EUROTRIP: Birthday Celebrations in Slovenia

Slovenia was another country on our travel itinerary where I didn’t quite know what to expect. Slovenia used to be part of Yugoslavia, so I was thinking it would be like a former-Balkan country, not quite as developed as other European countries. But all my research said that Slovenia was a small alpine gem, more like Austria than any country in the Balkans. Coming back to Slovenia after Bosnia, I can definitely attest to the fact that Slovenia feels more European than Balkan.

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

Slovenia actually has an incredibly developed economy, and was the first former Balkan Republic to join the European Union. The capital city, Ljubljana (you say it “Leeyublyana”) has a quaint Alpine-village feel, nestled into the mountains and full of beautiful architecture. I think Ljubljana was my favorite European city we visited. In fact, if I had to pick a country to be the setting of a modern fairy tale, such as the Princess Diaries, I would definitely pick Slovenia. Everyone was so kind and friendly (the Slovenian people were the best!), the streets were pristinely clean, the buildings were brightly colored and kept in great condition, and there was so much to do! Plus we were celebrating my 24th birthday while we were in Slovenia, so that definitely added a degree of specialness to the memories we made there 🙂

Ljubljana, surrounded by mountains. (Click to see the picture enlarged!)

Our first stop in Slovenia was at the Postojna Cave, which is famous for being one of the biggest cave systems in Europe. The cave is so deep you have to take a 10 minute train ride into the depths of the cave before you disembark and the tour begins. Here’s a pic of Tori and I being goofy, sitting on the train and waiting to enter the cave.

We were COLD! The caves were chilly, especially in an open train car.

Riding the train into the caves.

The caves have more than 20 kilometers of paths to follow, but Tori and I only saw a few kilometers worth on our tour. I was impressed with Tori’s knowledge, as she paid better attention than I did on our tour and eagerly pointed out “stalagmites” (start on the ground and grow vertically) and “stalactites” (look like icicles hanging from the ceiling) and got excited in the rare instances where you could see a stalagmite and a stalactite meet. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the caves were impressive and fun to walk through, but I was looking forward to shopping in downtown Ljubljana and eating out at a nice restaurant for my birthday dinner! So I must give Tori credit for these pictures, because the caves were more up her alley than mine 🙂

The pictures don’t really do the caves justice; it was hard to get a good shot without using flash, but without flash the pictures were really dark. These were the best two we got.

After visiting the caves, we had a tour of downtown Ljubljana. We changed into pretty dresses because we knew celebrations were in order that evening. Ljubljana was the last stop with the tour  group we’d been traveling with to see Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia. So after our tour guide showed us around the city, we were officially on our own and once again traveling as the dynamic duo. We said good bye to all the older couples who had been in tour group, and spent a few more hours with our Australian friend Kelly exploring the Ljubljana Castle before saying farewell to her too. We had a fun experience with the tour group, but I think we were both excited to be on our own again, the masters of our own schedule and itinerary 😉 Here are some pictures from our tour of Ljubljana’s Old Town.

Up on the hill you can see the Ljubljana Castle, and to the right we have the main university of Ljubljana.

Prešeren Square, the central square in Ljubljana. The statue on the right is of Slovenia’s most famous poet, France Prešeren and his muse. I love the salmon colored building on the left! 

Enjoying our day together in Ljubljana 🙂

Another popular square in Ljubljana. 

Ljubljana has a famous Dragon Bridge, and this is Tori with one of its guardians. The chocolate in Ljubljana even has the dragon emblem on it! Tori, the dress you’re wearing in these pictures is so cute! 

After exploring the city we’d worked up quite an appetite, and started thinking about what to do for dinner. We knew we wanted it to be something exceptional, and some of our friends from the tour group had recommended a picturesque French bistro with outdoor seating as a wonderful place for a special meal. The restaurant was called Juliette’s, and it was as adorable as promised. Tori and I split a bottle of rose wine, and spent a lovely evening talking, laughing, sharing our favorite memories of the trip thus far, and just reveling in the beauty of Ljubljana, the tastiness of the food, and the joy of each other’s company. I remember distinctly thinking that night that I’m so incredibly blessed to have such a cool person for my sister and friend… if anything, our summer adventures have cemented Tori’s coolness factor and eternal place in my heart ; )

I’m 24! Smiling at Tori during my birthday dinner.

Juliette’s did not disappoint. Tori ordered Sesame Soy Tuna, and I got veal, and we were both very happy with our selections. We also ordered two desserts to share, and the waitress even put a candle in the lava cake to make it more birthday-like, so I got a birthday wish in ; ) After dinner we strolled along the river front, and Tori kept asking me what I wanted for a present. We’d just spent a good chunk of change on dinner, so I told her I was quite content, but we stopped to browse at a jewelry stall and ending up falling in love with the craftsmanship of these handmade silver bracelets. Tori insisted we go for it, so she bought a delicate silver wrap-around bracelet with purple stones, while I went for a more elaborate version in blue. Now whenever I wear it, I have this beautiful memory of my 24th birthday in Slovenia with Tori! 

My bracelet is the blue one on the left; Tori’s is the purple one on the right!

Back at the hotel, we called our parents for a Skype date so they could wish me a happy birthday and hear an update about how the trip was going. Then the next morning we got up early to catch a train to Budapest, one of the last stops on our Euro-trip.

To hear about the special friend we made on the train ride, and see pictures from all the crazy things we did in Hungary, check out the next blog post.


EUROTRIP: Bosnia & Herzegovina

Crossing the border from Croatia to Bosnia was like entering an alternate reality, especially as compared to the beautiful touristy coastal cities of Croatia… Do you remember in elementary school when the teacher showed you a series of objects and you had to select the object that didn’t fit? Well, if you listed the countries in Europe that we had visited so far (Poland, Austria, Croatia, and Bosnia) and said “which one doesn’t fit?” The answer would definitely be Bosnia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina used to part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, and after its dissolution, Bosnia fought a long and bitter ethnic war in the early 1990s. So driving through Bosnia, seeing the remains of bombed out buildings is a pretty common occurrence. The war was the result of ethnic conflict between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks, and the war crimes committed by and against the warring ethnic groups included mass rape and genocide. The scars run deep, especially given that the war occurred in the recent past. It is ever-present in the minds of the older Bosnians who remember the atrocities, and every tour we went on was given through the perspective of a different ethnic group. In Mostar, our tour guide was a Bosniak, and we heard about the war from the Bosniak Muslim perspective. In Sarajevo, our tour guide was the daughter of a Bosniak Muslim and a Orthodox Serb, and she refused to pick a side. She just wanted to be identified as “Bosnian,” but apparently in Bosnia you must choose an ethnicity/religion instead of just a nationality. I found the historical side of our visit to Bosnia very engaging; I didn’t know much about the Yugoslav War before our trip to Bosnia, but now I’m definitely inspired to pick up a book about the subject and educate myself.

One of the most interesting things I learned on our tour in Bosnia was that even death announcements are color-coded by ethnicity/religious status. A bold black border surrounding the death notice indicates that the deceased was a Christian. The green border with the crescent at the top indicates that the deceased was Muslim. And the white death notice indicates agnosticism or atheism; after seeing the damage religion has wrought in Bosnia, I can’t really blame anyone with the white border for refusing to take a side.

Karadjoz-Bey Mosque in Mostar

Given that Bosnia has a sizable Muslim population, mosques and minarets are a fixture of the scenery in Bosnia. Having lived in Egypt and traveled extensively in the Middle East, I’m a huge fan of mosques and their architecture; I think they added character to the Bosnian landscape, especially seeing as Tori and I had only gotten to tour churches thus far on our trip. 

Me and Tori at the Old Bridge in Mostar [Tori, do you remember this dress? :P]

Our first stop in Bosnia was in the town of Mostar, which is pretty much a tourist trap if I’m being honest. Mostar’s claim to fame is the Old Bridge that was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. [In case you’re wondering how Bosnia came to have such a significant Muslim population, that’s your answer right thereOttoman occupation.] The Old Bridge was considered one of the most “exemplary pieces of Islamic architecture in the Balkans,” but unfortunately for Mostar (and all of Bosnia) the bridge was shelled and destroyed during the 18 month siege on the town during the Yugoslav War. So the famous bridge that everyone flocks to Mostar to see is actually just a replication; albeit a very good one. The reconstruction cost 15 million dollars and was done according to the original specifications so the new bridge looks exactly like the Old Bridge. This new Old Bridge even made the UNESCO World Heritage List, so I guess the replication must be pretty good. Even though its not the original, its still quite impressive to see, I’ll give it that. 

The beautiful view of Mostar from the Old Bridge 

Following our stop in Mostar we moved onto the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina– Sarajevo. My only prior knowledge of this city was a Christmas song by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but I enjoyed our visit there nonetheless. Our tour guide in Sarajevo was probably the best we had our whole trip, and she did a great job of keeping things interesting and entertaining. One of the most important stops on the tour was the street corner in Sarajevo where the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were assassinated, starting a domino effect that led to the beginning of World War I. What a sad thing to be the city’s biggest claim to fame.

Our tour guide explaining the implications and consequences of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.

We had some free time in Sarajevo, and Tori and I were determined to find something special for our Mom. We wandered into a little shop selling Turkish coffee sets (which of course they called Bosnian coffee sets), and the shop owner who came out to help us spoke English very well. We found a beautiful coffee set that we loved, and after he heard that we hadn’t tried Bosnian coffee, he insisted on calling a nearby coffee shop and having it delivered. We got to talking while drinking our coffee with him, and it turns out that he lives in the US for half of the year, working as a computer contractor at a university in Ohio. We marveled at what a small world it is, because Tori and I are from Ohio! We asked him what university he worked at, and his answer was Denison University in Granville, which is crazy because that’s the university Tori is attending this fall as a freshman. How crazy is that? We had such a nice visit with him, and we ended up buying the coffee set for our mother. Mission accomplished 🙂

Old Town Sarajevo, where we found the perfect souvenir for our mother!

Tori and I were also fascinated by the coffee culture in Bosnia; coffee is used to communicate so many things nonverbally in Bosnian culture. For example, if you have a group of people come over and you don’t want someone in particular to return, you simply make sure that their coffee is cold and bad. Then they know that they are not welcome, and you don’t have to say a word out-loud. Coffee is also a very important part of courtship and proposals. A girl might put salt in her suitor’s coffee instead of sugar as a test; if he drinks the whole cup without complaint, he must truly love her. When parents come to broker their sons’ engagements, the question is not immediately answered. The second cup of coffee, if delivered hot and strong, means that the proposal has been accepted. As a huge coffee lover, I adored this aspect of Bosnian culture! 

The most beautiful mosque we saw in Sarajevo; the green flag waving from the minaret means that its Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

Tori and I eating “cevapi,” a popular Bosnian dish consisting of grilled minced meat rolls stuffed into pita bread. It was fine, but we added ketchup to make it more like a Bosnian burger 😉

Our time in Bosnia passed quickly, but I think it was the most historically and culturally enriching part of our Euro-trip. Or at least it ties with Poland, because I found Auschwitz and the Jewish history of Krakow to be equally fascinating. I think Bosnia definitely exceeded my expectations, because I didn’t expect to be so moved by Bosnia’s recent history and their struggle to move on into the future. Bosnia was the dark-horse in our itinerary, but it turned out to be a great stop.

I was excited as we drove back to Slovenia, because a very important day was rapidly approaching… my 24th birthday! To hear how we celebrated in Ljubljana (pronounced “lee-oob-lee-yana”) read on to the next blog post 🙂

EUROTRIP: Plitvice Lakes National Park

The Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia was so special that it gets a blog post all to itself. Plitvice is located in the central part of Croatia, near the border of Bosnia and Herzegovnia, not very close to the Dalmatian coast and therefore off the beaten path. But I would go back to Croatia just to see this place again, it was so beautiful. If I could imagine a heaven on earth, I’m pretty sure Plitvice is what it would look like.

Plitvice has the distinction of being the oldest national park in southeast Europe, and also the largest national park in Croatia. It was founded in 1949 as a nature sanctuary for 73,000 acres of land, and was even made a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “outstanding natural beauty.” And here are some pictures to show you just how incredible Plitvice’s natural beauty really is…

Tori and I really enjoyed Plitvice because it was a combination of hiking and easy walking, and everywhere you looked your were surrounded by beauty and tranquility. Plitvice is full of natural waterfalls and lakes, and the colors of the water are out of this world. I’ve never been to a place so pure and unspoiled… Tori and I both joked about wanting to get married here, because the wedding pictures would be gorgeous.

Waterfall shot!

This picture’s beauty reminds me of a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature, to know his lurking places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, in nature.” Plitvice Lakes is full of God’s lurking places.

The water is so clear you can see the marine life below the surface!

There are 16 lakes in the park, and this one, called Kaluderovac, was my favorite (the word “jezero” [on the sign after Kaluderovac] means lake.) 

Plitvice is full of trails to explore, and around every bend is a new sight to overwhelm your senses.

Tori in front of a baby waterfall we stumbled upon. Our tour guide informed us that the park is full of natural waterfalls in the spring, when the snow melts!

This only means so much to me because we got to explore it together! So thankful all the memories I have from this trip were made with you. ❤

Exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park was our last stop in Croatia, and it definitely makes the list of my favorite stops on our trip. I’m not sure if I’d call it my favorite place in Croatia, because its impossible to compare Plitvice to the Dalmatian coast; its like comparing apples to oranges. But if you make it to Croatia, I would say your trip is incomplete with seeing both 🙂

Next stop, BOSNIA. 

EUROTRIP: Croatia–Driving Down the Dalmatian Coast

After a brief stopover in Slovenia to meet up with our tour group, we soon found ourselves driving across the border to Croatia. This was probably the country I was most excited to see on our itinerary; we planned the rest of our Euro-trip around Croatia, and even opted to pay for a tour of the country (instead of doing it on our own) so we could see as much as possible in the week we had to spend in Croatia.

The tour group consisted of mostly older couples; Tori and I were a solid 20-30 years younger than most of the participants. But there was a young Australian girl on the tour also, so we made friends with her 🙂 And there was also two couples speaking Russian, who turned out to be originally from Ukraine! They live in New York now, and are nationalized citizens, but they were all born and raised in Odessa. It was so fun to bond over Ukraine in Croatia! It was interesting to me what a low opinion they had of the quality of life in Ukraine; don’t get me wrong, Ukraine is definitely a developing country, but I’ve seen lots of improvement in the last two years and I recognize potential in the minds of my students. But I guess if the desperate conditions of Ukraine in the early 1990s (after the USSR collapsed) drove them to emigrate, I can understand why they would think life in Ukraine would be such a hardship for a (spoiled) American. I’m proud to say I’ve adapted, and also proud to say I’ve lived in Ukraine… but enough about Ukraine, back to CROATIA!

The view from the window of the bus (yes, this picture was taken from inside as we drove by!)

Another shot of the Dalmatian coast, taken on a restroom stop we made.

One of my favorite pictures of Croatia… it really is this breath-taking.

The best part of our tour was the coast–it made for some of most beautiful scenery ever for the long bus rides! The entire country of Croatia stretches down the Adriatic Sea, and this coastal area is referred to as the Dalmatian Coast. Our main stops on the coast were Zadar, Split, and Dubrovnik.

The green stars correspond to the cities we visited.

I made another handy dandy map for you to be able to visualize this leg of our trip: After driving down the coast to Dubrovnik, we entered Bosnia and Herzegovina. We stopped in Mostar and Sarajevo, and then drove north and entered Croatia again to stop at the Plitvice National Park. Then we toured Zagreb for a morning before returning to Ljubljana. 

The Old City in Zadar contains remains of an ancient Roman forum. Behind the ruins you can see the Church of Saint Mary, which dates back to 1066.

Our first stop in Croatia was Zadar, which is the historical center of Dalmatia. In the 7th century B.C. Zadar was an important trade center in the Mediterranean, attracting the Phoenicians, Etruscans, and Ancient Greeks. The Romans began invading in the 2nd century B.C., eventually becoming a province under the control of Julius Caesar in 59 B.C. Under Roman rule, Zadar continued to flourish and remained an important center on the Adriatic coast. As the Roman empire embraced Christianity, so did Zadar, and some of the most famous sites in the city today are remnants of ancient churches. 

Me standing in front of St. Donatus Church, which dates back to the 9th century.

Our next stop on the Dalmatian coast was Split, which like Zadar, was also strongly influenced by Roman occupation and colonization. Split is most famous for Diocletian’s Palace, which was built in the 3rd century A.D. by none other than Emperor Diocletian. Besides building this spectacular palace, his biggest claim to fame was persecuting Christians. He should’ve stuck to palace building, he did it well!

Here we have a bust of Emperor Diocletian…

And a mural of what his palace was designed to look like in the 3rd century A.D.

And here we have a beautiful shot of Diocletian’s Palace today.

 The most interesting part of Diocletian’s Palace is that the city of Split has grown up inside of the palace walls. Shops, cafes, and even apartments are located within this famous historical complex, so you can almost picture that activity that must’ve taken place in these very alleys 18 centuries ago. Plus you randomly see people dressed in period costumes, which definitely adds to the atmosphere. Tori and I got our picture taken with two such gentlemen, who were dressed as Roman centurions. I must admit, this was the highlight of our stop in Split 😉 

Actually, I think the Roman centurions tied for first place in Split with this amazing pizza we had… plus, dining in an outdoor cafe in the midst of an ancient Roman palace is really quite magical. I remember sitting at this cafe with Tori, taking cute pictures and just enjoying being there with her… Tori makes wonderful company, and just hanging out and having fun with her every day was a constant joy, not to mention the incredible places we got to see and explore! 

Pizza and wine in Diocletian’s Palace 🙂

After our pizza Tori and I spent a few hours exploring the palace and doing some souvenir shopping. She bought an incredible painting from a nice old gentleman who was painting on the street, and I looked at books about Croatia in Russian for my Ukrainian friends. But we were late getting back to the tour bus (I lost track of the time), and the old-timers gave us a hard time for the rest of the week about being late. Whoops!

A panoramic shot of Split; Diocletian’s Palace is on the right. Click to see a larger version!

After Split, our last stop on the coast was Dubrovnik, possibly on the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. Its the most popular city for tourists in Croatia, and the Old City of Dubrovnik is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. In ancient times, the port of Dubrovnik rivaled Venice in importance, and having been to both, I can definitely say that Dubrovnik rivals Venice in beauty. However, I think Venice wins by a hair because of the canals and the gondolas… Dubrovnik has no gondolas, and is just a bit too touristy for my taste. But it was still incredible!

The Port of Dubrovnik.

A huge bazaar full of souvenir stalls in the Old City of Dubrovnik.

Buying “rakija” for our Dad and brother; this Croatian specialty is made from fermented fruit. 

Tori and I exploring the city.

I think Dubrovnik was my favorite stop on our Croatia tour because we had the most free time there to explore. We made friends in the souvenir bazaar with a lady who brewed homemade “rakija,” a Croatian specialty made from fermented fruit. We ending up buying almost all the souvenirs we needed for our family members in Dubrovnik, because there were shops on every corner and we had enough time to browse and find something special for everyone on our list. We also took a boat tour of the port of Dubrovnik so we could see what the town looks like from the water, and ate some really fresh seafood at an outdoor cafe overlooking the water. 

The port of Dubrovnik; I loved the color of the water!

A view of Dubrovnik from the boat tour we took.

Fresh seafood in Dubrovnik!

My favorite night in Dubrovnik, Tori and I took a cable car to the top of the city to watch the sunset, and ended up spending hours chatting with a couple from Holland. The sunset was spectacular, the view from the top of the city was stunning, the company was great, and the weather was perfect. What more can you ask for? I remember wishing I could freeze time that evening… this night definitely goes down on my list as one of the best on our Eurotrip 🙂

Tori’s excited for the cable car ride!

An incredible view of the Old City of Dubrovnik stretching out beneath us as we rose higher.

Sunset on Dubrovnik, a beautiful shot taken by Victoria.

“We’re at the top of the world, you and I, we’ve gotta lot of time and it sure feels right…” 

Does it get any better than this? Incredibly enough, it does. Check out the next blog post to see the most beautiful place on earth: Plitvice National Park in Croatia.

EUROTRIP: Next stop–Vienna, Austria

Tori and I woke up in Vienna, Austria after a long night on the train. In Vienna we were trying something new–Couch-surfing! For those of you who’ve never heard of it, Couch-surfing is a pretty huge trend among young (poor) travelers who are traveling on a budget. All of my Peace Corps friends do Couchsurfing, and its a social-networking site similar to Facebook; you make a profile, upload a picture, talk about your passion for traveling, offer your “couch” (really any place a person can sleep at your place, be it a bed, couch, floor, sleeping bag, whatever), and then you can request other peoples’ “couches” in cities you are traveling to.

So on my Couch-surfing profile, I advertised that I was coming to Vienna and in need of a place to stay for two people. A Turkish guy named Ferhat responded to my request and offered me not only a couch, but the use of an entire apartment! One of his friends went back home to Turkey for a month, and he was apartment-sitting. It was a one-bedroom apartment, but plenty big enough for Tori and I to share. Plus, it was free–the beauty of Couch-surfing ; )

Ferhat met us at the Metro and took us to the apartment. We chatted for a while, drank tea, and he gave us some advice about what to see in Vienna. Then we made plans to meet up for dinner and an evening tour of the city, and he left for work. Tori and I got cute and set out to do a little site-seeing on our own, because we only had one day to see the city of Vienna. So basically we did a warp-speed tour… site-seeing on steroids. So many potential names for our whirlwind waltz of a tour through Vienna! (I hope you got that last pun- you know, the Viennese Waltz? Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

We started off by going to the museum quarter, where Ferhat recommended. It turns out that Vienna is a city full of museums; I bet you’d need at least a week to do them all justice! Tori and I opted instead to enjoy our time in Vienna outside in the sunshine. We took an open-air city tour, given by a guide who spoke five languages and repeated every line of the tour in all five languages. It was hilarious, because Tori was listening for the Spanish lines and trying to see how much she could understand, while I was listening to the Russian and cursing at its dissimilarities from Ukrainian ; )

The open air tour covered Imperial Vienna, so we got to see lots of palaces that have been converted to museums. My favorite stop was the Hofburg Imperial Palace, which today also houses the Austrian National Library. So incredibly beautiful.

Tori and I at the Hofburg Imperial Palace//Austrian National Library

Another beautiful building we saw on our tour was the Austrian Parliament. In front of the building sits the Athena Fountain, named and styled after the Greek goddess of wisdom. The fountain is meant to signify that the ruling is done wisely. Maybe we should add some Athena statues to Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and see if that doesn’t improve things 😉

The Athena Fountain in front of the Austrian Parliament Building.

We also saw many churches in Vienna, but our favorite, hands-down, was St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Also known as “Stephensdom,” this church is one of the tallest in the world. Its located in downtown Vienna, in “Stephensplatz” (Stephen’s Square) which today is a huge tourist center packed with shops and little cafes. We could’ve shopped here for hours if we had time (well, I could’ve shopped; Tori would’ve tagged along and put up with it), but we had a lot to see so we limited our shopping and stuck to site-seeing. : )

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Inside St. Stephen’s, one of the 18 altars in the cathedral.

We met up with our Couch-surfing host Ferhat in time for dinner, and he insisted on continuing our tour of Vienna. He took us to his personal favorite place, a huge chocolate store called “Julius Meinl.” I’ve never seen a chocolate store this size; it was two floors, stocked with every type of chocolate imaginable, imported from all over the world. There was even a cafe where you could order drinks especially designed to bring out the different flavors of chocolate. It was a chocolate-lover’s paradise 🙂 

Tori and I did some serious souvenir shopping here, trying chili-infused chocolate (don’t attempt it without something to wash it down with!) and buying our parents chocolate bars that said “danke” (thank-you in German!).

 I even found coffee-flavored chocolate! 

After our major detour to the chocolate store, we just made it to our last stop in time to witness an incredible sunset. The Schonbrunn Palace, a 1,441 room summer palace of the Hapsburgs, is today the most popular tourist attraction in Vienna. The gardens at the Schonbrunn are famous world-wide, and there is even a zoo! 

Sunset on the Schonbrunn Palace

This was only a summer palace, not even the official residence of the Hapsburgs!

I loved our day in Vienna; the city was so beautiful and clean, and the sites we saw were breath-taking. I wish we had had a week to explore instead of just a day! But I’m afraid that despite all the amazing things we saw, when I think back on our time in Austria my memories will be dominated by our second day there, which we spent riding bicycles on a wine tour of the Austrian countryside. I had found this tour online when I was planning our trip, and it was the perfect fit for us; bike-riding (something athletic for Tori) and wine-tasting (something right up my alley!). Plus, Tori was allowed to drink wine with me because the drinking age is 18 in Europe! Looking back, this was definitely one of my favorite days on our whole Euro-trip. After you see the pictures, I’m sure you’ll understand why : )

I managed to take this picture of Tori cycling through a vineyard while riding my own bike and not falling off!

Our day started at a metro station, where the whole group for the wine tour met up with our guide, Bernard. Once we were all together, we took a train to the town of Krems, about an hour outside of Vienna. Bernard outfitted us all with bikes, and then we were off! The pace of the day was very relaxed, as we cycled through the countryside and explored vineyards. Bernard explained the history of the region and led us through the basics of wine-tasting at each stop. We had wine-tastings at three wineries in total, and a fourth stop for schnapps, a specialty regional liquor made from fruit. Their peach schnapps is the most famous, and it was fun to try, but I liked the wine better personally. We also had a lunch break and time to explore a little village called Durnstein, which was full of cute little tourist shops. We ended up biking 28 kilometers, but it was spread out throughout the day so it was very manageable. The day concluded with a stop on the Danube River and a chance for a dip. I seem to recall a song about the “Beautiful Blue Danube,” but let me tell you, its more of a murky brown. I opted to watch (I had nothing to dry off with) and take pictures instead.

The countryside was so quaint and picturesque… one of the many little churches dotting the landscape.

Smile! We’re in an Austrian vineyard and having the time of our lives!

Tori and I exploring the village of Durnstein after our lunch break.

Durnstein is a tiny little village with some very famous history attached to it. Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was held captive here for 10 years in the late 1100s by the Duke of Austria while he waited for England to pay his ransom. If being the Duke’s captive meant living in a castle in Durnstein and drinking Austrian wine every day, I would do it gladly. No kidnapping required 😉

One of the family wineries we visited, Tori’s favorite.

Tori and I enjoying some white wine, Austria’s specialty.

The village of Durnstein from across the  not-so beautiful-blue Danube River; do you see the remains of a castle at the top of the hill? That’s where Richard the Lionheart was held captive!

One of my favorite parts of the tour–our sweet, hilarious, intelligent tour guide Bernard! Plus he’s Australian, so his accent was incredible 😉

The bike ride/wine tour was about 12 hours in total, so it was a very full day. But it was easily one of my favorite things we did on our trip, and I couldn’t get over the freshness of the air, the beauty of the countryside, the joy in the kilometers passing away as we rode on… I would definitely do this again, in Austria or even somewhere else that I travel. I forgot how much fun bike-riding is! Unfortunately, the end of our bike tour also meant the end of our time in Austria… the next morning we took a train to the next place on our itinerary: Ljubljana, Slovenia.

On the road [train] again… leaving Vienna and heading to Ljubljana!

After Vienna, Tori and I joined an organized tour traveling from Slovenia down the Croatian coast, across to Bosnia, and then ending where we started in Ljubljana. The blog post about Ljubljana will follow the Croatian entries, because we had more time in Slovenia at the end of the tour than at the beginning. So for now, check out the next post to hear about one of the most beautiful countries on God’s green earth… CROATIA.

EUROTRIP- First Stop Krakow, Poland

Tori and I had quite the adventure getting to Krakow. Our original plan consisted of taking the overnight train from L’viv to Krakow, but a few days before we left I was reading the fine print and I discovered that this train only runs on odd dates, but the night we were leaving Ukraine happened to be an even date. Kapietz. (A very popular Ukrainian slang word, similar to “crap.”) Luckily, my friend Natalia explained a cheaper route for getting to Poland. First we took the bus to the border. Then we got off and walked through the border check. (At this point, we were instructed to speak English loudly and look like tourists, and it worked! We got through ahead of everyone else!) Then we took a bus into the nearest town, Przemysl, where we bought train tickets to Krakow. 

We even had some free time to explore; this is the beautiful Przemyśl Cathedral.

We left L’viv at 9, and our train to Krakow left at 1 and arrived around 6. For this route (bus, walking across border, bus, train) we ended up paying around $30, whereas the overnight train would’ve been $50-60. Tori is excellent at budgeting, and always up for an adventure when it means saving money (even if it means walking across a border). Our first evening in Krakow, however, was a huge blow to our budget as well as to my travel confidence. First we get ripped off at an exchange place, and I mean really ripped off. If you see an “Interchange” sign, avoid changing money there at all costs! We saw other Interchange exchanges in our travels, and they all have misleading rates posted, and then take you to the cleaners once they have your money. Then we went to the train station to buy our tickets to Vienna, and the tickets costed $100 each, when my Internet research had told me to expect $65. Our first night in Krakow was rough on the budget and on my emotions… but luckily, after a Skype date with my Mom and a reality check, I got my head back in the game ; )

And I’m glad I didn’t let the money stress get to me, because Krakow was amazing. Its only 8 hours away from Ukraine, but its like traveling to a different world. Now I understand why Peace Corps Volunteers love border-hopping to Poland for a weekend here or there. The food was amazing, everyone spoke English, and there was always something fun happening. Tori and I stayed at the Mosquito Hostel, and I highly recommend it. Every night they had a different theme; one night Polish Vodka shots, another night Sangria, always followed by going out on the town. Tori and I made friends with some Canadian guys, and we had a wonderful time hanging out with them : )

Yummy Mexican food in Krakow!

Tori enjoying Polish folk music.

We also had a lot of touristy things to do in Krakow, in a short amount of time. We went on a walking city tour with probably the best tour guide I’ve ever had. We learned so much about Polish history on our tour, and she made it so entertaining! Here are some of my best pictures of Krakow.

This is Wawel Cathedral, where the ancient kings of Poland were crowned.

A closeup of Wawel Cathedral.

The Church of the Virgin Mary, in the central square of Krakow.

Sunset in the Old Town Square.

A panoramic shot of the Old Town in Krakow, with the Church of the Virgin Mary (center) and the Cloth Hall (on the right). Click to see the full-sized version.

Poland’s recent history is quite tragic, especially for its Jewish population. Krakow used to be a thriving center for European Jews, but after the Nazi occupation of Poland, most of them were forced into the Krakow Ghetto and then into concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Plaszow. The story of Krakow’s Jews was immortalized in the film Schindler’s List, in which Oscar Schindler recruits (and saves) Jews from the concentration camps by taking them to work in his factory. Tori and I watched this movie while we were home in Sokyriany, knowing we wanted to go to Auschwitz while we were in Poland. I would strongly recommend this movie; you might cry, but they’ll be good tears.

So one of our adventures was locating Schindler’s Factory, and it took a lot of walking and being lost before we stumbled upon it. It looks a bit different than in the movie, but at least we found it 🙂

“Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.”

Photos of Schindler’s Jews, whose lives he saved, in the windows of the factory.

Seeing Schindler’s Factory was the easy part of learning about what happened to the Jews in World War II. The hard part was the day we spent at Auschwitz, touring the concentration camp and hearing how so many people were tortured and murdered at the hands of the Nazis. Touring Auschwitz isn’t easy, but I do think its necessary, especially for trying to understand how the world could spin so out of control that something like this could happen. I found this quote so moving; “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” We should visit Auschwitz and remember the holocaust that occurred there so we never let something like that happen again.

The entrance to Auschwitz; this is actually a replica of the famous sign, “work sets you free,” because the original was stolen and is now kept safely in a museum.


A map showing how many roads in the 3rd Reich led to Auschwitz and extermination.

Its amazing how mountains and mountains of shoes can drive home an idea of how many millions of people were murdered like no statistic can.

The crematoria at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau… a strangely peaceful place today.

Auschwitz-Birkenau; the train tracks ended here, and it was the end of the line for so many people.

Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazies murdered about one and a half million men, woman, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.

I think you get an idea of how moving our stop at Auschwitz was, so I won’t say anymore. But in order to end this blog post on a lighter note, I’ll share photos from our last touristy-site in Polandthe Wieliczka Salt Mine! Our Dad saw this famous salt mine on a travel show on T.V. and encouraged us to add it to our itinerary, and I’m glad he did. It was a really cool place, one that has been very well-adapted to being a place of tourism. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the oldest in the world, but now as a tourist site it is full of salt statues, salt monuments, salt scenes depicting the history of mining, and even huge chapels and underground cathedrals carved out of salt! 

Waiting for our turn to descend into the depths of the mine, hoping we dressed warm enough for the cold deep underground!

A scene showing how the mine worked in the olden days; they even had horses deep underground to help with the mining, who were stabled inside the mine and never saw the light of day 😦

The Chapel of Saint Kinga, one of the coolest places in the mine. I loved the chandeliers! The pictures don’t really do it justice.

A picture of us for our Dad, in the Chapel of Saint Kinga.

Our tour guide offered taste tests, so we could verify the quality of salt produced here 😉 

A salt statute of King Casimir the Great, a famous Polish king from the Middle Ages who made Krakow a haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.

So there you have it. Tori and I had two and half days in Krakow and we made the most of it! Next stop: Vienna, Austria.

On The Road Again… or, Cross-Country Ukraine

Before our Euro-trip could officially start, Tori and I first had to get to Europe. Now Sokyriany is located close to the middle of Ukraine. I made a map for you to be able to visualize our journey, because I’m a map person : ) So refer to the red heart: this is Sokyriany. The first leg of our journey to Krakow, Poland, consisted of stops in Chernivtsi, Sniatin, Kolomyia, and L’viv, before crossing the border into Przemyśl, Poland. You can see Chernivtsi on the map, and nearby you see a green diamond. This is Sniatin, where my close friend Tammela lives. Only an hour from Sniatin (heading west) we have Kolomyia, where my friend Mike lives and where one can see the World’s Largest Easter Egg. Heading north you see L’viv, and then directly west we have Krakow, our first destination outside of Ukraine.

While we have this handy dandy map, we can outline the rest of our journey as well: from Krakow (the pink star) we took an overnight train southwest to Vienna, Austria (aqua triangle). From Vienna, we took a train to Ljubljana, Slovenia (which is next to the green cross). After heading east to Zagreb (capital of Croatia, symbolized by a yellow diamond) we traveled south along the Croatian coast, stopping in Zadar, Split, and finally Dubrovnik. Then we went east into Herzegovina, making stops in Mostar and Sarajevo (the inverted red triangle). Our last stop was Budapest, located above the purple square, from which we took a train back to L’viv, ending where we started. We pretty much circled around central and eastern Europe, stopping in 7 countries (including Ukraine) and doing as much as physically possible in just under 3 weeks 🙂 

I think that our first part of the journey, crossing Ukraine and getting to Poland, was probably the hardest. The main reason was luggage; Michelle had helped me pack a whole suitcase of things that I didn’t need in Ukraine anymore to send home with Tori, and we were planning on dropping it off in L’viv so Tori could fly back to America with it at the end of her trip. So hauling this monster suitcase in addition to all our Euro-trip luggage was a huge pain! Plus the weather was HOT and the rides on the marshrutkas and trains were terribly long, so by the time we were crossing into Poland we were already exhausted. But I’m getting ahead of myself : )

We left Sokyriany on a fine July day, taking a bus to Chernivtsi, a tram across the city, and another bus to the town of Sniatin. Tammela met us at the bus stop and gamely helped us lug all our bags across town to her apartment. We were her guest speakers at English Club that night, and afterwards we went for a walk to to the River Prut, which runs along the edge of Sniatin. Then we had a wonderful home-cooked meal at Tamm’s place, and Tori got to know and spend time with one of my dearest Peace Corps friends. Tamm and I planned this get-together weeks in advance so she’d get to meet my baby sister, and I’m so glad we worked it into the schedule 🙂

Tori, me, and Tamm in front of the River Prut.

The next morning, Tamm helped us flag down a bus to Kolomyia, where my friend Mike works as a Youth Development volunteer at a center for disabled children. Kolomyia is one of my favorite cities in Western Ukraine, and I made sure to put it on the itinerary so Tori could see the world’s largest Easter Egg. The Easter Egg is actually a museum, so you can go inside and learn about the Ukrainian tradition of “pysanky,” the hand-decorated Easter Eggs.

Tori and I in front of the World’s Largest Easter Egg

Mike also had a French guy who was Couchsurfing with him, so he showed us all around town and we stopped for coffee at the cutest outdoor cafe ever. Tori and I got a picture there, and it turned out to be quite precious, so I’m sharing it with you here!

From Kolomyia we took a train to L’viv, our last stop in Ukraine. Unfortunately for Tori, she felt extremely sick on the train. But on the upside, we saw a beautiful rainbow out the train window! (And no, this didn’t console Tori or make her stomach hurt any less. It did, however, make a great pic!) I chose to take the rainbow as a good omen for our adventure 🙂

When we finally made it to L’viv, Tori had already determined that one of the carry-on suitcases was going to find its final resting place in a garbage can, even if it meant having to re-pack at the end of our travels. I couldn’t wait to get rid of the big suitcase that was bound for America, and soon enough my friend (and former language trainer) Natalia met us at the station. We took a taxi back to her place, where my huge suitcase and the carry-on suitcase Tori despised remained! It was so great to leave them behind : )

Tori being a beast and carrying all this luggage!

It was also wonderful for Tori to be able to meet Natalia, who is probably my favorite Ukrainian girl ever. She’s sweet, hilarious, and incredibly patient (she must’ve been, to survive teaching my cluster Ukrainian for three months). Not only did she agree to keep our suitcases at her apartment, but she also fed Tori and I an incredible dinner after our long day on the train, and insisted on us staying with her and her family that night so we wouldn’t have to venture back outside in the rain to find a hostel. Then she and her mother explained the cheapest route for crossing the border, complete with bus and train timetables, to make our journey into Poland easier. I don’t know what we would’ve done without her : )

The next day she woke up and made us breakfast before walking us to the bus stop. She wished us well on our travels, and we were off! Leaving L’viv with only Tori’s backpack and my rolling carry-on, we felt incredibly light and ready to conquer the world. Or at least Poland 😉