Friday, October 5, 2012

Month Five Awards

Month four was a little tough. We just didn’t have much luck with travel days, the hostels were a bit below par and bad stuff just seemed to happen; like Bryan’s tooth filling falling out. At times, we wanted to go home.

Month five was the exact opposite. Everywhere we went was wonderful, with the exception of Varna, Bulgaria, which was nice, but more of a “month 4” type of place.
To recap, this month we went to: Zdiar, Slovakia – Budapest, Hungary – Dubrovnik, Croatia – Mostar, Bosnia i Herzegovina – Belgrade, Serbia – Varna, Bulgaria – Istanbul, Turkey – Goreme, Turkey


To be fair, at least five hostels we had this month would have been finalists for last month’s award. The month five hostels were great. In the end, we’re going to give a tie to two great, but very different hostels

The Ginger Monkey – Zdiar, Slovakia

The Ginger Monkey is an outdoor adventure retreat in the tiny town of Zdiar, Slovakia. It’s year round, but I would really expect the hostel to shine in the winter. It’s a ski-lodge based in the High Tatra Mountains on the Polish/Slovakian border. It’s a bit like a large family/college home, with a living room lined with couches surrounding a television set with a plethora of recent titles. About 20 people can stay at any given point and everyone rolls through the kitchen for breakfast, sharing tips on hikes, cave spelunking, nearby waterparks and other outdoorsy activities. There’s a large porch out front with a hammock, a chess set, travellers from around the world, a mountain view and Wally, the hostel dog. Slovakians are Europes most religious people, and the church next-door rings the bell four or five times a day to call people to prayer. Wally’s not a fan though, and howls to get it to stop. He always wins.

Villa Divine – Dubrovnik, Croatia

Ten years ago, Croatia was a budget destination and an up-and-comer on the travellers scene. Not anymore. The prices in Croatia rival Italy. It has upped and come. Villa Divine overlooks the bay coming into Dubrovnik, which is now one of the top tour-boat destinations in the south of Europe. As a result, you can watch the massive tourboats come in and out of the bay while eating a supurb buffet breakfast with about a dozen travellers. The wrap-around porch on top of the three story building provides excellent views while sipping on coffee or tea. The icing on the cake for Bryan was the handy languange cheat-sheet they handed out with some basic Croatian phrases, including, “Villa Divine je najbolja,” meaning “Villa Divine is the best!”

Best Tour

Bata!!! Mostar, Bosnia i Herzegovina

Sometimes, your tour guide is knowledgable, sometimes your tour guide is passionate. Sometimes, your tour-guide yells, “Shakey Wakey”, turns on disco lights inside of a van seating eight (but holding fifteen), jerks the wheel back and forth while doing 45 on a windy road and cranks up the so-bad-it’s-good turbo-folk, which is a type of music sweeping the Balkans. YouTube it. On second thought don’t. Bata is a Bosnian man of Islamic heritage who fled to Sweden during the war in the early 90s. He narrowly avoided the tragic ethnic cleansing that swept through Mostar, Bosnia, and will share an up-close-and-personal view of what happened. Plus, he grew up in Mostar so knows where the cool waterfalls are. Add in a Robin Williams level of energy and you have a very unique experience. This was the best tour of our trip so far.

Best Little Bit of Home

Chocolate Pudding – Budapest, Hungary

We were starving and couldn’t manage to find a breakfast place on our first day in Hungary, so we headed into a pay-what-you-take buffet. We had pizza, kebab, salad, and a bunch of other random things, but what stuck out to Leslie was the chocolate pudding. It was smooth, cold, tasty and had strawberries mixed throughout. Just like her mom used to make.

Worst Travel Day

Belgrade, Serbia -> Varna, Bulgaria

The plan was simple. Take the overnight train from Belgrade to Sofia, Bulgaria, then catch a connection to Varna. Well, the train to Sofia was about 6 hours late, making catching the connection impossible. We ended up on a bus that put us in Varna at 11pm instead of 1pm. Bryan assured Leslie that we weren’t walking through a bad part of town late at night, but she didn’t buy it. We ended up rolling into the hostel at 12:15am. They almost gave away our bed.

Best Travel Day

Varna, Bulgaria -> Istanbul, Turkey

We were disappointed when we learned there was no train from Varna to Istanbul, so reluctantly, we booked an all-day bus. It was awesome. Cushy seats, air-conditioning, and television sets embedded into the seat in front of you made the bus itself a treat. Couple this with a steward heading up and down the bus making sure you had water, coffee, tea and snacks and we left the bus in Istanbul more satisfied than we had ever been with a long bus ride.

Biggest Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins

So there’s four Scottish guys and a girlfriend in Zdiar, Slovakia that are leaving on the same day as the two of us. Unbeknownst to us, the guy decides to dump his girlfriend the day before they leave, telling her she’s not allowed to travel with them anymore. We learn this later, when Leslie finds her crying by herself in a train station five hours south. She had been waiting for hours. This guy litterally dumped his girl in the middle of a foreign country where she didn’t speak the languange and offered no help getting her to Budapest, where she was supposed to fly home two days later. She called his mom.

Best Restaurant

The Kofte Joint – Istanbul, Turkey

One of Bryan’s favorite shows at home is “Restaurant: Impossible”. On it, the high-powered chef helps out failing restauranteurs. One of his things is making sure the menu is short. How are your customers supposed to know what your best dish is if there’s 150 things on the menu? The Kofte Joint in Istanbul has 9 things on the menu. Kofte, Lamb Kebab, Pickled Peppers, Lentil Soup, Seasonal Salad, Bean Salad, water, Coke and ayran.
In fact, it’s a three story restaurant running four massive barbeques. Each one is cranking out Kofte as quickly as possible as hundered of people file in and out to get their fix of the spicy Turkish meatball. It comes with a side of the pickled peppers, bread and a dollop of home-made spicy pepper sauce. Usually, people order the “ayran” which is a yogurt/milk drink that helps cut the spice if it’s too spicy. In fact, this place is famous for both foreigners and locals alike. It’s so popular, that like many restaurants, it has pictures of celebrities greeting you on the wall when you come in. We didn’t recognize most of them. There was a special place of honor, right by the front door for President Clinton. Bubba likes meatballs.


Dubrovnik, Croatia

So there’s a little bit of cheating here, because the “Old Town” in Croatia is one of the newest Old Towns in Europe. That said, the city walls are breathtaking. The entire main street is build out of a white stone and the way it juts straight up out of the water makes it stand far and above any of the other old towns we’ve seen.


The Border, Bulgaria -> Turkey

We’ve been traveling throughout the European common passport area for so long that we’d forgotten that there can be fees to get visas. As a result, when we got asked for money to get into Turkey we had nothing. They accepted Turkish Lira, US Dollars, Euro and Bulgarian currency, but we had none of that. Fortunately, the Turkish man working on the bus floated us a loan until we made it to a cash machine inside of Turkey. Big thanks to that guy, and a big reminder why you should always carry some Euros and/or USD. No, the pound doesn’t cut it anymore. Sorry, Britian.


Garlic Soup – Zdiar, Slovakia

One of the best parts of traveling is running into amazing foods that you had no idea existed. We felt this way with Slovakian Garlic Soup. So many recipes call for garlic, but so few are gutsy enough to say, “Hey! This recipe is about the garlic!” Slovakian Garlic Soup is kind of like French Onion, except made with garlic, then shaved cheese and shaved garlic are mixed and put into the bottom of the soup. Crusty croutons (preferably rye) cover the top and the result is a cheesy-gooey, crouton-crunchy, garlicy delight. This soup should be better known.


Dubrovnik, Croatia

The food is great, the people are friendly and the water is gleaming. When people think of gems in this part of the world, they think of Italy. We proudly beg to differ. The Old Town of Croatia is the most beautiful Old Town we’ve seen, but combine this with a very good public transportation system, interesting architecture and stunning natural beauty and Dubrovnik will hold its own with any place in the world. The only thing we didn’t like was that every day there were multiple, new 2,000 person cruise ships that were coming in to see the city. Thousands of people would disembark and rush through the city, only to return to their ships and leave. On the one hand, they drove up prices, clogged up the fun things to see and never got out of the Old Town. On the other hand, those massive cruise ships know what they’re doing. I’m just glad that the bay can only fit a couple of them at a time.

Honorable Mentions

We loved month five and it was incredibly hard to choose which city was best. Zdiar, Mostar and Istanbul all deserve a shout as wonderful destinations.

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