Teri B.

Teri B.

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EUROPEAN VACATION PART 4 – SERBIA

This is the fourth in a series of posts.  Previous post is HERE

Are you surprised this country is included in our itinerary?  Based on the fact that our restaurant server told us we were the second Americans he waited on in a couple of years, I’m guessing your answer is yes.  Meaning not many come to this part of the world.

Let me backtrack to share how we got here. Driving. Croatia was the only country en route that would allow a rental car from the EU to Serbia.  Thus, we drove from Ljubljana to the Zagreb airport solely for the purpose of a rental car exchange.  Drop off at Europcar and pick up at Dollar. Unlike the prior rental car (a wonderful Cupra Leon by Volkswagon), I couldn’t get rid of this one (a Renault something) fast enough.  In fact, Dollar picked up the car from the Belgrade hotel.  But, Dollar staff emailed me several times regarding our timing at Zagreb and were very responsive.  So they get credit for that!

The drive is not particularly interesting, bordering on boring. And long. Interestingly, the roads are better in Serbia than in Croatia (very bumpy).  And then came the boarder crossing. Wow. They actually stamped our passports upon entry into Serbia. About 45 minutes in line, but we’re told that was because it’s holiday time approaching the Orthodox Easter.

Below, a very good likeness of Serbia’s most famous actor:  Karl Malden

The fact that someone likened Belgrade to Paris is a stretch.  Yes, there are tons of outdoor cafes, but not much else to remind one of Paris. Still, Belgrade has it’s own charm and character.  It is brimming with tourists and locals out walking and shopping everywhere we went.  Belgrade prides itself on offering a vast array of culture, from festivals for film, theater, music and even beer.  A bit of everything is available! 

I try to incorporate a visit to either a Synagogue or Jewish community center wherever we go.  In Belgrade, it is Synagogue Sukat Shalom.  Our guide showed us the way.  Upon arriving, we could see a group of men chatting by the synagogue, but we were quite a distance from them, outside massive gates.  No one was answering the phone or responding to our knock.  This was the last day of Passover so that explained the lack of phone contact.

Below, outside the massive gates.  The top of Bruce’s cap is barely visible at the bottom.

We were frantically waving to the men shown below inside the yellow circle! 

Eventually someone saw us waiving and then an enormous security guard emerged from the gate.  We asked to go inside and he responded with a hard no.  Our excellent guide pleaded with him in Serbian and I could tell we were getting nowhere. It is the holiday and no can be admitted which made no sense at all.  I told him we just want to see the synagogue building inside the gates.  No.  I said politely that it is the custom of Jews everywhere to welcome other Jews in whenever they are encountered. Still no. Undaunted, I kept pressing. He then looked at us carefully and said “are you Jewish?”  Yes, of course.  And then the proverbial $64,000 question — the test of tests to see if we are telling the truth.

The guard:  “What do you eat on Yom Kippur?”  Me: “Nothing!!” And with that, we were permitted to enter, having passed the “test.”  I’m certain I detected a slight grin from him.

He told our guide that with all the recent turmoil, a lot of extra precaution is necessary.  People claim to be Jewish to gain access and then behave disrespectfully.  Thus, he is extremely careful as to providing entrance to strangers.

Below, inside the beautiful Synagogue

The head rabbi, Dr. Isak Asiel, chatted with us for a few minutes about the history of the synagogue and the community at large of roughly 3,000.  It is primarily sephardic in practice now.  He shared that a large delegation of Los Angeles Jews had visited a few weeks earlier.  Our brief time together was special and memorable.

Below, Republic Square – National Museum of Serbia behind the stage; National Theater on the right

We saw a good deal of the older part of Belgrade on foot with our terrific guide Bojana.  Our close friend in LA — originally from Montenegro — knows the Balkan countries well and provided contacts and what we must see.  Connections matter, especially in travel!

Above, Bojana takes us to her favorite restaurant The Two Deer for lunch.  The restaurant dates back to 1832! Below, fresh-caught trout was delicious as was the chicken soup and classic Serbian bread with paprika.

Below, the Sava River which flows into the nearby Danube.  A view of modern Belgrade on the left.

 

 

Back to flying for the next stop — to Chisinau, Moldava.  To be continued ..

 

 

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EUROPEAN VACATION PART 3 – SLOVAKIA, SLOVENIA, “+”

**This is the third in a series of posts.  Previous post is here.

What does “+” mean?  Shorthand for adding a plus 1 or additional stop, not on the original itinerary.  I like to call it “an audible,” and love having the ability to change course!  First, Bratislava.

The capital city of Slovakia is just an hour from Vienna, at the western boundary of the country. After leaving Vienna, one goes east or right for Bratislava or the other direction for Budapest.  Things are that close. It is a very pretty city located on the Danube seen below. Fortunately, the rain stopped in time for a walk to dinner in the older part of town (we are in a modern hotel on the waterfront).

Because one never knows who one might meet at dinner, we had a fun encounter with a young man who in a roundabout manner shared that he works in sports.  “Doing what?”  This ex-military person (and Black Belt) is an integral part of the security team traveling worldwide with an international sports icon.  My lips are further sealed, but my inquiring nature found out that he is indeed armed in certain countries and has needed to be so at times.

Above, the lovely area by the restaurant.  Below, tuna tartare (delish)

Originally our plan was for two nights.  Two factors interceded:  One night is sufficient; but, more importantly, a magnificent retreat in the Julian Alps was highly recommended to us, at least for a meal.  So why not spend a night instead.  And that’s how the “audible” came about.

The name is Chalet Sofija. It is just over the border into Slovenia and in it’s second year of existence, but more like years in the making.  Essentially an incredibly hospitable couple — Pope & Aleksandra — invite you into their home.  But what a home.   Miraculously built on top of a mountain, there are 5 beautiful suites, a spa and an outdoor pool.  Then there is the most inviting living room to enjoy after a sumptious dinner cooked (by Pope) in the open kitchen.  Every single detail, from the walk-in showers to the outdoor balconies, to the high-tech lighting, artwork, finishes is meticulously designed.  And the panoramic views are everywhere.

Getting to Chalet Sofiji is not for the faint of heart.  This is the road.

This view — from the terrace with the pool & spa

Our accommodations seen in next two photos.  Complete blackout shades operate from a tablet. 

Pope is a well-known restauranteur in Ljubjlana, who couldn’t envision retiring. Thus Chalet Sofija (named for his mother) came about.  The consummate hosts, along with their pup Tracy, cannot do enough for their guests.  Our 5-hour drive from Bratislava was worth every minute.  How fortunate to be able to deviate from the original itinerary with this incredible stay.

Above, master chef Pope has four simple but crucial steps to producing the most delicious steak ever.  (Room temperature meat; sizzling pan; short cooking time; transfer to hot cast iron plate to slice).  

The dinner below counterclockwise:  Classic Slovenian salad; crispy artichoke with a breaded/perfectly cooked egg on top;  the perfect red for dinner; risotto with hen & squash; that ribeye garnished with pear, walnut & balsamic.  Amazing.  

Below, Chef/Host Pope with his beloved Tracy in front of his wine collection.  He is a longtime sommelier.

Aleksandra waking up the strawberry beds in antipation of warmer weather.  Pope will plant a large vegetable & herb garden soon

In the underground garage — no worries about the car here!  

After departing the Chalet, it was on to the rest of our planned time in Slovenia.  Certainly seeing Lake Bled, a jewel in Slovenia, was a high priority.  Just 90 minutes from the Ljubljana where we next stayed (view from our hotel below), it is totally understandable why it is a must-see spot with a good bit of history. 

Dinner in Ljubljana was at Pope’s restaurant now operated by his son.  Golstina AS dishes below on the lighter side with salad, sea bass, the other bottle of Pinot from our hotel GM in Vienna and Panna Cotta with plum sauce.  

Two different views of gorgeous Lake Bled

After Lake Bled, we dipped a toe into Italy with a brief stop in Trieste.  It took us longer to find that miniscule parking place than it did to eat lunch.  But still a fun stop.

I did love this rental car — a Cupra Leon from Volkswagon.  It had barely any kilometers on it.  Fabulous navigation system, although I could live without the reminders.  “Drive in the center of the lane.”  “Take your foot off the pedal.” A bit nosy if you ask me, but a great and fun car to drive.

Next up — on to Belgrade, Serbia.

 

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EUROPEAN VACATION, PART 2 – VIENNA

This is the second in a series of posts.  See previous here.

Stop #2 after Prague is Vienna, which destination has long been at the top of the list for a return trip.  I sometimes dream of going at Christmas thanks to a Hallmark fave “Christmas in Vienna.” But that’s for another visit!  For this one, spring is likewise a special time to see this magical city.  Even when it’s still in the 40’s after a brief hot spell (we missed that).

Our concerns regarding getting to Vienna on time per the last post were for naught.  The hotel access was unimpeded by the marathon closures about which we had been warned! Plenty of time to check in, change, have a bite at the rooftop brasserie, and walk to the opera.

What did we see? A performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen at the magnificent Vienna State Opera (“Wiener Staatsoper”).  The hubby is generally a good sport attending, while obviously he would rather be seeing a rock concert.  I’m not quite sure why this production was signifcantly raunchier than I remember.  Regardless, the music is magnificent.  I loved that the subtitles are available via seatback tablets which are a very cool idea.

For the proverbial “when in Rome” (substitute Vienna) activity, one must indulge in desserts.  At the top of the list is the infamous Sachertorte. The origin of this dessert may be subject to interpretation, but a virtual cottage industry has been built around it. I personally opted for a phenomenal strudel post opera at nearby Cafe Sacher.

A return visit to the grounds of Schonbrunn Palace was a no-brainer.  The scope of this Unesco World Heritage site is breathtaking! It is very near to Vienna itself, easy to access via cab or public transportation.

Above, looking toward and away from the palace across vast grounds. 

Below, photo fun in the kid’s area mirrored kaleidoscope.

A priority without question for this visit is dinner at Steirereck

You know how you have memories of a place and they loom larger as times goes by?  And then after a return visit, the result is “it’s not as good as I remember it” or “as it used to be.”  Well, this was the exact opposite.  It was indeed as good if not better than 2012, our last visit. It might be even more beautiful. And we’re both certain we sat at the same table (a fluke).

The “world of Steirereck” continues to expand with the farm and lodging some 90 minutes from Vienna.  “Farm to table” is a bit ubiquitous these days, but they actually practice it faithfully.  Scraps do not go to waste, but rather are collected for feeding their farm animals. The food is serious but fun. And delicious. And watching the staff flawlessly move about? A beautifully choreographed pleasure. Enjoy below.

Really, what more does one need?  Great Austrian wines and superb bread.  “Brot Andy” has been there since 2005.  We remembered him well.  He knows every variety in great detail.  His favorite? None; he no longer eats bread as he began consuming too much! 

Below, our a la carte choices (there is a pre-fixe menu as well):  Grilled broccolini; white asparagus (now in season); chicken with paprika and lamb.  

A detailed menu card is provided with EVERY dish.  Saved me from having to take notes! 

The desserts — bottom right is rhubarb with peach inside that gorgeous meringue dome.  Others were a variety of small bites provided.  Top is dried and sweetened citrus peel (6 varieties!)

Finally, the entrance way; wine selection; selection of cordials; enormous cheese cart; and the kitchen.  Owner/proprietor Heinz Reitbauer is “center stage” while his wife Birgit is everywhere else. 

The Albertina Museum complex is simply a world-class venue with distinct parts.  We visited The Modern wing, showcasing Roy Lichtenstein 100 years since his birth.  A substantial number of his works were on display along with the exhibition Monet to Picasso.  Below, for our dear friend/financial guru Brad who would NEVER let us sink! Separately, if you know Lichtenstein’s use of dots, one can discern the era of his works based on how large or small the dots are.  The dots became larger as time went on through the use of tools.

After that bit of culture, we culminated our Vienna stay with dinner at Plachutta Wollzeile for classic Viennese cuisine (perfect schnitzel; caramel sundae; a wonderful Pinot Noir gifted to us – that story to follow).  Our dinner companions Werner & Niki are dear friends of our dear LA friends.  It was perfect.

Below, with Roland Hamberger — our new friend/Managing Director

extraordinaire of Rosewood Vienna

This relatively new hotel is in the heart of the city but just enough off the busiest area to feel quiet and calm.  It is the perfect combination.  Roland took superb care of us (the wine was a bonus!); his entire staff was excellent.  What a pleasure!

Vienna may just be my favorite city.  Given the culture, cuisine, shopping, big open streets, walkable but with excellent public transportation, wonderful people  — a return visit will be much sooner!

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EUROPEAN VACATION, PART 1 – PRAGUE

**This is the first in a series of posts.

Off we go into the wild blue yonder. Where? Specifically Europe, but with a great many stops.  I will be in 11 countries over the month (the hubby 10) — seven of them for the first time.

How does one create the itinerary? Romania & Bulgaria fell by the wayside courtesy of Covid back in 2020. So those two were automatic.  We have long wanted to revisit Prague and Vienna, so those are stops 1 & 2.  The stops basically go geographically from north to south with some criss-crossing.  None of the destinations are more than five hours of driving in a single day. We will see a lot!

Yes, the country count is correct! Not shown here is a stop in London plus an extra week for me at a Tuscan cooking school.  More about that later. 

The group of countries are “Central Europe” (more or less) for the sake of brevity.

But back to Prague.  After a non-stop to London with a plane/terminal change, we arrive in Prague at night but still take in the glorious beauty of this city.  Soon after, the first “challenge” of the trip (every trip has them) upon receipt of an email from our Vienna hotel, the next stop.  More about that later.

We are on the “Castle side” of the river — as opposed to the “new town/old town” side.  Prague is definitely a walking city with most people traversing the area via the iconic Charles Bridge.   The bridge and towers date back 1,000 years, and obviously are the best place to capture images of the city.

The town center, below, looks exactly the same as it did in 2007, our previous visit here

The Jewish area in the older part of Prague

We intentionally did not plan any specific tours, but rather look to get acclimated and meander through the town — altogether an excellent plan. There’s something to be said for simply being here with no particular agenda.  The only impediment is the weather in Prague — low 40’s with rain, not exactly conducive to comfortable meandering.

Separately, note to self: Make sure to set cellphone and watch on local time.  The first morning I woke up and saw it was 9:45 and panicked that we might miss breakfast! (God forbid).  Jump in the shower, wake the hubby — get up! I need coffee in my travel haze! As we are about to dash out the door, I realize my phone is still on LA time (9:45pm) so locally it is just 7:45 AM. Oh, well. More hours to explore.

Above, Czech wines from our dinner at Restaurant Mlynec along with excellent food below: Salad with buttermilk, burrata, macademia nuts; veal steak “schnitzel” and Peanut Butter/Chocolate ganache.

As to the aforementioned challenge, our plan to drive from Prague to Vienna was shelved.  The Vienna hotel emailed that no vehicles may enter the main “ring” area surrounding the city due to the annual marathon.  So we left our transportation dilemma in the capable hands of the two concierges (Prague & Vienna) to sort it on our behalf.  A hired driver will get us to the Vienna hotel (with a fair amount of luggage) without a couple of seniors hauling the bags via public transportation.  We will drive ourselves from Vienna onward.  But with opera tickets the first night in Vienna, time is of the essence for a timely arrival!

Prague at night, beautifully lit

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A SIMPLE REQUEST YIELDS BIG BENEFITS

Romania map

It’s no secret that I regularly emphasize the importance of connecting with your hotel’s concierge.  These seasoned, well-trained professionals have one job: to find answers for guests’ requests. As soon as I have our flight information, I contact the hotel for transportation options.  If what they offer is too pricey, I will investigate other options. But it never fails to bring happiness upon a foreign-city arrival to have that issue resolved. It is so worth the cost.

For our arrival into Bucharest, I did just that.  The response from the Intercontinental Athenee was swift and informative.  Transportation booked just like that. But what happened beyond that is the big story here.

While much of this trip involves driving from city to city through central Europe (i.e., on our own), I was uncertain how to manage our time in Romania.  There is a great deal to see with the castles in the countryside, etc., that the idea of doing it on our own wasn’t ideal. Thus, I asked the concierge for guide recommendations.

Enter my now-bestie/miracle worker, Mr. Daniel Dumitru with the agency Romania on the Map.  Any concerns I might have had as to his English speaking skills (critical for the hubby to understand clearly) were quickly resolved as we communicated. This is a find.

The value of this connection quickly became clear. It was a cinch booking essentially 4 days with Daniel, including a half-day tour of Bucharest, then driving/guiding us along the way with overnights in Brasova and Sibiu before departing from Cluj-Napoca. We will see a lot.

The biggest benefit was this: Our scheduled flight was cancelled from Belgrade (Serbia) to Chisinau (Moldava) for an overnight, before flying to Bucharest for our stay. The flights offered for this area are skant. The solution: leave Belgrade a day earlier flying to Chisinau. Done. But there is just one daily flight now offered to Bucharest, and it is 5:30 — in the morning.  No thanks. I contacted Daniel. Not only did he graciously step in when I called “uncle” in dealing with Tarom (the Romanian airline) — he called them for me and executed flight refunds — but he is now DRIVING us from Chisinau to Bucharest.  Seven hours of comfort from point A to point B, more sightseeing, and actually costs less than that single flight.

So that one single request to the Bucharest concierge for guide recommendations indeed yielded BIG benefits. Ask away.

Things You Should Know

IF IT AIN’T BROKE ….

travel_photography_gear

Have you ever learned from those prophetic words, albeit after the fact?  Meaning, sometimes things really aren’t broke and thus do not need fixing, as the rest of the saying goes.  This valuable lesson was abundantly clear after investing a good bit of time, only to discard the entire quest.

What am I talking about?  Buying a new camera.  After years of taking what I consider very good photos  — integral to sharing my travel stories — I wondered if I needed something more.  Given this year’s November trip to Antartica, the thought of not capturing everything at the highest level concerned me.  I consulted others who have been to that remarkable region to query what they brought.  The answer typically was a mix of both smartphone and traditional camera.

But since maximum consideration is always given to the camera quality — and screen size! — when acquiring my smartphone, I have relied solely on that device for quite a few years now.  That includes 2021’s trip to Africa (photos below from Uganda and Tanzania).

BWINDI FOREST, UGANDA

My trip to one of LA’s best camera stores was insightful.  My last comment to the salesperson:  “You know, you’re talking yourself out of a sale here.”  Why?  Because he shared that cameras are becoming relics.  That the quality of built-in cameras in smartphones is so good that people are opting for those only.  And if companies cannot sell enough units to make it economically feasible to manufacture them, they will discontinue making the cameras.  It was disappointing to say the least as the lack of enthusiasm made me wonder why he was in his chosen profession at all.

Nevertheless, I pursued my quest.  I looked up every online review I could find for a “point and shoot” camera.  Meaning, the camera can function fully automatically via the “AI” setting. But it can also be operated manually to satisfy a photographer’s desire to compose unique pictures.  Plus the camera offers wifi and bluetooth capabilities.

I finally pulled the trigger on a Panasonic Lumix with many bells and whistles.

And guess what?  I’m returning the entire thing.  Why?  The features have gotten so complicated, the technology so daunting, that even transfering photos became a matter of needing new software, etc., etc. Biggest issue? The screen size.  I couldn’t see if the photo was in focus and it drove me nuts!  Are these challenges because of my 70-year-old brain and/or eyes?  Maybe.  But I have zero problem syncing up a new smartphone and making it fully functional.  So I think I’m pretty capable.  (My smartphone is OnePlus with a huge gorgeous screen!)

What’s the takeaway here, besides “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?  Sometimes what we have is quite good “as is.”  Maybe the cruise ship will have camera equipment to use (many safari camps do with incredible lenses).  And there’s that $800 in “mystery savings” from returning the camera that I can use for something else.  Someone help me convince the hubby of those savings, though …