Novi Sad, Serbia

Of all the places we’ve been so far, it is a bit of a surprise that Novi Sad, Serbia quickly turned into one of my favorites. Added to our list after Timisoara because of its close proximity and low cost of living, we’d also heard good things about it from an acquaintance. Our apartment for the month was situated right in the center and some of the windows looked toward the steeple of The Name of Mary Church, the largest Catholic church in the city. Since the Old Town is largely made up of walking streets, we traded vehicular traffic for sidewalk restaurants and plenty of shopping in the dozens of pasažs and courtyards between the buildings.

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Sunset over the Old Town and one of the walking streets

The most famous site in the city – just across the river – is Petrovaradin Fortress. Constructed to guard the narrowest point of the Danube, it now houses artists’ studios and restaurants. Towering over Novi Sad, it was a popular place to watch the sunset and for wedding photographs. The fortress building itself is massive, but the grounds expand out on three sides, encompassing the Old Town of Petrovaradin and green space mixed with battlements. In July each year, the Exit Festival takes advantage of sprawling space. Stages are set up among the earthen bulwarks and musicians play all weekend.

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Petrovaradin Fortress 

Like most European cities built near water, Novi Sad embraces the Danube. A lengthy river walk stretches out from the city center, and runs parallel to a bike path that allows riders to cycle clear from one side of the country to the other. Plenty of older men fish, families stroll with kids, and many end up at the man-made beach during summer months.

During our stay, we watched the slow-moving assembly of the new Road and Railroad Bridge. The first span had been placed shortly before we arrived, and the second span was waiting on the bank to be moved into place. In 1999 NATO bombed Novi Sad, destroying the city’s bridges, the oil refinery, chemical plants. This bridge is one of the final things to be rebuilt. For the 18 years since the bombs fell, a narrow, single lane bridge has served both directions of vehicular and rail traffic.

The city also suffered in previous conflicts. Other sculptures and plaques on the river memorialize victims of World War II. Much of the city was destroyed and rebuilt after bombing in 1849 that occurred during uprisings against the Austrian Empire. We were told by one local that “Novi Sad was a house that got built in the middle of a road. Every time someone wants to get by, we get run over.”

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Memorials of war – Bridge being rebuilt (in 2017) from 1999 NATO bombings, mural looking over the destroyed bridges, memorial to WWII victims

Local cuisine reflects a mixing of Balkan traditions. Many dishes center on meat, like ćevapčići, a sandwich of grilled sausages. Our apartment was in the perfect spot to grab a quick bite. Right downstairs was a corner sandwich shop serving up incredibly rich and filling meals – our favorite was beef topped with melted cheese, cream, and grilled onions. Almost next door was a burger place that served thin patties grilled up and coupled with delicious house sauces.

Burek, a pastry made with phyllo dough, looks like it should be a lighter meal, but is deceptive. It is often layered with meats and cheeses that make it just as hearty as a larger meal. But even without the filling, the dough alone was tasty.

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“Serbian” burger, burek

Just a few miles from Novi Sad is a region known for wine. The center of the industry is located in Sremski Karlovci. We missed the wine festival by a couple of weeks, but still headed out for a day of tasting. A unique local specialty is bermet, wine with 20 spices and herbs added to the mix. It tasted quite close to mulled wine, reminding us of Christmas. But even aside from that, the wines grown in the region are inexpensive and tasty. Most wineries have been at it for decades, as was the case at Mrdanin, where they have been vintners for five generations.

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Lots of bermet and family wineries in Sremski Karlovci

Fruska Gora, the lone mountainous ridge towering over the flat Serbian plains, provides a climate for the wine grapes as well as a perfect spot for hiking. A friend we met in Novi Sad showed us around his village, Bukovac, and the surrounding hills. Along the ridgetops were small fields and grazing meadows, and these blended into a heavily wooded national park. The wooded slopes were a welcome natural escape and provided plenty of shade to keep us cool. Harvest was well under way and corn cribs were filled for winter.

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Looking over Bukovac, trail markings in Fruska Gora, fall harvest

One of the things that made Novi Sad stand out so far above other places was the friendliness of the people. Even though our Serbian is abysmal, almost everyone we met was eager to talk to us. We met dozens of people at language exchanges, tech meet ups, in restaurants, at the market. We felt like we had been friends with people we just met for years. I definitely hope to return, if only to see if my initial impressions are correct and to catch up with friends, old and new.

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Timisoara, Romania

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After three months exploring the Czech Republic and the Baltic countries, we needed to leave Schengen. A couple of cheap RyanAir flights got us to Romania, which we loved when we visited last year. This time we headed out of the capital to Timisoara, on the western side of the country.

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Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral

The city itself has beautiful architecture that mixes Romanian, Austo-Hungarian, and German styles. Several large plazas dot the old town, and the Bega river runs nearby. In 2021 Timisoara will be a European Capital of Culture, which seems like a justified choice. There is plenty of art around the city, starting with statues dotting the city center. During the few weeks we were in town, there were two free movie festivals and a free opera and play festival. We went to multiple performances in Parcul Rozelor and watched The Fiddler on the Roof and Grafin Mariza with several thousand other fans. And even though these performances were done in an outdoor theatre, it was the full production, with large casts and and all the set pieces.

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Lots of statues in the streets

Timisoara also takes great pride in its parks. The Bega is lined with green spaces, which are dotted with restaurants, bars, and paddle-boat rentals. A favorite is definitely the Children’s Park, which is dotted with play equipment and scooter rentals, not to mention ice cream vendors. A shady river walk runs for several kilometers through the downtown and made for a less-trafficked way home.

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Piata Unirii, building in the Children’s Park, mural

The most famous (and possibly best) museum in town is the Banat Village Museum. Just a quick tram ride outside of the center, the museum recreates the feel of a small farm or village from the turn of the last century. Dozens of homes and village buildings have been relocated and then decorated with antique and period furnishings. There are even live animals like chickens wandering the premises and grape vines shading the porches. It was a peaceful way to spend an afternoon, and just around the corner is a small zoo. The zoo is largely farm animals, though there are a few monkeys and European brown bears as the centerpieces.

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Banat Village Museum

About two and a half hours away by car, Hunedoara is home to a spectacularly photogenic castle. Corvin Castle has been restored, along with the famous bridge that leads to it. We were lucky enough to find a BlaBlaCar headed in the right direction, which save us several extra hours of bus travel. The interior of the castle is partly restored, though the rooms are largely bare. It was a fun place to wander around for an hour or so. The best views are definitely facing the castle from the main approach.

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Corvin Castle in Hunedoara

Timisoara was a relaxed place to stay for a month. Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, I think the people here were the friendliest. Even our few, terribly-pronounced words of Romanian brought out smiles. At our local market, Piata Iosefin, we got by with our Romanian and even a few words of German.

Also, their graffiti artists seem to be in a really good mood. I’ve never seen so many smily faces and positive notes scrawled on the walls. Any place this welcoming deserves as much attention as it can get! I’d love to head back someday, perhaps to check out the city when it is Capital of Culture in just a few more years.

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Positive and nicely-placed graffiti and stickers

Jurmala & Sigulda, Latvia

In a surprise twist, just thirty minutes outside Riga are the wide, sandy beaches of Jūrmala. I never thought to associate Latvia with sun and sand. But the locals certainly do. On a hot summer Friday, it seemed half of the country was along the Jūrmala coast. The Baltic water wasn’t warm enough to tempt me to swim (though others were indulging happily), but it was the perfect spot for relaxing. There are small restaurants and ice cream stands along the shore and areas of “active” and “passive” recreation. Zones for sunbathing and being lazy! This beach has it figured out.

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Around Jūrmala

A little further inland is the heart of the tourist area, with pedestrian streets full of small shops and restaurants. We spotted an Orthodox church under construction and Latvia’s largest bronze globe (oddly specific, but it’s something). In one of the main parks was a viewing tower that was free to climb. The catch was that the floors were all grated metal, so looking down was a bit vertigo-inducing. From the top level we saw Riga, tiny in the distance, and the Baltic Sea on the nearer horizon. Since most local buildings are low, the surrounding forest appears nearly uninterrupted.

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Viewing tower in Dzintaru mežaparks

In the opposite direction from Riga is Sigulda, a small town at the start of Gaujas National Park. It is where they happen to keep the castles. In Sigulda itself are the remains of the Castle of the Livonian Order. The oldest castle dates from the early 1200s, though it underwent many iterations through the centuries. Parts of the towers and wooden battlements have been reconstructed and were open for exploration.

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Livonian Castle in Sigulda, path to Turaida

From Sigulda, it was only a little bit of a hike across the river and through the woods to get to the next castle, Turaida. Along the way was the largest cave in the Baltic States, Gūtman’s Cave. The cave was really more of a giant niche with a small spring inside, but the walls are covered in graffiti, some dating back centuries. Clearly, it was a big deal to have your name on the wall, and some people even carved scrolls or family crests to make their marks more visible.

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Gūtman’s Cave – the largest (by volume) in the Baltics

Hiking a little further, up and down the local hills (they kept being referred to as mountains on local signs), we arrived at Turaida. This castle is inside a museum/reserve with preserved buildings and a sculpture park. But the main attraction is the castle. Again, it was built in the early 1200s and has been reconstructed. A tower and some recreated battlements loomed over lower ruins.

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Turaida Castle without and within

Perhaps the best part of the museum was a giant swing. Sized so that two adults could stand on it, maybe it’s a forerunner of kiiking?

Overall we hiked about 12 kilometers around the towns, though we didn’t make it to the third castle, Krimulda, because we needed to catch our train back to Riga. The area around Sigulda was beautiful and there are plenty of other trails to explore if we ever make it back.

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia was a natural next stop after Vilnius, and we were thrilled to spend a month there given how much we seemed to enjoy Baltic culture. Riga was similarly relaxed, though noticeably more touristed than Lithuania’s capital. We stayed outside the Old Town center in a quiet area that was connected to the core through parks. Wandering around was our main activity, especially since the weather was often perfect for walking. The Old Town seems to have a church steeple down every street and a pretty building on every corner.

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House of Blackheads, European Choir Games

Hundreds of years of varied architecture are represented. From Germanic/Hanseatic influences to Art Nouveau and Soviet-era blocks, Riga has it all. Each street and square feels unique. We were near the Art Nouveau neighborhood, with its sculptured facades and wide streets.

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Memorial to the Berlin Wall and Riga’s Barricades, Three Brothers houses, narrow streets

My favorite structure is the National Library. Supposedly it is shaped like a mountain in reference to a Latvian folktale. It might be one featuring a knight climbing a mountain to a sleeping princess or another where a mountain rises out of the earth once Latvia regains it independence. The exterior is striking and unique, and the inside is full of books. Hard to go wrong.

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Latvian National Library, inside and out

Over all the city is a fabulous mix of old and new. There are recently built (or renovated) upscale malls next to centuries-old churches. Remnants of the city wall are just a few minutes walk from parks with modern statues.

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Wall of city crests, your typical chimpanzee astronaut statue

Riga’s massive Central Market was the place to find all sorts of local eats. Located in massive buildings that were originally Zeppelin hangars, it is the largest farmer’s market in Europe. The hangars are airy and bright, perfect for admiring the selections of local meats, fish, and produce.

The summer season meant berries and veggies were in fresh, including some kinds we’d never seen before. Service berries, similar to a blueberry with more noticeable seeds, and cloudberries, which turn bright orange when fully ripe, were delicious. Fresh black currants looked shiny and tasty but were too bitter to eat raw.

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Service berries, cloud berries, rye bread & cranberry ice cream, Latvian deep fried garlic bread

Latvia drinking culture also tends toward beer, and that means bar snacks. The most famous is Latvian garlic bread, a deep fried, oil-and-butter-rich snack that seems ideal for staving off hangovers. Another is ‘grey peas.’ Actually made with brown peas, it is a Latvian specialty, featuring copious amounts of bacon and onions. Let the mix simmer for hours to blend the flavors, and serve in as large a portion as possible.

Local grape wine isn’t common (or that delicious) but local fruit wines are worth seeking out. We attended a wine festival in Sabile, and had the chance to sample wines made from rhubarb, sea buckthorn, currants, raspberry, apple, oak leaves (who knew?), and quince. Many were made by small producers who were excited to show off their family recipes.

I am going to miss Riga – the moderate summer temperatures, the parks, the main market. Sadly our time in Europe’s Schengen area was up, so we had to move on. I felt more comfortable in Riga than just about any other city I’ve lived in, and I definitely hope to return.

Trakai, Lithuania

Just 30 kilometers outside Vilnius is Trakai, a small tourist town known for castles and surrounded by a beautiful set of peaceful lakes. We scheduled a kayaking tour of the lakes (thanks credit card rewards) for a Saturday afternoon during our stay in Vilnius. We were fortunate – rain that had plagued our weeks in the city cleared and July day was warm. It was perfect for paddling.

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Skaistis Lake solitude and in front of Trakai Island Castle

We walked to the main station in Vilnius, bought tickets for the next bus to Trakai, and had just a few minutes to wait. The journey was quick, and from the Trakai bus station, it took about ten minutes to walk to the waterfront where were to meet for kayaking. To our surprise, we were the only ones on the trip for the day. Tomas, our guide from North North East, was fabulous. He took us around the castle, along the edge of the more crowded Galvė Lake and the Trakai waterfront, through a hidden passage to small ponds, and into the peaceful Skaistis Lake. Stopping for lunch on a small island, we enjoyed kibinai and apple-honey tart. My favorite portion was on the quiet out-of-the-way lakes, separated from the dozens of paddleboats and partyboats. Our arms were still feeling good after several hours of kayaking, and we had plenty of daylight left to see the rest of Trakai after returning the kayaks.

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Quiet lunch spot, going around the Castle

We toured the Trakai Island Castle, the main tourist draw. It is incredibly scenic – reconstructed red brick towers and halls on small islands connected by bridges. At one time it was completely surrounded by water but lake levels have lowered over the centuries, and we walked around it, sharing the path with wedding parties and picnickers. Inside is a small history museum and a few collections of porcelain, ceramics, coins, and smoking pipes (apparently guys in the 18th century liked to have flirty ladies put on their pipes… which is something, I suppose).

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Island Castle courtyard; my favorite ceramics in the museum

We saw the rest of Trakai fairly quickly. The waterfront is crowded with restaurants and souvenir stands. Other streets are quiet with colorful houses. We wandered back to the bus station to catch the next transfer back to Vilnius. The bus arrived quickly but the driver waited until it was full to start; not a big deal to us since we had the time.

 

 

Vilnius

With southern Europe swamped by excessive summer heat, our plans to head north looked like the best choice we could have made. After enjoying Estonia so much last fall, Vilnius and Riga looked equally tempting (and Eurovision 2016 didn’t hurt either). First up was the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius. Our apartment was between the Old Town and the Neris River. We were central enough to be within walking distance of all the main sights but away from the crowds. After Prague, however, Vilnius seemed laid back and relatively tourist-free.

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Riverwalk, Lithuanian Saeima, National Library

The long summer days gave us plenty of time to wander around, and evenings were cool and perfect for exploring. We arrived on the longest day of the year – the sun rose well before 5 a.m. and set at 10 p.m. Technically the rest of the night isn’t night, just varied degrees of twilight. Everyone takes advantage of the extra sun. In parks and plazas around the city, there are evening picnics, frisbee, people at the skateparks late into the night. Just a block away from our apartment was Alus Namai, a local beer bar that was a great place to grab a drink at sunset.

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Vilnius Cathedral with preparations for the Beatification of Teofilius Matulionis

Our second day we visited the Catholic Cathedral. Preparations were going on for the Beatification of Teofilius Matulionis, an Archbishop who served the Catholic Church despite intense persecution during the Soviet Era. I decided to attend the mass, which took place outdoors with thousands in attendance. Matulionis’s casket, normally housed in the Cathedral’s crypt, was brought out for the ceremony and so the faithful could pray with it. Even Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė spoke near the end of the service.

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The ‘Miracle’ tile in the cathedral plaza, information about and the ceremony for the beatification of Teofilius Matulionis

Vilnius was a wonderful city to explore on foot. The Statehood Day holiday occurred during our visit – we joined crowds of people heading up the hill near the Three Crosses for the evening singing of the National Anthem at 9 a.m. People came at nine, sang, left. No fireworks since it doesn’t get that dark. It felt much more laid back than the 4th of July in the US.

Vilnius’s Old Town is the largest in Europe and provides plenty of opportunities to explore churches and side streets. The Castle hill behind the Cathedral is open for climbing and is a beautiful sunset spot. We found churches with crumbling interiors that seemed abandoned and small cafes to people watch from. Because it is the capital, there are government buildings scattered around. We hid from a rainstorm on a staircase of the Presidential Palace without realizing why so many people were interested in photographing us.

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Singing the National Anthem on Statehood Day, hot air balloons, church art, Vilnius Castle

The area near the train and bus stations is known for murals, especially one that made the news recently for the interesting current event commentary. Others are prettier and more to my taste but less noteworthy.

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Vilnius has interesting arts……

Vilnius bridges the gap between Germanic and Baltic cuisine. There are plenty of potatoes and potato dumplings stuffed with meats and cheeses but also preserved herring. Kalvariju Turgus, the largest market in the city, was a great place to try fresh local produce, honey, and sausage. We picked up lots of summer veggies and strawberries, as well as incredibly dense hempseed bread (that nearly took a saw to get through). The dessert of choice was sakotis, a layered cake made from a creamy batter poured over a rotating spit. Not quite sweet enough for me, but the ones dipped in chocolate came close.

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Sakotis cake, snacks, Lithuanian beer, goldenrod flower wine

And the beer! Lithuania takes the prize for the world’s best beer, soundly beating Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. We read a few articles before arriving about brewing styles that incorporate local yeasts and family traditions – and each turns out a unique, tasty brew. We had witbiers, darks, beers made with peas, cloudy beers, unfiltered beers, saisons, IPAs. Even the mass market brands were tastier than any other country we’d been to. We kept wondering that we’d so rarely seen Lithuanian beer outside of the country: clearly they are keeping the best for themselves. My advice is this: If you like beer, you will like Lithuania. If you don’t like beer, you will probably be able to find beer you do like in Lithuania.

There wasn’t much to offer as far as local grape wine. However, the deficit is partly made up for by local fruit and flower wines. I had a single glass of wine made from goldenrod flowers that tasted like spring. And bread is turned into gira (kvass), a barely-alcoholic drink somewhere between soda and beer. It tastes as good as the bread, and is a favorite summer-afternoon-cool-down-drink

Vilnius really seemed like a great place to live. The relaxed atmosphere and relatively cheap cost of living made it one of our favorite European capitals. It might be harder in the winter, with only a few hours of sunlight, but I’d definitely love to return in spring or fall.

Warsaw (by bus from Prague to Vilnius)

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Travel has started to make airports less fun, so we’ve started planning transit connections via bus and train. The first big test of that was getting from Prague to Vilnius. We left ourselves an extra day, and decided we’d take a bus to Warsaw, have one day to relax, and then hop on another bus to finish the journey. Two 8+ hour bus trips would be enough to find out if trading airport annoyance for longer travel time was worth it. And another chance to spend time in Warsaw would definitely be welcome.

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Warsaw’s Barbican; Warsaw Mermaid in the Old Town Square

Poland was a favorite stop last year, but in our two weeks in Warsaw we didn’t get to do quite everything we’d hoped. We still needed to find the mermaid statue and check out the viewing terrace at the Place of Culture and Science.

The mermaid was easy to locate. We’d passed nearly right by it last year, though it had been blocked from sight by dining tourists in the Old Town’s central square. The Palace was a couple blocks from our Airbnb, so this time we had no excuse to avoid it.

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Modern skyscrapers and the Palace of Culture and Science

The Palace towers ominously amid all the newer glass-and-steel buildings of Warsaw. A ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union, it still seems out of place, surrounded by modern architecture. It is massive enough to house multiple theatres, a college, and museums in addition to the viewing deck. It was quite hot on the afternoon we went, but the 30th floor had a constant breeze. Since our apartment lacked air conditioning, we were content to relax at altitude for a while.

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On the road: stork’s nest, roadside chapel and cross, lots of fields

Eighteen hours on buses, even spread out over two days worth of trips, is a lot of sitting. From Prague to Warsaw was the prettier trip – we went through the hills on a two-lane highway and then descended on to flat plains full of farms and fields. Dozens of white storks were in freshly mown hay fields. Occasionally we’d catch sight of one of their massive nests on top a power pole or platform built specifically for them. The edges of small towns (and even many farmsteads) had ribbon-bedecked crosses marking boundaries. Small chapels served as a spot for prayers for a safe journey. Between Warsaw and Vilnius the journey was more monotonous. Fields and trees made up the scenery.

Since we had the time, the bus was the right choice. Far cheaper than flying, we didn’t have to worry about luggage weight limits and could take kitchen supplies with us. It was easier to get to and from our apartments as well. Rather than planning out an early-morning airport arrival, we could just head to the bus stop in the center of town via tram or a cheap Uber ride. No need to waste two hours at an airport or go through long lines at security. Plus, all that extra transit time let me catch up on reading and podcasts! We’ve planned future stays in such a way that plane travel should become less frequent, taken over by more relaxed bus rides.