Reflecting on a month full of infinite amounts of views, memories, inside jokes, foods, music, friends, and languages is not easy, and there is no clear point with which to begin. As I have summarized the main sections of my jaunt through Central and Eastern Europe in other posts, I will use this blog to recap the high- and lowlights (if there even are any) of my month in Europe with my good friend Griffin. While the trip was of a fairly transient nature overall, I feel like we stayed in most places long enough to grasp a true sense of their culture and habits. Although don’t get me wrong, I could have easily used an entire month with the Faas family in Switzerland, the Bans in Croatia, and at the Ginger Monkey in Zdiar. I will have to settle with an incredible five weeks that when reviewed, easily stack up to the best months of my life, right up with my trip to Israel in 2011. Having said that, I will now turn to a game of many roses and few thorns, in honor of my dear cousin Sophie Lil. Since I am now in school, this report card is being done American style, with normal letter grades in lieu of the 1-10 Spanish grading system that is still a little foreign to me. Without further trouble, here are my grades for August of 2013:
Highlights: Slovakia; Slovensky Raj National Park, Stare Spilko Peak, Zdiar in general.
Croatia; Plitvice Lakes National Park, Istrian Peninsula, Tomislov Dom.
Switzerland; Rhine Falls and surrounding countryside.
Slovenia; Lake Bled, Vingtar Gorge.
Being the good Coloradan that I am one of my priorities always involves being outside, and with this in mind I tried to maximize the natural aspects of every place we visited. While we unfortunately did not visit the Swiss/Austrian Alps, a trip surely for the very near future, I still feel like throughout our trip we did our best to find active places to explore. This being said, we were rarely disappointed, and in most cases were awed by either the rugged, sheer beauty or the pleasant, comforting simplicity of the European countryside. Unable to be tied down to museums and busy city streets filled with mid-summer crowds, Griff and I were able to escape most often by foot, save for a few memorable bike rides in Switzerland and Budapest. Overall, Slovakia was the most unexpectedly beautiful country, Croatia and Slovenia both featured striking locations, and Switzerland, well, needs no explanation.
Highlights: Switzerland: Chefs Hugo and Miro Faas, Tino.
Croatia: Grandmothers Ban, Tomislov Dom Hikers’ Hut.
Prague: An Old Czech Beerhall On The Most Significant of Days.
Budapest, Prague, Slovakia: Hostel cooking, much needed personal cooking reprieves allowed by Griffin.
Slovakia: The Goulash Man
Everywhere: Backpacking life.
Lowlights: No raisins in muesli (Griff).
Very little peanut butter.
For those who know Griffin and myself well, you know a few things about our respective relationships with food. I am a bit of a health freak; Griffin not so much. I love to cook; not that Griffin doesn’t, but not to the same level. We both devour most everything placed in front of us; Griffin being the obvious winner there. Food is such an essential part of culture that visiting new places demands tastes of the local cuisine. When possible and plausible, we tried our best to experience the classic dishes of the locales we found ourselves in. We had wurst and muesli in Switzerland, fish and fresh produce in Istria, sauerkraut in Budapest, hearty meat, and potatoes in Prague, and goulash in Slovakia. Traveling on limited budgets, we scoured supermarkets daily, making countless meals out of yogurt and muesli, dark breads and fresh cheeses, and lots of fruits and vegetables. Easily the best supermarket food was in Zurich, where the Gruyere has no equal. When possible, it was great to unwind with a home-cooked meal in the hostel kitchen, usually some sort of stir-fry with eggs or beans. However, the overarching takeaways for me foodwise were the twin virtues of home cooking with the freshest ingredients, with love being the most important of them all. Europeans utilize, generally, much smaller quantities of food that are so much more fresh and local than in the United States, and this makes for a much more intimate culinary experience. This is not to say that they eat less, because at least on our trip this was certainly not the case, but daily trips to the neighborhood market selling local produce are much less common in the States, where massive Costco runs would have most Europeans in absolute shock and disbelief (I say this despite a personal soft spot for the sample king). My favorite meal of the entire month would have to be pasta night at Hugo’s, although I could easily be tempted into about 943927680892374986 more bowls of Swiss-style muesli as well (I’m easy to please that way). I would like to use this post as an opportunity to also thank my traveling companion Griff Bohm for allowing me to prepare our meals and take charge in what we ate, because while sometimes I drove him crazy, I like to think he liked what we had at least some of the time. I would also like to thank the 20-cent packet of Hungarian paprika that lasted us a solid ten days in everything from muesli to sandwiches to huevos rancheros. You will be missed my friend.
Lowlights: Grey, Soviet-era structures in Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Slovakia.
Budapest and Prague top the list here for their dazzling variety of incredible architecture, featuring an infinite amount of styles to choose from. The wide boulevards of Buda and the smaller, winding streets of Prague were similarly lined with multitudes of different facades and contrasts between dark, Baroque and Gothic structures, grand, elaborate palaces, churches, and synagogues, and multicolored apartments that never failed to amaze. Switzerland earns a place in the top three for the sheer beauty and simplicity of the country-style mountain home that faux structures in Vail try so hard to imitate but fall so incredibly short. Zurich was also an impressive city, but the Swiss countryside really has no equal in my mind.
Highlights: Friends everywhere, new and old. Faas family, Ban family, Ginger Monkey.
Experiencing different cultures is obviously not possible without interacting with the local population. Regardless of their level of English proficiency, people we met everywhere were generally receptive, very nice, and helpful in response to our attempts at communication. While regional rivalries/dislikes/stereotypes certainly existed, the friends we made in hostels, bars, and trains across Europe will remain the most durable memories for me.
Highlights: Swiss trains.
Lowlights: Croatian/Slovenian trains, night trains.
Punctuality was impressive during our rides on Swiss trains, which literally arrived and departed on the second they were scheduled to. The case was not the same in Slovenia and Croatia, where rickety, outdated, fairly hot and stuffy trains did not have the same sense of timeliness. Also fun was a trip through the Austrian countryside by train and bus in the pouring rain, culminating with a terminal sprint to catch a vital leg to Bled. Finally, the night trains that Griff and I took in order to save both time and money, while memorable in the experience, were not the most pleasant moments of the trip.
Highlights: Faas and Ban families, Ginger Monkey Hostel.
Lowlights: Castle Hostel, Bled, bedbugs.
I cannot stress enough how amazing the hospitality was that we received in both Switzerland and Croatia. The two experiences really made the trip. Additionally, the Ginger Monkey was the coolest, most intimate, friendliest establishment I have ever stayed at. It was impossible to not make new friends and have the best time while staying there. While certainly an integral part of the hostel experience, large dorm rooms filled with snoring foreigners, dirty bathrooms, and strange insects were definitely the most ritzy. However, I would not have traded our experiences for anything.
In conclusion, I would like to wrap up my accounts of my month spent backpacking across Europe with another huge thank you to all those involved, for the generous hospitality and graciousness in allowing Griffin and I to enjoy the trip as much as we did. I would also like to thank my partner in crime once again, because it would not have been possible without his patience, sensibility, and sense for hygiene. My eyes were opened up to different ways of life and philosophies for living, and in this sense I believe the trip was worth the effort alone. I am so incredibly fortunate to have had the month that I experienced, a month spent chasing cheap trains and pretty girls across Eastern Europe. I feel like I haven’t slept in four days, and am so much better for it.
Until next time,