Photo Post: the Towns of Úbeda and Baeza

For whatever reason, the province of Jaén has always piqued my interest – and has always intimidated me. I considered it No Man’s Land because of my extreme allergy to olive blossoms, too far from Seville to merit a day or even an overnight.

And with a move to Madrid looming, I would find the province even further away, despite being geographically closer to the capital than Sevilla.

But I’m the now or never kind.

a window to Úbeda Spain

After blowing out my eardrums attending Las Fallas in Valencia before chasing Don Quijote’s windmills (and chasing them down with a glass of wine in Valdepeñas), I decided to stop for a night in the UNESCO World Heritage towns of Úbeda and Baeza to avoid the Holy Week processions in Seville.

The pueblos gemelos of Úbeda and Baeza are nestled into rolling olive groves and noted for their Renaissance architecture, and they’d been on my Spain wish list for years. I called the Novio to tell him not to expect me until Tuesday evening, as I was adding two more pit stops to my trip.

Nearby Úbeda gets a lot of the attention, but Baeza is superbly conserved, boasts a strategic position over the fertile Guadalquivir valley and has an astonishingly high number of intellectual former inhabitants – including poet Antonion Machado – thanks to its university and Guardia Civil academy. But it was the cheap, last-minute hotel deal that got me.

Plaza de la Constitucion Baeza

Sin rumbo, I set off from the hotel towards the city center, itself a labrinyth surrounding the cathedral, old university and the ruins of an impenetrable fortress. Machado himself called it the Salamanca andaluza for its appearance and intellect.

The wind howled through the tangle of streets and my eyes watered from the stinging chill and the olive trees growing heavy with blossoms. Baeza was a town that I’d normally describe as the Spanish type of sleepy, a town in permanent suspended activity.

Streets in Baeza, Spain

But being Semana Santa, I arrived mid-afternoon to a town too excited to sleep a siesta. La Misericordia – Baeza’s answer to Seville’s somber Madrugá processions – would step off that night from the school where hijo predilecto andaluz Machado once taught French grammar. This small city once housed a booming textile industry and takes pride in its Italian Renaissance architecture.

wide shot Baeza cathedral

It felt like I had the village to myself, everyone squirreled away around their braseros (nosy me peeked into ground floor windows) or preparing floats for the Holy Week processions. Even a group walking tour I ran into in the charming Plaza del Pópulo was sadly thin. I wandered around the entire historic center and past its most emblematic buildings, haunting and silent sentries.

Fuente de los Leones, Baeza Spain

view of Baeza from Ubeda

Plaza del Populo Baeza
Plaza de Santa Maria Baeza

My phone nearly dead and a chill in the air, I treated myself to a long rest before heading back out at twilight. Plaza de la Constitution’s colonnades hid intimate tapas bars with low lights and the smell of olive oil wafting out of them. The lights glinted off of religious medals, worn by the faithful who would no doubt be elbowing me through the narrow streets to see La Misericordia.

As I was mopping up the last bit of oil with a piece of bread, the restaurant suddenly thinned out. I threw some money onto the bar and rushed outside. Across the plaza and up a small hill was the university’s heavy wooden doors. Darkness had fallen, but the golden light spilling out from windows proved that Lunes Santo was the big night for baezanos.

Holy Week in Baeza, Spain

Nazarenos Baeza

Paso de pasos during Seville’s Holy Week, but there’s something intimate and primitive about processions in smaller cities. They tend to be more somber, as if carrying the images of Christ’s last days is for the more fervent, that it’s less about spectacle and more about spirit. Indeed, Baeza and Úbeda’s adherence to Catholic tradition isn’t as grandiose as Seville or Valladolid’s, but I saw passion as I watched the nazarenos shuffle by under heavy black capirotes.

La Misercordia procession in Baeza

Holy Week traditions in Baeza Jaen

As they snaked through the Casco Antiguo and followed the trail of the old city walls, I hunkered towards my hotel, catching glimpse of the procession and literally fell into my bed.

Semana Santa en Baeza

A thick fog covering the ribbon of road between the sister cities the following morning, I steered Pequeño Monty toward Úbeda. This is where fellow blogger Trevor Huxham lived as an auxiliar de conversación for a year, and he was quick to fire off a food recommendation: churros at Cafetería Anpa. The cold was permeating, so I treated myself to a thick mug of chocolate and a ración of churros. You know, a good old stick-to-your-bones sort of breakfast.

Fog still sat over the Lomo de Úbeda as I wandered towards the city center, and for 9am on a Tuesday, even quieter than Baeza. The cobblestone sloped downwards towards the sandstone monuments that scored it its UNESCO designation, all locked up and shuttered up as if warding off the chill in the air. I pulled my jacket around me tighter, realizing that I’d not dressed properly for the cold morning.

The jewel in Úbeda’s well-earned crown is Plaza Vázquez de Molina, flanked by half a dozen buildings built in the Italian Rennaissance style: the Sacra Capilla del Salvador, the Capilla de Santa María de los Alcázares and the Palacio de las Cadenas are perhaps the most famous.

Capilla del Salvador Baeza Spain

Lion statue Ubeda Spain

Ubeda cathedral

Parador Baeza

Santa Maria de los Reales Alcazares Úbeda

I wandered into the nearby Parador for a coffee and to warm up a bit, but instead was met with sniffles, sneezes and itchy eyes. As I feared, my allergies betrayed me in Jaén. Úbeda merits far more than an hour I spent with my nose in a Kleenex – if not for the architecture than for the historical privilege brindado to this beautiful place.

Like Machado’s exile from Spain during the Civil War and his absolute heartbreak over the Republic, I got in my car and found myself suddenly questioning our move to Madrid. Andalucía is, for me, home. The rolling olive groves fanned out from Jaén through Málaga and on towards Sevilla gave me some comfort on the three hour trip, and now – 16 months after this little jaunt – it’s a view I miss when driving through Madrid’s urban sprawl.

In fact, it washes me in relief when the high speed train passes through Despeñaperros and spits you out in the Jaén province.

Late, corazón…no todo se ha tragado la tierra.

beautiful old door in Europe

If you go:

Stay: I got a great deal – especially considering the holidays – at Hotel Juanito. A bit antiquated but very much comfortable, this hotel is one of the village’s mainstays and boasts a great restaurant (this is an affiliate link via Agoda – you’ll get a great deal at no extra cost to you!). Avenida Alcalde Puche Pardo, 57, Baeza

Eat: If you can’t get into Juanito’s famous restaurant and the dishes made with the resto’s own brand of Extra Virgen Olive Oil, Baeza boasts plenty of tapas bars in the center of town. I ate at Taberna El Pájaro, where traditional Andalusian cuisine gets a bit of an upgrade without the price hike – and their olives are seriously delicious. Paseo Portales Tundidores, 5

If you’re in Úbeda for breakfast, do not, pero DO NOT miss the thick chocolate and crispy churros at ANPA. Corredura San Fernando, 33.

BAEZA AND ÚBEDA

Do: In Baeza, climb the torreón at the Puerta de Baeza for views (and cheesy medieval stuff) after wandering around. In Úbeda, you can’t miss the Plaza Vázquez de Molina – and do get into the buildings if you can. Had I more time, I would have taken a guided walking tour.

Have you ever been to the Jaén province?

Exploring the Wonders of Dalt Vila, Ibiza’s Old Town

There’s more to Ibiza than Pacha, the jet set or kitesurfing.

Dalt Vila, meaning ‘Upper Town’, is a significant fortified acropolis that has retained all of its charm; in fact, it is one of the most picturesque old towns in Spain. The winding, narrow and steep cobbled streets, the vast terraces and the high ramparts all exude wonder, magic and a colorful history. Listed as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO describes Ibiza’s old town as exceptionally well preserved and note the evident historical imprints of the Renaissance, the Catalans, Arabs and Phoenicians. Dalt Vila is a sublime place to visit for lovers of history and culture. Join me as we explore the wonders of this magical town on this popular island.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Snows

​​Image by juantiagues, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With a history that dates back to the 13th Century stretching through to its gothic refurbishment in the 18th Century, the cathedral of Dalt Vila is a central attraction of the town – one you certainly do not want to miss. Sitting at the top of the acropolis, it offers tremendous panoramic views of Ibiza. The beautiful cathedral also holds several significant pieces of art.

The Puget Museum

This museum is also one for the art lovers and is home to a number of works by Ibizan artists, such as Narcis Puget Vina and his son, Narcis Puget Riquer. The Puget Museum hosts temporary exhibitions, too, so it is always worth having a look in advance at the artwork they will be displaying.

The Necropolis of Puig des Molins

This massive necropolis houses over 3,000 tombs that date back to the Phoenician era and the era of the Punics (Carthaginians). Exhibited in the Monographic Puig des Molins Museum, the magnificence of this archaeological find is only bettered by the tremendous collection housed at the museum – a collection consisting of the Phoenician, Punic and Roman artifacts found in Ibiza. It is here that you will discover the depth of Dalt Vila’s history.

dalt-vila

Es Caná and Santa Eulalia

These two resorts are great places to utilize as a base to explore Dalt Vila. Es Caná is a relatively small resort that is relaxed and friendly but with a lively air thanks to the popular weekly Hippy Market. Santa Eulalia, on the other hand, is a quieter destination popular with families and gastronomes, what with its long-established reputation as the culinary centre of the island. Both have golden beaches to enjoy as well.

Fine Dining

Talking of fine dining, eating in Dalt Vila is also an easy affair with a plethora of fine restaurants to choose from. The dishes to try are the two delicious traditional specialties: guisat de peix, which is a fish stew, and peix sec, which is dried fish.

Even more wonders

There are even more wonders to discover in Dalt Vila, this brief guide does not even scratch the surface of the treasures that await you. From the awe-inspiring castle that stands on top of the acropolis, to the sixteenth century fortified walls that embrace the unique architecture, to the monumental Sacred Heart of Jesus, to the many nearby beaches, Ibiza’s old town is a richly rewarding experience. Just remember to take a comfy pair of shoes, for the simple pleasure of a romantic walk with stunning views is what Dalt Vila does best.

​​Image by Michela Simoncini, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Ibiza and the Islands are on my short list for next year – though partying with a newborn is not happening. Any great tips for food, sites or excursions?

What to Do in Alcalá de Henares: the City of Cervantes

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid over 400 years ago.

If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you’ve likely been force-fed the adventures of a wayward knight whose fantasies took over his perceptions of daily life. These days, my fantasies have been about getting out and exploring my new city and its surrondings.

So it seemed only fitting to make our first day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to his and contributions to the Spanish language and its literature. I’d visited Alcalá on a biting cold April afternoon in 2013; this time, the Novio and I chose a clear day in mid-July to escape the heat in La Capi.

Sunshine and Siestas in Plaza Cervantes

My sense of direction is far sharper than my common sense, so my feet led us right into the historic center and to the Plaza de Cervantes. Ringed with benches and Spanish abuelos (Do I need to tell you that I fell in love with the city immediately?), it sidles up to the university, historic city and Calle Mayor, and is crowned by the former Santa María la Mayor church.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcalá

Plaza de Cervantes Alcalá

Alcalá is actually a town of 200,000, making it a city by Spain standards. But on a long weekend in the middle of summer, the city itself was about as dead as Cervantes – plazas and bars were empty and shops closed. And without a plan or interest in ducking into a museum, we did little else than stroll from plaza to bar to plaza.

Houses n Alcalá de Henares

Don Quijote in Alcalá

The historic center itself is small and easily walkable, a pleasant cross between the squat, wood-laden buildings conserved from the 16th Century and a modern city with a cutting-edge educational institution.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world and became the first planned university city, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage nod. Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and fascinating history of the campus (and it’s under 5€ if you have a carnet joven!) and the role it still has in Spain’s educational system. Oh, and it’s pretty.

University of Alcalá de Henares

Facade of the Complutense in Alcalá

The Novio and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, stumbling upon sun-dappled plazas and retracing the footsteps of Cervantes, Caredenal Cisneros and other prominent Spanish figures. Alcalá was also the city in which the Catholic Kings conceded a meeting to Christopher Columbus and agreed to study his claim that the world was, indeed, not flat.

Calle Mayor Alcalá de Henares

We sidled up to the bar at Bar Índalo, an institution known for its generous free tapas. Most bars give heaping plates of snacks to its student population, but we were más que comidos for less than 12€ and chose tapas rather than having something shoved in front of us. If there’s one thing that Madrid does better than Seville, it’s free bites with your drink (and vermouth. I am an old man when it comes to alcohol).

Tapas at Indalo Alcalá de Henares

Visiting the city following a springtime trip to see the Manchego windmills that Don Quijote thought to be giants, the hallmarks of El Príncipe de los Genios were evident, from statues of the Man of La Mancha to bars hailing Sancho Panza, the voice of reason in Cervantes’s most famous title. It certainly gave me context to the man who wrote the Spanish novel I’ve yet to tackle (I’ve had a 400th Anniversary edition for nearly a dozen years).

Alcalá de Henares

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 or C7 line from Atocha – roundtrip is about 7,20€. Large city festivals include the Día Cervantino on September 9th and Día del Libro on April 23rd, the day marking both Cervantes and Shakespeare’s deaths.

Have you ever been to Alcalá de Henares or another UNESCO World Hertiage site in Spain? My university town is a UNESCO Literary City, and I’m kind of a book nerd, so please share below!

The Truth About Traveling in Sicily

“This is the part of Catania I wanted you to see,” the Novio cooed as we passed a fifth consecutive butcher windows displaying carne di equino. To be fair, I’d seen little else than the local airport, a roadside bar and enough near-traffic accidents to turn me off from getting into a car in Sicily. And now, before we’d hit the beautiful Piazza del Duomo or even had a slice of pizza, my husband had brought me to the back streets of the immigrant section of Siciliy’s second city. It was not what I had anticipated on a weekend I let him have complete control over.

Italy has never been to foreign a concept to me – my mom studied in Rome in the late 70s and brought her love for the Eternal City back to Chicago by way of spaghetti and meatballs and an addiction to ice cream. But traveling in Sicily is not for the novice traveler or faint of heart. I felt exhilarated as many times as frustrated and that it was equally the most beautiful place on earth and a dump. But overall that I’d barely scratched the surface (and one cannoli in three days is simply not acceptable).

The Truth AboutTraveling in Sicily

Sicily is like every place you’ve been, and nowhere you’ve ever been

I was unimpressed with Sicily at first glance. The chevron shaped island didn’t have any destinations I could recall outside of Palermo, and the little research I’d done online left me with only a few places jotted down on the inside of a book cover. I was willing to let the Novio recreate Driving Miss Wifey and usher me around.

After a harrowing ride into the heart of Catania, we parked nearly two kilometers from the attractions. The Novio led me down darkened alleyways that reeked of garbage and urine until we’d reached Via Plebiscito. Catania was shabby, with lopsided houses teetering amongst overgrown bushes and converted car parks. We saw no one until we’d reached the main drag, which, at nearly 8pm on a Friday night, was buzzing with commercial activity. 

Catania street scenes

To me, this slice of the city felt like the roadside markets of Jaipur, with butchers and barbers sharing sidewalk space. Vespas weaved in and out of the sidewalk displays of plastic toys and ripe vegetables. Shopkeepers yelled at one another across the busy street. It was as much Jaipur as it was Istanbul, feeling familiar for a city I’d only begun to know. 

And Catania continued to surprise me – its city piazzas had me reminiscing about its northern counterparts. Its shopping streets might as well have been Madrid or Paris. The pizza we ate as good as I remember it in Naples, fifteen summers earlier.

streets of Catania, Italy

The following day, as we drove to Siracusa and Agrigento, the landscapes changed dramatically, from neat olive groves that neatly backed up to rolling hills – just like in Andalucía – to towering hills crowned with castles. Sicily could have been Tuscany or it could have been the Côte d’Azure. It could have been the Greek countryside. It could have been Northern Africa. 

Yet at the time, Sicily was unlike any of these places as far as flavor and flair. The natives we came across were jovial, and we were never scammed or overcharged. I could barely find a place to buy a postcard. Maps are unreliable, and I found one person that spoke enough English for me to ask and be answered. Sicily is a little more “off the beaten path” than you’d expect, especially once you’re out of the ports of call.

Sicily felt worlds away from the Italy I’d gotten to know in three previous trips, anchored to the boot by little else than the common language and the pizza. It’s like the underbrush, or the boonies, as far as Italy is concerned. And for as backwards as it seemed, the way Sicilians live all made sense.

Let’s just say that when boarding my plane on Sunday, I didn’t feel ready to go.

Driving is like dangling your mortality right in front of the devil

I was clued into the manic driving practices in Italy when I was 15 and was nearly taken out by a moped in Naples. Half a lifetime later, as we pulled out of the Fontanarossa Airport, I said a small prayer to Saint Christopher.

Whoa.

If you’re in a roundabout, be prepared to stop. Don’t trust stoplights. Park where you feel like. Most highways are not lit at night. And Exit ramps are perfectly acceptable places to drive up when you’re not exiting the highway. 

Our Saturday plan was to wake up early and check out the catacombs in Syracuse, the Greek temples in Agrigento and the preserved mosaics in Piazza Amerina. Syracuse was easy enough to reach, but we’d have to return to Catania to reach Agrigento. After an hour on the A-19 that snakes between Catania and Palermo, we turned off just after Enna. As it turned out, the entire section between the motorway and the city famous for its Valle di Templi is under construction – we were driving behind trucks on gravel highways, making it nearly impossible to pass. 

Three hours after leaving Syracuse and air braking until my ankles were sore, we finally arrived, though we’d have to scratch the Villa Romana del Casale off the itinerary. 

Exploring Siracusa Sicily

That said, renting a car is far more reliable than the bus system, and there are few trains that operate between the major sites. I had worked up enough courage to take the car to Piazza Amerina. I got the feeling that the car was made of cheap plastic as it rattled and hummed to life. I immediately stalled. And stalled a second time, vowing to obey speed limits and turn around if necessary.

We had looked in earnest for a gas station when driving back from Agrigento, and let me warn you – Italian highways are not the places to run out of gas. Though I had one-third of a tank when leaving Catania, within 50 kilometers, there were no bars left, only a piercing beep every ten seconds.

Syracuse Italy

Like getting stranded in Romania, I was glad to not be a novice traveler. I remembered seeing a service station the day before, just past the turn off for Piazza Amerina. I was nearly confident that I could make it the 12 kilometers, but my heart was racing. I had bought data, so I could Skype the rental car company and try to speak to them in Spanish. The Novio was working until noon, four hours from that moment. I had a credit card to pay a towing company.

I watched the miles tick down to the service station, pulling up to a self-service station. “CHIN-QWEN-TI…espera,” I spit out, cramming my hand into my pocket and looking for a scrap of paper with the word for unleaded gas, “BENZINI.”

“Benzina,” the attendant corrected as another washed my windshield. Whatever.  

fusball table

I grew more confident in the car, taking turns past Pergusa with more speed, eventually arriving to the Villa Romana del Casale, my third UNESCO World Heritage site of the weekend. I’d long given up the use of the Italian GPS and instead used my phone’s. After an hour traipsing around 2500-year-old mosaics, I jumped back in my car, set to avoid the steep climb through postcard-esque Amerina.

I was again taken through dirt roads to reach the highway, convinced the plastic car would fall apart around me, cartoon style. I won’t even get into the thrill ride that was the trip to Acitrezza that afternoon – my eyes were transfixed on the GPS! 

The colors are more vibrant than you’d imagine

I was still in a haze from an overnight trip and two planes when I touched down at Fontanarossa Airport, and Mount Etna was veiled in its own smoke. After a nap, I gasped at how regal the volcano was, midnight blue against a clear day with smoke curling out of the top.

Sicily and Italian flags

Sicily has some serious bragging rights when it comes to the rich colors of its landscape. My book stayed packed in my purse as we drove through low-hanging vineyards and climbed steep mountains will houses and church spires dripping down and rolling towards the Mediterranean. This place is seriously jaw-dropping. The smoky ombre of ancient buildings, the dusty green of cyprus trees, and turquoise blue of the ever-present sea.

The outskirts of Syracuse, known as Siracusa locally, are nothing exciting, but its city center is spectacular. Once the center of commerce on the Ionian Sea, the city has 2,700 years of history and was one of the few places we saw Anglo tourists. Think cobbled alleyways, massive fountains and a spotless marble Duomo. 

Duomo de Siracusa

center of Syracuse, Italy

Valle dei Templi, which we arrived at just after 4pm, shone in the waning light.

Greek temple in Sicily

Valle dei Templi Argigento

And Acitrezza, a small beach neighborhood with port side osterias and craggy black rocks, enchanting.

port of acitrezza

I only wish we could have has a panini or arancini with these views!

Sometimes, you have to make your own plan

I’d been warned that Sicily was kind of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure type of place. Reliability was not necessarily something to be expected, and that frustrations were rampant. Because I hadn’t done the planning, I was ready to roll with the punches.

mosaics at Villa Casale Romana

Food was the first – I’d been on an overnight trip, and my cheese bocadillo was a thing of the pat by the time I hit Fiumicino and chowed down a croissant and a macchiato. The Novio had been raving about a pizza place across from the first hotel he’d stayed at, but the place was shuttered for the winter season. It was either loading up on pastries, or eating at a hit-or-miss restaurant down the road.

We went with the latter, and it was a hit. Five tables were crammed into what looked like the family’s living room, and there was no menu. We had four pieces of bruschetta placed in front of us as soon as we’d sat down, plus a plate of pasta piled high with clams, shrimp and fresh parsley, followed by a plate heaped with fried fish. I fell into a coma-like nap later, and it would be the first in a series of small victories that were almost immediately followed by a travel mishap.

Typical Sicilian Fare

The most notable: when we finally made it to the Valle dei Templi after several wrong turns, dirt highways and slow-moving vehicles (and maybe a few near accidents), I was over seeing Greek temples – that’s why I’d gone to Athens. At the foot of a ridge lined with cyprus trees, the columns of the Temple of Heracles pierce the sky, so we drove up the road adjacent to them.

“No, no, you must to pay parking at the next road,” a souvenir stand attendant said. There were bus loads of cruise guests and a very exasperated Novio. Looking at his watch, he announced that we’d never make it to Piazza Amerina before it closed, but that he didn’t care to pay the entrance fee for the temples. I suggested the castle at Enna, but he flashed his teeth and grabbed my hand.

Valle dei Templi walking paths

Construction signs blocked a walking path that would have otherwise been open. I devised a “play dumb” plan should we get caught, but after around 300 metros, the path led to the Temple of Concordia. We spent over an hour walking around the seven temples and the ruins of Olympeion Field, snickering to ourselves when passing guards and other tourists. 

Sicily wanted to play hardball with us, so we threw them a curveball and did things according to our terms.

Valle dei Templi Sicily

We got the payback the following day: first with my no gasoline coasting, and then in Acitrezza when we couldn’t find a place to eat, much less have a beer with a view. We ended up at a self-service bar with overcooked pasta. You win, Sicily.

Much like the south of Spain, Southern Italy is its own place. It’s more rugged, more of a challenge. But it’s delicious and sensual and downright different to most of the other places tourists flock to. I’d love to make a trip back – if only because I didn’t get to eat nearly enough.

Have you ever been to Sicily? What did you like about it? Check out my Bobby Pin map of the places I saw (and where I ate) in Western Sicily for more!

How a River Boat Changed My Mind About Cruises

My two experiences on cruises were enough to have me docked on dry land forever: at 9, we braved the Big Red Boat’s Disney cruise, where I was too old for the kiddie activities and too obnoxious to hang with my parents near the pool; seven years later, I became the babysitter to all of my younger cousins while everyone else spent the night at the disco.

My dad had been looking into river cruises since I’d announced I was moving back to Europe, gathering information on routes and rivers, sharing tips on saving money for a cruise and mapping out a time when all four of us would have overlapping vacation time. I kicked and screamed digitally, instead convincing them to do Ireland, Northern Spain and even Morocco.

how a

An itinerary for the so-called Danube Waltz popped up in my inbox two years ago, announcing that my parents would be meeting me in Munich for eight days of river cruising past castles, vineyards and quaint villages stuck in time along Europe’s most fabled river. I lost out and continued digitally screaming and kicking as the countdown to our trip ticked from months into weeks.

I was skeptical, having become more jaded about travel and packaged tours, and cruises had seemed like a cop out for people who couldn’t be bothered planning their own vacation. But I hadn’t seen my family in a year and was eager to visit Vienna again and experience Budapest in the wintertime. 

Viking Magni Ship

A few months later, I picked my parents up at Franz Joseph Strauβ and set off for Passau, the City on Three Rivers. It was Christmas Eve and we’d missed the markets, several shops and bars were still open so we could stretch our legs before setting off.

A Luxury Experience at a 2-1 Deal

The company runs amazing deals, offering two-for-one cabin rates and airfares. Sure, it’s pricey when you add it all up, but the devil was in the details. A state-of-the-art longboat, comfortable and stylish cabins (even our double in steerage!) and a fleet of friendly staff sets the company apart.

viking state rooms

Oh, and they spend THREE TIMES the money on food per passenger than the average ocean liner! Between free local beers and wines, incredible bar snacks (and a barkeep who just handed us an entire bag of them when he saw us on approach) and regional dishes on every mealtime menu, we practically rolled down the gangway each morning at port.

Customer service was also willing to discount my airfare from Spain and still honor the two-for-one discount – a gold star in my book.

Breaking the Cruise Rules

Two of my biggest issues with cruises are the schedules and the forced sense of community that entertainment directors try to create. Choosing a river cruise meant far less people aboard and more interaction between my family and the staff.

Each afternoon before dinner, we had a briefing on the next day’s city and entertainment of some sort, but that was it. Dinner tables were not assigned and there were no required meetings – instead, a schedule, optional activities and language guide was left on our beds by housekeeping each morning. My sister and I spent plenty of time catching up in our state room over local beers and a barrage of movies available on our TV when at see, or my dad and I sat on the upper deck, bundled up, to watch the castles perched atop cliffs float by.

Cruising on the Danube

Melk Abbey

I’d long thought that these sorts of cruises, which feature older people in their publicity, were for the AARP crowd, but we had about a dozen of us between 18 and 30. No disco, casino or gift shop aboard – these spaces were filled with elegant viewing decks, a library full of books in several languages and larger rooms for passengers.

History, not just Beaches and Booze

My travel style has evolved greatly over the past few years – I went from ticking places off a never-ending list to focusing on more local and meaningful travel – and immersion is important to me. I spend my euros on visiting cities and not beaches, which is one of the reasons that cruising has never appealed to me much.

Being Christmastime in Europe, we packed long underwear and thermal shirts rather than sunscreen, so we were already on the right track.

alleyways in Vienna Austria

munich christmas market gluhwein

Vienna at nightfall

The cruise company’s curated activities included making gingerbread in Passau, visiting home stays outside Bratislava and wine tasting near Dürnstein. We’d take advantage of morning tours with guides over walkie talkies and then meander until we found a place for lunch and a beer. Afternoons once we’d lifted the anchor meant food demonstrations, lectures on composers and local lore, or even optional tours of monuments. 

Local Guides and no Required Activities

The company uses local guides – we had a university lecturer guide us past Rococco buildings in Passau, a grade school teacher and life-long resident of Bratislava recount stories of a Communist upbringing and our cruise director himself gave us tips for his favorites cafés and food markets in Budapest. Even with just a few hours in the cities we visited, we skipped over the glossy tourist spots and went straight to the heart of a city.

christmas market in Salzburg Austria

Plus, we were given 100% freedom to take the tours or not, and those we did take were done via Whisperbox. No annoying umbrellas, recited monologues or enormous groups – and in each port-of-call, we found ourselves with different families. We skipped Vienna’s bus tour to see the Spanish Horse Riding School and have lunch with my cousin and passed on a guided tour of Salzburg’s city center in favor of the merry Christmas market adjacent the cathedral.

Family in Budapest

Our trip through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary (uh, and then my jaunt in Romania) felt like a perfectly planned vacation that we didn’t have to actually plan ourselves that still left room for us to make the trip our own. The pace, comfort and customer service was unbeatable.

While in Chicago this summer, I flipped through the 2016 promotional brochure, which announced open seas trips to Scandanavia. Maybe it’s time to start considering cruising vacations.

Have you ever done a river cruise? What were your impressions, and where did you go?

Kotor Revisited, and How to Deal with a Travel Slump

Kotor was moody and fickle. Storm clouds – dark and heavy – threatened to ruin our hike, but midway up the mountain, the temperature had surged five degrees, leaving me sweaty for a picture proclaiming I’d reached my 30th country.

MEXICO

But, joder, she was worth the wait.

I’ve always traveled with a heightened sense of awareness – most notably, with my five senses. I can nearly savor the fried grasshoppers in Beijing or hear the call to prayer in Marrakesh (maybe those are just the annoying church bells at my local parish). In Kotor, though, I felt nearly numb to anything else but sight.

Emerald water and beet red roofs contrasted the ominous grey mountains that wrapped around the bay and the slate houses. Small boats bobbed as the waters lulled and lapped against the port. The mountains seemed hung from the sky.

picturesque Montenegro

Our road trip around Europe’s newest country had very loose rules. From our base in Herceg-Novi, we spent a few days doing our normal travel thing:  wake up, drive the car around until something pretty caught our eye, gorge on cevapi sandwiches and local beers (and the addictive JOST! snacks). 

The weather turned from bad to worse as we descended on Montenegro via Dubrovnik, including a hail storm and power outage once we reacher Herceg-Novi on empty stomachs. Each day, we’d simply drive out of town on the main road, keeping the Bay of Kotor on the right hand side of the vehicle and tick towns off the map: Perast, Tivat, Budva.

Fog over Kotor Montenegro

The undisputed jewel of the Montenegran Adriatic is Kotor. An unblemished Old Town, traces of Venetian, Ottoman and Napoleanic prowess and a varied population make it a popular destination and UNESCO World Heritage city.

2013 was a red-letter one for me as a professional and as a traveler, but only now, two years after our trip, do I feel like I found Kotor to stir up some weird feelings in me.

Historic Center of Kotor

Arriving in the early morning, we were told to take the stairs out of town that led to the old fortifications and a smattering of old Via Crucis and roadside temples. The 1350 steps were steep and the humidity hung heavy over our heads. Layer by layer, I took off my scarf and blazer as we climbed closer towards the castle and the gradually lightening sky.

Always privy to climb to the highest point of any given city to see it from above, Kotor didn’t disappoint. I probably blinked a few times. Like Dubrovnik, the views were storybook, like something I’d seen on social media and had dreamed up. 

The Bay of Kotor and mountains

The rain held off enough, but the dark clouds of the morning seemed to have cleared up in the sky, but were beginning to cloud my thoughts. I took my obligatory picture at the top, under a red flag emblazoned with a black eagle. Thirty countries, jaw-dropping views…and I was rather blasé about it.

Back in town, we tucked into a cheap local beer and greasy pizza slices before wandering the small but stunning well preserved old town. I can’t recall many details from the afternoon, save the pristine city streets juxtaposed with the jagged rock face of the surrounding mountains, the cats leaping onto café chairs, the domes of the Orthodox churches. My sight prevailed, but I failed to catalogue sounds or smells or even a local taste.

Nothing exciting, nothing unordinary, nothing particularly great or not great describes my day in Kotor, and even the way I’m beginning to feel about travel.

Historic Kotor, Croatia

Kotor marked a beginning and an end, in a way. Since I was 20, I’d longed to travel to world and learn a language or two. I told myself 25 by 25 would suffice, and pulling into an abandoned bus terminal in Prague at the break of dawn before my 25th birthday meant I’d have to rethink my goal.

Afterwards came Romania, Turkey, Andorra, and Montenegro (and then Slovakia and India), and I surpassed that goal before turning 28. A beginning to more mature travel and an end to constant moving.

Boats on the Bay of Kotor

I’ll be 30 in less than two months, with a mortgage and a new husband to boot. Travel hasn’t lost its sheen completely, but my preferred web sites are decidedly devoid of budget airline sites. I still get delight out of pinning places and reading blog posts about travel gear and news apps and far-flung destinations, but I’ve strangely not had much urge to travel.

A close friend asked me recently about my upcoming travel plans and I realized I hadn’t been on a plane sine January, and that was to Barcelona. That my airline miles on AA had expired from disuse. That my rolling suitcase had collected dust. I’m not packing up my passport, but then again, I’m not 100% certain as to its whereabouts.

St Tryphon Cathedral Montenegro

Since money again became a concern after the house (those things cost a lot of money to maintain – who knew?), my trips have been limited to weekends and any place I can reach by car. That’s meant a bachelorette party in Málaga, a solo hike on the Caminito del Rey, scattered weekends in Madrid or San Nicolás. For someone ready to comerse el mundo, it’s a weird – albeit welcome – feeling.

Back in Kotor, we bought and wrote postcards, sipped free beers as we checked our emails and caught up on Facebook, occasionally popping into a shop or craning our necks for a photo. But, as a destination, it garnered a mere, ‘meh.’

Shutters in the center of Kotor

I didn’t have any profound or life-shattering epiphanies upon reaching my 30th country before turning 30, just as I didn’t find enlightenment in India (just a stomach virus and a love for tuk tuks) nor did I figure out the meaning of life on the Camino de Santiago. For the woman who vowed to never feel tied down, I found that I needed a limit, a destination that failed to wow me, a place that made me choose how to spend my money. Kotor was undeniably beautiful, but lacked spark. 

I have no big trips on the horizon, and even our post-wedding road trip to New Orleans is an afterthought for me. Walking back over the Triana bridge on a balmy late spring night, I felt tears fill my eyes as the sun was setting. The gentle buzz of traffic, the smell of churro grease, the cobblestones under my feet.

As it turns out, my senses feel most alert in the very place I live, so I think I’ll be sticking around here for a while.

Have you ever experienced a travel slump? How did you overcome it?

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