Postcard Pick: The Countdown to Budapest

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I received this from the great Andy last week and it has got me counting the days until I leave for my Hungary/Lithuania trip! Only about six weeks to go! Budapest has been on the top of my list of places to visit since I marked Prague off. So receiving the postcard from Andy has made me all the more excited.  After five days in Hungary, I am then off to Lithuania to see my in-laws. This will be my first trip to Lithuania and I’m excited to go to the Baltics. Additionally, I am going ahead with my plan to bring one bag (a carry on bag) for the whole trip. Let’s see how I manage! If anyone has any recommendations on what to do or see in either Hungary or LIthuania, please comment!

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A Coffee Snobs Guide to London

The first thing I do when I travel/move to a new area is to seek out a place I can get good coffee!  But, wait…you may ask “What about a certain global coffee chain that has invaded every corner of the world?!” Oh yes, Starbucks. To put it bluntly — I don’t like Starbucks. The coffee is over-roasted so that it tastes burnt and often (no matter what country you’re in) it’s twice as expensive as the local (and much tastier) alternatives. Therefore, when I first moved to London I began my arduous search for quality coffee. Thankfully, London offered numerous options that satisfied my taste buds and my caffeine addiction!

Monmouth Coffee Company (Covent Garden)

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As mentioned in my previous post —  American Favorites in London — Monmouth Coffee Co. was my go-to coffee place in London. I was lucky that it was popular enough to have more than one location and that it was distributed to several other local coffee houses. The location I frequented was, of course, on Monmouth street in the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden. The shop has a friendly, yet bare-basics atmosphere and the staff are incredibly helpful. However, the shop is constantly busy and there is often a queue (line) out the door. I recommend buying a latte to go and if the weather is nice; walk to the famous Seven Dials pillar on the junction to sit and enjoy your coffee with ease.

The Speakeasy (Carnaby Street)

The Speakeasy was the usual destination to catch up with friends who had also moved to London or were down for a visit! It’s a small cafe located just off Carnaby Street. Despite that the place is surrounded by large chain stores, the cafe manages to give a very boutique feel. The coffee is consistent and the pastries are worth a try! It’s a perfect spot to sit and rest for awhile after maneuvering around Oxford street.

The Coffeeworks Project (Islington)

My Canadian friend, Andy, described The Coffeeworks Project best when we stopped in for an afternoon coffee break — “This is the most hipster place I’ve seen outside Montreal!” It’s true, the Coffeeworks Project has a very rustic yet minimalist vibe with recycled furniture and high coffee bar stools. The baristas are friendly and have their intricate coffee art down pat. The clientele is all under 30 and working away on an iPad or Macbook. Friends from Seattle: I give you your home away from home! In all seriousness though, the coffee here is up to standard and goes superbly with one of their rich brownies.

Ginger & White (Hampstead)

Located in upscale Hampstead, Ginger & White offers delicious espresso courtesy of Square Mile Coffee Roasters. This is truly a neighborhood cafe and has a very local feel. Unlike some of the other coffee shops on this list, G&W’s location is ideal for avoiding crowds.  I stopped in for a coffee on a cold autumn day before heading to Hampstead Heath and was struck by how laid back the atmosphere was. The coffee will get you in the door but the cafe itself will keep you coming back!

Kipferl (Islington)

This was a treasure I discovered right before I left London and was disappointed I hadn’t found it sooner!  Having visited Kipferl, I feel like I got a good sampling of a Viennese Cafe. When you order a coffee it comes with a small glass of still water (as is typical with Austrian coffee). The coffee is strong but not bitter and perfect with one of Kipferls homemade pastries. I enjoyed my latte with a slice of their apfelkuchen (an apple cake with lemon and cinnamon.)  Kipferl is less than a minutes walk from The Coffeeworks Project and a short way from Angel Tube station. If you’re looking for more of a European cafe experience rather than intricate coffee art and hipster baristas — this place is for you!

Next time you’re in The Old Smoke, I urge you to set aside the convenience of Starbucks and get to know a little bit of London’s coffee culture!

Photo credit to Andy Melan for Monmouth Coffee Cup image

Postcard Pick: The Bones in Rome

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Whether you’re sick of touring churches or you just have a thing for the macabre — the Capuchin Crypt can be an interesting sight for tourists who want to delve slightly off the beaten path. The small crypt is underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappucini, just off the Piazza Barberini in Rome. As you can see from the postcard (they didn’t allow photographs to be taken in the crypt) the place looks like something you would find on the cover of a heavy metal album rather than as a destination point in Italy. However, the place has drawn visitors for the last several centuries including Mark Twain and the Marquis de Sade.

Over 4,000 Capuchin monks have been buried in the crypt since 1631 and the soil in the ground was brought over from Jerusalem. The display is meant to be a reminder of mortality and that our time on Earth is short. The Capuchins would bury their most recently deceased in the soil and after 30 years of decomposition, arrange their bones around the crypt in the ornate motifs. While I’m sure the displays were indeed meant to remind everyone of their own mortality; I am curious if it became a practical/slightly strange way to deal with the small space they were allotted to bury their dead. Either way, the Capuchin Crypt makes an intriguing site that you are not likely to forget anytime soon and something to certainly write home about!

 

Winter on the French Riviera — it’s Nice in December

I traveled to the French Rivera in December of 2007. It was my first trip to France. I had ended up there because I wasn’t sure where to go after visiting Dublin (see previous post) and Ryan Air was offering a 10 pound deal to Nice. Upon arriving, my friends and I were shocked at the bright blue sky and sunshine after coming from a very grey and damp winter in Ireland and the U.K. The entire Riviera is packed during the summer with tourists but we were there in the off season and as far as we knew, were the only visitors there. I don’t have too many travel suggestions for Nice because some destinations are filled more with stories than they are sight seeing expeditions. Nice was a great place to relax (even in December). We spent our time walking around the city and poking our heads into shops. We went to the local farmers market and bought fresh olives, grapes and baguettes from friendly locals who spoke no English, and had a picnic on the beach with a bottle of wine. After a nights long search for a specific type of alcohol, that at the time you could not buy in the U.S., we stumbled upon a local underground rock concert and hung out with the band. Takeaways: Take a chance on a place during the off season and sometimes not having plans is the best travel plan!

Dublin: Where Guinness is Gold

The first time I had a Guinness was on a hot summer day in the U.S. and it was horrible! I imagined it was what cold metal with some barley thrown in must have tasted like. I wouldn’t drink Guinness again until I moved to England in 2007, where I would find it to be a completely different beer all together. It was crisper and less bitter, with an almost refreshing finish to it. Guinness in England was delicious! I soon began to appreciate a good pint of the stout when I would go to the local pub. Why did Guinness suddenly taste better? Two reasons — Guinness must be poured a specific way (something that certainly wasn’t done in my first experience with it) and the closer you are to Dublin, the better the Guinness.

All Guinness in Ireland, the U.K. and North America is made in Dublin. Therefore, when it is en route to these far away countries the taste degrades. As one article noted, “Beer is liquid bread, or so the saying goes…and just like a baguette, the fresher beer is, the more delicious it tastes.”

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I discovered how true this was when I had my first Guinness in Dublin. Pouring Guinness in Ireland is an art form and the standards on how to serve it are exceedingly high. Therefore when I finally got my first taste of Guinness in Dublin, the result led to my and friends and I proclaiming “Guinness is gold!” But, our journey for the best pint of Guinness wouldn’t end with just any pub in Dublin. For that, we would have to go to the source.

The Guinness Storehouse

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The St. James Gate brewery in Dublin is the home of the original Guinness factory opened by Arthur Guinness in 1759 and the current location of the Guinness Storehouse. There are usually long lines to get in, but the wait is worth it. The Storehouse is essentially an adult’s version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, complete with waterfall. Here you get to learn about the history of Guinness, how it’s made, as well as the opportunity to start a batch of the black stuff. The Gravity Bar is at the top of the Storehouse and is where visitors can enjoy a perfectly poured pint as well as the amazing 360 degree view of Dublin.

Once you have left the Storehouse, the Guinness experience doesn’t end. Guinness flows like water all over the city and there is nothing more Irish than to enjoy a Guinness in the atmosphere of a pub in the Temple Bar district.

Temple Bar 

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The River Liffey in Dublin

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The Temple Bar district is near the River Liffey and is named after the Temple Bar (still in existence today) and has been around since 1637. The area is made up of numerous pubs along cobblestone streets. It is an ideal place to spend the evening in Dublin. The ultimate experience for me was popping into a few Irish pubs where a live folk band was playing Irish ballads and drinking a pint of the black stuff while chatting with the other pub goers.

So, whether you are a jilted beer drinker who didn’t enjoy Guinness the first time around or a seasoned Guinness drinker — I implore you to try another glass the next time you are in Dublin!

What’s the best pub you have been to in Dublin?

Originally visited: December 2007

How I Learned to Travel

 

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Traveling is a whole brand of education unto itself and it’s one that never ceases. What we learn from our experiences becomes a type of blue-print we follow for future travels.With my upcoming trip to Lithuania and Hungary in the fall, I thought I would share some of the travel lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1.) You don’t have to learn a whole new language

It’s impractical to try and learn an entire language before you go on a trip. If in a pinch, the best thing to do is learn the basic phrases of the native language in whatever country you’re traveling to such as; hello, thank you, please, and good-bye. However, I always make a point to know how to order beer and coffee in the local language. This is helpful as bars and cafes can be loud and busy, so this saves everyone a lot of translation trouble.

Lastly, always be able to ask someone if they speak English. More on that in the next rule.

2.) The first words you speak to a local should be in their native language

Never assume that someone speaks English if you’re in a non-English speaking country. While it’s true that many people all over the world (especially in Europe) do speak English,  it’s impolite to jump to that conclusion. Imagine if someone in your home country walked up to you and started speaking a foreign language. It’s off putting and out of place. Show a little effort and greet them in the native tongue then ask (again in their native language) if they speak English.

3.) Make friends with the bar tender 

Bar tenders are always a guaranteed source of knowledge. If you’re interested in finding out where the best local hangouts are or what tourist traps to avoid, a bar tender can usually clue you in. Additionally, if you treat your bar tender well, they to treat you well. When I was in Dublin with some friends we went to a Temple District bar where we chatted with the bar tenders the whole time. They let us stay past last call and we didn’t get charged for probably half of what we drank.

4.) Go off the beaten path

When I visit a country, I like to feel like I’m actually in another country and not on a perpetual tour with other visitors. Whenever I travel, I usually get up early one morning (around 7 or so), get a cup of coffee, grab a map and walk all around the city/town i’m staying in. It’s a neat way to see the city wake up and the best time to go into a cafe or shop because it’s early and everyone is a lot more relaxed.

5.) Don’t mistake directness for rudeness

The Americans and Brits really love to make niceties in every conversation with lots of how are you’s, pleases and thank you’s. It’s part of our culture and how we speak, but just because another culture does not make all these niceties doesn’t mean their being rude. Some cultures and people — as I like to describe it —  don’t waste a lot of words. So if you sit down in a restaurant to order lunch and the waitress simply asks you what you would like without warmly saying hello and asking how you are — don’t take it personally.

6.) Don’t wear a backpack 

It’s fine to wear a backpack when you’re actually en route from the airport to your hotel/hostel. But, if you’re just out and around the town — leave the backpack! Backpacks are easy for someone to pick pocket you, especially in crowded areas and when you’re waiting in line somewhere. Additionally, backpacks are harder to control when walking through an indoor shop. On a trip to London years ago, my friend was wearing a big backpack and we walked into a crowded pub. Unfortunately, when she turned her backpack knocked a guys beer clean out of his hand. My recommendation, if you  need a bag then get a small-medium sized messenger bag that closes securely.

Got any worthwhile travel tips? Let me know!

Before New York — there was Old York

Whenever friends go to visit England, I always encourage them to try and get out of London. Don’t get me wrong, I love London! But, often visitors seem to think if they go to London then they have seen all there is to see in England and that is a travesty! There are some truly amazing and worthwhile places to visit outside of England’s capital. The city of York is simply one of many.

A little bit about York

York is located in Yorkshire, a district in northern England. It’s a historically rich city that has one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe; York Minster. The vikings had settlements here and it was a significant city during the Roman Empire. If you need a little bit of name dropping — Constantine was crowned Emperor here and William the Conqueror made his merry little way up to York to quash a brewing rebellion against him in 1068.

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Statue of Constantine, outside of York Minster

A true walking city

York can be an incredibly cheap city to tour for one big reason — you can literally walk everywhere. The historic part of the city is only a ten-minute stroll from the train station. Then once you arrive in the city you can walk for free on top of the city walls.

In its long history, York has been under siege numerous times and seen a lot of important battles. Therefore sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries connecting walls were built around the city to completely enclose it. These walls still stand today and create a unique way to tour the city because visitors can walk along them and look down on the city below. Due to the fact that most of York’s major attractions are the structures themselves, the walls allow you a free way to view everything.

The massive Gothic cathedral at the center of it all

York Minster is a beautiful and gigantic structure that stands at the center of the city. Construction on the current cathedral began in 1210 and there have been numerous renovations in the centuries since. However, there are records of churches on the site as far back as 627 AD. I have only been into the foyer of York Minster as you have to pay to see the rest of the cathedral (I was a poor student both times I visited). But, even in the entryway you can see several tombs and alters as well as the ornate stained glass windows at the front entrance.

The most haunted city in Europe — or the world (depending on who you ask)

Paranormal enthusiasts named York the most haunted city in the world back in 2004. Whether you believe in ghosts or you just like a great ghost story — I highly recommend going on one of York’s many ghost tours. The  tours themselves are inexpensive and laid back. The different tours are generally led by one person who have a schtick (I went with the Ghost Detective) and are near the city market on the weekends waiting to take visitors around the city by foot. The tours are entertaining and a great way to walk around the city while learning more about the local lore. Be prepared to have cash on hand if you do these tours as the guides don’t tend to take credit cards.

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The Ghost Detective

Stopping for a pint in an ancient pub

After you have finished with your ghost walk, drop into the ‘most haunted pub’ in York — The Golden Fleece. Ghost stuff aside, the Golden Fleece has been in existence since 1503 and offers a great atmosphere with plenty of Real Ales (microbrews) on tap. If you are interested in staying the weekend, the Golden Fleece is also an Inn that has several rooms above the pub.

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The courtyard behind the Golden Fleece

Anything else you need to know

On a social note, Northern England offers a similar type of hospitality the southern U.S. is famed for. People tend to be very welcoming and happy to answer any questions or concerns you have.

Another thing about northern England — you MUST have cream tea. Cream tea is a pot of tea and fresh-baked scones with clotted cream (a sweet cream) and homemade strawberry jam.

Overall, you can’t go wrong with visiting York!

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On the city wall

Originally visited: October 2007 and November 2011

I am embarking on the one-bag travel challenge!

After watching this video, it reminded me of the time I spent two weeks trekking around Europe in 2007 with literally nothing but a backpack. It was a pretty liberating experience being sans suitcase. In addition to being less hassle — only having one bag makes you less of a target for pick-pockets looking to take advantage of a tourist who is bogged down with luggage. Then of course if you have last minute flight or travel changes, you don’t have to worry about your checked bag ending up in another location.

Overall, I think Man Repeller gets it right; extra stuff clutters your trip and at the end of the day no one cares what your wearing except you. As I embark on my upcoming fall trip to Eastern Europe, I plan to pack only ONE carry-on bag for the entire trip. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on the experience!