A weekend in Krakow

Ah fall. The crispness in the air, leaves changing color, the return to the hearty foods that make the lack of warm weather bearable…

 

 

And vacation. Yes, one of the many perks of being a teacher in this country. Just when la rentrée winds down, it’s time for another two-week holiday.

 

 

I’m spending most of this holiday at home (because I still have a dissertation to write…joy), but I did plan out some time to get away for a quick weekend.

 

 

 

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I guess the first question would be ‘Why Krakow?” and the answer to that would be, well, because Eastern Europe has been a bit of a theme in my travels as of late, and I thought, why break with tradition?

 

 

It also has a lot to do with where I went on the morning of my second full day there, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

 

 

 

Basically, though, what with it being fall break and all (yay for a little break from teaching), what I ideally wanted was a weekend somewhere that screamed autumn (as in, lovely foliage) and where I could indulge in some food that I only ever get in the mood to eat when it’s nice and crisp outside and my belly needs fuel for warmth.

 

 

 

So, Poland it was. And because Krakow was selected as the European capital of gastronomy for 2019 (yes, that’s a thing and it’s wonderful), the decision was pretty much set. I knew just a bit about Polish food from having been exposed to some of it (read: pierogi, kielbasa and Polish vodka) back in the States, so I was very much looking forward to experiencing more of it.

 

 

 

Spoiler alert: Krakow is a very excellent food city, and may have just topped my (very short, since there are only three items on it) list of food tours I have done. More on that in a bit, though. For now, in order, the things I did.

 

 

 

 

Thursday:

 

I arrived at the airport early in the afternoon, meaning there was plenty of time for some early exploring before dinner. After taking a cab into town (I had just missed the train into the city center and the next one wasn’t due for another hour…), I checked into my private room at the Secret Garden Hostel. Actually, “hostel” is a bit of a misnomer. This place was not only incredibly clean, quiet and updated, it also had probably one of the most comfortable beds I had ever slept on in a hostel (or even in a hotel for that matter).

 

 

 

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The theme was “Mint Sorbet”

 

 

 

Really though I am not lying when I say I wanted to roll the thing up and transport it here.

 

 

 

The hostel is located in the Kazimierz district, known as the Jewish quarter, as well as the place to go out for dinner/drinks and get a general feel for Krakow’s cultural life for both locals and visitors. Ongoing construction on the main street cutting through the neighborhood made getting around a bit tricky, but other than that, staying there was positively delightful (and delicious).

 

 

 

My first food stop wasn’t in Kazimierz, however. Instead, I walked all the way up to Old Town and over to Gorace Paczki for a traditional Polish donut filled with rose jam. I grabbed a seat on an empty bench in the park nearby and dug into the still-warm pastry. Fluffy, yeasty, with just the right amount of jam filling to be stuffed without exploding everywhere, this treat was the best way to start my trip, and a definite step-up from the last jelly donut I had before this (which I’m pretty sure was from Dunkin Donuts…). The best bit, however, was that it only cost 3.5 zloty, or $0.91.

 

 

 

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Oh yeah, for travelers on a budget, Poland is definitely a good place to check out.

 

 

 

After devouring my donut, I had a bit of time to kill before my dinner reservation (for 1, ha!), so I spent it basically walking around the park that encircles the Old Town. I found out on the walking tour I took the next day that the park, designed during the period when Krakow was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, replaced the walls that formerly surrounded the city, but that evening, my biggest priority was taking pictures of every tree, trying to capture some of that golden color I’ve missed so much.

 

 

 

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As mentioned earlier, my dinner that night was a solo endeavor in a sit-down, slightly above casual restaurant, something I have managed to avoid in all my other trips before this one. Don’t get me wrong, I actually have eaten dinner out by myself before, but there is a difference between doing it somewhere I am familiar with (as in, here at either my neighborhood dumpling place, or the slightly less nearby ramen place by the BNF), versus in a place where I have never been and don’t know anyone (or the language, for that matter).

 

 

 

 

But I wanted something cozy, and Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (or Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz) delivered that. Yes, the restaurant is a bit more touristy than what I might otherwise go for, but the food was good, there were candles on the table (a bit of a theme in Krakow and Kazimierz in particular, I soon found out, and one of my favorite little details about the neighborhood I chose to stay in), the décor was just the right amount of kitsch, and there was live music.

 

 

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For my dinner, I ordered roast duck breast with cranberry sauce, potatoes, and side salad as well as a glass of wine. It cost me less than $20 total, not bad for my “treat yourself” meal! If I hadn’t been so full (seriously, the portion sizes were very generous), I may have even ordered a small dessert.

 

 

 

 

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The interior at Eszeweria

 

 

 

Instead of heading straight back to the hotel to sleep after dinner, however, I ended up walking a couple of streets over to Eszeweria, a cozy (more candles!) bar on Józefa street. The weather wasn’t quite cold enough to call for it, but I decided to order a mulled beer anyway because why the hell not. And so my night wound down with some reading by candlelight, clearly as good an indicator as any that this weekend was getting started on the right foot.

 

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Friday:

 

 

It was an early wake-up for me this morning (another habit I have during my solo trips), as I wanted to get a good breakfast (and coffee) in before heading out on the first of the two free walking tours I wound up taking while here. For my breakfast, I walked about a half hour north of my hostel, towards Krakow’s main train station, to check out Wesola Café, a spot that had come up in my research into the local coffee scene. The café was pretty packed when I got there, but I managed to snag a spot by the window to enjoy my filling breakfast of warm, spiced millet with fresh fruit accompanied by a very much needed flat white.

 

 

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After polishing off my breakfast, I walked the short distance over to the former gate into the Old Town to meet up with my walking tour (organized with Walkative). Our two hour excursion took us through several sites, such as:

 

 

The aforementioned Barbicon gate:

 

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The central market square, featuring (in order) Saint Mary’s Basilica, Cloth Hall, and the lone remaining tower of what was once Krakow’s town hall

 

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Ok cheating a bit: this photo is actually from when I first arrived on Thursday.

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Poland’s first university (founded by King Casimir the Great)

 

 

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Before finally ending at Wawel castle

 

 

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As far as free tours go, I would recommend this one, but I was not exactly the biggest fan of the guide who was a bit more brief in his explanations of things than I would have liked (this is personal preference though). That’s kind of par for the course when it comes to these things, and I will say that I had a much better experience with the guide on the second tour (moral of the story: try and go for current/former history students). Plus, it did kill about two hours of the day, which was good since I didn’t have anything else planned until much later in the afternoon.

 

 

 

Still, it was only just after noon when the tour let out, so there was a little question about what to do in the meantime. This issue was promptly resolved with a brisk walk across the river and to the Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art. Now, those of you who look up the museum on Google Maps will notice that it is located just next door to Oskar Schindler’s former factory (now a museum with a permanent exhibition on WWII and the Holocaust). I ended up not going to visit the factory on this trip, instead opting for the decidedly less crowded art museum, which at the moment was also hosting several exhibitions on or around the Holocaust.

 

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I managed to kill another couple of hours browsing around here, leaving me plenty of time to walk back to my room, rest up for a quick minute, and then head out again to my next activity (and the reason why I skipped lunch that day).

 

 

 

Yes, everyone, it was time for my food tour.

 

 

 

Unlike the other two tours I have taken on my solo travels thus far, this one (Delicious Kazimierz operated by Delicious Poland Food Tours) did not center around touring a market but rather on visiting different places in the Kazimierz neighborhood. One of the advantages of this approach is that it puts visitors in contact with locally-run places at the same time as it showcases what the city/Poland have to offer, culinarily-speaking. I can happily say that I ended up adding a couple of places to my mapstr after taking the tour (for when I eventually come back, of course). The group was relatively small (12 total, including the guide), and the overall atmosphere was very convivial, I’d say more so than the other two tours I had been on previously in Budapest and Riga.

 

 

Though the beer and vodka may have also helped a bit with that.

 

 

 

And it was definitely a good thing that I came hungry too because I was positively STUFFED afterwards. Here’s a brief rundown of what we tried.

 

 

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Four different kinds of pierogi, including potato and cheese, mushroom and cabbage, spinach, cheese and garlic, and “sweet” plum with sour cream. Those are the potato/cheese pierogi (also known as Russian-style pierogi) in the photo.

 

 

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Several different Polish tapas like herring, smoked kielbasa (this is the way it’s traditionally eaten here, so a big difference from the kielbasa in the States), grilled mountain cheese with cranberry sauce, pickles, and sliced Cracowian bagels topped with mushrooms or apples and thin slices of lard. These were also accompanied by a tasting of two different vodkas: the famous bison-grass vodka that is usually taken as a shot (and pairs very well with the herring) and then a digestif vodka flavored with quince that is meant to be sipped.

 

 

 

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Zapiekanka, a sort of Polish pizza made from a baguette topped with cheese, mushroom, ketchup (yes, this was invented around the 80s, so there’s an explanation for everything) and chives. The nosh of choice for folks here after a night out (though kebab is starting to make some inroads).

 

 

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Two different craft beers locally brewed by an organization who uses the proceeds from their sales to fund bear conservation in the mountains where the beer is made. If you’re ever in Krakow, I recommend checking Ursa Maior out for yourself.

 

 

 

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Then it was on to dinner which featured two soups (sourdough soup and beetroot soup with meat dumplings) followed by a variety of mains: potato pancakes with Polish-style goulash and sour cream to top them with, hunter’s stew (sort of like a choucroute garnie in that its main components are cabbage and pork products), and cabbage stuffed with beef/veal and rice and topped with tomato sauce.

 

 

 

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And because we weren’t already almost full to the brim, there were also apple fritters with a sour cream and red fruits dipping sauce.

 

 

 

You’d think I would have just rolled myself back to my room after this (the hostel was only two minutes away), but instead I decided to have a nightcap at Alchemia, a local bar with an underground venue that happened to be hosting a series of jazz concerts that weekend.

 

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I won’t say too much about this other than it was very experimental jazz. Like, incredibly so. If I could post sound clips on here, I would, but for now, just imagine a dude playing a guitar with a teacup, and you’ll get what I mean.

 

 

 

It was an overall early night though because the next day I had to get up incredibly early (well, actually earlier than even I had originally anticipated, since a headache that had been ‘nagging’ me all day decided to kick into high gear that night…joy).

 

 

 

Saturday:

 

 

 

I started my early (as in out of the hostel by 06h15 early) morning by marching over to the only 24hr pharmacy I could find within a reasonable vicinity, picking up some ibuprofen, grabbing a coffee and apple muffin from one of the only bakeries open that early that was also on my planned route, and then hopping on a charter bus. The bus was part of the other reason for my deciding to spend the weekend in Krakow. Rather than touring more of the city, I was going to spend the morning on a guided visit of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

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The memorial site

 

 

Coming to visit this site has been on my mind for a number of years now, but it gained a sense of urgency with the current state of things in the world. I have no immediate connection to the site. Going was, instead, more about furthering my own education. Prior to this, I had never visited a site of a once-active concentration camp. I had, however, visited several museums and exhibits dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, the most affecting of these having been the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. I was fourteen then, and it was while on a trip with my Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember much about that visit, except I think it’s highly likely that my eventual decision to want to visit Auschwitz in person originated there. I think it may have felt something like a responsibility I owed to those who were slaughtered or the comparative few who survived there that someone of my generation go.

 

 

Honestly, it’s a somewhat similar reasoning to one I would give if someone were to ask me if I ever would want to visit a plantation. For the record, I have (in New Orleans), but what was notable about this one, and where I as a visitor ended up spending the most time, was in the former slave quarters where a new exhibit was just getting off the ground, documenting the reality of life in and around that ornament of a house. The younger generation owes it to the past to acknowledge and directly confront moments like this, and then learn from them, even though such a process may be difficult.

 

 

 

With Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, one thing that I had not really counted on as much as I should have was how much “notoriety” it as a memorial/tourist site has built up. Yes, I was very much aware before going on the controversies surrounding the taking of selfies or staged “insta-worthy” photos along the tracks leading to the main gates of Birkenau. Thankfully, I didn’t see any of this on my visit. No, what ended up standing out more during this visit was the number of people who were there in the first place.

 

 

 

 

The question of mass tourism is one that gets brought about often with regards to cities (see: Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik and even many areas of Paris), and I think soon it will have to be reckoned with in regards to sites like this one. On the one hand, more people visiting and educating themselves on the history of the place is good for the spreading of knowledge. On the other hand, sites like this one are not quite the same as ancient ruins or big cities. Sites like this were designed (especially in the case of Birkenau) to torture and kill en masse, and as such, demand a different approach on the part of the visitor.

 

 

 

I’m not saying everyone must go in expecting a profound, life-changing experience. That would be fetishizing the space on a somewhat different level (and commodifying it even further than it already is, in a way). What I will say though is that pushing and shoving (more so from some individual visitors than guided groups as a whole), snapping a photo and moving on without regard for others in the (relatively small) exhibition rooms is a bit much. Of course not everyone will want to linger on everything, but when your guide (who was otherwise very informative) starts getting exasperated and cutting some bits of her lecture short, it tends to put a different perspective on things.

 

 

 

 

The sites can be visited independently or with a licensed guide (what I ended up doing). If I had to do it again, I would have likely tried to find a way to get there myself and done an independent visit. The site at Auschwitz overall is very well-curated, and there are brochures/guidebooks available in several different languages to accompany the already-displayed plaques, should visitors want more information. Due to the difference in building material (bricks here, versus primarily wood in Birkenau), the bunkers here that formerly housed prisoners have been transformed as exhibit spaces and archival storage. Our guide took us through most of the spaces dedicated to specific aspects of the history of the place, but there were several others that, due to time, we were unable to visit as a group. These included former barracks now dedicated to exhibits curated by the different countries prisoners were taken from. It is, in short, a site that demands a few hours of visitation should one want the time to truly engage with everything there (and one should take the time…really).

 

 

 

 

 

Birkenau, on the other hand, was a bit different. Birkenau (at least for me) was when the scope of everything in that space hit the strongest. I don’t know if I can properly explain in words what walking down the central pathway by the train tracks was like, looking out onto a great, open expanse of rows of what were once wooden bunkers, the rows neatly planned out, straight lines, each bunker equidistant from the other. There’s a line of trees at the back, beyond the barbed wire, just behind the memorial, pictured above. And it’s quiet there. And you are very exposed.

 

 

 

We were able to walk there on our own a little bit more before we had to be back on the bus. The time for reflection was welcome, in my case.

 

 

 

 

After getting back to Krakow, I grabbed a small sandwich for lunch (I hadn’t eaten since the morning, and it was already 14h15), before heading to Cloth Hall in the main square for some souvenir shopping (earrings, of course). After making my purchase, I popped upstairs for a quick peek at the 19th Century Polish Art Gallery, a branch of the National Museum of Krakow.

 

And I found a little slice of home there. Honestly, I didn’t even have to read the accompanying placard to know exactly what this painting was depicting.

 

 

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Aleksander Gierymski, “Evening on the Seine” (1893)

 

 

 

While I was walking around the gallery, I decided that I still had it in me (and my legs) to do one last walking tour. A visit in Kazimierz centered around the history of the Jewish community in the city before and after the war (there was another tour focused on the War/the Holocaust, but that was starting in the neighborhood where the former ghetto was located, and a bit too far from where I was) was going to be starting a couple of hours later, giving me plenty of time to grab a little something sweet beforehand.

 

 

 

 

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The Polish-style almond cheesecake from Ciastkarnia Vanilla hit just the spot, considering, again, how very little I had eaten that day.

 

 

 

 

As alluded to earlier, this second tour was provided by the same group as the first, though this time with a different (and more engaging) guide. We started our visit at the Old Synagogue

 

 

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Before moving on to hit some other sites

 

 

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The second oldest Synagogue in the neighborhood

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Unfortunately, a bit too late to visit the Jewish cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, a stop in the courtyard where they filmed some scenes from Schindler’s List was also included (several others in the group seemed rather excited about this bit).

 

 

 

 

And by the time the tour ended, it was dark, and I was starting to feel the first rumblings of hunger for my dinner. So, after a quick stop back into Eszeweria for a cozy glass of wine in a very comfy armchair (and the candles, I still could not get enough of them), I was heading back to the Old Town for one last dinner.

 

 

 

To say that U Babci Maliny is a bit tricky to find is an understatement. I mean, there is a sign above the building whose courtyard (well, courtyard basement) it is housed in indicating that you’ve come to the right place, but when the door to the building seems to lead to a library, it tends to inspire confusion rather than confidence.

 

 

 

Luckily a group of (French, of course, they follow me everywhere) tourists was about to walk in as well so…I followed them in. Once you cross the main hall and enter the courtyard, there is another little sign with the restaurant’s logo, only this time, it’s above the actual entrance.

 

 

 

The name of the place roughly translates to Grandma Raspberry. Staying on theme, immediately to the left of the entryway was an older woman, dressed not unlike the woman in the logo, knitting and pointing patrons in the direction of the dining room. Once inside, it’s pretty casual. You go to the counter, order your food off their (rather extensive) menu, they give you a number, you grab a seat and wait for it to be called out.

 

 

 

I went for some mushroom and cabbage pierogi (boiled, of course, as the food guide from the day before mentioned they should be) with a red cabbage salad on the side, so thankfully my food didn’t take too long to come.

 

 

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And with that, it was back to the hostel, and back to sleep. The next day, I woke up just early enough to make it to Wesola for one final breakfast right when it opened (and before the crowds descended) before hopping on the bus to the airport and flying home.

 

 

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Overall, I am very happy with how this trip went. Honestly, Krakow might just beat out Budapest for my favorite of my solo destinations (at least so far). At the very least, I can honestly say that, as with Budapest, I left Krakow feeling as though I needed to come back and see more of it.

 

 

Or at least to eat more pierogi.

 

 

 

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Spring holiday travels

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

 

 

I feel like April this year was one of those months that snuck right up and right past me. Did I see shows? Yeah, several actually. But I’ve also come to the realization that I may have mentally finalized my ‘performance corpus’, to the point that I am just attending things for my own amusement now (still at the same theatres though). It’s not that I have completely closed myself off to the possibility of a late addition, but needless to say, I haven’t felt as much urgency to blog about the shows I’ve seen than I used to.

 

 

 

 

Besides, now that I have finally received confirmation that I will have completion funding next year, I am feeling a greater urgency to write on the things I already have on deck than adding even more…stuff. Part of the dissertation is, after all, knowing when to stop, recognizing the fact that it is simply not possible to include every single thing (otherwise I’d be doing this for another ten years which…I’m not particularly keen on).

 

 

 

What I have been doing recently, however, is traveling.

 

 

 

 

One of the bonuses about teaching in this country are the numerous 2-week breaks interspersed throughout the school year (basically it’s 6 weeks of instruction, 2 weeks break…it’s lovely). I’m currently in the middle of the second of my two weeks of spring holidays, and unlike with the February holidays, this time I took full advantage of the break to travel a bit.

 

 

 

 

Strasbourg

 

 

 

The first trip was relatively local, as well as to a city I had been to before, though not in the springtime. Several weeks ago, a friend and I decided to plan a short weekend trip, as I was about to start my break, and she had a 4-day weekend. Of course, this being the week of the 20th(aka, Easter), our last-minute train bookings somewhat limited our options (the original idea of spending the weekend in Bruges was verrrrry quickly abandoned). Thankfully, tickets to Strasbourg were still very affordable (especially on the slow line), and as she had never been there, the final decision was almost made for us.

 

 

 

Honestly, though, I think we ended up really lucking out with this trip, if only for how absolutely gorgeous the weather was. Right up to the day we left, the weather apps were predicting at least a bit of rain on the Sunday of our trip (a day we planned to spend walking around the nearby small city of Colmar), but in the end, all we had was sun and maybe a little bit of wind. And though we had to get up very early to catch our 8h20 train, the 4-hour ride was worth it the minute we stepped off the train and out into the bright sunshine. The air smelled cleaner there. The abundance of wisteria in bloom helped with this.

 

 

 

After we checked into our lovely AirBnb in Petite France, we spent the majority of the afternoon walking around and exploring. Lunch that day was at a little Easter fair in front of the Protestant cathedral, where we had the first of the tartes flambées (basically like an Alsatian flatbread) and beers that would be consumed that weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our hunger sated, we commenced a more thorough walking adventure of the historical part of the city, stopping off at the Modern Art Museum to kill some time before heading back to the AirBnb to freshen up before grabbing dinner.

 

 

 

 

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As my only other experiences in Strasbourg were primarily centered around eating my way through Christmas markets, I didn’t have too much in my arsenal in terms of restaurants to visit. Luckily, another friend of mine who used to live in the city was more than happy to provide several recommendations, one of them being Fink’Stuebel.

 

 

 

 

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mmmmm pork

 

 

One thing to note about food in Alsace is that many of the traditional dishes—choucroute, spaetzel, baeckeoffe—are much more well-adapted to the cold winters the region is known for than to the warmer days of spring and summer. However, we still wanted to make sure we took advantage of the opportunity to eat some regional dishes that are not as easily available in Paris, so even though the weather was rather warm, we pretty much said ‘Screw it’ and feasted anyway (it was vacation after all).

 

 

 

 

I opted for a pork knuckle with a side of German potato salad, while my friend chose to try the (incredibly generous/this can’t possibly just be for one person) choucroute garnie—a pile of sauerkraut topped with various pork products. The cozy interior of the restaurant—think dark wood walls, wooden chairs, mismatched water glasses—certainly helped set the atmosphere for the meal, with the carafe of Riesling we chose as an accompaniment only further adding to the enjoyment of the evening. We were lucky enough to book a table on the last day they were open before closing up for the Easter holiday, and clearly the place was very popular because several parties had to be turned away for lack of a reservation. In terms of more traditional Alsatian restaurants, I would highly recommend this one, especially for its location at the edge of Petite France, as well as the quality (and quantity!) of the food that is a far cry from stereotypical ‘tourist traps’.

 

 

 

 

A long day of traveling, coupled with a very copious dinner, meant we didn’t really stay out too late that night, which ended up being not so much of a terrible thing, considering all the walking we did on Easter Sunday. That morning was another early wakeup for us, as well as a short 30-minute train ride to Colmar. Unlike with Strasbourg, this was both of our first times in this small city, and I personally was very giddy about it. I mean, just a quick Google image search will show pictures of what looks like the most adorable fairytale town, and, after my visit, I can confirm that those photos are all incredibly accurate. Colmar is a gem. We spent pretty much all our time making several circles around the old town, and I honestly could have made a couple more, had we not had a train to catch back to Strasbourg.

 

 

 

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There were a couple of spring markets on around the city—possibly to drum up tourism in times that are…not Christmas—and along with the usual food and crafts, there were also some opportunities to meet some farm animals! Because what says spring more than a bunch of baby goats munching on hay (or some particularly—terrifyingly—gigantic pigeons):

 

 

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It probably also won’t surprise anyone if I said that this town is rumored to have been the inspiration behind Belle’s hometown in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast(I mean, really all that’s missing from that opening scene are a couple of kougelhopfs and maybe some pretzels and it’s pretty much set). I think I would like to come back again later in the year to see the city at Christmas, because I can only imagine how quaint all those little houses would look under the glow of some fairy lights (though the very real possibility of the immense crowds that would have to be dealt with is…less than ideal).

 

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At least we got this little Easter sheep for a (momentary) souvenir (honestly though, this looks a lot better than it tasted…there’s a reason these are meant to be eaten with tea or coffee):

 

 

 

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Lunch in Colmar was relatively light (tarte flambée and beer again hehe), so we were more than ready for another big meal once we got back to Strasbourg. Not having made any reservations, we simply scoured Trip Advisor/Yelp looking for places that a) would be open and b) served the dish my friend was really keen on trying: baeckeoffe.

 

 

 

In brief, baeckeoffe is a sort of casserole, traditionally composed of potatoes, onions, mutton, beef, pork, carrots, leeks and Alsatian white wine baked together in a ceramic dish. Much like with the dishes we had tried the night before, this one is definitely more ideally suited for colder weather, but thankfully the evening was cool enough that eating it could still be enjoyable.

 

 

 

We ended up choosing the appropriately-named Le Baeckeoffe d’Alsace for our dinner—a restaurant geared more towards tourists than locals, but which nevertheless provided solid versions of what we were looking for for our evening meal. As with the night before, portions sizes were more than generous, as evidenced by my portion of spaetzel (think mac and cheese, but the cheese is slices of muenster melted directly over the top of the pasta…mmmmm) that could easily have fed three if not four people.

 

 

 

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All of this was, of course, washed down with more Riesling.

 

 

 

After a quick nightcap on the terrace of a nearby bar, it was time to rest our feet again before a final day of walking that Monday.

 

 

 

 

And we really took advantage of the half day we had left in the city to stop off at all the sites we hadn’t visited properly during our first day. We strolled around the cathedral and saw the astronomical clock:

 

 

 

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Then checked out the museum of fine arts just across the cathedral plaza.

 

 

 

 

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Nicolas de Largilliere, “La Belle Strasbourgeoise” (1703)

 

 

 

 

As the weather was still very nice, we followed our visit to the museum with a quick lunch al fresco (where I had a salad because vegetables are necessary), then headed out of Petite France and to the university to check out the botanical garden, where we encountered some very loud frogs (mating season and whatnot).

 

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Hello there lil dude!

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A final beer by the river marked the end of the trip, and before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to the wisteria (whose smell I wish I could just bottle up and take with me everywhere), the cleaner air, and the lack of dog poop and those damn Lime scooters in the middle of every sidewalk (seriously, it’s not that difficult to park the damn scooter on the side of the damn sidewalk so people can actually, I don’t know, walk…). The train ride seemed to go by faster this time—as return trips often do—and before I knew it, I was back home again, though not for long.

 

 

 

 

Riga

 

 

 

 

To get this out of the way early: yes, this was kind of another impulse-buy trip. As with my birthday trip to Budapest, this one came about partially from an itch to see something new, and partially from the general overall ‘blegh’ feeling one gets after being stuck in a place for a while (and also from the mental toll that teaching + the stress of dissertation-related nonsense + personal stuck in a rut/feeling like everything’s coming out only half-baked can have on one’s personal outlook). In short, I was in need of a shake-up.

 

 

 

Around the time I was thinking of booking something, I was also spending my library lunch breaks scrolling through the NY Times Travel section, in particular the 52 Places to Travel to feature. One of the cities listed was Tallinn, which is where I got the idea to center my search on the Baltics in the first place. After getting some tips from friends who had visited the region (special shout-out to Caitlin for her excellent recommendations), as well as a quick search on Kayak, I settled on Riga as my destination, mostly because, at the time of my search, flights to there from Paris were cheaper than flights to Tallinn (otherwise, everything else came out pretty equal).

 

 

 

 

I think I’m also noticing a slight pattern in the destinations I’m being drawn to for my short solo-travel excursions in the sense that I’ve been drawn to cities where there exists a dichotomy (and I would say, at least based on my impressions of Riga, a spatial/aesthetical tension) between the country’s pre-USSR and USSR histories—especially with regards to how the latter is still very present, like a shadow, even as the country itself tries to move forward from it. Traces of Riga’s troubled history—and I’ll take a minute here to stress the fact that not just Riga but the Baltics in general went through quite a bit during both WWII and the Soviet occupation—can be seen almost everywhere, most evidently once one leaves the very charming—though quite touristy—Old Town. Honestly, sometimes it was an observation as simple as noticing the state of a sidewalk or the landscape planning of a park that conjured up a feeling that there was something weighty in the air, if that makes sense. If nothing else, what I did end up leaving the city with was a very strong desire to visit the other two Baltic capitals in future travel excursions, even if I feel like I’ve closed the book on Riga…for now.

 

Don’t mistake that last sentence though. I actually had a very lovely time there. That statement comes more from a feeling of…completeness…I had upon leaving, one that spoke more to a desire to explore outwards, in other parts of the region, than back into that particular city itself.

 

 

 

 

Would I recommend visiting Riga? 100% (and not just because it was crazy affordable).

 

 

 

 

 

See, the food there is also pretty excellent (and may be another reason why I felt more compelled to try and plan trips to Tallinn or Vilnius afterwards than return right away…because if I ate so well in Riga…surely there would be other equally as delightful gastronomical adventures awaiting me in other parts of the region). Of course, it helped that I did some research (of course) before going—as well as booked a tasting tour of the central market—but just based on the number of restaurants on my list that I didn’t manage to try (because one can’t make it to everything in a weekend), I would be rather confident in saying that it is rather easy to have an affordable, seasonal, quality, meal in Riga.

 

 

 

 

That being said, let’s get down to the details.

 

 

 

 

Friday (Day 1).

 

 

 

I arrived in Riga late on Thursday night, around 22h. Prior to leaving Paris, I had arranged with the hostel I was staying at to have a cab meet me at the airport, as I wasn’t sure I would be able to make the last bus into the city center, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of navigating a new city at night after having travelled all day (left Paris in the early afternoon, then had a layover in Stockholm). I wasn’t necessarily worried about anything happening to me, per say—and Riga is a pretty safe city, at least from my personal impressions—but I did want to at least make sure I knew exactly where my hostel was so I wouldn’t waste time navigating. The trip from the airport took about 30minutes and cost 15 euros (pro tip: have cash on you…I did not know this, but thankfully there was an ATM right around the corner from the hostel). Before I knew it, I was flopped down on my bed in my private dorm in Central Hostel, ready for a good night’s sleep (yeah, no, I’m done with hostel dorms).

 

 

The next day, I was up bright and early to do a bit of visiting before joining in one of the two free walking tours I would end up doing on my trip (in addition to the aforementioned food tour). I started my morning off with a black coffee and vegan (yes, vegan) waffles with berries at MiiT Coffee, and trust that I am not exaggerating when I say that the coffee scene in Riga is quite good.

 

 

 

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The coffee that I chose was roasted locally, as well as brewed to order, something that you don’t find very often, especially for the price they charged (around 3 euros). That plus the waffles came out to about 8euros total. Not bad at all.

 

 

 

 

After filling up on breakfast, I made my way to the Latvian National Museum of Art just in time for its opening, and just in time to see the entire permanent collection before having to speed over to the Old Town to catch the tour. Entry to the main collection is only 3euros, with the option of adding a visit to the temporary exhibition halls as well for an additional 3euros. Honestly, I was fine with just sticking to the main exhibition spaces, especially as they spanned about three floors and covered works by Latvian artists from the 18thcentury to the present. I’ve posted some of my favorite works below (Madonna with a machine gunis especially eye-catching):

 

 

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Karlis Padegs, “Madonna with a Machine Gun” (1932)
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Janis Pauluks, “Bulduri School of Horticulture” (1968)

 

 

 

 

 

 

My visit finished, I quickly power walked across the small park in front of the museum and headed into Old Town, just in time to catch the 2.5hr Alternative Riga Walking Tour. This is one of two free tours run year-round by local guides (they offer bike tours for a fee as well, but only from May – September), the second—and shorter—one meeting at 10h and focusing solely on the Old Town. As this one’s name implies, we would be getting a different view of Riga than the usual tourist hot-spots, one that focused more on the sociopolitical history of the country, rather than on the historical architecture of some of the buildings.

 

 

 

While we did spend some time in the Old Town (around 10 – 15min), we left the area pretty quickly to check out other nearby areas of the city, some of which see less tourist traffic, but nonetheless merit a visit. I think my favorite site was the very imposing Academy of Sciences, also known as Stalin’s birthday cake. See, the idea was to build the thing and present it as a gift to Stalin during one of his visits to the city. Construction started in 1951. Stalin died in 1953. Oops.

 

 

 

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The building houses mostly offices now, but there’s also a viewing platform at the top that is open to visitors for a small fee (I didn’t end up going up though).

 

 

 

 

 

It was during this tour that I also—thanks to my eavesdropping—became acquainted with three other solo female travelers: one from Germany, another from Japan, and the third from Taiwan. This was a very pleasant surprise in my visit, not going to lie, especially as one of the things I still struggle with sometimes is actually getting up the nerve to talk to people. Taking the plunge and introducing myself paid off, however, as we all ended up having a late (and very filling) lunch after the tour was over, as well as meeting up again a couple times throughout the weekend.

 

 

 

 

Speaking of lunch, this was had at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, a sort of tavern (in a basement), serving Latvian foods and beers at incredibly affordable prices. For my meal, I had beef shank in dark beer with a cauliflower purée and salad (yay!), along with a half pint of local, unfiltered beer (tasted very similar to some German-style beers I’ve tried):

 

 

 

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And because we weren’t full enough already, we also stopped off at Gelato Italia for some ice cream and espresso:

 

 

 

 

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Pistachio and fiore di latte…mmmmmm

 

 

 

We all went our separate ways for a bit after that, agreeing to meet later that evening for cocktails, and I used my time to stroll around the Old Town a bit and take some photos before the rain that had decided to make a quick stopover while we were indoors having lunch returned again (otherwise the weather was absolutely fantastic).

 

 

 

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It was when I went back to my hostel room to rest my feet and freshen up a bit that I ended up getting one of the best emails I have gotten in a long time…

 

 

 

 

 

My funding for next year is confirmed.

 

 

 

 

Considering how much stress this whole “will I/won’t I” have funding (as well as, in the case of the latter, how the hell am I supposed to scrounge up $25,000 to hand over to Harvard…oh yeah, you all read that correctly) had been weighing on me these past few months, seeing that message almost made me want to bounce off the walls. I was that happy. Needless to say, cocktails that evening at the Skyline Bar atop the Radisson Blu hotel took on, at least for me, a rather celebratory tone. I normally don’t go for cocktail bars like this—or for particularly sweet or flowery cocktails—but I figured, why the hell not.

 

 

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Plus, the view from the 26th floor was pretty fantastic.

 

 

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Saturday (Day 2).

 

 

It was another day of walking (and eating…so much eating) on Saturday, this time with a quick breakfast of barley porridge with jam and a latté at Rocket Bean Roastery, another local coffee roaster. The hearty porridge proved to be a good choice for the morning as well, and not just because I had two tours to look forward to that day.

 

 

 

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I started with the 10h00 Old Town walking tour, one I had not originally planned on doing, but was ultimately convinced based on what the other girls I had met had said about it. And honestly, I had no idea what I would have done otherwise, so I ultimately made a good choice. This time, our guide was someone who had a background in history and urban planning, which proved especially advantageous when discussing some of the…controversies…around some well-known sites in the area (his complaint about how the inscription on the House of the Blackheads should read ‘replica’ instead of ‘restoration’, considering the whole building was pretty much destroyed in WWII and later by the Soviets was both amusing and also…real).

 

 

 

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Going on this tour also proved useful in another way, mostly in how it determined how I would end up spending my time between this (which ended at 11h30) and my Central Market tour at 14h00. The guide was taking questions as the tour wrapped up, during which time someone asked about shopping. I had been looking for places to find some souvenirs (especially locally-made jewelry, since I’ve decided that’s my thing now), but had had no real luck so far. It being Saturday, our guide suggested anyone interested should cross the river and head to the small, but vibrant, Kalnciema Street Market (held only on Saturdays). The walk was about 45 minutes long, but hey, I had time to kill, and figured it would be good to see a different, more local (and yeah, more hipster….ha) part of the city while I had time.

 

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As mentioned, the market was rather small, but there were plenty of vendors packed into the space—a sort of courtyard surrounded by small wooden houses/buildings—, most of whom were selling food. If I didn’t have more eating in my near future, I probably would have bought my lunch right then (or hell, maybe even an ice cream cone…it was pretty warm out), given how tempting all the smoked meats, cheeses, cold salads/dips and pastries looked.

 

 

 

Luckily, there were a number of crafts vendors around who caught my eye as well, and I ended up walking away with two new pairs of earrings.

 

 

 

 

 

By this point, as you can probably imagine, I was feeling very hungry. Thankfully, after another 45minute walk back to the other side of the river, I didn’t have long to wait until my food tour started.

 

 

 

 

As with my food tour in Budapest, this time I was the only person in the group who was traveling solo. Unlike that time, however, this time the group consisted not of me and an older British couple but of me and a group of 8 Swiss-German men out on their yearly guys’ trip. Don’t get me wrong, they were all very nice…I just found the situation hilarious. 8 tall dudes and one tiny me.

 

 

 

 

I’m going to apologize in advance here for the quality of the photos, since the lighting in the market halls wasn’t exactly the greatest, but here’s a basic rundown of everything we tried:

 

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Smoked meats (we tried ham and chicken)!
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Cold beet soup (very refreshing for the unseasonably warm weather)!
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Sweet and savory pastries (we tried a savory one filled with minced pork and lard)
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The aforementioned pork pastry
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Smoked Riga sprats on dark rye bread
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Traditional grey peas (really similar to chickpeas) and bacon (this was one of my favorite things
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Toasted garlic bread with spread (a popular snack to have with beer)
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Cheese with ginger and horseradish
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Salmon and catfish dumpling (left) and venison dumpling (right) with sour cream
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Choux pastry with tangy cream cheese filling and an espresso to close out the tour!

 

 

 

 

The one thing I do wish was that there were some opportunities to taste some local beers or other beverages along with this tour, but as with the bike tours mentioned earlier, those tours don’t really kick off until the start of the tourist season in May. I did, however, end up having enough room to have a quick half-pint of IPA (of course) at Alkimikis brewery, which also happened to be on my way back to the hostel.

 

 

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Dinner that night was with two of the three girls I had met the day before at a restaurant recommended by our tour guide from the Alternative Riga Tour. Milda was slightly more upscale than the other restaurants/eateries I had visited thus far, but still incredibly affordable for the quality of food served. The specialty here is Baltic cuisine, albeit with a slightly more refined/modernized aesthetic. We were served a complimentary starter of chicken liver mousse before our main courses arrived.

 

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For my main course, I opted for the whole trout with a whipped sour cream served over slices of baked potatoes and beets. I don’t eat fish incredibly often, since when cooking at home, I like to make dishes that will last me for several days, and ordering fish at a restaurant can be rather expensive, but this locally-caught trout only cost 14euros (and no way was I going to pass that up).

 

 

 

 

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The fish was delicious. Fresh, light, perfectly cooked, the garlic in the sauce drizzled inside it perfectly complementing the tangy sour cream. For dessert, I chose to try the Latvian rye bread pudding with dried fruits, honey, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Our tour guide from the day before had mentioned this dessert, although his description (mix rye bread with a bunch of water and sugar until you make a paste and then eat it) left something to be desired. This version though was quite nice, especially in how the honey, spices and dried fruits mixed with the slightly more peppery rye.

 

 

 

 

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Of course, all this was washed down with more beer.

 

 

 

 

After a quick nightcap of blackcurrant-flavored black balsam (the local liqueur, basically vodka and a bunch of herbs mixed together that are meant to have “health benefits”. The original is quite…special. This one is slightly better) at a nearby bar, it was time to say goodbye to the Old Town and the new travel friends I made and head back to the hostel to catch a tiny bit of sleep before my very early flight the next day. Overall, I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to take two weekend trips during the spring school holidays (even if that cut into my dissertation work time a tad). It’s nice to be able to treat oneself once in a while.

 

 

 

As to upcoming theatre-related things, I’ve got a number of shows on deck that hopefully will inspire an urge to write some commentary (if not include them in my final dissertation). Other than that, there is yet another trip also coming up mid-month, though this time it’s to a place I have been before (albeit about 6 years ago) to visit some pretty legit people.

 

 

 

Until then, here’s to blackcurrant black balsam (and last-minute frantic lesson planning):

 

 

 

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