Thirty Things I Learned Travelling Before Turning Thirty

For my 30th birthday, I thought it might be fun to look back at the last 365 days and what I’ve learned. It is incredible to realize that we’ve been on the road for more than 15 months, and just how much more there is to see!

1. I hate the way airlines board planes and love flying. Just like I hate check-in at airports but love waiting for the flight and wandering the concourse.

2. Morcilla – blood sausage common in South America – is delicious as long as you eat it hot before the texture gets more unbearable as it cools.

3. Chilean volcanos love to play hide-and-seek. They are massive but still vanish almost with it a trace into the clouds.

4. The library at Trinity College really looks like the pictures, no color enhancement needed.

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Trinity College Library in all its non-color-enhanced glory.

5. Finns on the ferry from Estonia all look like alcoholics. In their defense, they need to buy in bulk and take it with them when visiting their neighboring country… it’s a bargain compared to local prices.

6. Some brands are obnoxiously global like Coke and Colgate and shampoos. Dish soap, though, has a much higher localization rate.

7. Croatian and most Latin American beers are not to my taste. Too light, too beery. Poland, though, is so far the king of beer countries.

8. I am not impressed by beach resorts in Cancun. They are all carbon copies and a weird bubble unto themselves.

9. Antacids in South America are pricey. I guess the food is bland enough (at least on the eastern coast) that heartburn isn’t a problem.

10. I LOVE food-stuffed bread. Polish pierogies, empanadas, Estonian pastries, Hungarian langosh. GIVE ME ALL THE CARBS.

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Carbs = life.

11. Budapest is gorgeous. No wonder so many people told us we’d love it.

12. Eurovision should be a holiday in Europe. I will now base travel decisions around this show and feel no shame.

13. Sweet fruit wines from the Baltic regions deserve more credit. At least they have the common sense to know grapes won’t work there.

14. Torres del Paine is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Destroyed my legs for days and was worth all the pain and hours on buses to get to hike each day.

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Here are some photographs not doing justice to Torres del Paine.

15. Photographs do nothing justice (almost – see #4 for the exception proving the rule).

16. Both Anna Karenina and Middlemarch look intimidating but are brilliant reads.

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17. In Peru, everyone asks if you’ve gone to Macchu Pichu and looks at you like you are crazy if you say no. Ditto Iguazu Falls in Argentina.

18. The hardest part about travelling is the unpredictable selection of books. No, I’m not going to get an e-reader.

19. Purse snatching can happen anywhere. Having a sturdy purse might keep the strap from breaking and sometimes helps you keep your stuff. But that can be good or bad… depending on how much the robber has invested into getting your stuff away from you… I really can’t recommend what is better.

20. For every place we visit, at least 3 get added to the list.

21. Romania is way more interesting than I had realized before going there. I hope we can get back to see Cluj-Napoca and Timișoara.

22. Just about every country has money that is more colorful and pretty than US currency. Uruguay’s coins have animals. Chile’s is a rainbow of colors and makes you feel rich (that 650:1 exchange rate). Romania’s bills are plastic so you can even toss them into fountains for luck.

23. Szellemirtók is a great movie. Don’t be a hater.

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It’s a good movie. There was tasty popcorn.

24. Krakow, Poland and Montevideo, Uruguay are my two favorite cities for street art and murals.

25. I’m never too old to climb around fortresses and tunnels.

26. I might be at least partly Estonian?

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I ❤ Estonia.

27. High heat and humidity is a terrible combination, ergo I could not live full time on the Yucatan Peninsula. Likewise, year-round chilly days and especially windy winters are not to my liking. Sorry Punta Arenas, I won’t be moving to the far south of Patagonia permanently.

28. Travelling and living full time in some small spaces with another human, even one I’m as madly in love with as my hubby, can occasionally be trying. Especially when mosquitoes are fierce, the kitchen is under-supplied, not all the appliances function, and the sink drains don’t have a u-bend to keep smells in the sewer and out of the house. And it is absolutely worth every second.

29. Inca and the related civilizations of Peru have the best pottery.  THE BEST.

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Surprise garbage can guy is my favorite. I relate.

30. Sometimes the mystery wine bottle is full of tasty alcohol. Sometimes it is terrible awfulness that gets dumped right down the drain. The only way to know is to try it.

 

Chilean Cuisine

We were thrilled to get off of the cruise ship so we could once again shop for our own ingredients and make our own meals. Based on the fruits and veggies that make their way to the US from Chile each winter, we expected big things. We made our way to Santiago’s markets our first afternoon in town and were not disappointed.

About a ten minute walk from our apartment was the Mercado Central, the most touristy of the three markets we frequented. It was full of seafood – both vendors and restaurants selling the fresh catch of the day. We splurged ordered ceviche and chupe de mariscos from a crowded sit-down place in the center of the building. It was delicious, of course, but much pricier than doing it ourselves. So for future meals we found a vendor we liked, Pescaderia Puerto Palmeras, and kept going back to them. We tried salmon (not as tasty as in the Pacific Northwest), congrio dorado (an eel that tends toward oily while cooking but is really tasty), tollo (white meat from a small shark), and reineta  (seabream with firm meat that is good by itself or in tacos or in ceviche or in just about anything). 

So much fresh fish!
Homemade reineta ceviche, chupe with mollusks, more reineta being fried up

Right across the river from Mercado Central is the Mercado de Abastos Tirso, with produce and groceries on the main floor and eateries upstairs. And just a couple blocks further is the massive La Vega market where is seems possible to buy anything.  There are hundreds of fruit vendors, bread stands, butchers, spice sellers, and hawkers shouting prices for dried grains, pickles, fish, dog food. It is a maze of delicious smells and crowded hallways. During our stay the tomatoes, blueberries, and strawberries were in season and incredibly cheap. Fresh produce arrives on trucks seemingly hourly. It’s possible to arrive and get vegetables and fruits that were picked the same morning and taken off the truck before your eyes. Outside are street empanadas and other hand-held cuisines from all around South America.

Even away from the markets, it’s easy to grab a snack of fruit or ice cream from vendors on the street. The local ice cream brand is Danky – weird word but yummy, heat-fighting products. Also readily available is Santiago’s traditional summer drink, mote con huesillo – dried peaches soaked overnight and combined with cooked wheat. In the 90 degree plus heat, it’s a refreshing way to cool down.

Restaurants in Santiago focus on fish and Peruvian cuisine. In fact, when we asked around, many locals claimed their favorite ‘Chilean’ food was Peruvian. Overall, Chilean cuisine falls somewhere between what we found in Peru and Argentina. There tends to be more spices, more limes, and less beef than in Buenos Aires but less fish and fewer stand out umami flavors than in Lima.

So many berries! Danky ice cream, favorite new spice mix, warm poutine in Punta Arenas

In Punta Arenas, different foods were needed to combat the chill and rainy weather.  (The 1,300 miles that separate PA from Santiago completely change the climate and many of the local tastes.) Take away restaurants sell warmed sandwiches with gooey cheeses and empanadas with garlicky beef. Our favorite choripan was from Kiosco Roca (it seemed to be everyone else’s favorite as well). On the advice of a Santiago Uber driver we tried it with the leche con plantano (milk with bananas) – it went together better than I anticipated. Rather than fish, more focus was on red meats, though ceviche still rules at the downtown market.

Chorizo with leche con plátano, mote con huesillo, and restaurant ceviche

 

Since we didn’t eat at any of the tourist-oriented restaurants in Punta Arenas, we didn’t have any of the lamb (though it looks amazing) or the king crab that is famous in the area. Instead, we cooked at home and made lots of rice and lentil dishes with gravy sauces and red meat. Punta Arenas is the kind of place that made me crave curl-up-on-the-couch-under-blanlets meals. Mulling wine also helped fight the chill and was another reason to try local drinks.

All manner of crunchy snacks

Like many places around Latin America I was left disappointed by the snacks. Chips boasting big and varied flavors (pizza! choripan!) never delivered. Queso-flavored Doritos were the best bet – they at least tasted like cheese and were good for dipping. One odd exception to the salty/savory snack set is the chirimoya alegre flavor that some corn puffs have. The fruit flavoring made it closer to a fruity breakfast cereal than an afternoon snack. It was a shame to be let down overall, but Punta Arenas is fortunate to have a duty-free import zone that receives shipments of goodies like ajvar, chocolates, and ratatouille mix from around the world. They seemed to have more variety than Santiago.

All burgers came this way. I have no explanation.

And finally, I have no explanation for the scores of individually pre-packaged hamburger patties that we found in every grocery store in Chile. Each packet had a different combination of meat cuts and spices and varied in size. We tried a couple, and they were mediocre and a little freezerburned. Maybe choice is very important for weekend grilling?

In any case, Santiago’s teeming produce and fish markets left a delicious lasting impression. La Vega set a high standard that other mercados will have a hard time following in the future. We came for wine and seafood and ended up happily eating just about everything we could get our hands on.

Lima, Peru

We spent a noisy, hectic, enjoyable week in Lima, Peru as a stopover to line up cheap airfares from Cancun, Mexico to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The weather reminded us of Seattle even though the landscape was almost the opposite. Arid brown and gray foothills lead up to the Andes, but each morning a light layer of Pacific fog rolled a few miles inland and enveloped Miraflores and the days usually had a cool, salt-smelling sea breeze near the water.

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The Pacific meets the Miraflores neighborhood, waterfront bridge, black-rocked shoreline (surfers further out)

A main attraction was the food, which seems to be revered all around Latin America. In Lima, the local speciality is seafood ceviche. We had several kinds, but our favorite contained seabass. The raw fish is cooked in lime juice; corn, hot! peppers, onions, and sometimes potatoes and plantain chips are added to the mix. Locals also use seafood in other creative ways, including chupe de camarones, a shrimp soup with corn, potatoes, and a fried egg on top. We bought some species of local trout at a supermarket, and it rivaled the salmon we miss so much.

Outside of seafood, the aji de gallina is a perfect lunch on a cooler day. Chicken is shredded (so finely it took me a while to realize it was actually in the dish) into a yellow pepper sauce and served with rice. Anticuchos, marinated beef hearts, are a surprisingly tasty appetizer. Alpaca makes the menu as well, and wasn’t as gamey as we were led to believe; in fact, it was quite tender. And of course, cuy an infamous Peruvian dish. It is more of a mountain-region fare, so in Lima it is served mainly in expensive, tourist-oriented restaurants. But we didn’t let that deter us and baked one at home. Equally adorable and delicious, it does take a lot of effort for a small meal.

To go with the food, Inca Kola is often the drink of choice. It tastes like bubble gum with an undertone of cream soda; it’s a good thing I wasn’t exposed to this as a child – I might actually drink soda. It is so popular that Peru is one of the few places in the world where Coca-Cola is outsold (though they have since bought the company that produces Inca Kola). If not that, the second national drink is the pisco sour. I usually don’t like cocktails, but this one goes well with the local cuisine. Artisanal beer is a growing industry; we tried some at Nuevo Mundo after we saw it advertised on their delivery van and then accidentally found their bar.

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Local drinks, alpaca and quinoa with cheese, chupe de camarones, market fruits.

Everyone we met asked if we were going to Machu Picchu. Sadly, that will have to be future adventure, but we still wanted to see some of the pre-Incan and Incan treasures that are the national heritage. The Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History was our starting point. Their collection is the smaller of the two museums we visited, but it also covers colonization, the fight for independence, and the era of the republic.

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Pottery and gold carvings from the National Museum and the Larco Museum

The Larco Museum displayed the larger collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts (it was also the more expensive admission). The majority of both collections is pottery, which survives well and didn’t tempt conquistadors to melt it down and ship it out of the country. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it is fantastic. There is pottery with alpacas that look like corgi puppies, guys relaxing on their boat with a drink (yes, really), people with animals, animals that look like people, erotic scenes, human sacrifices, maize plants, and plenty of other creatures and human faces in various states of stylization. My personal favorite is the man lying on the top of a pot with the mouth of the vessel coming out of his back, like he was bothering the potter at work and got stuck in the clay.

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Pottery, a feather cloak, and a quipu at the Larco Museum

There are also fabrics, preserved by the dry climate; even cloaks and shirts made of tiny feathers have lasted. Colors look as though they were dyed yesterday and feature patterns that seem modern. Many pieces are from burials; the afterlife was just as important in this corner of the world as it was in ancient Egypt. Mummy bundles were a common way of interring bodies, the individual wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth and with items they would need after death.

A wonderful thing about the Larco is that they display the most interesting pieces in the museum proper, but you can also look at most of the rest of the collection as well; it is one of the very few museums in the world that let you wander around their storerooms. There are scores of floor-to-ceiling glass cases filled with objects. Each item is grouped by what it depicts. Two cases were entirely devoted to owls, others more to ducks, some to fish; full walls of pottery featured human faces, or polka dots.

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Mummy bundle, cups with large noses, and a set of gold adornments.

A 40-minute ride from Miraflores is the Basilica of San Francisco, a beautiful church in the Lima District. No pictures are permitted inside its monastery or museum, a tour of which also goes through the catacombs below (where 25,000 bodies are buried). But inside the church photography is allowed, and its design certainly welcomes artists. The church’s interior features gorgeous wooden altars along the sides that reach high enough to bend with the domes above. Many are dedicated to Mary and Latin American saints. The ceiling of the church is unique among those we’ve seen – stark red and white patterning that is reminiscent of the surrounding landscape and ancient pottery.

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Larco Museum’s storerooms, Basilica of San Francisco, Nuevo Mundo Draft Bar

If you do not like insane traffic, Lima may not be for you. We caught a local bus outside the airport and spent over 90 minutes making our way to Miraflores. We arrived at rush hour, so traffic was at its peak, but that stops exactly zero people from driving as though they are participating in a vehicular game of chicken. Our driver wedged the bus between lanes, in spaces meant for motorbikes, and in front of mobs of other cars to make stops. Approximately 60 near-collisions later, we jumped off in our neighborhood. Honestly, it was one of the better free entertainment experiences we’ve had. The taxi back to the airport was the same way, though his habits leaned toward running red lights.

Overall, though, Lima is a city of millions and feels like it. Stores are open til all hours of the night, the city center is crowded around the clock. Poverty and wealth are shockingly close to each other – shantytowns rise up hillsides visible from new condominiums built for the rich. Food, art, work, and neighborhoods all blend and mix together. It is overwhelming and engrossing all at once.

Merida, Mexico

Let’s get the complaints out of the way early. There are only two: that the temperature was about 8 degrees too high and there were about 45% too many mosquitoes. Aside from those two minor things, Merida is an amazing city. The food was incredible, it was very walkable, everyone was friendly, and many of the city’s museums are free.

The city itself is full of history – it was built over the top of the Mayan city of T’Ho (which was sadly destroyed by the conquistadors) during the 1500’s. The Cathedral is the second oldest in the hemisphere. It reused stones from the Mayan temples, as did many other structures. Now the downtown core is full of narrow, one-way streets and brightly painted houses.

On Sundays, many central streets are closed to traffic and the plazas are turned into markets. There are music and cultural events and lots of cheap food. It feels like most of the population comes to hang out in the parks and enjoy the weekend.

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Casa Montejo and at the contemporary art museum.

We were in town for Hanal Pixan, the Day of the Dead. The main avenue to the General Cemetery was closed to traffic on a Friday night. Families set out altars to honor loved ones who have passed away. Tables are filled with crosses, pictures, candles, food, and marigolds. The public celebration also features musicians and demonstrations of a traditional Mayan ball game called Pok ta Pok. The main procession (it wasn’t really a parade) took place after dark. Hundreds of people, their faces painted to resemble skulls and wearing traditional white clothing, carried candles as they walked out from the cemetery. They represent the souls of the dead returning to spend time with their still-living family members.

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Hanal Pixan and the free zoo.

Of course, food also heavily features in the celebrations. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and other sweets were very much in evidence. This includes marquesitas – basically it is a crunchy crepe rolled around cheese and chocolate or vanilla filling… all things I already like, now even more conveniently packaged. Families were selling tortillas or tortas from tables alongside their memorials. Some were just store-bought food repackaged, but others were homemade deliciousness.

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Murals in the Palace of Government – Mayan creation story and a wall-sized version of the national symbol.

Local everyday cuisine is surprisingly tasty and cheap. Local ceviches were wonderful. The Marlin Azul was our favorite restaurant for seafood – their fried fish smothered in sauces and peppers accompanied the raw mixtos really well. El Pollo del Rey, a chicken place right across from our house proved that grilled chicken is an art form in Merida. Local places will have a grill covering an entire wall, and will send you home with a whole chicken, tortillas, salsas, rice, lettuce, and onions for just a few dollars. Inevitably, about 11 a.m. we would start smelling the roasting chicken and get hungry.

Walking anywhere, at any time of day, was a challenge because the smells wafting from food carts were so tempting. Tortas, tacos, fresh fruit (rambutan!), just-squeezed juices, and bags of snacks were never far away. Tortas are maybe a dollar each and one or two is enough for whole meal. Shredded pork is a perennial favorite for street vendors – and therefore for me.

Yucatecan meals are distinct from other regional dishes in Mexico. Panuchos (tortillas stuffed with beans and deep-fried, topped with pork and veggies), papadzules (tortillas filled with hard-boiled eggs and topped with pumpkin-seed and tomato sauce), and sopa de lima (chicken or turkey stock with lime and crunchy tortillas) are all brilliantly tasty.

Also, I’m going to claim Pake Taxo as my favorite junk food, anywhere in the world. I can eat a whole bag in one sitting. I’m not proud of that. But I can do it. The Quexo flavor is clearly abusing and tricking my brain into needing a daily dose of it. I’m probably going to cry if I can’t find it in the U.S. later.

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Free zoo, (mostly already eaten) ceviche, and a cemetery.

The free museums include Casa Montejo, the Museo Fernando Garcia Ponce-Macay (art museum), the zoo, and the Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatan. Casa Montejo was the conquer’s mansion. It now houses a bank in the back, but the front few rooms are preserved in nineteenth century grandeur. Both art museums feature modern artists and lots of vibrant, colorful works that celebrate the local culture. I liked “Arbol de las artesanias” by Oscar Soteno Elias. The picture below is a small part of all the people, flowers, and objects in the sculpture.

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Chocolate drinking cup and carved jaw from the Mayan museum, new favorite snack, modern art.

The only museum we did pay for was the Museo del Mundo Maya on the north side of town. We visited Chichen Itza (a previous post) and Uxmal (a future post) and wanted to learn a little bit more about the Mayan culture and see a few non-stonework artifacts. It was a good way to spend a few intensely-air-conditioned hours. They had all sorts of jewelry, carved bones, and displays about the complicated calendars the Mayans developed over centuries.

My favorite piece was a ceramic cup specifically for drinking chocolate and designed to look like a stylized coco pod. The owner had his named written on the side as well as the use and/or a recipe. I can totally relate and now want one of my own for Christmas. I think that person and I could have been friends.

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Cathedral and happiness from the Museum of Popular Art – lower right is ‘Arbol de las artesanians’

In a bit of an unusual move for us, we took a week-long intensive language class in Merida. We wanted to polish up our Spanish before spending the next several months in South America and practice what we had learned on Duolingo. The result is that I can answer the most simple questions with more confidence but that I still have to ask what others say two or three times because my brain can’t catch up with their talking speed. We were told that people speak even faster in Peru… so I’m not sure there is much hope for me comprehending anything but the more basic basics…

Playa del Carmen

The last four weeks have been very lazy… we spent a few days jet lagged from losing 8 hours plus more than a full day of travel to move from Tallinn, Estonia to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. There was an airport transfer, multiple flights, a bus, and a taxi involved in our move. Still, not that bad for a quarter way around the world.

The heat and humidity are much harder to accept than the new time. Tallinn was starting a lovely fall as we left: 50-66 degrees, a brisk breeze near the water hurrying the changing leaves along. Playa is 85 degrees (even nights don’t get much below 78) with humidity between 80 and 90%. All this makes it feel like something north of 100 degrees. Living for years in the northwest turned us into temperature wimps. We got used to cool summers and warmish winters with only a few outlying days to remind us how lucky we were.

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Our local beach and some local wildlife – pelicans, and  yes, that is a massive grasshopper wanting in.

We adapted by embracing the best part of Playa: the sand and water. We booked an apartment a 5-minute walk from the public beach, which is much less crowded than the often-drunken party going on at resorts near the city center. 4:30pm was the best time to walk along the water and go for a quick swim. We also used it as a more pleasant way to walk to 5th Ave.

We ate out a few times on the main tourist strip, but hit on good meals only a third of the time. But away from the water, at the mobile stalls around the Mega and Super Aki parking lots, we were never disappointed. And the food there costs about a fifth of the price. The absolute best meal was shredded pork tacos with lime and tomato salsa from a stand under a tree south of Gran Morena and Super Aki. At 15 pesos each, we left stuffed for $3US. Bicycle carts also meander the streets selling bread, ice cream, and pork rinds for just a few pesos each.

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Sunrise, new snack flavors, more local wildlife. The ants are especially ambitious.

There are lots of things to do if you are into swimming, snorkeling, and diving. Sadly, I can do none of that and really don’t like water all that much. Aside from the beach and the eating, we did take a ferry to Cozumel to see other beaches and other places to eat. The sand is much better on the Playa side.

I really just like wandering around the non-touristy parts of town. Since it is so hot, lots of people are outside trying to catch a breeze, especially in the mornings and evenings. Most stores are specialized (thought there are supermarkets and WalMart has more than one store in town). Walking across town, you go by small taco stands, torta stands, local Chinese food places, tiny veggie markets, paint stores, bike shops, panaderias, shoe shops, places selling purses or shirts or flowers.

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One of many murals, local liquors, sculpture on Cozumel.

The most annoying thing are the hawkers that shout at you all over the city center…. we get called “Honeymooners… honeymooners over here… nice hats… good trips… wanna take a look at the jewelry?” I try to throw them by looking really sad at the honeymooners part. It is annoying because we don’t have room for souvenirs or extra tie-dyed t-shirts or large hats (not that we ever buy souvenirs), and prevents us from just enjoying things that are actually interesting or unique in the downtown. Of course, these are few and far between since nearly every place has the same giant sombreros, wood carvings, bottle openers and magnets with pictures of palm trees and the words “Playa del Carmen.”

Still, even with the gauntlet of 5th Ave, most of it city isn’t like this and it is possible to escape the feel of Playa being a tourist town.

The Food Review of Europe

We’ve moved back to the Americas for the foreseeable future, leaving fall and winter behind. Sorry Europe, it’s time for some beaches in Mexico and Latin American culture. Coming snow and chill aside, I’m going to miss all the countries we visited in Europe. I thought it might be fun to do a recap of the best things we saw and ate and some of the oddities we noticed. New blogs will be light this month as we are staying in a beach town and well… basically going to the beach every day. This post is all about the food and drink in eight countries we visited in Europe, starting with the best food from each place.

  • In Lisbon, Portugal, egg tarts reign. Just all of them all the time; get them from Pasteis de Belem or literally any other bakery. How their eggs are so tasty is a mystery. Even the eggs we got at the store had richer yolks and seemed tastier than eggly possible.
  • Best meal in Barcelona is tapas, hands down. Away from the tourist streets they are much cheaper and about 483% better. Every possible combination of cheese, veggies, and meat is available. For a Euro, you can have a couple bites that taste like the equivalent of $40 meal. And usually there is a wide variety so it is perfect if someone wants hamburgers and another person wants fruit & cheese plates.
  • Ajvar is Croatia’s contribution to culinary heaven. A blend of peppers and eggplant, it fits between pasta sauce and salsa. Doesn’t sound too special, but it was my go-to topping for toast, eggs, chips, pasta, crackers, meat, or sometimes just by the spoonful by itself. Especially worth nothing when served on cevapi, a skinless sausage sandwich that may cause you to nearly ruin your shirt in your hurry to get it all in your face because YUM! I searched for ajvar in every European country we went to post-Croatia. (Romania has a similar food called zakusca, but it’s more soupy and forgettable.)
  • In Bucharest, Romania, the Caru’ cu Bere restaurant served up cheap lunch eats. We had superb sour kraut salad, polenta (with a rich topping of cheese, cream, and egg – it was the appetizer but basically became my main course), and tomato and cucumber salad.
  • Fish was the best bet in Ireland. There isn’t really any specific way to have it prepared as long as it’s fresh. Locals emphasized that Irish cuisine doesn’t have a ‘must-try’ dish. In fact, Dublin may have had the highest percentage of restaurants and shops focusing on cuisine from other cultures.
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    Horse and cous cous (Kevin whipped it up after a trip to the main market), egg tarts, winning chips.
  • Goulash soup was probably the highlight of Hungary. Full of meats, veggies, and paprika, it is warm and rich. It’s probably more suited to winter than summer, so we need to go back in a season when I can eat more of it. It’s definitely not the hamburgery noodles I grew up calling goulash. Also, in a possible tie, Hungary has deep fried potato donuts. These are exactly what they sound like: a mix of potato and donut dough, fried for a crispy outside and soft, warm inside. Though they are called donuts, they aren’t dessert, but another example of Hungary’s love of high-calorie goodness.
  • Poland claims victory on the pierogi front, naturally. I didn’t know there could be so many kinds. Duck, mushroom, salmon, and berries make excellent fillings though ruskie (cheese and potato) is the most traditional and is clearly the King of Pierogies. Done right, they are puffy, joyous food pillows that I would gleefully eat for every meal.
  • Estonia wins dessert. Never thought I would say that Estonia has the best (non-egg tart) pastries, but they pulled it off. We were just a block away from a bakery that served up supremely fluffy pastries with the richest, smoothest creamy cheese fillings and icings. And Kalev, the main brand of chocolate, makes some of the best anywhere in Europe. Sorry, Germany, Kinder doesn’t cut it anymore.
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Croatian peanut crisps, pierogies!!, Hungarian langosh, Estonian chips.

Other food takeaways that surprised us:

  • Frozen veggies are tastier in Europe. There are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican mixes that taste as fresh as a salad. The flavors are intense – like the veggies just came out of the garden. And at $1-2 dollars a bag that would feed both of us for two or three meals, America can learn something.
  • Horse meat is really tasty. Seriously.
  • So is moose. It fits somewhere between prosciutto and beef jerky on the meat-flavor spectrum.
  • Portugal does the egg thing, but Spain must be the beneficiary of the actual chicken. Chicken in Spain tasted like a unique meat, not just a bland food needing lots of seasoning.
  • Duck is really cheap at Lidl in Hungary. And in Estonia. We shamelessly ate a lot of it.
  • We ate risottos in several countries and they are now probably a necessary part of my existence. The ones in Portugal were richer, more flavorful, and more gravy-like. At the Time Out Market near Lisbon’s waterfront, I had the best risotto of the whole trip with game hen and mushrooms. Ones in Hungary featured paprika, naturally.
  • Sushi is common in Estonia and is happy to blend local flavors and products. We even saw a full-color book of Estonian-Japanese fusion foods.
  • Peanut crisps (think Cheetos puffs with less corn and more legume) seemed to be the most popular snack in Croatia. They are addicting. Hrusk Crisps were my personal favorite. I now prefer them to cheese puffs, though I will admit that I got addicted to Latvian-produced nacho cheese balls in Estonia.
  • Thank Hungary for fair and festival food. They are masters of fried dough and carryable meat.

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    Baklava (it also comes in chocolate), various ajvars, milk sans refrigeration in Croatia.
  • Chip flavors vary by country – salsa, paprika, prosciutto, mushroom, hamburger, kebab, dill, steak. There are more traditional flavors as well, the cheeses, onions, sour creams. Missing were Doritos Cool Ranch and Fritos.
  • We had goose legs for the first time in Hungary. Better than turkey.
  • All of Europe is terrible at spicy foods. The only partial exception is Hungary, which corners the paprika market, but still only reaches a small percentage of what we got used to in Southeast Asia.
  • Dill doesn’t seem to exist in most places. It was only readily available in Estonia, presumably because they have salmon in large quantities. And salmon necessitates dill.
  • Peanut butter is an exotic rarity. While it can be found in some supermarkets, it is 2-5 times more expensive than in the U.S. and is often grittier and lacking spreadability. And often hiding out in the refrigerated section.
  • Europe loves cheese. The Iberian peninsula favors soft cheeses, while Romania northward seemed much more in love with hard, aged cheeses. Even so, finding appropriate cheese for nachos in Croatia was nearly impossible. Same goes for pre-shredded.
  • Most know Spain is famous for prosciutto, but Hungary and Poland should also be on the preserved-meat fan’s radar. Especially Poland. Though the Central Market in Budapest had a stall serving what might have been the best prosciutto of the trip.
  • Instant ramen is ubiquitous (college kids everywhere survive on that stuff), but Poland took it a step further and had beetroot borscht alongside the chicken and shrimp flavors. Sure enough, same cheap noodles, but this time with a spice packet that turned the soup bright reddish-purple. And yes, it was good.

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    Veggies with duck & lingonberry sauce – made by Kevin :), moose jerky, salmon, beet & herring salad, Eesti pastry.

Of course, drinks go with food:

  • Literally ALL THE WINE IN PORTUGAL IS GOOD. We drank 3 -or 4-Euro bottles almost exclusively and had no regrets. The best ports were pricier. We shared a single small glass of 30 year-old port that cost about $7US and was smooth and flavorful. If only we had enough for whole bottles of that stuff…
  • Alcohol in Spain was disappointing; perhaps it was overshadowed by Portugal’s. The wine was more expensive and not to our liking, and the beers were forgettable.
  • Croatian wine, especially a grape variety called plavac mali, was the best thing to drink. The best bottle (we splurged for our birthdays) was produced by Zlatan Otok. We’ve never seen Croatian wine anywhere else, even other European nations, much less in the U.S. We were told their industry was growing, so hopefully we’ll be able to find it in the future.
    • An aside on Macedonian wine: They made their way frequently into Croatian stores, and it turns out they also deserve to be better known. Some are even aged in amphorae, modern versions of the containers pulled up from shipwrecks. This makes for more earthy wines, and is a fun way to feel a little more connected to the region’s history.
  • Sweet red wines are Romania’s forte. Even wines listed as dry are not. Kevin wasn’t thrilled by this, but I took it as a sign to make wine my dessert.

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    Full spectrum of Spanish wine (protip: the boxed wine is pretty terrible), Croatian plavac mali, Portuguese deliciousness.
  • Hungary’s best drinking was sweet white wines from the Tokaji region. Like Romania, lots of residual sugar.
  • It turns out Poland does make a little bit of wine, but they make much more beer and (SO MUCH!) vodka. Too many (really cheap) drinkable beers to name, but there is one vodka that stands out. Bisongrass vodka isn’t available in the US (it’s just a teeny bit toxic), but it is the best vodka either of us has had.
  • Redcurrant wine in Estonia. Berries take the place of grapes here; thank goodness they can be fermented and aged the same way. More like drinking syrup than alcohol, it is another example of their domination of desserts. Though kvass (beer made from fermented bread that tastes like toast), should get an honorary mention.

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    Tallin’s hard liquor, fruit wine, kvass, and more fruit wines. Poland’s lychee beer, and Hungarian corks.

Overall, the best countries for (grape) wine were 1. Portugal – a perfect blend of inexpesive and flavorful wines 2. Croatia – for their own unique grapes and the other Balkan countries that were represented, a little pricier but still lots of deals 3. Hungary has more sweeter wines and it matches well with their cuisine.

For beer, the rankings are mostly based on Kevin’s opinion. He appreciates beer more than I do, but the more we travel, the more I find ones I like. 1. Poland wins beer. It was cheap, there was a lot of it, and there was a wide variety. And all of it was good. Nothing randomly pulled off a shelf disappointed. They also are proud of a growing craft beer industry that has produced some interesting combinations. 2. Hungary snags second place because beer there is very cheap and usually of high quality. We did find a few duds, but for pennies a bottle, it is easy to experiment. 3. Estonia has a much bigger craft scene, so there is a lot of variety for a small country. Their overall cost of living means beer is pricier than any other European country we went to on this trip. But it is tasty and there is always something new to try.

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Polish beer cap collection, craft beers, Romanian wines.

Kevin gets to exclusively pick the favorites for harder liquor awarding first to: 1. Ireland for its smooth whisky. 2. Poland because they have all the vodka. Aisles and aisles of vodka. And all the locals love it. We saw an 80 year-old couple checking out at the store with chicken, three apples, a can of coffee, and about 8 bottles of vodka. Not sure if that is how they stand each other or their children or just because they are 80 and who gives? 3. Estonia has Vana Tallinn, which makes run-based liquors and some that have winter spices in the mix – cozy for the growing chill.

Europe takes alcohol seriously. Quality is important, but so is quantity… In Croatia and a few other places, wine often comes in 1 liter bottles (rather than the U.S.-standard .75 liter). And beer. Beer cans in Europe make the standard U.S. can look like a child’s toy. Mass produced beers also come in 1- and 2-liter bottles, because beer! In Estonia, Finns hop the ferry over to buy cheaper alcohol. Estonia obliges by providing 10-packs of vodka (aka the “Finn-pack”) at all stores near the ferry dock, as well as handcarts to make carrying it back easy.

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Yummy Hungarian Dreher Bak, Irish birds love beer, Irish whisky distillery, cork collection from Dubrovnik.

One of the interesting challenges was to try to find packaging with the most languages. The winner seemed to be a pizza box we got at Carrefour in Poland with full instructions and ingredient lists in 7 languages. (Two to four seemed to be about the average.) There was also a ketchup packet that had 11, but in almost every language the translation for ‘tomato ketchup’ is ‘tomato ketchup.’

In some cities, there are still wonderfully diverse markets showcasing local produce and meats. Some are considerably cheaper than stores for in-season produce, but others are tourist-focused and overcharge accordingly. Usually they are worth going to in either case.

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European markets. 🙂

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that food has become a main part of our trip. We mostly ate at home, Kevin taking the opportunity to try new recipes (paella and ratatouille and fish), while using local ingredients. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, eating out often in Europe would have drained our budget too fast, though I will say that doner kebab is cheap and yummy and very common. It was a little tough moving each month because we never knew what kitchen utensils we would end up with or how well our stove would work. Some of our favorite foods were ones we’ve had before but that had new twists or tasted completely different because of the quality of the ingredients. While we are happy to have moved on to a place where spicy food is again available and taco trucks are on many corners (namely ones by grocery store parking lots), Europe has so much more deliciousness to offer that we will have to head back… Even eight months was only enough time to get to a small portion of it all…

Wilanow

Week two in Warsaw was more relaxed, in part because it was raining much of the time. Fortunately we eked out one bright day to spend at the Wilanow Palace. The last stop of the bus line running by our apartment was literally at the palace gates, so it was easy to get there even though it was on the other side of town. It turned out that the Palace uses timed tickets for crowd control (something a couple of other Warsaw museums could take a cue from). We ended up with two hours before our entry slot. Luckily the Poster Museum and the park grounds around the Palace were free for the day.

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Wilanow Palace and its grounds

The Poster Museum had some of the most up-to-date displays I’ve ever seen in a museum – items from supporters of Charlie Hebdo and from Black Lives Matter protests. The parklands are massive – befitting a royal residence – and have both formal flower gardens and tangles of trees and reedy ponds. It is a pretty popular place to have wedding photos taken – it was a Monday and there were multiple bride & groom sets posing. Honestly, the day was so nice that wandering around the grounds was as interesting as the palace itself.

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Inside the palace… I quite like the faux baby leg coming through the ‘skylight’

Wilanow is one of the few important buildings in Warsaw to escape total destruction by the Nazis. A plaque just a few hundred feet from the gates mark a spot where the Home Army prevented the demolition crew from reaching their target. The damage it did receive during WWII has been repaired – most rooms are decked out as they would have been in the 1700s. A few are much plainer (presumably sections hit by bombs or shrapnel), and are now used for gallery exhibitions. Currently it was set up with tea and chocolate serving sets. The best part was old quotes about how healthy chocolate is from essays published hundreds of years ago when it was still an exciting and newly available product.

The restored rooms are incredibly decadent – velvet wallpaper, muraled ceilings, gold paint, lots of art. I particularly like the portrait of the woman rolling her eyes. I believe she is supposed to be either looking heavenward or to a lover in another portrait that would have been placed above her. But she really seems as thought the whole ordeal of sitting for the artist is just too much for her afternoon. Upstairs, a small domed ceiling had a sky painted in the oculus with a couple of cherubs perched on the edge. But someone had the brilliant idea to fit a sculpted cherub leg onto the mural to make it look more 3 dimensional. I want to give the person who thought of this a hug… the random baby leg dangling from the roof made my afternoon.

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Public arts

Elsewhere around the city, we stumbled on more public art. I don’t know what the yellow stones are for (a wooden platform just out of the shot was still being constructed), but it reminded me of the rocks I used to decorate my goldfish’s bowl. The rocket cow gets a gold medal for most interesting sculpture? statue? assemblage? It was hiding in a rather subdued-looking business park that had other surprises, including some incredibly fresh and tasty sushi whipped up by Polish chefs.

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Some favorite – kebab chips, dill chips, beet-soup- flavored instant noodles and some very USA-looking snacks, and a light Polish Riesling

Sushi aside, snacks in Poland raise the bar for the rest of the world. The following chips flavors exist: dill, kebab & onion (reminiscent of a pita kebab), grilled kebab, Oriental salsa, every kind of paprika, multiple kinds of cheese. Not to mention spiral ketchup Cheetos. And the chocolate… I will be craving both E. Wedel and Goplana (which I discovered this afternoon) candy bars for a long time to come. A non-zero amount of my time in Krakow will be spent tracking down more sweets. Of course, that will only be the time that I am not stuffing my face with pierogis. The frozen cheese & potato pierogis we sometimes bought in Seattle are a pale shadow of the real thing, but more on that in a later post.