Europe Travels July-August 2010

Europe Debrief

Jenny and I traveled to Europe for 1 month from July 10, 2010 to August 8, 2010. To be honest, I am not usually a fan of traveling. I enjoy the routines and comforts of my normal life – working, sleeping in my bed, working out, and going for walks in the Metroparks. I am also not typically a fan of art, museums, architecture, sight-seeing, trains, or flights. Nonetheless, I promised Jenny that we would travel to Europe together for her first trip to the continent, and we booked our flights and went.

We structured our vacation to:

    • Have hotel reservations Tuesdays through Thursday.
    • Treat Fridays through Mondays as “flexible days” to pick and choose places based on our whims.

Our reservations were in the following cities:

We spent our “flexible days” in:

Trip highlights

My loving cousin and Aunt created a photo album for me as a surprise! Before our trip began, we stopped in Wolverhampton, England to see my uncle, cousin, and aunt. My family from England has always done an incredible job of staying in touch and visiting often. I have so many memories growing up with them – fishing, traveling to Spain and Switzerland together, boat rides, birthdays, and holidays.

My immediate family has also not been good at documenting a lot of my childhood. Therefore, I don’t have many pictures from my youth. I have no idea if my aunt and cousin realized this – but despite living in a different continent, they had taken more pictures of me growing up than my parents. As a surprise, my aunt and cousin presented me a photo album from my childhood! It was incredibly meaningful and thoughtful to relive so many memories through the album. I literally went through the pictures three times in a row reminiscing about all the memories.

Paris is a beautiful city. I had not seen Paris in over 10 years, and barely remembered it. Though our stay was cut short due to hotel issues, I loved the energy of the city. It seemed to be a great mix of modern life and historic Europe. We did not get a chance to experience as many restaurants as we planned, but walking around the city for a day gave us a great feel for the place. We did manage to check out the Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Eiffel Tower, and stroll along the Seine River and outside the Louvre. Paris felt different from New York because it had much more history, tradition, and cohesion. I’d love to go back soon.

Great restaurants in the French Riviera (Nice). The food and wine in Southern France were an outstanding mix of French and Italian influences. Our guidebook (Rick Steve’s) told us not to expect much from the food in Nice, but it could not have been more off the mark.

Wine Notes (6 Rue Sainte-Réparate 06300 Nice, France), a small restaurant in Old Town Nice, was so good that we went there twice in our short visit. They had a wonderful Fois Gras with berry extract and bread. I know – I am not usually a fan of duck liver, but this was different because the sweet extract balanced the creamy Fois Gras. The horseradish-marinated pork was incredibly tender and had a wonderful pesto sauce. Our crème brule was perfectly sweet and crisp. Finally, the wine pairings, live piano player, and casual atmosphere made this a memorable experience

Boni (15, rue Tonduti de l'Escarene, 06000 Nice, France) was another restaurant in Nice that was an experience to remember. It had particularly attentive service with the owner and chef providing personalized recommendations. The evening’s menu was heavily mushroom-focused because of the season. I have cooked mushrooms several times, but have never especially liked their taste. Nonetheless, I have never tasted or experienced mushrooms as delicious as these, and I don’t totally understand why. We also had an eggplant tempura, calamari, and cheese fondue as our other 3 appetizers. The cheese fondue was extraordinary, and the other dishes were also tasty.

Hiking through the rocks of Antibes, France

The beaches in the French Riviera are rocky and not great for laying out. Therefore we tried to do as many day hikes as possible and would jump into the Mediterranean off the trails whenever we wanted to swim. The hike down the cape of Antibes was beautiful because of the rock formations, sea, and mountains in the background. The trail was easily hikeable in a few hours and had private steps down to the sea for those who wanted to swim around the secluded rocky coves. There were also several mansions and a private helicopter that flew into one of the residences while we were walking. It was very cool.

Cinque Terre, Italy

There are 5 beautiful cities on the western coast of Italy that form Cinque Terre or “Five Towns.” We spent 3 nights in the most picturesque and least touristy of the towns, Manarola. There is a hike through all five towns, but we got so swept up in enjoying our daily walks and delicious meals that we never did the hike. Jenny’s description of the place is that “it is heaven on earth.” The sea, hills, laid back town culture, food, Italian grandmothers, natural landscape, vineyards, and seclusion make it easy to lose track of time. We could have spent 2 months there and still felt that we needed more time.

Miky Restaurant in Riomagarrio, Italy

Our best restaurant experience in Cinque Terre was at Miky Restaurant (Via Fegina 104, Monterosso al Mare, Italy). Food at this Italian dream restaurant exceeded our expectations. Their scampi crepes were one of the best dishes I had throughout Europe. Their salad and fish second plates and desserts were also outstanding.

Hiking the Alps (Murren, Switzerland)

Jenny and I were able to sneak away to Murren, Switzerland for a few days to relax, go hiking, and eat a lot of Swiss and German-influenced meals. Our most memorable aspect of Switzerland was an extensive day hike through the mountains, farms, and streams of the Swiss Alps. The views of the snow-capped mountains were extraordinary. When walking for hours on end, I sometimes find myself in a wonderful clear-minded meditative state. This was certainly the case during this hike.

Dinner at Osteria alle Testiere in Venice

Venice was exceptionally crowded and touristy during the day. I had been there 9 years ago, and remembered it being a beautiful city with canals, great restaurants, and a rich history. The Venice we walked around had portions of the Venice I remembered, but also over-crammed boats, countless generic tourist kiosks, and boring high-end shopping.

I thought Venice had lost its appeal until our evening at Osteria Alle Testiere (Sestiere Castello, 5801 30122 Venezia, Italia). This restaurant was exceptional! We started with scallops in a peppermint and lemon dressing. The scallops were fresh and perfectly cooked, and left me smiling after every bite. Our second dish was swordfish pasta, which once again was a wonderful light dish. Finally, our sea bass main course completed our ideal meal. The last time I enjoyed seafood this much was probably Pearl Oyster Bar in New York.

Then, walking home at 10:00pm, Venice magically transformed into the city I remembered. The cool night breeze, beautiful buildings, romantic canals, countless bridges, and lack of crowds made me fall in love with the city once again.

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest was a refreshing departure from the touristy destinations of Paris, Venice, Salzburg, and even Cinque Terre. Budapest is a real, livable city with a unique mix of Mongolian, Turkish, Russian, and German culture. Budapest is, in fact, two cities that merged together over time. Buda, the more residential, less crowded, and hilly side of the Danube river contains important castles and landmarks. Pest (pronounced Pesht) is well organized with avenues and streets, and contains a high density of restaurants, bars, casinos, hotels, pubs, and clubs.

Hungary has an odd history of being oppressed by a number of different foreign regimes throughout its existence. Most recently, Hungary earned its independence from Communist Russia in 1990 and since then has been slowly transitioning to capitalism. Several people in Hungary still look back fondly on aspects of the communist regime.

Budapest was also built on large geothermal springs and contains several highly decorated Turkish Baths, the oldest of which was built in the 1500s. These baths were a unique – albeit weird – experience. Thousands of Hungarians (and tourists) go to both indoor and outdoor geothermally heated high-mineral content baths to sit in, relax, congregate with friends, and heal themselves with the medicinal water. Nobody is swimming, sunbathing, or doing any of the typical activities you would see in America. The crowds simply sat in somewhat smelly baths for relaxation and medicinal purposes.

Overall though, I loved Budapest because of its grittiness, food, and unique mixture of different cultures.

Bock Biztro in Budapest, Hungary (Erzsebet krt.43-49)

This was a fantastic restaurant, and welcome departure from the standard eastern European Schnitzel, sausages, and sauerkraut. Our meal at Bock started with bread served with pork fat instead of butter! Surprisingly, the pork fat was a tasty butter substitution with a bacon-y taste. Our next course was a memorable somewhat spicy cheese-stuffed paprika. This dish was one of the best of our trip, the paprika pepper melted in your mouth, and the flavors tasted perfect together. Our next courses – salads, soups, duck with dill sauce, and pickles - helped make a great dining experience.

Row boating on the Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic

This truly was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip! Jenny and I bought a few beers at the dock, rented a rowboat for an hour, and floated around the Vltava River in Prague. After an exhausting day (and weeks) of walking around, sight-seeing, and eating, this was the perfect relaxing afternoon activity. After 10 awkward minutes of debating whether to pull or push while rowing, we were on our way. The Castle and Saint Vitus Cathedral overlooking Prague appeared straight out of a movie. Even though I am not good at appreciating architecture, floating on the river, being surrounded by beautiful buildings, and sipping traditional Czech beer (Ulsner Pilsner) with my lovely wife proved to be an outstanding activity.

St. John Restaurant in London

One of my main goals on this trip was to eat at as many of the Top 50 Restaurants in the world as possible. Unfortunately, we were only able to make it to two of them, and one, Osteria Francesca in Modena, Italy, was a bust.

Fortunately, St. John’s restaurant (26 St John Street London EC1M 4AY) was a home-run! The wait staff was down-to-earth, helpful, but not overbearing. The setting was minimalist with bare white walls except for painted big bold black letters stating “bakery” or “restaurant.” Obviously, the focus and energy of the place was on excellent food and service.

Our starters were roasted bone marrow, mackerel with cabbage, salad, and brown shrimp. The bone marrow was their signature dish and was out of this world. It contained veal shin bone marrow served with toast, fresh sea salt, and a dressing with parsley, lemon, oil, and capers. The dish seemed so simple that I could cook it at home. But for some reason, spreading the bone marrow on the toast, sprinkling the salt, and topping it with the parsley dressing created a combination of flavors that I will remember for the rest of my life. It was divine.

The mackerel with cabbages reminded me of wonderful cured whitefish from Barney Greengrass. All the other dishes were respectable, but the bone marrow dish truly stood out.

My main course was an ox heart with carrots and onions. Again, this dish was simply prepared – but also prepared perfectly. On the other hand, the ox heart texture took some time to get used to. It tasted thick and tough in the beginning, but after a few bites dissolved in your mouth like a pastrami. The carrots and onions were great compliments, but this dish was not amazing. I would definitely come back for the bone marrow though! J

Lessons Learned

Do not solely use Orbitz to select hotels

Our worst experience of the trip was walking into our Paris hotel to find that we had no air-conditioning, our “double” was split into two separate single rooms, bugs crawling in the rooms, a dysfunctional shower, and an uncaring host. It was a disaster. We were so frustrated that we ended up leaving Paris a day early and were not able to experience much of the city. Perhaps we could have anticipated this, but Orbitz clearly stated that they had air conditioning and we had one double room. Going forward, I think a guidebook should be our first stopping point to making hotel reservations.

Use Rick Steve’s travel guide and!

Rick Steve’s guidebook and were both fantastic sources. I did not have time for focused planning before our trip because of my work. Jenny bought Rick Steve’s travel guide a few days before we left, and it was very useful. In hindsight, we should have bought this book 4 months prior to our trip, and used it as our main source for helping plan our trip. That would have been much more efficient than the disorganized hours of internet research, Wikipedia searches, and random conversations with friends.

Do not backpack through Europe

Before leaving, Jenny and I debated whether to bring large hiking backpacks or carry-on sized roller bags. We ultimately went with the roller bags and could not have been happier with our decision. We saw so many people struggling with their backpacks and could not understand the backpack's benefit relative to suitcases.

Don’t have a plan

Including blocks of open days in our itinerary greatly enhanced our trip experience. Vacations, to me, are about relaxing, going with the flow, and learning and exploring new areas and new people. In my experience, a detailed plan creates constraints, feels like work, and starts to make the trip feel hurried. The entire attitude of “we need to see X, Y, and Z, and go on this hike and to that restaurant before we leave” creates a more stressful, and less enjoyable vacation.

Overall, this trip to Europe was an ideal vacation. It was wonderful to spend so much time with Jenny, and may even convince me to rethink my thoughts on vacationing.

That is it for now! Let me know if you have any questions about Europe, traveling, or anything else! J

Nitin Julka