Sunday 31 July 2011

Krakow, Poland

I must admit that I did not know much about Krakow when I planned my trip, but I knew I wanted to come. I knew it was the home of the late Pope John Paul II and the closest town to Auschwitz. What I have learnt during my time here is that it is a very cosmopolitan city with fantastic food and, due to a favourable exchange rate, incredible value for money.

On day 18 of continuous rain in my travels, the clouds cleared and the sun came out for a glorious day. That, of course, was the day I spent 8 hours on the train travelling from Bratislava and the following morning in Krakow, the rain returned.

Krakow is a town easily explored on foot. There are plenty of trams and buses but the main attractions are only a kilometre or two apart so it's best to hit the sidewalks.

The main square of Krakow houses the Cathedral, a traditional market and countless restaurants serving everything from traditional Polish cuisine, to Thai food, pizza and the obligatory Hard Rock Cafe. Street performers roam the square and children try to chase down the pigeons with no success.

The cathedral in the main square

The traditional market in the main square

The Wawel Castle sits high on a high over Krakow and overlooks the Vistula River affording great views of the city.

Located inside the castle grounds, the statue
of Krakow's favourite son: Pope John Paul II

The castle has an on-site restaurant was surprisingly wonderful. I am usually dubious of such establishments but I was cold, hungry and wet and decided that an early lunch was in order. For about $6, I ordered a soup and some pierogi.

The soup was a chicken broth served with toasted bread, a fried egg and sheeps cheese. The broth was hearty and the bread, egg and cheese all added some nice flavour and texture contrasts.

Pierogi, the traditional dumplings of Poland, come in many flavours (meat, cheese, potato, spinach) and I asked the waitress for her recommendation: spinach. They were delicious. The dough was al dente and the filling was fantastically seasoned; reminiscent of ravioli, it was a dish that would rival many Italian restaurants' offerings.

In the afternoon, I toured the Jewish Quarter which is filled with synagogues and restaurants but I was unsuccessful in locating any bagels or salt beef which I was hoping to find.

The main shopping mall, Galleria Krakow, is huge, well laid out and stocks local and international brands. You would be forgiven for thinking you were in the US when inside this mall and I did enjoy indulging in some retail therapy!

For dinner, I headed to the signature restaurant of the Hotel Wentzel, located in the main square of Krakow. and ordered the Polish tasting menu.

The restaurant interior

The amuse bouche was a salmon and trout terrine served with some mixed leaves and confit tomato. It was tasty but nothing special.

The appetiser was marinated herring rosettes with warm potatoes, onions and tomatoes. The herring was very strong in taste but enjoyable whilst the onions were redundant.

The main course was tenderloin of wild boar marinated with marjoram and pepper sauce. It was accompanied with a slightly overcooked carrot and a cabbage roll filled with meat, carrot and zucchini. The boar and sauce were delightful; the vegetables were a little disappointing.

For dessert I ordered a coconut and almond mousse/cake served with raspberry coulis, vanilla ice cream and a plain tasting "bavarois" that was filled with raspberries. The mousse/cake (on the right) was wonderful with the coulis but the "bavarois" was not "worth the calories" so I left it.

Including wine, bottled water and tip, the meal came to about $35 which was wonderful value and although there were some "misses", overall I enjoyed the meal.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Bratislava, Slovakia

On my way from Budapest to Krakow, I decided to take a stopover in Bratislava. Firstly because it breaks up the ten hour train ride and secondly because I read once that "you should aim to visit as many countries as years you have lived", and the stopover gets me one country closer to my goal.

By my count, today is the 17th day in a row that it has rained and today it was heavy. I was soaked through despite my rain jacket and umbrella and all-in-all it was a miserable day.

Bratislava seems quite pretty but it's really hard to tell when you are cold and wet and sightseeing is dropping quickly on your priority list.

The view from the tourist office (my map was too wet to
know what that building was)

The main square

I am staying at Hotel Possonium, which in no way resembles at hotel. It's a hostel, and a pretty uncomfortable one at that.

The hostel does not have any maps of Bratislava available for guests; they simple suggest you walk and you will "hit the old town" in about 10 minutes (or about one and a half hours if you end up completely lost like I did).

After I had checked in, I walked into my room to find wet towels hanging over my bed and on my pillow. The aroma in the room can best be described as "teenage boy who just finished playing sport" mixed with "wet dog" and a hint of "mould". It's not quite gag-inducing but very very close. I seem to be having a battle of wills with the man in the bunk above me as I keep returning to my room to find his wet towels or socks on my bed, I throw them back on his bed, and then low-and-behold, they end up back on mine. Thankfully, I leave for Krakow early in the morning as I can't wait to get out of here.

My room - by far the worst on this trip so far

Culinary Hungary Home Cooking Class

Without doubt, the highlight of my time in Hungary was a one-on-one cooking class I attended with Agnes Barath (a Hungarian local who teaches out of her home). Actually, it was a two-on-one as we were also joined by Istvan, her fiancé.

Prior to the class, Agnes forwarded me a list of dishes from which to choose an appetizer, main and dessert to cook at the class. I selected potato soup with sausage and sour cream, chicken paprikas with noodles, and cottage cheese dumplings.

I was welcomed into her home and she had prepared some appetizers of bread topped with goose fat, paprika, and onion which were delicious. I was also offered from palinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy that tastes like firewater.

We then got straight into the cooking; the entire class was very hands-on with Agnes offering instructions and guidance but letting me do the work (which I enjoyed).

Whilst we were waiting for Istvan to arrive, we had some spare time, so Agnes suggested we make an additional dessert, stuffed pancakes which we happily nibbled on throughout the cooking.

The photo of the soup does not do it justice. It was smoky, warming and absolutely delicious.

The main course of chicken paprikas and nokedli (spaetzle) was also full of flavour and the accompanying pickles provided a nice contrast and sweetness to the dish.

The dessert was cottage cheese dumplings, rolled in fried breadcrumbs and served with sour cream. They were surprisingly very light and very very tasty.

It was a lovely evening and I enjoyed talking with Agnes and Istvan about life in Hungary. So often in my travels, you do not actually meet any locals. The staff at the hostels are often backpackers themselves so it is difficult to get a glimpse of what everyday life is like. My experience with Agnes and Istvan was highly enjoyable and what I was hoping to experience all over Italy (but failed miserably). If you are even in Budapest, I encourage you to book a class with Agnes for a truly enjoyable and educational experience.

Agnes & Istvan

Budapest, Hungary

Where possible, I try to stick to the regional food of each place I visit. The one glaring exception to this rule has been gelato. I managed to control myself and wait until I arrived in Italy before having any, but since then, gelato has become an almost daily occurrence.

Over that time, my preferences have moved from the chocolate based flavours to the fruit and yoghurt based and I was delighted to see the presentation offered in Budapest for my peach and yoghurt flavoured cone.

Whilst in Budapest, I was also on the hunt for Kürtőskalács, a Hungarian pastry shaped like a chimney sack. A thin yeast-based pastry is wrapped around a wooden cylinder and cooked over a rotisserie and then dipped in cinnamon sugar. An individual portion was far too much of a sugar overdose but did provide for some tasty snacking over my two days in town.

The Kürtőskalács on the rotisserie

The finished product

During my time in town, I walked around the city centre and headed to the central market which was one of the largest I have seen on my travels. I also took a hike up to the fortress which afforded full views of the river, Buda and Pest from the top and a spot to rest after the long climb.

The view from the fortress

Finally, as a treat for myself, I took time out to visit the Rudas Baths for a soak and a long overdue massage. There are many thermal baths in Budapest but Rudas was the most highly reviewed on Tripadvisor and it was one of the few open to women when I visited. Tuesday is “ladies only day” which means that nudity is the norm and the foreigners in swimsuits are definitely the exception.

Wachau Valley, Austria

Austrian wine is slowly making a comeback on the international stage after the “antifreeze scandal” of 1985, where it was revealed that some winemakers were adding antifreeze to their otherwise inferior wines. I wanted to tour the wine region and decided that a wine-tasting tour run on bicycles would be the perfect option.

In short, the tour was fantastic and a wonderful way to see the Austrian wine region and get out of the city centre. We were taken to three wineries for numerous samples, we rode our bikes through the vineyards and along the Danube, had a lunch of local meats and cheeses in a traditional tavern, toured the town of Durnstein and sampled the local liqueurs and chocolates before returning to Vienna in the early evening.

All in all, a perfect day.

The blue church in Durnstein

The final (and largest) winery: Domain Wachau

The endless variety of chocolates to sample in Durnstein

My bike & I

The view from the tavern where we had lunch

A small sample of the wines we tasted

Vienna, Austria

During my time in Austria, I was determined to have schnitzel. I knew that it would be no better than the schnitzel I make at home, but it has always been comfort food for me and I wanted it. I did not, however, anticipate the volume of schnitzel that I would eat in my two days in town......

I arrived at Vienna train station at lunch time and decided to find a light snack to tide me over until dinner. I stumbled across Trzesniewski, a chain that specializes in tiny open sandwiches priced at 1 each.

I sampled three: paprika, smoked salmon and cream cheese and carrot. The verdict? Meh.

For my next meal, I was determined the have schnitzel and followed a recommendation that was given to me. I would guess that the majority of restaurant’s schnitzels taste identical but I decided to walk for about 45 minutes in the rain armed with a very poor map to find this place. For a sum of 8, I was given two enormous schnitzels and a huge serving of potato salad which was enough food to feed a family. I enjoyed it immensely but it was no different to home cooked.

The next stop on my culinary tour was to Hotel Sacher, the birthplace of the Sacher Torte. Again, I was confident that this would be nothing special but rather a meal that would give bragging rights only. I am happy to report that it was in-fact delicious. The icing was quite thick and sweet and different to the ganache type icings that I have had before on Sacher Torte; In this case, I can say, that the original is certainly the best.

On my final night in Vienna, I went out for dinner with a group of new friends that I had met on a winery tour that day. We were a group of about eight people and dined at the ultimate of tourist traps: Centimeter.

We ordered the sword and the wheelbarrow. The sword was holding up six schnitzels, six pork steaks and six chili peppers. Below the sword were chicken wings, fries and chili con carne. The wheelbarrow was a huge platter of fries, spaetzle with bacon, spaetzle with cheese and pasta salad. The quantum of food was sufficient for about twenty people. It was tasty and affordable but the type of place you visit for the gimmicks and would never eat at if you lived in Vienna.


Tuesday 26 July 2011

Salzburg, Austria

The Sound of Music: the most beloved musical movie of all time (outside of Austria) and until my visit to Salzburg, a movie I had only seen once and felt quite indifferent about. Fast forward 48 hours, I've now seen the movie three times and adore it. Try as I might, it was impossible not to get caught up in "Sound of Music Fever" when visiting Salzburg; especially when your hostel plays the movie constantly throughout the day and the top rated activity to do in town is the "Sound of Music bus tour".

Before succumbing to the tour, I spent my first day walking in the rain around town and up to the fortress which afforded grand views of Salzburg below.

The view from the fortress

On my second day, it was time to embrace the movie. I started the day viewing the film at the hostel before departing on an afternoon tour. The guide was wonderfully entertaining and comical with just the right level of kitsch without becoming corny. We visited many of the sights in the movie and he informed us where in the Mirabell Gardens (the start point of our tour) that we could find the remainder ourselves.

Some of the highlights included:

The church where Maria and the Captain were married

The "I am 16, going on 17" gazebo.
I had planned to dance on the seats but after an 89 year
old woman broke her hip a few years ago trying to recreate
the movie scene, the gazebo was locked to visitors.

The back of the Von Trapp house

There were no grand culinary adventures during my time in Salzburg. I decided to take a break from eating out three meals a day and self-catered at the hostel's kitchen. My one delight was to find liptauer cheese spread at the supermarket, something my father makes when he wants to impress company, and I happily lived off a tub of that for most of my meals.

Friday 22 July 2011

Munich, Germany

I feel sorry for vegetarians who visit Munich for it really is a meat lover’s paradise. On every corner, butchers sell a huge variety of meats and small goods raw for home consumption, or cooked for an easy on-the-go snack. Haxen (pork shins wrapped with meat and covered in pig hide) spin on rotisseries, their glistening skin crisping up before your eyes. Bratwurst and weisswurst sit on hot grill plates, skin firm and taunt waiting to burst open in your mouth. In a town where, besides sauerkraut, the only vegetables you are likely to find on your plate are potatoes, it would be a real shame to deny yourself the mountains of carnivore pleasures offered here; you can eat like a king for next to nothing.

A typical selection of cooked meats and sausages

A Fleischpflanzerl (Germany's hamburger)

I guess the vegetarians could resign themselves to eating in the bakeries and although not the healthiest of options, the variety and quality of cakes and pastries available is truly overwhelming.

It seems that I have been bringing the miserable weather with me from one destination to the next and Munich was no exception. After walking for hours in the rain on the first day, I decided to take a guided tour of the city on my second day. New Europe Tours are redefining the way tour companies operate. Offering a half-day walking tour of the city, the tour is provided for free with the guides receiving their pay on a tips-only basis.


Marienplatz: Rathaus-Glockenspiel

The walking tour was very informative and enjoyable; my guide, Curt, an American expat living in Munich, was so great that I decided to sign up for the afternoon tour to Dachau concentration camp with him.

The museum at Dachau is very well laid out, highly information and has the placards next to the exhibits in German and English. It is very hard not to be moved after a visit and spend the evening in quiet reflection afterwards.

The entry gate at Dachau

The footprints were the barracks were

The memorial sculpture on site