10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.


Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe – While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English – Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport – This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country – While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.

The Most Dangerous Beverage in Prague

There’s a specter haunting Central Europe. A very quaffable, sweet-tasting specter, that is. And no, it’s not absinthe. This bibulously inspired drink is only around for a few weeks in September. Which means there’s much debauchery happening right now in the center of Europe. If, like me, you’re in the Czech capital this week, you’ll understand when I say that it’s the most dangerous beverage in Prague.

Meet Burcak [pronounced Bur-chahk], a Central European phenomenon where vintners take a batch of the young wine just after the grapes have been crushed, add sugar, and let it ferment a bit. The result is something that’s no longer grape juice yet not exactly wine. And it tastes dangerously close to an addictive juice concoction, which nearly ensures a hangover in the morning. As far as I can tell, it’s only available in the Czech Republic and Austria (in the latter it’s called sturm)

The word “burcak” is just starting to pop up in Prague right now, scrawled across chalkboards that hang outside wine bars. So if you’re in or heading to Central Europe, don’t miss the small window with which burcak is available. Burcak purists, however, will tell you it’s best drunk in southern Moravia, the main wine region of the Czech Republic, particularly in the town of Znojmo.

The last time I took a trip to the region, it was as if some alien intoxicant had overtaken an entire town. When my Czech friend Libor and I pulled into Mikulov, a small castle-topped town on the Czech-Austrian border, there were guys weaving down the tiny cobbled lanes, women vomiting into rubbish bins on the main square, and couples passionately disrobing each other behind trees. What was going on?

It wasn’t that there was something in the water to make the villagers both ill and amorous. It was the first day of the weekend-long annual burcak festival and the town was already collectively inebriated.

But besides its dangerously good taste, here’s how burcak is even more cause for alarm: There is a curse of burcak. While it only contains about five percent alcohol, it continues to ferment while inside your body. Despite the thoughts going through your head right now that some kind of yeast-reeking alien beast is going to explode through your stomach, it means that the alcohol level of the beverage you’ve been consuming the last three or four hours has grown to that of a normal, matured wine (about thirteen percent) while still in your body. Hence, the reason why this entire town of Mikulov was drunk on the day I arrived.

While I’m in Prague this week, I decided to seek out some burcak for myself. At one wine bar, situated next to The Globe, a pretentious and condescending (though I’m referring to the staff) English language bookstore and café, the burcak was overly sweet with a coarse texture. I still finished the half-liter jug, but was looking forward to finding something better. I found it at U Sudu, a cavernous wine bar that has always had a good reputation for good burcak. It didn’t disappoint. The “young wine” was smooth with a more subtle hint of sweetness. U Sudu, by the way, is only for serious drinkers, evidenced by its 9am opening time on most days.

I stumbled away from U Sudu, on my way to meet a friend for dinner. He had been, it turns out, drinking burcak as well. Which was good because he had no way of detecting just how intoxicated I may have been becoming from the still-fermenting burcak we’d already drunk.

Top 5 MTV music videos that inspire travel

If you’re as old as or younger than MTV, which turns 30 today, then you probably can’t recall when MTV (short for “Music Television”) played music videos and nothing but. MTV launched on August 1, 1981, with a handful of videos filmed mostly on stages or sets tricked out with some lighting and a few props. As MTV grew in popularity, more and more musicians went on location to shoot miniature films backed by pop music soundtracks. Indeed, some of these videos, shot in places such as Venice and Prague, were like postcards beckoning viewers to find out more about the locales.

I grew up in the years when MTV was at the forefront of popular culture and credit the network with fueling a number of my travel fantasies. It is in this spirit that I list the top 5 MTV videos that inspired my desire to travel. Note that all of these videos were made in 1989 or earlier.

1. Like A Virgin – Madonna. As a known Italophile, I’m often asked what my favorite film set in Italy is. This Madonna classic, which must have single-handedly inflated ticket prices for a gondola ride when it was released in 1984, is always the first thing that comes to mind. Watch the video and tell me it doesn’t make you want to go to Venice.

2. Never Tear Us Apart – INXS. The sweeping views of Prague and INXS’ somber walks through that city, in particular their stroll through the Jewish Cemetery, is one of the most beautifully filmed music videos of all time. I still haven’t made it to Prague and that fact makes me sadder than this video usually does.

3. Personal Jesus – Depeche Mode. I distinctly remember the first time I saw this video and perked up when the VJ announced it had been shot in Spain. “Personal Jesus” was filmed in the Tabernas Desert in southern Spain, the location for many Spaghetti Westerns of yore.

4. Rio – Duran Duran. There is really nothing particularly related to the city of Rio de Janeiro in this memorable video by Duran Duran, but the shots of the white sand beaches and glossy sailboats gave me an itch for Caribbean travel. Apparently this video was shot in and around Antigua.

5. Going Back to Cali – LL Cool J. Even 24 years after it was made, LL Cool J’s funky black-and-white homage to L.A. is a love letter to the City of Angels even if LL continues to insist he’s not going back there.

Prague in pictures

Today’s featured summer travel destination has undergone a massive transformation in recent decades. Once regarded as an isolated capital on the red side of the Iron Curtain, it is now the sixth most visited European city behind London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin. Having escaped the destructive aerial bombing campaigns of World War II, it is also one of the most immaculately preserved European cities.

We’re talking of course about Prague (Praha), the capital of the Czech Republic.

The former preserve of shoestringing backpackers in search of cheap lodging and copious amounts of beer, Prague has undergone a miraculous transformation from an industrial center to a full-fledged service economy. The city is now home to most major global travel brands, in addition to the first ever Michelin-starred restaurant in post-Communist Europe (Allegro).

For architecture fans, Prague is akin to a living museum. The medieval city center, home to one of the largest castles in the world, is nothing less than picture perfect at every angle. On that note, take a quick look at some of the gallery images below, and then keep reading to learn more about one of our favorite cities in Europe.

%Gallery-123977%Local legends dictate that Prague was founded in the 8th century, though it was the 14th century golden age that graced the city with its finest constructions. Under the reign of Charles IV (1316-1378), Prague was rebuilt and expanded as the capital city of the Holy Roman Empire. New Town, the Charles Bridge and the gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral all date from this gilded era.

We fully acknowledge the importance of a well-crafted itinerary. But there is also joy in wandering aimlessly while soaking up the surrounding ambiance. And that is indeed what you should do here. With nary a modern building in sight, central Prague’s cobblestone streets wind past whimsical Baroque facades awash in muted pastels. Add to the mix soaring arches, sweeping bridges, café-lined plazas and gaggles of street musicians to help set the tempo.

You do however still owe it to yourself to check off the major tourist drawcards. The classic route takes you from New Town across the Charles Bridge to Old Town en route to Prague Castle. Along the way, stop for a cappuccino in the Old Town Square, and linger long enough to view the astronomical clock in action. First activated in 1410, the world’s oldest running clock springs to life every hour. Figurines of the Apostles present themselves to crowds below while a skeleton representing Death solemnly strikes the time.

For a bit of culture, we’re big fans of the Mucha Museum, which celebrates the life and work of Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). Even if you don’t know his name off the top of your head, much of Mucha’s earlier work is widely recognizable. While living in Paris, Mucha produced distinctive advertisements, postcards and theater playbills depicting beautiful young women in classical robes surrounded by flowers. His later works were more nationalistic in sentiment, and focused on the history and culture of the Czech people.

In the post-Soviet era, consumption is the main driver of the Czech economy. For the casual tourist, this means row upon row of kitschy souvenir shop selling everything from imitation Red Army paraphernalia to carved crystal knick-knacks. If you’re looking for a bit more quality in your purchases, seek out the city’s renowned ceramic wares, or peruse antique shops for rare books and out-of-print stamps. Prague is also regarded as a high-end shopping destination, which means that global luxury brands are everywhere.

If you have a bit of youthful blood coursing through your veins, be sure to explore Prague after the sun goes down. Early evening is best spent building up your energy reserves with a hearty meal and a few calorie-rich pints. But the real fun begins in the twilight hours. The city still plays host to a few industrial techno clubs that occupy converted factories in the outskirts. Of course, as with the rest of Prague, the nightlife scene is all grown up. Closer to the city center, you’ll find upscale beer gardens, chic cocktail bars, live music venues and even hookah lounges.

How to get there Direct flights on Delta and Czech Airlines connect New York City to Prague. Prague is also connected by direct flights to most major European capitals. As such, a quick stop in Prague is fairly easy to combine with longer trips to the continent. Overland trips to Prague by euro rail and inter-city buses are also feasible.

Where to stay Summer vacation on the continent attracts hordes of travelers to Prague. In order to secure accommodation, book well in advance of your travel date, particularly if you plan to visit on a weekend or any time during August. Room choice is varied, but we’re partial to the city’s excellent selection of artsy boutique hotels and apartment-style residences. Note that prices have skyrocketed since the adoption of the euro, but on the whole Prague remains cheaper than many other European capitals.

What to eat Long gone are the days of nameless sausages and boiled cabbage washed down with ten cent pints of lager. Prague is undergoing a foodie revolution, and ravenously consuming the international cuisine it was denied for so long. With that said, Traditional Czech delicacies do remain, such as potato dumplings, fried cheeses, beef goulash and roast pork with sauerkraut. Czech beer is as good as ever, even though you should expect to fork over a few euros a pint. Pilsner Urquell and Budvar (the original Budweiser) are typically on the menu alongside local microbrews.

Need more inspiration? Check out the gallery of pictures below.

[All photos and gallery images are the author’s own original work.]


The ten best castles in Europe

Castles originated in Europe over a thousand years ago. These fortresses were one of the original defense systems, and erecting the structures on hills or just beyond moats was a functional choice. Castles were built to house rulers, impose power, and above all, spurn would be attackers. Conforming to these basic principles of utilitarian design, the strongholds now appear solitary, majestic, and frozen in time. The attackers are long gone, and now a steady stream of camera clutching invaders breach the castles daily, ready to inspect the epic grandeur of the past.

While Europe has hundreds of excellent castles, these ten all have design, character, and history that sets them apart. Some occupy the center of bustling cities, while others lurk in forgotten countrysides. Spanning eight countries across Europe, each of these castles has a story to tell.

Prague Castle (above)
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Nearest airport: Prague Airport
Year originally built: 870
Inhabitants: Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and presidents of the Czech Republic
Interesting fact: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague castle is the largest castle complex in the world.

Bran “Dracula’s” Castle
Location: Bran, Romania
Nearest airport: Henri Coandă International Airport in Otopeni, Romania near Bucharest
Year originally built: 1212
Inhabitants: Teutonic Knights, Mircea the Elder, Vlad III, and Romanian royalty
Interesting fact: In 2007, the castle was put up for sale for $78 million. It has since been taken off the market.

Location: Schwangau, Germany
Nearest airport: Munich International Airport
Year originally built: construction began in 1869
Inhabitants: King Ludwig II
Interesting fact: This castle has been visited by over 60 million people and is the template for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle.

Leeds Castle
Location: Maidstone, Kent, England
Nearest airport: Kent International Airport
Year originally built: 1119
Inhabitants: King Edward I, Henry VIII, and other notable British royalty
Interesting fact: Leeds Castle hosts a large garden maze and a dog collar museum.

Windsor Castle
Windsor, Berkshire, England
Nearest airport: Heathrow Airport
Year originally built: 11th century
Inhabitants: William the Conqueror, Henry I, Edward III, and many other British rulers
Interesting fact: Windsor Castle is the longest-occupied palace in Europe.

Mont Saint-Michel
Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
Nearest airport: Rennes Britanny Airport
Year originally built: 10th century, though the earliest abbeys in the fort date to the 6th century
Inhabitants: Currently 41 people call the Mont Saint-Michel home, and the structure has been home to monks to over a thousand years.
Interesting fact: The tides around Mont Saint-Michel vary by almost 50 feet, and many people have drowned approaching across the sands.

Château de Chambord
Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France
Nearest airport: Paris Charles de Gaulle
Year originally built: 1526
Inhabitants: King François I, Louis XIV, and the Ducal family
Interesting fact: Though the original designer of the châteaux is widely disputed, some insist it was Leonardo Da Vinci.


South of Salzburg, Austria
Nearest airport: Salzburg Airport
Year originally built: 1078
Inhabitants: Salzburg rulers and prisoners
Interesting fact: The misty castle served as a prison for hundreds of years.

Buda Castle
Budapest, Hungary
Nearest airport: Budapest Airport
Year originally built: 1265
Inhabitants: Hungarian Kings
Interesting fact: You can visit a portion of the 6 mile subterranean labyrinth under Buda Castle.

The Alhambra
Granada, Spain
Nearest airport: Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaén Airport
Year originally built: 14th century
Inhabitants: Muslim Emirs from the Nasrid Dynasty and Charles V
Interesting fact: It was in the Alhambra’s Hall of Ambassadors that Columbus made his pitch to sail to the orient by heading west from Spain.