24 Hours In: Brussels

Disclaimer: Language. Mostly because I’m into my second glass of wine and feeling passionately about this.

Hottest city I’ve ever been in, which is saying a lot coming from someone who’s lived in America’s armpit (Florida) for three years. The average temperature in Brussels in August is allegedly 22C / 72F. There’s so much bullshit in this claim I could fertilize Texas with it.

It wasn’t 22C. It was 36C (97F for the Americans). Intolerable heat. Not enough water in the city’s free water fountains to cool you off heat. Legs sticking to each other, hair matted to your face, sweat beads racing down the small of your back, kind of heat.

Are you feeling this yet? Here’s another layer of heat. The Airbnb we stayed at had “nature’s” aircon: open the windows, get the breeze, y’all be fine.

Except there wasn’t a breeze. And we weren’t fine. We were staying right in the middle of the pedestrian walkway so exploring on foot was easy. We found city hall and marveled at how old everything was, and got a postcard-perfect shot in front of the Godiva store. We did that for about 2 hours, and then found ourselves in the food district.

The food district is a place to go if you want to be aggressively guided into a restaurant. Don’t dare look at a menu because that’s your way of saying you want to eat there. I don’t remember where we wound up eating, but I do remember day drinking.

We got chatting with our servers whom were all from a country other than Belgium. I appreciated that about the city. We learned the drinking age in Belgium is 14, that it was uncharacteristically hot, and most people speak four languages which is absolutely mind-blowing. We day drank outside and people watched.

Day drinking has a way of leading into a 5 hour nap, which we took, because we were feeling a heat-induced buzz. When we woke up, it was dark, and the sheets and the bed were soaked in sweat. Hair was wet. Pillow cases were wet. The window in our room was like a prison window, a narrow horizontal opening about 6 feet up from our bed, unreachable without standing on tip-toes.

I opened it expecting healthy gusts of wind, and got nothing.

Twenty minutes into sizzling we decided it’d be cooler outside than it was in our abode. So we put new clothes on to instantly sweat in and went out night-drinking. Would you believe it, the temperature dropped to 30C/ 86F. What a fucking relief.

The rest of the night is a blur but it basically ends up at a place called ‘Delirium’ which isn’t just one bar but a  whole row of bars and each bar has its own alcoholic theme: vodka, tequila, huge ass beers, whiskey, and more.

Summary of Brussels: 2 days is enough for it, avoid August, and prepare for liver obliteration at Delirium.

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24 Hours In: Barcelona

We had a little over two days in Barcelona, but sometimes travel fatigue gets the better of you and you wind up spending a day hanging out in the hostel and doing a whole lot of nothing.

On day 1, that’s exactly what we did.

Day 2, we ventured out into Barcelona for an afternoon free walking tour and were under the graces of a warm and windy day.

Our first stop was the 14th century Placa del Rei, or the King’s Watchtower, where King Ferdinand and his lovely  wife Isabella welcomed back Christopher Columbus from his voyage. Considering America wasn’t even a thought yet, it’s surreal to stand in front of a building that’s three times as old as your country.

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Our next stop was the Barcelona Cathedral, for which construction was began just a few years ago, in 1298. The architecture speaks for itself, and you could spend days taking in each detail. The building is decorated or constructed so every inch floor to steeple commands attention.

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The next point of interest is even older than the cathedral. We visited the old Roman city walls. Remember, at its height the Roman Empire stretched west into Spain and north nearly into Scotland. Here’s a bit of the Roman ruins, and the fortress, currently used as church space.

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The bottom arches are what remains of the Placa Nova, entrance into the old Roman City.
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Note the different layers of brick over time.

We turned the corner and arrived at Placa Sant Felip Neri, A Romantic Square with a Sad History. During the Fascist regime, children hid in a bomb shelter under the church. Bombs were dropped over this square, sending shrapnel and explosives across the square and into the church. 42 people were killed. This harrowing event in 1938 is commemorated by a small plaque, but the evidence is unmistakable.

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After a few moments of silence, we walked on to a picnic area where we learned about the Catalonia movement for independence. (Catalonia is the region in Spain that includes Barcelona.) In every street in Barcelona, you will see flags hanging over balconies and in store fronts and that signifies support for independence from Spain.

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Long story short, the Catalans have always identified as a group independent from the rest of Spain, and they have been fighting (and losing) independence battles for hundreds of years. Now with the referendum going to Madrid, they have a real chance of breaking off from Spain and becoming the Catalonia they want. There’s a booming sense of patriotism.

We ended the evening in front of the Arc de Triomf, found ourselves some lovely Spanish wine, and cozied up to watch the day fade into night.

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24 Hours In: Istanbul!

Our whirlwind of Europe is finally coming to an end – final destination Istanbul, Turkey!

After 22 hours of busses, trains and planes we arrived to Istanbul welcomed by a steep hill and many cobblestones. Note to self: don’t fly into Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in the future.

Connection from Gokcen Airport was achieved through an hour plus ride on a coach (14 Turkish Lira, TL) and two train / tram rides (4TL)…or we could have taken a private transport for ~90TL.

We arrived somewhere near the touristy Taksim Square on a steep hill next to the deepest construction pit I have ever seen. There are buildings under construction everywhere.
Navigating the cobblestones and taxi packed sidewalks, we slowly made our way to Taksim station – tantalizing aromas of sweet, spicy and fragrant combined for an unforgettable combination. This is my first impression of the city, and one I will likely not forget. Melody wanted to sample the wares from every restaurant we passsed. Everywhere we walked we have received a cascade of shouts offering taksi rides or a sampling of foods and drinks. For the easily overwhelmed, this is not the place to visit.

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The metro system in Istanbul is, by and large, efficient and effective. There are your standard metro ‘subway’ type cars, street trams, and even ferries…all of which you can take a ride on for 4 TL. For this purchase price, you receive a little plastic coin about the size of a nickel. There is an option to purchase a metro card, but our pleasure for walking meant we did not go this route.

With our little coins we took a short connector ride underground and then a slightly longer ride on an overground street-car, reaching our hostel in good spirits.

Even at 11pm, there were many shops open and crowds of others milling about. In the short walk we were hailed no fewer than 20 times for dining – did I mention you get shouted at?

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December 7, 2015

 

 

24 Hours In: Prishtina, Kosovo

I lied. We’ve been in Kosovo for three days, but today was the first day we actually went out and explored anything of Prishtina, the capital. We’ve been too busy at the hostel chatting up the guests.

There’s a really good energy about Prishtina, and despite it being a very small capital with a limited number of things to do, it’s quite amazing to be in a place that has been through a hellacious amount of conflict.

Initial observations about Prishtina:

  1. Euro is the currency and cash is king. If you’re staying for 3 days or less, 50 euro should cover your expenses. Yes. This is probably Europe’s cheapest capital city on the euro.
  2. Qepabs (Kebabs) are very popular here and you can get a very hearty plate of meat, salad and the largest bread I’ve ever seen in my life for 3-4 euro.
  3. The 2 liter beers are back! We first saw them in Bulgaria and couldn’t believe our eyes. A 2L of Lasko, the Balkan beer, will cost about 2.75 euro. Drink to your liver’s content.
  4. Tipping is not required. No one expects it. If you need to get rid of your euro change, then tip. You’ll make someone very happy.
  5. The Newborn monument and the Bill Clinton statue are about a 5 minute walking distance apart. In our opinion, the statue looks nothing like him but it’s super fun to chill with Monica’s former flame.
  6. People speak Albanian and English. Mostly Albanian. People love to say that their English is very poor, then go on carrying a full conversation with you.
  7. Good, velvety smooth gelato costs 1 euro for two scoops. Take that, Italy.
  8. Limited number of pedestrian walkways so your best bet to cross a street is to just saunter into the street and rely on the vehicles stopping and waiting for you. I’m still adjusting to this. Mark’s a natural at stopping traffic.
  9. No underground or metro system to speak of. I suppose that’s still in the works.

And the big one…

Getting to other cities! Yes, Prishtina is not a place where you can lose yourself for an entire month (or is it?), so you’re going to want to head to a different place eventually. This is where the internet basically sucks, because anything I can find in English has information that is totally wrong. So, transportation facts:

Traveling Belgrade to Prishtina:

YES: Buses do travel from Belgrade to Prishtina. There are two in the afternoon – one at 12:00 and the other at 4:30pm. If you buy them in Serbia it’s about $20 for two people. Cash only. There are two places at the Belgrade Bus Station to buy tickets. Look for the bus in the number 10 spot.

The trip: About six hours on a bus without WiFi or charging ports. Two stops are made; one in Serbia and one in Kosovo. If you are not an EU citizen, you will have to give your passport up twice at the border; once at the Serbian border, and again at the Kosovo border. We did not get stamps in our books, either.

Traveling Prishtina to Skopje:

This is hearsay as we haven’t done it yet, but the trip is about 2 hours one-way and costs 4 euro. There is both a train and a bus; the train is faster and cheaper but there is only one a day. It leaves at 7:00am and there’s a return train that comes back to Prishtina at 4:00pm. Once we do this trip, as we have to (it’s the closest city with H&M), we’ll update this with absolutes.

Traveling Prishtina to Prizren:

90 minutes away for 2 euro. A prize in Kosovo, really. Prizren is where many Peace Corps members are teaching English for a couple of years, and it’s also Kosovo’s second largest city with many historic artifacts. Definitely worth a day trip, and one we will be taking very soon.

Traveling Prishtina to Tirana:

Mixed reviews on Tirana; some people love it, other people say it’s a “shit hole.” We won’t know until we see it for ourselves. What we do know is that it’s about 5 hours away, so it’d have to be for a weekend, at minimum.

Have questions for this small yet vibrant country? Drop us a line!

Everyone loves a newborn, and we are very excited to spend a month here in Europe’s newest capital.

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Cheers!

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Copenhagen

Actually, things we wished we knew.

Note: Nudity and questionable language.

1: That our hotel had complimentary shuttle service to AND from the airport, so we didn’t need to spend $40 for two tourist transport tickets.

2: Google maps is as helpful as a foreigner giving you directions in a foreign language. It doesn’t have the correct coordinates for the free walking tour- not even close. It also incorrectly estimates travel time between destinations. This is the second time it has lied to us.  Think it has a bone to pick with free walking tours.

3: If you’re looking to go to Malmö, Sweden, because you also love the idea of lunch in one country and dinner in another, the last bus BACK to Denmark leaves at 6pm. Color us disappointed. Also, that ticket there and back is 100 Danish Kroners (DKK).

4: Don’t tip here. They make enough money, honestly. And there’s a service fee included basically everywhere anyway.

5: I wish we knew about the lack of authentic food. Totally disappointed by the mass Americanism and English speakers/ signage everywhere. It just felt too close to home. Not exotic enough. Perhaps we’re a bit jaded from Finland. We felt cheated, culturally. Remember how I was lamenting the absence of fried chicken and peanut butter? Both of these are here. I don’t even know what Danish food actually is. Where is it? I had a croissant with jelly in the middle. I was told that’s a Danish. They say a good measure of a city is by its food: I’m underwhelmed by a KFC and a two story Burger King. /rant

6:  Public nudity is acceptable, maybe as a spectacle but even still. Sitting in the über touristy part of Nyhavn and this (drunk) guy runs out of a party bus and swan dives into the canal. Cool right? I thought so. Then dude reappears, totally naked, runs through a crowd and jumps into the water again. People start half clapping, mostly staring, some laughing. Dude gets out of the water and just kinda walks back to the bus with his bros slapping his ass and grabbing his balls. Maybe a bachelor party? Can’t tell. That’s Copenhagen for you.

The bus in question. Feast your eyes on the naked man off the side.

24 Hours In: Surprised and Culture Shocked in Naples, Italy

Italy marks country number 14 and I may be speaking for myself but I am currently experiencing a severe culture shock. English is not widely spoken (it wasn’t in Finland, either), the four-hour breaks in the middle of the day are NOT a joke, and the laws of driving, walking and living are merely suggestion. Here’s a list of observations after 24 hours that have been doubly frustrating for us, so hopefully you come away from this read more enlightened with a better chance of enjoying your time.

Dining

It’s extremely difficult to find someone that is willing to speak English out the gate. It seems that most people want you to fail at Italian so they can get a good laugh before they attempt to help you. Once you sit down, it’s a 1 euro fee (per person) to occupy the space. At a higher end restaurant, this can be up to 2 euro. It seems through experience that you’re expected to know what you like to eat straight away, and order drinks and food at once. At one restaurant, we were told to reuse our water glasses for the wine because it’s “tradition” to drink wine and water from the same glass (Can anyone actually confirm this?).

Once you order, expect to never see your waiter again. American expectations of hospitality: How are you doing? Do you need anything else? How is the food/ drink? are completely absent. Let me say it again. You will not have a waiter come by and ask you if you need anything else. EVER. I read in an Italian culture blog that their perspective is to leave you alone until you need something; however, this is only really effective if you can actually find a waiter to flag down.

You eat, you drink. Every restaurant we’ve visited sets bread on the table. If you eat the bread, it’s another charge of 1 euro per person.

Then you receive the check. There was a bill yesterday that literally read: Pizza, 50. Pizza, 8. The total was 58 euros. Every restaurant must provide an itemization of what you ordered. Demand it if they don’t. In our case, we asked for it because all we wanted to see is that the waiter understood our order. Turns out he was right, but I was charged an additional 2.5 euro because I wanted my chicken grilled, not fried. 😦 

Activities and Things to Do

Sunday: Only a few restaurants open after 2pm. Some stores open. Not much. I was told bars started opening up after 8pm. Supermarkets and grocery stores also closed on Sunday. If you want to do anything in Naples, don’t arrive on a Sunday.

Monday: Actually, don’t arrive on a Monday, either. Apparently there’s NOTHING open on Monday. If you want to visit the Naples National Archaeological Museum, it’s closed. Want to check out the Bourbon Tunnel? Closed. Want to understand the history of the Catacombe di San Gennaro? Closed. Want to unfold the history of LAES – La Napoli Sotteranea? Color me surprised – that’s closed as well. Turns out that reviews on TripAdvisor are useless if you plan on visiting anything of merit on a Monday.

Tuesday: If you’re dead-set on taking a day-tour to Pompeii, Herculaneum, or Mount Vesuvius, odds are you’ve checked out the tours offered by Viator. Turns out they run tours every day except for Tuesday. That’s the day we wanted to go. Need to go to Pompeii, Herculaneum or Vesuvius anyway? Your best bet is to rent a car from the Napoli train station and hope for the best while you drive yourself. Haven’t done this yet – will report on it after 9th September.

**NOTE** Booking tickets to Pompeii online so you can go it on your own? You can only do so if you have an Italian address and an Italian equivalent of a social security number. Not Italian? Sucks to be you (and us) – you’ll be lining up at Pompeii to get your ticket at the door.**

Wednesday – Saturday: All I can say is that from about 12:00pm – 4:00pm, it’s slim pickings for food, cappucino, or a glass of wine. We’ve been here for nearly a week and still haven’t adapted to the 4 hour absence of food that isn’t gelato or espresso or pizza.

 Accommodations

Our Airbnb has been good to us so far. Space is so limited here that there isn’t even a place to put a clothes drying rack on the balcony. You have to let it fly freely in the space away from your balcony. No big, right? Until one of your clothing items falls down to the concrete overhang on the ground floor. No worries, says Mark, I’ll go get it. So he walks down to the ground floor, braces himself against the CONCRETE OF THE OVERHANG, and guess what? The concrete holding up the building actually COLLAPSES. It collapses. Are you kidding me? Not to mention Mark free-falls 7 feet and now has a lovely bleeding gash about 2 inches across. Also, if the place has an elevator be prepared for world’s smallest. It fits two people and two carry-on bags. That’s it.

Lifestyle

Drivers in both scooters and cars will run you off the road. They run the show. Pedestrian right of way? That’s funny! Smokers (of real cigars and cigarettes) abound and they have no problem letting you know about it on the exhale. Train rides, unlike Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Finland, Brussels, the Czech Republic, or France, are ridden with conversation and children yelling and running up and down the aisles of the train. If the quiet, near-silence on the trains in other parts of Europe gives you anxiety, don’t worry, because that quiet won’t exist here.

NOTE: There was also a protest today. Apparently the Napoli mayor is really sticking it to the Prime Minister. It was a peaceful demonstration that lasted about 6 hours with some rhetoric sprinkled in.

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That’s Naples after 24 hours. Tomorrow we’re picking up a car and driving ourselves to Pompeii. Taking adventure to an entire new level.

Ciao.

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Brussels

Bruxelles, a heavily blended capital city, location of the European Central Bank, and port of entry to the rest of Europe. With exactly 24 hours to eat, drink, and experience, these observations sum up our feelings about Brussels:

  1. In August, it’s hot. People said it was unusual, but it was so hot we decided to go out and drink instead of stay in our flat with no AC.
  2. Incredibly weighty French influence which no one in the UK or Ireland prepared us for. Totally caught us off guard to be greeted with a Bonjour/ Bon Soir. We expected a Flemish dialogue, some Germanic influence perhaps, but it was predominantly French.
  3. Drinking age is 16. While American high school students tweet about a drivers license, kids in Brussels are legally ordering their first brew with their parents. This is a limited drinking license as hard liquor is still prohibited for under 18s.
  4. Many embassy guards for the U.S. Frequent a bar called Roosters, which has two lovely bartenders – one named Kelly and the other Anna. They are incredibly funny and knowledgable about the area and their beers are reasonably priced too!
  5. I had a romantic fantasy that living above shops near downtown would be, in the words of Gretchen Weiners, so fetch. Early in the morning I’d wake up and head to the place right beneath my flat, grab a coffee, and begin my beautiful breezy day. The flip side of that dream is that at night, there are a lot of loud drunk people crowding the entrance to your flat, and you have to sneak in between them and open the door. It feels so odd having tons of complete strangers know where you live…
  6. Hardly anyone accepts American credit/ debit cards, even with a chip. We had to convert to euros because our cards kept getting declined. Come into Brussels with some cash, or find an exchange place, but please don’t exchange currency at the bus station,or airport. It’s a total rip off. 
  7. If you want to drink and talk to tons of people from all corners of the world, ask for the Delirium bar. It’s a narrow street with a dozen entrances to bars dedicated to one type of alcohol. There’s a tequila bar. There’s a vodka bar where you order a liter of vodka. All of them sell beer, but if you really want to prove your worth to yourself and all the strangers around you, order a two liter chalice of beer. Take time to wander upstairs, downstairs, around. You’ll find plenty of interesting things to see.
  8. The food district of Brussels is made of narrow streets crowded by outdoor seating and hosts standing in the walkway. As your eyes wander over to the menu, you’re immediately approached by someone and asked if you want to sit. I found this really revolting as they give you no time really to look at the menu, so we kept shaking our heads no and walked out of the restaurant district to a quieter, less pressure cooker type atmosphere.
  9. If you’re staying at an AirBnB here, please ask your host what floor they are on. We stayed on the top floor which I thought was awesome until we arrived and had to climb EIGHT, count them, EIGHT flights of stairs up and down to enter or leave this apartment.
  10. Want to make this known that I asked for tap water at a restaurant, was advised they “don’t do tap.” I told her bring the cheapest water, she brought me €6 mineral water. Sigh. 

If you’re planning a trip to Brussels, know that it’s a small capital city, and two to three leisurely days can cover the main attractions. If you have any questions about where to go, what to see, or what type of food to eat, send us a message! 

Mark and Melody