Monthly Archives: December 2012

Looking back – the best of 2012

I started 2012 (and also Incurably Stir Crazy, which is nearing its one-year anniversary) with a mission. I wanted to spend this year seeing new places, chasing new experiences and packing as much life into 366 days as possible. Looking back on the year, I’d say things went pretty much according to plan. I hope it is just one of many adventure-filled years to come.  Below is a list of some of the  highlights, as a way to remember, and to be honest, a chance to share some of the stuff I’ve slacked on posting. But that’s what new year’s resolutions are for, right?

1. Skiing the Swiss Alps

Ok, so Christmas 2011 doesn’t exactly fall into 2012, but its close enough.  Plus pictures from this trip have not been documented besides in my header photo.  Although I’ve been skiing since I was five, this was my first opportunity to take on anything bigger than the mountains of Vermont.  While a week prior to the trip we were planning on changing it from a skiing vacation to a hiking vacation thanks to lack of snow, mother nature took care of us just fine. Davos, Switzerland got pounded with snow to the point of avalanche warnings and my siblings and I got our first taste of real powder skiing. This week of family bonding and fantastic skiing won’t soon be forgotten, but hopefully soon repeated.

The first day of skiing - perfect conditions.

The first day of skiing – perfect conditions.

Not every day was so ideal however, with avalanche and wind warnings cutting one of our days short. But we still felt very intense being the last skiers left on the mountain.

However, not every day was so ideal with avalanche and wind warnings cutting one of our days short. But we still felt very intense being the last skiers left on the mountain.




On the slopes

On the slopes

Valley in Davos

Valley in Davos

View from halfway up Jakobshorn, Davos

View from halfway up Jakobshorn, Davos

2. Exploring my own backyard

My final semester of college made any substantial amount of traveling difficult, but it did give me an opportunity to visit some local places that I had always meant to get to before.  This included several trips to nearby Allegheny National Forest in winter, spring and summer, and my first visit to Griffis Sculpture Park, which I’ve been driving past my whole life.  Not being able to go elsewhere made me appreciate how much there is still to see within day-tripping distance of my own home.   I’ve got several new local destinations slated for the new year already.

My hiking boots are laced and ready on one of my several trips to Allegheny National Forest.

My hiking boots are laced and ready on one of my several trips to Allegheny National Forest.

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Categories: hiking, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Salaš Krajinka – An Education in Cheese and Hospitality

View of the hills surrounding Ružomberok

View of the hills surrounding Ružomberok

It’s not difficult to find a place to rustle up a plate of bryndzové halušky anywhere in Slovakia, or a really good plate of it for that matter.  But when an opportunity comes to sample some halušky from the restaurant featured in the sheep cheese section of the trusty Lonely Planet guidebook (yes, there is a sheep cheese section), you must not pass it up. At least, that’s my philosophy.

Salaš Krajinka, a rustic, traditional Slovak restaurant, is two kilometers outside of Ružomberok in the Liptov region. I assumed in a country with an extensive public transportation system, getting from the town to its famous restaurant would be no problem.  But when I called for instructions the man on the other end of the line informed me few buses run there from Ružomberok, making life difficult for the car-less, such as myself and my traveling cohort.  Chris and I resolved to bite the bullet and call a cab, as the restaurant visit was supposed to be the main event of our Saturday. But before I could hang up to make the call the mysterious man on the phone offered to pick us up in town, an offer too good to refuse.

Twenty minutes later we were in the backseat of a Volvo, zooming between the rolling Low Tatra Mountains with our new friend Joe, discussing all of the nitty gritty details of Slovak cheese business.  Joe, whose family has been producing cheese for generations, appeared to be in his mid-30’s and was dressed casually with a frayed red and yellow Yankees hat atop his head. He seemed to be the face and unofficial (or maybe official) public relations man for Salaš Krajinka, and a good one at that. He had travelled extensively and proved to be an excellent conversationalist with his easygoing manner and perfect, accent-less English.

As we moved along the winding main road leading to the restaurant, I explained that we were extremely interested in behind-the-scenes information about our newfound love of bryndza, and its link to Slovak culture.  We really lucked out as Joe proved to be a walking encyclopedia on all things sheep and cheese, and being a very big advocate of understanding what you’re eating and how it was made, he was eager to share all he knows.

The beloved Milka cow, apparently great misleader on realistic cow coloring

The beloved Milka cow, apparently a great misleader on realistic cow coloring

“Kids today think that cows are lavender and white because that’s what they see on the chocolate bar wrappers,” Joe said, referring to the popular Milka chocolate bars sold throughout Europe. “They have no idea where what they’re eating really comes from.”

The truth is if more of today’s generation did understand how their national food was produced, they would realize it is a process that pays respect to generations of Slovak sheep farmers and mountain culture, and therefore one to be preserved. Joe’s family and many other farmers throughout the country pride themselves on keeping up the tradition and quality of both sheep and cow cheese production, which has been a part of Slovakia’s culture since it became a staple in the 17th century.  “How we make it is the way it always has been made and the way it always will be made,” Joe said.

Before we knew it, we were pulling into the restaurant’s driveway.  As we ascended the hill that the Salaš sits upon, we passed one hut selling the homemade cheese and another selling tea and freshly baked pastries.  The space between the huts and the parking lot is spattered with quirky wood sculptures and a few strutting chickens. The restaurant itself is a sprawling one-story building, reminiscent of the traditional Slovak log houses seen throughout the countryside.  It was here that Joe apologetically left us for a work engagement, but promised to return in a little while to give us a tour of the in-house cheese production.

Since we had some time to kill, Chris and I thoroughly explored the property.  This included taking cheesy posed pictures with the sculptures, failed attempts to capture some of the resident rabbits, successful attempts to communicate with local goats, sampling some scrumptious blueberry-filled pastries, and finally heading to the restaurant for our main event.

Some of the farm life in action

Some of the farm life in action

The inside of the restaurant is as charming as the outside with wooden beams and a huge clay stove.  Of course the real selling point is the back wall, which is made entirely of windows looking out onto the fluffy sheep that produce the diner’s cheese.  The snappy service must be necessary to handle the constant flow of people coming through the double doors. Even at 3:30 p.m. in the “off-season” Chris and I ended up sharing our table with another couple, a practice which is much more readily accepted in Slovakia than I imagine it would be in America.  We ordered the legendary bryndzové halušky with extra smoked sheep cheese on top rather than the traditional fried bacon fat. (We figured if there was ever a good place to double up on cheese, this was it.)  Even though our dishes came surprisingly quickly, the plates of potato dumplings smothered in gooey sheep cheese were nothing short of perfection. Continue reading

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Looking Back on Bratislava

Thus far, in my three months teaching in Slovakia, Czech Republic and Austria, my path has crossed both Prague and Bratislava twice.  I spent this past weekend soaking in the holiday spirit in a much more decked-out Prague than I saw in early October. The weekend before that, I revisited Bratislava as its Christmas decorations and festivities first came together.  While Prague was undeniably a scene of seasonal perfection, with its traditionally decorated tree and softly twinkling lights. However, the masses of people bottlenecked among the main markets reminded me of just how much I love the much lower-profile capital city of Bratislava, and yet how little I have mentioned it here.

The "Man at Work" Statue. Allegedly is the most photographed thing in the whole city.

The “Man at Work” Statue. Allegedly is the most photographed thing in the whole city.

On both of my visits to Bratislava, I have been struck by how livable the city feels.  As you walk through the old town, the buildings and cobblestone streets look similar to those of Prague, but you can’t help but notice how many more locals dine next to you in cafes and how much more elbow room you have, even in the main square. You feel as though you are seeing a snapshot of the city’s everyday routine.  Dogs are being walked, groceries are being carried, lives are being lived.  Despite having low expectations for the city based on lack of hype from other backpackers, I found myself having to pry myself from it both times Sunday afternoon called me away.

Low quality phone picture. High quality Christmas Market experience.

Low quality phone picture. High quality Christmas market experience.

If there was ever a question about how I felt about the city, the Christmas market confirmed my affection. While it held the same smoky huts filled with sausages, crepes and mulled wine, and the space was crowded without a doubt, the feeling was entirely different. Few words of English could be heard and the giant crowd dancing around a man with an accordion could sing along with each word of the Slovak folk songs.  The small gifts sold in stands did not all proudly bear the name of the city, unlike those in Prague, most likely because most people would not be nearly as impressed. But to me, that made them much more appealing. The electric blue flashing lights on the tree may have been a little over the top, but the overall experience, like most of mine in Bratislava, just felt authentic.

Looking out from Devín Castle onto the Morava.

Looking out from Devín Castle onto the Danube.

This is not at all to downplay the impressiveness Prague.  The city left me in awe and I had a fantastic time each time I was there. There is a reason people flock there and I will go again the first opportunity I have.  But when I look back on my time here, Prague will be a highlight, but Bratislava will be my soft spot. So here are some snippets from the not-nearly-enough time that I spent there. Maybe you’ll be inspired to check it out yourself.

(P.S. If further inspiration is necessary the city’s Shtoor Cafe, pictured further below, is the home of 1.30 Euro bottomless coffee in a continent of baby-sized instant Nescafes.)

The mighty Danube flowing below the castle.

The mighty Danube flowing below the castle.

After climbing up the castle walls, Chris strikes a risky pose.

After climbing up the castle walls, Chris strikes a risky pose.

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