Bratislava


I’m embarrassed to admit my preconceived notions of Bratislava. The little I knew about the city came from stereotypical pop culture film references like “Europe Trip” or “Hostel” and Jodon’s unenthusiastic musings from his previous trip. I was expecting to happen upon a desolate, communist era community that had little going for it: dirty, poor, a true example of the phrase “the struggle is real”. So you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to discover that I was entirely, to the core, wrong about the city. Slovakia was my dark horse of the trip. Bratislava’s old town is small enough to walk around in a couple hours, but has enough sites, and restaurants and cafes to keep you interested for days. The people are friendly, the women are drop dead gorgeous, and everything is affordable. The plethora of cafe’s that we passed along the main old town corridor were incredible. Beautiful, modern-looking cafe’s with character. Their displays were filled with freshly baked cheesecakes, tarts, tortes, and pies. They served dozens of flavoured, loose-leaf teas, frothy cappuccinos and thick, creamy hot chocolates. Each place had it’s own style: cute and colourful or industrial and chic. We spent multiple afternoons hanging out at “Enjoy Coffee” drinking tea and playing cards for hours. On our final morning we stumbled across “Fach” a coffee and bread house. The Americano I had was hands down the best coffee I’ve had in Europe. When I asked the server about it, he said all the beans came from a local, organic coffee maker in central Slovakia called “Illimite”. Oh how I wish they shipped to Canada! The sourdough bread they served for breakfast was so fresh it came out warm. It’s served with a salted butter and is one of the best things you’ll ever eat. We ordered a second serving to go at the end of the meal. I do not regret it.

But more than just the food, Bratislava has a fascinating history and a rich culture. Although there is clear evidence of the oh-so-stunning communist style architecture on the South side of the river, the old town still has gothic style cathedrals dating back to the 14th Century and a beautiful hilltop castle originally built in the 5th Century. 

Unexpectedly, while we were in Bratislava, we stumbled upon another random festival. Once again, we had NO idea what was going on, or why bright green lasers reflected down the streets of old town or why everyone was holding a big white helium balloon. After I had brushed my teeth and crawled into bed to read, Jodon came crashing into the room.

“It’s an art festival! Let’s go!”

I was less than enthused. “It’s 10:30, its freezing cold out, and I’m already in bed”

“But we can get tickets, and there are hundreds of modern art installations set up all over the city!” 

It had been a while since I’d seen Jodon so excited about something, so I rolled my eyes and got up to put on every layer of clothing I own.

It took me a little while to warm up to the idea of seeing modern art in 5 degree weather in the dark. Especially after having being so cozily tucked into bed. But Jodon was right, it was Saturday night and I was being an old lady in bed at 10:30pm. Plus we had seen nothing else like this before. 

The art installations were set up as the sun went down and continued until 2:00am. There were public art installations set up in the streets for anyone to see, and paid-for installations that were set up in churches, old courtyards and random buildings around the city. The festival was called “White Night” and it is apparently celebrated in various cities all around the world. This was the second annual White Night festival for Bratislava.  

We paid 8 Euros each for a wrist band that let us into every art piece in the city. As well as a map to find them all (which was more difficult than I had anticipated). The art ranged from massive, building-sized artwork, to smaller, more intimate constructions. We saw a glowing cloud made entirely of light bulbs, a laser show in a 700 year old church and a staged car crash with people in hazmat suits climbing around it. Modern art is difficult to explain. Especially when you yourself have no idea what’s going on. Regardless, the festival was fun, and it made me think even more highly of Bratislava.

By the end of our short stay in Slovakia, both Jodon and I were sad to leave. Bratislava has come a long way in the past few years, even a lot since Jodon had last visited 2 years ago. The city is charming and liveable. It has a great food scene and wonderful sites both inside and outside of the city (We went to Devin Castle for the afternoon and loved it). I would love to come back one day and explore more of the countryside, but until then, it’s off to Hungary!

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Salzburg’s Long Night


As we moved South into Austria, we hit the rain. It was inevitable I suppose, but dreary nonetheless. Our first evening in Salzburg was cool, but dry and we took full advantage of it. As it happened, we arrived in the city during their “Long Night” festival. It took us a while to figure this out. No one mentioned it at the hostel, and no one at any of the museums were helpful. Everyone kept alluding to the fact that this was a “different” night, but not that it was a celebration of Salzburg’s 100th year in Austria. As a result, every museum in the city was open until 1:00am and for only 15 Euros you could enter every single one of them! 

So, after hours of being confused at why we couldn’t buy tickets to any of the sights, we finally figured it out. By 9:00pm we had bought our Long Night tickets and were ready to explore the city. 

It was a surreal feeling visiting tourist sights after dark. There are about 50 museums in Salzburg, and normally they all close around 6pm. But here we were, wandering around castles and cathedrals and library’s after hours. Some of the museums also offered special events. The Basilica had a huge hall decked out with high tables and fancy white table clothes. They served light snacks and champagne to the guests. A grand piano and a violinist were set up on one end of the room and played classical music all through the night. Everyone dressed up fancy (except for us of course) and moved from museum to museum in the dark. 

Personally, I found the castle the most impressive sight, especially in the dark. The castle sits on a hilltop overlooking the city. From the top you could look across Salzburg’s sparkling city lights. By the end of the night we’d completed all the major sights in the city and then some. And it was a good thing too! The next two days it poured and poured. The first serious rain we’d seen on the trip so far. It was a great excuse to stay in and work during the day, and to curl up and watch “The Sound of Music” with some tea during the evening. Sadly, the rain indefinitely postponed our plans to visit nearby Hallstatt and do some hiking around the city, but I suppose that’s a wonderful excuse to come back another time!

Cesky Krumlov 


I could throw up all over Cesky Krumlov and it would still be the prettiest damn town I’ve ever seen. It’s a fairytale village that fits perfectly in the palm of your hand. Cobblestone corridors, a winding river, small white cottages with brick-red roofs and an impressive castle that looms over it all: Cesky Krumlov is freakin’ adorable. Immediately upon arrival at our hostel we knew we wanted to stay longer.

“Well this is the cutest town I’ve ever seen.” 

It was decided right then and there. We’re staying.

Krumlov is a Czech word that means “Meander”. The town was named after the river that “meander’s” it’s way through the city in a big “S” shaped loop. A large, baroque castle is built into the rock face on the North side of the river. From there, the entirety of Cesky Krumlov can be seen below. The flowing river, the green hills in the distance, and the whole town all squeezing into the space between your thumb and forefinger. 

The town is flooded with rooftop terraces and riverside patios waiting to be lounged on. Cafe’s and small pubs scatter the labyrinth of small corridors that envelop the city. They even have a wonderful brewery that makes their own “smokey beer” that is oddly delightful. 

We spent our time in Cesky Krumlov relaxing. Long morning breakfasts, walks around town, checking up on the bear moat (yes, the castle has a moat with live bears instead of water) and figuring out where to eat next. 

But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Krumlov. The town is rich with history and folklore. Ghosts run rampant in the town’s music school and spirits can be seen in the centre square. The castle was once ruled by a schizophrenic prince who threw his wife from the window of the castle. She survived the multi-storey fall miraculously after a tree softened her fall. She swore never to return to her husband again. But then the mad prince captured the princess’ father and threatened to kill him unless she returned. Reluctantly, she came back to the castle. The prince stabbed her to death only a few days later. 

And yet, even with all the gruesome history, the castle is still a sight to behold. It’s towering grey walls cling to the cliff side to create an imposing spectacle from the town below. And at night, large spotlights make the castle burst into an amber glow that can be seen from all over Cesky Krumlov. 

We were sad to see the city go as we packed up our bags to catch the morning bus to Salzburg. But there’s so much more to see and the crisp evening weather means it’s time to head South. Until next time Cesky Krumlov! 

U Fleku

The crowds stomped their feet and banged their hands against the table to the tune of the accordion. An older couple from the room next door flew through the doorway and bounced along in dance to the clapping of enthusiastic drinkers. The man on the accordion smiled and played the song harder and louder than before. He was dressed up in the traditional Czech dress, right down to the checkered hat he wore on his head. He meandered through the long wooden picnic tables that lined the dining hall. Singing and playing to the crowds of people. Everyone was listening, and everyone was happy to stomp along to the beat. This is U Fleku. 
U Fleku is the epitome of a traditional Czech drinking establishment. This Brewery/ restaurant in the heart of New Town Prague is massive. It holds over 1200 people in 8 different halls throughout the building, each with live music for entertainment. 
Jodon and I were ushered into a mid-sized hall as soon as we stepped into the building. We sat at a large wooden bench with a couple young guys sitting at one end. All the tables in the room were shared. The room was simple and painted white, with large, dark, wooden panels lining the walls up to the 7 foot mark. The ceiling was decoratively painted and from it hung large chandeliers with glass beer steins holding each light. 

The bar served only one beer. A dark, sweet tasting malty brew made right there at the brewery. A waiter walked around the room with a large tray of beers and set them in front of each customer that was empty. It is assumed that you would like another unless told otherwise. Within seconds we had a large pint sitting in front of us. No decisions. No searching through the menu. This is what you get. 

A minute later a man carrying shots of honey liquor and Becherovka walked passed our table.

“Please, try one!” He smiled at us.

“No thank you” I said, knowing a double shot of whatever it was would be a terrible idea before dinner.

“But you must,” said the man “it is tradition”

Feeling a little pressured I grabbed a Becherovka and Jodon grabbed a honey liquor and the man carried on. It was a good thing we didn’t refuse longer, because the man did not take no for an answer at any one of his stops. He emptied the tray within minutes and carried on to the back to fill up again. 

The food was hearty and fast. Large portions of dumplings on the side of Beef Goulash and Svickova. Comfort food at its best. And all the while the accordion played on. 

I can’t say we came across a lot of local bars like U Fleku, but it definitely was a lively experience, even on a Tuesday night. It is what I imagined bars in the Czech Republic or rural Germany to be like. Lively, beer-heavy, groups of people sitting together to eat. If only the beers had been half the price, I would have stayed there all night.  

The Bone Church


“We’re going to a church filled with bones!” I announced to Jodon as I came in from my day on the town. He looked at me over his computer screen, less than impressed.

“What?”

“It’s a church, with bones!”

“Ok. If you want” he said in the same nonchalant way he agrees to everything I suggest.

“My tour guide said it just made the top 100 things to see before you die list!” I went on, hoping for more enthusiasm.

“Ok.” He said again. Waiting for Jodon to be more enthusiastic about anything is like pulling teeth. I looked it up anyway.

The Sedlec Ossuary, better known as the “Bone Church” is a 15th century church in the Sedlec neighbourhood of a small town called Kutna Hora. The story goes, that in the late 13th century, the abbot of the nearby monastery, travelled to the holy land and received a small amount of earth. He sprinkled the holy earth around the abbey cemetery and the land became sacred. The cemetery soon became the most desirable place to be buried in Central Europe, and people came from all over to bury their loved ones. By the mid 14th century nearly 30 000 bodies were buried in mass graves within the cemetery grounds. After the Hussite wars and the Black Death, another 10 000 bodies were added to the area. 

Soon after, a small church was built on the cemetery grounds to act as an ossuary for the dead. A half-blind monk was given the labouring task of exhuming the bodies and placing them in the chapel. The monk took the bodies and arranged the bones in elaborate decorations around the chapel. He built garlands of skulls, a detailed replica of the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, and an insane bone chandelier that held at least one of every bone in the human body. Legend has it, when the monk finished with all the bones, he miraculously regained his sight. This is the Sedlec Ossuary.

It was a quick one hour train ride to Kutna Hora from Prague. We met a couple travellers on the train that had equally limited knowledge of the ossuary.

“Do you even know what this is?” One of them asked us on the train.

The consensus was: there were going to be lots of bones.

The church was smaller than we imagined. Just a modest-sized, simple church from the outside. The steps at the front led down to the underground ossuary where the bones were held. The remains of 40000 bodies lay within this small church. Four massive bell-shaped mounds of skulls were found in each of the four corners of the church. The ceilings and walls sported garlands of bones like some sort of twisted Halloween party decoration. The coat of arms hung on the wall and was so detailed it was hard to imagine these bones as belonging to real people at one time. 

The place was strange, to be sure, and maybe a little eerie at points. All in all, however, we found the place to be slightly underwhelming. The chandelier that hung in the centre of the room was missing. It was taken out months ago for restoration purposes. I feel like that was the main focal point that made the church so impressive. Still, it is hard to grasp the reality of it all. Some people argue that there are closer to 70000 bodies found within that tiny church. 70000 people. It’s hard to fathom. Nonetheless, the trip was worth it. The Sedlec ossuary is up there on my list of bizarre attractions in the world, and we met some pretty great people along the way. 

Prague


Jodon is slowly falling apart like an old man. I poke fun at him for this constantly. But the day we flew from Belgium to Prague it really hit. Walking 30000+ steps a day in new shoes finally caught up. He’d pulled a muscle somewhere in his left leg and was completely incapacitated. It’s a miracle we made it to the hostel in one piece. He hobbled along through the trains and busses and planes and sidewalks until we fell into Mojo hostel on the outside of Old Town Prague. And that was where he stayed, unmoving, for three straight days. 

I felt so bad. Prague is Jodon’s favourite city in the whole world, and there he was, seeing it from the inside of a 6-bed hostel dormitory while I went out and explored. I came back occasionally: bringing food, drugs, frozen peas and pumpkin spiced lattes from Starbucks. But it was little consolation. 

The extra strength ibuprofen and the gel I’d picked up at the pharmacy were making no difference. So after 48 hours of moaning and groaning I found a second pharmacy to ask for something stronger. The lady behind the counter spoke no English. Heaven forbid I have to act out ailments in a pharmacy AGAIN. Mortifying memories of Vietnam and Brazil came back to me. My pharmacy charades have had a low success rate over the years: remember when I was given hemorrhoid cream instead of aloe vera? I can only imagine what was going to happen this time. 

After a couple minutes of acting out a pulled muscle, the lady stared at me blankly. I kept saying “Ibuprofen not strong” and she would repeat the same thing back to me. Then she smiled, opened up a drawer in her desk and handed me a small pack of pills.

“Strong” she said with a grin and what may have been a half wink. 

It was as good as I was going to get. The pills were cheap, it was worth a shot. 

I brought them immediately back to Jodon.

“I’m fairly certain these will do the trick” I said to him

“What are they?” 

“Mmmmm, I’m not entirely sure. But they’re strong”

“Ok”

Turns out these little pills were a miracle. Within five minutes Jodon could move his leg a little without pain. In an hour he was hobbling downstairs to the common area. By the next morning he was walking again. He went from seriously considering taking the next flight home, to suggesting we grab a beer at the beer garden on the North side of town. I was SO happy. 

So we did grab a beer. Years ago when Jodon was here with his friend Mike, the two stumbled upon this large park on the North side of Prague. In the park they had picnic tables set up and they served beer and kebabs from a little stand. The park was up a steep hill and had the most spectacular view of the city. 

We sat there through the late afternoon playing cards and watching the lights on the city shift as the day moved along. It had been a rough couple days, but also a great excuse to relax and get some work done. We decided to book another three days in an AirBNB so that Jodon got a chance to spend some quality time in the city.

And even with a bad leg, we managed to explore the Prague castle, drink beers brewed by monks in the monastery and make a weak attempt to eat 1.5 kilos of pork knuckle at Hospoda Lucerna. Overall I’d say that Prague was a success. 

Bruges


What can I say about Bruges that you don’t already know. It’s stupidly gorgeous. It’s full of cobblestone walkways and winding roads that open up into an array of courtyards. There are more Belgium chocolate shops in this one little town that all the coffee shops in Vancouver combined (I bet). On one street we counted four in a row. Four shops that sold endless combinations of Belgium chocolate. Simple milk chocolate squares, flavoured bricks with chilli or orange or coconut, elaborately decorated chocolates that looked like animals or people or beer (Belgium’s other favourite vice), blocks on sticks that could be stirred into frothed milk and sold as creamy hot chocolates to go: it was endless. It was amazing.

We spent our short time in Bruges finding the perfect balance between hot chocolate and beer. An afternoon hot chocolate in the square meant we could stop at the Halve Maan brewery for a quick pint. Then a taster at La Trappiste, a medieval, underground pub, meant we deserved a creamy hot chocolate for the walk home. It was a tough couple days. 

But the magic of Bruges isn’t in the beer or the chocolate. The best part of Bruges is the town itself. It’s the perfectly preserved homes. It’s the winding streets and slowly moving river. And there’s no way to really describe that. So I will let the photos tell the rest…

Dreupelkot (Pol’s Bar)


There is a tiny bar, nestled along the riverside in Ghent called Dreupelkot. As a local or a tourist, this tiny, 20 person bar is the place to be in the city. The bar only sells one drink: Jenever. A juniper based liquor, Jenever is the national liquor of Belgium and the Netherlands. It is the alcohol from which gin evolved. 

but no Jenver in the country is quite like the stuff you find in Dreupelkot, where the Jenever comes in nearly 200 different flavours. Pineapple, mango or Blood Orange. Cactus, Pepper or Blackthorn. Elderflower, Tiramisu, or Chicory. The options are endless, and the owner makes many of them himself. 

“How do you even go about picking a flavour?” I asked the bartender.

“It’s better if you just tell me what flavours you like and go from there. Doesn’t matter what taste you prefer, we’ll probably have it.”

So we did. And we continued to do so, every day for our four days in Ghent. This was a local hangout and a tourist destination. We went there to sip on a shot or two of Jenever before starting our night. But we met locals that said this was their favourite last stop. They’d get a shot for the road and head home for the night. 

The bar is owned by a man named Pol. He’s pretty much a celebrity in the town. The bar is often just referred to as “Pol’s Bar” and his ruddy round face and big smile can be found all around the bar itself. If Santa Claus trimmed his beard back and had a massive cigar hanging out of his mouth, he’d look exactly like Pol: his rounded belly and beady eyes staring kindly behind shiny lenses. Pol is nearing his 80’s now, and the locals are already worried what will happen to the bar when he’s gone. Everybody loves Pol.

The pub is eclectically decorated. A collection of old shot glasses sit in a glass cabinet along one wall; newspaper clippings of Pol’s Bar from 30 years earlier hang on another. Old Jenever bottles scatter the bar tops and an empty cask serves as the one and only table, sitting perfectly in the middle of the small room. The place oozes with history. 

One night we were there Pol came in. Up until last year he used to man the bar himself, but now that he is older, he only comes in on occasion to check up. When Pol walked in with his big grin and red cheeks, the room changed. Whispers of “There he is! There’s Pol” echoed in the little bar. If we hadn’t already been standing, I bet the whole room would have gotten out of their chairs in a standing ovation. It was like seeing a legend. 

In all my times in bars, and I will admit there have been many, there has never been a more comforting and exciting feeling as Pol’s bar. It exudes a sense of tradition and familiarity and a place where locals and tourists alike can drink and have a good time. The shots are cheap, the liquor is incredible, and the vibe is always what you need. 


Ghent

You can’t find a city in Belgium more quaint than the old town of Ghent. Nestled along the banks of the rivers Leie and Scheldt, Ghent’s cobblestone walkways and steeped-roof buildings make for the perfect town to sit back and relax. The town is small. It’s a short walk to anywhere you need to go: restaurants, shops, or one of the many Jazz bars that scatter the city. It’s amazing to think that this quiet, riverside town used to be one of the largest and richest cities in Northern Europe. During the Middle Ages, Ghent was the capital of Flanders. It was a major trading route and one of the first Industrialized cities in Europe. But a revolt against taxes lead to war and the long trip down the river meant traders preferred the quick trip to Antwerp instead. It’s crazy how fast things can change. Ghent went from being one of the largest, profitable cities in Europe, to having nothing. Trading stopped, taxes doubled, the capital was stripped from them. The city became so poor it couldn’t rebuild itself. But as a result, time has stood still in Ghent… And that has made it beautiful.Ghent’s Korenmarkt is the heart of Old Town. Waffles are sold on nearly every corner. Big, sugary, Belgium waffles, topped with whipped cream and fresh berries. Mayo-covered, double-fried Belgium fries are just as prolific. They come with every meal. You can’t escape them. They are the most delicious fries in the world. 

All paths in Ghent lead to the riverside. Friends gather and lounge in the sunshine to sip on one of the million types of beer offered in the city. The beer in Belgium is one of a kind. No one is quite sure how many different kinds of beer the country has. Most believe it’s in the thousands. The beers are rich in flavour and many have alcohol contents so high they might as well be wine. One bar we stopped in served over 350 different types of Belgium Beer. The menu is like a small novel. It’s a good thing the bars here offer a “beer of the month” nearly everywhere, otherwise I’d have no idea where to start. 

Our arrival in Ghent marked the arrival of the Festival of Flanders, a 15-day music festival held each year. The city swells with people from all over the country who come to listen to the classical music performed along the Leie River. The soft singing of string instruments echo between the buildings and through the Korenmarkt. The music continued all day, and was topped off with a spectacular fireworks show on St Michael’s bridge. Our hostel was pretty much ON St Michael’s bridge, and so we watched the fireworks from the common room window. I have never in my life been so close to fireworks. We were right under the explosions . The lights surrounded the building we were in, sparks falling to the ground around us. It was unlike any other fireworks display I’ve seen.

It’s not hard to see why Ghent is one of Jodon’s favourite cities in the world. And even after two years of hyping it up, it definitely did not disappoint. 

Luxembourg


“Why would you ever come to Luxembourg??” Asked our server, Oana, with a bewildered look.
“It was on our way, it was some place new, and the photos looked beautiful. We’re only here for two days.”

“Oh,” she said “two days is MORE than enough time to see Luxembourg, trust me. I came here only one year ago and I can’t stand it. Be careful, especially around the train station. The people will trick you with their Luxembourgish and steal from you!” 

“Really?” We said, very surprised that anyone that lives in such an idyllic little town could ever be untrustworthy. “Where are you from originally?”

“Romania”

“And would you say Romania is worth visiting?” 

“Romania? Oh YES! I mean we have Dracula, c’mon, we make children laugh!”

Oana was our favourite character of the trip so far. She was helpful, pushy, brutally honest and one of the best servers I’ve ever come across. She worked the whole restaurant by herself; this place called Bananas, right off the main square that sold delicious luxemburgers and huge portions of more traditional national foods, and yet still had time to chat every time she walked by. And despite the fact that she had no idea how children react to Dracula, we still loved her. However, our views of Luxembourg differ slightly. We found Luxembourgers to be very accommodating, and the city was wonderful: except for the hills.

Everything in Luxembourg City is built on a hill. Buildings are either on the side of a hill, or in a hill, or at the bottom of a hill, or at the very tip top of a hill. It’s exhausting. Luxembourgers must have the most amazing calves in all of Europe. But the hills and valleys of the cityscape make for some gorgeous photos, and, as we learned, some excellent high ground for defending the city from attackers. One of the top city sights in fact is the system of underground tunnels that were built to defend the old town that sits on the hilltop. These “casemates” are built into the city’s natural slope and contain over 40km of tunnels. The casemates have evolved and grown more complex in the previous centuries, but only a few kilometres are available for tourists. The history is confusing. It seems as though every nation in Europe had at one point manned the area against external forces. Personally, I found the casemates to be the perfect escape from the midday heat and a wonderful spot for photos of the Grund (the lower, “ground” area of the city).

The Grund was actually my favourite part of the Luxembourg. Nestled in the valley below the Old Town, the Grund was just a few square blocks surrounding a quiet little river. The area was full of lively restaurants and quaint hillside gardens. Stone, Romanesque bridges allowed people on foot to cross the river and look back at the cliffs that hold the labyrinth of underground fortifications. At night, the whole place is lit up with spot lights and the cliffs glow in a warm amber tone. 

We found a small pub on the riverside that served thirst-quenching Belgium beers and had enough room for 5 people to sit out on the small patio in the back. We sipped on the beer, hanging over the riverside and staring up at the ominous cliffs above us. I could get used to lazy evenings in Luxembourg. It is the perfect way to relax after the hustle and bustle that Paris brings.