Category Archives: Europe

Roadtrip along the Coast of Portgual: One Week in the Algarve + Portuguese Riviera

An indulgent week of wine, cheese, fresh seafood, and coastline, at clearance sale prices…and only a short flight from the US.  Sound like a dream vacation?  Read on.
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Ponta de Piedad, Lagos

The Inspiration
In 2008, I’d visited Lisbon, Portugal with my brother on our way to southern Spain.  We explored the lovely, but unremarkable, capital, and hopped on a bus that traversed the coast before crossing the border.  The views were breathtaking.  Watching the sun set from the bus window, I promised myself I’d return to explore the Algarve coastline.
Fast forward 9 years: Boyfriend and I are brainstorming week-long vacation locations.  We’re trying to find that perfect balance: not too far for just one week, good food/wine/weather, beautiful scenery,  and relaxing but also just enough exploration that it doesn’t feel like we’re just going down a Fodor’s checklist.  Oh, and our first international vacation together.  Ante upped.
I offered up the idea of a road trip through Portugal.  Quick, inexpensive flights from NYC.  Sunny, not-too-hot days in May before the European tourists descended upon it for the summer season.  Seafood, cheese, and wine to our hearts’ content.  Small enough to visit multiple locations without spending alldayeveryday in a car.  And massively inexpensive, not just relative to the rest of Europe, but in absolute terms.  The best of Europe, on clearance sale.  After some quick Facebook crowdsourcing, we had our itinerary.
The Itinerary
We spent just over a week in Portugal, flying into Faro and out of Lisbon, but this itinerary could easily be done in reverse, or as a roundtrip in and out of the same airport.   We stayed in Albufeira, Lagos, and Sagres in the Algarve and then spent 2 nights in the Portuguese Riviera in Estoril/Cascais. We spent ~ 2 nights in each town.  However, we both agreed that were we to do the trip again, we’d spend more nights in our favorite towns and just add in day trips to other places – which is what I’ll recommend below.
PRO TIP: If you know how to drive a manual car, rent that.  We paid ~100 Euro for the week (which includes the “one-way fee”), instead of 4x that for an automatic car.  If you don’t know how to drive stick shift: learn.  For Portugal and for life.And if you don’t know how to navigate a roundabout…don’t worry you’ll get plenty of practice on this trip.
We flew into Faro and drove immediately to Albufeira, ~45 minutes away from the airport. Albufeira served as our base for our first few days to explore the cute fishing village of Portimao, the beach resorts of Praia de Rocha, and the dramatic “Cliff” beaches of Falesia. However, we would recommend driving the extra hour on day one and base-camping in Lagos.  All of the sights can be visited as quick day trips from there.  Must: eat at Os Arcos in Portimao.  You’ll need a reservation.  And you’ll need to get the seabass and the garlic shrimp.  You can thank us later.
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Cliffs of Falesia

Our recommendation:  Spend most of the week in Lagos and Sagres.
Lagos is a quintessential ancient port city.  While its cobblestoned “old town” can be visited in one day (good place for gifts, but otherwise not much), Lagos has great restaurants, bars, and beaches – and with several great resorts and Airbnb options, it’s central enough to unpack there for a few days.
Where to stay: Cascade Wellness and Lifestyle Resort.  Out of the center of town (quick drive), beautiful pools and great food. Or – lots of great Airbnb options for houses with pools!
What to do: DO NOT MISS: sunset at Ponta de Piedade.  Rent bikes from Praia Dona Anna and bike to Ponta de Piedade, which we would’ve done with more time.  Go on a boat and explore the caves (we did this elsewhere).
Where to eat: Get the fish of the day at Dom Sebastiao, which is an old-school restaurant in town. At Cascade, the tapas (black pork and Serpa cheese with pumpkin jam) was something we talked about for weeks afterward.
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Ponta de Piedade

Sagres, sits on the end of the continent.  At the tip of the continent of Europe, surrounded by sawgrass, is the tiny Portuguese surfer village of Sagres.  It feels like the end of the earth in the most delightful way.
Where to stay: Memo Baleeira Hotel, incredible location, short walk into town and right on the water.  Great views.  And inexpensive.
What to do: Spend part of the day at Cape St. Vincent, aka end of the continent. Watching the waves crash against the giant cliffs is simply breathtaking. We also did dolphin watching there in a tiny boat w a marine biologist. Dolphins!!!

 

Where to eat: Eat at Vilha Venha – shrimp in piri piri, drumfish with coriander and garlic. Friends also raved about Carlos, which is across the street.   Our personal favorite: the local grocery store, which had insanely good wine and cheese; we bought some and climbed the hill next to the hotel – which overlooks the port – to watch sunset there.  According to our hotel’s concierge, the views are just as good as those from the fort (which we skipped).  It did not disappoint.

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End of the Continent, views from Cape St. Vincent, Sagres

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Dophin cruiser!

The Portuguese Riviera: Estoril, Cascais, and the castles of Sintra
For our final days in Portugal, we drove up the coast and explored the Portuguese Riveria resort towns of Estoril and Cascais and the UNESCO world heritage center of Sintra.
Estoril and Cascais are located about 25 minutes outside Lisbon, technically making them suburbs of the capital, but these coastal towns gained popularity first as the vacation spot for Portuguese royalty in the late 19th century and then as the residences of most royalty-in-exile during WWII.  The towns are beautiful – the architecture charmingly 19th century – and the two are connected by 3km beachfront promenade.
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Walking along the promenade that connects Estoril & Cascais

What to eat: try a pastil de nata custard pastry (we had several!).  MUST: Get reservations at Conceito Food Store, one of the best meals we had in Portugal.  It’s a creative, curated tasting menu and experience, based on Portuguese cuisine. You won’t know what they’re serving that night until it’s on your plate in front of you, but each dish was better than the one before.  Advanced reservations are a must.
If you have friends who have visited Portugal, chances are you’ve seen photos of Sintra.  Known for its Romantic architecture, photos of places like the multi-colored cake-topper known as Pena Palace have been the constant subject of Instagram photos.  Located in the Sintra Mountains/Sintra-Cascais Nature Park, a winding 20-minute drive from Estoril/Cascais (car sickness is essentially guaranteed), it’s worth spending a day in Sintra.  Our tourist highlights included the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace (pro tip: hire a driver for the day, there are so many tourists that it is hard to grab a cab outside the main sites).  We found some of our favorite gifts in town.  And then we walked around and ate all the foods.
Recommendations include Cantinho Gourmet (16 euro for a to-die-for cheese and meat board, see photo!), chocolate shot glasses filled with sour cherry liqueur (found in every chocolate shop in town) and Port tasting in the wine store across from the Nacional Palace.

Could not have dreamt up a better first international trip w the boyfriend…which has only served to create a major case of double wanderlust.  More trips to follow!

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Balkans Road Trip Part V: Montenegro & the Adriatic Coast

It’s hard not to be enchanted by the coastline of Montenegro.  It is what I imagine Croatia was 15 years ago, on the cusp of becoming a highly touristed destination, but still a hidden gem.  Montenegro is the only country we visited that is on the Euro, making it pricier than Serbia and Bosnia, but still quite inexpensive as compared to its neighbors Croatia and Italy.  The food is the best of all worlds: excellent Mediterranean fish,  pizzas, pastas, and, of course, bureks.

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Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)

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Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)

in town

Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)

Highlights:

  • The only ‘fjord’ in the Mediterranean, the Bay of Kotor, and all of the little towns along the Bay.
  • Don’t miss: make a dinner reservation at Galion Restaurant in Kotor and sit out on the water for the sunset.
  • The walled old city of Budva (which is like a mini Dubrovnik) and 3 miles down the Coast, the (now) private island resort of Sveti Stefan, famous as the vacation destination of Elizabeth Taylor and Sofia Loren
St Stefan

Sveti Stefan, private island resort

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View of the bay of Kotor from Galion restaurant (town of Kotor)

 

Word of warning:  Montenegro’s “undiscovered” nature lends it to be a tough place to drive/navigate.  The roads are unmarked, unnamed, sometimes unpaved, un-railguarded on the sides of cliffs, and one lane for two ways of traffic (particularly in Lovcen National Park).

GPS

25 Hairpin turns up a mountain later…

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Ari & Pierre in the old town of Kotor

 

 

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Balkans Road Trip Part IV: Mostar, Herzegovina

Just a few hours south of Sarajevo, Mostar feels like a different world.  It is closest destination in Bosnia to Dubrovnik, Croatia and as we entered this mixed Croat/Bosniak city in Herzegovina, we fell back in love with the Adriatic landscape that enticed us to return to the Balkans to begin with – particularly the drama of the mountains plunging into bright blue-green waters.
Mostar is one of the Balkan’s most well-known gems and it is a-bustle with tourists who stop by for an hour or two during the day; it’s even the cover of the current Lonely Planet Southeastern Europe guide book.  There isn’t much to do in the town itself aside from take pictures on and of the eponymous bridge and, for the those who dare, jump off the bridge.   That said, it’s well-worth the stop, especially as a point to relax and break up the drive to Montenegro or Croatia, and a great base from which to go out on day trips and excursion in and around the area.

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The famous Mostar Bridge

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Where to Eat, Drink, & Stay
Admittedly somewhat touristy, we enjoyed great food at Sadravan and Konoba Taurus, and drinks at the fun Black Dog Pub overlooking the water, included the locally brewed OldBridz brown ale.  We stayed right in town at Villa Fortuna, which has the most charming inn keeper, if not the most reliable internet.

 

from the drive down to Mostar from Sarajevo

from the drive down to Mostar from Sarajevo

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Balkans Road Trip Part III: Sarajevo, City of Heartbreak

Sarajevo is a tale of two cities: the city before 1992 and the city after.

Pre-1992 Sarajevo is that which is first apparent to visitors; it is the city of east-meets-west, where, from the center of town, the eastern side of the city is a mini Istanbul, reflecting its establishment and first 400 years as an Ottoman Turkish city.  From the west of the center, the city is a mini-Vienna, reflecting its 40 (highly productive) years of Austro-Hungarian rule, which brought Europe’s first electric-tram system.  It is the city where Gavrilo Princip, trained by the Black Hand in Serbia, assassinated the future Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand – the excuse for the start of World War I.  It is the city that was known as little Jerusalem, where from a main square, one was never more than a few hundred feet of an Eastern Orthodox church, a Catholic Church, a mosque, and a synagogue.  It was the gem of the former united Yugoslavia, when it hosted the 1984 XIV Winter Olympic Games.

Sarajevo was under siege from 1992-1995, surrounded by the Serb army, the scars of the war are visible on the facades of buildings, on the Sarajevo Roses around town (red resin filling in mortar scars indicating where people were killed during the war), from the tour guides who are no older than I am who talk about growing up in a city under siege, and by the abandoned Olympic venues – which are now surrounded by land mines and are a haunting reminder of just how transient the coming together of nations can be.

Bosnia & Herzegovina today is complicated beyond my understanding.  It is mandated as two territories post-war – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS).  It has 3 postal systems, 2 tax systems, and 3 governments with 3 presidents (one Bosniak, one Serb, one Croat), which has lead to the 45% official unemployment rate.

Sarajevo, as the New York Times wrote last year, has a charisma that “is intoxicating, but the hustle and bustle belies a tragic past.”

It is hard not to fall in love with Sarajevo, but it is a city that will break your heart.

The eastern side of Sarajevo is a mini Istanbul

The eastern side of Sarajevo is a mini Istanbul

The western side of the city is a mini Vienna

The western side of the city is a mini Vienna

mini Vienna

mini Vienna

What to do

  • Don’t miss a walking tour of the city, we loved the Free Walking Tour with Neno, a Sarajevo-born guide just a few years younger than I am, who presents his personal history alongside that of the city
  • The underground tunnels (near the airport) from the siege time – which has an interesting 12 minute documentary and 25 meters of tunnel still open
  •  the abandoned Olympic venues – impossible to get to by public transportation, but well worth renting a car or going with a tour (most of the hostels and a few of the tour companies will run them) (thanks to T.Cain for this rec!)
  • Gallerija 11-7-95, which I wrote about here
  • The food!! Recommendations below.
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The siege tunnels from 1992-1995

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The Latin Bridge where Archbishop Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, aka the beginning of WWI

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The red resin “Sarajevo rose” over the mortar shell scar

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The abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympic Winter Games

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The abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympic Winter Games

Where to eat

  • Bakeries selling Bureks, the phyllo pastries filled with cheese, spinach, potato, or meat, are on every corner, but we highly recommend Buregdzinica Bosna, which is in the old town, and came touted as the best in the city (we won’t argue with that!)
  • Bosnian coffee at Divan – also in the city, and a great place for people-watching
  • Cevapici, the mini-sausage version of Turkish Kebabs, served with pita and onions.  The city is divided on its favorite Cevapdzinica along sports team allegiance, but Zeljo and Ferhatovic are a toss up for #1.

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Where to stay

  •  Once again, we opted for AirBNB.  The $35/night apartment (6 minutes from old-town )was only bested by the adorable host parents who adopted us for our time there (the apartment is owned and rented by their daughter and attached to their home)

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Balkans Road Trip Part II: The (treacherous) drive from Serbia to Bosnia & Herzegovina

Part A: The Road Trip

After a few great days in Belgrade, Serbia, it was time to get on the road and begin the actual road trip.  When I originally decided that now was the right time to do my long-awaited Balkans trip, there were a few modes of transportation that I’d looked into.  Trains were out of the question, as many of the lines were never restored post-war and those that were, are outdated and take twice as long as any other mode of transit.  Our options were buses or driving – we opted for the latter for the flexibility in travel itinerary and timing – and despite what transpired, it was one of the best travel adventures I’ve ever had.

There were some obstacles we were made aware of from reading blogs before the trip, namely:

  • a manual-transmission car
  • the lack of highways
  • reckless drivers
  • one-lane roads that cling to the sides of the mountainous topography
  • land mines that remain on the side of the roads once you enter into Bosnia – wartime remnants from the Serb army

There were some obstacles that were a surprise:

  • a total lack of roads entirely for some stretches
  • roads in total disrepair that were barely drivable (7 mph, max)
  • our cell phones not working at all in the Balkans (thank you, Verizon)
  • flooding caused by the torrential rains during parts of our drive

We took a detour to stop in Srebrenica – my thoughts are below – and so, in its entirety, the journey took us 8+ hours from Belgrade to Sarajevo, which is 120 miles as the crow flies.  Stocked with a great Spotify music playlist, a bagful of pastries from Belgrade, and the best co-pilot/company a girl could ask for, we ended up having an incredible adventure – and one I won’t forget anytime soon.

 

Sometimes there were roads...

Sometimes there were roads…

Sometimes there were not...

Sometimes there were not…

Beautiful Bosnian countryside, though we dared not step off the road to take pictures, because of the land mines.

Beautiful Bosnian countryside, though we dared not step off the road to take pictures, for fear of land mines.

Part B: Stopping in Srebrenica on Yom Hashoah

I was 11 years old when the genocide in Srebrenica took place in July 1995.  I had just finished 5th grade.  I remember hearing the news coverage of the systematic massacre of 8300 Bosniak (ethnically Muslim) boys and men age 12-77 by the Serb army as the Dutch UN peacekeepers stood by and watched.  Here’s a link for a brief recap of the history.

The moment we decided to make this a road trip, I decided I needed to stop in Srebrenica along the way.  It’s not “my” history per se, but perhaps as a Jew (and as a former camp counselor who brought students to bear witness at the concentration camps in Poland), I felt compelled to acknowledge the history of the other 20th century European Genocide.  What I didn’t realize until the night before, is that the day of our trip was Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I don’t want to add much commentary for fear that anything I might possibly be able to write risks making the experience seem trite.  My only note is  how particularly difficult it was to read the echoes of the Holocaust’s “never again” in the memorial prayer in the cemetery  “…May mothers’ tears become prayers that Srebrenica Never happens again to no one and nowhere,”  because it did happen, again – and in our lifetime – as the world watched, again.

For visitors to Sarajevo, Gallerija 11/7/05 is a moving 2 room gallery with a photo exhibit and a 27 minute documentary that is not to be missed, despite the heavy topic.  (Because it was the 1990s, the Serbs were broadcasting much on their news coverage – which is now part of the documentary.)

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Balkans Road Trip Part 1: Belgrade, Serbia

It’s a city not known for it’s beauty.  In fact, it’s often referred to as one of Europe’s ugliest capitals.  But what Belgrade, Serbia, lacks in aesthetic , it makes up for in personality.  A city whose most recent history includes its dark role as the capital of former Yugoslavia, Belgrade is one of Europe’s oldest – and most conquered – cities (having been settled by Celts and conquered 38 times – by the Romans, Slavs, Byzantines, Frankish Empire, Bulgarian Empire, Ottomans for 500 years, and Hapsburgs).

With a few delightful pedestrian boulevards (Knez Mihajlova  and the Bohemian Skadarlija in particular) scattered amongst the rest of the city’s crumbling Soviet-era cement blocks, Belgrade’s true charm lies in its under-developed tourism (and prices!) and perfectly developed, thriving nightlife.

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    With Ari’s Serbian friend Tamara in front of St. Sava church, which has been under construction for 80 years

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    Remnants from the 1999 NATO Bombing

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    The iconic Hotel Moskva

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    The main pedestrian area Knelz Mihailova

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    Sunset from the public park at the Fortress looking over the Sava and Danube rivers

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    The famous Victor monument

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    Knelz Milhailova at night

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    me & the bro walking around the bohemian Skadarlija street

 

We arrived for both the largest football match in the city (with riot police lining every street) and the Belgrade marathon (which was drastically different from my favorite day in New York).

What to do:

  • “Walking tour”  There are free walking tours that run daily, or you can do what we did and create your own (click for our map), check out the itinerary below – you can see almost everything in <2 hours.  Best of all, nearly all of Belgrade’s attractions are free (and are local, not tourist, spots)
  • Belgrade Underground – our one paid tourist activity, and glad we did it.  A great (and passive) way to discover the hidden underground places from Belgrade’s 38 times being conquered, including Yugoslavian bunkers, ancient Roman ruins, and Ottoman buried wells. 12 Euro.
  • Nightlife!  See below – don’t miss it!
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Walking through the underground bunkers

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Entrance to the Yugoslavian secret bunkers

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Looking out from the fortress onto the Danube

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Ari in front of the ancient Roman ruins…in what once operated as a club

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Military remnants & the military museum

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Gov’t buildings at night

Eating, Drinking, and Nightlife:

  • A mix of Eastern European with some Turkish influence, Serbian food is, on the whole, not particularly inspiring.  The highlight was the cheese-filled phyllo dough burek pastries, which we lived on the entire weekend.  Note: Almost all bakeries (pekaras) are closed on Sunday, which we learned the hard way
  • Nightlife starts late.  Begin with dinner/snacks at 10pm at a kafana, which is a traditional tavern.  The best have live bohemians bands that play Serbian traditional music, from whom increasingly-rowdy tables of guests “order” their favorite sing-alongs.  Make sure to order some rakija, the traditional Serbian brandy shots made from various fruit.  We had apple, pear, plum, and peach, each less palatable than the one before, but all part of the experience.  Reservations for kafanas are required, even if they look empty.
  • Conclude the night with one (or many) of Belgrade’s clubs.  We went to Plastic, which is the most well known in Serbian nightlife.  People don’t start arriving until about midnight – the party closes at 4 and moves next door to Mint, the after party club with shared owners.  As the weather warms, people walk from one to the next of the floating clubs along the river, which boast international DJs and impressive parties.  There are no cover fees to enter the clubs, but reservations are required.  Drinks are extremely inexpensive – with Rakija/whiskey costing $2-$4 per drink.  No wonder the nightlife is so impressive!
  • Lastly, I have to mention the homemade wine.  It’s terribly sour…but apparently it’s Serbian custom to mix it with Coca Cola, which forms a saccharine drink they call “bamboo.”  Don’t ask.
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The band serenading patrons in the smoke filled kafana

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#untzuntz at Plastic

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#letustakeaselfie at the club

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Sour homemade wine + Coca Cola = bamboo?

Where to stay

  • At $54/night, our AirBNB rental a few minutes walk from the city center could not be beat.

Our (approximate) walking tour
1. Tasmajdan park and Church St Marko
2. National Parlament 
3. Terazije Street (with the iconic Hotel Moskva)
4. Trg Republike
5. Skadarlija  – great Kafanas!
7. Studenski Trg 
8. Knez Mihajlova – the main pedestrian thoroughfare 
9. KALEMEGDAN FORTESS – go for sunset, you’ll be glad you did! 
10. Belgrade Port 

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Balkans Road Trip

It’s about that time of year again, when I realize how long it has been since my last adventure.  Wanderlust has set in with full force and so I did what I always do and booked tickets.

With an arrival in Belgrade, Serbia and a departure from Podgorica, Montenegro the following week…are you thinking what I’m thinking (of course you are, it’s in the title): Balkans Road Trip!

Ideas for places to stay & things to do are always welcome!

balkans-political mapped

 

April 26: Belgrade, Serbia
April 27: Belgrade, Serbia
April 28: road trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina with a stop in Srebrenica
April 29: Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
April 30, Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
May 1: Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
May 2 Kotor, Montenegro
May 3: Kotor/Budva/Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
May 4: Depart from Podgorica, Montenegro

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