10 Reasons You Should Travel Central Europe in the Winter

  1. No lines.

    Except for one 10 minute wait to get into a palace in Vienna, we waltzed freely into every tourist trap or treasure with little to no wasted time!

  2. The epic pre-walking tour bundle.

    There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a medieval knight than spending half-an-hour layering pants, sweaters, scarves and mittens (yes, I even layer my mittens) before heading to the nearest castle.

  3. No strangers in my pictures.

    In the winter you can actually snap shots of iconic castles, famous graffitied walls, and beautiful bridges without Wanda World Traveler or Sandy Snap-Happy messing up your perfect shot.

    fullsizeoutput_2cc

    Usually a busy garden outside the Bavarian State Chancellery…not in February

  4. Cheap accommodations.

    Who visits northern Hungary in January? Only the bravest souls. So Airbnb hosts and hostels have to pay their guests to stay. We found a beautiful quiet room in the centre of Budapest (surrounded by more restaurants and bars than we could count) for €15 a night–that’s a quarter of the summer price! What a steal.

  5. Hot drinks.

    If you are traveling Europe in the winter, you will not get to choose when to take sightseeing breaks. No, you will be forced to seek refuge at your body’s discretion. The good news is there are more hot alcoholic drink options than you can count. My favourite, so far, is rum and Early Grey tea. I kid you not, the cup was so hot I had to set it on the floor for a bit while carrying it to my table.

    img_0444

    One of the many cappuccinos that keep my travel companion alive

  6. Historical empathy.

    Ever wondered what it feels like to be a medieval peasant? Take a three hour walking tour in minus fifteen degrees and helplessly watch as sleet begins to fall from the sky.

  7. Window seat views.

    Nothing is so beautiful as a snow capped Slovakian mountain or an ice crusted German forest, especially when they can be experienced from the warmth and comfort of a bus or train. Summer tourists may find public transport or travel days inconvenient, but winter travellers know how to count their blessings.

  8. Extended Christmas.

    In Poland, Christmas cheer stretches on into January. So if you haven’t had enough of Christmas carols and evergreen boughs you will find plenty of both in most town squares and some restaurants.

    img_0133

  9. Ice skating and sledding.

    Choose an iconic building and then instead of paying the entrance fee, go skating or sledding in front of it!Here are just a few of the winter fun locations we noticed or experienced:

    Skating:
    Warsaw, Poland – Palace of Art and Science and old town square both have picture perfect rinks.
    Krakow – Galeria Krakowska near the old town.
    Prague – Any one of these eight great options.

    img_5329

    Skating rink in Old Town Warsaw

    Sledding:
    Kassel, Germany – Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel (Here I speak from experience)
    Slovakia – A short walk off of almost any roadway in the beautiful High Tatras mountains

  10. Ego boost.

    Pat yourself on the back, you could be laying on a beach in Thailand, trying to surf in Australia, or tasting exotic food in India, but instead you are carrying a feather light backpack (since you are wearing every piece of your clothing) and wondering if these castle grounds would be prettier in the summer. You have chosen the road less travelled (at least this time of year) and for that you should be proud! Locals will smile and thank-you for gracing them with your off-season presence. Every restaurant server will forgive your inability to speak their language (due to your incessant shivering). Congratulations, you have earned yourself a travel badge…now get yourself to Istanbul.fullsizeoutput_2cd

Dinner in Prague

February 5-9

The story of our time in Prague is best told by food. Not because we ate out at so many amazing local restaurants, but because we didn’t. For the most part, our meals were had around a large family style dining table. Perhaps it was meant to seat fourteen, but we managed to fit at least twenty around its worn wooden surface.

This table was found in a warm and lively shared kitchen in downtown Prague, only a hundred meters away from a magnificent fifteenth century city gate. While I am irresistibly drawn to all things medieval, I have to admit that we spent far more time at this simple kitchen table, than we did exploring the thirteenth and fourteenth century wonders of Prague. So before you start judging my historical indifference, let me tell you more about this very special table, and the conversations that were had around it.

GPExportPhoto-0001.jpg

The Powder Tower gate, just down the street from our home sweet home

First, it is worth noting that these experiences were only possible because our home in Prague, Hostel One Home offered FREE family style dinners EVERY night…if only all hostels were like this.

I have to start this story just before our first dinner. After arriving in Prague, I had collapsed onto my carefully chosen lower bunk bed in our ten bed dorm (for the full TMI account on why I was exhausted I must refer you to my previous post). After a forty-five minute nap, I woke up to the sound of Jakob recounting the details of our life to a complete stranger: “We met when we were in grade five. I dated Meghan’s best friend in middle school. Then in grade eleven we started dating. In her second year of university, we broke up for like one week, maybe two weeks and then in 2013 we got married…” I dragged myself out of bed. I should probably meet this person who now knows far more about me than I do about her. Jakob’s new friend’s name was Kate. Like all other Kates we have every known, Jakob got along with her immediately.
“She reminds me of someone,” he told me as we walked the few steps to the kitchen for dinner.
“Ya totally, maybe Tiegan? or maybe Veronica?” I had been trying to figure it out too.
“No…not quite…Anna Kendrick! yes Anna Kendrick!”
Great, Jakob had just found the doppelgänger of his celebrity crush. Guess I’ll say my goodbyes now.

Stepping into the kitchen for our first dinner, we were each greeted with a large bowl of bacon Alfredo pasta and told to find a seat. Immediately, I felt about eight years old again. I didn’t have to cook, shop, clean, or even think. The food found me and all I had to do was eat it with a grateful heart. The table quickly filled up, there were three young American women who were on a week break from their semester abroad in Montpellier, an American computer programmer with an Economics degree from Harvard, two Americans on a long weekend break from their English teaching jobs in Austria, and Kate (also an American…but from the west coast, so we claimed her as one of our own.) So if you missed that, we were surrounded by a lot of Americans. Despite our vast differences in culture and language, we all became fast friends.

About twenty two hours later, we were back together again in the dorm common area counting down the minutes until dinner. Some of us were on couches, others on bean bags, a few seated on the floor leaning against the brightly painted walls. It reminded me of high school days, when we had nothing better to do then lounge around waiting for the bell to ring and the next thing to begin. We all had a story to tell from our day in the city. Perhaps it won’t surprise you that after the late night on the town (see Jakob’s latest blog post) everyone else’s days hadn’t been much more successful than ours. One stayed in bed until noon, two got sort of lost, and three went thrift store shopping. We all were relieved to know that dinner would, once again, magically appear in a bowl in front of our seats around that family sized table.

This time, the bowl bore chilli. The best chilli. Made with love by Nick-from-Spain (who happens to have the same birthday as Jakob). Also there was a massive silver mixing bowl with fried tortilla chips at the bottom. As we ravenously shoved chilli and chips into our mouths, an intense discussion arose.
“What are the spices on these chips?”
“I taste cinnamon.”
“Cinnamon? Who would put cinnamon on chips?”
“Maybe some paprika?”
“I just taste salt, a lot of salt.”
“They are in such a big bowl, I can barely even see over the edge. The real question is why are there so few chips in such a big bowl.”
“I think it was for mixing the spices.”
“Oh no, there are only like three chips left.”
“You’re kidding me, how can the chips be almost gone? They’re so good and the bowl is so big!”
“Quick, none of the staff are watching their bowl.”
“Hurry, hurry, they’re coming back to the table.”
“Fewf, nice steal.”

With our bellies full of chilli and chips, we waited around the table, like children, for the next thing to happen. Sure enough the same hands that had provided our food pulled out a game board and passed around some beers and we all joined in. Part way through the game, three awkward young asians walked in to the room. More Americans? Their English was perfect but slightly British. Nope, they were from Singapore. Finally, a little diversity for this crowd! One hour later, we were bundling up and wandering our way through the tourist-free version of Prague’s streets. All I knew about our destination was its GPS location (I, for one, am not getting lost in a foreign city) and that it was nicknamed “the dog bar.” I was beside myself with excitement. I pictured a massive Newfoundland(?) with a mini keg around his neck wandering around and nuzzling the patrons with his soft wet nose.

Only a few short minutes after arriving, I let out a small shriek.
A fur blanket drapped over a couch in the corner just moved. Wait, that’s an animal. That’s a massive dog! His hair was matted and grey and his sad eyes roved the room aimlessly.
“How does a dog in a bar get so dirty,” I exclaimed angrily.
“I think it’s dirty BECAUSE it lives in a bar,” Kate replied with an equal level of disappointment and concern.
“We have got to break it free.” I devised a plan using my llama herding skills and Kate’s stunning good looks. She would distract the bouncers and I would rush the dog out through the small entryway…wait is that a ladder? Are there people sitting on the rafters?It didn’t take long for Kate and I to become distracted from our plot. We shimmied our way up the rickety wooden rungs and perched ourselves above the bar going crowd.
My first thought was, “if this breaks, who do I sue?” The first thing Kate said was, “I guess insurance policies aren’t a big deal in the Czech Republic.”
No one else up there looked too concerned. After a few photos, we were ready to put our feet back on solid ground. Perfect timing, one of the hostel staff, Matt, came sprinting around the corner, “I just found a brilliant (I don’t know if he actually said ‘brilliant’ but he’s British, so in my head he said ‘brilliant’) spot for us all right by the live music stage.” We snatched our coats and raced off into the maze of underground rooms and bars.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_3d6

Kate and I scoping the bar for hotties from the rafters

The table was situated on top of a graffitied wooden structure about three feet high and with about three feet of clearance above it. We all crawled up the stairs to the upper platform and got cozy. Wait are there people sitting underneath us too? Yup, sure enough there were people packed into the little space underneath, what is this? Jakob didn’t bother climbing into our little table cave. He was glued to the live music, which was one level below us and behind a layer of what looked like soccer goal netting. To prevent falling drinks? People? It’s anyone’s guess, but at least some one had thought of safety.

I spent most of that time chatting with the Singaporeans.
“I have my masters in French history and I want to become a professor, but the job prospects aren’t great. Nobody is hiring history professors these days.”
“Actually, in Singapore people love that shit.”
“Ya the arts are really big. They closed a court house recently and turned it into an art museum.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. There is a place where people actually value and even respect an arts degree??? By midnight I was interested in visiting Sigapore, and by 2 am I was filling out my paperwork to become a teacher in the safest country in the world.

Ok we did some things other than have dinner, here are some photos from our walking tour on day two:
img_5505

A somewhat spooky statue of Jan Hus. He was a church reformer one hundred years before Martin Luther! I love that his story is such a focal point for the city of Prague. In the words of Jan: “People gotta know what they believe, can’t be having church in Latin.”

img_5508

A cool house found in Prague’s jewish quarter. Our walking tour guide said it is used for weddings and other ceremonies.

img_5510-2

Twilight view of castle hill

img_5513

Some fake medieval stuff on top of some real medieval stuff

img_5516

Charles bridge

Now back to the story…

That evening, as we gathered for dinner, Jakob mentioned, “so we want to move to Singapore.” Hands flew up in defence and eye brows expressed concern.
“It’s very expensive.”
“We are not representative of Sigaporians.”
“Ya, just because you like us doesn’t mean you will like our country.”
“Not everyone is as nice as us.”
“Ya we know,” I admitted, “but you guys just make it sound so great, maybe it would be a good option for us for a few years.”
In the back of my mind I knew this would be one of just many work abroad whims, but why not embrace the adventurous fantasy and see where it goes?

Jakob’s sense of adventure came to an abrupt halt a few minutes later while sitting around the family dinner table.
“Babe, are you ok?” I probed nervously
“Ya, I’m fine.”
“You don’t like the food do you?”
“I haven’t even tried it yet.”
If I know one thing about my husband, it is that he does not, under any circumstance eat couscous. So don’t blame me for jumping to conclusions. Sure enough, ten minutes later, I was finishing off his bowl, and that of one of the Americans. I certainly wasn’t going to turn down fresh veggies. Let me remind you, we have spent the last two weeks in central Europe in January, I was beginning to forget what a cucumber looked like. Yet the saddest part of the evening was not Jakob’s inability to be gastronomically adventurous (yes I am still talking about eating couscous), but saying goodbye to the Sigaporians and most of the American crowd. I could hardly believe it had only been between 24 and 48 hours since we had all met.

img_5534

Our last day was spent exploring the castle hill with Kate. Their job was navigating, my job was making up fun historical facts.

img_5526

The view over Prague from the castle hill

img_0341

Sometimes it’s hard to take sightseeing seriously

img_0350

Doing a little bad ass graffiti at the John Lennon wall

img_0353

These Czech Trdelníks (known to our hostel crew as turtlenecks) were just as delicious as they look. Yes I got chocolate on my nose.

DCIM101GOPROGOPR5680.

Just three westcoasters checking out Prague.

The next evening there were more veggies in our bowls mixed with the tears of goodbyes. It was our last night. I ate not one, not two, but three bowls of Zach-from-Edmonton’s amazing chicken stir fry. I ate as if rice and peppers alone could keep tomorrow from coming. Tomorrow, when we would have to pack our bags and say goodbye to the most fantastic hostel we had ever stayed at. Yes we did manage to say goodbye, fortunately Kate’s train left only thirty minutes after ours, so we could offer each other moral support as we walked away from that warm kitchen full of loving people. Good bye friends, good bye table, good bye Hostel One Home. We will miss you!

Lost in Prague

January 4-6

“Do you think it’s time to leave Europe?”
I said it without a hint of a smile and I certainly wasn’t joking.

To understand how we got to this point at about 12:30pm on a Monday, you need to understand the events of the previous three days or so. Somewhere in Vienna I picked up one of those standard seasonal colds. You know how it goes: uncontrollable sneezing, a throat full of glass shards, and the primal urge to turn every flimsy paper within arms reach into a snot bomb. It’s not like I’ve never had a cold before, but this one was particularly bad because I spent the first two days in a stubborn state of denial. Partly because I didn’t want to spend any precious Vienna moments napping, but also because Jakob had been sick no less than 4 times in the last month and I had begun to tie a significant portion of my identity to being indestructible.

When I finally admitted that I had a cold several important decisions had to be made. In lieu of lotion tissues, I had to turn one of my two scarves into a temporary hanky. I know it sounds gross, but I had already lost the first five layers of my nose to the cruelties of European toilet paper while in the denial days. Travel has taught me that a good scarf can be almost anything: a pillow, a towel, an eye mask for sleeping, a picnic blanket, a cover for bra-less days, why not a snot dookie? (fyi: that’s a dutch word for a cloth/rag NOT a poop).

The second decision I had to make was when to take a nap. For most adults it works something like this:
“Am I tired?”
“Am I supposed to be somewhere right now?”
“Is there a reasonable place for me to lay/recline?”
If the answers to those questions are “Yes,” “No,” “Yes” in that order then, GOOD NEWS, it’s nap time!

For me it’s a bit more complicated:
“Have I accomplished what I set out to do today?”
“Am I too hungry to sleep?”
“Is there some insignificant thing going on that I am unreasonably afraid of missing out on?”
The possible questions continue…

Finally, Jakob took control of the situation, “you have five and a half months to see Europe, calm down and take a freaking nap.”

IMG_5419.JPG

A piece of art that I could be looking at instead of napping

So by the time we arrived in Prague (February 5th, aka day three of the Vienna cold), my number one concern was no longer sightseeing but rather making sure I had enough toilet paper and lip chap in my pockets at all times. Also hydration. That was the other main concern. In fact, when the absolutely loveable and undeniably persuasive staff at our hostel announced the start of a drinking game, I was eager to join, as long as I could drink water. We made quick friends around that table: American, Mexican, English, German, Spanish, Brazilian, and of course Canadian. By the end of the game, I was thoroughly hydrated and ready for bed, while Jakob (who had not been drinking water) was eager to continue the party with his new found travel besties.
“Ya you should go out babe, have fun!”
Jaws dropped around the table. “Your wife is the coolest.” “If only all girlfriends were like her.”
I laughed. Little did they know that I couldn’t be happier to know that I was going to get a full 12 hours of sleep while Jakob had all of his extrovert needs taken care of…that’s a sweet deal in the world of introvert-extrovert marriages.

As I was drifting off to sleep to the sound of the bar-going crowd gathering outside on the street these thoughts crossed my mind:
“Jakob’s cell phone probably isn’t fully charged.”
“He probably hasn’t looked at a map of the city.”
“Does he even know the hostel’s address?”
I shrugged off the anxious thoughts and drifted off to sleep.

At 5 am I woke up to see my husband fast asleep one bunk bed over. I breathed a sigh of relied and returned to blissful cold-fighting sleep. The next morning I got the real story and like a good historian I didn’t settle for just one source.

Jakob’s account:  he left the bar at about 2 am. After waiting FOREVER for the rest of the group he decided to set off on his own using directions on his phone. When his phone died he spent 45 minutes negotiating with various taxi drivers and traipsing around the unfamiliar city, until he found one place he recognized: the train station.

Alexis: “He got lost!!! I put the instructions in his phone! How could he have gotten lost!?!”

Matt: “He got lost!!! I told him to just wait 5 minutes and by the time I got outside all I could see was an orange sweater bobbing off in the distance. He was too far to catch so we went for burritos.”

Zach (night receptionist): Ya I was watching the camera and saw him show up like half an hour after everyone else. Couldn’t figure it out, I heard he left first.”

I couldn’t help but feel a little bit satisfied knowing that Jakob really is lost without me.

Screenshot 2017-02-09 21.45.05.png

Ok I kind of don’t blame him for getting lost…Medieval streets aren’t really designed for easy navigation

But it turns out the worst wasn’t quite over. The next day we were a delightful cocktail of hung-over and tired mixed with head cold and frustration. Each decision: join walking tour or walk on our own, stop for hot drinks or eat the snack we packed, take a left or take a right, was fraught with our combined inability to communicate and think.

img_5487

Even in our grumpy state we didn’t forget to admire Prague’s gorgeous medieval streets

img_5482

Gotta love a good town square.

img_5485

This is the oldest functioning astronomical clock in the world! It was installed in 1410 and the art and science of it are completely mind blowing. The clock shows the position of the sun in the sky, the phases of the moon, tracks 3 different time telling systems, indicates the astrological signs, and countless other amazing details. It is rated the second most over rated tourist attraction in Europe, but I would disagree.

img_5490

The iconic Charles Bridge, with a view of castle hill. To give you an idea of our level of tourist enthusiasm on this day you should know that we only walked about a quarter of the way across before giving up and turning back *face palm*

Not long after telling Jakob that he was “being impossible” and after he told me that “he couldn’t feel anything.” We collapsed into chairs at a hipster café. I told him that I didn’t care what he wanted, “I am ordering you a coffee…something strong.” As he downed the weirdest double espresso of his life I got busy problem solving.

After a short discussion about the issues: “Every day is the same…tours, old stuff…strangers, strange cities…cold, so cold…where is the sun? When is the last time we saw the sun?” The words came out of my mouth: “Do you think it’s time to leave Europe?”

We sat in that low moment for a few minutes, shook our heads and laughed.

Who are we kidding? I love old stuff, and Jakob, these cities aren’t just old they’re alive and full of people, interesting people! We are having a great time and we can’t let one bad night derail it all. We found one thing we could agree on: the trip wasn’t a write off, but the day was. So we headed back to the hostel where we napped and read books until all our friends from the night before showed up. As we sat down for a family-style dinner together I felt the worst of my cold receding. I still wasn’t sure if the sun would finally come out tomorrow or not, but I was sure of two things:

  1. I was about to make some very good friends in Prague
  2. I had the best friend I could ask for right beside me already