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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.

 

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

International TravelThings You Should Know

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.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

THANKSGIVING IN VANCOUVER PART 2

van18

So what did we do for the remaining days in Vancouver during our family vacation over Thanksgiving? Plenty. Please read the many fun and delicious adventures in Part 1.

A chance encounter and discussion with locals resulted in a change of plans.  With rental car in hand, we headed north to see Whistler.  The original plan of the ferry to Vancouver Island, Butchart Gardens, etc., ultimately made little sense with not enough time available to do that “right.” Upon learning the beautiful Whistler area is just 90 minutes from Vancouver, there wasn’t much to deliberate.

En route to Whistler is the Sea to Sky Gondola.  The “Sea” is Howe Sound.  Following the 10 minute ride to the summit (in the spacious, comfortable and safe gondolas), the view is absolutely stunning.  There is a suspension bridge and trails in multiple directions.  We just took in the breathtaking vista, chatted with other visitors, and obviously tested our best photography skills.

Above, with Howe Sound in the background; below, two daredevils cross the suspension bridge

The Whistler Blackcomb ski area is “ranked #1 in North America” according to the Wall Street Journal.  The ranking accounts for the abundance of snow (averaging 33 feet annually), trails, apres-ski “scene” and more.  The trail options are massive as the map below shows. We saw just a snapshot of the area for lunch and a walkabout of the village.  It is very impressive and made me long for my skiing days!

The absolutely breathtaking sunset seen (below) en route back to Vancouver had us pulling over to capture the scene over Howe Sound.

Vancouver’s downtown area not only is eminently walkable, but is home to some truly outstanding restaurants. Most evenings, we walked to dinner (rain permitting).  In addition to the ones covered in Part 1, we were fortunate to enjoy two other greats:  Blue Water Cafe and Boulevard Kitchen.

Blue Water Cafe was a late addition as a result of a (full disclosure) social media post. After seeing  Vancouver’s own (heartthrob and native son) Michael Buble rave about the place, I decided it was well worth a visit.  Thank you Mr. B. not only for your great singing but for the head’s up.  We were fortunate to get a primetime reservation at this very busy place. After initially being put off by our waiter — who not once, not twice, but three times briefly said hello and added the same pat comment about how great the food is leading me to think he’s “dialing it in” — we had fabulous service and equally fabulous food.  Yes, one can get great sushi at a restaurant that isn’t a sushi bar per se.  And then there’s the wine. Oh, my.

After befriending the waiter and disclosing son Sam’s industry affiliation, we were given the grand tour of the place. In addition to the main room with sushi bar, there are several other rooms available for private dinners where wine is on display. Lots of wine, not to mention cellars we viewed.  Hat’s off to everyone we encountered who contributed to a memorable evening.

Below, sushi creations; tuna tartare; Char; desserts

Above; endless wine conversation.  Below, private dining anyone?? (Photo cred: Blue Water Cafe)

Special in a somewhat different way was our dinner at Boulevard Kitchen at the Sutton Place Hotel, situated in Vancouver’s highest end area.  Surrounding the hotel is all the top shops, many of which are on Alberni Street.  The original Fairmont Hotel (there are three others in the area) is nearby.

This dinner was all about the wine.  Again, make friends with your sommelier.  Better yet, with the GM/Wine Director.  We did a “red wine tasting” with a great deal of wine details.  Just don’t count on me repeating them.  But see for yourself the sheer number of glasses on the table! Which is likely the reason for the lack of food photos — just some outstanding fish and a lot of desserts.

That’s a lot of stemware above.  All used!  Below, my favorite:  St. Innocent 2017 Pinot Noir

Before returning the rental car, we headed south to two destinations:  The VanDusen Botanical Gardens and White Rock, the latter located just five minutes north of the US border.

The gardens were definitely in a so-called “shoulder season” — meaning the foliage was mostly gone but no snow yet.  But walking through still proved to be a lovely excursion.

White Rock, on the other hand, is a stunning spot. It is home to Canada’s longest pier. Any time one can see the sea with snow-covered mountains in the background, that is a homerun for me. The namesake “White Rock” is shown in the second photo below.

And then it was time to come home, but not before a memorable sushi lunch at Hello Nori. Counter seating and sushi rolls. That’s it, which means few decisions necessary. And the rolls were delicious! A perfect way to end this glorious week spent with family, for which we feel blessed.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

THANKSGIVING IN VANCOUVER PART 2

van18

So what did we do for the remaining days in Vancouver during our family vacation over Thanksgiving? Plenty. Please read the many fun and delicious adventures in Part 1.

A chance encounter and discussion with locals resulted in a change of plans.  With rental car in hand, we headed north to see Whistler.  The original plan of the ferry to Vancouver Island, Butchart Gardens, etc., ultimately made little sense with not enough time available to do that “right.” Upon learning the beautiful Whistler area is just 90 minutes from Vancouver, there wasn’t much to deliberate.

En route to Whistler is the Sea to Sky Gondola.  The “Sea” is Howe Sound.  Following the 10 minute ride to the summit (in the spacious, comfortable and safe gondolas), the view is absolutely stunning.  There is a suspension bridge and trails in multiple directions.  We just took in the breathtaking vista, chatted with other visitors, and obviously tested our best photography skills.

Above, with Howe Sound in the background; below, two daredevils cross the suspension bridge

The Whistler Blackcomb ski area is “ranked #1 in North America” according to the Wall Street Journal.  The ranking accounts for the abundance of snow (averaging 33 feet annually), trails, apres-ski “scene” and more.  The trail options are massive as the map below shows. We saw just a snapshot of the area for lunch and a walkabout of the village.  It is very impressive and made me long for my skiing days!

The absolutely breathtaking sunset seen (below) en route back to Vancouver had us pulling over to capture the scene over Howe Sound.

Vancouver’s downtown area not only is eminently walkable, but is home to some truly outstanding restaurants. Most evenings, we walked to dinner (rain permitting).  In addition to the ones covered in Part 1, we were fortunate to enjoy two other greats:  Blue Water Cafe and Boulevard Kitchen.

Blue Water Cafe was a late addition as a result of a (full disclosure) social media post. After seeing  Vancouver’s own (heartthrob and native son) Michael Buble rave about the place, I decided it was well worth a visit.  Thank you Mr. B. not only for your great singing but for the head’s up.  We were fortunate to get a primetime reservation at this very busy place. After initially being put off by our waiter — who not once, not twice, but three times briefly said hello and added the same pat comment about how great the food is leading me to think he’s “dialing it in” — we had fabulous service and equally fabulous food.  Yes, one can get great sushi at a restaurant that isn’t a sushi bar per se.  And then there’s the wine. Oh, my.

After befriending the waiter and disclosing son Sam’s industry affiliation, we were given the grand tour of the place. In addition to the main room with sushi bar, there are several other rooms available for private dinners where wine is on display. Lots of wine, not to mention cellars we viewed.  Hat’s off to everyone we encountered who contributed to a memorable evening.

Below, sushi creations; tuna tartare; Char; desserts

Above; endless wine conversation.  Below, private dining anyone?? (Photo cred: Blue Water Cafe)

Special in a somewhat different way was our dinner at Boulevard Kitchen at the Sutton Place Hotel, situated in Vancouver’s highest end area.  Surrounding the hotel is all the top shops, many of which are on Alberni Street.  The original Fairmont Hotel (there are three others in the area) is nearby.

This dinner was all about the wine.  Again, make friends with your sommelier.  Better yet, with the GM/Wine Director.  We did a “red wine tasting” with a great deal of wine details.  Just don’t count on me repeating them.  But see for yourself the sheer number of glasses on the table! Which is likely the reason for the lack of food photos — just some outstanding fish and a lot of desserts.

That’s a lot of stemware above.  All used!  Below, my favorite:  St. Innocent 2017 Pinot Noir

Before returning the rental car, we headed south to two destinations:  The VanDusen Botanical Gardens and White Rock, the latter located just five minutes north of the US border.

The gardens were definitely in a so-called “shoulder season” — meaning the foliage was mostly gone but no snow yet.  But walking through still proved to be a lovely excursion.

White Rock, on the other hand, is a stunning spot. It is home to Canada’s longest pier. Any time one can see the sea with snow-covered mountains in the background, that is a homerun for me. The namesake “White Rock” is shown in the second photo below.

And then it was time to come home, but not before a memorable sushi lunch at Hello Nori. Counter seating and sushi rolls. That’s it, which means few decisions necessary. And the rolls were delicious! A perfect way to end this glorious week spent with family, for which we feel blessed.