*Long blog post ahead to make up for the long absence. Enjoy!*
As we embarked on our journey, we received countless of travel advice from friends and fellow travelers we met along our way. Some of these advice were about where to avoid, what to do, but most of the time they were about where we ‘absolutely have to’ visit. Sometimes I’ll take up on their suggestions, then there were times I just decided to go off on my own path and discover something new or unexpected. Which is why I was inspired to write this blog post to give a few of our special places a mention. Don’t get me wrong, these were not the only places that we adored, there were a few big famous cities too, but I’ve kept the list to the lesser known places that have surprised us along the way. You know, the ones that you go in with no expectations only to be pleasantly surprised with what you discovered? These are those type of places for us…
Of all the destinations in the list, Budapest was definitely the one with the highest expectations due to the positive feedback I’ve heard from my friend. Luckily, it didn’t let me down. I would describe Budapest as the hippest city of Eastern Europe (or is it Central?). It was beautiful in winter when I was there, with all the fabulous Christmas markets that popped up everywhere in town, and if you’re lucky sometimes it snows too! I have not had the chance to see the city in the warmer season, but I’m sure it is just as beautiful. Unlike my initial impression of an Eastern European city, when looked closer Budapest is actually very modern with plenty of hip modern cafes, pubs and classy traditional coffee houses as well (think Viennese style traditional cafes but with half the price tag).
But the main reason I love the city is because of the bustling energy and vibe of the city. Even though the city itself has so endured so much bad history, the vibe from most of the locals I met were so positive and welcoming. Have I mentioned it is a very hip city? Their cafes and nightlife scenes are definitely something of a reputation across Europe. Although not as big or diverse as the Berlin scene, it is sort of like a little brother to Berlin. They have these famous bars called ‘ruin pubs’ which is unique to the city. What they are, are essentially bars located in the old buildings within the Jewish Quarter that have been pimped up with hipster/artsy/funky interiors. They make an absolutely unique and cool place to hangout in the evenings. The most famous one is Szimpla Kert, the mother of Budapest’s ruin pubs.
We had 4 days to spare between our ski trip in Cortina d’Ampezzo and Florence. Seeing that Bologna was along the way, we decided to stop by for a quick visit. Prior to our visit, I’ve only heard about Bologna as the original city that made famous Spaghetti Bolognese. However, I soon found out that was not necessarily the case…
Aside from being well know for food, Bologna is also a well known university town. In fact according to my host, Bologna has the oldest running university in the world, first built during the Renaissance period. The entire centre town is still paved in cobblestones, and on a Sunday the entire main street is closed off from traffic, and turned into a huge pedestrian promenade. The old city is beautiful, covered mostly in ancient terracotta buildings and the towering Torre Asinelli, that took us 500+ steps of narrow wooden steps to reach the top.
Bologna is the undisputed food capital of Italy. Famous for their pastas, and cured meats and other wonderful local produces. They take aperitivos seriously here. There were many aperitivo bars around the city serving generous amount of buffet snacks, all for the price of one glass of wine! When you are in Bologna, you have to try their Salumi platter (a.k.a chacuterie) consisting of a variety of delicious but difficult to pronounce Italian cured meats and cheeses with the most famous one being the Mortadella. They were all so good, that we ate this almost every single evening prior to dinner and then by 9.30pm we ate ‘dinner’again this time something lighter. I’m pretty sure we gained weight in Bologna. It was worth it though, because they were all so gobsmackingly delicious. It is no surprise that we love Bologna due to the delicious local cuisines, the best we’ve tried in Italy in fact (Florence came a close second).
Oh, do not ask for spaghetti bolognese in Bologna, because the locals only serve it the ‘correct’ way, which is with tagliatelle, so that the saucy meat ragu clings better to the thicker pasta. Don’t ask me how good it was, because I didn’t try any. I don’t take beef so that dish was striked out from my list. Please go to Bologna and try, then let me know how good it was!
We stayed for 6 weeks in Lyon, the longest period we have ever stayed in any destination. So it is probably fair to say that I am slightly biased towards the city. We came to Lyon with little expectations since we knew very little about the city other than it being the second biggest city in France after Paris. The main reason we stayed here was because we enrolled in a month long French course. So for 4 whole weeks we became students again, waking up at 8am to go to school then studying and doing homework at night. In fact, I surprised myself by being so enthusiastic about school and actually achieving 100% attendance in class by the end of the semester. If only I was this enthusiastic back in university…
Anyway, I digress. Lyon surprised us by being cooler than Paris in almost every aspect. Sure, Paris has all the glitz and glamour of a holiday destination, but if you want to experience real French culture, eat and drink proper French food, see old French renaissance town then Lyon is the place to be. It’s one of those ‘in between’ cities, that’s not too big or touristic, but not too small or quiet. People are generally nicer here too unlike the notoriety of the Parisians, the Lyonnais are a friendlier bunch and down to earth everyday folks.
Lyon is the capital city in the region called Rhone-Aples, which is almost the centre of France, therefore making it a great base for many day / weekend trips to nearby townships. Some of the best places to visit as a day trip include, Annecy, Grenoble, Dijon, Geneva and the Alps. These places are easily accessible via train or car and reachable within 2–2.5hrs.
One of my favourite parts of Lyon was Vieux Lyon district (a.k.a Old Lyon), a Unesco Heritage protected site of the city that goes back to the Renaissance period. It is the biggest Renaissance neighbourhood in France that is still intact today. The whole area is actually very charming and romantic especially after sunset when the halogen lamps lit up. Typical to European style, the footpaths are lined with cobblestones and buildings are Renaissance / Gothic styles. These days the streets are now populated with artisan shops, bars and bouchons (traditional Lyonnaise restaurants) that adds to the charming atmosphere.
Most importantly, we absolutely love Lyon for its cuisines. Lyon is the food capital of France and possibly the fine dining capital of the world. However, unlike the other popular cities i.e. Paris and London, fine dining here doesn’t cost an arm and leg. Lyon has one of the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants in France. Many talented, up & coming chefs are mentored by experienced Michelin chefs and have ventured out on their own to start their own restaurants. Needless to say, good & quality food are aplenty in Lyon. Also not forgetting traditional bouchons, that serve only traditional Lyonnaise cuisine that is unique to this region.
If you love your reds, then you have to visit Lyon, as it is located near many important wine producing regions that churn out delicious reds such as Beaujolais, Bourgogne and Côte du Rhône. In the six weeks we lived in Lyon, we had the opportunity to enjoy some of the best meals and wines of our lives. Lyon has spoilt us for all other ‘French’ food in the world.
Part 2 to be continued…