Turkish Delights

I admit that I tend to over-plan. Before we left for this trip, I printed out page after page of documents and directions and Trip Advisor restaurant recommendations and organized them by country and city and then chronologically in the order we would need them. And some of that has been well worth the effort. It meant that Matt and I had a perfect anniversary dinner in Vienna last month at a quiet, independently owned restaurant run by Hungarians who specialize in pairing wines with your meal of choice and making you feel like family. (They treated us to just-for-us cocktail creations, a rousing rendition of “Happy First Year To You” to the tune of Happy Birthday, and hugs all around when we departed late that night.)

But more than my planning triumphs, it’s our planning misadventures I’m most thrilled by. For me, the most profound delights have been the unexpected ones.

About a week ago, Matt and I were in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Most of the reason we were there was to go hot-air ballooning, but as that’s a sunrise activity, we had plenty of time during the days to go exploring. We toyed with the idea of taking a nine-hour guided tour to make sure we didn’t miss anything, but ruled it out when we realized we didn’t really want to spend a full day on a bus–and that we were actually okay with missing a thing or two. (They were going to take us somewhere called “pigeon valley,” for crying out loud.)

We were very interested in visiting the underground city of Kaymakli though because, well, IT’S A FREAKING UNDERGROUND CITY. So we visited (and it was epic), but we were hungry when we finished our tour. So when a pair of 60-something men wearing matching paper deli hats waved to us and asked us if we wanted to come into their restaurant for some tea, we quickly said yes.

A couple of things to note here: 1) Calling it a restaurant is incredibly generous of me. It was a single room consisting of one long table, a stove, and a chicken doner kebab near the window. 2) If a Turkish person invites you in for tea, you accept. It typically means that something amazing is about to happen.

After tea, we tried to order lunch and quickly discovered that our new friends in the matching deli hats (and, as I later discovered, matching plastic aprons hemmed in red trim) didn’t speak English. However, one of them did speak fluent French–and as I speak terrible French, we were able to order (sort of). I asked what the owner recommended, and he showed me to the stove in the corner. “Poulet,” he said, lifting the lid off the pot simmering on the stove, “et boeuf,” as he pulled the lid of a different pot. “Very good,” he added in English. And then in French, “La mieuller!” So I got the beef and Matt got the chicken, and our new friend puttered over to our table with mounds of meat served on top of rice, sliced tomatoes on the side, and an entire loaf of crusty French bread for us to share. And this man, this tasty food, this weird/sparse ambience, in this “restaurant,” made for the best meal we had in Turkey.

After lunch, we grabbed a van back to a nearby city to make our transfer back home, which we did without issue. We did, however, completely miss the subsequent stop for Goreme, the city we were staying in. Passed right by it without batting an eye. It was only when everyone disembarked, including the driver, that we realized we had maybe gone too far.

But, as it happened, the town we landed in is home to one of Turkey’s biggest and most award-winning wineries! So instead of heading back to Goreme on the next bus, we trekked up a hill to the winery and sampled a handful of different Turkish wines, enjoying unfamiliar grapes with unpronounceable names. We stumbled upon a second tasting room built into the rock of the fairy chimney it was situated under, a single cozy room filled with antique trinkets and curiosities, wooden bows and arrows, impossibly old swords. We bought a bottle from the charming Turkish man who owned and ran the shop, a man who made fun of the local college kids (and college-age tourists) for their poor taste in wine.

The bus we eventually took back home to Goreme didn’t actually go to Goreme. (Surprise!) Instead, we piled out of the bus two miles out of town and started walking back, munching on the peanuts and potato chips we had in our daypack. And that’s when we stumbled upon Rose Valley, with grease on our fingers and crumbs on our cheeks, to see one of the most dramatic, stunning vistas we’ve seen this trip (which says something). We tromped through sandy fields of wild grapes and scrambled over soft rock to stand on the valley’s edge and watched the sun drift lazily toward the horizon. We snapped photos that won’t measure up.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Nothing in that day was really what we expected it to be, including the underground city, and it was all the better for it. If we only ever experience what we expect to, then we’re limited to the current bounds of our knowledge, imagination, and Google prowess. No matter how detailed our folders of documents, no matter how in depth we plan, we may never meet gentlemanly Turks in matching outfits who bring us to their “kitchen” to help us make an informed decision about lunch. No matter how good the guidebook itinerary and how much time we spend in the Trip Advisor forums, we may never drink Turkish wine with a man who had a hand in the production of what we’re drinking. If we plan our travels (and lives) to the minute, we may never find ourselves in a private vista, in a wild vineyard at the foot of sandy mountains, sharing a kiss under a pastel sky containing both the sun and moon at once — how can you plan that moment if the biggest magic is that you never saw it coming?


Welcome to McDonald’s

Welcome to the McDonald’s in Vienna. It’s at once the weirdest and most wonderful place you’ve ever been. Forget everything you thought you knew.

No more ball pits. No more fluorescent lighting. No more unwashed teenagers sullenly staring at you from behind a register/relic from the 1980s. No more window clings promoting the latest deal. No more vinyl seating, cracked and peeling at the seams, and no more goddamn Ronald McDonald statue out front for children to climb on. Hell, no mustard-fingered children climbing anywhere.

Instead, enjoy blooming roses, two at every table. Modern tables, by the way, with cleanly designed chairs surrounding them. Low tables, high tables, rows of plush seating without tables for those casual Europeans who want to lounge. Did I mention the free WiFi? Or the artistic display touting carrots as an important food group, a display made of smudge-free glass and actual carrots?

You know those commercials you see for the McCafe back at home? The ones where a remarkably diverse cast of characters drink and flirt over a McDonald’s coffee? That actually happens here. Here, the McCafe is not a terrible substitute for real coffee, but a separate location within the greater McDonald’s restaurant (yes, I called it a restaurant). They’re connected in the middle, but the McCafe here has its own separate entrance and eating area, and there’s a clean glass case full of assorted cakes and baked goods. Get a cappuccino that actually doesn’t suck, and then go relax in one of the arm chairs while you drink it. Settle in with a newspaper if you like because parents don’t bring their screaming toddlers here. There’s not a single plastic booster seat to be found in the McCafe.

Also, the bathrooms are so nice. There’s no toilet paper on the floor, and the faucets aren’t dripping water like we’re in some sort of underground cave. There’s a zen motif to the decor, all bamboo and water-covered rocks and that soft glow popular with fancy iPhone apps. The sinks and countertops are actually made of porcelain, not laminate. The floor is also a natural material. Of course everyone’s in a good mood here; the whole staff probably meditates in these shiny, white bathroom stalls.

Does this seem weird to you? Oh, you’re not from here? That’s okay. There’s a self-serve area where six shiny kiosks allow you to order your food in the language of your choice, in case you don’t speak the native tongue. Once you’ve paid the kiosk (which of course accepts your foreign chip-and-pin-less credit card), approach the clean counter where a smiling employee awaits to hand you your food. Everyone is in a good mood here. So are you. Which is weird because that’s never happened to you before, not in a McDonald’s, not Stateside.

Like I said, welcome to Vienna.


24 Hours in Slovakia

We didn’t have a ton of time in Slovakia. In fact, we were here for really only 24 hours as we passed through on our way from Poland to Hungary. We technically could have gotten all the way to Budapest, Hungary in just one day but we thought it’d be nice to get a glimpse (even the tiniest one) of the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. Here’s how that played out.


[ 10:38 ] Arrive in Poprad, Slovakia off a comfortable mountain bus from Zakopane, Poland. This leg of the journey lasted exactly the length of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience album. Bri is delighted.

[ 10:50 ] Bri pays .40 Euro to use the train station bathroom. She must collect toilet paper from the bathroom attendant before going into the stalls because there won’t be any available once she’s inside. Bri is told this in Slovakian, which is confusing.

[ 10: 57 ] Matt also pays to use the bathroom. He could have paid just .30 Euro to use the “pessoar” (i.e., “pisser”) instead of the toilet stall, but he lacks the Slovakian language skills to communicate this to the attendant. She makes him take a toilet paper ration as well. He flushes it to keep up appearances.

[ 11:33 ] Matt and Bri board the train bound for Bratislava and get settled in a private compartment in first class because they’re ballers (i.e., the good people at Eurail will not sell second class passes to anyone over 25 years old. “Be an adult for crying out loud.”)

[ 12:15 ] Train attendant with heavy makeup and eyebrows checks our tickets, purses her lips, and leaves.

[ 1:37 ] Train attendant returns with heavily armed police officer in tow. He is wearing full body armor and a sneer. He says something stern and frowny to Matt, which we don’t understand. The officer switches to English and tells Matt he is breaking the law by having his feet on the seat across from him. Matt must remove his shoes or there will be a 50 Euro fine. We choose option 1.

[ 1:38 ] Officer McAngry leaves and the compartment door closes. We now, perhaps unjustly, hate the Slovak people. And Slovak laws.

[ 2:00 ] Realize that what we thought was a 2.5 hour train ride is actually a 4.5 hour train ride. Begin strategizing.

[ 2:05 ] Matt returns from the dining car with a liter of white wine he purchased for 8 Euro. He paid extra for a second styrofoam cup. We’re so classy.

[ 2:06 ] Determine that there’s a reason more people aren’t talking about Slovakian wine (the reason being that it’s awful). Pour tall glasses anyway.

[ 3:00 ] Start watching Breaking Bad on the iPad, season 4 – episode 3. Shit is getting real.

[ 3:42 ] Bri visits scary train bathroom and assumes favorite pose among women everywhere: the squat-n-hover. For balance, she puts her elbow down on the sink counter and regrets it.

[ 3:44 ] Bri shows Matt her soggy shirtsleeve and asks for the Purell.

[ 4:07 ] Train arrives in Bratislava. Train station has free WiFi. Bratislava wins.

[ 4:16 ] Outside of the train station, Bri cannot stop laughing. Probably because she just drank half a liter of wine. People start to stare, so Bri and Matt start walking toward their lodging.

[ 4:18 ] Bri finally gets it under control.

[ 4:35 ] Meet the AirBnB host at the Frogy frozen yogurt joint outside tonight’s apartment and head inside. Apartment is adorable–TWO CLEAN bathrooms WITH SOAP. Everyone’s delighted.

[ 6:45 ] Dinner at “Slovak Pub,” which is both the name of the joint and an accurate description. Slovak beer and Slovak food, which included some excellent pierogi with the best goddamn sour cream anyone has ever eaten in their lives.

[ 6:50] Stop eating pierogi long enough to discover the excellent Slovak sheep cheese dumplings with the crispiest bacon bits ever on the far end of the platter. omgcomfortfood. No one can stop eating it.

[ 7:50 ] Time for a Slovak after-dinner drink called Slivovica, a plum brandy. Matt enjoys this far more than Bri does. He savors it like it’s the harvest.

[ 8:00 ] Nighttime walk of the Bratislava old town! Beautiful city, vibrant street life. Wide streets full of candlelit cafes and restaurant fiddlers wearing bow ties. Charming bronze statues around every corner (see this post’s cover image for an example).

[ 9:00 ] Return to the flat to make some travel arrangements for the next few weeks because, well, turns out we haven’t really figured all of that out yet. How will we get to Turkey? Oops.

[ 10:30 ] Bedtime.

[ 10:31 ] OMG IT’S A REAL BED WITH A MEMORY FOAM MATTRESS! No one has ever been more excited for this level of comfort and pampering after staying in a crappy, chilly hostel in Poland for the past few days.


[ 8:48 ] Everyone is well rested.

[ 9:30 ] Across the street for breakfast at Bagel & Coffee Story. (Bratislava has very literal restaurant names.) Celebrate that the menu is entirely in English, which is amazing because no one is awake enough to attempt ordering in Slovak.

[ 10:03 ] Shitshitshitwe’relavinginanhourandnothingispackedandnooneisshowered

[ 10:16 ] WHY DID THE SHOWER WATER TURN COLD? Bri is officially awake now.

[ 10:35 ] So is Matt.

[ 10:36 ] Frantic packing ensues.

[ 11:00 ] Host’s brother, probably named Chatty Cathy because he will not stop talking even though we were trying to catch a train, shows up to return our deposit and retrieve the key. Asks why we stay only one night in Slovakia. We’re not sure so, of course, we promise to return.


5 Reasons to Visit Poland

There’s a reason these delicious dumplings are number one on the list of reasons to visit Poland and that is because, well, they are delicious dumplings. We usually ordered the meat pierogi, as the meat was all tender and braised and mmmm. But there are tons of varieties to try! Mushroom pierogi, blueberry pierogi, buckwheat and goat cheese pierogi… At a restaurant, pierogi usually come in portions of 8 – 10, which make them perfect to share as an appetizer or keep to yourself as a small meal. As an added bonus, a portion costs somewhere between $3 and $5. Oh, and did I mention that they’re usually topped with carmelized onion and CHUNKS OF BACON? Because they are.

The entire country looks like something right out of Lord of the Rings. Misty Mountains? check. Fangorn Forest? you betcha. Mines of Moria? hell yeah. This country is JRR Tolkein’s playground, where rivers wind through mountainsides and even bar tops are made of intricately carved wood. And there are horses everywhere, so the good people of Rohan should be quite happy. For those of you who aren’t geeks and have no idea what I’m talking about, a) you should be ashamed and b) I basically mean that everything looks majestic, mythical, and unspoiled. We spent two full days tromping through forests and mountains and rafting through mountain gorges, and still left feeling awed, small, and like we hadn’t even scratched the surface.

The Polish people are, without a doubt, the friendliest, kindest group of people we’ve met on our trip so far. We started our first day in Krakow by getting some hot beverages at a coffee shop on the main square, and the server was so genuinely sweet and helpful we were certain she had to have an ulterior motive. But then our tour guide that morning was the same way. As was our AirBnB host, the other servers we had, the woman who sold us ice cream, and everyone we met in Zakopane–even when they didn’t speak English. So if you want to go somewhere amazing without feeling you’re annoying the locals by your mere existence, go to Poland.

The city of Krakow is adorable and wonderful and perfect. The old town, which is where tourists spend pretty much all their time, is quite walkable. There’s a paved garden path called the Planty that circles the old town, and a lovely afternoon can be spent just wandering around the perimeter, up to Wawel Castle, and down along the Vistula River. (Bonus? Down by the river, there’s a dragon–okay, dragon statue–that breathes fire every three minutes.) The main market square is the center of the action, with plenty of non-intimidating pubs and restaurants, and a trumpeter pokes his head out of the church tower every hour on the hour to play a quick tune. It’s a city of perfectly scheduled delights and well worth a visit.

How much do you know about Poland? Probably not much, if you’re anything like me. Probably you know that Hitler invaded the country on September 1, 1939, and started Word War II in the process, but not much else. If that’s the case, spending any time in Poland will be a real eye-opener. For example, did you know that Poland ceased to exist on any world maps for a good chunk of time? It was once the biggest, most powerful empire in Central Europe (the Poland-Lithuania commonwealth–look it up), but then it was split into three by Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian empires and vanished from maps, only to be reinstated in the early 20th century. Visiting Poland and learning its history from the people who lived it (or from the descendants of the people who lived it) will blow your mind–and remind you how little you actually know, which is an important lesson in itself.

But mostly, go for the pierogi. I really can’t stress that enough.