Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Skopje, FYR Macedonia

Destination: Skopje, FYR Macedonia
Time of travel: August 2014
Duration: 10 days in total
Travel plan: Thessaloniki, Greece - Skopje, FYR Macedonia - Prizren, Kosovo - Sofia, Bulgaria - Skopje - Thessaloniki.


Stone Bridge and Archeological Museum of Macedonia


Some time ago I wrote about our epic taxi ride from FYR Macedonia all the way down to Thessaloniki, if you haven't read it yet, click on the link and read it now. Now let’s go all the way back to take a look at the time we spent in Macedonia itself. We did a multi-destination trip starting from Thessaloniki as there were no direct, reasonably priced flights to Skopje.  From Thessaloniki we took a bus to Skopje as our initial plan to rent a car fell through – turned out the Greek car rental companies don’t allow you to drive to many of the neighboring countries! The bus ride was easy and comfortable so it doesn’t really make much difference. From Macedonia, you can rent a car and drive to pretty much any country you wish (with some exceptions, i.e Albania)!


Blend in and explore!


Get lost in the old part of the city

We had no idea what to expect. The pictures we saw looked peculiar and didn’t seem to make much sense. Huge monumental white pillar buildings next to Ottoman style wood plank houses surrounded by soviet style apartment complexes? It quickly started to make sense when we walked through the beautiful yet small city center of Skopje. The city is a mix of styles which has all been constructed beautifully. Our most favorite part of the city was the Ottoman part where you really get a sense of history and authenticity all around while eating some of the fantastic food! 


Sunset over Skopje


Like all over the Balkans, you get a great sense of east and west colliding which makes your experience that much deeper. It’s quite fascinating to walk in the Ottoman part of Skopje dining at the tiny eateries with the locals and then walk across the bridge to more modern part of the city to have a Mojito by the river. If you want to go local, try white wine with ice and a squeeze of lemon juice!
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The Warrior on a Horse, aka Alexander the Great statue


Skopje is compact and very pleasant to explore. It’s small so a couple of days is more than enough to see the sights and do some shopping. Make sure to take a trip outside the city to one of the smaller towns in FYR Macedonia or further away to the neighboring countries such as Serbia, Kosovo, Albania or Bulgaria. You can easily make a day trip to the south of Serbia or Kosovo and drive back to Skopje for the night. FYR Macedonia is a very affordable destination in accommodation, car rental as well as food. Leave space in your suitcase as you will most likely be able to make some great finds in Skopje, especially if you are into wine and shoes. Macedonia is also a safe destination and many locals speak English, Russian or German. You'll meet lots of authentic, warm people and many religions living side-by-side which makes it an easy and a friendly place to visit. 


Pillars, pillars everywhere!
The Macedonian roads were not in the best shape but they're not the worst either. Also traffic was most sensible in the region and no one attempted to kill us in one of those crazy overtaking frenzies. Make sure to reserve some time to enjoy the scenery!

Skopje Aqueduct
Bulgaria ahead!

Recommendations:

Buy spices such as paprika and chili powder from the Zegin Bit Pazar (local outdoor market). They are authentic and natural – and incredibly high quality and delicious! At the market you can also try locals hams, cheeses and vegetables. The vendors are very friendly and generous!

Eat local dishes such as kebapi, shopska salad or one of the ridiculously delicious meat pies. The food is very similar to the neighboring countries, so if you love the balkan food, you'll surely love Macedonian food also!

Walk along the ancient city walls and explore the old fortress (6th century) and get lost in the old town!






Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Most Perfect Weekend in Brussels - eat your way through the city!

We often find ourselves walking the beautiful streets of Brussels and keep on going back time after time for a quick, easy and also a romantic weekend getaway. These are two of our favourite walks to enjoy in good company and great food!


It cannot get more delicious than this - Belgian waffle with Nutella and strawberries!

Saturday




We love to stay at The Augustin. The hotel has quite a remarkable staff, comfortable rooms, delicious breakfast and a great location. It's a small boutique hotel with lots of class. They managed to impress us so much that I doubt we'll be staying anywhere else in Brussels anytime soon. Their service level is incredibly high and they respect their customers. That's why we go back and are happy to spread the word!

Have a glass of wine at Le Cercle Des Voyageurs. They also serve some nice food, the menu is a mix of different continents which makes it quite fun! The food is good and service fast & friendly.


Le Cercle Des Voyageurs is located a couple of minutes from the Grand Place on Rue des Grands Carmes, 18.


Perfect spot to write some cards to send to the family

You might be tempted to skip the crowds of  Rue de l'Etuve but don't! This is the street corner where you'll find Manneken Pis but more importantly (for your stomach) there's also several waffle stands side-by-side. We definitely recommend the Caramel et Chocolat, it's a black framed small shop selling chocolates and waffles. It's not as crowded as the rest of the stands in this corner but don't be fooled. The waffles taste absolutely delicious and the service comes with a smile which isn't the case with some of the more popular stands in the area.







Take a walk across the city center / Grand Place to the direction of Mont Des Arts to enjoy a beautiful view over the city and pop in to one of the art galleries, shops and museums in the area. Brussels is a great shopping destination for just about anything. There's also a fantastic selection of museums, all pretty much near to one another. You can find Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Musical Instruments Museum, Coudenberg Museum or the Royal Palace, to mention a few.

True Brussels





Museum of Natural Sciences is slightly further, in between Mont Des Arts and a wonderful restaurant, Au Cor de Chasse. Great places to combine by first visiting the museum and then continue to have a lovely dinner at Au Cor de Chasse.


Au Cor de Chasse is located in Avenue des Casernes 21.


The changing menu
All reserved!


























Although a little further from the city center, Au Cor de Chasse is a restaurant we keep returning to. It's managed by a Portuguese & Brazilian couple who prepare their favorite dishes in their tiny neighborhood restaurant. Without a printed menu, you'll be getting some of their most successful dishes that are written down on a board. The owner will introduce the menu and explain every dish personally. The restaurant is tiny, only has 5 tables so be sure to make a reservation. After dinner you can either take a walk back (about an hour long) or ask the restaurant to call you a taxi (15 min, 15-18€ from the restaurant to hotel The Augustin).







Sunday



Brussels is such a wonderland for someone with a sweet tooth and love towards everything beautiful! A Sunday walk at Grand Sablon is a must! Drop by Godiva to buy some white chocolate covered strawberries, continue to Pierre Marcolini for a box of incredible macarons and pop in to Ladurée for a glass of champagne and a pastry.


Continue walking further up to Square du Petit Sablon to view the beautiful statues of different historical professions and continue walking towards the Royal Palace and the Brussels Park. 




After enjoying the Royal Quarter, walk down towards the Mont des Arts - because it's worth visiting over and over again!

The Royal Palace, Brussels






Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Tale of a Restaurant Visit That Turned From a Regular Saturday Night Dinner to a Movie-Scene-Like Adventure (cute dogs and car racing included!)


Once upon a time there was a little restaurant in a country not so far away. The restaurant was surrounded by hills with medieval castles and thick, dark forest in a small town famous for its picturesque landscape. Despite of being popular among mountain climbers the town is not often visited by hordes of tourists but does get it 's share of visitors from the neighboring areas. With mainly one spoken language, visitors often need to use sign language and use their creativity to communicate with the locals. Friendliness is often the second language people tend to go by in this little town by the country border.


The village with brown roofs



In the centre of the town there is a building made of beige limestone. It looks just like any other building in the village, hiding it's treasures behind the windows with red window frames and blue linen curtains. There is a sign nearby, not particularly inviting, pointing to the restaurant and tavern. A few steps lead you to the terrace and further ahead inside the building.

Image source: http://restina.net/nl/belgium/leffe/restaurant-cafe/le-confessionnal/486691874782186#1

A deep red door leads you to the cozy dining room with checkered table cloths, candles and flowers on the table. There is art on the walls, newspaper articles, drawings and such. It's usually packed with locals and some tourists sitting in one of the three dining rooms or the lovely terrace if it's a nice day. The owners often drop by from the kitchen to say hello to new diners and check up on all of the guests while preparing the food and taking care of the restaurant. They are a lovely local couple who work there by the two of them since what to us looks like a forever. They share the work taking parts in kitchen and the dining room, having mutual understanding and sharing responsibilities without even saying too many words, It's comes naturally, as if they've always done it.

Image source: http://restina.net/nl/belgium/leffe/restaurant-cafe/le-confessionnal/486691874782186#1

There's also someone else in the restaurant that everybody knows - and loves. It's the family dog who behaves better than most people even and doesn't pay much attention to the diners - yet won't decline a pad or two, if you really insist!



The cutest dog!


There is no set menu in the restaurant and foods do run out sometimes! The restaurant gets its ingredients from the nearby producers thus it's never a problem to get fresh produce to make up for what ran out. They will explain every dish in detail and even give you a taste if you find it hard to decide or don't know what something is! The restaurant has the most exotic dishes, well at least for the city folks! They are not afraid to cook the most authentic local dishes and they prepare them with great tradition and skill.

Normally the days go by in the same peaceful pace. There are locals visiting but every time also people from out of town or even far away countries. Some get a drink, some have a full meal but all leave with an full stomach and a smile. Sometimes there's more behind the smile though, sometimes it will hide fun memories for years to come.



Delicious, home-made starter

We were enjoying our meal from the first sparkling wines to starters, mains and all the way to desserts. The wines were superb and service the warmest. However, every day comes to an end eventually and so do the dinners. When we were happily full of the delicious food and it was time to pay we found out that no card payment was possible! As we arrived in a slight hurry we didn't have a dime in our wallets! What to do, where to go? How to ask for an ATM when we don't have a common language besides the drinks vocabulary covering cremant and vin rouge? Many smiles and signs were shared and the lady of the restaurant took Tony by his hand and off they went!

She opened the wooden garage door where the old, blue and lovely Citroen stood in all it's old days' charm! The lady took the drivers seat, of course, and rushed through the town, driving a good 10 minutes to the ATM. The Citroen was caughing a little and you could tell it wasn't born yesterday but it did it's job well.

I really cannot believe we were able to find this photo online! The car and the restaurant in the same picture looks like it was made for a blog post! :)

Image source: http://restina.net/nl/belgium/leffe/restaurant-cafe/le-confessionnal/486691874782186#1

Meanwhile I sat in the restaurant, sipping my (complimentary, I must mention) glass of bubbles and talking sign language with the gentleman of the restaurant as well as some guests. No one seemed to understand each other but everyone were very entertained. It was an amusing situation to find yourself in but I believe it was much more amusing for Tony, driving through the town with the lovely lady in their old Citroen.

After 20 bizarre minutes Tony and the lady returned, all smiles and laughs. We paid and left on our way, being cheered off by the remaining guests, the owners and the elderly dog.

You can find the charming Le Confessional on the Rue Rémy Himmer 4 in the town of Dinant in Belgium.

Don't forget to bring cash!

Some of the pictures are not ours as we were enjoying the food and not taking that many pictures. Luckily Google and eventually also Restina.net were able to help us find some great photos that show the restaurant as it really was!





Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Hiking Mount Olympus, the meeting place of the mythical Gods


Hiking up Mount Olympus in Greece was a big deal for us. It was our first overnight hike as well as a first real mountain hike. We consider ourselves to be in a good condition and semi-experienced hikers but as we never had any real experience hiking on a mountain, there were a couple of surprises awaiting for us! It was a fantastic experience we will definitely do again - fortunately with a couple of new tricks up our sleeves!


First steps of our journey


Going up!
We teamed up with our guide Nikos from Hikes4All (www.hikes4all.gr) who planned our hike beforehand, gave us some great advice on how to prepare for the trip and took great care of us during the two day hike.

We decided to hire a guide for two reasons;

- We didn't know what to expect (schedule, weather, gear, techniques)
- We wanted to be safe and not end up making rookie mistakes. It's a mountain, after all.

It was a great decision. First of all, we learned a lot about hiking in the mountains and how to plan the trip. Secondly, Nikos was great help for us as he knew the trails and the people we needed to know to make the trip fun and efficient. What we also loved was that it was just the three of us so no waiting for others, no queuing, no constant babbling.


Donkeys carrying goods down from the mountain
Mount Olympus is a very popular hiking destination and you will see many fellow hikers on the way. Most of them hike to the Spilios Agapitos refuge located in  the middle of the ascent half way to the Scolio peak, some of them leave the same day and some stay the night at the cabin. About one third of hikers make it further to one of the peaks. Another interesting observation was that you really see people of all ages hiking up there, kids, elderly folks, everyone is represented!

We started the hike with a little warm-up as we had requested adding some extra kilometers to the first day. It was a great idea and we got to see some more of the beautiful Greek nature. After a two hour stroll Nikos drove us to the starting point of the trail to  Prioni from where we started the ascent towards refuge Spilios Agapitos. Light lunch and off we went.



..and sometimes we all need to rest!
The 1st ascent was enjoyable although it did contain lots of man-made wooden stairs. It was a combination of a trail and stairs. We kept it somewhat slow as we needed to spare energy for the 2nd ascent and more importantly, also the descent the next day. Weather was beautiful, sunny and hot. The trees offered some shade but a hat would have helped better.

We arrived to the refuge right on time for sunset. We were greeted by the three lovely and friendly dogs belonging to the family who runs the place and after getting our three-people room with bunk beds we were ready to relax and enjoy the nature. It's quite a unique experience to spend a night up in the mountains looking up to the stars and down to the sea. We had a nutritious dinner with some great wine while enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. The lights were turned off at 22.00. You still had some people walking around in the area but basically it was time to sleep!

I guess normally it gets chilly during the night. This time it was very warm and it didn't get much below 18C. However, the weather can change fast. As it was a much hotter night than usual, we didn't get a very good night sleep. It was way too hot during the night as we didn't realize to open the window, also we had too many clothes on as we were prepared for a cold night.



Toni settling in for the night

Evening at the Spilios Agapitos Refuge
Waking up at dawn is surprisingly easy when you're surrounded by nature and fresh air! We got up before sunrise, had a tasty breakfast and prepared for the day. The plan was to hike up to Scolio and down almost immediately, take a break to get some lunch and continue all the way down. It started to get busier by the minute as we were gathering our stuff, some were getting ready to go up, some prepared for their journey down and some were staying.


One of our friendly four-legged companions
We had another kilometer to hike up, which was the same distance we did on the first day. Here it got a little more rough yet also the view got better. We were accompanied by one of the dogs who followed us almost the whole way up to Scolio and also showed us where the wild goats were. What a fantastic friend we made!

Hiking up to Aghios Antonios
The scenery changed quite a bit and there were less trees and more pebbles. The weather was great but as we were almost in 3000m it was also very windy and somewhat chilly. Hiking up wasn't particularly difficult. It was more slippery than the day before, as the pebbles were constantly moving under our feet. At this stage we realized the importance of four items; sunscreen, a hat, windproof jacket and hiking sticks. Generally we prefer hiking without sticks but on a terrain like this they are irreplaceable! Nikos gave his sticks to me (Kris) which helped tremendously!

Kris and Nikos at Scolio, 2911m




We made it!






Reaching the Scolio peak was fantastic! It was a true accomplishment and such a priceless experience! After enjoying the view for a  good fifteen minutes or so, sipping some water and resting our legs, it was time to start the most difficult part - descent. Remember the pebbles I've been talking about for a few times before? It really didn't get any easier at this point. We followed Nikos' example and walked very slowly planning every step carefully. Looking down to the potential slide was terrifying and the amount of energy we had to use to concentrate  felt like a heavy burden on our shoulders. It was also the most time consuming part of the hike as it wasn't exhausting only physically but also mentally.



The descent got a little easier the closer we were to the refuge and after the lunch we returned to the area with more trees and a solid ground. Being exhausted from the 1st and 2nd part of the day, the 3rd wasn't easy either. It didn't require as much energy but not having much left only made it harder. Luckily the trail got easier and the forest thicker. We made it down around 17.00, exhausted and feeling totally accomplished!

This is how steep it was!
We spent the second day in bed feeling absolutely exhausted, bloated and sun burnt. It was quite a stretch for our bodies even though we can handle a lot! However, it was such a great experience, we'd do it again anytime!

Rise and shine, the mountain awaits and Nikos is leading the way!



Monday, March 21, 2016

5 Things You Need to Realize to Lead a Happier Life Abroad

Even though every country and culture is different, there is something that never changes; the people. No matter where you travel, near or far people generally stay the same. It is true that in some regions people may be friendlier, more open, more attractive or maybe even funnier, but deep down, we are all the same. The expat life is generally very similar no matter where you end up. In some countries it is easier to live as a foreigner than in others, either due to spoken languages or culture and habits but eventually it’s human to human interaction that matters. Take a look at a couple of different forums, for example, to see what the most common subjects are and you’ll realise that the issues – good and bad – stay the same all over.

1. Making friends with the locals isn't easy anywhere but that's completely OK!: Making friends as an adult is the same everywhere. For most of us it’s not as easy as it was back in school or university where you were all in pretty much the same situation, trying to fit in and form your group. As a grown-up there’s responsibilities and routines to take care of, your career and relationships. Making friends with new people is probably not on top of your everyday to-do list. When moving to a new country you might want to grow your social network as soon as possible, form strong relationships and find friends you can trust but relationships take time. You often read comments about how people of your new country are not interested in making friends with foreigners but at the end of the day it’s not a nationality issue as it simply comes down to differences in routine. While you are busy growing your network and trying to make new friends, the locals already have their network, friends and family. Of course you’ll befriend locals, but it takes time. Like real, authentic friendships always do. 

2. Once a foreigner, always a foreigner:
I often hear expats talking about how difficult it is to integrate into a new society because people treat you as a foreigner, yet the biggest problem is admitting that it’s really up to you to fit in, not the other way around. I say this from my own experience; no matter how fluent you are in the local language or how well you’ve integrated, you will always be a foreigner in the eyes of the locals, if they know that you come from another country. And that’s a good thing! You don’t need to change yourself in order to fit in, even less to be accepted. What is important is to admit that you are a foreigner and that’s how it will be. It’s completely ok for people to treat you as a foreigner because that’s how they see you and that’s who you are. You are a foreigner that has moved to their country and has now become a part of the society. You should do your best fitting in but never change who you are because those who like you will also love the fact that you come from another culture.


3. Bureaucracy is everywhere: People often complain about the bureaucracy they must go through when starting out their lives in a new country. No matter how easy it is, there’s always someone complaining. In Europe it is relatively easy, though. As a EU citizen you don’t even need a visa or a work permit! Depending on the country, there is always paper work to be done and documents to be filled but would you really want it to be otherwise? The paper work is there to ensure proper registration to make your life a little easier in your new society. The biggest difficulties are often caused by the language barrier as many countries still don’t have official documents in English. In the Netherlands, where we live, we only had to visit the city hall once to register ourselves and get the social security number which was then mailed to us and second time was the IND (immigration and neutralization services). That's pretty straight forward to me!

4. Finding a job is much easier when you know the local language: I stumbled upon a forum post complaining about how difficult it is to find a job in Finland if you are still working on your Finnish language skills! Well, that’s the case in most parts of the world! Unless you’re planning to move to an English speaking country, you most likely need to learn the local language in order to work. It’s quite logical. You cannot move to Lithuania and expect everyone to switch to English, right? However, there are  plenty of regions where you will be able to start off your expat life with minimal skills in local language. Search for regions with many international company headquarters or countries open for foreign workforce such as Amsterdam and Eindhoven in Netherlands, Sophia-Antipolis in France, and Malta, to mention a few. Many of these countries also have a special tax arrangement for highly skilled expats or retiring pensioners. A lot depends also on your line of work as many professions don’t really have a language requirement! Don’t get angry because the local language is something else than whatever it is that you speak. You’re the guest, after all. Learn the language, expand your horizons!





5. Moving for money? Think about the taxes first!: Before going anywhere, do your research on the cost of living, salaries and taxes in the country or area you want to live in. Dig deep, don’t just multiply whatever it is you’re making now to fit the level you think would be enough. You won’t be going anywhere if you form your salary expectation based on your gut feeling. Those moving to a higher economy often think they’ll improve their status in the new country, however if you continue doing the job you had back at home (assuming it’s on the same level in both countries), your income will most likely stay around the same level. For example, working as a construction worker in Poland won’t make you rich doing the same job in the Netherlands. The income is probably much higher, but so is the cost of living, food and taxes. Search for countries where your skill-set is needed, like nurses in Norway or oil & gas engineers in Saudi-Arabia! 


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Beginners guide to visiting vineyards and wineries

Beautiful Alsace, France






Let's not get too serious. Even though there's rules and etiquette you should know about your wines, you don't have to be a wine expert to visit a vineyard! It helps to have basic understanding of wine tasting, grapes and regions but you'll be completely fine by just having genuine interest in what you drink. However, visiting a vineyard can raise lots of questions if doing so for the first time.


Port wine barrels in Porto


How to find the good ones?


There's plenty of information available online but also in books and food & wine magazines. Many online guides have wine routes you can follow and pretty much every region even has a website for the regional vineyards with addresses. We've been using Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine book which has been ok for our purposes but there are also other similar books around. Choose the book depending on your level of wine knowledge and don't buy a pig in a poke as the books tend be quite different and often targeting certain type of audience. 

A few links to popular wine routes and other information:

Alsace, France

Mosel, Germany

Piemonte, Italy

Amalfi Coast, Italy
http://www.marisacuomo.com/en/1034/tastings.htm

Spain


Taylor's, Porto, Portugal
If possible, attend tastings before your trip to find local gems. Wine tastings are often arranged by wine shops, wine tasting courses or bars and restaurants in your region. You might not like the wines of the most popular and hyped vineyards at all, so do a bit of research (if possible) and find the ones you'd genuinely enjoy the most. 

If you really want to become good at this, attend a wine course to learn all the ins and outs of wines, wine regions and tasting. It's a fascinating world!

We always like to taste the local wines even in regions not widely known as wine producers. There are some great wine regions in the Balkans, for instance in Croatia, Romania and FYR Macedonia, to mention a few. This is a fantastic way to explore wines you would normally not be able to buy where you live, therefor we highly recommend always asking for some local wine recommendations when traveling.

In case you already have favorite wines from the area you're visiting, make sure to visit the vineyards! You'll surely love your wines even more when you know where they're coming from. 


Let them know you're coming!


Preparation is the key! Even though most vineyards and wineries are open on business hours and Saturdays, it's good to give them a call or send an email about your visit to make sure they are open and accepting visitors. Some of them are even open outside of the normal hours if you plan your visit in advance. When first visiting Alsace I was a little nervous as we don't speak any French but every vineyard I called spoke English as they get a lot of visitors from all over the world. We've never come across a wine maker who wasn't thrilled to have people over so give them a call and plan your visit! Most vineyards accept visitors even without making an appointment but it's always nicer to let them know in advance, if possible. However, if you stop by unannounced only to find the doors closed and fences locked, make a plan B and drop by another nearby vineward/winery.

We have normally informed the vineyards about our visit with an approximate time but have also popped in to some larger ones while driving by.


One of our favorite wines, Marisa Cuomo Furore Bianco, is made in this beautiful scenary on Amalfi Coast, Italy


Planning and scheduling

You can either just buy the wines you already know you like (without tasting, even though tasting is always highly recommended) or taste and buy the ones you enjoyed the most - or not buy at all, really depending on how you feel about the wines. Every vineyard offers tastings so you know what you're buying. If planning several visits in one day it's a good idea to spit majority of the wines. You can really consume quite a lot of wines during one visit, getting tipsy really doesn't help your taste buds.



Wine events and festivals are great source to find great wines. Budapest Borfeztival is a popular Hungarian wine event held annually.


One visit takes roughly one to two hours depending on what you're doing there. Tasting and buying is about an hour but if you're visiting a more touristic place it might take more than two in case you're taking a tour. I guess a fair estimate of three vineyards a day is a good pace when considering driving and tasting. Be prepared to wait for your turn in tastings and buying if it's busy.

Riquewihr, Alsace, France


Storage and transportation

Storage and transportation is important when traveling with wines. If you are traveling by car, make sure the temperature stays around the same level the whole time without any temperature peaks, don't park the car in the sun or let it freeze as this will affect your wines in all the wrong ways and ruin it! When flying, make sure you pack your wines properly to prevent a small catastrophe. We've successfully flown with about 5 wine bottles in each large suitcase. Most wine producers offer shipping at reasonable prices which might be a good option to consider when buying more than a few bottles.




Trier in Germany is famous for it's wines. And they are good!