My Favorite Place to Ring in the New Year

scotland-story

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.

dsc07583

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.

img_3437

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.

dsc07532
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 2)

I just spent a week in Morocco – my first time in the country and my first time in Africa – and for such a comparatively short amount of time, I have a lot to say about this incredible place. This is my third post on the matter, so if you need to get yourself caught up, check out Touring Morocco Part 1 or enjoy some travel-log-style writing with this post.

dsc00251

To continue with my advice and thoughts on my own and any future journeys into Morocco, here are some lists, because who doesn’t love a good list in a blog?

Morocco Tips

  • Find yourself a good riad or hostel, because you’re gonna need an oasis as you acclimate. I stayed at Equity Point Hostel which was AMAZING. For 12 Euros a night, I had a bed in an all-female dorm, access to a pool and rooftop terrace and hung around in a beautiful riad setting. The hostel has a hammam, organizes daily excursions to surrounding areas and had some of the friendliest staff I’ve met in a long time. No matter where you stay, you’ll be headed back there to regroup after a day in the heat and chaos of the city, so consider papering yourself a little.
  • Have plenty of small coins in your hard-to-break-into purse for tips. From street performers who catch your eye to a local who helps you find your hotel (trust me, you’ll probably need this the first time so it’s better to just let it happen), to restaurants and bathroom attendants, tipping is an integral part of life here. And really, with 10 dirham being about $1, you can probably spare a couple of coins here and there to show your appreciation.
  •  No matter who you are – but perhaps especially as a woman – it’s best to cover your knees and shoulders in deference to local customs. Yes, even men. Yes, even though it’s god-awfully hot out there. Especially if you are traveling outside of the tourist centers of major cities, you’ll blend in a little better and show respect to the locals (and hide more skin from the hot sunlight) with a little more fabric.
  • One of the many delights of Jamaa el-Fnna in Marrakesh is the nightly extravaganza of restaurants which spring up out seemingly of nowhere. They don’t have names, just a number, and all the food is priced the same, so there’s no need to try hunt for a deal. The eager menu-brandishing staff members of this area were some of the most intense salesmen I came across in the country, so it’s tempting to just sit down at the first place you get swept into, but look for where the Moroccans are sitting. The stalls that start empty tend to stay empty through the night. I don’t think any of the food here is going to blow you away, but by following the crowd you’ll find the best that’s out there.
  • This is an untested hypothesis, but if you are generally allergic to farm animals and/or dust, bring some meds. I was sneezing and sniffling my face off and there wasn’t much plant life to be found which would make my allergies flare. I have been allergic to horses for a long time (much to my personal horror since I adore bareback riding) and with the donkeys wandering the souks, horse-drawn carriages clopping around and general dust of the desert concentrated on such small streets, some Claritin might just have given me some relief.
  • Let yourself get lost in a Medina. Trying to keep yourself straight is probably a hopeless cause anyway, and part of the experience is letting yourself get swallowed in and thrown back out somewhere new, like a tannery, or a neighborhood clean on the other side of town, or the place you were looking for yesterday that you gave up on finding. Also, yeah, there are signs pointing out some landmarks, but I found those pretty unhelpful and often sent me on very roundabout journeys.

dsc00151

Here is perhaps the question I’ve been asked the most since I’ve come home: Would I recommend Morocco for another woman traveling alone? If you had asked me my first full day there, after a hot afternoon of wandering lost through the Medina and being cajoled and shouted at and even followed for several hours, I would have told you that I honestly didn’t know. Now that I’m back at home, safe and relishing the challenge and adventure of it all though, I’d say: yes of course you can.

No matter what, no matter who you’re with, no matter how seasoned of a traveler you are, Morocco is one of many countries in the world where you’ll need a thick skin. Everyone will talk to you, give you unsolicited directions, try to pull you into their shop, walk up alongside you tell you about a market or a museum you need to visit nearby (“But I’m not asking for money! I promise!”) or just outright ask for money.

And yes, I even got the dreaded “Mademoiselle! You should be smiling! You’d be more beautiful if you smiled!” calls from shopkeepers while I made my way through the maze of streets.

Perhaps it was my inability to understand any Arabic slurs thrown my way, perhaps I got lucky and perhaps as a tourist I was shielded from the worst of it, because this article came out (and was shared with me more than once) while I was in the country. It’s worth a read for a better understanding of the situation Moroccan women face daily, which I think even a tourist should take a moment to recognize.

Trying to balance not being rude with actually moving from place to place without getting sucked into any sort of scam or pushy conversation was hard for me. In the end, all of the advice I heard beforehand was right: the best thing to do is answer politely but forcefully “No, thank you” and walk away. This didn’t mean I was actually left alone. Sometimes, there were shouts from behind, usually there was a moment of pleading, of false promises, then a scoff. Once a faux-guide followed and followed me, asking followup questions about my dismissal of being shown to an argon factory nearby.”But why? Where have you seen something like this? You must. You are in Morocco. Don’t you like Moroccan people?” Showing a vague interest and implying that I’d come about around later didn’t really help. (However with a Minnesota, the real meaning behind “Sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll come back” couldn’t be more clear.) When I finally said “I feel sick and I’m going to my hostel” he insisted he had medicine for me. I finally got away and, though I was flustered, shook it off. I was going back to the hostel anyway and could breathe a bit. But Marrakesh isn’t that big of a city, and I ran into said local every single day. He would come up behind me, inquire about my heath, thank me for finally coming back, accuse me of being an ungracious guest in his country, demand I acknowledge him, follow me asking questions for several meters. I couldn’t help but think that even if I had a girl friend with me, it would be more of an annoyance we could roll our eyes at and less of a daily gut-level worry of how long it would take to shake the guy and his comments.

I will say sincerely that even in the annoyances, the Moroccan people felt genuinely kind. They usually told me “Welcome, you are most welcome to your second home!” and it didn’t feel like they were just saying that. But I also just wanted to shout “Listen, can you just give me a second to enjoy your country?” If I had followed every direction or answered every call shouted in my direction, I’d still be in Marrakesh right now. I felt like I couldn’t pause and take anything in, or so much as glance at a shop (dark sunglasses were my best friend) or snake charmer or juice stand without being cornered and it was exhausting.

Though I never actually felt in danger, got pickpocketed or was groped, in the end, I did spend a lot of the time I was alone wishing someone was with me. But this was where my choice of accommodation did what I needed it to. The beauty of a hostel is there are always other travelers looking for new acquaintances. At night, I always ventured out with others and I was much more comfortable even in the day when with other people. I also got better prices bartering when I wasn’t on my own.

dsc00290
In the village of Ait Benhaddou, east of the Atlas Mountains.

I won’t lie: there were times when I found myself on streets that were really interesting, in places the guidebook recommended, but where when I looked around and realized I hadn’t seen another tourist for 15 minutes, I turned back. If I had a friend with me, even another female friend, I wouldn’t have been worried, but the situation felt as if it called for a little prudence. I kept thinking about my boyfriend’s recounting of his time in Morocco and felt jealous of how in so many of his stories he described being a part of the local culture, of really immersing himself, of hopping in a petit taxi and riding to a village and finding a guest house and meeting locals. I on the other hand, felt like I had to keep myself at a little bit of a distance for safety and sanity’s sake.

ALL OF THAT BEING SAID, I thoroughly enjoyed Morocco. I met other women who were traveling farther and more bravely alone. I often did find genuine kindness from the locals: even in their cajoling there’s a bit more interaction and welcome than one finds on the streets of Paris, for example.

And there is no where else in the world quite like Morocco. Any traveler is rewarded for their intrepidness here with stunning, star-filled nights in the Sahara, the sounds and sights of Jamaa el-Fnna day or night and the particular madness that is a Moroccan Medina, which, yes, includes a fair amount of cajoling.

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.

dsc00156
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.

dsc00214
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.

dsc00347

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.)

dsc00182

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.

dsc00417
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.

exploring-morocco

Traveler’s Notebook: Moroccan Daydreams

dsc00215

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.

dsc00418

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.

dsc00254
                                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.

dsc05043
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.

dsc05025
                                                                 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.

dsc05061
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.

 

Why You Should WWOOF at Least Once in Your Life

Travel cheaply, gain unique cultural experiences and learn some new skills by choosing a whole different way to travel next time you’re abroad (or just over the next state line!)

I think it was from my cousin, who had just bought a book with tips on traveling the world on a budget, that I first learned about WWOOFing. Though it would be years before I had the opportunity to dig my fingers into the soil of my first farm, I was instantly hooked on the idea. The World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms project allows intrepid and willing travelers the opportunity to work and stay on organic farms all over the world for free, in exchange for their helping hands throughout the day. It’s an affordable opportunity to have a unique experience while traveling.

Since I first latched onto the idea, I’ve volunteered at a range of organic farms across Europe. In 2009, I spent a few weeks on a goat and pig farm in County Donegal, Ireland. We also worked in the garden and helped to run the “Farm Shop” in the nearby town where the hosts sold organic goods from farms around the community. In 2014, I spent two weeks each on a goat farm in Germany and a vineyard in Greece. Each farm was incredibly different, with differing amounts of other volunteers working along side me, different types of hosts – from families to bachelors – and daily routines, including schedules, cooking and days off to explore.

Each time I’ve WWOOFed, I have had an incredible experience, and I’m here to argue that every traveler should consider adding at least one WWOOFing adventure to your next vacation. See why, and how-to, below!

DSC05525
Picking grapes in Greece, on the vineyard where I WWOOFed in 2014

Why you should definitely WWOOF next time you travel

  1. It fits the budget!
    One of the most important aspects of any trip is to set and maintain a budget, and just because something is free does not mean it’s not worth it! When you WWOOF, the basic agreement is you work 5-6 hours a day, 5-6 days a week in exchange for three meals a day and a place to sleep. This means you can have large periods of time where you are not spending large chunks of cash to merely survive in a place, allowing you to even extend a trip while still maintaining a small budget! Do keep in mind that you will need to pay the cost of arriving and departing your farm, as well as any side trips you want to take on your days off, or dinner and drink excursions you want to enjoy with your fellow WWOOFers in the nearest town.
  2. Local experiences
    One of the great joys of travel is authentic, cross-cultural experiences. Yes, museums, historic sites and opulent cityscapes hold a special place in any traveler’s heart, but no one can deny that it is the simple, person to person exchanges which truly create our memories of a place. When you WWOOF, you are invited into someone’s home, you experience their rhythms, food and lifestyle in the most intimate way. I have also been invited to several parties, met interesting neighbors and gotten a first-hand view of the life in the country I’m visiting, from traditional folk dancing in Greece to a beer festival in Germany.
  3. Get off the beaten path
    It goes without saying that if you’re on a farm, you probably won’t be within the city limits of the capital of whatever country you’re visiting. Just by arriving, you’ll push the boundaries of the normal vacation routes, discover hidden gems with tips from your hosts, and get to know a whole new region or village.

    1917697_1096201286944_5303527_n
    The view from the farm in Donegal, Ireland, where I WWOOFed in 2009, across the Foyle to Northern Ireland.
  4. Gain some skills
    Full disclosure: I DID grow up in the countryside with a heavy exposure to organic farm life. My family had a small a hobby farm, with rabbits, goats and sheep in the yard, there were plenty of horses to ride throughout the neighborhood and our next door neighbor had a full-scale organic berry farm, where I “worked” every summer. So, no, heading out to clean the barn isn’t brand new for me. That being said, from what I’ve heard from hosts, the fact that I have any experience with farming makes me stand out from the crowd of volunteers.
    The whole idea of WWOOFing is that you can learn about organic farming, and who knows when potato picking, vegetable weeding and goat milking will come in handy later in life? I’ve also learned how to cook some incredible dishes – including stuffed grape leaves and home made cheese – how to rotate crops and repair fencing on my various farms.
  5. De-Stress and Re-Establish Rhythm
    This can be especially vital if you are on a long-term, think month+, trip. Everyone has their own limit, but no one can be a tourist every day forever, no matter how much fun it is. When I arrived on Lipisi Island in Greece, I had spent 6+ weeks city hoping like it was my job, and I was so tired of repacking my backpack every morning and not sleeping in the same bed for more than two nights in a row.
    For me, at least, a sense of routine and a project to work on, even while I’m in another fascinating country, brings purpose and relieves stress on the road. Getting my hands dirty and quieting way down internally has proven to be a greatly rejuvenating process in the midst of traveling.
DSC04748
Early morning fog rises on the family farm in Bavaria, Germany, where I WWOOFed in 2014.

Tips for making the most out of WWOOFing 

  1. Choose your optimal country and farm type before you buy a subscription
    The first step to finding your perfect farm is the visiting the WWOOFing Website. Nearly every country has their own separate WWOOFing network, and there is a small annual subscription fee for each country where you want to begin reaching out to hosts. They vary in technical skills (the best I’ve seen being Ireland and the worst being Croatia) but most allow you to make a profile for yourself and view the hosts profiles so you can get a sense of who they are before sending them a message. Also, before you purchase the subscription you can usually preview hosts site’s without any contact details being shown, so you can get a sense of who’s out there before forking over the cash.
  2. Communicate with your host before arrival
    Every farm is different, and  you can get a good sense of the daily activities you’ll be participating in, the expectations of hours, the proximity of the closest town, how any other volunteers will be there, etc, just by communicating. You’ll also get a good feel for your hosts English competency, which can make a huge difference once your on the ground.
    Also, be mindful of clarity in communication, don’t lie or exaggerate: you’ll be showing up in this person’s home, remember! One slightly embarrassing mistake I made was telling my host in Germany that my train arrived in the closest town at 4:30, not clarifying I meant in the afternoon. Europe being generally on a 24 hour clock, she assumed I meant morning and was NOT pleased when she took the 20 minute trek into town very early and I never showed. (Luckily I had a German friend who helped clear the situation up before I arrived and we smoothed everything over once I got to work!) In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with dotting your i’s, crossing your t’s, and double checking everything is clear, especially if language barriers are involved.
  3. Be open minded, have patience with yourself, the situation and those working with you
    Try to leave expectations at the door and go with the flow. Try something new, even if it’s not what you thought farming was. You may be surprised, or uncomfortable in some moments, but getting outside of your comfort zone is most certainly going to provide you with a story, and is one of the greatest rewards of an overseas adventure.

It’s fair to say that my WWOOFing experiences have created the vivid memories and are often more interesting than even museums and walking tours of historic city centers (and I’m a sucker for these things). Even if you only try once, you’ll come home with real life experiences and relationships in your back pocket, which are irreplaceable.

Plus, it’s not exactly a direct result of the WWOOFing, but it’s worth mentioning I did meet the love of my life on that Greek island I’d never have heard of if I hadn’t gone to the vineyard! You never know what you’ll find along the way.

wwoofing