Lisbon Nights: 5 Reasons Why They Are Absolutely Stunning

Start here if you are wondering why I chose Portugal for my latest adventure!

I chose Lisbon as my home base for the majority of my time in Portugal so I could venture to a few surrounding areas, including Belém and Cascais. There is so much to do that although I didn’t get to cross everything off my list, I definitely got a great feel for city and its surrounding areas.

During the day, I jumped on the iconic Tram 28 to see the major sights. After reading multiple reports online about the pickpockets that frequent the train (most notably a pair of old ladies), I held my purse tight and kept to myself. The great thing about the tram is that you can hop on and off all day with an unlimited Viva Viagem day pass. For six euros you can use the card for the tram, metro, some train routes and even the “elevadores“. I strolled around Rossio Square and rode the tram to the end of the line to the spectacular Royal Basilica, a basilica built for Queen Maria I of Portugal in 1790.tram28inlisbonestrelabasilica

Every now and again I stopped for an expresso or pastel de nata (Portuguese tart) while people watching.

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But I digress. The warm days gave way to chilly evenings where I felt the city really come alive. Too many to name, here are a few reasons why I love Lisbon nights.

Breathtaking Miradouros

Lisbon’s miradouros (or viewpoints) can be described as nothing short of amazing. They are a perfect place to cool down with a glass of wine or snack after spending hours trekking up and down Lisbon’s seven hills. The bright terracotta roofs of the Alfama apartments contrast with the medieval architecture of Sao Jorge’s castle and spectacular views of the Tagus river.

Miradouro da Santa Luzia and Miradouro da Graça are my favorites and serve as an oasis for relaxation. All three viewpoints were a 10-15 minute walk from my Alfama apartment, so I made it a habit to walk up the hill at sunset every night to catch the views.

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Fado

You are likely to hear the somber notes of fado floating through the cobblestoned streets of Alfama at night. On almost every street corner, there is a restaurant that is standing room only, with everyone’s eyes transfixed on the fado singer belting out songs of heartbreak and life’s struggles. Melancholy by nature, singers explore themes of sadness and introspection.

Fado, a Lisbon staple, is traditional folk music that originated in Portugal in the 1800s. Although there are two different kinds of fado in Portugal, the fado found in Lisbon is the most popular. Although you can hear fado everywhere in Lisbon, the best place hands-down to have a traditional Portuguese meal and listen to Fado is in Alfama. The owners of the cozy restaurants welcome you as if you are in their homes. The old buildings, beautiful flowers and colorful street decorations make fado houses even sexier.

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Sunsets at Sao Jorge Castle

On my last full day in Lisbon I decided to venture to St. Jorge’s Castle, stopping at the Lisbon Cathedral along the way. Built on the site of an old mosque in 1150, the cathedral is Lisbon’s oldest building and was built by Portugal’s first king.

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St.Jorge’s Castle is a medieval castle overlooking the city of Lisbon and Tagus River and towers high at the top of Lisbon’s tallest hill. Completely fortified, the oldest parts of the castle date back to the 6th century, where it served as a Moorish royal residence until it’s final conquest by the future king of Portugal.

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The beaches of Cascais

Pronounced kush-kaish (it took me the entire trip to get that pronunciation down), Cascais, formerly a fishing village, is a small resort town located about 30 minutes outside of Lisbon. On a whim, I took the train from Belém in late afternoon, and was pleasantly surprised by the scenic views of the Tagus River during sunset. When I arrived I took a stroll down Praia da Ranha, a small beach so picturesque it was literally fit for a queen, as it served as the private beach for Portuguese queen Dona Amelia in the late 19th century.

The city centre of Cascais contains many quaint pedestrian streets lined with restaurants, shops, churches and museums showcasing the town’s beautiful architecture. In retrospect I would visit during the daytime and walk to Cascais from Estorial on the boardwalk. I also wanted to visit the rugged cliffs of Cabo de Roca, which is the the westernmost point of mainland Europe, but due to the stories I heard about the infrequent bus schedules, didn’t want to chance it this time since it was already getting dark.

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Nightlife

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to experience Lisbon’s vibrant nightlife with a fabulous group of people from all over the world.  Due to an unexpected chain of events, I ended up hanging out in the Bica district, a hip neighborhood in Barrio Alto.

The funicular railroad, or the Elevador da Bica, was constructed in 1892 and is what makes this district unique. The graffiti-covered tram looked so old that I wasn’t sure it was still in use. The funicular system (two cars traveling simultaneously in opposite directions) allows for easy access to the many viewpoints in the city.

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Our group hung out on Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, a picturesque street that extends to the riverfront and is lined with stores and bars that come alive at night, especially during the summer when the party spills out onto the streets. It was a great experience and I’m fortunate to have met some of the nicest people who welcomed me with open arms. That’s all I’ll say about the nightlife – what happens in Lisbon stays in Lisbon 😉

Stay tuned as I recap my adventures in Evora, Sintra and Porto!

On the Move: Backpacking through Portugal

The best part of my trip to Portugal last November was not having a set schedule or itinerary. Just a week before the trip I had a round-trip flight to Lisbon on the books and not much else. I thought about adding Spain to the agenda but ultimately didn’t want to feel rushed, and it was definitely the best decision I could have made as I was able to take my time exploring all the country has to offer.

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Although road trips from one country to another (and getting halted at border control) are definitely exciting, I needed some time to relax. The beauty of planning your own vacation, not to state the obvious, is the ability to spend as little or as much time as you want doing anything – whether that’s exploring monasteries and museums or relaxing with a book and a glass of wine.

Should I take a later train to Sintra or catch the 9 am and spend the afternoon in Cascais? From wine country to the small towns in the Alentejo region, I stayed in local apartments and quaint bed and breakfasts to get a real feel for the country. Casinha do Largo was my home for 5 nights in Lisbon and was hands down the coolest apartment I’ve ever stayed in (thanks for the recommendation Larissa!) Located in the heart of Alfama, the city’s oldest neighborhood, Casinha do Largo was cozy yet edgy at the same time, making it very hard for me to leave.

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The best way to get around in Portugal is via train, as the Comboios de Portugal system is reliable and inexpensive. I was also able to take advantage of the unlimited Viva Viagem day pass (only costs around 5 euros), riding the trams, subway and even some train lines. All in all, the Viva Viagem is a good deal if you plan to cover a lot of ground over a short period of time. As you can see I was all over the place!

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When I booked this trip I was often asked, why Portugal? Lisbon is stunningly beautiful, Sintra is a fairy tale come to life, and the Douro Valley is the center of the world’s port wine production. Need I say more? From south to north, to back south again, I was all over the place; starting and ending my trip in Lisbon and visiting Évora, Sintra, Cascais, Porto and the Douro Valley in between.

More detailed posts to follow but I wanted to start by sharing some of my favorite photos from this stunningly beautiful country in Southern Europe.

LISBON

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Sunrise over Rossio Square

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Streets of Alfama

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Views from Santa Justa Elevator in Baixa

ÉVORA

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Roman Temple of Diana

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Capela dos Ossos (Bone Chapel)

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Church of St. Anthony

SINTRA

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Pena National Palace

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Views from the Castle of the Moors

PORTO

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Streets of Porto

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Views from Clérigos Tower

Milwaukee in 48 Hours: Eating, Drinking and Lounging

A short hour and a half drive from the Windy City, a trip to Milwaukee in the fall is a great weekend escape. Whether your MO is to sightsee, sample some amazing beers or eat some of the best cheese you’ve ever had in your life, the Brew City has a little something for everyone.

With only a weekend to spare, it was tough to squeeze everything in that the city has to offer. Lucky for me one of my best friends, none other than a native of the Brew City himself, made it his mission to give us an authentic experience in his hometown. Check out my top picks for spending 48 hours eating, drinking, and lounging in Milwaukee.

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EAT

Kopps Frozen Custard

A trip to Milwaukee isn’t complete without a trip to Kopps, a Milwaukee staple famous for its hamburgers and most notably, its frozen custard. Established by the Kopps family in 1950, the family still owns two of the three locations. We just couldn’t get enough of the restaurant’s comfort food – Kopps was our first stop on Friday when we arrived and our last stop before heading back to Chicago on Sunday.

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Know Before You Go: Check Kopps’ website for the scrumptious flavor of the day, approved by the Karl Kopp legend himself.

Kasana

For Saturday brunch, our group dined at Kasana, a trendy spot in the Third Ward. Not clearly visible from the street, we walked down a few steps and entered a Latin American paradise. Doubling as an event space, the white furniture and hints of turquoise create an elegant ambience.

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Know Before You Go: Don’t go here if you are in a hurry. Although the food was delicious, we were served at a very leisurely pace. A delicious Bloody Mary will hit the spot after a night out spent exploring a few of Milwaukee’s finest establishments.

La Merenda

A cozy restaurant in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, La Merenda is small plate heaven for a tapas lover like myself. From the pork belly confit crepes to the prosciutto salad, this restaurant with international flair certainly didn’t disappoint. We all agreed that the highlight of our meal was the goat cheese curds, topped with a chorizo cream sauce and crostini. With $5 glasses of wine and tasty sangria, I would highly recommend La Merenda for date night, happy hour, or a night out with friends.

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Know Before You Go: Come in on Mondays for half priced bottles of wine. Get here early on the weekends – this place fills up fast!

Trocadero

After a fun day soaking up the last of summer at Indian Summer Fest, we stopped in Trocadero, a gastropub in the Lower East Side neighborhood. Exhausted and starving, we were ready for a hearty meal. Delicious cheese plate? Check. A generous serving of short ribs and mashed potatoes? Check. Dark and cozy, we were surprised to see that it wasn’t too crowded on a Saturday night.

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Know Before You Go: Offering up four different kinds of Bloody Marys, Trocadero is one of the hottest brunch spots in Milwaukee. Also, did I mention they have really good-looking bartenders?

DRINK

Lakefront Brewery

A trip to Lakefront Brewery was one of the highlights of the weekend. Ranked as the fourth best American brewery tour by TripAdvisor, the brewery is touted by many as a Milwaukee landmark. Your $8 entry fee includes a souvenir class, 4 6 oz. samples of beer, and um, a rather interesting experience. You’re sure to get a colorful, probably inappropriate tour guide that will make you cringe as he recounts the company’s history, which began with two brothers and a brew-making book back in 1987.

After the tour, mix and mingle with your tour guide and check out the outside bar for amazing views of the river as you sip your brews.

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Know Before You Go: Buy your tickets in advance and go early to enjoy a brew at the bar before your tour begins. Don’t forget to head to the store after the tour is over for your souvenir pint glass!

Hinterland Gastropub

We ducked in Hinterland Gastropub to kill a little time before our Lakefront Brewery tour and I’m so glad we did. I was instantly impressed with the industrial chic decor of this place and the bartender’s friendly banter. Founded by a couple of college grads, Hinterland began as a brewery in Green Bay and expanded to include three restaurants. It was the perfect way to relax and recharge after a day spent walking the Summerfest Grounds.

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Know Before You Go: If you visit in fall, try the Cherry Wheat on tap. It was so good I brought some back with me.

Colectivo Coffee

After an action-packed weekend, coffee on Sunday was a must. Checking out a local coffee shop is always on my agenda when I travel. Locally owned and operated, Colectivo Coffee got its start in 1993 in an old warehouse in Walker’s Point. The brand has grown exponentially ever since, with 16 locations all across Madison and Milwaukee.

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Know Before You Go: Colectivo Lakefront, the most popular Colectivo location, hosts a popular music series during the summer months. Don’t be deterred by the long lines – the breathtaking lakefront views are well worth the wait.

SEE

Indian Summer Festival

The heart of the Midwest is the perfect location for Indian Summer Fest, the largest Native American festival in the United States. Held in September at the Summerfest Grounds, the gathering is hosted by the eleven tribes that call Wisconsin home. With dancing, a Pow Wow competition, storytellers, cooking demos and tribal village re-creations, Indian Summer Fest is a great way to close out summer while relaxing by the lakefront.

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We sampled the fry bread, which is exactly what you think it is; flat dough fried or deep-fried in oil, shortening or lard. Albeit delicious, fry bread is a somber link to the past for many Native Americans. According to tradition, this Midwestern staple was created by the Navajo in the 1800s using ingredients given to them by the U.S. government after being displaced from their land out West. We tried the Indian taco and dessert variations.

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Know Before You Go: A fun fall activity, Indian Summer Fest brings history to life. Make sure to bring cash – many of the shops and vendors don’t accept credit cards.

Milwaukee Art Museum

An oasis of meticulously manicured gardens and postmodern architecture, the Milwaukee Art Museum is every photographer’s dream, offering stunning views of Lake Michigan. Built in 1888, the museum’s impressive collection contains works from Picasso, Monet, Warhol and Wisconsin native Georgia O’Keefe, just to name a few.

Don’t have time to check out the exhibits? Explore the museum grounds and walk around the main pavilion. Take a walk around the Burke Brise Soleil, a wing-like movable structure, or Windohover Hall, a grand reception with 90 foot ceilings, awash with sunlight on a clear day. The high ceilings in the Hall combined with the wings create an illusion that you are on a ship.

Know Before You Go:: You don’t need to pay to see beauty at this museum. If you only have a couple of hours to spare, there’s plenty to do and see on the museum grounds (without having to pay the entrance fee).

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Inside the City Walls of Kotor, A Medieval Paradise

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*I know this post is way overdue considering the fact that I traveled to the Balkans over a year ago, but as you may have read earlier this summer, I recently put in some hard work on this blog, including a complete overhaul and redesign. I also revamped up my about section. If you’re a new reader and want a little background on my adventure to the Balkans, start here.*

It was definitely interesting to go back and read the journal I kept while traveling to Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro last year. Accompanied by a cup of Bosnian kafa (probably the best coffee I’ve ever had), I tried to break away every few days for an hour or so to capture my experiences in real-time. It was tough to take a break in the action to reflect on my day, but I wanted to hold on to the memories I was sure to lose otherwise.

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Departing Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina on the last leg of our trip, we set off on a four and a half hour drive to Kotor, a coastal town in Montenegro tucked away in the Adriatic Sea. About halfway through our journey we stopped for an impromptu lunch at a traditional Bosnian restaurant. The small restaurant, literally in the middle of nowhere on the side of a Bosnian mountain, wasn’t accustomed to serving such a large group and was very enthusiastic to host a rowdy group of Canadians, Australians and Americans.

On a side note, one thing I noticed in the Balkans is that WiFi is EVERYWHERE. Literally. The fact that this small restaurant in rural Bosnia had wireless access is a true testament to the fact that we are now all mobile, all the time. Anyways, done with my technology spiel and back to the good stuff.

Our “quick stop” for lunch lasted 3 hours and ended with Serbian dancing and several rounds of rakija. Sasha, our fearless driver, was not amused. Although he indulged our antics, he lost his patience after a few hours and shooed us out of the place. After lunch, Sasha expertly navigated through rolling mountains and winding streets carrying 11 delirious and wine-happy passengers. We blared the radio, laughed until our stomachs hurt, and played our theme song of the trip on repeat. Our four and a half hour journey quickly turned into eight, and we didn’t arrive in Kotor until early evening as the sun was beginning to set.

Magical, bewitching, romantic – I don’t really know any other way to describe Kotor, a medieval town with fortifications all around the city’s Old Town, reminders of the region’s four centuries of Venetian rule beginning in the early 1400s. Located on the Bay of Kotor, Old Town is located in a submerged river canyon, offering views of pristine waters that contrast sharply with brightly colored rooftops and dramatic mountains that carve their way into the sky.

By the time we got settled in to our hotel (the owner was also named Sasha ironically enough), it was late and we were all exhausted. We dragged ourselves to dinner and then called it a night, but not before I snapped a few photos of the medieval Old Town. The lights of the city walls exuded an eerie, bewitching glow and although it was only 9 pm, there were very few pedestrians in sight.

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Walking around Kotor’s cobblestone streets, you’ll notice breathtaking views that are probably the norm for the 13,000 or so people that actually live within the city walls. We strolled by the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, a Roman Catholic Cathedral built in the 12th century.

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As we hurried to the mountain of St. John in order to beat the rain, I spotted an artist deep in thought, painting the arch in front of our hotel.

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Our group didn’t have to go far to reach the beginning of our climb up the mountain of St. John, as it was just steps away from our hotel. Fortunately for us, we climbed the fortress on our only clear day as navigating the steep inclines would have been treacherous during a downpour. The 300-meter trek up offers the best views of the city and for an entrance fee of only 3 euros, is a must-do activity when visiting the Old Town.

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After a couple of hours hiking up the mountain, I was definitely huffing and puffing. But we finally made it to the top.
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The remainder of our time in Kotor was spent getting lost in the winding cobblestone streets and marveling at the fortifications surrounding the Old Town, weaving in between the quaint houses and breathtaking mountains. Together with the Old Town itself, the fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and have protected the city for centuries.
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On another note, it didn’t take us too long to pick up on why the phrase “Cats of Kotor” is on postcards and T-shirts in all the souvenir shops. The friendly (definitely not shy) cats popped up in alleyways and seemed to be treated very affectionately by the locals.
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Unfortunately due to remnants of the flooding that was occurring all across the Balkan region, we weren’t able to venture as planned to Perast, Budva, or Sweti Stefan, resort towns off the Montenegrin coast.

What is one to do when it’s dark and stormy outside? Cuddle up to a bottle of rose of course. The YoGypsy gang camped out at Old Winery, a cozy wine bar located in the heart of the Old Town. We ended up making friends with the locals and stayed until the wee hours of the morning. Our time in Kotor ended with an unexpected 6 am flight back to Belgrade (more to come on this in a future post).

The quaint, coastal town of Kotor offers a unique landscape unlike any other I’ve seen in all of my travels. If you want to check out the beauty and serenity of the Mediterranean without the cruise ship crowds, Kotor is definitely the place to go.

A Life Update and My Journey Into Web Design

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Hola! You may be wondering where I have been for the past year. No, I didn’t turn into an Eskimo in Chiberia or give up on this blog entirely. Instead, I was wrapping my head around media queries, CSS transitions and even a bit of jQuery.

In November 2014, I signed up for a web design course through General Assembly. The three-month, intensive course taught the basics of front-end development and design, including HTML and CSS. From experimenting with various source control programs to learning elementary concepts regarding navigation and page layout, the class definitely tested my patience and made me think about the design process in a totally different way.

What motivated me to start this journey into coding? As a communications professional in the IT industry, I often feel frustrated that I don’t have the skills to take a project full circle. Translating technical concepts into user-friendly marketing materials is what I do on a daily basis, but taking my work to the next level creativity-wise is something I’ve always struggled with. I wanted to push my limits with my personal endeavors, enhance my freelance portfolio, and design a blog myself from scratch.

In the first few weeks of the course, I began learning about key design elements such as focal point, size and balance and used these concepts to build wireframes for my very first static HTML site (check out my design for a restaurant offering a little southern comfort in Chicago below). Although it looks relatively simple (and it is), I was slamming my head against the wall learning about floats, clears, and divs. It was clear from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be easy.

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After countless hours spent wrapping my head around basic HTML concepts like classes and IDs, we moved on to font pairings and color matching. I was excited to delve into my own blog for the next project. I created a very rudimentary logo in Illustrator and experimented with different colors and fonts in developing a style guide. I cringe when thinking about my first attempt at a logo (it was very Sex and the City).

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After more research on font pairings and logo design, I finally settled on a minimalistic look that more accurately portrayed the “alli in the city 2.0” vibe I was going for. Once the skeleton of the site was complete, I thought what came next would be peaches and gravy. Taking a static HTML site and building it in WordPress turned out to be fairly complicated and led to a lot of frustration. Let’s just say PHP is not my strong suit.

Ultimately, I did have some help getting the site up and running in WordPress, but I’m proud to say that the design and code was something I did on my own. If you are thinking about learning front-end development and design, I highly recommend General Assembly. With the help of a fabulous mentor guiding me every step of the way, I went from knowing very basic HTML to coding a fully functional, responsive website.

This post was a long-winded way of saying that I’m excited for you all to see the blog’s new design and I’m proud to (::drumroll::) unveil alli in the city 2.0. So there you have it. It feels good to update you all on my progress! I couldn’t end this post without asking for feedback, so please, please let me know what you think about the new look!

From Belgrade to Sarajevo: An Epic Road Trip

Wow, I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since my last post. Summers in Chicago are short which means I have to make the most of it! Over the past few months, my weekends have been occupied with weddings, music fests, and visits from some of my favorite people. As summer comes to a close (I can’t even think about it!) my posts will become more frequent, I promise! Without further ado…

Belgrade was gritty yet enlightening, Mostar was quaint and memorable, but Sarajevo, the capital and largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, captured my heart. Sarajevo was the second stop on our #YOGYPSY tour of the Balkans and probably my favorite (although it’s a tough call).

Before I get into the details of our stay in Sarajevo (which I’ll cover in a future post), I can’t go without mentioning our journey, as it is worthy of a dedicated blog post of its own. After two amazing days in Belgrade that involved climbing a fortress, catching the sunset at a rooftop bar and sharing rakija with a Serbian cover band, we boarded our bus for Bosnia at 9:30 AM sharp. It was here that we met our tour guide, Sasha, who stayed with us throughout our travels in and around the region.

An entire blog could be devoted to Sasha so I won’t get into too many details here. Let’s just say he is a former member of the Serbian Special Forces turned Lufthansa tour operator, a very interesting character to say the least. He has a cousin in Chicago (what are the odds), is scheming to move to Berlin, and believes every man should have three wives. Yep, I think that pretty much sums it up.

The distance from Belgrade to Sarajevo is about 124 miles, which you would think should take about 2 hours of driving time. As we began trekking up the remote mountains and stretches of narrow, two-lane roads, I realized this wouldn’t be the case. We could see Sasha’s patience being tested as he navigated us through the rolling hills, especially during our loud and oftentimes inappropriate conversations.serbianbosniamapbosnianhills-2Soon after we began our road trip, Sasha informed us that we would be stopping for coffee so he could finish some paperwork for the border crossing, and that we would be stopping again soon after that for lunch. We weren’t really given a choice in the matter and after just a few short hours with Sasha, learned quickly not to question his decisions (or directions). So, we stopped in the remote Serbian town of Banja Koviljača, with Sasha leading the way, to have a coffee.Banja Koviljaca-1

Sasha sat at a corner table and furrowed his brow over the paperwork while our group debated between beer or coffee (five o’clock somewhere right?). When he was finished, we boarded the van and within two hours, arrived at the Bosnian border. I’m fairly certain a van full of Australians, Canadians and Americans was quite the sight as we pulled up slowly to the station. Initially, Sasha collected our passports and handed them over to the Border Police. After some discussion, a stern policeman insisted on boarding the van to carefully inspect our documents. Although photographs were strictly forbidden, I did manage to snap a few. border1After what sounded like an intense and aggressive conversation between Sasha and the policeman (we later found out they were just joking around) we were finally allowed to cross the border into Bosnia.

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We continued on our way, stopping every so often to snap pictures of the surreal landscape. About an hour later, we stopped at Motel Milici for lunch. It was no surprise that we stopped here with Sasha leading the way, as the restaurant is located in the Republicka Srpska. Whatever the reason, the fresh fish was delicious and it was at this locale that I sampled Nektar, a German pilsner brewed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.nektarbeer

Republika Sprska (otherwise known as the Bosnian Serb Republic) is one of two political entities in the country, the other being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The republic is known as the ethnically cleansed Serbian entity of the region and was declared autonomous prior to the devastating Bosnian War in 1992. As the subject is still contentious among many, I won’t go into too many details about the Bosnian War here and will let you do your own research in order to form an opinion. Let’s just say there is no shortage of Serbian nationalists in the Republika Sprska, many with strong opinions and dissent over the tumultuous and violent events that occurred. The shield of the Republika Sprska was displayed prominently outside of the restaurant.

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After a few more coffee breaks and stops for gas, we arrived in Sarajevo at dusk, as the sun was slowly creeping over the buildings. There is definitely no shortage of stories from this amazing trip so I’ll continue to blog about my experiences in the Balkans over the next several weeks. Stay tuned!

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Beauty Among the Ruins

After leaving Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, (you’ll read about sweet Sarajevo in a future post), I couldn’t believe the trip was halfway over. After several nights of bonding over epic sunset views, strong rakija and amazing beef cevapi with the #YOGYPSY crew, I didn’t even want to think about the trip coming to an end.

Our next stop was Mostar, the quaint cultural capital of the southeastern Herzegovina region. We left Sarajevo around 10 in the morning via van and started off on the 2.5 (which turned into 5) hour drive. Similar to the other car journeys during our time together, we were on Balkan time: enjoying the scenery, stopping for Bosnian coffee, and of course starting a dance party at every restaurant that crossed our path.

A couple of hours into our journey we stopped for lunch in Jablanica, a town in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. Known for its lush foliage and dramatic mountain views, we spent a good half hour snapping photos. Even on a cloudy day, the Neretva River was a picturesque shade of blue-green.

IMG_0797-1IMG_0660-1IMG_0661-1After lunch, we continued our journey to a city founded in the 1400s, exhibiting signs of a previous era of Turkish rule. Although Mostar was one of the smaller towns we visited during our 11-day trek through the Balkans, it was quite possibly the most memorable. The Old Town, with architecture dating back to the medieval ages, was very striking in its contrast between the peaceful Neretva River and the remnants of devastating violence from the Yugoslav Wars.

The Stari Most (Old Bridge) is the most recognizable and magnificent architectural piece in Mostar, soaring high above the old town in a perfect arch. Constructed in 1566 by the Ottomans, it stood for over 400 years until it was destroyed during the Croat-Bosniak War. In 2004, the bridge was reconstructed completely, representing rebirth of a town that lost so much a mere twenty years ago.

IMG_0881-1IMG_0878-1IMG_0808-1IMG_0801-1IMG_0887-1IMG_0814-1Stepping outside of the bubble that is Old Town, I noticed the city hadn’t exactly started fresh. Bombed out buildings, bullet-ridden houses and cemeteries give the city an eerie feeling that I couldn’t quite shake.  In 1993, due to residual effects from the Bosnian War, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats began fighting over territory within Mostar. Bosniaks were driven out of the western part of the city and the Old Bridge was part of the front line, dividing the city between the Muslims and Christians. Most of the horribly battered buildings are located here. One of the more prominent ruins was a bank tower turned sniper den, towering above the city as an ominous sign of the city’s war-torn past.

IMG_0852-1IMG_0800-1While a few of the other #YOGPYSY trippers did a little urban exploration in some of the abandoned buildings, I opted for coffee and a little writing. For a better account on the devastation and heartache the war caused on many people in the region, check out Yomadic’s blog for a very poignant account of a homeless man in Mostar.IMG_0830-1IMG_0843-1It is local custom in Mostar for brave bridge jumpers to plunge into the chilly Neretva River to showcase their strength. We learned upon arrival that we would most likely not witness this for free, as most local divers charge around 25 euro to make the 20-meter jump.  After forking over the cash, a 20-something diver was happy to oblige, already in a wetsuit, ready to make the leap. I had to get this on video (below) because it looked absolutely terrifying.

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Stay tuned as I continue to document my trip through the Balkans. Up next: the gem that is Sarajevo!

Belgrade: Where it all Began

“Belgrade does not like having its picture taken. It hates to pose. It will not keep still. It does not do well in photographs – it always looks like some place else…There are few things in Belgrade that I have not seen elsewhere. Perhaps only three: its rivers, its sky, and its people. Of these three ancient elements the unique spirit of Belgrade is born.” Momo Kapor

I struggled putting pen to paper for this blog post because there are just no words to describe my recent experience in a part of the world that has been through so much. When I was younger, I vaguely remember hearing about Yugoslavia and the Bosnian War in the news. It wasn’t until I booked this trip (my first to Europe in 15 years) that I truly began to understand the magnitude of events that occurred in the Balkans during the 1990s.

Over the next few weeks I’ll try my best to capture my trip, starting with where it all began, in Belgrade, Serbia. It will certainly be difficult to put into words the life changing experiences, friendships formed, and the inside jokes (#FYL) shared. If you are wondering how I met this crazy and awesome #YOGYPSY family, read about my New Year’s resolution to get out of my comfort zone.

Before I delve into an account of my 11 day trek, I want to shed some light on the catastrophic flooding situation that occurred earlier this month affecting parts of former Yugoslavia, killing dozens and displacing thousands from their homes. Lucky for our #YOGYPSY group, we were only minorly affected by this disaster. Hundreds of thousands of others in the region weren’t so lucky. Bosnia and Serbia declared states of emergency and faced contaminated water, outbreak of disease and the unearthing of landmines. Entire cities were submerged under water and thousands of families lost everything. It’s heartbreaking to see families in the midst of rebuilding after the war forced to start all over again.

Larissa, my friend and co-organizer of YoGypsy trips, put together a list of legitimate organizations accepting donations for flood relief in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. Please keep the people in the Balkans in your thoughts and prayers.

What happens in Belgrade, stays in Belgrade

Upon my arrival in Belgrade on a propeller plane (if you know me, you know this required some courage), I met the #YOGYSPY group for the very first time. All different ages, backgrounds and nationalities, we were brought together for a reason and were likeminded in that we wanted to explore a part of the world not often touched by the average traveler.

Our accommodation for the next two nights was Hotel Slavija, located in Slavija Square in the heart of Belgrade.  From the retro furniture to the outdated bathroom tiles, the hotel’s character was very Yugoslavian, which only added to our experience. This was our home base for the first two nights in the city and unexpectedly for our last two nights as well (will explain that in a later post).

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On our very first day together, we began at one of the most somber scenes in Belgrade – the Ministry of Defense Building, site of the NATO bombing on May 7, 1999. According to NATO, because Serbian authorities were participating in the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, bombing was necessary to prevent war crimes in the region. For two and half months, bombs were dropped by NATO in Yugoslavia, with Serbia being the hardest hit in the area. When I was a teenager, I vaguely remember hearing about the war in Kosovo but didn’t pay too much attention because it didn’t seem relevant to my life. But here I am, over a decade later, witnessing the devastation for myself. There are effects of the bombing all over the city but this seemed to be the most powerful, as the Ministry of Defense building is located a few blocks from the Belgrade train station in the center of the town.

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There are gaping holes in the place of windows that were blown out and pieces of concrete hanging treacherously from the building. Wooden scaffolding was constructed below the site, assumingly to protect passersby from being victim to falling debris. There are glass shards on the ground and you can still see remnants of heavy shelling on the neighboring buildings.

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Why hasn’t the government either completely demolished this building or renovated the ruins? For the Serbian people, it may serve as a constant reminder of a time when unwanted, hostile forces wreaked havoc on a city formerly known as the bustling epicenter of Yugoslavia. I guess I’ll never know. I’m certainly not going to get into political issues here so if you want more information, there are a plethora of sites out there that give a better explanation.

Our next stop certainly put us in better spirits as we came across a traditional Serbian celebration for St. Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Church of St. Sava is the largest Orthodox Church in the world and one of the ten largest church buildings in the world. It was definitely a sight to see and is a major historical landmark in Belgrade. What’s interesting is that despite it’s grandour on the outside, the church remains largely unfinished on the inside, and has been that way for years. As far as I could tell, no one really knows when the construction will be complete in its entirety. Construction began in 1935 but was interrupted by Germany’s invasion during World War II.  In 1989, over 50 years later, the work on the church was completed.

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IMG_0536-1Stay tuned as I continue to recap my amazing tour of the Balkans. Ancient fortresses, rakija-filled dance parties and some crazy bridge jumping – I’m giving you the lodown on all of the #YOGYSPY shenanigans. Hit subscribe for the latest updates on all of my travel adventures, delivered directly to your inbox!

Wanna Get Away: Reykjavik, Iceland

In the spirit of providing kick arse travel advice to my readers, I’m announcing a monthly travel series titled Wanna Get Away. I’ll feature a hot destination bubbling under the radar. I’ll tell you when to go, how to get there, and of course, the best off-the-beaten-path locales. This month I’m giving you the low down on Reykjavik, Iceland.

the skinny

Is Bjork (and her infamous swan dress) the first image that comes to mind when thinking of this island country near the Arctic Circle? Iceland may seem far off and exotic but is in fact only a five-hour flight from the East Coast of the U.S. Whether you are a first time traveler playing it safe or a veteran wayfarer, Iceland offers something for every travel personality. Glaciers, geysers and geothermal pools, the country is chock-full of awe-inspiring natural wonders. Reykjavik, Iceland’s bustling capital city and the northernmost capital of the world,  is definitely on the top of my European to-do list.

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now departing

Although many people flock to Iceland during the summer for the mild weather and the variety of tours and expeditions offered during the peak season, native Icelanders say the best time to visit is during the winter months. With an average temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, Iceland is surprisingly warmer than many cities in the U.S. (ahem, Chiberia) during winter and is known for its festive holiday celebrations.  IcelandAir offers non-stop service from New York and even gives you the option to stopover for free when flying to or from another destination in Europe.

you gotta see this

The hesitation by many to traipse through crowded touristy areas is understandable. However, fortunate for the tourism industry, Iceland is one of the world’s most accessible viewing spots for the Northern Lights, a natural display of lights that creates a surreal green glow across the skies. Quick tip though – be patient. To actually see the lights you’ll most likely have to venture outside of the capital city for ideal viewing conditions, and you may have to watch intently for several nights just to catch a glimpse. Judging from the spectacular views, it all seems worth it.

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Where else but in Iceland can you find a spa located in a lava field? I’m talking about the Blue Lagoon, a man-made lagoon containing pools of water heated by underground lava. Located about 20 minutes from the airport, what better way to end a vacation then by soaking in a steam room cave said to have healing properties? Before you go, do your research. With standard packages starting at $50, you’ll definitely fork over some dough to experience this can’t miss tourist attraction.

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off the beaten path

Travel a little further from Reykjavik and take a stroll on the Black Sand Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, located underneath a glacier-covered volcano. For a day-long excursion, take a hike through Fjord Hvalfjordour (whale fjord), named after the large number of whales seen here by the original settlers. Located just north of Reykjavik, it’s the perfect spot for adventurers to hike through the weaving landscape, explore the forest and venture to Iceland’s highest waterfall.

around the web

Tour Iceland through the eyes of a local! Check out these pretty awesome travel blogs:

http://icelandeyes.blogspot.com/

http://www.iheartreykjavik.net/

Scenes from a Day Trip to Block Island, RI

Last year I visited Block Island, located about 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island in the Atlantic Ocean. On a clear day, Montauk, NY can be seen off in the distance. With a population of only 1,000, Block Island is the perfect destination for those looking for a relaxing weekend getaway.

Accessible via ferry from Newport, an excursion to Block Island makes for the perfect day trip. Departing Perotti Park at 8 am sharp, we arrived in Block Island around 9:15 am.  After a hearty breakfast, our group rented bikes and spent hours exploring the hilly terrain of the island, including a popular, family-owned farm and the spectacular Mohegan Bluffs.

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The bluffs, located on the southern shore of the island, are large clay cliffs about 150 feet tall. The cliffs were named after the battle between the Niantic, a tribe of New England Native Americans, and the Mohegans, a federally recognized Indian tribe from Connecticut. The two tribes fought over land ownership of the area, and as a result of the battle, the Mohegans were forced to their death over the cliffs.

Although the story behind the cliffs is somber, the view of the rocks and Atlantic Ocean is breathtaking.

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Our next stop was Block Island Southeast Light, a lighthouse constructed in 1875. Located on Mohegan Bluffs at the southeastern corner of the island, it is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The lighthouse’s original optic was a Fresnel lens, containing four circular wicks burning whale oil. The whale oil was replaced by kerosene in 1880, and the lens was modified to rotate in a pool of mercury.

In 1993, because of the erosion on the bluffs, the entire lighthouse (all 2,000 tons of it) was moved back about 300 feet. After the move, the lens was replaced again, this time with a more modern lens originally used at Cape Lookout Light in North Carolina (loved reading this piece of history!)

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After several hours of biking (it was more difficult than I thought), we ended our trip with frozen drinks and snacks at Oar Restaurant. After a long day of sightseeing, it was nice to conclude our day trip with mudslides and spectacular views of New Harbor.

As about 40 percent of the island is set aside for conservation, the Nature Conservancy added Block Island to its list of “The Last Great Places”, which is one of only 12 historic sites in the Western hemisphere. I recommend this lush, sparsely populated island to anyone looking for a break from reality, which is certainly what my experience was like on that muggy August day.

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