Living the good life

It’s called the Tito house (no, NOT related to the former Field Marshall who ruled Yugoslavia for so long), a three story house in Ohrid. Behind the St Sofia church with the ancient theater where many of the performances of this year’s festival will take place.

The upper two stories are occupied by the family (who incidentally live in Illinois for most of the time) and the first story will be my apartment. Two bedrooms, kitchen and all those “goodies” with a terrace, overlooking the ancient theatre and with the lake in the background!

This is where my young colleague and I will be entertaining a lot of people this summer. We will take turns on cooking/preparing food.  Am SOOOO looking forward to this.  Life is good!

 

 

 

Top notch places to stay

AMSTERDAM

amsterdam4525_1Bostel Amsterdamse Bos is a campsite outside Amsterdam with great chalets and excellent bathrooms. A bus takes one to the metro which gets one to Centraal Station in no time. A really inexpensive way to experience an otherwise expensive city. Of course, they have tents available too, at even cheaper rates. THIS is the way to go to see Amsterdam. The surrounding “villages” have excellent restaurants and bars. It was in one of these that I drank PINK beer for the first time in my life. YUK!

BARCELONA

barcelonal_39390-9-central-garden-hostel-oneCentral Garden Hostel One had just opened its doors when I stayed there (Summer 2010). There is no doubt in my mind that it will join Hobo Bear and Mosquito as one of the top 10 hostels in Europe … SOON! Incredible staff. Husband/wife owners.

BRUSSELS

2go4 (yes that is how it is spelled!) is another one of those top places. However, been told that lately it is difficult to get abrusselsfront-view-of-the-hostelreservation as word got out about this gem. A booking well in advance will prove to be worth it. It is the location that makes it such a good bet.

IM000278CESKY KRUMLOV

Pension Merlin OR Hostel Merlin … although I stayed in the pension, the hostel is just as fine. This is truly TOP value. The garden at the Pension is a wonderful place where one can sip a glass of wine, enjoy dinner that was prepared in aIM000280 well-equipped kitchen. All amenities nearby. The hostel on the other hand, is located on the Vlatva river and located in downtown, a short walk from all the happenings. Either place, you will not regret it!

DUBROVNIK

villa-micika-1271078440837Villa Micika in Lapad is one of my favorite places. Away from the hustle and bustle, on the promenade which is surrounded by restaurants and bars. Not only is it on a bus route that can get one to Pile (pronounced Pee-lay) in 15 minutes, but it is a stone throw away from a super market and other amenities. Tony is an incredible host and I always stay there. At the end of the promenade is a beach (the water is very cold, though) which is surrounded by numerous restaurants and bars.

HVAR CITY ON ISLAND OF HVAR

P6070473Luka’s Lodge offers an incredible view and outdoor cooking area. Located a pleasant 5-minute walk from the town, it offers one quiet and peace away from the town. Luka is a top notch host and he also owns a cottage in Losna.

KORCULA

Very affordable pension with an incredible view. Should you be staying at Luka’s in Hvar, he will gladly make arrangements forP6080481you to stay with Marija, as they “network.” Marija can be contacted at  385 (0) 98 90 64 794 or marija.sansovic@post.t-com.hr.

KRAKOW

mosquitoaae-mosquito-hostel-krakow-krakow_200720091941425861AAE Mosquito was voted one of the top 10 hostels in Europe. Breakfast included. Staff top notch. Like the Hobo Bear Hostel in Zagreb, this is top notch too. I could not fault this hostel on anything. It is located less than a 3-minute walk from the Town Square, there is a market right behind it and a supermarket right next to it. The Mosquito is also within walking distance from the station (where there is a mall next to it!) We left at the crack of dawn; breakfast was prepared especially for us!

LEVANTO

mariella3_esternoMariella in Levanto, at the end of Cinque Terre where the Italian Riviera starts, is a B&B and a tad more expensive than a hostel, but worth every penny of it. The hospitality of Enzo (owner), wife, Mariella, son Luca, grandmother, Mama, and wiener dog, Blacky is priceless!

SALZBURGInstitute St Sebastian

Institut St Sebastian in Salzburg is one of my favorite places. Waking up in the morning hearing voices from all over the world being trained. Great roof terrace for relaxing and sipping wine while viewing this incredible city, Mozart’s birthplace!

rijeka hostel.1191897000.hostelHOSTELLING INTERNATIONALpula19980_2

I stumbled upon Hostelling International by chance. I had no reservations (what’s new?) when I arrived in Rijeka (I could not find any hostels). So imagine how surprised I was when a cab driver offered to take me to a “nice, cheap hostel.” That is how I was introduced to Hostelling International, and organization I knew nothing about. Today I know that it has more than 90 associations in 90 countries, operating 4,000 hostels. I also know that one buys  a membership for a nominal fee which allows one discounts at other hostels belonging to this group. I recommend hostels of this group without any reservation (no pun intended!) whatsoever. Some of the hostels may be a bit far from the hustle and bustle, but look what one gets in exchange (private beach in Pula, Italian villa like in Rijeka, etc).

Strasbourg-CIARUSCIARUS IN STRASBOURG

Strasbourg, home of the EU parliament, is a French town. When looking for affordable accommodation, I could not find any. I learned about Ciarus at the Information Bureau and it’s a top notch place with a restaurant and centrally located. I had a great room and a professor and Israeli IT as roommates. I really enjoyed my stay.

HOSTEL TROGIR P6040397

Marin owns and runs the Hostel Trogir which is located on the island of Ciovo – separated by a bridge from the mainland – and it is truly another magnificent place. Brand new, excellent location, with a very friendly owner/manager, what more can one ask for. Visiting Trogir is a must. I stayed a few days and made day trips to, among others, Primosten.

hobobear32124_1 lounge hobo-bear-1-300x199 kitchen3743158332_b6d8503218

ZAGREB

The Hobo Bear Hostel was voted one of the top 10 hostels in Europe and it is indeed one of the best I have stayed in. The building is very nondescript from the outside,

but on the inside it is a totally different story. The lounge area (above) is a great gathering place where they sell beer at very reasonable prices and where guests would gather to watch soccer games and get access to the internet.

The kitchen is very well equipped and a true joy to prepare a meal. The owners did a great job with this place and it is a hostel that I have, and will recommend without any hesitation, whatsoever! Great location too.

Another form of accommodation

No matter where you travel in Europe, you will see houses with signs that say: Camere, Sobe, Zimmer which indicates that tourists can rent rooms. This is a wonderful way of finding accommodation and (in most cases) the rates are negotiable. I have found many rooms this way. One becomes part of a household, talk to the owner(s). I had this experience when I was in Barr (Montenegro) where I stayed with a family. The room was 10 euros/day and it was here that I met the previous ambassador to Afghanistan. I had a blast. I learned so much. Trust me, this would not have been possible had I stayed in a hotel.  Try it. What do you have to lose?

0P6160553

Pic to the left:

Far left, the former ambassador to Afghanistan. Center, Zuk son of the owner (his dad to the right) of the house in Barr where I stayed. Zuk’s Dad could not speak English, but we had a blast. We talked forever about solving the world’s problems!

The Information Center

I have written extensively about sleeping in hostels for very little money. I have told you about joining Servas and sleeping for virtually NO MONEY in people’s homes. There is still a third alternative if the previous two do not appeal to you.

Every European city, town, village, has an “i”… or better known as the Information Bureau. These are normally located in the town centers (zentrum = center), are easy to find and is indicated by an italicized “i.” These centers are wonderful places and find one inexpensive accommodation. They seldom deal with hostels, but mainly with B&Bs as well as pensions.

This is how it works: Once you get to a particular city, you find the “i” where you tell the person in charge what you are looking for, and how much you are prepared to pay per night. They will call the establishment, you will pay a 10% deposit at the “i” (which is deducted from the total price) and you will get approximately one hour to get to your destination. Once you arrive at your destination, you will pay the balance (you will hand your hospice the receipt that you received when you paid your deposit) and voila, you are all set.

I have stayed in some wonderful B&Bs or pensions, the most notable ones are Pension Merlin in Cesky Krumlov and Mariella in Levanto, Italy. Granted these places charge more than hostels, but sometimes you just feel like a break. Although these institutions charge more, they are still considerably cheaper than hotels.

When we got to our B&B in Peschiera at Lago Garda, the owner invited us to go and inspect the room (a very good sign). We did so, but could not find the shower in the bathroom. All I could see was a basin and a toilet and I said to my traveling buddy, I need a shower. We headed downwards, intended to tell the owner we could not have a bathroom without a shower when my traveling companion said: “Let’s go and look once more.” And there it was. A hole in the tiled floor with a curtain that one pulled around it … thus, every morning when one took a shower, the floor got one too. Once again, a case of different strokes for different folks.

IM000280Mariella 001P.S. These information centers do not specialize in accommodation only. You can also find wonderful advice here about where to go, what to do, the cheapest way to travel, etc., etc. Simply a wealth of information. To your left, you will see Pension Merlin (Cesky Krumlov). Incredible place, with an incredible garden, great view and all of this for $17 per person/per night. Simply cannot beat it. To your right is the outdoor area at Mariella. That is where we congregated with Enzo, Mariella, and Mama. They could not speak English and we are still attempting to learn Italian. We had great conversations, especially when Enzo pulled out the Limoncello!

Staying FREE!

The 2009 summer I met Jennifer and Suzanne while traveling through Europe. They were both members of Servas. After several conversations/talks with them, I decided to research this organization and share my findings with you. I believe that it is a wonderful opportunity for people to stay FREE in other people’s homes in Europe.

Servas means “serve” in Esperanto … an international language developed by a Russian ophthalmologist of Jewish descent. This language does not belong to a specific country rather it is an international language which is spoken by nearly 2 million people worldwide. Check it out. Fascinating stuff!

“Servas was initiated in 1948 by a conscientious objector to war who believed it was possible to build stronger foundations for world peace by helping concerned people to meet and learn from each other and to recognize that we all belong to one world family.” What the organization did, was to find volunteers in the countries of northwestern Europe who would compile lists of people who were prepared to offer free hospitality to approved foreign travelers. The organizaton went from strength to strength and today Servas is a global program boasting more than 14,000 member hosts in 130 countries. Although the organization was founded by pacifists, it has never rejected anyone because of different/other ideologies. In 1973 Servas International was “recognized as a non-governmental organization (NGO) registered with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)” (Servas home page).

I URGE you to go to the webpage and check it out. Apply. The costs are MINIMAL. Not only will you be staying free of charge with other people, but you will meet people from different cultures and, trust me, they will treat you like royalty. Come on it is easy, and it is very, very cheap ($85/year).

forlang_globeservas3Oct0542-15390443

Hostel living

What does “hostel living” entail? It means that you will share a room with several other people … anything from 3 to 11 “strangers” … all ages, all shapes and sizes. Most of the time the dorms are mixed, although ladies can request a “ladies only” dorm . You will sleep in a bunk bed, share a bathroom with others (don’t forget your flip flops). Hostels also offer private rooms (some with their own bathrooms) but they cost more.

As Rick Steves put it, the cheap beds in Europe are found in hostels. Hostels are wonderful places. One meets so many wonderful people and sleep very CHEAPLY (prices vary from $7 and averages around $15/$17 per night). Sure, some hostels can run you as much as $40 a night, but you don’t have to stay there. Go to Hostelbookers (they do not charge a booking fee) while Hostelworld does and the former has a larger selection.

When the hostels come up, check out the ratings … they NEVER lie. The most important rating that I look for, is the one for location. I mean, I do not need a hostel that is located some 40 miles outside a city!

The Five Elements Hostel in Frankfurt is one of the finest hostels I have stayed in BUT it is located in a very, very red light district. So, if you do not mind the ladies of the night, go and stay there. Other top hostels that I have stayed in, are: Mosquito (Krakow), HoboBear (Zagreb), St Sebastian Institute (Salzburg), 2GO4 (Brussels), St Christopher’s (all over the world, but can be on the pricey side), Villa Micika (Dubrovnik), Hostel Merlin and Pension Merlin in Cesky Krumlov, to mention a few.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have stayed in some “dumps” and have only myself to blame, as I ignored the ratings. It is not worth it. Go by the ratings and the number one criterion should be LOCATION. Price should be second

hobo bearmosquitoHobo Bear (Zagreb) on the left, and Mosquito (Krakow) on the right … my two favorite hostels in the whole wide world. Highly recommended, will go back there any time, every time.

I can't afford it, it's too expensive

Nothing ticks me off more than hearing the above. Traveling abroad does not have to be expensive, if one knows what to do. I spent a month in Europe during the 2009 summer. My TOTAL costs (excluding gifts) came to $3,300 … compare this to the $4,000 that a colleague spent on taking her family (hubby and two kiddies) to Disney for A WEEK!

FINDING AN AFFORDABLE TICKET
I use BookingBuddy and my last ticket cost me $492 (it went down to $366, three weeks after I made my purchase, but s*** happens!). In order to get the best price, I suggest that you start well in advance (at least 4 months). Type in your destination, as well as your point of departure. Use several of the search engines on BookingBuddy (I have found ATI, Airfare.com and Tripadvisor to be the best). Record the prices and dates. Repeat this process EVERY day for several weeks. You will develop a “feel” for what prices are. Sometimes you may have to fly into a city that is not your final destination, and take a bus/train from there. I have found that it is least expensive to fly into German cities. Once you get used to this, you will develop a feel for prices, and, when the right time comes, you will hit: “Buy this ticket” and you would have completed the first step … on your way to Europe (or wherever you select to go). Watch out for some sharks out there, promising you the cheapest ticket. Example: I am planning my trip for May 2010 and am looking for a ticket ex Pitt to Zurich. The cheapest I can find so far, is $653 (not cheap enough for me!) I noticed a search engine meant only for students, Studentuniverse.com. I thought, what the heck, let’s see if this would work for the students (ONLY students are allowed to purchase through this engine). Surprise, surprise, the ticket that would cost me $653 through BookingBuddy will cost $960 through Studentuniverse.com. A whopping $300 more … buyer beware, Studentuniverse.com SUCKS!

WHERE DO I STAY?
Refer to the post entitled Hostel Living

WHAT ABOUT FOOD AND DRINK?

Food in Europe can be very, very cheap, if you picnic. I do it all the time. Go to one of the many markets, buy bread, cold cuts, cheese, tomatoes and a bottle of wine for less than $10 (and this is enough for two people). I do not drink beer in the US, but it is all I drink in Europe (and of course, wine) as the beer is so SUPERIOR to the horse p*** that we get in America. Buy your beer from a local store for less than a dollar. Just look at the bakeries … we simply do not have those in America … and in Europe one finds them in every little village, around every corner!food 1bread6food fair

If you want to go to bars and do shots, you are going to pay … through the a**! But, once in a while, I will go to a restaurant, order a bottle of wine … that’s how I “treat” myself. It is more important for me to travel and enjoy, than dropping $100 on a meal. And, picnicking is fun and everyone does it … the best picnic I have ever had was in a CEMETERY in Berlin (we did not know it was a cemetery … an incredible park-like setting, lake, benches, you name it).

OTHER COSTS
Traveling by train/bus/plane can take a big chunk out of your budget if you don’t know what you are doing. Ryanair, Germanwings, edreams and Skyscanner offer bargain fares. Traveling by bus or train is inexpensive too (travel second class). Using the latter modes of transportation is fun too, as one can enjoy the scenery. If you would ever travel through Austria, use the train, I have never experienced such a beautiful country!

WHAT DO I TAKE?
A lot of people use humungous back packs … I don’t. I take a suitcase (with wheels) and a smaller back pack. In my back pack you will find a large Tupperware container with a small cutting board, serrated knife, cup, table cloth, paper towels.

Another buyer beware: Eastpak SUCKS BIG time too! My suitcase (once again) broke in Europe. I went to this store and this lady swore by Eastpak products, even a 30-year warranty (“keep your receipt,” she told me). I paid a LOT of money for this wonder bag (I must admit, I liked the design). Well, ten days later it (literally) started coming apart at the seams … first in one spot, and a week later there was a second hole. Bearing in mind what the saleslady told me, I contacted Eastpak when I got back to the States. Cut a long story short, I mailed the damn bag to Washington State, and got it back eventually … just to notice that they have simply patched it. I called them, gave them a piece of my mind. It became clear that the bag was made in China (minimum wage, sweat factories, etc., you know what I am talking about). Am I going to worry about it? No ways! What can I say about a company that outsource jobs, pay workers a starving wage and show huge profits … company greed as per Wall Street … isn’t that what got us in this economic mess? Thus: EASTPAK SUCKS AND DO NOT BUY THEIR PRODUCTS AS THEIR WARRANTIES ARE WORTHLESS!

HOW MUCH MONEY ARE WE TALKING? HOW LONG SHOULD I GO FOR?
I travel for at least a month and I recommend that you do not go for any period less than 3 weeks and at $100/day (all inclusive) you can live like royalty. Thus for a month long journey, we are talking $3,600 … INCLUDING airfare. I would not recommend that you budget for less than $50/day … you can do it, but it will be tough. let me illustrate: Hostel $15, Food and drink $20. That will leave you with $15 to get into museums, travel, etc. But, it CAN be done!