Food Guide: Athens, Greece 

Like Italy, one of the highlights of our Greek trip was the food! Heavily influenced by Turkish cuisine, Greek food was really delicious and very affordable. Some of what we tried and would definitely recommend include (we ate a lot- this is a long but tasty post!):

For appetizers:

Greek salad: When in Greece, how can you not?! The vegetables are some of the freshest, the tomatoes are flavorful and the fresh feta is delicious!


Tzatziki: In the land of the best yogurt in the world, anything made with yogurt is delicious. Fresh tzatziki with warm bread could absolutely make a meal on its own.

Eggplant salad: Also made with yogurt, but this time with smoked eggplant- how can one go wrong!


Saganaki cheese: Pan-seared hard yellow Greek cheese, eaten with a drizzle of lemon, sounds as delicious and sinful as it tastes!


Kopanisti: Made with sharp tasting cheese from the Cycladic island of Tinos, with sun-dried tomatoes and yogurt, it had a strong taste- not necessarily for all palettes, but we really liked it, especially washed down with ice cold Ouzo!

Spinach and cheese roll: Inspired from Turkish food, it also made for a great breakfast.

Given a chance to go to one of the islands, sea food starters are:

Seafood soup/stew: Made with a tiny local fish (with an unpronounceable name) it was tasty, heartening and extremely comforting.

Fried calamari: Yes, you can get them anywhere in the world, but how often can you eat them right next to where they were caught?!

For mains:

Gyro: Almost ubiquitously available, this meat and salad wrap, with fries, slathered in delicious sauce is messy, filling and delicious! We even took a couple to the airport for one last taste of Greece before we left.



Souvlaki: Also another form of kebab, this time on a skewer, it is normally served with fries, salad, and warm fresh pita bread. With the spicy sauce or tzatziki, it is finger licking good.

Kebab with yogurt: With pita at the bottom, kebabs and vegs in the middle, covered with yogurt and spicy tomato sauce, we really licked the platter clean!

Moussaka: One of the better known Greek dishes, the moussaka in Greece was probably the best we’ve ever tasted.

Saffron risotto: Saffron from Greece is world-renowned and when added to risotto, definitely made the dish something special.

Lamb shank: The Greeks pride themselves on eating only the most tender, well cooked meat- and true to form, the meat was delicious, juicy and literally fell off the bone!

And then the sea food…..

Lobster with spaghetti: A delicacy, sold in most restaurants by the weight, we were lucky enough to have it cooked for us in a Greek friend’s house, and oh was it d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s! Definitely a must have! Even if it isnt home-made, especially for you..

Hydra Octopus: Made specially on the island of Hydra (Idra), the olive oil and tomato sauce, along with the juicy octopus, come together really well!

Saganaki mussels: We tried this in Hydra, but might be available wherever there are mussels. Made with feta cheese, pump mussels and butter- what’s there not to love!

And finally, for dessert:

Greek yogurt with thyme honey: Simple and delicious, I could’ve eaten it for every meal! The yogurt is thick and creamy and thyme honey (honey from bees who visit only thyme flowers) has just the right amount of sweetness… ah heavenly!

Baklava: Also influenced by the long Turkish rule, they have baklava with pistachios, almonds, walnuts and even chocolate!

Orange cake: Made from Seville oranges, that are too bitter to eaten on their own, and sweetened with honey, this was oozing and moist and yummm!


Lemon coconut cake: We were offered it, on the house, in one of the restaurants and would definitely recommend ordering it! Tart and coconut-y, it made for a very interesting dessert.


Fresh fruits: They are everywhere, gorgeous to look at, and so cheap! Peaches, nectarines, strawberries, cherries.. all for only about 1 EUR per kilo! I wish I could’ve brought some back with me!

Drinks (of course):

Frappe: Reading about the frappe culture, is nothing compared to actually seeing it- everyone drinks frappes, all the time! Its a great way to consume coffee- unsweetened or sweetened if the coffee is too strong, iced to beat the heat, it can keep you going all day long!


Tsipouro: Greek brandy, the clear version is drunk before a meal as an aperitif and the aged smoky kind is drunk after meals.

Ouzo: Also drunk as an aperitif, tsipouro with anise came to be called ouzo. It was once called “a substitute for absinthe without the wormwood”. Clear in the bottle, it turns milky white when mixed with water.

Most locals will warn you to be careful when drinking ouzo, and they always recommend drinking it with food. It is generally considered poor form to drink ouzo ‘dry hammer’ “ξεροσφύρι”, xerosfýri, an idiomatic expression that means ‘drinking alcohol without eating anything’ in Greece. This is because, the sugar in ouzo delays absorption of alcohol in the stomach, making the drinker believe that s/he can drink more without feeling tipsy. Then the cumulative effect of ethanol appears and the drinker becomes inebriated rather quickly!

Go to Greece and eat! καλή όρεξη

2 days in Dubrovnik- Game of Thrones and the old city

Croatia had been on our travel list for many years. But it wasn’t until Game of Thrones came along that it really bubbled up to the top. Dubrovnik, famous for being Kings Landing, is as beautiful as you would expect.

With 2 days in Dubrovnik, the 2 things we recommend are the Game of Thrones tour and walking along the old city walls, of course well lubricated with local food and drink, and interspersed with some beach time!

We spent our first day on the Game of Thrones walking tour. It may sound tacky but it’s a must do if you are a fan of the show and also a great way to get some local stories of the show and the city.
We started at Black Water Bay – where the battle was filmed and saw the area where all the bastards were purged in Kings Landing.


Across from the famous walled city of Dubrovnik is the Lovrijenac fort or St. Lawrence Fortress. The fort is built to withstand attack from the seas and the land, with 39 feet thick walls and is often called Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar. Two drawbridges lead to the fort and above the gate there is an inscription Non Bene Pro Toto Libertas Venditur Auro (Freedom is not to be sold for all the treasures in the world). A lot of scenes from Game of Thrones were shot in here- the Dog saving Sansa from being raped, Joffrey’s name day.

The fort also offered great views of the city and played an important part in the (real) history of Dubrovnik and its many sieges, right up to 1991, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, when the city was under siege for 7 months!

Then we walked into the main city. It still has a drawbridge to limit how many people enter and of course, was another important site in King’s Landing.

This gave us a good idea of the layout of the city and whetted our appetites to walk on the old city walls the next day. The city belongs to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites and has been maintained to retain its old charm. Walking on the walls provided a panoramic views in all directions and was definitely worth the time and effort.

2.JPGWith the close proximity to the water, how could any visit be complete without some beach time!

3.JPGDelicious local wine and fresh sea food was the icing on the cake!

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Food Guide for the Czech Republic 

When thinking of the Czech Republic, while beer would probably be one of the first thoughts, food would possibly not feature on the list. However, for us, food is an important way to better learn about a new city or country, so doubtless, our explorations of the Czech Republic included culinary adventures!

Meat, especially beef formed a major part of Czech food (sorry veggies, this post is quite meat-heavy). Some of the food we sampled, and quite liked, included:

Goulash: Available in almost all restaurants (especially those catering to tourists) goulash is like a spicy beef stew with a thick gravy. Originally from Hungary, it has comfortably integrated itself into Czech cuisine. We had it served with dumplings, which were bland and unsalted when eaten plain, but served very well to mop up the last of the gravy!

Beef tartar: One of our first forays into the world of raw beef, and oh was it worth it! We were asked whether we wanted to mix the meat, eggs and spices ourselves or wanted it done in the kitchen- fortunately we chose the latter, and recommend that you should too! As a part of our preparations we had come across a food blog that very rightly said- why should you do the job you’re paying the chefs to do?! When served like the photo below, the way to eat it is: rub the clove of garlic on the toast- it is crisp enough that it serves as sandpaper and gets nicely coated, then slather on the meat and dig in!

We’re still hunting for tasty and affordable beef tartar outside the Czech Republic!

Stuffed dumplings: Coming from the bay area, we were used to stuffed dumplings being a part of dimsum, not European food, so this came as quite a surprise. These were stuffed with pork, and dipped in mustard, they were delicious! Move over XLB, there’s a new dumpling we like!

Soups: Apparently hearty soups also feature often on traditional Czech menus. In the harsh winters, they can be very heartening. We tried a pea and bacon soup and a potato soup in a bread bowl, both were tasty and comforting!

Fried cheese: What’s better than a tasty cheese, the fried version of the same cheese! Breaded and fried, it was sinful and yum 🙂 Apparently it makes a great late night snack after an evening of drinking, and we can completely understand why!

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And for dessert, Trdelnik. It is made by spirally winding dough on a spindle and slowly roasting it over hot coals. The fragrance of the cooking trdelnik is hard to miss and harder to resist! Once cooked through, it is covered with sugar (powdered or granulated, either works as well) and can be eaten plain, filled with molten chocolate or ice cream. We tried one with ice cream and another with chocolate, and they were both absolutely delicious! (my mouth is watering at the remembered taste, as I write this post).


Of course, no Czech meal is complete without copious amounts of beer, but there is so much to say about the beer, that we have a separate post about it!

2 days on the Amalfi Coast

From Florence, we headed south to continue our Italian adventure. Being brave, we rented a car a drove from Florence, through Naples all the way to Sorrento.

A word of caution: for those used to driving in the US or in most of the other parts of Europe, the streets of southern Italy may not be for you. Traffic rules don’t always apply, people will cut in front of you, there is minimal lane discipline- though as long as you keep your cool and remain brave, you should be fine!

We broke journey in Pompeii to explore the city, read more about it in our post about one of Europe’s most compelling archaeological sites.

Pompeii to Sorrento was a very scenic drive, offering gorgeous views of the Italian coast. Be prepared for windy, single-lane roads, which provide the perfect excuse to drive slowly and soak up the views! Definitely recommend it- as long as you dont have a deadline to get anywhere.

With 2 days to spend along the Amalfi Coast here’s what we would recommend: (for what to eat while here, check out our post here)

Day 1: Day trip to Capri

Ferries ply to and from Capri fairly frequently from Sorrento harbor, as well as from Positano and Amalfi. Sorrento to Capri took 30 mins and offered gorgeous views of the majestic Mount Vesuvius.

Street art in Sorrento city center
Sorrento harbour
Capri!

 

On Capri, boat trips to the blue grotto are plentiful, and as touristy and unappealing as they might appear, they are worth the time, especially if the blue grotto is open to visitors. We werent as lucky, the tides werent in our favor, though the trip around the island was very scenic and fun in itself.

The green grotto
Beautiful corals
Impressive stalactites
The dramatic Faraglioni (the three towering rocks)

 

If the waters look tempting- go for a swim! How often do you get a private (almost) beach with a view like that 🙂

Besides the port of Capri, which is bustling and busy, the peak of Monte Solaro offers great views of the island. You can get to it by walking up, there are fairly clearly marked steps  that take you all the way up. It is a tiring climb in the sun, but the views make it worth the effort! You can also get to it by chairlift from Marina Grande. Piazza Umberto offers plenty of opportunities to slake the thirst developed on the climb up!

With the long summer days, there is enough time and daylight to walk around Sorrento city center even after the boat back from Capri. The city has two main streets, lined with restaurants, bars and lemon shops!


Day 2: Drive along the coast, Positano & Amalfi

If you have a car, the drive from Sorrento all along the coast, through the small coastal towns, including Positano and Amalfi should definitely be done. With no car, buses run between the towns and also use the coastal road, so offer the same views, without the anxiety!

Positano: The town has more stairs than streets, so be prepared! It is a quaint little town, so do spend the 1-2 hours wandering around. If its warm, perhaps even go for a short swim!

The Grotto delo Smeraldo (Emerald grotto) can be another pit stop. Between Positano and Amalfi, you could get to it either by road or by boat from Positano or Amalfi. Worth a quick stop, especially if you havent been inside the blue grotto, it is also cheaper than the blue grotto and access to it doesnt depend on the tides.

Amalfi: While only 20km away from Positano, driving to Amalfi takes about 45 mins. Amalfi was bigger than Positano, but no less quaint. Also since the sun had finally come up, it was the much awaited beach stop! The restaurants that line the beach look touristy and expensive, but are not! For 20EUR, we had a bottle of wine and a meal for two, and access to a private beach, and beach chairs! Worth it, we would say!

If you can manage it, take the boat back to Sorrento. Driving back will take you along the same roads with their ocean views, but the boat provides a whole new vantage point and the towns perched precariously on the hills, make for great sights.


While, as with most places, there is enough to do for a week along the Amalfi coast, two days were just about enough to give us a taste of what the place had to offer and leave us wanting more!

New Year’s Eve in Cartagena, Colombia- Walking the old city & fireworks!

Combing the streets of Cartagena!

Cartagena is a beautiful walled city that is almost a gateway to South America. Located in the northern part of Colombia, it has a very European feel to it, yet is as South American as they come! Always warm and inviting Cartagena is known for it’s ‘magical realism’.

cartagena magical realism

Its a wonderful city to walk around with interesting neighborhoods like Getsemani, San Diego and Centro inside the walls. There were more developed Miami-like beach areas which we avoided, preferring to get a feel for the real city, not only the touristy parts.

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To get a real feel for the city, we would recommend walking along the walls of old city Cartagena. Get lost exploring- walking through Centro and San Diego neighborhoods. This can take ~3-4 hours and along the way you can see many shops and restaurants or small cafes which provide a refreshing respite from the hot sun! You will walk past colorful houses, interesting street art, statues and murals.

The city looks even more beautiful in the evening as the sun sets. You can see the main gate all lit up and enjoy views of Christopher Columbus’ ship which is now a museum.

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If you still have energy left, Cartagena is famous for its buzzing night life, which starts only after 10 pm. Cafe Havana is one of the famous places to visit. It is supposed to have great music and drinks, but since it was New Year’s Eve, and we were completely unprepared (no reservations), we didnt get a chance to check it out.IMG_0099

New Year’s eve in Cartagena was another special experience! The whole city came to a standstill. Restaurants were completely full, as were the streets, and from the crowds it was clear that New Year’s eve celebrations and the fireworks were a family event, to be celebrated with everyone, children and grandparents included! We waited along the wall, like most of the locals, to see the fireworks.

While we called it a night after the fireworks, the city and its inhabitants carried on well into the wee hours of the new year 2016!

Oktoberfest!! And 48 hours in Munich, Germany 

Experiencing Oktoberfest had been on the to-do list for many years, considering how much we liked beer, how could we not attend the festival solely dedicated to it! Finally everything fell into place and in Sept. 2015, K, conveniently, had a work trip planned in Germany and Norwegian airlines had a great ticket to Oslo, so we gathered the troops and made it happen!

The extremely affordable Oakland-Oslo ticket, allowed 24 hours to explore Oslo, an added benefit.

Day 1 was spent exploring Munich and its sights, Marienplatz, the Deutsches museum, BMW museum and Olympic village, ending with dinner at the Viktualenmarket2.jpg
We warmed up for the next day with a few beers and kaiserschmarrn (a delicious dessert of caramelized pancake) at a local pub Nihar found and loved. He might’ve over-indulged just a little- the next day didn’t begin as well for him!1.jpg

The next day, we explored the Englischer Garten and soaked in some sunshine before an afternoon/evening of debauchery!

Finally, it was time! The train to Theresienwiese transported us to what felt like a city unto itself. Large beer tents, fair rides and games, food stalls and more people than would’ve been imagined. Needless to say, we were delighted! The evening saw us in the tents of Hacker Pschorr,  Spaten and Paulaner. Since we had no reservations anywhere, finding a table was often a challenge but we did get to know a few interesting people in the process, our and their friendliness, no doubt, fueled by all the beer.

With all the joy-rides and games stalls beckoning, a few of the braver souls rode the roller-coaster and claimed that they loved each of the 4 loops it took them on! Emma and Teja also shot targets and won a rose each.

The fest really ended for us, with an extremely satisfying meal from McDonald’s- probably the best we’ve ever had there!


While the next morning was not much fun, it was a great experience and highly recommended, if you’d like an evening of beer, music and some drunken singing along, lots of people, a roller-coaster ride and some more beer!

2 days in Prague, Czech Republic 

With nothing about the Czech Republic in our trusty ‘Western Europe’ Lonely Planet, Prague was one of the cities we were least prepared for!  A few things we learnt right away, and are good to keep in mind, include:

1. Currency: The Czech Repubic has its own currency, the Czech koruna. In May 2017, 24CZK = 1CHF, 23.5CZK = 1USD, 26CZK = 1EUR. A lot of transactions are cash only, so it is good to have some local money. Places do take Euros, but often offer a poor exchange rate, so avoid it as far as possible. The worst rate is at the border to buy the Vignette to enter the country- if possible definitely try to buy it in CZK!

2. Language: Czech sounded like, and probably is, a fairly difficult language. Most people do speak at least some English and German, so it isn’t too difficult to get around with no knowledge of the language. They do appreciate the effort though- ahoj (pronounced ahoy) is hello and goodbye, dike (pronounced dee-kay) is the slang for thank you, dobrý den (pronounced doe-bree-den) is good day, and prosím (pronounced pro-seem) is please.

3. Western/Central/Eastern Europe: I think instinctively one would assume that the Czech Republic is a part of Eastern Europe- it is not; Vienna, which is firmly a part of Western Europe is east of Prague! The locals say they are part of Central Europe, and definitely do not like to be called Eastern Europe.

With that out of the way, Prague is a fun and relaxed city, with cheap food, very cheap and really tasty beer and lots of interesting places to see! With 48 hours in the city, some of the key sights and things to do would include:

Old town square and the atomic clock: Steeped in history, with an interesting story at every corner, the old town square is a great place to admire the architecture (the Old Town Hall, the Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Jan Hus memorial and St. Nicholas church), people-watch and gawk at the atomic clock as it strikes the hour. The food from the stalls smells delectable, but costs at least twice of what it does elsewhere!

Stroll along Charles Bridge: One of the iconic and famous bridges of Prague, it is probably one of the busiest places in the city. Walking across can be quite a challenge, but the statues along the bridge, the vendors with their handmade trinkets and the views along the Vltava river, make it well worth the effort.

Visit Prague castle: It is the largest coherent castle complex in the world, with an area of almost 70,000 m², believed to be founded in around 880 by Prince Bořivoj of the Premyslid Dynasty. It feels like a tiny city in itself, and is worth the 3-4 hours it takes to walk around and soak it all in. No tickets are required to enter the castle grounds and gardens, so you can walk around the entire site for free, however individual sights- like the St. Vitus cathedral, Golden lane, etc, within the complex require their own tickets. It is supposedly the most visited site in Prague, so if the Charles bridge was a challenge, this is a lot busier! Tickets can be bought online and looking at the lengths of the queues, that would probably be recommended. We admired most of the structures from outside and watched the 12 noon changing of the guard- which is the bigger ceremony held once a day. Since the castle is perched up on a hill, the views of Prague from it are quite spectacular too!

Fun fact – the castle looks great lit up in the night when viewed from the city, interestingly, a large number of these lights were sponsored by the Rolling Stones! Apparently, when the band asked why the castle was dark during their visit to post war Czech Republic, they were informed by the then President that the country had no funds for frivolities. Ashamed but moved, the band sponsored the lights that stand even today!

Visit the Jewish neighborhood: Most of the Jewish neighborhoods of Prague were spared during World War II and a lot of the synagogues and buildings and in perfect condition. Horrifyingly, this was because when Hilter visited the city during the war, he fell in love with it and decided to preserve it, to be used after the war as a museum of the ‘extinct race’! The Spanish synagogue is ornate and stands at the site of probably the oldest synagogue in Prague. Confiscated properties of Czech Jewish communities were stored in the synagogue during World War II, which was handed over to Jewish Museum after the war and is now open to the public. The old-new synagogue, while small, is the oldest surviving medieval synagogue of twin-nave design and is the oldest active synagogue in Europe. Pinkas synagogue commemorates about 78,000 Czech Jewish victims of the Shoah (holocaust) and has their names on the synagogue’s inner wall. It also houses an exhibition of pictures drawn by children in the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, taught by the renowned artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

The clock in Hebrew above the old-new synagogue

 

Spanish synagogue
The Kafka statue in the garden outside the Spanish synagogue

 

Visit the second statue of Kafka: Located in the new town, getting to this statue is like traveling through a time machine, from the past to today! Located behind the modern, bustling Quadrio Shopping center, the work by David Černý’s complements his other statue entitled Metalmorphosis, installed in North Carolina.


Fred and Ginger (the Dancing House): This is a non-traditional, modern construction is a stark contrast to the ornate Gothic buildings in old town. Worth looking at just as an oddity!

Lennon wall: Once a normal wall, since the 1980s it has been filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles’ songs. In a state of constant metamorphosis (there was a can of spray paint sitting at the wall inviting wannabe artists), with a musician playing Beatles songs, it lends a very Bohemian feel to the area!

As always, food and drink was a big part of our trip. Czech food was quite delicious and cheap, and the beer was really great! Widely available and actually cheaper than water, it complemented every meal, was ubiquitous, a great way to beat the heat and so tasty! Fun fact – The Czechs are the largest consumers of beer in the world, with an average of 142.4 – 156.9 liters (based on which study you read) per person per year! Well ahead of any other contender!

So naturally we had to do our part too, consuming an average of 1 liter per head per day 🙂 Read about it here.

Read about our experiments with and experiences of Czech food here.

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