Why I’m Spending Two Weeks in Eastern Europe

Try it: Tell the next five people you meet that you’re going to be spending two weeks in Eastern Europe this summer and see what they say.

You’ll probably hear that Budapest is supposed to be nice. Or that coastal Croatia is just as beautiful as its other Mediterranean neighborhoods and still super cheap. You’ll probably hear some jokes about goulash.

Yeah…that’s exactly why I’m going to Eastern Europe.

Last year, I whetted my appetite for the post-Soviet world, spending two wonderful weeks exploring Russia with my mom and getting to know a part of the world that, for a long time, had been completely shrouded in mystery to me. It was exhilarating. During those two weeks, my mom and I discovered how onion domes are made, how devoted to the arts and literature Russians really are, and how complicated the everyday lives are for people who live, day in and day out, under Vladimir Putin’s rule. We saw the commingling of Communist-era blocs—homes still owned and lived in by the families who were given free housing back in the 70s—and we saw the intense contrast between that world and the elaborate palaces, cathedrals, and summer homes of the Romanovs. We visited the island of Kizhi and witnessed a cathedral that was built in the 1700s completely out of interlocking wood pieces –no nails or glue of any kind. We sat outside at midnight under the large, low sun and imagined what it must be like to try and sleep during Russia’s white nights if you don’t have pitch-black curtains. We took a little boat down the canals of St. Petersburg, and we wandered the cosmopolitan streets of Moscow.

More than anything else, our trip broke, reinforced, and fractured every stereotype I had about Russia (except the whole “polar bears on the streets of Moscow” thing …sadly it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny). Just like the United States, Russians, too, find themselves in a globally powerful country that politically doesn’t always jive with their interests, and most of them want to be heard, understood, and respected.

I’ve been thinking about it all year. With every article I wrote about my trip, I realized that I wanted to know more—I wanted to learn more about what life was (and is) like in the countries and societies that were also affected by Russia and by Communist rule. I wanted to meet more people, hear their stories, and better understand a part of history that is still so elusive to me.

Basically, I wanted to see more of Eastern Europe.

And what better way than to sail with Viking again? One of the best parts about taking trips with Viking is that you really can cover a good bit of ground—and you’re surrounded by experts who live and work in the countries you’re visiting. After Russia, I felt like I had such a deeper and more profound understanding of the culture there because I could ask questions and talk to our tour guides about their own experiences. Plus, they held a few “round-table” sessions where we could come and ask questions about education, housing, politics, and anything else that was on our minds. People did come, and they asked hard questions. The tour guides were ready for all of them and answered each query honestly and openly.

Plus, Viking’s philosophy is centered around three different kinds of immersion experiences:

  • Culture & leisure (such as attending Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg)
  • Work & everyday life (such as attending a cooking class or visiting the home of someone who lives in the community)
  • Access to points of cultural or historical interest (such as a privately-curated tour of the Peterof Palace)

I looked through the itineraries online and quickly decided on the one that would be most beneficial to me:

Passage to Eastern Europe

The 11-day cruise covers 5 countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary. It offers a number of offshore excursions, too, that sound like they would really give me a diversity of perspectives on life in both the city and countryside. I signed up right away.

map

Then, I went to the store, bought a card, scribbled a note to my husband about how much I wanted to celebrate the beginning of our new chapter together (more on our spectacularly crappy professional year later), and I invited him to join me. He opened the card and looked at me in the way he always looks at me when I’ve concocted up a new way for us to travel together. He could see that my eyes were sparkling in a mix of anticipation and excitement.

“Yes,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

So here we are. We leave tomorrow morning for our long voyage to Hungary. Once we’re there, we’ll spend a few days at the Radisson Blu Hotel Bucharest (sounds swanky…I hope they have those fluffy terrycloth bathrobes and slippers!), and then we’ll hit the Danube for our cruise.

In case you’re considering a trip to Eastern Europe, here’s the scoop on where we’ll be headed and what my plans are while I’m there. Keep in mind that I’ve crammed in a couple of side trips/journo stuff for my own writing (you wouldn’t necessarily be interviewing a Magyar horseman, investigating the history of paprika as a colonial food, or visiting Memento Park to see gigantic Soviet-Era statues….well, you might be, in which case, let me know!).

Here’s the lowdown on where we’re headed.

ROMANIA (Days 1-2)

The first leg of our journey will be two days in Bucharest, Romania’s cultural capital. From what I can tell, Bucharest seems to be relatively underrated as a tourist destination, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In our first two days, we’re going to check out the French-style boulevards, public gardens (I have heard marvelous things about the Bucharest Botanical Gardens), and visit a few of the city’s palaces. We’ll be spending an afternoon in the historic Lipscani district, which, from what I can tell, is a European beauty—full of cobblestone streets, boutique inns, art galleries, and shops and restaurants.

Flickr/Costel Slincu
Flickr/Costel Slincu
Flickr/Dennis Jarvis
Flickr/Dennis Jarvis

We’ll also be checking out a few of Bucharest’s tourist “hot spots:” the monastery where Prince Vlad is rumored to have been buried, and the Palace of the Parliament, which is said to contain over 3,000 rooms. Now that’s a house.

BULGARIA (Day 3-4)

Our first stop will be the town of Russe, Bulgaria, otherwise known as Eastern Europe’s “Little Vienna” for its historically critical port, mash-up of neo-baroque, neo-rococo, and Renaissance architecture, and its relaxed, European waterfront lifestyle.

Flickr/Dennis Jarvis
Flickr/Dennis Jarvis
Flickr/Dennis Jarvis
Flickr/Dennis Jarvis

We’ve signed up for a day trip to Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi, two medieval towns renowned for their handicrafts and local artist colonies. We’ll have coffee at a rooftop café in Veliko Tarnovo, overlooking the Old Town, explore Samovodska Charshia (one of the art districts) and visit castle ruins. Then, we’ll head to Arbanasi, where we’ll have lunch and meet with a merchant who makes products out of the essence of roses.

I’m not sure we’ll have time for the Russe City Walking Tour, but if we do, it will take us to the old city center and to a couple of museums, including the Museum of History (which houses over 140,000 artifacts—I can’t to dig into the archives on some of these objects!) and the Ethnographic Museum, which houses objects and artifacts related to people’s everyday lives in historical Bulgaria.

The next day, we’re planning on heading to the Belogradchik Rocks, a trip which will no doubt inspire the archaelogist inside me. The Rocks are not only a geological wonder, the result of millennia of erosion, freezing, and weathering, but they are also home to the Ottoman-built Belogradchik Fortress—a maze of rooms built into the cliffs.

Flickr/Klearchos Kapoutsis
Flickr/Klearchos Kapoutsis
Flickr/Klearchos Kapoutsis
Flickr/Klearchos Kapoutsis

IRON GATE (Day 5)

Today, I think we’re just sailing through the Iron Gate, an area renowned as one of Europe’s most stunning natural gorges. We’ll see the Carpathian Mountains on one side and the Balkan Mountains on the other.

Flickr/Byron Howes
Flickr/Byron Howes
Flickr/Byron Howes
Flickr/Byron Howes
Flickr/Byron Howes
Flickr/Byron Howes

SERBIA (Day 6)

Today will be devoted to exploring Belgrade, described by Lonely Planet as “outspoken, adventurous, proud, and audacious” (sounds a lot like the kind of person I’d want to hang out with) with a “gritty exuberance” (where do they find these adjectives?!). We’re planning on taking a city tour and then hopefully catching at least a happy hour. I mean, if we’re going to be in one of the world’s hottest places for nightlife, we have to at least have a Serbian cocktail, right?

Flickr/Blok 70
Flickr/Blok 70
Flickr/George M. Groutas
Flickr/George M. Groutas

CROATIA (Day 7)

Now, it’s really too bad that I can’t skip away for a day or two and head to the Mediterranean coast of Croatia, but I’m actually kind of excited about where we are going: Osijek. I don’t know exactly what this excursion will entail, but we’re planning on visiting a family and then walking along the promenade on the Drava River. I’m imagining a relatively relaxing day in this small Croatian village—which is perfectly fine with me.

Flickr/Martin Alvarez Espinar
Flickr/Martin Alvarez Espinar

HUNGARY (Days 8-11)

To be honest, Hungary is one of those countries I’ve wanted to visit since I was a little girl, and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because I always laughed about the name—how could a country share a name with my language’s word for wanting to eat?!—but also because I’ve always heard such magnificent things about Budapest, the country’s capital. Our journey will end here, in Hungary, a place I am so excited to meet.

We’ll begin our three days in Kalocsa, a place I’ve learned is not only where the majority of the world’s paprika is harvested, but also where the Hungarian Puszta, a community devoted to preserving a non-motorized world and who get around on horseback, live, work, and play. I’m hoping to interview one of the horsemen before or after their show (which is rumored to be both acrobatic, artful, and death-defying) but I’m not sure we’ll be able to communicate with each other. I’ll have my Google Translate app with me, but it’s not always so easy to do an interview when you’re both typing into a smartphone what you’d really like to say. But we’ll see—I really want to learn more about their attitudes against motorized transport and modernity.

Flickr/Espino Family
Flickr/Espino Family
Flickr/Espino Family
Flickr/Espino Family

Our last two days will be in the lovely city of Budapest. We’ll hop on a city tour one day and head to a Roman thermal bath, but the rest of our time in Hungary will be spent running around trying to fit in all the places I’m writing about. Though I don’t know exactly how I’ll get there yet, I’m planning on finding Memento Park, where, according to their delightful website, the “ghosts of Communist Dictatorship” live. The park is basically an open-air museum where, after the fall of Communism, people dumped a whole bunch of gigantic Communist statues. I can’t wait to see this place.

Flickr/Moyan Brenn
Flickr/Moyan Brenn
Flickr/Moyan Brenn
Flickr/Moyan Brenn
Flickr/Moyan Brenn
Flickr/Moyan Brenn

I’m also interested in visiting the Central Hall Market, which I’ve heard from some other travel writing friends is a photographer’s dream. Because of my nerdy interest in public spaces and rhetoric in the world, I’m also trying to fit in a trip to the For Sale Pub, a bar that encourages drinkers to leave their words on the walls, floors, chairs, and ceilings. They can leave their “personal advertisements” anywhere they like. It sounds magical, and weird, and the perfect place for me.

With that, then, I’m going to start packing. Typing these words has started making my heart flutter just a little bit faster…oh, travel, how you ignite my soul, time and time again.

If you’ve been to Eastern Europe and have any tips for me, please leave a note for me here or get in touch with me on social media! I can’t wait to share this journey.

Yours in travel,

Kristin

All photographs from Flickr’s Creative Commons. I thank them for their generosity and I hope my photos turn out just as beautifully!

I’m excited to be traveling to Eastern Europe with Viking River Cruises on their 2016 Passage to Eastern Europe cruise from Bucharest to Budapest. 

Delsey Chatelet, I’m Still Your Suitcase Girl

Update: I just took my 19-inch Delsey Chatelet suitcase for a test run on a recent weekend trip from Los Angeles to Tucson. Because it was a quick trip, I decided to fly instead of drive, and guess what: not only did my friend Alison swoon over it as soon as she saw me, IT EVEN FIT UNDER THE SEAT in front of me on the flight! And, I didn’t overpack like I usually do–I stuck to the space I had, and instead of making a gigantic mess all over the guest room, I had everything rolled, packed, and stored in exactly the right place. And I used everything I brought except for one pair of pants and two shirts. It was glorious. Also, Delsey is offering free shipping on all orders right now, too 🙂

*****

I’m in love with a new suitcase. If you know me, this won’t surprise you, as I’ve been carrying around one suitcase or another for the past ten years, but the story of how I became a suitcase girl is a little more interesting (more on that in a second).

But first, what do I love about my 19-inch champagne-colored Delsey Chatelet suitcase, this new little love of mine?

For one thing, the size: it’s the international carry-on size (which means, to my delight, that it will fit in the overhead compartment (and under the seat) of almost all international airlines). Also, like all of Delsey’s Chatelet collection, it features a TSA-friendly combination lock (which means that airport authorities can still open and rummage through your bag with a special key if needed but that a normal person can’t open your suitcase). And, it has these nifty spinner wheels you can lock so your suitcase won’t roll away from you if you’re standing on an incline. Yes, this has actually happened to me before (thanks, San Francisco).

It’s rounded shape is also adorable.

Delsey Chatelet 19in

Over the years, a lot of my friends and fellow travelers have looked at me with skepticism when I’ve arrived, suitcase in tow, instead of toting around a large backpack on my shoulders.

What they don’t understand is that I’ve always been a suitcase kind of girl.

And here’s why.

When I was twenty-two years old, my parents did what most supportive, loving parents do when their child graduates college: they bought me a graduation present. But it wasn’t a briefcase, a suit, a plaque, or a new laptop computer, the kinds of sensible gifts my friends and colleagues at school were getting. It wasn’t jewelry, a commemorate necklace, a class ring, or a fancy diploma frame.

My parents knew me well: they bought me three pieces of blue luggage.

The afternoon of my graduation, my dad rolled the big one out into our family’s living room and presented it to me with gusto. He called it “big blue,” the same name bequeathed to my roommate Mary’s eponymous couch that followed us through four apartments. The day before, we’d given the couch—along with a bunch of other stuff I didn’t know what to do with—to the pizza delivery guy who, delivery box in his hands, saw us moving out and confessed he’d just moved to town and didn’t yet have any furniture.

Dad had even tied a big red bow to the top of it, where my hand would, for so many years, press down and lift up on the retractable handle. Inside, he’d piled in the smaller pieces like Russian matroyshka dolls, all zipped up into each other. I gasped in joy and pulled each one out, lovingly, running my fingers along the strong navy blue cloth and imagining the world at my twenty-two year old feet, the world that had become increasingly larger during my college years after I discovered what happened when a single girl goes out into the world. (In case you’re wondering, magical things happen).

Later that evening, once the flurry of the celebrations had given way to contemplation, I sat in my room, opened my mom’s card to me, looked at the three blue suitcases, all lined up like my little army in my childhood bedroom, and let my eyes well up with tears. In her elegant, curly handwriting, my mom had written a line from a hymn she’d repeated to me many times since I’d left home to pursue a college life four years ago: roots hold me close….wings set me free. Though I’d suspected it before, I knew it, in that moment, to be true: my life was never going to be the same.

That fall, this Southern girl from Georgia took a leap of faith and moved with all of my new luggage to Cartagena, Colombia to teach English. When I got there, wide-eyed and surprised that I’d actually done it, I opened each one to find letters and cards from my family nestled inside the t-shirts, pant legs, and tucked into the insides of my shoes, telling me how excited they were for my new adventure.

*

A few years—and a lot of travels—passed. In the meantime, I returned home to the U.S., moved to Tucson, Arizona, met my husband-t0-be, and stayed there eight years. I left home with nothing but those three blue suitcases, all of which I hauled on the plane with me and my dad.

I went to graduate school for creative writing, I started teaching, I decided to keep on going until I reached the furthest point I could really go in my academic life—to get that elusive Ph.D. after my name—and I traveled a lot as a solo female traveler. I took my blue suitcases everywhere, even after they started looking heavier and clunkier than the newer, sleeker models with their rolling wheels and lightweight aluminum bodies, even after the TSA changed the weight limit to 50 pounds and rendered the giant one effectively useless. They tread over continents, rolled over cobblestones, highways, and side streets, and sat in many a cargo pit. The dark cloth, thick zippers, and leather flaps over the corners stayed intact and never weathered.

I know the stereotype: the girl who totes around a suitcase leaves for her travels burdened. She isn’t really devoted to the cause. She’s a tourist, not a traveler. She packs too much (which, ok, yes, is true in my case). It’s the backpacker who deserves our respect: she’s the one who doesn’t care if her toenails are painted, if she remembered to pack her favorite perfume, if her shoes would look right with the pants she packed. She sports sandals with straps, leaves the makeup at home, and can wear and re-wear the same outfit twenty-five times if she needs to. I tried taking a backpack with me once, borrowing my friend Leen’s on a trip from Ghent to Amsterdam to visit friends, but I simply couldn’t convert—all my clothes got crammed into weird places in the pack and everything came out wrinkled and flat. Together, we took trains all over Europe; we stayed in hostels, on floors, and in hotels; we hopped around unencumbered.

And at the end of it all, I was still in love with my three blue suitcases.

But then, in 2013, someone took a very large knife and hacked open our outdoor storage shed. He stole all of my luggage, inside of which were all my summer clothes, and dumped the clothes onto the street before running away with all three bags. For a while after that, I was too scared to buy any nice luggage, so I bought a $19 carry-on from the clearance rack at Wal-Mart. A few months later, after it fell apart, I asked for a new suitcase for Christmas—and my parents came through again with a gorgeous, lightweight 26-inch baby blue number, one that, even though it has a bent zipper and a tear in the front, I still carry with me today.

*

In March of this year, exactly ten years after I took that first trip to Colombia, I taught a writing workshop at the Women in Travel Summit in Irvine, California and found myself swapping suitcase tales and packing tips with a new friend of mine as we walked through the conference tables. By the end of the conference and after walking by the Delsey Luggage table about 600 times, I decided to celebrate the fact that ten years later, I was still taking off, flying solo–while balancing a husband and an academic job–and relishing in my bag of belongings chasing behind me instead of piled up on my back.

After all, I’m still that girl.

I took one home, convinced it would completely change the way I packed. I was smitten with the sleekness, the sophistication of the lines, the ease with which the suitcases rolled around the floor, the locking mechanisms, the lined compartments inside.

Delsey Chatelet 19in inside

I was even smitten with the idea of a sophisticated piece of luggage, something that would announce my presence before I even came running down the terminal. Something that would dance to the tune of those of us who, despite our wanderlust and freedom-seeking ways, love the feel of a handle in our hands and not a strap around our waists. Something that acknowledged my twenties and said a proper hello to my thirties. Plus, at $230, it’s not exactly a suitcase I would have planned on purchasing for my past self anyway–like a sturdy purse or a well-made pair of pants, this is a true travel investment.

“What do you think?” I asked my husband Ryan, spinning it around on its delicate heels and whirling it in his direction.

“It’s stunning,” he said, and paused to smile. “But how in the world are you going to pack the way you pack in a suitcase that small?”

Of course, Ryan is right—I honestly have no idea how I’m going to pare things down into a 19-inch carry-on for trips longer than a few days. But, I leave for two weeks in Eastern Europe with Viking River Cruises next week, and you know what? This girl is going to do it. I’ve got a wedding to attend in Tucson, Arizona next week, so I’ll do a quick test run and let you know how things go. In the meantime, if you’re interested, they’ve got a 50% off sitewide sale at the moment and are offering free shipping–lots of cute bags and suitcases to choose from!).

Stay tuned (and please send me packing tips!) 🙂

Yours in travel,

Kristin

A special thanks to Delsey Luggage for providing me with a 19-inch Chatelet carry-on for purposes of writing this story. Right now, you can purchase one on sale for $230 using the links above!

Take a Wine Tour To Discover The Best of Europe

Wine tours make a great way to discover new wine and to see a different side of Europe.

Europe has a wealth of different wines waiting for the avid connoisseur and there are increasingly more and more organized wine tours to help you discover those hidden gems. Choose from a variety of itineraries to tailor a tour to suit your palette and your wallet and let the planning be taken care of by a tour operator that can arrange all of the accommodation and travel for you.

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Bordeaux
A two or three day tour can be a perfect way to maximise the time for a short break, giving you a great introduction to some classic regions where you will have the opportunity to visit vineyards and wineries and take part in tours and tastings. The classic French appellations of Bordeaux are a good place to start and are within easy reach of the beautiful city that gives the region its name. Visit chateaux in world-renowned wine growing spots like Saint- Emilion and Medoc for the perfect introduction to some classic Claret.

Champagne
If bubbles are more your thing then you could opt for a guided tour of the Champagne cities of Reims and Epernay where you can get your fix of fizz with visits to some prestigious champagne houses. Within easy reach of Paris and less than three hours drive from Calais, this popular destination combines history and glamour in spades.
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The Loire Valley
Famous for its many stunning chateaux, the Loire Valley is one of the most varied regions in terms of the wines it produces – big on whites, but also known for rosé, red, sparkling and desert wine. Covering a fairly small area and within easy reach of the UK this makes a great destination with plenty of diversity.

Spain
The wine growing regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain are becoming increasingly popular among connoiseurs for their complex and characterful wines, which age beautifully. The regions can either be visited on separate tours to explore in depth or combined to make a longer and more varied itinerary. La Rioja is also known in Spain for its gastronomy and abundant local produce making an ideal pairing for a foodie destination.

Italy
Whether you choose Piedmont, Prosecco or Tuscany, a wine tour in Italy will showcase some of the country’s great grape offerings, along with picturesque landscapes, fascinating history, unrivalled culture and sublime food. Piedmont is home to Barolo and  Barbaresco – two of Italy’s best red wines, but also produces fresh, crisp whites and sparkling Asti. The landscape is full of rolling hills, lakes and mountains and the region is synonymous with the White Alba truffle. Prosecco is not only becoming the rival to champagne as far as its wine offerings, but is in the Veneto region and the sights of Venice are only an hour away. Tuscany has it all: fine wines, mouth-watering food, beautiful landscape and a rich artistic and cultural heritage with its capital, Florence being a perfect base to explore from.

France, Spain and Italy are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of European travel destinations, but their wine heritage is unparalleled, making them the ideal choices for a holiday centred on the grape. Wherever you choose to book your holiday, be sure to book your insurance through Avanti before you go so that you can enjoy your vacation knowing that you are fully covered for any eventuality.