Posts Tagged With: backpacking

The Lovely Lake Bled

Bled Island in the summer haze.

Bled Island in the summer haze.

Tucked into a valley beneath the rugged Julian Alps, in the middle of a crystal clear lake guarded by a castle on a cliff, there is an island with a little white church that can only be reached by a rowboat.

If this sounds one “Once upon a time” and an evil stepmother short of a Disney movie, that’s because it is. Mountains are wonderful, and mountains that drop into lakes are ideal. Once you add an island and a cliff-top castle to that, it becomes unmissable.

Bled Castle has a pretty ideal setting.

Bled Castle has a pretty ideal setting.

There isn’t too much to say about the area that can’t be said better in pictures. Bled’s town center is charming, but a little built up for my taste. Of course, that’s inevitable with such an incredible place that draws so many people. Fortunately, a walk around the lake can take you away from the crowds and hotels and give you calendar-worthy views of the island. You can also hop on one of the many large rowboats around the lake for a trip out to the island, or rent a boat or kayak to paddle yourself out if you are feeling ambitious.

One of the few truly lakeside hotels.

One of the few truly lakeside hotels.

One of the Bled swans adding to the fairytale vibe.

One of the Bled swans adding to the fairytale vibe.


Continue reading

Advertisements
Categories: hiking, photography, tourism, travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Paradise Revisited

Last November I paid an unexpected visit to Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj, if you will, with a pretty cool collection of people from The Ginger Monkey Hostel. The hike, which took us past one of the most spectacular lookout points in Slovakia, alongside and occasionally right over the edge of the Hornad River and up a waterfall-filled gorge, is definitely a contender for the top spot on my Slovak highlight list.

However, ever since I took that hike, I’d been a little bummed out that Chris, who I’ve been traveling with the majority of my time in Slovakia, hadn’t been there. As a fellow hiking enthusiast and one of the biggest waterfall lovers I know, I felt he completely missed out on one of the best experiences an outdoor lover can have in Slovakia. And so, when we were passing by Spišská Nová Ves, just a stone’s throw from the park, I was ecstatic to be able to give the loop another go with Chris and our friend Jack.

A cliff near Tomášovský výhľad in November.

A cliff near Tomášovský Výhľad in November.

Chris and Jack looking out near

Chris and Jack looking out from the same spot in May.

Slightly senior portrait-esque, but the setting redeems it.

Slightly senior portrait-esque, but the setting redeems it.

Close to the edge at  Tomášovský výhľad.

Close to the edge at Tomášovský Výhľad.

And from the same cliff in November.

And from the same cliff in November.

My maiden journey through Slovensky Raj had been guided by someone familiar with the park, so I was basically on autopilot, gaping at scenery the whole time. Since I would be the veteran this time, I took it upon myself to find the route we took before, worried that any other path might not live up to the hype I’d been creating.

Information about the trail wasn’t hard to find. Although we barely saw another soul during our mid-November hike, it is allegedly the most popular trail in the park and is packed beyond belief in the high season of July and August. (We were lucky enough to bypass the only other large group early on this time around.)

Continue reading

Categories: environment, fitness, hiking, nature, science, TEFL | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Biking Through the Old Iron Curtain

Ever since I saw it suggested in a hostel’s guidebook, riding my bike from Bratislava to Austria and back earned a spot on my Eastern European bucket list. I think transporting yourself over international borders with your own two feet is always pretty neat, but it’s even more intriguing when that line is as significant as the one between Slovakia and Austria. While the infamous Iron Curtain may have fallen nearly a quarter of a century ago, the separation of East and West Europe during the communistic era still accounts for an obvious divide today.

 The Carnuntum - Schloss Hof - Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

May 1st, or May Day is a national holiday in Slovakia. Since we were teaching near Bratislava, it was the perfect day to execute our international cycling plans. A half-hour train ride took us from Senec to Bratislava’s main station. The day before I had called Bike Rentals Bratislava and reserved two bikes for 12 Euros with a 30 euro deposit a piece, which is pretty reasonable in my opinion. When we arrived at the Tesco near the Old Town, I just called the guy up, and five minutes later we had our bicycles. The man and his partner were extremely friendly and organized. After taking our information and money, they showed us the main features of the bikes and allowed us to be on our way.

The bikes themselves were in great shape and came with saddle bags stocked with a helmet, tire repair kit, pump and first aid kit. After ensuring everything was in working condition, we whizzed around the Old Town a bit to warm up our rusty legs. Before long we we’re zooming over the New Bridge, affectionately known as the UFO Bridge because of its questionable communistic design, and turning onto a path we knew ran along the Danube.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Before we had come to Bratislava I tried to look into different bike routes to and from Austria. I had almost no luck besides a blogger who described a very highway heavy route to Heinburg, a small city a few kilometers over the border, and back. I’m not a big fan of highways, or returning the same way I’ve come for that matter, so I did some map research of my own. I decided we could from this starting path, we could definitely veer into some different villages in Austria and cross back into Slovakia in order to return on the opposite side of the Danube.

When we first merged onto the bike trail, two things became very apparent. First, some highway riding was unavoidable if we wanted to stay on the main bike path. Second of all, based on our fellow riders, we were severely underdressed for the occasion.

I’ve come to realize Europeans are all about their active gear. You will never catch any Slovaks in the mountains without trekking poles or coordinating waterproof pants and jackets and the same seems to apply for the cycling world. While I had just barely opted for running shorts and a t-shirt (jeans seemed like a good idea if we were going to hang around the city after), everyone else we passed was decked out in spandex, cycling jerseys, sleek sunglasses and fancy helmets. I expected this from the elite, hardcore Tour de France trainees, but when we were flying past people huffing and puffing through the first two kilometers in their intense gear, I was slightly amused.

We continued along the masses of professionally clad cyclists for 15 minutes or so before we came to the border crossing. It actually didn’t hit me that the bar and abandoned building we passed indicated the Slovakian-Austrian border until we were several minutes past it. It seemed too fast and anti-climactic to have already crossed into another country, let alone another country that was completely off-limits two decades ago. But, no matter how quickly it had happened, we were in Austria now, meaning that, as long as we made it back to Bratislava, we would have accomplished our goal.

At this point, however, we knew we wanted to go much further than just the border. The temperature was perfect for biking, and the path moved into a quaint Austrian Village, Wolfstahl, soon after the border crossing. It was here that we started to see purple signs indicating some bike path called the Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava Tour. We figured if there were going to be trail markers  around, we might as well follow them. It turned out to be a great decision, as it led us off the main road and snaked through the village.  I would like to note that, as the first village we encountered after crossing the old “Iron Curtain” line, Wolfstahl was a world away from the suburbs of Bratislava a few kilometers to the east.  The winding streets marked by German signs led to charming houses with large gardens. Most importantly, there was not a block of apartments in sight.  Of course, we are comparing city and village, but Wolfstahl looked distinct from any Slovak village I’d ever seen. The truth is, the technical divide between East and West may have ceased in 1989, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel it.

A map we came across documenting different cycling routes in the area.

Our Guiding Light

Since the Purple path served us well at the start, we decided to keep with it as long as it took a fairly logical route. Before long, we ran across a sign that showed what a jackpot we had hit with the purple path markers.  The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava trail actually took us upon almost the exact route I had been trying to research before, with a bonus section that traveled through some extra sections of the Austrian countryside.

It was quickly settled that we would follow this, and we did, through over 20 miles of Austrian towns, villages and countryside. The scenic route even led us past golden yellow fields, underneath a castle, over the Danube and through a national park. At one point we could have easily continued to Vienna, and the only older man on the bike path not decked out in spandex from head-to-toe was eager to direct us. But alas, we had class to teach in the morning and couldn’t guarantee we could return in time.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

Continue reading

Categories: photography, TEFL, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

April Adventures – Part II

Spišská Belá and Mountain Lakes

After an unexpectedly great week in Snina, I decided to head out to meet Chris in Spišská Belá for the weekend before we both headed to Sabinov. Chris had been spoiled all week by two teachers from his school and their hospitality continued on into the weekend. On friday night, after settling into the quaint village for a bit, we went to the Drum Cafe for some drinks and good conversation. The teachers, Dagmara and Katka, spoke English fantastically. We spent most of the night laughing, but made a little bit of time for planning an excursion in the Tatras the next day.

Katka proved to be an expert on all of the nooks and crannies of the mountains. She and Dagmara (Dada, as she is affectionately known) were nice enough to pick us up the next morning and take us to a part of the Tatras we had never seen before.  We arrived in Vysoké Tatry by mid-morning. While Katka is an expert on the mountains themselves, she was a little more shaky on specific directions. But, we still eventually found the first lake she wanted to show us hidden behind the Grand Hotel Kempinski, a place my salary is still several zeroes short of affording. The morning had started out gloomy, but the mountains began to show through the wisps while we stood there, allowing for a great view of the peaks behind the lake.

Hotel Patria and a frozen Štrbské Pleso

Hotel Patria and a frozen Štrbské Pleso.

The beautiful, five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski that I was certainly not staying in.

The beautiful, five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski that I was certainly not staying in.

After seeing the first lake, we crisscrossed around the resort town for a bit in search of a trailhead that would take us between the mountains to another more secluded lake. While it took us a moment to get oriented, when found the trail without too much effort. From there, we started up a casual incline with snow that was luckily still frozen enough to stand on without falling through, mostly. As we hiked, we could see people skiing and celebrating the final days of the season on the other side of the valley, which set a festive mood. As we moved further into the mountains, the scenery became more limited thanks to storm clouds forming overhead. But, even though we were miserably underdressed (it had seemed so nice at the bottom), the light exercise and mild temperature kept us warm enough over the nearly two hours it took us to reach our destination.

The biggest ski jump I've ever seen.

The biggest ski jump I’ve ever seen.

When we first arrived at the second lake, Popradské Pleso, we could clearly see the near side and make out some figures climbing on the mountains above, but I knew we were missing out on the grand experience thanks to the weather. Somewhat disappointed, but eager to be out of the dampness, we hurried into the lakeside hotel and restaurant to lift our spirits with some traditional, cheesy, doughy, Slovak cuisine.

A plate of halušky and a few bites of pirohy did the trick. A half-hour later and seemingly a few pounds heavier, we were ready to make the trip back the way we had came. When we walked out the door, we were excited to find a much more exposed lake with big chunks of blue sky in front of us. Seeing it in its entirety not only made the whole trek more fulfilling, but also added yet another item to my list of things I would like to come back and see again in the summer.

Our destination,  Popradské Pleso

Our destination, Popradské Pleso.

The walk home proved to be even easier than our journey to the lake, and was also more enjoyable with the sun shining down on us. Mountains we hadn’t been aware of on our way in appeared, dramatically white and dark on a suddenly bluebird sky. We made our way back to the village much more quickly than we had come, meaning we fit two mountain lakes, several miles of hiking and loads of sheep cheese all into about four hours.

After a scenic ride home, we took some time to refresh and regroup. We met back up at Dada’s house later in the evening to feast and socialize.  Dada generously fed us some more delicious pirohy and single-handedly inspired my new obsession with bagel chips. She also shared two of her great obsessions with us; ice dancing and Audrey Hepburn. Amazingly, I had spent 23 years in this world without ever seeing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which was something Dada could not allow. After the movie, some World Ice Dancing Championship recordings and a few plays off the Les Misérables, Chris and I headed out into the quaint village streets, feeling considerably more cultured than we had before.

The sun came out in full force on our way back.

The sun came out in full force on our way back.

Continue reading

Categories: hiking, nature, photography, TEFL, tourism, travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

April Adventures – Part I

In like a lion, out like a lamb. Although normally March’s motto, this expression applied more to April’s antics in this part of the world. The rough winter weather lagged into first days of April with no sign of stopping soon. But when spring finally peeked out from behind the snow clouds a week later, it was all at once, allowing for perhaps the most action-packed month in Slovakia thus far. Since I haven’t mentioned most of the minor adventures and excursions, aside from the castle visits, I figured I’d put together a little list of highlights. The problem was, once I looked through my pictures and made the list, it turned out to be not-so-little.  So, I’ve divided it into two parts. Part I is mostly lion, so stay tuned for Part II for the green and sunny stuff.

Zakopane

After spending a nippy, jam-packed weekend of food, history and culture in Krakow, Chris and I headed south to Zakopane, a mountain town that sits right above the Slovakian border. We had been here once before, desperately seeking Polish Zloty to avoid being stranded in the Polish wilderness (A Quest for the Elusive Polish Lakes can tell you all about it if you want to know more) and had decided it was definitely worth a second full-length visit.

Typical Zakopane mountain scene

Typical Zakopane mountain scene

Since we arrived on Easter Sunday, there were no cabs parked in their usual waiting spot and no buses were running. It was almost snowy, but mostly raining, so we were not picky about how we got to our hostel 5km away, as long as we got there quickly.  After 10 minutes of wandering around in search of transport and older man approached me claiming he had a taxi.  We followed him to a car in the train station lot that was certainly not a taxi. Although I know it’s a traveling no-no to take an unmarked taxi in many places, but sometimes you just trust your gut, and this man’s grandfatherly ways told mine we’d be fine.  We mostly were since the price was fair and he was very talkative for the few words of English he know. The only minor danger was the swerving that occurred as he wiped his windshield with a sponge every 15 seconds so he could at least see a blurry version of the road through the damp flakes falling. Even without a defroster, we made it to the hostel safe and sound  and spent a sleepy afternoon in  heated Uno battles with other hostel guests.

This sign normally stands above eye level. You do the math.

This sign normally stands above eye level. You do the math.

The next morning we headed across the street to the national park for a lengthy hike to a mountain lodge deep in the woods. We were ecstatic to find that our feet didn’t sink through the layer of icy crust on top of the path of footprints from previous hikers, allowing us to float over the multiple feet of the white stuff as we walked. The hike itself was enjoyable enough, winding through snow-dusted pines and past rustic cabins. However, after a certain elevation, just like the last time we hiked in Poland, the fog and mist made it impossible for us to see more than several feet in some places, particularly at the mountain’s summit. While the thick fog did create a pretty cool other-planet-like effect on the top, when you haul your butt up that much mountain, you just want to see some views.

The nearly invisible snowboarder wasn't so far ahead of us.

The nearly invisible snowboarder wasn’t so far ahead of us.

Luckily we found our rewards elsewhere. Not too far past our low-visibility peak we came across the mountain lodge, and therefore restaurant, that we sought. A Polish woman very graciously took the time to translate the entire menu for us, which turned out to be somewhat unnecessary since they had English menus. It was not a complete waste though. Her favorable description steered us towards a new dish of pancakes with cream and powdered sugar and a special Easter soup that no one could describe except for being delicious and having an egg inside.  Both choices made for a perfect hikers’ lunch, and of course we accented them an obligatory plate of pierogies.

Hearty hiking meals are the best rewards.

Hearty hiking meals are the best rewards.

Completely stuffed and somewhat reenergized, we headed back out into the foggy abyss. Since we had already been disappointed by the lack of vistas by the blue trail we had taken up, I suggested that we take a winding yellow trail that would meet back up with it on the way back. Chris was skeptical as this was certainly the road less traveled if the footprints were any indication, and his skepticism proved to be founded. The path was not nearly as wide or spacious as the other, resulting in more than a few full-snow immersions when either of us stepped off the narrow line of packed snow.

Coming across an igloo is always a bonus.

Coming across an igloo is always a bonus.

Despite the initial struggle, in the end, the yellow pick didn’t end up being a complete failure. The fog lifted a bit and we could see the huge pine walls and rocky cliffs that surrounded us.  The trail led us through a completely different valley, making the return journey more of a new discovery than a trudge back.

There isn't supposed to be this much ice in April.

There isn’t supposed to be this much ice in April.

Although the hike officially left us 0-for-2 for actually seeing the Polish Tatras that we have spent over 14 collective hours hiking through, we still returned to our hostel having covered more than 12 km with rosy cheeks, sore legs and a familiar post-hike good mood. Maybe the third time will be the charm for the visibility.

Continue reading

Categories: hiking, nature, TEFL, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Coming Soon: Castles, Castles and More Castles

Despite a lethargic start, spring is now going in full force here in Slovakia, and, oh my, is it beautiful. These over-70-degree, sunshine-soaked days have been perfect for exploring the finally-thawed hills, and in particular, the castles that are tucked within them. Unfortunately, the longer days and gorgeous weather have been keeping me outside so much that I’ve been remiss about posting, but a full update is soon to come. For now, these photos can serve as a sneak preview.

The majestic Strečno Castle

The majestic Strečno Castle

Scaling some castle walls.

Scaling some castle walls.

Categories: hiking, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Lost Days in Krakow

St. Mary's Church dominates Krakow's main square.

St. Mary’s Church dominates Krakow’s main square.

I’ll admit it, I was bad in Krakow. I got so caught up trying to squeeze as much of this spectacular city into three days as possible that I was remiss with my camera and less than dutiful with my note-taking. We were having so much fun and doing so much that it seemed like we had just got there when we had to leave, which to be fair, was basically true.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

We did manage to fit in several amazing meals in during that short time.  This included the best burger I’ve seen thus far in Eastern Europe, and rivaling the best ever, at lovekrove (it even had guacamole!), my first ever raw vegan experience at RO RAW, some apparently quintessential Polish pizza-bread things called zapiekanke and, of course, traditional pierogies and sausages at the Easter Market.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

As always, we took full advantage of the fantastic free (read: tip what you can or feel is right) tours which you can find offered in so many European cities and were overwhelmed by Krakow’s amazingly rich history. (Most of its architecture was spared in WWII, which is rare.) Of all of the spots in the city, I gravitated most towards the Jewish District, Kazimierz. It hums with youthful energy, full of totally unique restaurants, pubs and shops in addition to important tourist sights such as synagogues and churches.

IMG_6086

The entrance to the last active synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter

Unfortunately, as upbeat and fun as this district now is, one can’t forget the somber and scarily recent history of persecution, mass deportation and genocide that began here during the Nazi occupation during World War II, which leads me to a much more serious part of our visit.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

I can’t fully explain the experience of going to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. What I can say is that any one who feasibly has the opportunity to see it for themselves should be sure to take it.  It isn’t until you step onto the grounds that you can completely (or at least speaking for myself) understand the horrifically efficient and scarily regimented way such unfathomable crimes of hate were carried out here. To see the expanse of the grounds sprawling all around you and to take stories from history books and place them in a real location is an experience that will stick with you for a lifetime. Hopefully it will serve as a grim reminder that vigilance against such inhumanity is necessary in the future.

IMG_6091

A restored Jewish Cemetery in Kazimierz

Despite the dark parts in its history, Krakow has emerged as a vibrant city of hope. The energy, architecture, food,history, both the bleak and the inspiring, and most importantly, the people, are all part of what makes Krakow a city which proved to be above and beyond the mass amounts of backpacker hype that it receives. Prior to visiting, I thought a week in any city of that size would be excessive. But now, seeing all it has to offer, I know I’ll have to return for at least that long to make up for this three-day blur of a trip.

Luckily – for those interested interested in knowing more about the specifics of Krakow – Chris happened to create a much more witty and detailed record than I. You can check it out in his post on his blog A Wayfarer’s Murmurings.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it's properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it’s properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

Categories: food, photography, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Continue reading

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

Categories: food, TEFL, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Continue reading

Categories: tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.