About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

The Best of Rock Climbing in Croatia

May 29, 2015 by  

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I’m confused. Did something just happen?

Suddenly, I feel a warm liquid begin to drizzle down my face, into my eye. Instinctively I wipe it away, and notice my hand is now covered in dark red blood. Which is also now all over my shoes, shirt, sunglasses and camera.

I feel no pain at all — aside for the mortal embarrassment at having already injured myself on a climbing tour…before the climbing even begins. Who walks into a giant fallen tree the size of a spaceship without seeing it? Apparently walking and talking can be a dangerous combination for some (raises hand shamefully).

Once my guides have cleaned my wound and have deemed it a surface cut, Pacho shakes his head while smirking. “We’re going to have to update our policy to mandate helmets be put on in the car.”

Ironically, when I tore my skin Pacho had been telling me about Bura, violent, dry and freezing gusts of wind that occur in March and can wreak havoc, like knocking down giant pine trees. Thanks Bura.

After showing how clumsy I can be, I really want to prove to them — and myself — that I’m not always a total spaz. And so, my first ever climbing adventure begins.

Learning To Climb In Split

The setting for this story is the beautiful Park Forest Marjan, a preserved pine forest overlooking Split, Croatia. While the day before I’d explored this enchanting place on foot, hiking the many trails, taking in Adriatic Sea views and visiting historic sites like the 13th-century St. Nicholas Church — aptly paying homage to the patron saint of travelers — today I’ll be exploring it by climbing some of its many limestone cliffs.

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St. Nicholas Church

A bit about Marjan Park Forest, often touted as the “city’s lungs”: According to Pacho, evidence shows humans have inhabited the area of Marjan ever since the Bronze Age – fragments of ceramic art were found, Greeks had their settlement and Romans built temple of Diana at the west promontory. Throughout its history Marjan was considered a special place, even protected during Medieval times from exploitation and having churches built.

Sadly, however, during the 17th and 18th centuries it started to become barren due to the Turkish invasions. People started settling more in the area of Marjan and consequently there were pillages, forest fires and deforestation. In the 19th century, the community came to together to fund the rehabilitation of Park Forest Marjan, allowing it to blossom into the abundance of lush Mediterranean flora, pine and beauty it is today.

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Lush Marjan sitting over the city and water

Says Pacho, “For most locals it’s a ‘sacred place,’ whether we like to go there for walking, playing, learning, experiencing, thinking, cycling, climbing, meditating, praying, kissing, swimming, kayaking or for whatever reason not interfering with common sense or preservation of the area. It belongs to all of us as a community and individuals with responsibility towards it. Just try to imagine Manhattan without Central Park.”

Croactive Holidays is one of Split’s oldest adventure tour companies, in existence for 10 years and run by guides who see what they do not as jobs, but as doing what they genuinely love to do. It’s clear it isn’t Kristian and Pacho’s first rodeo, and both talk about how they’ve been climbing in the park since they were kids. This not only makes me feel safe, but adds to the appeal of the location, a place that’s special to both visitors and locals.

How Climbing Is Like Solo Travel

I’ve never climbed before aside for in a rock gym, so today we’ll be focusing on beginner climbing trails on the park’s south side, starting with 15-meter- (49-foot-) -high Vananas, considered a 4b level, according to the French grading system Croactive uses. Looking up, it’s hard for me to believe this is possible for a newbie.

Explains Pacho, “Climbing in a rock gym is like traveling in a group. Climbing outdoors is like traveling solo, like you’re ding. Nobody has placed colorful steps for you, and you can’t see the entire route beforehand. You have to rely on your instincts and take things step by step.”

With that logic, I should be a pro at this.

Pacho shows me how to tie a Figure 8 Knot, which looks exactly like a figure eight. I only need to be shown once before I can replicate the design. So far so good. Next, he explains how I should attempt to use small instead of large steps whenever possible, as this exerts more energy than necessary.

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A little knot-tying lesson

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A rope typing lesson. Photo courtesy of Croactive Holidays.

“Before climbing do some stretching first,” adds Kristian. “Make sure all the gear is in its place, that your knot is properly tied and that the belayer has properly attached the rope to his/her belaying device – you can check each other, than focus on the route from below, remember you first climb with your head, then with eyes, feet and only then with your hands. The more relaxed you are the better you are going to climb. Don’t forget to breath and enjoy it.”

Taking On Vananas

For the first climb, Pacho is the “lead climber.” How it works is like this: a partner belays from below the lead climber, by feeding out enough rope to allow upward progression without undue slack. As the leader progresses he or she clips quickdraws (extenders) into pre-placed bolts and the rope into the quickdraws to finally clip the rope into the top anchor, thus enabling others to climb as second or top rope.

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The lead climber in action

While I’ve never climbed I have gone canyoning and repelling before, so I get the gist of the belay system and am aware of what to expect in terms of heights. It’s hard for me to remember less than 10 years ago being terrified of heights, as my travels and constant contact with adventure sports has literally washed that fear completely from my system. Now, I absolutely love being high in the air and taking in the scenery from above.

The main difference between climbing and repelling is, well, with climbing I actually have to have some kind of fitness and mental skill level.

“You need to use both you feet and hands when climbing, as well as,” Kristian pauses and smirks. “Your head.”

“Looks like I’m out of luck,” I joke, looking down at my bloody shirt.

“Don’t worry, you won’t literally use your head,” he laughs. “You just need to always be looking for your next step. If you grab something with your hands that might make a good foot step later on, remember it. If you notice a rock with white chalk on it, it’s probably a good hand hold, because the chalk indicates other hikers have used it.”

Climbing shoes. Check. Harness. Check. (Much needed) helmet. Check. GoPro. Check.

I check to make sure Kristian is ready to belay me and, after he confirms he is, I’m off.

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Reaching for success

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Climbing in Split. Photo courtesy of Croactive Holidays.

At first I climb with ease and confidence. It seems pretty simple. Find a rock that juts out and grab onto it, or indents in the cliff and step into it. I can handle that. Except…what about when there aren’t any indents or outcrops?

“I’m stuck!” I shout, probably only three meters off the ground.

Kristian and Pacho help to guide me — a little to the left, put your right foot where your left knee is — but as I get higher they encourage me to start making my own decisions.

“Should I grab this rock?” I would ask.

“Does it feel good?”

“Sort of.”

“Then it probably is. Sometimes you don’t know the answer until you try.”

While at times I just want to hurl my body at nothing and see what I can grab, their coaching helps me to be a bit more strategic, straying from the original path or back tracking when needed. I’ll admit there are points when I need to take breaks — it’s amazing the different muscles used for climbing, especially in your arms, ones I’m not used to using — but in the end I make it to the top, slapping the giant metal top anchor triumphantly.

“Ready to come down!” I shout happily.

“Before you come down, breath a bit and enjoy the view.”

Aerial Split Views

Oh yea, the view. I’d been so busy staring at the craggy limestone in front of my face that I’d forgotten I was in one of Croatia’s most scenic locations — in the air, no less. Taking a deep breath is almost impossible once I turn around, not because of how high up I am (although, I am!), but because from my high perch I sit above thick woodland, staring out over Šolta, Brac, Hvar Islands. Birds fly, boats sail, locals cycle… and I dangle like a happy Christmas ornament from a cliff.

There is no better place in the world to be in this moment than here. I feel unstoppable.

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Aerial Split views

Coming Down

Surprisingly, Pacho explains most people don’t get freaked out by the actual climb or the heights, but by coming down. I think this is because people don’t trust the rope to hold them. It’s certainly strange doing everything your body is telling you not to.

“Let go of the rocks. Don’t hold onto the rope. Lean back and straighten out your legs. Arms at your sides.”

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Coming down

You’re essentially hopping down a cliff as if it were a paved road and not a sheer vertical drop. But I advise, as I do with most things on this blog, have some faith and try it once. Face those fears and you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish.

Climbing Pimi

And right now I certainly feel accomplished. But, the day isn’t over. Now, it was time to take on Pimi, also a beginner 4b level and 11 meters (36 feet) high. While this climb looks a lot less sheer than the last — there’s actually a small cave on the cliff face that appears promising — once I start my arms are literally dead. When I reach the cave about halfway up I wedge myself inside of it.

“Don’t do that or you’ll get stuck!” warns Pacho.

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A backend view

Ugh. I just want to curl into it and take a nap. I think he knows this though — just like he warned me not to rest by sitting in my harness and dangling my legs — because he can see I’m starting to give up.

My positive mindset, the one I had only 20 minutes ago, has suddenly gone on vacation. I’m throwing in the towel.

“I’m tired!” I whine. “I think I’m happy with the one cliff I completed. Maybe I’ll just finish now and end the day with one-and-a-half climbs.”

While Pacho looks small from where I’m stuck on the cliff, I can see him shake his head. “You have two options. You’re tired, so you can move quickly and just get to the top. Or, you can lift your right leg to the spot where your left knee is, and then move slowly and strategically.”

It’s clear I’m not coming down until I make it to the top. For a moment a perturbed feeling flashes through me, but then I remember who I am. Jessie Festa. Solo female traveler extraordinaire. Adventurous vagabond. Head gash survivor.

It’s amazing what a little mindset switch can do.

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Views from Pimi

I let Pacho and Kristian guide me to the top, and when I once again slap the top anchor with success, I’m elated they made me work through the struggle.

You know what they say, whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

And I certainly feel stronger. Well, not literally, my arms and legs feel like Jell-O. But mentally I felt like a stronger person. Someone who can accomplish anything they put their mind to.

Exploring Marjan On Foot

Due to my fatigue my guides decide it’s best to do a bit more exploration on foot, as once you become too tired you risk injury when climbing.

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Exploring Marjan on foot

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Walking through the woods, immersed in history. Photo courtesy of Croactive Holidays.

We ascend upward higher into the park, seeing cliffside  caves as well as the still-active 15th century Church of Saint Jere, with its relief of Saint Geronimo and proximity to the Ascetic Cave where it’s believed Saint Geronimo lived. We spy (and eat) delicious plants like asparagus, chives, olives, figs and blackberries — not to mention herbs like sage and rosemary — and watch as (crazy) climbers take on advanced routes that appear to only be suitable for super-humans like Spiderman to complete.

Connected To The World

The active day ends with the three of us having coffees at the nearby Caffe Bar Cvrcak, right on the water, re-hashing the fun events of the day and comparing cultural anecdotes. Croactive Holidays isn’t just about adventure, but about weaving in cultural and historical components to help visitors gain a better understanding of Split (or where the tour is taking place) and have a more local experience.

“We have a saying here,” says Pacho, looking out over the Adriatic. “If you put your finger in the sea, you’re connected to the world.”

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Split’s waterfront

In this moment, I certainly felt connected to Split, its people and its landscape. And isn’t that what travel is all about? For me it is. And climbing in Marjan Park Forest with Croative has allowed for this.

“Travelers who come to the coast to climb will probably be interested in climbing in Split – there are almost 80 routes, from easy to hard, within walking distance of a 1700 year old Roman Palace in the very heart of Split – and people actually still live there,” explains Kristian. “How likely it is that someone would just come to climb without paying attention to the historical monuments of the city when you are exposed to them simply by strolling the downtown…and then right there in the climbing site, that, by the way hosted 4th climbing competition in the world back in 1986. There are caves walled-up by hermits about 500 years ago that, along with a beautiful little church from 15th century, give a special touch to climbers’ aspirations to rise above the ground.”

Have you visited or climbed in Split? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.

The post Croatia Adventure: Learning To Rock Climb In Split appeared first on Jessie on a Journey.

The Top 10 Guide to Ljubljana Slovenia

May 26, 2015 by  

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In Eastern Europe, meet Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, which is full of guidebook recommended attractions: the Ljubljana Castle, the Triple and Dragon Bridges, the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, the many art and history museums. When I travel, however, I like to wander aimlessly and make organic discoveries, as well as book immersive local activities for a more memorable trip than just snapping photos of “sights.”

Ljubljana

Here are some top Ljubljana experiences to take you beyond the traditional tourist attractions.

1. Bike The City Beyond The Center

As most of you know, I try to do a bike tour in every city I visit. Not only because I love biking, but because cycling guides are always awesome. Tevz of Watermelon Ljubljana Bike Tours was no different. He was young, fun and his love of not only the city but the outdoors and adventure really shined through.

Ljubljana

I also loved that along with seeing the sites of the city center — the Triple Bridge, Congress Square and Prešeren Square — we cycled beyond these pedestrian streets to see smaller towns, the church where France Prešeren, a historic local poet and the author of the national anthem, first saw his muse, and the remains of an ancient Roman Wall of Emona. We ended with what I considered to be the highlight, the experimental arts area of Metelkova (but more on that below).

You’re essentially seeing the city through Tevz’s eyes, as he creates and leads the tours himself. Choose between a shorter 2-hour tour and a longer 3.5/4-hour tour, both limited to six people.

Ljubljana

2. Eat Up The Little Guys

Well, not literally. No matter where you’re traveling, opting for small businesses and mom and pop venues will get you closer to local culture than the international brands and chains will. Iva Gruden of Ljubljananjam Foodwalks invites you to “eat like a local, with a local.” She’ll introduce you to her favorite small business eateries, as you taste your way through Slovenia’s capital, exploring culture from past to present through the palate.

Some bites and sips you might savor: local craft beer, vegetable soup made from garden-grown produce, cold brew coffee, home-made gnocchi prepared with fresh artichokes, risotto with pine nuts and lemon zest, protected status Carniolan sausage with spicy mustard, a glass of wine of the riverfront and much more. While it’s very much about the food, it’s also about meeting the purveyors, and understanding how Slovenia’s history as a melting pot of cultures has helped shaped the diverse culinary scene you see today.

While you’ll find pre-designed tours on the Ljubljananjam Foodwalks website, Iva is happy to customize walks based on your personal preferences.

Ljubljana

3. Get Caffeinated

In Ljubljana, Slovenia, there’s one purveyor taking coffee to the next level. Tine of Cafe Čokl (Dunajska cesta 63) actually buys, roasts and sells his own Fair Trade organic coffee. The cafe is like a mad scientist lab, where Tine uses Chemex, cold brew, Aeropress and other techniques and adapts bean profiles to his liking. It’s here where I sampled my first cold brew coffee, served in a wine glass to better understand its terroir. The coffee becomes more complex with each sip, moving from buttery to fruity.

If you’re like me, one coffee shop isn’t enough. Another to check out in Ljubljana is TOZD Bar, where they serve coffee, beer, wine and bites on the ambient Ljubljanica River. Inside it’s like an exhibition: local design products and photography are sold on the walls, fixie bikes dangle from the ceiling (and are for sale, as well) and a book exchange in the back offers a great activity to enjoy with a glass of local Pelicon beer or wine ($2!). Free Wi-Fi is a plus, as are live music and DJ events.

Ljubljana

4. Slow Down

As soon as you step into the city center you’ll understand what I mean. This area of Ljubljana is a pedestrian zone, with a beautiful river lined with cafés, bars and restaurants. On a sunny day, there’s nothing better than wandering aimlessly and spending hours drinking coffee or Slovenian wine on the water, reading a book, hanging with friends or just don’t absolutely nothing. Don’t feel lazy; it’s part of the culture, and you’ll be doing just as the locals do.

5. Immerse Yourself In Incredible Nature

For those who don’t want to leave the city limits, the 5 square-kilometer (1.9 square miles), Tivoli Park — open since 1813 — offers your typical urban park offerings — a playground, benches, jogging paths, picnic areas, bike rental stations, a fish pond, a pool and cultural attractions like the 17th-century Tivoli Mansion and the Museum of Modern History. What I really love about it, though, is that there is actual wilderness if you venture up the hill. Numerous woodland trails weave around Rožnik Hill, with two peaks — Šiška Hill (429 meters/1408 feet) and Cankar Peak (394 meters/1,293 feet) — at the top.

If you have a day to spare, sign up for a tour with SloTrips. I had an amazing time trekking through gorges, to waterfalls and churches, and on historic routes with Miha, who customizes trips based on guest preference. In a full day you’ll typically have five short hikes and a delicious local lunch. It’s a great way to experience the natural side of Slovenia with a local who knows the best spots for trekking.

Ljubljana

6. Taste On A Budget

Strolling Ljubljana without a plan, I stumbled across a true artisan gem: Oliviers & Co. While they have products from Italy, France and other parts of Europe, a large section of their honeys, spreads, wines, marmalades, oils and more is dedicated solely to Slovenia. Best of all, there are free samples. I savored a local honey tasting — orange blossom, oak and lavender — which was interesting because Slovenia is known for its EU-protected honey and advanced beekeeping culture. It’s great place for a budget-friendly cultural experience as well as to find a tasty souvenir.

Ljubljana

7. Get Funky

In all of my travels, I’ve never seen an experimental arts community quite like Metelkova City in Ljubljana. Located in former military barracks once used by the Yugoslav National Army, the city planned to demolish the buildings until squatters and concerned locals occupied the area and refused to let it be torn down. Interestingly, you can see smashed windows and some crumbling areas where the demolition had begun.

The cultural and social center isn’t huge — it looks like a very large parking lot with some extensions — but it’s packed with personality: colorful graffiti in dark and fairytale themes, alternative galleries, clubs, bars, concert spaces, artist studios, tables adorned with rat drawings, grotesque ET-like creatures sprouting from building walls, eclectic tile mosaics, seemingly random embellishments, historic statues in crumbling wall holes and creativity literally bursting from every corner and detail.

Ljubljana

8. Taste Ljubljana

Of course, you can simply go to a typical restaurant to savor Slovenian dishes, known for their diverse, fresh ingredients — having a garden is part of the culture — with Mediterranean, Alpine and Pannonian influences. The city makes it easy for visitors to discern where they can eat traditional meals through their Taste Ljubljana program. Participating restaurants feature a “Taste Ljubljana” sticker in the window, so there’s no need to research (obviously you all know I appreciated that).

Ljubljana

9. Immerse Yourself In Curative Culture

While not technically in Ljubljana, Herbal House in the small Slovenian village of Plave is an east trip either by carpool or train (Ljubliana-Jesenice-Plave) — and worth it to experience a true Slovenian countryside homestay. Vesna and her parents are trained herb pickers, and after welcoming you into their beautiful home — all wood furniture is built by her father and herbal touches created by the family — will take you into the forest to pick herbs for cooking and making homemade body balms. You’ll not only learn to cook local dishes and enjoy wine with everyone, but will exchange stories and traditions as you bond with locals. er and her boyfriend Robert in their Ljubljana home.

10. Test Your Skills In An Escape Room

This is the one thing on this list that I didn’t actually do; however, I feel confident adding it as I was encouraged by almost every local I met to do this. I’d never heard of an “escape room” before visiting Ljubljana, where apparently it is popular to allow yourself to be locked up in a room with the task of solving riddles and puzzles within one hour to free yourself.

Have you visited Ljubljana? What were your favorite experiences? Please share in the comments below.

 

The Awe-Inspiring & Breathtaking Lake Bled in Slovenia

May 23, 2015 by  

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Lake Bled, one of Slovenia’s most popular tourist attractions, is not overrated. Not one little bit. Picture this: You’re in the Julian Alps. A fairytale medieval castle with Romanesque tower, drawbridge and moat sits perched up high, overlooking a calm glistening lake rippling only by the flap of a duck wing or the dip of a kayak paddle. A small island home to a church and legends sits in the center of it all, while al fresco cafés and ambient paths create an enjoyable outline.

Let me set this beautiful scene through photos:

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This all being said, there are certain experiences at Lake Bled that are extremely overrated.

My trip to Slovenia was a solo trip, and traveling off-season meant the hostels were pretty empty and there weren’t many tours running. Basically, I’d been having essentially a silent retreat and aside for a few locals through homestays, the only phrases I’d uttered recently were “espresso, please” or “the big slice with pepperoni.” So, when the bus dropped me off at Lake Bled and I found other lost English-speakers, I was immediately excited.

Two were from Miami studying abroad in Prague, Lauren and Kirlos, and the other was a French girl, Sophie, living in London. We all immediately clicked, and decided to explore together.

The Worst Of Lake Bled

“We’re planning on doing a boat trip to Bled Island,” said Lauren. “You can ring the wishing bell. It’s the main attraction of Lake Bled.”

As I looked around and spied nothing but water and woodland, I had a hard time believing a church bell would be the main attraction.

“Wait, so you mean that really tiny island in the center of Lake Bled?”

She nodded.

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Bled Island

I could smell this tourist trap a mile away. Pay 12 Euros ($13 USD) to take a 15-minute boat ride to an island the size of my apartment. This sounded especially ridiculous as the entire round trip bus journey from Ljubljana was 12.80 Euros ($14). Not only that, but you then have to pay 6 Euros ($6) to see the attractions — an exhibition, church with wishing bell, and tower with some kind of pendulum-operated time telling device.

It was the sort of thing I loathed, especial when I loved being outside so much; however, I wanted to hangout with my new friends.

“Okay, but my wish better come true when I ring that bell!” I half joked.

My instincts were 100% correct about this island. The giant pendulum clock was pretty interesting, with the entire tower visit taking about 15 minutes, most of which is spent climbing the enormous staircase up, which has bible verses relating to the appreciation of time. The 17th-century baroque Assumption of Mary Church is pretty, but the wishing bell is so high up into the church tower you can’t even see it. You simply pull a long rope near the alter that appears to be attached to nothing and hope it’s the right bell.

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Ringing the wishing bell. I’m sorry, but I cannot look at that instructional sign without bursting into laughter.

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The tourists are coming!

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You can climb up into this tower to see an old pendulum-style time telling device

There was a legend that if a groom could carry his bride up the church’s 99 steps and ring the bell, the marriage would be a happy one; however, these steps were closed to the public. The exhibition I didn’t really look at, as off season we were on a strict 30 minute time limit on the island, and I wanted to take photos.

Long rant short: don’t waste your time on Bled Island, at least in my opinion, especially for the price. I may have enjoyed it more if I rowed there myself because at least I would have felt like it was an activity; however, the row boat rental company was not open yet for the day when we were trying to go to the island. It also seemed like it could potentially get expensive at 15 Euros ($16) per hour.

Also, don’t forget to bring snacks! I’m not sure if it’s because it was off-season, but there weren’t a ton of quick budget-friendly options for food. I ended up eating three panini sandwiches that weren’t very good. It would have been much easier for me to just bring my own nourishment, which I usually do as a defensive traveler.

And lastly, don’t worry about getting lost. Once the bus drops you off, you’ll simply follow a path behind the bus station that leads right down to Lake Bled. You’ll be there in less than 10 minutes.

The Best Of Lake Bled

Now to the more cheerful section of my post. Despite losing 18 Euros ($19) during my crappy boat excursion, I had gained three new friends, so to me it was worth it in the end.

What was particularly awesome about them was they were much better planners than I was — whose plan encompassed not planning anything — and so they had a slew of active adventures they wanted to embark on. Of course, I was down.

At this point, it was essential for us to get food reserves as we’d be having an active day, starting with renting bikes from the tourist information office right on the Lake (3 Euros ($3) for three hours, 11 Euros ($12) for the day). We decided to cycle around Lake Bled — seemingly beautiful from every single vantage point of its 6.5-kilometer (4-mile) length — and make our way to the iconic viewpoint: Ojstrica, located at signpost #6 (Lake Bled walks/hikes are numbered). When you see the road sign for the 611-meter- (2,005-foot-) high hill you’ll lock up your bike and hike uphill through the forest for about 20 minutes to the top.

Lake Bled selfie with new friends. For some reason there is one section of the lake — right here — where it almost looks like the Caribbean.

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lake bled

This hike to the top may look like a walk in the woods…but it’s not.

The hike is short but not easy; however, the aerial view of the entire Lake Bled landscape and surrounds is well worth the sweat. My group and I lingered up there for at least 30 minutes, taking photos, breathing in the crisp fresh air and just letting the inspiring scenery wash over us. Even the small island — which just an hour before I hated for stealing my money — made me smile to look at from above, the white church and historic tower adding to the idyllic emerald green lake.

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Meditating atop Ojstrica at Lake Bled. See those Alps?!

If you’re not tired from the climb, you can go even higher and summit the adjacent Velika Osojnica — 756 meters/2,480-foot high — which also awards views of the Karavanke mountains and Kamnik Alps.

We didn’t do this second one, as we would be experiencing the Alps in a different way: cycling to Vintgar Gorge, within the famous Triglav National Park.

One word: WOW.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After hiking Ojstrica we head back down, grab our bikes, and continue cycling around the lake path until we see arrive back near to the information center where we rented the bikes. Now, we make a left back toward the bus station, following signs for the village of Podhom.

At first we’re simply cycling through small villages, littered with small hotels, pubs, shops and homes. Until…we’re not.

Suddenly, there is nothing but bright green pastures and desolate farmland enhanced by a backdrop of snow-covered Karavanke Mountains. My group stops every 10 minutes or so to take photos, the scene becoming more beautiful at every angle. If I could define the word “serenity,” it would be this place, where silence envelops you like a blanket.

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Cycling our way to the Gorge

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Staring up at the alps. Ahhh…

Another interesting feature of the ride: the scents. There are so many different aromas wafting through the air that we end up making it into a game, shouting out the different aromas: apples, vanilla, cherries, campfire, honey, pine.

The ride isn’t easy — although it’s well marked there is a lot of up and downhill — and at some points we have to get off the bikes and walk because of the steep inclines; however, none of us minded the hard work where we were surrounded by such beauty. I’m not going to lie, after that bike ride, cycling around Brooklyn is going to be tough to go back to.

When we reach the entrance for Vintgar Gorge we’re immediately entranced by the crystalline turquoise water, filled with giant fish just chilling out. It’s worth noting the entrance was also closed — we went in March, and the gorge doesn’t officially open until May — but we went in anyway (no scolding please!) and saw a few others in there, as well.

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Some sections of the boardwalk were a little precarious

I’m not sure what it’s like in high season, but Vintgar Gorge was pure peace. While our countryside ride offered a dreamy alpine serenity, the Gorge was more of a refreshing calm, waterfalls creating the soundtrack to a woodland boardwalk stroll, the waters below us completely translucent as we pressed our backs against craggy rock canyon wall to get the best shot. A picnic lunch along the way was my best meal of the trip, despite the soggy sandwiches.

lake bled

lake bled

Sandwiches in the gorge

Overall, I wouldn’t change a thing about how I spent my day aside for the island, which I would have exchanged for one of the following activities I didn’t get to do.

  • Take the bus 20ish minutes to Lake Bohinj, Slovenia’s largest permanent lake at 318 hectares (790 acres) and absolutely stunning in photos. I’ve been told by locals it’s great for the scenery and adventure sports, but that the nearby waterfall is a tourist trap as you have to pay to see it and then can’t get very close to it.
  • Enjoy more walks and hikes around Lake Bled. There are 15+!
  • Walk up to Bled Castle. I’m not a huge castle person, but this medieval castle — thought to potentially be the oldest in Slovenia — stands high above the lake, and I bet offers beautiful views. There’s a museum inside and, even more enticing, a wine cellar with tastings.
  • Eat a Bled Cream Cake. I meant to do this but by the time I arrived back from cycling to the Gorge I had only 20 minutes to return my bike, pay and hustle back to the bus station. Bled Lake is known for its Bled Cream Cake, a light and fluffy cake stuffed with sweet cream and heavily dusted with powdered sugar. Just writing this makes my stomach sad I didn’t get to try it. Luckily, my hostel in Ljubljana — my homebase for my Slovenia trip — is near to an amazing bakery called Lolita, that makes delicious and elaborate desserts of all kinds and a very sleek, modern and pampered feel inside.

Have you visited Lake Bled? What do you/do you not recommend? Please share in the comments below.

 

Cafe Culture: Where to go in Sydney for Incredible Coffee

May 17, 2015 by  

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cafes in sydney

Photo courtesy of FOOKPHOTO.COM via Shutterstock.

Over the past few years, the cities of Australia have been experiencing a coffee boom. Great cafes are cropping up across the country, even in the smallest of towns, such as the sleepy Tasmanian city of Launceston. But one of the finest coffee hot spots in Australia is Sydney.

With no offense intended towards Canberra, I’m never surprised when non-Australians assume Sydney is our capital city. Big, bustling and beautiful, Sydney is overflowing with picturesque sights to see and iconic places to visit. While as a native Melbournian I am bound to take sides and argue my home town’s case as coffee capital of Australia, I’m the first to admit that Sydney has an excellent cafe culture.

Head to these top cafes in Sydney to indulge in that Australian coffee staple, the flat white:

cafes in sydney

Photo courtesy of Baker Bros.

Baker Bros.

Right in the heart of the CBD, on bustling York Street, Baker Bros. is sleek, cool and well versed in the art of the espresso. Run by two Italian Sydney boys, this little cafe also doubles up as a wine bar, so it’s perfect right before, and right after, an inner-city work day.

cafes in sydney

Photo courtesy of The Grounds of Alexandria.

The Grounds of Alexandria

Housed in a repurposed industrial space, The Grounds of Alexandria is one of the city’s finest coffee shops and fine food purveyors. With an onsite roastery and even a so-called “Coffee Academy”, the people at Grounds of Alexandria truly know their coffee. Though they also boast a beautiful, relaxed bar and event space, the place is particularly special for breakfast.

cafes in sydney

Photo courtesy of Brewtown Newtown.

Brewtown Newtown

Another brilliant Sydney micro-roastery, Brewtown Newtown offers up rich, creamy coffee and some rather fabulous breakfasts and lunches in its vibrant space. Located in the inner-west suburb of Newtown, the site also hosts the lovely home wares and clothing shop, O’Connell Street Merchants, so you can make an outing of it.

cafes in sydney

Photo courtesy of Paper Cup.

Paper Cup

If you’re looking for great, simple coffee and pastries in Sydney’s inner west, then Paper Cup might just be the place for you. A sweet little space in the suburb of Stanmore, this cafe’s name is not the only adorable thing about it. They also do a pretty fantastic $10 take-away breakfast deal of a coffee and “morning roll”, with combinations like ham, scrambled egg, tomato relish and pecorino cheese.

cafes in sydney

Photo courtesy of Bootsdarling.

Bootsdarling

Nestled in a cosy, ramshackle space, Bootsdarling has a great atmosphere and even greater coffee. Take a book and settle into a comfy seat at this little Darlinghurst cafe. The bircher muesli and a latte can’t be beaten at breakfast time, either.

What are your favorite choices for cafes in Sydney? Please share in the comments below.

-By Gemma King

 

Iceland Experiential Travel: From Seafood to Lava Fields & Geysers

May 17, 2015 by  

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Situated high up in the North Atlantic and cut off from its neighbors by icy waters, Iceland offers a truly unique vacation experience. Many people travel to the country to see its lava fields, geysers, ice-topped volcanoes and glaciers, but it’s not only in terms of its scenery that Iceland excels.

Iceland boasts a welcoming culture complete with lots of live music and an interesting, if a little unusual, cuisine. This brief guide talks you through some of the features that you won’t want to miss while on a trip to this part of the world.

mackerel

Delicious salted mackerel and red onion. Photo courtesy of Shulevskyy Volodymyr via Shutterstock.

Fun But Curious Foods

Thanks to its relative lack of industry, Iceland boasts some of the healthiest fish, seafood and meat available and, thanks to farmers’ use of hothouses, it also benefits from a surprisingly good selection of vegetables. Lamb is especially popular on the island, with sheep outnumbering people by four to one. Often, the meat is served grilled or in rich stews.

Preserved foods played a major role in the nation’s food history, and Icelanders haven’t lost their love of these long-life products. If you want to sample a quintessentially Icelandic snack, tuck into Harðifiskur, a wind-dried cod or haddock which makes a most satisfying treat. Most people simply tear pieces off and chew it, whereas others like to spread butter on it for a little extra indulgence. Pickled herrings are popular too. Meanwhile, smoked lamb, called hangikjöt, works terrifically in sandwiches. As a word of warning though, unless you have a stomach made of steel, you might want to stay away from some of the country’s more unusual offerings.

Unsurprisingly given the climate, there aren’t many endemic vegetables to sample. However, you might see fjallagrös, a type of lichen, served up dried into black curls.

folk music

Folk music festival in Iceland. Photo courtesy of James Brooks via flickr.

Soaking Up The Culture

To appreciate the full Iceland experience, it’s best to be there during one of the nation’s many festivals, such as Thorrablot, which starts in the thirteenth weekend of winter. Traditionally a sacrificial event during which people made offerings to pagan gods, it’s now mainly an excuse to eat, drink and be merry. After the feasting, traditional songs and games are enjoyed, and stories are told.

To catch some Icelandic folk tunes, time your trip to coincide with the Folk Festival in the town of Siglufjörður in early July. As well as hearing bands do their thing, you can check out seminars in music and handicrafts.

Meanwhile, in the capital from mid-May to early June you can experience the Reykjavik Art Festival. First celebrated over four decades ago, it recognizes music, art, dance, design, literature and more.

Sparsely populated it may be, but Iceland has one of the most interesting and welcoming cultures you’ll find anywhere on the planet.

Sources Used: Rough Guides

The post Iceland: Fun Foods, Wondrous Culture appeared first on Epicure & Culture.

Peruvian Homestays & Transformative Travel

May 12, 2015 by  

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As the heart of the Incan empire, the city of Cuzco, Peru represents the center of the indigenous Quechua culture. Beneath well-preserved colonial architecture and churches introduced by the Spanish conquerors, you can still spot Inca walls and roads supporting more modern structures. Modern Quechua women line the streets selling snacks or handicrafts, dressed causally in bowler hats and ajotas (sandals made out of recycled tires). Other women stand out, dressing flamboyantly in rainbow-colored textiles and dragging reluctant llamas for photographs with tourists.

While these encounters expose you to an indigenous Peruvian culture, a fuller experience requires leaving the city limits.

peruvian culture

Village of Patabamba, near Cusco, Peru. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Fortunately, Andean Discovery allows us to do just that, carrying us off from the cobblestone streets of Cuzco onto one-way dirt roads, clinging to the edge of cliffs as we wind our way through remote villages. For two hours we drive past farming terraces peeking out beneath cloud cover, blue-tinted baby eucalyptus trees and crumbling brick huts, spray painting with expired presidential advertising campaigns. I try to keep my purse from sliding off my lap as we careen across corners and stop suddenly to let a man on a donkey cart squeeze past. The van stops at the top of one dusty hill, pulling up next to an antique-looking motorcycle and a rainbow fence, which I learn contains the village primary school.

“Welcome to Patabamba,” Natalie, our guide, grunts while straining to open the van door. “On the one hand, it’s similar to all the other villages in the area but at the same time, it’s like nowhere else on Earth”.

She leads us under a low overhanging into one of the villager’s courtyards, jumping out of the way of two kids playing tag. Two men in rainbow-colored vests and hats with ear flaps welcome us with simple but jubilant welcome music on their fife and drum, providing a march-like rhythm to move us over the mud. One drops the flute momentary to pick up a conch shell and announces our arrival with a triumphant bellow.

peruvian culture

Musicians welcomed us to their village with music and dressed us in traditional attire. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Suddenly three women appear, seemingly out of thin air, sprinkling yellow flower petals on our heads and embracing us individually in shy hugs. As the men start playing harvest music again, the women really start to embody their fairy godmother role by wrapping Natalie and I in a heavy dark skirt, a clasped scarf over the shoulders and a red felt hat. They balance on their tip-toes to dump a striped poncho over my brother’s tall shoulders and top his head with a tasseled wool hat.

Now that we are properly dressed, we exchange proper introductions, with Natalie translating from Quechua. She explains we’re about to witness Pachamacha, derived from the Quecha word, pacha (Earth) and manca (cooking vessel). It’s an important part of Peruvian culture, an Andean tradition maintained by modern-day visitors to celebrate the end of a successful harvest, usually in February or March.

More than just a meal, this mode of preparation celebrates fertility and life by paying homage to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

peruvian culture

Starting the fire in the small rock oven. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

She barely gets started when Mauevtop, the man in charge, interrupts to put us to work. We start arranging rocks in a small circle, adding layers to create a closed three-dimensional oven. Mauevtop loads the small space with eucalyptus branches, wood and llama dung and ignites the pile, but quickly realizes the fire will not start quickly in this damp weather. He blows through a metal pipe to increase oxygen flow as Natalie confirms that males run this ceremony.

peruvian culture

After creating a self-sustaining fire, he waves us to follow as he shows us the village. Little kids on a snack break from school curiously chew on corn cobs as we file past and walk up a hill. Natalie points out how the villager’s line their farming plots with cactus plants — “nature’s barbed wine” — to keep out unwanted intruders, animal or human. She explains the blanket of purple and white flowers are actually potato plants, and that the donkey is chewing grain apathetically near a plot of quinoa. After introducing us to most of the village fauna he leads us into a one-room family house, and the guinea pigs running around the floor scatter into one dark corner.

Eco-tourism And The Chimney Project

Natalie explains that Andean Discovery has been partnering with the village to fund and find volunteers for a chimney improvement project in the village. Traditionally, families live in one-room houses where the stove fills the whole house with smoke, darkening the walls, causing people to breathe in polluted air and creating a fire hazard since the family’s other belongings are in close proximity too the flame. As part of the project, Andean Discovery is helping to educate locals and modernize home construction with a slightly-separated kitchen and chimneys to create an escape route for smoke to exit the home.

peruvian culture

Renovated stove, by volunteer efforts. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

When we see the dark home walls that had not been modernized, the effects of constant smoke exposure are pretty obvious. The village sponsors home stays for volunteers so they can experience village life as they build, while promoting eco-friendly, sustainable and authentic tourism.

Back To Pachamacha

All this talk about food makes my stomach rumble. Fortunately, it’s time to move forward with the ceremony. Mauevtop puts on thick gloves, dissembles the oven and piles in potatoes, sweet potatoes, chicken, pork and cheese wrapped in a banana leaf. Natalie explains that sweet potato comes from the Amazon so the family got it from the weekly market, where the villagers barter with goods instead of money.

After placing the vegetables amidst the hot rocks, Mauevtop covers the pile with perpendicular layers of alfalfa leaves to add to the earthy flavor of the final dish. He shovels dirt onto the pile of reeds, tops it with plastic covers held down by bricks, then dusts his hands to signify we can relax for 30 minutes as the meal cooks.

peruvian culture

Handicrafts made at, and inspired by, the village. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

As the dirt pile simmers and steams in the foggy afternoon, a local named Roxana takes a moment to explain textile production in her village. First, she shows us the natural dyes that produce bright colors resistant to discoloration, despite the strong sun at this high altitude. She crushes some grey parasites found on cactus plants into her palms, suddenly staining them blood red.

My brother and I exchange glances, surprised that a colorless bug can produce such intense hue. She hands us a finished scarf to feel, and astonishes us even more when we learn the machine-like precision of the stitches are produced entirely by hand, without the use of any kind of loom.

The table runners and scarves sport designs that are often unique to this village. She shows a funky geometric rendition of the main roads coming into the village, eye of a llama, waves swirling around the local lagoon and the spikes of cacti. These larger pieces truly tell a story, adding a whole new level of depth to the craft. The smaller pieces were also interest, like small dolls, meant to be accompany the dead to the afterlife, smiling up at us between table runners, purses, hats and mittens.

peruvian culture

Cutting up the meat and vegetables to eat. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

The clanging of pots awakens me from an almost hypnotic state of staring dreamily at all the colorful items. Mauevtop flings dirt behind him as he dissembles the oven and fishes out the meat and vegetables, as the kids of the household race to the table with dirty, mischievous faces. We all sit at the table, smiling at each other over piles of potatoes.

Everyone bows their heads before digging in, and although we do not speak the same language, there’s a pervasive sense of appreciation and unity that this ceremony seems to inspire. When munching on a slightly dirt-encrusted, simple meal of meat and potatoes, I cannot help but give thanks to the sun and the rain, our ability to nurture crops and prepare a meal, and most importantly, the sense of fellowship we have with these generous people who shared their lives with us for an afternoon.

Life in the village may be simple but the people of Patabamba live a vibrant existence, working close to the earth, creative pursuits and each other. What more could one ask for?

Article by Katie Foote

 

When in Prague, 5 Not To Be Missed Pastries For Your List

May 12, 2015 by  

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Trdelnik

Living in Europe has many perks, but the one that still makes living here seem like a dream, even after eight years, is the fact that other European destinations are so close that you can jump right over for any old reason… like, let’s say, to try out some pastry.

There are many great pastry destinations in Europe, and I live in one of them (Paris). But sometimes you just need to deviate from macarons and croissants — and sometimes, it’s the most unlikely destinations that offer the tastiest treats. I was recently in Prague — which may be better known for its bridge, its clock and its beer — but it’s just as tasty a destination for pastry lovers.

While this may be surprising to some, more used to hearing of pastry tales from Vienna and Budapest, it is for good reason. The former Austro-Hungarian Empire was home to many modern Central European countries, including Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the recipes for these classic pastries were passed from family to family, town to town.

Prague’s pastries are far from unique, but as I discovered them, I noticed not only the ways in which they are linked to those of neighboring countries, but also the characteristics that make them stand out.

1. Trdelnik

Trdelnik

Trdelnik cooking over an open flame in the streets of Prague.

Trdelnik is one of the most common pastries to find on Prague’s streets — in fact, three-dimensional invitations to try the rolled pastry hang from storefronts throughout the city, particularly in the tourist neighborhoods.

But while Prague is famous for its trdelnik, the pastry was originally known as kurtsoskalacs and hailed from Szekely Land, Transylvania — home of the Szekely Hungarians. According to food historians, Count Josef Gvadanyi, a Hungarian general, settled in the town of Skalica, on what is now the border between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, in the 18th century, bringing with him a Transylvanian cook who had a tasty recipe for kurtsoskalacs in his repertoire.

While trdelnik is now available throughout the former Empire, from Austria to Hungary and everywhere in between, today it’s most famous in Slovakia and the Czech Republic — particularly so on the former, where Skalicky trdelnik became registered in December 2007 as a PGI within the EU.

Trdelnik

Trdelnik being cooked outside in Prague.

I tried trdelnik at Krusta (Drazickeho Square 12) where they’re made outside as you watch. You can snag a seat on the patio overlooking the Charles Bridge and watch as the woman making them goes through what has become, for her, an automatic series of motions: rolling out the dough, wrapping it around the stick, called a trdlo, sprinkling it with a sugar and spice mixture and setting it over the flames to cook.

When I finally dug in, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. The dough itself isn’t actually all that sweet, but the outside has a really lovely, caramelized richness and aromas of burnt sugar. Perfect with mulled wine.

2. Strudl

Strudl

Prague Apple Strudl

No, that isn’t a typo! Strudel may be famed in Vienna, but strudl is a traditional Czech dessert. Of course, when you compare the names as well as the pastries themselves, it’s obvious that they both come from the same place — in fact, some food historians believe that the modern strudel and strudl were inspired by early versions of Turkish baklava.

Strudel-like pastries became popular in the 18th century; the first recipe hails from Vienna and dates to 1696. While this early version was made with parsnips, modern versions are usually filled with apples and spices and can be found in Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia… and the Czech Republic, of course.

Traditional strudel pastry in the Viennese tradition is very elastic and worked until it’s paper thin before being wrapped in many layers around the filling. The pastry of the Prague version that I tasted is slightly thicker than that of the Viennese pastry. As Austrian wives were often judged by the thinness of the pastry, I think it’s safe to deduce that the Czech version is just slightly more rustic… but no less tasty.

The apple strudl at Krusta (Drazickeho Square 12) has several unique characteristics, at least as far as this strudel-taster is concerned. Its filling is slightly pink from apple skins and stuffed with both apples and raisins. Dusted with a simple layer of powdered sugar as opposed to cream or ice cream, it’s not nearly as rich as other versions I’ve tried. For someone who doesn’t like their desserts too sweet, this was definitely a winner.

3. Makový koláček

Makový koláček

Makový koláček – Poppy Seed Cake

Makový koláček, also known simply as kolach, is a Czech pastry that has actually become extremely popular in some parts of the States. The original kolach boasts a filling of some sort contained by a rim of brioche-like yeasted dough. They were originally considered a wedding dessert, but in the States, they are more of a breakfast pastry akin to the Danish, seeing as they’re not overly sweet.

Kolach festivals exist throughout the regions of America that welcomed Czech immigrants, including Prague, Oklahoma, Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and several cities in the part of central Texas known as the Czech belt thanks 19th century mass Czech immigration, including Caldwell, Crosby and Hallettsville. Montgomery, Minnesota is said to be the Kolacky capital of the world, while Prague, Nebraska claims to be the home of the world’s largest. Versions in the States have a certain American appeal to them, with flavors like strawberry-ricotta, cream cheese and even savory versions with sausage and beer.

Seeing kolache are so popular in the States, I was surprised to have such a hard time finding them in Prague. I finally tracked them down after five days of looking at Artisan Café & Bistrot (Vejvodova 1).

The dough was a pleasantly slightly sour yeast-based dough, and the filling was made of sweet poppy seed paste. An almond powder was sprinkled over the top.

This Prague pastry is diminutive in size, just the size of a cookie, but they’re the perfect pairing with tea or coffee.

4. Medovnik

Medovnik

Medovnik Honey Cake

Honey cakes are very popular in Prague, and there are two in particular that you should be sure to try during your stay.

The first is medovnik — a very complex answer to any American honey cake I’ve ever tried. Honey cake been popular in some form or other in this part of the world since the Middle Ages — in Slovakian culture, honey has always been highly honored, and a barrel of it was even given as part of women’s dowries through the Middle Ages. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, medovnik is often not homemade but purchased and given as a gift. Because of its unique preparation, it is a sweet that, like fruit cake, can sit out for months before being eaten.

I sampled this piece at Coffee Lovers (Kaprova 9), made according to a traditional Bohemian recipe. It has a rather dry, almost savory crumb with very sweet, honey flavored icing between each layer. The topping is a powdery crumb layer, basically what would happen if powdered sugar were made of honey. It has a very unique, pronounced flavor of honey but also a slight flavor of caramel. This was my personal favorite of all of the pastries I tried in Prague.

5. Marlenka

Marlenka

Marlenka Honey Cake

Marlenka is another type of honey cake popular in Prague. The best way to recognized marlenka from medovnik in Prague bakery windows is to look at the shape — medovnik is baked in circles and served in wedges, while Marlenka is baked in rectangles and served in rectangular or square slices.

Marlenka is technically a brand-name cake, which was invented in Prague in 1704 by Armenian Georgius Deodatus Damascenus. He founded the first coffee lounge in the city and repurposed a traditional Armenian family recipe of honey layer cake, naming it after his wife and daughter: Marlenka. It soon became a local tradition.

Medovnik, meanwhile, is really a word for any honey cake, though it’s usually used for the cake described above in number four; the word medovnik, then, could technically be used to refer to an off-brand Marlenka, which is what you’ll find more often than not in bakeries and pastry shops. All this to say, it’s not surprising I had such a hard time tracking down this particular Prague treat!

I actually finally got my piece at a Tesco supermarket, but it was from the bakery case, and it was an exceptional piece of cake. As opposed to medovnik, marlenka had a cakier base, kind of like a birthday cake, but far more moist and full of the flavors of honey. It was filled and topped with thin layers of honey buttercream, over which more of that honey powder was sprinkled. A much more cake-like cake than medovnik, and quite tasty too.

Any other Prague pastries you recommend? Please share in the comments below.

 

Experiencing Ljubljana by Bike, Slovenia Style…

May 10, 2015 by  

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One of my favorite ways to experience a city is by bike, especially when being guided by a local, seeing the destination through their eyes. While on a bus you view the outside world as if it were a caged animal, on a bike you’re one with the place, feeling the beat of the city as purely as your own heart.

Before visiting Ljubljana — the capital of Slovenia — I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Hell, I didn’t even know how to properly say the name, which to my American eyes looked like a cat had walked across my keyboard every time I typed it. I knew a bit about Slovenia’s incorporation into Yugoslavia, but as for Ljubljana itself, I was at a loss.

Ljubljana

A morning cycling with Tevz of Watermelon Ljubljana Bike Tours opened my eyes to what I did not understand (while also helping me burn off all that apple strudel that’s so delicious over there). The excursion began in the City Center, a pedestrian-only zone filled with cobbled streets, historic churches, a castle and a cafe-lined river, where I learned about Ljubljana’s urban planning, the important individuals that helped shape the city and some of the Tevz’ favorite drinking spots (lucky Europeans and their lack of open container laws).

What I loved even more than this was that Tevz took me outside of the Center, showing me places I never would have known to venture on my own. From alternative cultural hubs to ancient ruins to small farming towns, there was a lot we uncovered in just two hours — although there is a longer 3.5-4 hour tour, for those who want more.

Basically, I learned a lot. And while I won’t divulge every single detail of the tour here — you’ll have to take it for yourself — here are six of the most fascinating Ljubljana lessons I left the bike tour with:

Ljubljana

Prešeren’s Square (via Jessie Festa) and a closeup of the Prešeren Statue (via Sébastien Bertrand/flickr)

1. France Prešeren Was An Important Poet With A Topless Muse

On the tour, I learned a lot about France Prešeren (1800-1949), one of Ljubljana’s most famous romantic poets and the author of the National Anthem — although he didn’t live to see this happen. In the main city square, called Prešeren Square, you’ll see buskers, locals meeting up, the waterfront and the pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. Oh, and a very provocative statue — at least it was erected. Featuring Prešeren below a topless woman symbolizing a no name muse, it’s said the trees in front of the church were put there to block worshipers’ views of the figure’s stone breasts.

Says Tevz, “The Slovenian national holiday-cultural day is February 8th, also called Prešeren’s Day. It’s funny that this date is the day he died and not his birthday. Prešeren’s statue was placed on the main square in 1905, with many disputes — especially from the Catholic side of view.”

Toward the end of the bike tour we learn even more about Prešeren’s muses at St. John the Baptist Church (aka Trnovo Church) in the Trnovo District near Trnovo Bridge, with a plaque dedicated to the poet on the facade. It sits here as this is the very place Prešeren first saw his muse, Julija, from afar, never actually getting to know her but lusting after her nonetheless.

Ljubljana

Ljubljana architecture

2. With Tragedy Sometimes Comes Renewal

While biking, it’s hard to appreciate the layout and aesthetics of the city. Coming from Brooklyn where biking means buses are sometimes two centimeters from your body and open car doors can mean broken faces, I appreciate the wide open streets and squares, car-less City Center, and slower pace, with people seeming to walk in step with the gentle river.

“In terms of Ljubljana’s urbanism, there was a crucial event in 1895: Big Easter Earthquake,” says Tevz. “It reached as far as Vienna and had more than 100 aftershocks in the next days. Around 10% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. In a way it made a blank canvas to rebuild Ljubljana into a more modern city, not looking like a big village anymore.”

Tevz shows me the many squares of the Ljubljana, which interesting were historically used as parking lots until the recent mayor banned cars from the Center. Each has its own fascinating history and culture, like Congress Square (Kongresni trg) — where major city events take place — and its adjacent Star Park (Park Zvezda), the streets meeting the green space and fanning out to look like a star.

The most beautiful building in sight is undoubtedly the Ljubljana University Administration Building — when we came to it I’d actually asked Tevz if it was a palace — which stands on its own, as in Slovenia university classes and buildings are scattered around the city instead of on a campus. It’s hard for me to picture what that would be like, coming from the State University of Albany in New York where the campus was like its own city, but I’d imagine it only adds to the social ambience of Ljubljana.

There’s also New Square (Novi Trg) which, despite its name and title as the city’s youngest square, is still pretty old at 500+ years. This was also once a parking lot, and today offers gorgeous river views to one side and a beautiful vista of the National University Library (known as NUK), which architect Jože Plečnik built using building materials from the previous building that had been destroyed in an earthquake. This tactic was both efficient and budget-friendly.

The building is hard not to miss, inspired by the Italian palazzo and featuring red brick and grey stone embeddings forming a contrasting pattern on the perfectly symmetrical building. Door handles showcase Pegasus heads, while a sculpture of Moses stands out front.

Plečnik is a name that comes up often on the tour, as he’s had a lasting impact on the aesthetics of the city. He may have died in 1957, but his legacy is still felt — literally — by anyone who walks (or bikes) through the city.

Ljubljana

Photo courtesy of Fooding Around via flickr (Note: Not the real barrel mentioned below)

3. It’s Possible To Live In A Sauerkraut Barrel

While biking through Krakovo, a protected farming village that was once a fishermen’s settlement less than five minutes by bike from the City Center, I I hear one of the most fascinating facts of all.

Explains Tevz, “The previously-mentioned earthquake made quite a few people homeless. The wealthier moved away, some to relatives, some stayed in tents in town parks and train wagons. One of successful sauerkraut producers from town also donated a big number of wooden sauerkraut barrels. They rolled them onto the field and they were a shelter for some of the locals.”

I’m astounded by this, and also impressed by the resourcefulness of these past locals. I guess the old saying “Where there is a will, there is a way” is true, with human instinct driving them to do what it took to survive.

Ljubljana

Pyramid/Roman Wall at Emona

4. Ljubljana Is Home To Ancient Pyramids

Just outside the City Center, so close you can bike but just far enough you may not know it’s there, we cycle through Emona, with structures older than medieval buildings in Ljubljana’s Old Town around Mestni trg (City Square) and Gornji trg (Upper Square).

Explains Tevz, “At Mirje you can see the remains of the south wall of Emona, a settlement from Roman times, starting year 14 after Christ. A part of it is also a pyramid with a passage through it; however, it’s not an old Roman or Egyptian pyramid. It was added in a renovation and designed by Plečnik in the early 1900s.”

Okay, so maybe the pyramid itself wasn’t ancient, but the site was, thought to have had 5,000 colonists and have played an important role in the Roman Empire’s defense strategy. Interestingly, Tevz notes the pyramid steps are a popular place to have an al fresco lunch or beer.

Ljubljana

Metelkova City in Ljubljana

5. You Don’t Need To Be Rich To Start Your Own City

Tevz and I cycle across Fabiani Bridge — named after architect Max Fabiani, who helped rebuild Ljubljana after the earthquake — before stopping in “Museum Square,” my personal nickname for it. Once military barracks, today the area featured an array of creative and interesting institutions: the Slovene Ethnographic Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, a section of the National Museum. While I loved the energy of the square, the ideas of rebirth and renewal clear, my favorite spot embodying these themes came next: Metelkova City. This, along with with the hilly hiking trails in Tivoli Park, quickly became my favorite city attractions

“Metelkova City, or Metelkova City Autonomous Cultural Center, was established on the site of former military barracks,” says Tevz. “When Slovenia gained independence in 1991, the Yugoslav Army moved out, and the facilities were meant to be demolished. In 1993 a group of people occupied the place, squatted to prevent the demolition and then it slowly started to evolve into what it is now.”

After explaining the premise of Metelkova, I run like a cheetah from building to building, wall to wall, window to window, trying to capture every detail of the place with my camera. If you’d left me there for a week I still don’t think this would have been possible.

Ljubljana

Ljubljanica River

6. The Ljubljanica Is More Than Just A Cafe-Lined River, It’s A Treasure Trove

While it’s easy to wander the Ljubljanica in the pedestrian-friendly City Center, or sip coffee and local wines at the outdoor venues that line it, the bike tour takes me to different parts of the river that go beyond relaxation.

Says Tevz, “The Ljubljanica river is a rich archaeological site, especially in the part crossing Barje — a flat plain that used to be marshy, swampy ground, where the first permanent settlers lived. Vast selection of finds like  weapons, tools, cutlery and jewelry from the Copper Age to New Age have been found. In the central part, the local diving club does a yearly ‘research-cleaning’ of the riverbed, presenting all ‘finds’ on the square, like bicycles and road signs.”

For now, I’ll stick to cycling around its beauty and drinking it in with waterside wines.

Essential Information:

Stay: I highly recommend Hostel Tresor as a homebase in Ljubljana. Ljubljana is a historical city, and this hostel is a historical accommodation, a former bank that still retains its money-centric theme through currency-related quotes scribed on the walls, rooms named after global currencies and original bank elements, although it still has a modern feel (especially with free Wi-Fi in all rooms!). Staff were great, and its central location attached to a grocery store, across from a budget-friendly coffee shop and within 1-minute walk of  Prešeren Square, the Triple Bridge and the sites of the historic center make it a must.

Watermelon Ljubljana Bike Tours: +386 (0)40 552 572; ljubljanabybike@gmail.com

Currency: Euro (As of March 2015, 1 Euro = $1.09 USD)

Bring: You won’t need much on the bike tour besides water and a camera. If it’s chilly out, I’d also recommend gloves, as riding with the wind blowing on your fingers can be uncomfortable.

Have you visited Ljubljana? What did you learn from your trip? Please share in the comments below.

 

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