Jordan in the Winter? The Pros and Cons

You’ve decided to travel to Jordan, but you’ve only got vacation time in the middle of winter. Here’s what you can expect, and what to consider.

Jordan is in the Middle East – that means a super hot desert all the time, right? But, wait – deserts get really really cold, too, don’t they? Is it even worth it to go in the winter?

After spending two weeks traveling Jordan at the end of December and beginning of January, here’s my personal experience of how the winter can affect your trip through this unique, beautiful country. (Spoiler: it’s not all bad.)

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Our desert camp in Wadi Rum, January

First, a Breakdown

We spent two full weeks in Jordan, from December 26th, 2016 to January 8th, 2017. Our full itinerary can be found here. We had one rainy day (in Amman), and lots of sunny days. The average daytime temp was around 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) and night times would dance around freezing. The warmest place we visited was the Dead Sea, thanks to the hills all around and low elevation.

Pros:

It’s off season: aka other travelers are relatively light. We’ve all experienced it: the most-anticipated ruin, the million-dollar photo-op, the supposedly-magical religious site; aka the top of your bucket list just not being as magical as you anticipated because there are just too many darn people mulling around. Not to say we never had a moment like this in Jordan, but traveling during the winter helped to thin out the crowds. Granted, I’ve been fighting my way through the hordes of tourists in Europe for the last few years, and this region is relatively less traveled, but there is nothing like actually walking alone down an ancient road in the city of Jerash, or Petra. You get one step closer to imagining life there thousands of years ago when you don’t need to try to ignore hundreds of other tourists taking selfies.

You don’t need to overthink modesty in chilly weather. When traveling in the Middle East, or any country where Islam is the main local religion, it’s important to consider your clothing choices. Out of respect for local customs and to avoid potentially marking yourself as a tourist and putting yourself at risk, covering shoulders, cleavage and legs (yes, that includes you too, men) is important. And in my experience, a heck of a lot more comfortable to pull off in January in Jordan than in October in Marrakesh! The sun shone nearly every day of our trip, and once it was in full force, it was comfortable enough to be in long sleeved shirts, but I never felt like a tank top or sun dress would be more comfortable. Layers will be your friend for early morning hikes into Petra, or an evening sampling some of the best food in Madaba, but not having to sweat it out while  respecting local customs was a plus.

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Early morning layers as we arrived at the Treasury in Petra. (Yes, we’re each wearing 2 jackets and long underwear.)

Cons:

Short days. We decided that we didn’t want to be driving at night – partly for safety and partly because we didn’t want to miss any incredible landscapes – so we made an effort to always arrive at our hotel by/within a half hour of sunset every day. Which happened to be around 4:30 in the afternoon when we were there. This left us having to plan our days carefully and rush through some things to ensure we made it back to home base each day. It also gave us long (and cold – see below) nights. Ultimately, it forced us to get really good night’s sleep and relax more, but it was a divergence from the daily routine of summer vacations.

Cold Nights. Now, the cooler days were manageable (and kind of refreshing with all the hiking and exploration we were doing) but the nights did get chilly (around the freezing point). And by chilly I really do mean there was an entire evening in a heat-less countryside hotel room spent in bed, cuddled up against each other, reading and waiting to be tired enough to fall asleep. In general, we found our accommodation comfortable, but it’s worth considering that in more budget-friendly hotels, heat may not be available (or work well) and the showers might be especially uncomfortable if it’s chilly in the room. If it’s really important to have these creature comforts, you might want to book something more expensive in the winter months.

This is especially important to consider in Wadi Rum. We got lucky on our overnight in the desert, but the extremes of the this ecosystem can swing to very cold during the winter. After we watched the sunset with our tour guides, we spent a lot of time in the communal tent drinking tea around the fire, which was cozy enough. But all meals on the tour were served outside, and the goat hair tent we slept in was so well insulated (and it had been so cold on recent nights) that it felt warmer OUTSIDE than in. Bring your long underwear!

The beach wont be the same. And I suppose this one is up for interpretation: from our balcony in Tala Bay on the Red Sea, we watched several newly-arrived Russians go for a sunrise swim while we shivered in sweaters and drank our coffee. In general, though, I’d say for most people in the world it wasn’t exactly lounging on the beach weather. A pesky north wind blew down on us the whole time we were at the Red Sea, making sun bathing less than optimal and forced us to rent wet suits for snorkeling. I’ve read, too, that in late January through February the Red Sea can get even cooler, so beware the dead of winter. The Dead Sea was more comfortable: even on a windy day, with the low elevation and hills all around, we were comfortable in our bathing suits by the water – though the heavy waves made bobbing in the water a little harder. (Also remember rules/customs governing modesty exist outside of tourist-heavy resorts: ie on public beaches.)

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Even if the weather wasn’t optimal for sun bathing at the Red Sea, there’s something pretty unique about sleeping in Jordan and being able to see both Egypt and Israel from your balcony.

All in all, I would say choosing to visit Jordan in the winter was a good decision for us and the season didn’t dampen out experience. It definitely beats going in the hottest months of the year, when the heat can be dangerously oppressive in Petra and Wadi Rum – though the beach relaxation might be more comfortable!

Jordan Itinerary (1)

A Two-Week, All-Jordan Itinerary

From relaxing on the Dead Sea, to exploring Roman ruins; from the ancient city of Petra to the magical Wadi Rum desert, there’s so much to fill your time in this small country, and this two week itinerary covers it all.

Yes, many people balked when my fiance and I told them we were planning a two week trip to Jordan, leaving the day after Christmas and staying into the new year. “The Middle East?” They asked. “Two weeks?” They questioned. “Is there even anything to do other than Petra?”

Beyond the most famous attractions, including Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, there is so much to see and do: for the history buffs, to the adventure junkies and the spa aficionados. And after researching and planning a full two weeks, once we were on the ground, we found ourselves consistently amazed by what we experienced. In nearly every aspect, Jordan exceeded our expectations.

It should also be noted that we felt safe while we traveled. The locals were extraordinarily friendly, engaging and respectful and the police and security presence was obvious, but not overwhelming. It should be remembered that the government of Jordan has a vested interest in keeping tourists safe and comfortable, and considering their neighborhood, they’ve done a fantastic job. I would recommend Jordan as a tourist destination to anyone who loves desert landscapes, history and cultural immersions.*

Laid out below, in all it’s detailed glory, is our FULL two week itinerary in Jordan, for you to copy or cut from as you like! If you don’t have that much time, you can still hit a lot of the highlights in just a few days, thanks to the small amount of miles between sites and the density of incredible places within this historic country.

*I would of course recommend keeping up with the news and current events ANYWHERE in the world you’re planning on visiting in the weeks leading up to your trip, and exercise caution and good judgement when you are in the country. This guide was written based on experiences and conditions in December 2016, and in this part of the world much is subject to change quickly. But don’t be afraid just because a place is different and the biggest risk you’re taking is breaking down prejudices. There’s already too much fear flying around for that.

Day 1 – 2: Arrive and Explore Amman

Land, get that passport stamp (be prepared for the 40 JD visa you’ll need to purchase upon arrival!) and catch a taxi to your hotel in the center of the capital (about 25 minutes away from the airport). Stretch out your legs as you up and down the steep streets (just like Rome, Amman was originally built upon 7 hills) and eat some hummus and falafel before sleeping.

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The remains of the hand of Hercules, a part of the ancient Citadel complex in Amman, the city sprawling out beyond.

On your first full day in the country, really explore Amman. It’s a sprawling metropolis which has grown incredibly in the last decades and is filled with modern, hip Jordanians, displaced Palestinians and, increasingly, Syrian refugees. Visit the historic Citadel and the Jordan Museum to get a sense of the wide array of history packed into this tiny country, walk Rainbow Street and sit in some smokey, exotic hookah cafes sipping espresso. There are plenty of traditional restaurants, as well as modern, internationally-inspired places that would seem outright American if you were dropped into them without context – English Christmas music playing and all!

On the one hand, Amman is where most Jordanians actually live, and by being here you get a sense of what life is like for those who live here. On the other, (and we happened to visit on a particularly cold, rainy day, which didn’t help us love the city) Amman is a little dirty, very chaotic and doesn’t exactly set the stage for all of the amazing sites and activities Jordan has to offer. But it’s a good place to kick your tour off.

Day 3: Jerash

On the morning of the 3rd day, pick up your rental car and head north. The city of Jerash lies 30 miles north of Amman and the main highlight of the town is the ruins of the ancient Roman city.

With the fertile Jordan River Valley nearby, the ancient city of Jerash flourished and was among the Roman Decapolis cities, allowing the inhabitants to build and maintain some truly incredible structures. With several temples still mostly erect, two theaters, a hippodrome arena (featuring costumed, historical re-enactments if you come at the right time of year) and an impressively-long Cardo Maximus (paved road lined with columns), this huge ruin is truly magnificent and should be on anyone’s must-see Jordan list.

Give yourself at least 3.5-4 hours to fully appreciate and explore these ruins.

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You can sleep in Jerash if you want, but there is only one hotel in town (right across from the ruins) and we opted to drive another half hour to the city of Ajloun for the night.

Day 4: Ajloun, Jordan Valley & Salt

There are many different ways you can spend your fourth day in Jordan. The city of Ajloun may not be the most impressive, but the Muslim-built castle atop the hill is absolutely worth a visit. This impressive fortress controlled and defended the trade route between Damascus and Egypt, and provides incredible views of the surrounding valley, to Israel, Palestine and Syria.

You can spent the day hiking at the Ajloun Forest Reserve, or if you’d prefer to take a driving tour and see more of the countryside, head towards the Jordan River Valley, stopping at the relatively un-excavated, but impressively ancient ruins in the village of Pella, then drive south along the river, through the heavily populated towns and markets in the fertile valley.

If you have time, stop for a few hours in the city of Salt, a pretty market town featuring Ottoman-era architecture.

Arrive in your hotel in Madaba, where you will spend the next two nights.

Day 5: Madaba and Mt. Nebo

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Part of the incredible mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the Greek Orthodox church in Madaba.

Spend the morning exploring the pleasant town of Madaba, visiting the ruins of incredibly well-preserved Byzantine-era mosaics unearthed throughout the region, including a beautifully detailed map of the Holy Land from Jerusalem and the Dead Sea to Egypt and the Mediterranean on the floor of the church of Saint George. Also walk to the Roman Catholic Church of Saint John the Baptist and descend underground to the ancient well, then ascend the bell tower for views of the region.

Before the sun sets, drive 15 minutes to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses first and finally saw the Promised Land, a place he knew he was destined never to reach. and some more impressively preserved and displayed mosaics in the hilltop church.

 

During this day, if you really want to take a Biblically-inspired tour, you can also use the afternoon to head south to Mukawir, the site of Herod’s palace and the beheading of John the Baptist, or seek out one of the spring said to have emerged from a place Moses struck the ground with his staff.

Spend this night in Madaba again, sampling another of the many excellent restaurants in town for dinner.

Day 6: The Dead Sea

Make time to stop at the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex on your way to the Dead Sea resort of your choice. Even if you don’t need the geology lesson, the views of the lowest point on earth are worth it.

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All of that said, check into your resort (and yes, even budget travelers: it’s worth it to spring for a resort here!) on the Dead Sea as early as you can, and spend at least the whole afternoon bobbing in the water, relaxing in the pool and reading on the beach. That night, get yourself a spa treatment, or at least pop into the sauna.

Day 7: Bethany Beyond the Jordan to Dana

On Day 7, you can either spend another half day lounging as long as you can in the salty waters of the Dead Sea, or you can get up as early as possible and visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site of the baptism of Jesus. For us, it was January 1st, and it was a bright, sunny morning and we just couldn’t tear ourselves away from the beach and pool: no matter how wonderful and worthwhile everyone told us Bethany Beyond the Jordan is.

This afternoon, drive south along the Dead Sea Highway, enjoying the spectacular views at 400-plus feet below sea level. At the southern end of the sea, you’ll head east and meet the Kings Highway, an ancient trading route lined with olive trees and clustered with towns and cities.

We had planned on stopping in Karak to tour the crusader’s castle here. Unfortunately, there had been a recent standoff here between locals and police and we opted to avoid stopping in town.

As you drive south, the landscape becomes increasingly more desertous and you start to appreciate how important the fertile Jordan River valley really is to the region. Plan to arrive in the village of Dana before the evening settles in and find a spot along the dramatic cliff side to watch the sun set.

Day 8: Dana Wildlife Reserve

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Get up early and enjoy a big breakfast before descending for the day into the main wadi of the Dana Nature Reserve. The picturesque village of Dana perches upon the side of a cliff which looks down into this dramatic valley and a local revitalization project is aiming to bring villagers who left in the past decades back and rebuild the town. In the reserve, there are plenty of hikes, the most distinct follows the clear path that switchbacks up and down into the valley.

As you walk, keep an eye out for shepherds, wild animals and hawks.

Just remember: unless you’re going all the way to the Eco Lodge 16 kilometers on the other side of the valley, however far you go down, you’ve got to go back up!

It’s about an hour drive from Dana to Wadi Musa, the village outside of Petra, and if you have time and energy, make a stop to explore the crusader castle in Shobak.

Day 9: Petra

There is so much to say about this incredible Wonder of the World, and it deserves a post all on it’s own.

Here’s what’s most important: Prepare yourself for the 50 JD entrance fee (only 55 JD if you’re staying an extra day and going back into the ruins). Get up early to walk the kilometer through the cavernous Siq and see the sun rise over the Treasury, then give yourself at least a full day for exploration of the ancient city. There’s a lot of steps and a lot of walking involved in exploring Petra, so don’t plan to be anywhere other than your hotel in Wadi Musa for a hot shower and a relaxing night once you leave the ruins.

Day 10 – 12: The Red Sea

The drive between Wadi Musa and Aqaba takes about 2.5 hours and is incredibly barren. In fact, all of the landscape right up to the shoreline of the Red Sea are disconcertingly desolate, making the unbelievable diversity of the reef just below the surface that much more impressive.

Spend the afternoon of the 10th day relaxing by the sea at your hotel in the city of Aqaba or Tala Bay (slightly more remote, and closer to the reefs, which was what we opted for), enjoying that now you can see not only Israel, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia from your window. On the 11th day, hire a guided snorkeling or diving tour, or rent wet suits and flippers and explore the array of aquatic diversity in the reefs here. We snorkeled from the Japanese Garden south about a kilometer to our hotel and saw some incredible marine life.

Day 13: Wadi Rum

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Wake up early and drive one hour to Wadi Rum village, where you’ll meet with you pre-arranged tour guide for a day and night in Wadi Rum. This dramatic desert landscape was first given notoriety by Lawrence of Arabia and has been at the crossroads for the nomadic Bedouin tribes who still live here for centuries. On a one-day tour, you’ll hop in the back of a jeep to see interesting rocks formations and ancient petroglyphs featuring camels and directions to springs, climb dunes and hike through canyons. At night, you’ll head to a traditional Bedouin camp for tea and stories around the fire, dinner and music into the night. Take some time to stand outside and appreciate the incredible night sky once the sun has set: there’s truly nothing like this landscape at night.

Day 14: Depart

The overnight tours of Wadi Rum should bring you back to the village early in the morning (check with your tour provider before booking, if you have doubts or a flight to catch), and it’s about a 4-hour drive on the relatively smooth Desert Highway back to the airport near Amman. You can fly out that evening, or opt to spend your final night back in Amman – or quieter Madaba, as we did. On our final morning, we purchased souvenirs and stretched our legs a bit more before heading home.


No matter how much time you can spend in Jordan, and no matter how you choose to spend that time, this small country – so full of history, culture and adventure – is sure to enchant and excite travelers, no matter their interests!

Did we miss your favorite spot in Jordan? Is there a better way around? Tell me about it in the comments!

Jordan Itinerary

Exploring the Italian Alps in Valley D’Aosta

Italy’s smallest region is packed full of incredible mountain vistas, rewarding hikes and historic castles, and it is definitely worth the visit.

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OK, so you’ve heard all about Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Possibly, you’ve even had the pleasure of seeing why these are the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. When you’re ready for a whole different take on la vita bella, however, I suggest the small, mountainous region of Valle d’Aosta. Tucked into the northwestern corner of Italy, with France and Switzerland (geographically and culturally) hugging close by, clusters of castles lining the valley floor, sweeping Alpine vistas everywhere and enough hiking or skiing to keep anyone busy outside, Valle d’Aosta is a rejuvenating divergence from city life.

You can still get view of the Roman Empire in the regions capital city: Aosta, Parco Gran Paradiso – the first national park in Italy – is filled with unique wildlife, and blocking the end of the valley is the monstrous Monte Bianco: the tallest mountain in western Europe.

Whether you want to wander historic cities, take a week-long trek or sample the hearty mountain food of the region, this off the beaten path destination will keep you busy. Here’s a run down of the must-see stops and attractions in the area from our four day weekend in October.

Forte Di Bard

As you enter Aosta from Piemonte, highway E25 makes a 90-degree, westward turn into the main valley. As the road twists through the mountains, suddenly the impressive stone Forte Di Bard rises before you, guarding the entrance to the strategic valley. Napoleon’s encroaching armies were held up by the castle’s defenders for more than two weeks, a resistance which frustrated him so much, he destroyed the entire structure after finally winning it.

Luckily, it has been rebuilt to it’s former glory, and it’s possible to climb the road through the charming Medieval town of Bard, then up the winding side of the cliff the fort perches atop. Alternatively, there is a modern, glass elevator you can ride up to visit the various artistic and historical exhibits throughout the many halls of the fort.

Castle in Fenis

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As you continue your drive through the valley, castle spotting becomes almost too easy. There were times when up to four castles could be seen at once along the road side! It’s hard to know which to take the time and stop for.

If you are looking for an easy answer it’s the castle in Fenis village. With turrets, guard wall and surrounded by cattle pens, there’s something quintessentially Medieval about this structure that made my heart sing. We missed the timing for a tour, but it’s possible to go inside and explore for 7 Euros.

Aosta

The largest city in the center of the valley is full of easily accessible Roman ruins, colorful houses and good food. When we walked into the central piazza of Aosta, I turned to The Fiance and said “I feel like I’m in Torino .” Beyond the fact that we happened to be visited durring the annual chocolate festival, Aosta has a similar sense of refinement and elegance, the mountains just happen to be a lot closer. There’s plenty of shopping here, and the historic center is easy to wander in a few hours.

For dinner, stop into the Osteria dell’Oca for traditional Aostian fare which is rich, hearty and perfect for a winter’s evening in the mountains.

After leaving Aosta, I recommend staying off the highway because though you’ll be traveling a little slower, the main road leads you through long, dark tunnels and you’ll start missing many of the incredible vistas.

We stayed near the village of Aymavilles, which allowed us to easily reach all of the following valleys easily and head back to Aosta for dinner every night, while still enjoying the mountain serenity we were looking for.

Valnontey, Gran Paradiso & Rhemes Notre Dame

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Entering Parco Gran Paradiso

With thick larch forests, dramatic glaciers, lots of wildlife and picturesque villages, Parco Gran Paradiso should be high on the bucket list for anyone who loves mountains. We took two drives into the park from the main valley of Aosta: towards the village of Valnontey at the more popular entrance of the park then towards Rhemes Notre Dame on the western side of the park, which we slightly preferred, perhaps because it was a little less touristy.

Both drives took under an hour, were filled with beautiful vistas that made me increasingly happy I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car and could just look around me and were filled with hiking trails to branch out onto. From Valnontey, we climbed a few kilometers up the side of the mountain, spotting Alpine Chamois, past a waterfall and towards incredible vistas at the mountain summit.

Just past Rhemes Notre Dame, we walked on a more even-graded path along a river bed, through the brilliant fall colors of the larches.

No matter what, in solid European fashion, you are certain to find cute cafes to enjoy an espresso as you savor the views while considering your next move.

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The tiny village of Rhemes Notre Dame, where we seriously considered just buying a cabin for a lifetime of weekend getaways.

Mont Blanc

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No matter the language you’re discussing this impressive mountain in, the color descriptor is on point. Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco is the tallest mountain of the Alps, is situated in both France and Italy, and features some unique choices for traversing its imposing position. There is a 7.2-mile tunnel running directly through the mountain if you’re in a rush, as well as an incredible cable car which you can ride up and over the glacier that spreads across the wide summit, eventually touching down again in France (get in line early! Wait times can be tedious.)

Alternatively, the Tour do Mont Blanc (TMB) is an 170-kilometer, 11 day trek, passing through villages and mountain refuges across France, Switzerland and Italy, circling the entire mountain. It’s officially on the Bucket List for a future summer.

The city of Courmayeur is a little pricey – being a haven of ski resorts – but there are more valleys to the north and south along the imposing line of peaks along the range before you that offer plenty more hikes where you can spot glaciers and stop for a hot chocolate at a mountain refuge. We had hoped to go south to Val Veny to see what are some apparently amazing glaciers and lakes but the road was closed for the season. In the end, we were not disappointed by turning north and the hike to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, which took a little more than a hour to reach from the valley floor.

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Looking south to the peaks of Monte Bianco from the hike to Rifugio Walter Bonatti.

Even if you only have the time to drive through the spectacular Valle d’Aosta on your way to France or Switzerland, this tiny Italian region provides a unique divergence from the more traditional Italian tour, and you will certainly be rewarded for your divergence from the beaten path.

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Off The Beaten Path in California

Sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that I lived in Los Angeles for three years. It was the sort of place I never really considered visiting, much less making a home, but I’ve come to appreciate that life’s curveballs often offer the greatest rewards.

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An  evening in the Hollywood Hills

During the time I lived in California, I spent at least one weekend a month out of the City of Angeles, visited almost all of the National Parks in the state, tasted a lot of wine and climbed up a lot of mountains. I also went clubbing in Hollywood, took studio tours, went to live tappings of late-night talk shows, attended fancy rooftop parties and hiked to the Hollywood Sign (though I never did make it to Disney Land). Suffice to say, I made my way around the place.

If you are planning a trip to the Golden State, the most obvious tourist activities of Southern and Central California may be jumping out at you. But I’ve got a few off-the-beaten-path suggestions to get you away from the hordes of tourists and into the heart of California.

A Night at The Moth Story Slam

So I’m a bit of an NPR junkie. No matter where I am in the world, I’m usually streaming a live broadcast or have a horde of podcasts downloaded to help me pass the time. I’m also obsessed with real life stories and think radio is an incredible way to share common humanity (there’s just something about listening to someones voice – I hate, as a writer, to admit – that can be specifically impactful). Naturally, The Moth is one of my favorite things on the radio: random strangers getting on a stage and telling true, unscripted stories. In Los Angeles you can attend a live Moth Story Slam and listen to an hour and a half of these incredible stories in an intimate setting. It’s a different, more raw take on the many forms of entertainment that you can seek out in Los Angeles: you never know what you’re gonna get, but you’ll always be surprised.

For more information and schedules check out The Moth’s website. Do make sure to get in line early if it’s not a ticketed Main Stage event, as the smaller venues fill up pretty quickly.

Paso Robles Wineries

Ok, you’ve heard of Napa Valley. It’s elegant, the wine is delicious: it’s the it place. But there are many reasons my friends and I opted for many a weekend trip to the vineyards of Paso Robles over California’s more well-known wine regions.

Firstly, location. Paso Robles is situated exactly between LA and the Bay Area (about 3.5-4 hour drive from either direction) making it pretty convenient for a long weekend away. It is surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, which happen to be perfect mirco-climates for wine cultivation.

Secondly, it’s totally accessible to a burgeoning wine-o. When I first came to Paso, I knew I liked wine, but I didn’t know a darn thing about tasting, making, or the wine itself. Over the next two and a half years I learned so much from the wine makers here, partly because I felt like I could ask them even simple questions and get nonjudgmental answers. These people are proud of their craft. The cost is also accessible, ranging closer to $5 for a tasting of 5-7 wines rather than $15 or $20 as a starting price.

A few of my favorite wineries (there are so many, you could drive around for a week and not stop at them all) are Midnight, Cass and Whalebone, partly for ambiance but mostly for the wine.

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Cambria

Thirty minutes west of Paso Robles is the town of Cambria, a picturesque village along the coast. Not only is the drive through the hills between the two cities stunning, I also just love the cute, artsy vibe of this town. It’s full of amazing restaurants, unique B&B’s, crafty shops and beautiful walkways along the rugged coastline.

From here you can also travel just a few minutes up the coast to the spectacularly strange Hearst Castle and marvel as the monstrous elephant seals that congregate all year long at Piedras Blancas beach near San Simeon.* You can also find the tiny town of Harmony (population 18) just to the south, nestled between the hills.

*Peak Season for seal viewing is December-March, and depending on when you come, a whole different group of seals might be hanging out, from juveniles, to terrifying males ready to mate, to new mothers with infants. I’ve never NOT seen seals here, though. 

Malibu Beaches

Say Malibu and images of wealth, luxury and movie stars come to mind. And it’s true: you’ll find some of the highest-priced real estate value in the country in this stretch of a “city” up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica. You’ll also find some really dramatic beaches, like El Matador State Beach with it’s intriguing cliffs and rocky outcrops (and possibly find a photo or music video shoot – sorry, I mean almost definitely walk into one).

The water in Malibu is usually a few degrees colder than Santa Monica – and I get it: I’m from Minnesota and grew up swimming in Lake Superior, but if you can brave the water here, I’ve found it to be much cleaner than to the south. As a bonus, while I’ve swam here, otters and dolphins have popped their heads up within 10 feet of me. Not to mention, from the shore at Zuma Beach, I’ve seen pods of whales feeding all afternoon.

King’s Canyon National Park

Often overlooked in favor of Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks, King’s Canyon is a little harder to get to (ie: a longer drive) but it is truly magnificent. The High Sierras should be on anyone’s California bucket list, and though there is certainly a reason Yosemite is the most popular of the National Parks, if you’re looking to break away from the intensity of the crowds in Yosemite Valley, I would highly recommend Kings Canyon as an alternative.

You still get the towering, majestic Sequoias. You still drive into a valley surrounded by granite cliffs. There is camping, lodges and tons of back-country exploration, pristine mountain lakes and rivers dotted across the landscape. In particular, my friends and I enjoyed the hike to Mist Falls, a moderately challenging but rewarding walk that leads through the valley floor, up the cliffs to an incredible waterfall, and beyond.

California is an American classic, and there is plenty to explore in the big cities, movie studios and theme parks. There are also hidden gems across the state, where the locals are vacationing, and they are absolutely worth your stop, too.

The Bernina Express: An Alpine Rail Adventure

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For many travelers, the daydream of a European adventure is not complete without the image of themselves relaxing on a train, looking out across rolling vineyards, church steeples on the horizon and Alpine cliffs shinning in the background. Especially if you grew up in the USA, where those brave enough to embark upon an Amtrak adventure might easily end up stuck on the tracks outside of Albany, New York on a freezing December day for 7 hours while a raging, redheaded conductor from Boston reminds them that she has no idea when we’ll be able to get a move on because the freight trains get preference on the tracks, OK? (Yes, I am speaking from experience here).

Since my first trip though Europe, this image of adventure while riding the rails has intrigued and excited me, though with the realities of real life travel (and admittedly, the notorious difficulties of the Italian train system), some of the romanticism has worn away.

It was on a chilly, Thanksgiving holiday to visit friends in Switzerland that I found myself swooning for rail travel once again.

Through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, the Bernina Express train through southeastern Switzerland is not just an example of incredible engineering, it is the highest rail crossing in Europe, traveling through magnificent Alpine scenery the entire way. It’s even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Express” is a bit of a misnomer: this bright red train moves leisurely, twisting and turning up mountainous switchbacks, crossing through tunnels from an incredible vista on one side of the mountain to another. You don’t want it to go any faster though: there is so much to look at as the train sways and whistles, traveling from quaint Swiss villages to glacial valleys.

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Looking down over Poschiavo on the train down from St. Moritz

From Milan, it’s easy to catch the hourly train from Centrale station to Tirano: a 2.5 hour trip along the eastern shore of Lake Como (grab a window seat on the west side of the train if you can!) In Tirano, exit the train station and take an immediate right into the other station in the square: towards the red trains.

Ascending quickly up the narrow, village-lined Poschiavo Valley, you spin around the famous viaduct of Brusio before going up the mountain side, above the tree line and to the sweeping vista over Alp Grüm, where you can stop and eat at the restaurant overlooking a magnificent panorama. From here, it’s a glacier spotting adventure, past the grand Lake Bianco, ringed by snow-capped mountains and through the high Bernina peaks.

After about 2 hours of breathtaking travel, the train pulls into St. Moritz, an elegant ski resort city in the heart of the Alps. From here you can continue north on the Bernina Express towards Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, crossing the 90m high Solis viaduct and through the area with Europe’s highest density of castles. Alternatively, you can head east or west from St. Moritz along the Glacier Express and glimpse the Matterhorn and Rhine Gorge.

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St. Moritz in the off season: mid November and it’s still lovely.

In the summer, the area is full of hiking excursions and in the winter some of the best alpine skiing in the world can be found throughout the region. And it bears mentioning that on a Wednesday afternoon in November, I found myself completely alone on the train, allowing me to unabashedly rush from one side of the car to the other in order to take in the best views as they shifted.

It was on my way home, back down to Italy and near the village of Poschiavo, that I realized I had found my childlike love of riding train all over again. I wasn’t checking my watch, or even getting lost in a podcast. I was present, watching the scenery go by and feeling the movement of travel. I felt adventurous, cosmopolitan and amazed all at once, like I always dreamed I would when I was a little girl, pining away for Old World adventures.

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Find more information about the Bernina Express, as well as schedules and prices, by clicking here.

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My Favorite Place to Ring in the New Year

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We’re past the hump of Halloween, which means Christmas decorations are hitting the stores and Americans are in for two full months of seasonal music. Luckily, so far in Italy it appears that they don’t jump on the bandwagon quite so fast and I’ll be spared the onslaught until December.

But let’s move past Christmas for now, and jump straight into the next big thing: New Years Eve. I’ll be celebrating the beginning of 2017 in a resort on the Dead Sea in Jordan, and perhaps you’ve already got a plan as well. But just in case you’re not booked up and the travel bug has been getting under your skin, might I make a suggestion?

Edinburgh, Scotland

I’ve spent New Years Eve in my fair share of amazing places. I’m a sucker for significant moments, and the transition from one year to the next hits all the right notes: looking back, dreaming forward and making a ritual out of Midnight on a cold winter night. And I’ve done a lot of cool things to ring in the new year: At the beginning of 2011, I stood on the side of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, dancing to a live jazz band while the New Years Baby got thrown from the roof of Jax Brewery. I passed the first night of 2010 in New York City (but not in Times Square – who has the stamina to wait all day and night for the ball to drop?) I’ve rung in the New Year most often at a good friend’s house in Northern Minnesota, surrounded by my dearest family and oldest friends, popping champagne while my dad plays Auld Langs Syne on his guitar and a bonfire burns outside.

But there was nothing in the world like the Hogmanay Festival celebrated in Scotland’s beautifully rugged, historic – albeit sometimes deary – capital city. When I suggested to my British friend (who had so wonderfully invited me to spend Christmas with her family while I was solo backpacking through Europe a few years ago) that we make our way north for New Year’s Eve, I had no idea that we would be taking part in one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world.

The traditional Hogmanay (New Years Eve) celebration has been revived in the city of year-round festivals in the last decades. With traditional dances, pop superstar concerts, Christmas markets in full swing, fireworks all over the city and even a 8,000 person torchlight processional to begin the festivities, the party in Edinburgh is truly once in a lifetime.

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The festivities begin on the 30th of December with a torchlight procession of 8,000 people carrying real torches with real fire through the historic center for about a mile. First of all, I’m shocked that they still allow 8,000 (not entirely sober) tourists to walk through the city with live fire in their hands – “This is a grand way to burn down your city,” my friend’s dad noted as we set off behind a crew of particularly rowdy Frenchmen. The tradition of the torchlight procession ties back to the Solstice and signifies burning away the old year while carrying light with you into the new. The cool factor and authenticity of actually carrying a real torch (I kind of expected to be given a plastic flashlight shaped like fire for liability reasons) really made it a highlight of the trip for all of us. We were lead by a group dressed as Vikings, bagpipes were playing all along way and the fire in our hands warmed us against the cold breeze. Looking ahead and behind, we created a river of fire through the hilly city.

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After everyone made their way through the city center, the group gathered at Calton Hill, where fireworks begin the real party.

On December 31st we visited the Edinburgh Castle and spent an afternoon trying to decipher exactly who Mary, Queen of the Scots was in the royal lineage. We ate an excellent dinner – in which I almost tried haggis, but backed out, opting instead for delicious lamb – then headed to the ceilidh: a traditional Scottish dance. This was another one of my favorite parts of the trip because I’m also a sucker for learning traditional dances, specifically those with fiddles and drums. The Scottish waltzes felt just similar enough to those I used to attend to as a child that it was a flashback to some of my happiest memories. Of course it was also complete chaos (no one knew what they were doing) but it was an awful lot of fun.

At Midnight, as one year passes to the next, the whole city lights up again with simultaneous fireworks shows over the castle and Calton Hill. From our place just between the two hills, we were awash with lights, cheers and celebrations. As the colors and bombs die down, everyone crosses their arms, grabs someone nearby’s hands and at least mumbles the first line and the tune to Auld Langs Syne. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re saying in old English, you can appreciate singing the tune in its place of origin with thousands of others.

There were lots of different street parties during this part of the night, including concerts, bumping discos and general eating and drinking everywhere. Basically, the whole city was out celebrating in the streets one way or another late into the morning.

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Inside the Edinburgh Castle

The next morning, if you fancy, there is a rowdy dive of a thousand costumed swimmers into the freezing water or the Forth River. Significantly less, but still a notable amount, of people participate in this activity – though I imagine it helps with the hangover – and probably makes you almost as tough as any given Highlander out there.

Other highlights of the city included: Edinburgh Castle, The National Museum of Scotland, the Cathedral, Arthur’s Seat and a Ghost Tour with Auld Reekie Tours.

Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 1)

For a long, long time, I’ve given Morocco a high place on honor on my bucket list of travel destinations. I’d been drawn in by a host of temptations: flashes of rich colors and complex designs, hearing people sigh and nod meaningfully as they remembered their own time in this North African nation and the promise of setting foot on my 5th continent. So when I needed to slip in and out of the Schengen Zone for a few hours – which I allowed to turn into a week – to let my tourist visa renew, I decided to grab a cheap (yay for Easyjet) plane ticket to Marrakesh to see what exactly had been calling to me for so long.

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The patterns and sights of the Marrakesh Medina.

I know how this sounds, but I’ve been ready to go somewhere that felt truly new to me for a while now. The truth of the matter is, we as humans rely on a complex web of novelty and routine to keep our brains exercised and dopamine flowing. After 2 years of exploration, I have in my own way grown used to Europe. Just a year ago in Sicily, as I looked over yet another ancient temple with Greek-style columns, I head myself say, “I think I’m ready for another part of history.”

And my god, I found that in Morocco. Between a complex mix of Arabic, nomadic North African and Mediterranean cultures, an impeccable attention to colorful details and the always-present promise of surprise, I found what I was looking for here.

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The ancient passageway in the heart of the Medina that I’d follow every day to arrive at my hostel.

The thing about Morocco that I perhaps loved the most was that the interesting, historical and richly adorned streets I would spend my days wandering through were not just a small section of the city, more or less left alone by locals for tourists to check off their list and photograph. There was not a single street that exemplified the architecture, one place where everyone took the same photo before the mirage faded into “real” life. No, the whole country was truly a rich example of the way life has been and is being lived.

Between the affordable prices, variety of adventurous activities and cultural richness, as well as the relative safety of the country given the region, I would recommend Morocco to anyone, really. I saw families with children, other women traveling alone and couples who got engaged (congrats Kris and Will!) in the week I traveled the country. For the adventurous at heart, Morocco is certainly manageable, and utterly unforgettable.

Here’s more of the nitty-gritty of what I actually did while I was here.

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My Moroccan Tour

October 6 – 13th (I would highly recommend traveling here between October and April, when the days are only like 80-95 degrees F, not 110+ as in August, and the nights cool off considerably.)

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Marrakesh – My trip centered around this historic, culturally unique city. There are plenty of other amazing cities to visit in the north, but I don’t think anyone’s trip to Morocco is complete without having spent an evening in the chaos of Jamaa el-Fnna, getting themselves lost in the Medina or marveled at the intricate adornments of the Bahia Palace and Ben Youssef Madrasa.

Read more about my time and impressions in Marrakesh here.

East to Zagora and the Draa Valley

It was not hard to find a 2-day 1-night tour from Marrakesh to the Sahara desert. Whether I had waited to book my trip in Morocco itself or found one online before I arrived (as I did), the price and experience would have been more or less the same.

It’s a long, long drive through the hairpin turns of the High Atlas Mountains, then down to the ancient, cinematic village of Aït Benhaddou in the desolate desert, through the Anti Atlas Mountains, descending into the palm oasis-filled Draa Valley where Berber villages hug the road and largest river in Morocco. Through the city of Zagora, you emerge into the dunes of the western Sahara, hop on a camel (I make this sound easy, but after years of riding horses with control and comfort, finding my balance atop the lumbering gate of a docile, gassy camel was not as pleasant as it sounds once the first romantic minutes wore away) and ride out to a Berber camp for a night under the stars.

If I had booked a 3-day 2-night tour (the more popular version which I’d recommend if you have time), we’d have traveled to bigger dunes the next night and seen more of the area. But instead, we turned around and made the same drive back to Marrakesh.

My expectations were not through the roof for this particular adventure (I paid less than $75) and I didn’t get anything more than expected, which was basically a ride with stops at places providing tourist-safe food and some historic sites. What I did get was the chance to see more of the countryside, including glimpses of villages were the locals rode donkeys through the streets, markets were flourishing, and people were maintaining an ancient lifestyle in a harsh landscape. If you like desert landscapes, this drive provides an excellent and interesting example of the subtle changes in a desert ecosystem which you can see as you move east.

Essauoria

Just a few hours to the west of Marrakesh is the windy port city of Essauoria. For a second, you might wonder if you’ve made your way to Greece, with the white walls and blue doors of this town, but you are in fact still in Morocco. With sunlight that shines forcefully and hot, a busy fish market and much less intensity in the Medina, Essauoria is a great escape from the intensity that can overwhelm in Marrakesh.

There is a large beach, but the wind here renders it poor for swimming. Wind surfing is the top activity. (Head a few hours south to Agadir for better swimming conditions). I came to Essauoria for just a day, taking the three hour bus to and from Marrakesh ($8 each way) through more ever-changing desert landscapes to groves of argon trees along the coast featuring herds of goats reaching nimbly up for a bite of the leaves.

Staying in Essauoria is a little more expensive than Marrakesh, and I certainly felt like I saw more or less the entire old city in the 4 hours that I spent there. But if you need a breather and a great ocean view, it’s a great place to rest and see a different side of Morocco.

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The port of Essauoria

These three cities are just the beginning and only a snapshot of what this country offers to a traveler, and I would certainly recommend others expand their adventure to gritty Fez, the blue village of Chefchaouen and any number of other adventures this diverse landscape has to offer. I know that I certainly plan to in the future.

For my tips about making your way through Morocco with relative ease, as well as my impressions of being a blonde girl traveling alone there, check out Part 2 of my Moroccan blog stories.

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Traveler’s Notebook: Moroccan Daydreams

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I went to Marrakesh for many reasons. I went because I needed to leave the Shengen Zone of the European Union for at least 24 hours. I went because it was a cheap plane ticket and cheap cost of living. I went because I’d been tantalized by the colors, lamps, patterns, cushions and architecture which I’d seen recreated in prom and themed parties my whole life. I went because I knew it was a place I had wanted to go for a long, long time, even if I didn’t really know why.

Until I got there.

dsc00223Marrakesh is a dream. A hot, smokey, magical dream. Wandering through the mess of souks that is the Medina is like stepping into another world. You’re dodging motorbikes and donkey carts, passing under dusty slats of sunlight that slip through the ancient or makeshift roofs, looking over shops with leather goods, lanterns, scarves, wooden camels, golden lamps that might as well be hiding genies and a million other treasures. It is a city rich in life and history. Rich in smells – the very human, the very exotic, the very enticing and then suddenly the very familiar and intimate: the musty, leather, cigarette smell of my father’s office. Rich in sounds – the flutes of snake charmers, the drums of Berber dancers, the bells and clinks of horse-drawn carriages, the raspy shouts of the call the prayer, the merchants all around you trying their luck at guessing your mother tongue with, “Bonjour! Hello! Ciao! Excuse me! Ca va?”. Rich in history and intricate beauty: no detail goes unnoticed in the ancient architecture of Marrakesh, from painted ceilings to flowing script across walls and mosaic designs, you cannot trust a dusty, unremarkable building not to be hiding splendid treasures within the inner courtyard.

From Marrakesh, I went east, then west. East on a 10 hour bus ride over the beautifully-named Atlas Mountains through the ever-changing desert to the edge of the Sahara. There we spent the night in a Berber camp. We sat around a campfire under the stars listening to traditional (and some not so traditional) music, rode camels into the hot sunrise and explored ancient mud-caked cities and gigantic palm oasis along the caravan roads crossing the imposing landscape.

West, I went to the Atlantic, to the windy city of Essaouira where I wandered the 18th Century ramparts, looked down into the heart of a busy harbor and fish market, got a little less lost in the Medina and ogled amazing woodwork and a plethora of argon oil products. I cannot remember a time when the sun shone more brilliantly than in this port town of white-washed, blue-tinged buildings, not even in the Sahara just days before. Gulls flooded the air and the street cats looked remarkably happier than in the pandemonium of Marrakesh.

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But at the heart of it all was Marrakesh, an evocative place that sometimes overwhelmed, but mostly inspired me.

Begin in Jemaa el-Fnna (“The Assembly of the Dead”), the sprawling, oddly shaped square at the center of the ancient, walled city. By day, it is a passageway, an entry point, or an “oh, thank god I know where I am again” point. You’ll find henna artists, fresh orange juice hawkers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and acrobats vying for your attention and change. Past a line of horse-drawn carriages for rent, you can see the Koutoubia Mosque, who’s minaret has stood watch over the market since the 12th Century and reminds us of the importance of detail and a compass: the mosque which was originally built there had to be destroyed and rebuilt because it did not properly align with Mecca.

Choose any of the streets leading off of the north end of Djammar el-Fna and you are quickly swallowed into the Medina. An ancient mess of alleyways that snarl like a spool of thread unwound and left in a heap on the ground, you haven’t visited Marrakesh until you’ve been lost in these shops. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in the pungent tannery, watching leather being dyed, or the handful of stands devoted solely to olives, then among opulent carpet sellers, then a butcher surrounded by hungry cats, then emerge into the florescent-lit tourist souks where faux guides will offer you unsolicited advice and directions. You come upon small squares filled with local produce for sale, or hit a dead end and retrace your steps, twisting back until there’s another road to follow. Dark sunglasses were my best friends here, even when passing under ancient archways or the covered souks, so my eyes could wander without catching anyone’s attention.

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                                It is impossible to capture the energy and magic of an evening in Jemaa el-Fnna in a photo, but this might be a taste.

Return to Jemaa el-Fnna and watch the sun set from a terrace while sipping sweet mint tea, because once evening sets in, the real magic happens here. I think the true spirit of Morocco was most clear in this place in the busy nights: here you can realize that it’s not just a show for tourists. Yes, maybe the snake charmers and the people hawking magnets under florescent lights in the Medina are aiming to get the non-locals to stop by, but as the evening approaches and the final calls to prayer silence the music momentarily, lines of open-air restaurants are constructed, the air fills with the smells and smoke of frying meat, the snakes and monkeys are packed away and the cross-dressing dancers – yes, the men wear makeup, a hijab, skirts and clinking belly dancing gear while they shimmy around – and the storytellers show up.

The thing about Marrakesh that made my heart sing loudest was that every night you could watch ancient traditions come alive as the storytellers would arrive with a bench and a lantern, set up shop and wait. Quickly, crowds would gather around them, leaning onto one another, pushing into the heart of the circle to listen.

I longed to understand Arabic, just for one night, to be able to join in these circles.

Of course, in hindsight, things all look glossy and delightful. In the midst of the magic and sensations, I also find myself challenged as a traveler; truly thrown out of my comfort zone for the first time in a while. There were a lot of overwhelming moments, when the heat, the crowds the maze of covered roads, the approaches from the locals all got to be too much as I wandered alone. But, I would, one way or another, find my way back to my riad, and relax in the courtyard for awhile. And really, I was ready to challenge myself a little, to see another side of history and corner of the world and expand my inner map’s borders.

This short tour was not nearly enough to so much as taste the rich Moroccan culture and beauty, but luckily for me, it’s one of the boyfriend’s favorite places in the world, so I can trust that we will most certainly be back

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – Worth Your Stop

I arrived in Slovakia and texted my mom “Made it to Bratislava!”

Her response: “Where? What country is that?”

This seems to be the central problem of Slovakia. No one knows where or who this country is since they split from the Czech Republic during the Velvet Divorce of 1989. George W. Bush was there during his presidency and congratulated Slovenia on their transition to a democratic state after so many years of Communism. Major international newspapers have even published maps featuring Slovenia in their place, or simply written Czechoslovakia.

The Slovaks are not impressed, world.

Nearly every person I met in Bratislava asked me that if I liked Slovakia, would I please tell everyone I know to come and visit the country and see for themselves why it is so great? Apparently, after the movie The Hostel came out, telling the (fictional) story of several international travelers who wanted cheap beer and hot girls in Slovakia but instead were ax-murdered brutally, tourism went down 75%! I am here to tell you that nothing remotely horrible happened to me in Slovakia, and I had more than one local tell me they would personally sew me back up if I was ax-murdered.

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Charming and easy to navigate, the old town of Bratislava, Prague’s less visited cousin, is worth a stop on your way through the region.

Not only did I not hate my time in Slovakia, I loved it! Friendly, beautiful, laidback and full of history, Bratislava is a must-see if you are in the area, even if you can’t stay more than a half day. Though I lingered longer, Bratislava is an easy city to sweep through on your way to and from Prague, Vienna or Budapest by train bus or boat. And it’s a great place to get an even more robust context for the history that touches the whole region – including Communism and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – while you’re relishing the cheap cost of living and traveling in Southeastern Europe.

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                                                                 The Bratislava Castle

When Czechoslovakia was a single country within the Soviet Block, Prague was the cultural capital and Bratislava the industrial capital of the nation. Today, one can still see the traces of this division when comparing the two capitals, but that does not mean Bratislava is lacking for history or beauty. In fact, in 1536 Bratislava became the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary and over the course of the next 300 years, 11 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned in St. Martin’s Cathedral in the Old Town. You’ll find remnants of the Medieval town gate and cannon balls still wedged into the buildings of the 14th-15th Century Old Town Square from when Napoleon showed up.

It is a town with plenty of modern contradictions though: you can climb the hill to the newly-fully renovated Bratislava Castle and see across the river to the Communist suburbs, where miles of blocky high rises remind you of another era, not so recently passed. You’ll pass beautiful 18th Century opera houses and ornate churches, right next to abandoned Soviet-era hospitals, covered in graffiti and statues of the working man. Then you’ll come upon beautiful, tree-lined boulevards and busy central squares, filled with bean bag chairs and music in the summer evenings.

I started my time in Bratislava in the same way I always do when I arrive in a new city: I find the quickest Free Walking Tour so that I can to get myself situated physical and culturally. I quickly found that every local I met in Slovakia was warm and friendly, eager to know about me and to tell me about their country. From wine makers to hostel workers, it seemed true of these less-traveled countries that overall the locals were much more friendly to tourists than some Western European locations I’ve explored.

The other great treat of Slovakia was that the food was perhaps some of the best I’ve had in all of Europe! From pirohy (pierogi-like dumplings filled with cheese) to halušky (tiny gnocchi-like potato bites covered in rich, sharp sheep’s cheese and topped with bacon) I found myself relishing in rich comfort foods, even on hot summer days. And like most of the region, beer is cheaper than water, so you’ve always got something cool to wash it down with. I’d recommend stopping in the Slovak Pub just outside Old Town, where you’ll sit in rooms designed to look like traditional Slovak houses across the ages. It’s a popular place with tourists and students, but food is reasonably priced and they have their own organic garden from which they source produce.

Pro Tip: As with most European cities, you’ll be disappointed if you show up on a Monday (like I did) to find every museum, including the castle and even the pub crawl offered through my walking tour company, closed.

Trenčín, Slovakia

dsc05054After a full day in Bratislava, I caught a train and headed northeast about an hour and a half to Trenčín, a small city in the foothills of the mountains which continue east to border the Czech Republic and Poland. I wanted to see a bit more of the country, and I had read about the impressive castle on the hill above the city. Outside the castle, there were falconers giving demonstrations, and inside my 13-year-old heart skipped a beat as I wandered the winding stairwells and explored the high-ceiling rooms. At the top of the turrets, flags whipped and snapped in the mountain breezes. It felt as delightfully traditional as it gets, larger, sunnier and more intact than castles I’d seen in countries like Ireland, and amazingly nearly empty of tourists.

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The view from the castle at Trencin, about an hour and a half from Bratislava.

Perhaps a little gritty around the edges at first, once you find your way into the Old Town you’ll be charmed by Bratislava’s history and walk-ability. It’s easy to see in an afternoon or a day, but if you’re looking for an affordable, laid back place to recuperate and relax on the shores of the Danube, the small size of Bratislava makes it ideal for recovery from the hustle and stimulation of Prague or Budapest.

 

What I had all wrong about Italian food

Mention Italy to just about anyone in the world and if the first thing they’re thinking about isn’t food, it’s probably a close second. At least in the western world (and possibly all around the world), I would venture to guess that Italian food may be some of the most recognizable and most replicated. And all of the hype is utterly merited. Not only are meals, and thereby the food consumed, cherished and celebrated here, one will find a rich historic culture of craft behind the myriad of foods, wines and espresso enjoyed up and down the boot-shaped peninsula. Exploring Italy through your taste buds is one of the many highlights of la dolce vita.

I speak as someone who has held a life-long passion for pasta in it’s many forms. When I was around 5 years old I told my parents that when I grew up I was only going to eat spaghetti, screw them and their chicken breasts and hamburgers and vegetables. I believe my mom said “Fine. When you grow up you can do that if you want, but for now you need to eat chicken.”

Well, challenge accepted. How do you like me now, Mama? (For the record, I also eat chicken from time to time as an adult.)

It’s par for the course that America has, well, American-ized Italian food and in my first days here I realized that many of the things I assumed about my favorite food genre were a little off base.

I’m actually a little terrified to make any claims when it comes to Italian food, since it’s so important culturally, and I’ve probably managed to misinterpret something. I truly hope not to offed any Italians in the writing of this post, I’m still just learning after all.

What I didn’t know about Italian Food

(note: this list continues to grow)

The pasta is just the beginning. Literally. Though I imagined huge dishes of spaghetti, lasagna or risotto being the highlight of the Italian meal – perhaps with a side of vegetables or a salad course to start – it turns out this is misguided. In fact, the primo or first course is the starchy pasta dish, which may mean any of the above variations or a million others. (Probably, you’e already had the antipasto, or appetizer, of course.) The primo may be about as much as I would normally eat for an entire dinner back home, but don’t get carried away and accept too many of the extra helpings which will certainly be offered. You’ve got a lot more food on it’s way.

Next comes a secondo, which will feature meat or fish and usually a side of vegetables and that salad Americans tend to eat first. This is the main course or highlight of the meal (though I’ll admit I still relish the pastas the most). Once you’ve managed to clear that plate – which by now is feeling like a bit of an achievement of willpower, no matter how good it all tastes – the fruit, cheese and nut course comes around, followed by (if you’re lucky) desert before coffee or limoncello or other late evening top-offs to aid in digestion.

Also, don’t embarrass yourself and order a cappuccino after lunch! If you prefer a little milk in your espresso, get yourself a caffè macchiato.

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I didn’t think to snap a photo before I started, but join me in relishing the aftermath of true traditional ragu sauce in Bologna.

Nearly everyone who is lucky enough to be a guest in an Italian home has their own version of the story where they are increasingly shocked as each continuous course arrives before them. Mine includes actually drifting off to sleep at the dinner table after being overloaded following a long hot day of Sicilian tourism. There’s no way to prepare for it, and nothing to do but embrace and relish it all, because it is truly a gift from whoever your chef may be.

Everything is hyper-localized, and you’re best off sticking to what’s regionally made. I’ll admit I was a little scoffish when my boyfriend was surprised that I said I might want to try a carbonara at the osteria in Monreale, Sicily. “But,” He said, “We are nowhere near Rome…” (which is where carbonara is traditionally made.) “Well, we’re a lot closer to Rome here than Minneapolis is!” I argued back and went ahead and ordered it.

It wasn’t very good. Nothing compared to the delicious Sicilian dishes I’d been enjoying for the last week, and nothing compared to the carbonara I ate 7 months later when we visited Rome. Because down to the village or neighborhood, there’s a local kind of pasta, a different way of preparing the sauce, a very specific specialty that you really should try because they’ve been perfecting it there for centuries. Even when we were in Trapani, on the western side of Sicily, the boyfriend hesitated to order pasta alla norma, an eggplant based dish originating in Catania on the eastern side of the island. Instead we opted for a noodle very specific to the city we were in, with a fish sauce. And it was fantastic.

So, though you can find pesto (typical of Genoa) or tagliatelle al ragù (kind of what we call spaghetti Bolognese in the states) basically anywhere in Italy, when in doubt, go for the most localized specialty and you won’t be disappointed.

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From January 2015, my first trip here. At the time, I labeled this photo “that one night in Tuscany”

Your meatballs don’t belong on top of the spaghetti! This one kind of disappointed me, because, oh, how I love a good, cheesy spaghetti and meatball dish. But as described above, you’ll find your pasta serving first, then the meatballs will be served with sauce and a side of veggies, but without the bed of starch. (Though if I’m home alone at lunch time and the boyfriend’s mom has left a dish of her incredible meatballs in our fridge, I will admit to cheating and putting them right on top of my spaghetti.)

Speaking of meatballs, I read in the wonderful travel log and cultural exploration Seeking Sicily a fantastic description the Sicilian meatball and the many reasons you won’t find them in a restaurant, paramount among them being Sicilian’s general distrust. When I asked the boyfriend if this is true, he said “Well, of course.” But why, I wanted to know. “Because they can put anything in a meatball, all the bad meats and horrible things.” But, why would they? They want their food to be good, I argued. “Oh, but they probably could do this,” he said. “It’s better just to eat my mom’s meatballs. I will ask that she makes you some.”

Can’t argue with that.

“Alfredo” sauce isn’t a thing here. I’ve enjoyed watching many Italians gasp and ask me to repeat myself when I tell them about it. “A sauce? No, Alfredo is my uncle!”

And while we’re talking sauces, many of the top American brand names make no sense; Prego means “you’re welcome” and Ragu is a meaty tomato sauce typical of the city of Bologna.

The street vendor pizza tastes exactly the same: greasy. Better just make your way to Napoli and get the real thing rather than expecting to find incredible pizza on every corner.

You can put tuna on a pizza! And, provided you are a tuna fan, a tonno alla cipolla (tuna and onion) pizza is actually super delicious.  (These are once again things I found first in Sicily. Have I mentioned the boyfriend’s family origins are Sicilian?”)

Most amazing of all: I have yet to gain a million pounds. I remember when a good friend of mine was on her honeymoon in Italy and she sent me a message one afternoon describing the tiny Italian woman she sat across from in a trattoria in Milan. She watched in wonder as this woman ate a plate of risotto, then a veal milanese with potatoes, as well as three glasses of wine, for lunch. “How do they stay so skinny?!” She implored, as if the boyfriend had let me in on the secret.

I have no real answers for this, though I have some theories. The food is all incredibly fresh, and I’d venture to guess filled with a lot fewer preservatives and gunk that you find in American food. I tend to get very upset stomachs when I eat out in the USA, but have yet to have a similar reaction in Italy, even to things which set me off at home. I also walk everywhere when I’m here, averaging about 6-15 kilometers per day.

Whatever the reason, I’ll go with it and relish all of the incredible gusti until my body tells me otherwise.

 

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Don’t be fooled by any stuffed cannolo (the singular of cannoli) that’s in a display fridge: the real treasures will be filled with the ricotta and sweets after you order them. 

Even if expectations are not entirely what you get, sometimes is a good thing to be surprised, even culinarily.  It probably goes without saying I’d recommend Italy, and Italian food to anyone. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand this place without relishing in the food.

Chin Chin!