dragon.

Since I couldn’t ship a car over to Spain, I recently bought my brother-in-law’s 2002 Peugeot 207, who has taken on the mota Pequeño Monty. He and I are still working on our relationship (read: despite having an EU license and convincing a driving instructor that I knew what I was doing when it came to stick shift, I’m still terribly nervous of stalling or running down the gears). I figured a little road trip in rural Montenegro with a newly minted DL would do the trick.

Herceg Novi

Herceg Novi was our base camp for the three nights we spent in Europe’s youngest nation. Just down the mountain from the border police and past the town of Igalo, famous for its mud baths, we were greeted by Stana. We were to stay in her apartment rental for a few nights while exploring the bay.

 Our first day was spent hiding in bars and napping while the rain poured, providing a gloomy backdrop against the dark, jagged skyline of mountains that protected the bay. Planning our route on w-fi and the help of Stana’s stash of maps that had been around since before Montenegro won its independence, we ignored the threat of rain and planned on reaching Sveti Stefan before day’s end.

Perast

Herceg Novi is one of those one-road-in-one-road-out types of cities. Hayley and I ditched the map, simply keeping the bay on the right hand side of the car. She drove, and I pointed out places to stop for photos. The skies were painted purple with streaks of grey, the harsh white caps that crashed against the coastline and threatened to wash over the pavement we were driving along, the switchbacks and the small roadside churches made of stone provided more entertainment for us than an unreliable radio.

As we rounded the bay at Kamenari, watching ferries leave and enter a sleepy port, a miniature church loomed in the distance. We stopped at  a lighthouse to take pictures and realized it was a small set of churches planted on a man-made island in the middle of the bay. Our Lady of the Rocks was an important pilgrimage site in conflicted times, and it interested Hayley and I, as we spent the better part of our journey preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago this summer. Indeed, we’d see ruined churches during the entire jaunt, some leveled to little more than rubble.

Ringing around the small towns promoting rural stays, spas and even Roman ruins, we passed Risan and decided we’d had enough nature and road on only a weak hot drink from Stana, which she’d left outside our apartment that morning. Perast was the next town along the bay, and because the highway 2/E-65 passes right above it, it remains hidden, save a church tower that jutted upwards, the bell tower level with the motorway.

Perast is said to have one of the highest concentrations of millionaires along the bay, and its rustic, Old World feel was breathtaking. A quick stop for coffee and tea turned into an hour while we photographed boats, Our Lady of the Rocks and the crumbling stone buildings.

Alright Montenegro, you’ve more than made up for the weather.

Sveti Stefan

By passing Kotor, the de-facto capital of the region, stop for cruise ships and title holder of another UNESCO nod, we took the newly-opened tunnel Vrmac that cuts travel time around the bay significantly. Exiting Kotor’s Stari Grad, take the roundabout towards the big, gaping hole in the mountain, and it will spit you out at the Tivat airport. Rather than heading back around the protruding peninsula towards Kotor, we instead headed south towards Budva and Sveti Stefan

Sveti is only 10-15 minutes past Budva, and was once a rocky island that has been turned into a luxury hotel complex that seems to retain some sort of charm. The problem was, the isthmus that has been constructed to reach the island is heavily guarded by hotel staff, and they won’t let you get past the gates and the thin strip of rocky beach. On our way back up, we stopped for an epic meal at a roadside bar, complete with fireplace and enormous mugs of Nikšićko beer.

Budva

Rounding out the day, we thought we’d make a quick jaunt to Budva, an ancient city with fortified walls. I’d been warned by Liz of Liz in España that the town resembled a strange Russian resort town and was best skipped.

She was right.

The walls are striking, but the town’s historic center – which has some traces of the architecture I’d seen in Split – has lost much of its beauty due to tourism. This also meant that the sites and most businesses were closed during the off-season. We’d paid for more than two hours of parking, so we spent the drizzly afternoon in and out of bars to steal wi-fi (this country is practically connected everywhere!) and popping into shops.

Our afternoon plan was to drive to Kotor to watch the Montenegrin’s national team’s football game, but we chose to bypass the tunnel and instead drive back along the coast – this time with the water on our left-hand side – and drink in the mountains-meet-water views. The roads were rampant with potholes, and any passing cars would have to creep along, as there was only enough room for one. We were told the journey would take an hour, but as soon as the lights of the Stari Grad appeared around the band of the village at Muo, we were stopped by an unadvertised construction obstacle, meaning we had to turn around and go back to Tivat anyway.

Kotor

Familiar with the road and our rental, Hayley and I jumped in the car after another one of Stana’s hot drinks rounds the following morning. Her enormous German Shepherd followed us down the stairs to the gate, where Stana was waiting for us with open arms. Using simple, monosyllable words and over exaggerrated hand gestures, we explained that we were leaving.

“Oh!” Stana exclaimed, clasping her hands together and then enveloping us in a hug. She said something in her native tongue and with her hands on our shoulders, announced that we’d have  nice day with nothing more than a thumbs up and “Nice Day!”

Taking advantage of the morning cool, we decided we’d first attack the mountain that shelters the ancient city. The medieval fortifications that surround the town also extend upwards another three miles. As Hayley and I are walking 200 miles on the Camino, we figured we’d start training: we grabbed some bread and refilled out water bottles and began the trek.

The thousands of worn stone steps are punctuated with small temples, stations of the cross and other panting climbers. We stopped every so often so swigs of water, slowly peeling off the layers we’d put on the brave the elements that day. Once we’d reached the top, our 45 minutes of suffering were rewarded – the small, protected cove of the bay was striking against the jade green water, slate grey mountains and the bright terra-cotta roofs below us.

Kotor is, in short, well deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage nod.

The rest of the morning was spent lazing around the city, ducking into artisan shops, writing postcards and drinking beers with locals. I was shocked with the warmth of a people who had been so battered during the previous decade’s war and turmoil. Every other beer was paid for, our enormous (and cheap!) pizza slices were delivered with wide smiles and the beautiful restoration work in the historic center, within the stone walls, spoke nothing of the war.

Tivat

While driving through Tivat the day before, we noticed signs for an enormous luxury complex, Puerto Montenegro. McMansions were going up along a quiet cove in the bay, complete with upscale restaurants and markets and a luxury spa called Pura Vida just steps off of where the yachts were parked. Since the forecast had predicted rain, we thought it a good idea to book treatments, choosing a mud wrap from the “healing” mud of Igalo and a facial – but not before a glass of wine with a view of the port!

My mom never took me to spas as a kid – I was a tomboy and always busy with sports – so I always feel ridiculous going into them because I have no idea what to do. Those stupid cardboard flip flops and the stupid, crispy white sheets. I got rubbed down in oils and mud and wrapped up like a pig in a blanket, and then had to tell the esthetician to be careful around the black eye that had sprouted under my right eye.

Driving back around the bay, we bypassed Kotor after a trip to the mall and headed back towards Herceg-Novi. Despite all of the great food we’d had, Hayley suggested stopping at a roadside bar for more cevapi, a grilled sausage sandwich. We made it nearly all of the way back to our home base before seeing the lights of a bar whose name was written in cyrillic.

The meats were laid out in a deli case, and upon requesting the cevapi with seven sausages (gluttony much?), the attendant fired up an outdoor grill and slapped 14 sausages down on the grill. We could hardly contain our appetites as we drove the last few kilometers home, laughing at how Soviet the bar had looked.

Herceg Novi

Back once again in Herceg Novi, we finally got a clear day. The waters on the bay lay calm and a slight breeze had us wrapping ourselves in sweaters. “I have a great plan,” Hayley announced as we walked through the Stari Grad, cameras in hand. “Let’s grab a few beers from the convenience store down by the beach and sit and just hang out.”

Girl gets me.

Have you ever been to Croatia or Montenegro, or had an epic road trip?

Seville Snapshots: El Peñón de Ifach

Round the N-332, I caught my first glimpse of the dramatic Peñón de Ifach. In all of the research I’d done on Calpe, the 332-meter high rock face seemed to loom everywhere – and we found that to be true once we’d settled into this sleepy fisherman’s town on the brink of touristic glory. Our hotel room at the Hotel Solymar had sweeping vistas of the bay and of the rock, we sailed around it on a catamaran and tasted paellas and fidueas in its shadow in the afternoon. Its size and sturdiness meant that Sunday’s paddle surf lesson would be on calm waters.

It’s the Giralda of Calpe, its most recognizable symbol.

Ifach, pronounced Ee-fahk, is nowadays a bird and wildlife refuge, a last little hiccup of the Cordillería Betica that stretches across much of Andalucía and Murcia. You can visit the Peñón daily from sun up to sun down, and well-marked trails and climbing are available.

Author’s note: I was a guest of the Calpe Tourism Board on their annual blog trip and digital media conference, #Calpemocion, and will be reporting for The Spain Scoop. All opinions are my own because, ya sabéis, I like to give them.

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