POLAND 2016

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A week in Poland gone all too quickly. But we're on a time contraint, you see. A race against time to get through Scandinavia before August ends, and coupled with the Schengen rules, it seems we have to be extra choosey on what countries we want to spend the most time in. Le sigh. Wish it wasn't so! Need. More. Time!

Anyhoo. Traveling from Vienna, it made sense to have Krakow as our first Polish stop. Only because it was that close to Auschwitz. And then end our Polish travels in Warsaw, which is conveniently on the way to Lithuania. Our only regret? Not having time to visit Gdansk. Of which we've heard nothing but good things from fellow travelers! A port city with a unique feel that sets it apart from other cities in Poland - I'm sold!

Aside from that minor detail - Time, you def don't play fair! - I'm glad we made our way through this wonderful country, furthering our Eastern European experience into humbling perspective.

--


// KRAKOW //
We were told to go to Krakow instead of Warsaw. It's more cultural than the big city vibe of Warsaw, they say. With every intention of going to Krakow regardless (only because it's close to Auschwitz), our friends were right. Krakow holds an unmistakable huge personality of it's past in the heart of this bustling city. We've heard through the grapevine that there's a Free Food Tour, but we were unable to track it down. Bummer. If anyone has further info about this elusive Free Food Tour, please send it over!
>> Stay: Blueberry Hostel. ~$11.50/night for a 6 bed dorm.
>> Recommend: Free Walking Tour. They provide a map (with discounts!) for local eats.

// AUSCHWITZ (near OSWIECIM) //
This is one of those visits that you just have to go when you're in Poland. It's an all morning thing. One could easily spend 3-4 hours in Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. Though the bulk of the time is spent at Auschwitz I - that's where all the mini musuems are housed. And, indeed, you'll go through all the motions. It's mind-boggling and devastating, but at the same time profoundly eery. No doubt, it's a bit unsettling to see such calmness nowadays in a place that held unfathomable horrors in human history. We've opted out of the tour (which is 4-6 hours long) and did our own walk through instead.
>> Bus from Krakow to Auschwitz: 12PLZ one way trip. Takes a little over an hour for one way trip.

// WARSAW //
As much as I hate to admit it, Warsaw really is your typical bustling European city. It's nice. It's modern. And it's huge. Most of the cultural stuff could be found in the 'New' Old Town. New as in, Old Town was utterly devastated after WWII and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Hence the New Old. Not the Old Old. But with a bit of research, we did find a few cultural gems around the city. Though most are out of the way and not easily accessible. One that we did manage to get to: The Neon Muzeum. It's not terribly huge, but it's quaint and full of interesting tid bits from the Communist era.
>> Stay: Oki Doki Hostel. 52PLZ/night for 4 bed dorm.
>> Recommend: The Neon Muzeum. 10PLZ entrance fee.
>> Transportation: 15PLZ for 24 hour transportation. Includes all buses and tram rides.
>> Train from Krakow to Warsaw: 66PLZ. 4 hour ride.

--


When: Late June / Early July 2016
Temp: 85-89F
Cities: Krakow, Warsaw
Stay: Refer to individual towns above.


-jin-

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Hello, Vienna, my old friend! It's been 8 years!

Now this time around it's all about visiting family. Get some bonding time in with the older sister and my youngest nephew. Maybe take a much needed break from all the photographing. Yeah. Put the camera away. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the moment.

Clearly, that happened! =P

Deep down, I really wanted to photo document this trip again. Properly. I felt I haven't done it any photo justice 8 years ago, having only been in the city for 2 days. We crammed an unbelievable amount of touristy activities during that short stay. Then suddenly we were off to the next country. Now, with the gift of time, I've been given the second chance to see Vienna in a whole new perspective. Less touristy sites, more local scenes.

Yeah, local scenes. All thanks to my older sister, Nina, who showered us with nothing but hospitality and tons of souvenirs ... and sisterly memories! <3 So this is how it feels to be spoiled by an older sibling! But yeah, we couldn't have seen 'suburban' Vienna, places most tourists don't visit, without her 15 years of local living. It was such a refreshing experience! The real Vienna!

When we weren't hanging out with my sis and nephew, we walked. We walked through Stephansplatz, we walked through Naschtmarkt, we walked through Mariahilfer StraBe, we walked through some parks, we walked through the museum district - we walked through all the little streets in between. Just soaking in the city life and street visuals. Something we couldn't have fully appreciate 8 years ago.

Yes, things def felt more on a personal level with this city in 2016. We even took a break from the hostel life and AirBnb it for a bit! It was fun pretending we were locals. Sauntering downstairs to the local pub to watch a soccer match, meeting up a friend at Naschmarkt for dinner, making runs to the mini grocery store around the corner. Kinda glad we got most of the touristy stuff out of the way in 2008, because this has been a very memorable trip!

The one thing that we missed in 2008 and still missed out in 2016? It would've been cool to see a Lipizzaner horse show. But they were all sold out during our visit. Peak season, you see. No biggie. There's always next time!


--



When: June 2016
Temp: 85-89F
Cities: Vienna
AirBnb Stay: Lara & Flo's. 63EUR/night. 15 minute walk to Stephansplatz. 5 minute walk to Naschtmarkt. 15 minute walk to Gerngross.
Hostel Stay: Wombat Hostel. 21EUR/night for 7 bed dorm. There is a stamp card for freebies.
Transportation: Metro, 2.2 EUR for one way trip.


-jin-

HUNGARY 2016

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After 2.5 months of life on the road, we finally made it to the Schengen region!

Now the tough part begins. The timing. That was never my strong suit. How to squeeze ALL these countries in just 3 months?? Oi.

Welp, we're here. And Budapest is amazing! So amazing, we've stayed almost a week. We're loving the vibrancy, the youthfulness, the laid-backness. There's something about Budapest that sets it apart from just your typical big European city. More unique sites to see. More foodie treasure spots to unearth. Everyday was an adventure of the senses.

Seriously, we really did enjoy hunting down various restaurants and cocktail bars. Yes! We even dabbled in the cocktail bar scene, all due influence to a couple of close ATX friends who are major cocktail enthusiasts. (We really miss you, Kenny + Anthony! =/) When we're not hopping around for foodie finds (oof, good chimney cakes were not easy to find!), we caught a free walking tour, ran into a traveling buddy we've met back in Romania (luckily for Luke's convenience, we were the only Asians in the food truck area! =P), and painted the town red with our hostel mates.

Oh! And checked out a couple of the famous thermal baths peppered around Budapest. A must. We, of course, had to go to THE bath. Szechenyi Thermal Baths. Had to. To beat the heat (unfortunately not the crowds) we arrived late evening. As pretty as it was from the outside, the inside pools were just okay, in my opinion. Walking on wet tiles aren't really my thing (ick!) and the tiny windows gave an eery, claustrophobic aura to the early 1900's architecture.

Now the Gellert Thermal Baths were niiiiice. Uber nice. This time around we woke up around sunrise, to beat the heat AND the crowds, and hauled it over. From 8-10am we practically had the whole place to ourselves. We took our time exploring the grounds, snapped pics at a leisurely pace, and just simply enjoyed the view from the upstairs balconies. While these baths still retain the 1900's feel, everything about it is beyond classy. Very Great Gatsby-esque. Natural light flooding in, sorta in an angelic kind of way. The decor is insanely intricate and borderline opulent. I felt safe walking on rubber mats rather than wet tiles when weaving our way to the thermal baths. Yes. These are my fave thermal baths so far. I could really see myself coming back here in the distant future!

Ah, the distant future. I'm already dreaming of the next time! Now I see why everybody raves about Budapest! So much to do, so much to see, so much to eat! This is certainly not the last I'll see of Budapest.

P.S. -- Special thanks to Alexis. A fellow traveler we've hung out with in Jordan. She used to live in Budapest for a bit and sent over an extensive "insider's" recommendation list. You. Are. Awesome! Alexis! <3


--


When: June 2016
Temp: 85F
Cities: Budapest
Stay: Wombat Hostel. 5658.75HUF/night for 5 bed dorm. Get a complimentary free drink coupon upon arrival.
Recommend: Free Walking Tour, Szechenyi Thermal Baths (4900HUF entrance fee), Gellert Thermal Baths (5100HUF entrance fee), Central Market.

***** AS RECOMMENDED BY ALEXIS *****
- Castle Hill is the classic medieval city rebuilt after WWII; I'd say Ruszwurm Cukrászda is one of the top sights in the city.
- Andrassy Ave. It's a really nice walk down Andrassy ave from downtown to the big park (and the metro line underneath is really old, funky, and fun!).
- Szechenyi baths were my favorite of the thermal baths. It's best to go as late in the day as possible for the minimum # of tourists and kids. Plus the warm water is nicer if it's cool out.
- Rudas Baths might be a nice follow-up to the Middle East section of your travels.
- The Opera House is really neat! Soooo much gold inside. I went to a few ballet performances there and it was very fun.
- The Terror House. If you're in the mood for an excellent, but very grim museum, the Terror House is very well done. I wouldn't plan on doing much after a visit though.
- Parliament is hard to miss, though the inside is less specific to Hungary than some of the other places. The classic view is from the Batthyany metro stop right across the river, where there also was a 24-hour crepe place called Nagy Palacsintazoja when I was a student.
- Lángos and Kürtőskalács are classic junk/student food, the second floor of the Central Market is a good place to get some, or just at one of the random little sort-of-shady hole-in-the-walls in the metros.
- Szentendre is easily accessible via public transport. It's worth a visit, though pretty touristy. There's a Hungarian historical park / farm equivalent of our Willamsburg up there too.
- Debrecen. If you get the chance, Debrecen in Eastern Hungary is a nice smaller city to visit ... and if you're at all interested in horses they do demos of traditional trick riding at Hortobágy National Park which is nearby. You can get to both by train.


-jin-

SERBIA 2016

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We weren't really sure what country to head to after Romania. After all, there were a lot of factors to consider. Mostly the question of season. Now in mid June, it seems Summer in Europe is in full swing. Nothing but sun and heat. Heat and sun. And crowds of tourists to fight off, ultimately postponing our Balkan tour to head North in hopes of beating the rising temps. So a quick stop in Serbia sounded like a logical thing to do.

Why Serbia?

Well, we really needed time to sit down and gameplan our way through the Schengen region before we enter the Schengen region. Once we enter, it's a race against time as those of you who know the steep penalties of overstaying the 3 month welcome. And it's not pleasant. Especially for someone like me who frequents Europe quite often to visit family. I ain't taking my chances!

And plus we really were just curious to see how different (or similar!) Serbia is from the other Balkan countries. We've heard from fellow travelers that Belgrade and Novi Sad are quite nice to pass through. Nice day trips and such.

Nice being the word of the day here!

And they were right. Our hostel was practically walking distance from the pedestrian street full of restaurants and shops. Makes for a nice stroll. If that doesn't float your boat, a walk through a nearby fort with nice sprawling green lawns are within it's walls. Also a nice view of the Danube could be seen from the fort, as well. For a bit more of a cultural feel, a stroll through Old Town is a must, with it's cobblestones and handful of kapanas to choose from. Other than that, there weren't really much to do or see in Belgrade. The strolls did serve as nice little breaks in between our research/work at various coffee shops.

Honestly, after a whirlwind adventure travel through Bulgaria and Romania, something more on the chillaxin side was whole-heartedly welcomed! If you need a breather in between the Balkan hopping - Serbia is your place!

--

When: June 2016
Temp: 80-85F
Cities: Belgrade, Novi Sad
Stay in Belgrade: Hedonist Hostel. ~1741RSD for 8 bed dorm with 10% off Balkan Backpacker discount.
Stay in Novi Sad: Hostel Rookies. ~1100RSD for 5 bed dorm with 10% off Balkan Backpacker discount.
Recommend: Free walking tour.


-jin-

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When choosing cities to visit in Romania, you really can't go wrong with any of them. Almost every place we've visited had the quintessential European charm. Ornate facades, pretty fountains, artistic cobblestone sidewalks. All of the Old World loveliness.

In a hurry to get to Scandinavia before the summer end, we fast-tracked our vist in Romania and somehow squeezed everything we wanted to see in a week and a half. Our travel itinerary is as follows:

Bucharest >> Brasov >> Transfagarasan >> Sibiu >> Bran Castle >> Cluj >> Salina Turda >> Timisoara >> Bigar Falls.

I can see why most travelers prefer Romania over Bulgaria. It's cities are a bit more charming, aesthetically pleasing and pretty in pastels. The roads are surprisingly well-kept. The country is full of off the beaten track options, making it difficult to choose where/what to explore!

--

// BUCHAREST //
Simply a quick rest stop for us, seeing as how Bucharest was like any other major bustling European city. We really didn't see any reason to stay longer than we should. A free walking tour and a lil jaunt around the very touristy (and very pricey!) Old Town, then we trained it to Brasov.
>> Stay: Antique Hostel. 20RON/person for 10 bed dorm.
>> Restaurants: Caru'cu Bere
>> Train: 49RON/person, from Bucharest to Brasov.


// BRASOV //
The perfect base city for our day trips to other parts of the Transylvania region: Transfagarasan, Sibiu, Bran Castle. When not daytripping and getting work done at local coffee shops, we explored the nooks and crannies surrounding the tiny picturesque town square. Also spent some time foodie hunting for Ciorba, Mici, Sarmale and Papanasi.
>> Stay: Kismet Dao. 45RON/person for 10 bed dorm. Walk hostel dog, Zara, for 30 minutes and get a free drink!
>> Restaurants: Beraria Ciucas, La Ceaun
>> Coffee: Foldo, Tipografia


// TRANSFAGARASAN ROAD //
One of the things I really wanted to see in Romania. Plans to hit this place up with a few hostel mates from Brasov fell a bit short, as the road is closed til mid June. We drove over anyways hoping to catch the cable cars to the very top in an attempt to glimpse the epic mountain road full of twists and turns. But that, too, ended in a dud. After an hour wait, the cable car operator never came back down the mountain and so we jetted off in search of dinner.
>> Car Rental + Gas: 400ish RON split 4 ways. Manual drive.

// SIBIU //
Reeling from the disappointment of the Transfagarasan fail, we drove over to Sibiu to catch an early evening dindin before driving back to Brasov. And to see why so many travelers pass through this town. A town surrounded by fort walls. What we found inside - the most charming medieval town painted in lovely pastels!
>> Restaurant: Crama Sibiul Vechi

// BRAN CASTLE //
Oh yes, the famous Dracula castle as popularized by Bram Stoker. Very touristy and very crowded. But how could we not? It's freaking Dracula! Though the castle itself is very unimpressive. And not as nice as other neighboring castles. It's quite small and devoid of decor, but still a nice walkthrough.
>> Entrance Fee: 35RON for Adults, 20RON with Student ID.
>> Bus: 7RON/person. To and From Brasov.


// CLUJ //
Another quick rest stop and transitional city for Team Jincent. Cluj itself if a lively college town with a vibrant night life. But the real reason why we're here is actually 30 minutes outside the city. Salina Turda. An off the beaten path that Vince stumbled upon while doing research.
>> Stay: Transylvania Hostel. 27RON/person for 8 bed dorm.

// SALINA TURDA //
I can see why Vince was immediately drawn to this site. Not just any ordinary salt mine, but a salt mine with an 'amusement park' deep in it's belly. An oddity that I'm sure most salt mines can't boast. Boat rides, ferris wheel, ping pong court, mini golf - none of these are state-of-the-art, but they're there. All for your curiosity.
>> Entrance Fee: 20RON for Adults, 10RON with Student ID.
>> Bus: 7RON/person. From Cluj to Salina Turda. 30 minute ride.


// TIMISOARA - BIGAR FALLS //
Timisoara is another lively college town with a very vibrant plaza. But, again, that's not why we're here. We're here because the Bigar Falls is 2 hours away. Other than the Bran Castle, the Bigar Falls was one of my must sees. I instantly became smitten with the picturesque falls when I first saw it on Instagram and ever since then, it's been on my mind. Whenever we go to Romania ... Well, we're here! Nevermind that it was expensive getting to the falls and certainly quite awhiles away, the falls itself quite tiny, but I personally thought it was worth it. Makes for beautiful photo ops!
>> Stay: Freeborn Hostel. 44RON/person for 8 bed dorm.
>> Car Rental: $38 through Economy Rental. Automatic drive.


--


When: Late May / Early June 2016.
Temp: 77-83F
Cities: Bucharest, Brasov, Sibiu, Cluj, Timisoara
Stay: Refer to individual towns above. Most of the hostels mentioned are part of The Balkan Backpackers program. Get 5 stamps and receive a free shot or laundry service.


-jin-

BULGARIA 2016 // VELIKO TARNOVO + BUZLUDZHA

BULGARIA 2016 // VELIKO TARNOVO + BUZLUDZHA
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BULGARIA 2016 // VELIKO TARNOVO + BUZLUDZHA
Or more like Veliko Tarnovo >> Rose Valley >> Buzludzha.

The latter being the sole reason why we were in Veliko Tarnovo, a random must-see off the beaten track. Literally. Vince had heard about the now dilapidated communist monument through a friend and some research and he HAD to go check it out. In the meantime, while he figured out logistics to Buzludzha, we befriended a ton of fellow travelers at the hostel. All of whom also heard through the traveling grapevine of this famed 'UFO' fallen to ruins.

As we excitedly chatted about this communist remnant oddity and complained at how expensive the hostel's day trip to the site is, we all eventually came to the same conclusion: Why not rent a van together? It's so much cheaper when split 7 ways and this way, we can take our sweet time.

In 2 days time, we picked up our soccer mom van, appointed the youngest of the group as soccer mom (he's also one of a handful who can drive manual), and loaded up on road trip snacks. 4 Americans, 1 Canadian, 1 Argentinian, 1 Kiwi. A whole day's adventure ahead of us with a mini van at our disposal. How exciting! But first, quick stop to Rose Valley, the world's largest producer of rose oil. To Rosovo we go, hoping to catch a rose festival. After driving around for a bit, we couldn't find anything remotely related to roses or festival in this tiny village. Kind of a disappointment and a minor setback, so we backtracked to Kazanlak to figure out an alternative gameplan while we lunched it out.

So here's what we came up with. Check out a nearby Rose Distillery. That way, all our rose efforts didn't go to waste! And you know what? On our drive to the distillery, ALL these rose fields mysteriously popped up! What the what!

The rose distillery itself was a nice mini diversion. It smells fantastic here and it's a way prettier version to look at than the rogue rose fields we've passed up. V and I bought Rose Rakia for our hostel mates as an aperitif (and digestif!) for dinner later that night, wandered around for a good 30 minutes, then jetted off to Buzludzha.

On our drive up the mountain and through the numerous switchbacks, we hilariously tried to play some communist music. Not an easy feat, as the internet connection deteriorated the further we ascended. Not to worry, us Americans (4 of 7 in ze mini van) came prepared with commie jokes. And sure, we even threw in a few stereotypical 'Amurica! F yeah! We can do whatever we want - We're American!" jokes.

Yah, we went there. Gotta get into the Cold War spirit! =P

Buzludzha didn't disappoint. With flashlights, we climbed through a hole of the front entrance, straight into the damp foyer filled with massive fallen ceiling pieces. Meg had brought her fiddle along and started playing an Irish tune as we tentatively walked through the debris, up the stairs, and into the enormous circular meeting hall. Where it's just as dilapidated, with colorful tile mosaics stubbornly clinging to the walls and graffitti adorning every inch. The wind whipping through the exposed beams. It's an awe-inspiring feeling, walking amidst the past whilst in the present. We, as a group, eventually commingled in the center and lingered a bit, taking it all in.

Kevin: "What's a communist walk?"

Suddenly we all started walking in a circular congo line fashion, high kicking and fist-pumping in unison. While chanting, "Da! Da! Da!" This goes on for a few giggly minutes. I must say, one of our more funnier Communist vs. Capitalist moments! If only we took a video of it! Now off to scale the top of the monument ...

Which is only an exhausting climb of 15-20 flights of stairs (ladders?) in an insanely tight space. In the dark. Occasionally passing by open closets full of freaky, questionable objects and sometimes piles of empty beer bottles. Oh, the wild imagination! 25ish minutes later we've reached the top, pass the giant shattered communist red star and up on the tippy top roof, where presumably the Communist flag used to fly. But, oh! The views! An unobstuct 360 panoramic view of the Bulgarian rolling hills and lush green forests. The perfect spot for sunset gazing.

We've tried to linger as long as possible for the sunset, sitting on top of the exposed metal beams, still cracking Communist/American jokes and still trying to play Communist songs. Anything along those comical bits to keep ourselves entertained, which is not hard to do when you're in good company. =) Even had a good laugh over Kevin's stint of an American doing Commie pull-ups: "What's your favorite American number? ... 1776!" LOL. But, alas, sunset in these lands sets at an unusually late hour. 830ish? Maybe 9. We figured it wise to leave before it gets too dark as those horrendous Bulgarian roads ain't no joke. And so we've started our slow descent.

Once we've reached the bottom and out to fresh air, we were met by a curious Bulgarian wondering the outskirts of the monument. He asked where we're from, in which soon thereafter his eyebrows shot right up when he finds we're mostly Americans, "What are you doing here??!" Lol, we're not here to commerate anything. Purely for the Communist novelty, I assure you, sir. ;-) And with that we clambored into the mini van and zoomed off towards our hostel. Towards our late night dinner and towards our late night hangout where we rehashed memories from that day.

We came into this adventure as strangers with a common love for curiousity and unknown wonders. We left as friends. The magic of travel - it never ceases to amaze!

--

When: May 2016
Temp: 75F
Stay: Hostel Mostel. 20BGN/person for 10 bed dorm. Breakfast and Dinner (with Beer!) included.

Recommend: Free Walking Tour.
Off the Beaten Track: Buzludzha. Day Trip as offered by the hostel is 80BGN. Highly recommend renting a car. In our case, we rented a mini van and split the cost 7 ways. Van rental is 50BGN. Gas is 40BGN. Please note: Bulgarian roads are not in the best shape and therefore may take longer to reach destination than expected.


-jin-

BULGARIA 2016 // SOFIA + RILA MONASTERY

BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
BULGARIA 2016 // RILA MONASTERY
We were able to do a walking tour and free food tour on our brief stay in Sofia. Unfortunately, we didn't do it any photo justice. I know, I know. How dare us! Somewhere in between all of the above and meeting up Zory's friends, Maria and Vesela, for coffee and socializing with our hostel mates and catching up with the Korean dudes we've met a few weeks back in Kapadokya and waiting out the rain ... we somehow forgot to keep up with the photo documenting. Simply put, we were too caught up in the moment, so please excuse the lack of Sofia visuals! Everything's on snapchat, though! (Snapchat: missjinjin)

But I assure you, Sofia is not as bad as most travelers pegged it to be. Sure it's probably the least 'cultural' of the other Bulgarian towns, leaning more on the fast city life and vibrant night life. The very huge and very long Vitosha Boulevard full of trendy stores makes for a great leisurely stroll, and we hear from fellow hostel mates that hiking the Vitosha Mountain is quite nice, which is easily accessible at the end of the boulevard.

The one thing we did managed to photo document was our day trip to Rila Monastery offered by our hostel. Now we aren't fans of day trips provided by the hostel, mainly because it's kinda pricey and the allotted time given at these sites aren't nearly long enough for our liking. Also, these tours normally run in the middle of the day aka peak crowd hours. V and I like to spend a lot of time at certain places for photog opportunities and proper exploration, all preferably done early morn. But we didn't really have any choice as we lacked time to research the much cheaper option: car rental. (We heard roads in Bulgaria are awful.)

As expected, the 2 hours spent at Rila Monastery was way too short and rushed. The grounds were full of tourists and the noon day sunny conditions made for contrasty situations, a combination that no photog prefers. Though it's certainly worth the trip from Sofia, as it's the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Not to mention it's quite the looker with an undeniable personality. Unlike any monastery I've seen. The monks did great with this one!

--

When: May 2016
Temp: 70-85F
Stay: Hostel Mostel in Sofia. 24BGN/person for 8 bed dorm en suite. Free Breakfast and Free Dinner (with beer!). If you don't want to rent a car to Rila Monastery, the hostel offers day trips for 40BGN/person.

Recommended in Sofia: Free Walking Tour and Free Food Tour.


-jin-

BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV

BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
BULGARIA 2016 // PLOVDIV
Aside from Sofia and a dilapidated Communist building in the middle of nowhere, we really didn't know where else to go in Bulgaria after hunkering down in Istanbul for 1 week. So we sent out a 'plea' for recs via Instagram. There were quite an overwhelming preference for Romania, not so much love for Bulgaria. But ONE Instagrammer did pull through and his name is Henry (@humminglion). Not only did we lucked out, I mean, we really hit the jackpot with this guy, because his girlfriend (@zorymory) happens to be Bulgarian! And one from Plovdiv! A city we've tentatively contemplated about (seems many travelers prefer Plovdiv over Sofia), but weren't quite sold until Henry and Zory came into the picture.

So with Zory's extensive list of her hometown's recs, V and I set out to explore tiny Plovdiv, the future European Capital of Culture 2019 and one of the world's oldest cities. Plovdiv has a lot to offer, it's sights easily covered in 2 days time. A mixture of ancient Greek ruins and quaint medieval masonry, with remnants of Communism mostly seen outside the touristy parts. There's a beautiful huge expanse of park goodness, 6 famous hills to climb, a long strip of very modern shops set below very old buildings that looks like a century or 2 old, and an even older part of town covered with very wonky cobblestones. There you can stumble upon many historic markers and catch a panoramic view of the city from one of the famed hills.

Most of which can be covered with a walking tour. Highly recommend, though. It's always a good idea to catch one of these. A quick history/info rundown ain't hurt nobody. In fact, we try to go to one in almost every city we visit. Half the time we end up befriending fellow tourists along the way, grabbing dinner and/or drinks afterwards. In this case, that just so very happened. And we had the best time with our new friends! 1 Belgium guy, 2 English girls, 1 Turkish dude. We all happily chatted it up over Bulgarian cuisine, trading travel stories. Lots of jokes, lots of laughs. Even properly ended the very long dinner hangout over Rakia. Nazdrave!

Coming into Bulgaria not expecting much, I must say, Plovdiv was a nice surprise!

--

When: May 2016
Temp: 70-80F
Stay: Best Rest Guesthouse. 45BGN for private room, 20BGN/person for 4 bed dorm.

Recommend: 2 hour Free Walking Tour
If you have 15 minutes: 3D Movie of Plovdiv in 2nd Century AD
Eats: Grazhdanski Klubb

***** AS RECOMMENDED BY ZORY *****
- Plovdiv Roman Theatre
- Contemporary Art Center
- Old Town. The old town is pretty much the star of Plovdiv. They are some churches and museums within the Old Town that are worth checking out if you are interested in how things used to be: Ethnographic museum, St. Constantine and Elena church.
- Kapana. Known for small shops and coffee shops. Young people like to hangout in the area.
- Tsar Simeon Gardens. Small park where locals like to sit and people watch.
- Alyosha Monument on Bunarjik Hill. The statue is interesting because it represents the way communist people used to do things - big with lots of concrete. The hill has 360 view of all of Plovdiv and it's popular destination for high-school kids the go watch the sunrise after prom.
- The Dzhumaya Mosque. There is a little cafe/sweets shop in the Mosque building. They have really good Turkish tea and sweets.
- Art News Cafe is one of my fav cafes, artsy people hangout there, the bartenders are usually up to date on interesting things that are happening around the city, ask them! Get the Mursalski Tea, it's a rare tea that grows very high up in the mountains near Plovdiv.
- Apartment 101. Popular bar. Sometimes it has live music.
- Vitex 90. Get Zelevi Sarmi (traditional fermented cabbage leaves + rice dish) , Kiselo Zele S Bob (also very traditional and they make it well, it's fermented cabbage with beans) and Salata Spanak (spinach salad) . For dessert: Mliako S Oriz (milk rice pudding). They sell the food by the Kilo so that makes it great for you to try many things.
- Popular day trips that you can do with buses out of Plovdiv are: Bachkovo Monastery (similar but smaller than Rilla Monastery), Asen Fortress, Seven Rila Lakes, The Wonderful Bridges, Koprivshtitsa, Veliko Turnovo, Arbanassi.


-jin-

TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL

TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
TURKEY 2016 // ISTANBUL
This being our 2nd time in Istanbul, we really didn't have a need to go all out photo fine art crazy. If anything, we just wanted some much needed downtime and leisurely sightseeing. So we stayed a week. Took our time, woke up late, overused the hostel's resources. Caught up on Game of Thrones. Chatted with even more Internationals.

Like in 2008, we stayed in the European side of Istanbul. But 8 years ago, we were all about hitting up all the major tourist sights with our friend, Ricky, so we stayed quite close to the Old City. This time around we opted for a much different neighborhood, get a feel of another side of Istanbul. The Galata/Karakoy area seemed like a young, hip part of town. Streets lined with really cheap restaurants and cafes, unassuming tiny shops, various nooks and crannies. And that's before we even hit up the massive commercial shopping avenue of Istiklal Cadessi!

In addition to roaming the narrow, busy hipster streets with wide-eyed wonderment, we set out on a massive foodie adventure of sorts. Something we never really did the first time around in Istanbul. We sought out the best Baklava, the best Kumpir, the best Iskender Kebap, the best Islak Burger, the best Rice Pudding, the best Turkish Coffee.

Of course all that while visiting some old friends: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace. And I tell you what, only a few vivid details of these historic treasures pops into my mind from 8 years ago. It's amazing (and kinda sad) how much the mind forgets! So we visited Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque TWICE to doubly make sure it'll be harder to forget.

It's quite refreshing to see the trendy side of Istanbul. Reminds me of Austin back in the day when the new and the old seemed to live harmoniously together at one point. I firmly believe this is one of the reasons why we loved this 2nd visit way more than the first. Loved it so much Vince actually envisioned his future self living in this city!

--

When: May 2016
Temp: 60-75F
Stay: Downtown Istanbul Hostel, $9 per night for 8 bedroom dorm.
Transportation: Tram/Train. 4TL per trip.

>> Istanbul Museum Pass: 5-day pass. 80TL. Valid for one entrance to the following - Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul Archeological Museums, Museum for the History of Islamic Science & Technology, Istanbul Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Chora Church Museum, Rumeli Hisarı, Yıldız Palace, Galata Mevlevihanesi, Istanbul Fethiye Museum. (We've visited in BOLD.)
>> 2 Hour Bosphorus Boat Ride: 12TL.
>> Galata Tower: 25TL. Panoramic views of Istanbul and Bosphorus.
>> Also Visited: Blue Mosque, Istiklal Cadessi, Taksim Square, Grand Bazaar.


-jin-

HOLLAND 2015

HOLLAND 2015.
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HOLLAND 2015.
It's good to be back at one of my most visited European cities ever!
Something that has been facilitated by the fact that I have awesome family living in the outskirts of Amsterdam and neighboring bordertowns in Germany, so coming here has mostly been family-related. And to be honest, I've always sorta kinda hated coming to Europe as a child, as I didn't really appreciate constantly spending my summer vacations between Asia and Europe.

But times have changed! I'm older, maybe wiser! My interests in Holland renewed! Particularly these past 2 visits to Amsterdam. Back in October 2007, I traveled with a group of friends and experienced the fun, crazy side of the city - something I could never do with my family. Let alone as a 12 year old. Now in October 2015, I get to experience the leisure side with my husband (and on a more explorative sense) before roadtripping to Austerlitz for my Aunt and Uncle's 25th wedding anniversary.

As it was my hubster's first time in Amsterdam, we squeezed in some touristy bits, but for the most part it was all about enjoying what the city had to offer. The second we stepped out of our AirBnB in the Jordaan neighborhood, we'd walk around aimlessly, delightfully getting lost amongst the beautiful canals. Found a few noteworthy restaurants to dine in, spotted a bunch of picturesque canal photo ops, and even sniffed out a snazzy cocktail bar as a nightcap. So good, we went back 2 nights in a row! On our last day in Amsterdam, we rented a car to roadtrip our way to my relative's town, oh, about 1.5hr south of Amsterdam. Driving in and around Amsterdam ain't no easy feat. (But less so in Rotterdam, Utrecht and Kinderdijk.) The separate cyclist traffic lights and random rogue trams complicated the right of way ... and those left turns? A nightmare! But we survived, albiet with a few annoyed Dutchmen in our wake as we made our way out of Amsterdam.

With each visit I find myself falling more and more in love with this country. Aside from London, I could really see myself living in Amsterdam. The laidback vibe. Quality of life. The gorgeous canal sceneries. It's all very infectious! Seriously, what's not to love?

--

-- AMSTERDAM - THINGS TO DO --
1 // HEINEKEN EXPERIENCE - Heineken beer tour. It's fun. Buy your tickets online beforehand.
2 // VAN GOGH MUSEUM - Great museum. Buy tickets online beforehand.
3 // RIJKSMUSEUM - Famous arts and history museum.
4 // COFFEE SHOPS - Get high since it's legal here. The most famous one is called THE BULLDOG.
5 // RED LIGHT DISTRICT - It's near Dam Square and it's super touristy. But something worth seeing since it's such an Amsterdam classic.
6 // RIDE A BIKE - You can rent a bike almost anywhere.
7 // LOOKOUT - Take a free ferry from CENTRAAL STATION and get one of the best views of Amsterdam.
8 // ANNE FRANK HOUSE - Prepare to stand in line for a long time! But do go during the evening hours, near closing time to avoid the uber long lines. Or the earliest time avail, but be sure you get there an hour or so before opening time. The line cues up really fast.
9 // CANAL CRUISE - See below for G's Brunch Boat.

-- AMSTERDAM - FOOD AND DRINK --
1 // NEW KING - Awesome Chinese Soup dumplings (Zeedijk 115-117, 1012 AV Amsterdam)
2 // G'S BRUNCH BOAT - 2 hour boat canal cruise while having brunch. Need to book in advance.
3 // FOODHALLEN - Hip and Trendy food court. Tons of restaurants and bars inside an old warehouse.
4 // SAMA SEBO - Cool and hip Dutch Indonesian food. Awesome presentation.
5 // BAKERS AND ROASTERS - Best brunch in Amsterdam
6 // DE YSBREEKER - Great Dutch restaurant. Get the roasted chicken.
7 // NYONA - Great Malaysian Food
8 // MANA MANA - Best Mediterranean food in AMS
9 // STARING AT JABOB - Go for the Chicken & Waffles
10 // LA PERLA - Best pizza in AMS
11 // HAKATA SENPACHI - Yakitori
12 // HOTEL DE GOUDFAZANT - Great French food
13 // WINKEL 43 - BEST APPLE PIE IN THE CITY! Since Apple Pie is more of a Dutch thing than American!

-- AMSTERDAM - BARS --
14 // TALES AND SPIRIT - REALLY AWESOME COCKTAIL BAR!!! Old timey feel.
15 // VESPER BAR - Great chill bar. Get the 'French Kiss'.


-jin-

ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE

ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
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ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
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ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
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ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
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ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
ITALY 2015 // CINQUE TERRE.
Heading to the other side of Italy from Venice was quite the welcoming reprieve from the stifling humidity of the lagoon. The Mediterranean sea breeze was the perfect complement to the summer heat, making foot travel a much more enjoyable experience than Venice. Make no mistake, it was still freaking hot. But that sea breeze - it made all the difference!

And like Venice, Cinque Terre would be ideal during off peak season. The heat, the insane crowds on the beach and train stations, the frustration in finding a restaurant that's not freakishly full with an unreasonable wait time. 'Leisure' was definitely not the term to be used with all the above against you.

But, oh! The views! That alone will make you forget the hassle of vacation crowds! The Italian Riviera. Colorful pastel buildings huddled together and artfully perched on rocky hillsides overlooking the sea. They definitely look exactly like they do in those postcards. Almost too pretty to be real. But it is very real. And there are five of these very real picturesque villages.

Talk about sensory overload x5!

Or more like pastel sensory overload x5. It was like being in a more quaint, laidback part of Venice. Our mini hikes to catch those covetable pastel panoramic views everyone keeps talking about were simply ah-mazing. (Vernazza and Manarola are our faves!) I think the only times we weren't blown away by the pastel scenery was when we were being blown away by the fantastic seafood cuisine of the Liguria region. Deliciousness!

And just to put it out there, a small, small part of me was hoping to run into Andre 3000. I know! How unbelievably and farfetchedly silly of me! All thanks to my Kuya Carlo and his multiple Andre 3000 stalkings sightings throughout Cinque Terre many years ago. Even got a photo with him and everything. Lucky bastard. But ya know, not giving up hope! I will meet a celebrity in Europe one of these days! Mika, I'm looking at you!


-jin-

ITALY 2015 // VENICE

ITALY 2015 // VENICE.
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ITALY 2015 // VENICE.
ITALY 2015 // VENICE.
ITALY 2015 // VENICE.
Where to go after a week in Iceland?
Venice, of course.
Was it a bit of a bad idea?
A little of no, a whole lot of yes.

Imagine this romantic notion. A gorgeous centuries old city perched majestically on water in all it's pastel glory. Sinking a slow death. And disappearing. Forever. A bit of The Lost City of Atlantis vibe. Sounds tragic, no? All very inevitable. Like inevitably in the near future!

So we pounced on the opportunity to beat the inevitable. Kind of a misjudgement of when to visit.

It was the end of July.
It was extremely hot and humid.
It was stupid crowded with tourists.

As many times as I've gone to Europe in the middle of the summer season, I of all people, should know this! But the picturesque canals and cityscape photos of Venice on Instagram! I was dazzled! The second we landed in Venice, only then reality sunk it. Hell! It's like being back in Houston!

Sweat Fest. Yay. We got around that blaringly obvious problemo by venturing out during the morning, after a nice al fresco breakfast at our very rococo hotel, but before the crowds exponentially grow. Near noon, when the oppressing humidity becomes unbearable, we'd head back to the room, strip our clothes off and pass out until early evening. Then back out, getting lost amongst the island's 400 bridges, wondering aimlessly for Venetian eats and local spritzes. Our schedule was great for photo ops and we still enjoyed the city's enchanting Renaissance views without melting to death. Aside from taking a rowing lesson at high noon. A very awesome Venetian experience in very miserable weather conditions, but it was the only time slot left opened.

Although all the above would have been nicer, say, NOT in the summertime. With no crowds. Should take my own advice the next time we come back to Venice!


-jin-

ICELAND 2015

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ICELAND 2015
Iceland, you've ruined me.
I will forever spend the rest of my days trying to get back to you.

Even with a minor snafu like losing a luggage at the beginning of the trip. And having to get creative for 4 days without a few necessities. Yes, Iceland, I will come back! (Haven't lost a luggage since Peru 2008!) 

This is actually our second opportunity to come to the Land of Fire and Ice. The first was a few years ago when a group of friends chose Iceland as our next New Year's travel destination. For some forgotten reason, the hubs and I weren't able to tag along and thus a missed chance to see Iceland in all it's winter wonderment.

Fast forward to July 2015, and Iceland is at its summer's peak. Which is equivalent to a Southeast Texas winter. We've spent 5 days leisurely driving the entire southern coast and back, and honestly, this was one of the funner roadtrips I've had in my life. Living off crackers and cheese, and on the lookout for Icelandic folklore elf homes. And oh! The varied countryside! If you didn't see sheep, you saw horses. If you didn't see horses, you saw sheep. (Oddly enough, it was rare to see them together.) The scenery constantly changed every hour or so, from brown nothingness to fields upon fields of purple lupine to rocky black sand beaches. From miles of moss-covered lava mounds to geothermal hot springs to volatile geysers to pockets of glaciers to majestic waterfalls. The list is endless. 

At times it was hard to believe we were still in ONE country.

And that's really the lure of Iceland, it's insanely diverse geology. If you weren't an adventure traveler before, Iceland will have you thinking up camp possibilities. Maybe as far as basic gear you might need. Even if it's just camping from your own van. 

At the end of all of the roadtripping, we've spent our last moments in the lively Reykjavik. Met up with a longtime friend, Helga, who lived in the same residencia as me during my Spain 2007 days. She fabulously played tour guide around her beloved hometown, while we comically chatted up stories left and right throughout the mini walking tour. Conversation flowed effortlessly for hours. She's a fun person :

"Oh, you must try rotten shark meat! Very Icelandic!"
"Have you tried it??"
"Oh, God, no! I heard it's nasty! Bleh!"
"LOL! The heck! You were gonna get us to eat something that you haven't tried yourself??"
"Yes."
"Now you HAVE to try it with us!"

And so we set out to the fish market, with a few tourist stops in between, in search of this fermented-in-pee-rotten shark meat. And we found it. Aptly renamed as Blue Cheese Shark Meat. Perhaps to put it's reputation on more palatable terms. We got the video ready and each grabbed a sample. A moment of hesitation before the big leap. Here goes. OK, not so bad. It really does kinda taste like blue cheese. A few seconds pass ... aaaaand there it is. The rotten shark meat part. Wow. That aftertaste really sneaks up on ya! All phases of our facial expressions gloriously recorded on film.

Welp. Bucket list item - check

It's crazy how cramming nearly 10 years of friendship into 4 hours of fun really passes in a blink of an eye. It's kinda bittersweet. Especially with friends who live on different continents. When's the next time we'll see each other? Who knows. But we made the promise to next meet somewhere in this big, big world. 

And just like the time spent with Helga, our trip to Iceland was way too short. I can see why most people are smitten with this country. It's been a Zen experience.


--


When: July 2015
Temp: 50-60F
Cities: Rekjavik, Southern Tour
Transportation: Rented car
Stay: Kex Hostel in Rekjavik. In all the other cities, because we waited til the last minute to book cheaper options, the only availability left were the expensive hotel stays.
Food: Shark meat, Puffin, Skyr. For our roadtrip, since everything is so expensive, we loaded up on crackers, cheese, and lunch meat from one of the local grocery stores in Rekjavik before embarking on the Southern Tour.

Things To Do in Rekjavik: Hallgrimskirkja Church, Harpa, Fish Market, The Sun Voyager, Downtown, Buy a Lopapeysa (Icelandic sweater, ~$100-$200).
Notable Waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss, Gullfoss, Skogafoss, Godafoss, Svartifoss.
Other Things To See on The Southern Road: Blue Lagoon, Geysers (Most famous is Strokkur), Elf homes, Lava moss fields, Purple lupine fields, Sheeps, Horses, Golden Triangle, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Glacier Hiking.

 

-jin-

eurotrip 2014.

eurotrip 2014.

10 days. 2 countries.

Wished it was more like a bajillion countries in 10 days (Believe me! I've tried!), but the hubsterz had to lure me back down from Cloud 9. (Put up a bit of a fight on the way down, hah!)

But, but, but ... I kinda liked it on Cloud 9!

One of my travel dreams is to spend at least a year in Europe, hopping from country to country, spending my days photographing/exploring Old World beauty and nights dining/conversing with the locals. There's something utterly simple in this whole European lifestyle. And I'm totally head-over-heels in love with it. Quality of life, man.

In the meantime, I'll take Europe in small doses until that dream becomes a reality. I'm determined to beat my longest European cameo of 4 months!

Countless thank yous to the long-time Euro friends (Andy, Guil, Jan + Stef) for making this most recent Euro trip pounce unlike any other Euro trip experience in the past! It's a whole different ballgame when you personally see their world through their eyes and their words  right next to them. I felt like we were more than just passerbys. More like somewhere between tourists and locals. Hah! Thank you, friends from Ireland + Germany - y'all made us fall even more in love with your country!

Euro City 1 >>>  Dublin, Ireland.

Euro City 2 >>> Berlin, Germany.

Euro City 3 >>> Tübingen, Germany.

besos ... jin.

 

GERMANY 2014 // Tübingen

tubingen 2014.
tubingen 2014.
tubingen 2014.
tubingen 2014.
tubingen 2014.
tubingen 2014.
tubingen 2014.
tubingen 2014.
tubingen 2014.

>>> 7 years ago in Spain. 

Jan and I were the only ones left in the residencia, it seems, oh, for all of September. With everyone back to their respective countries, our evenings were pretty much spent at the local pub having epic conversations about everything and anything. Seriously. Everything and anything.

(We had a friendly debate over the difference between deer and moose and elk and reindeer. Theories got more absurd the more we drank. And at the same time, things oddly made sense. Like, whoa.) Well, one random night at the pub, Jan (or I?) had this epic idea of trying every beer on the menu. All 70+ cervezas. But Jan only had 3 weeks left before heading back to uni in Tübingen.  That means 3-4 beers a night. Every night. For the next 3 weeks. I can't hang with that amount of beer, but because Jan is German and Germans love beer ... Challenge accepted. And that's how we became regulars at Erasmus pub.

Needless to say, I had tons of practice with the German tradition of

'Prost!'.

>>> June 2014 in Austin.

Commence the initial stages of Eurotrip 'planning' by Jin, which involves hitting up a few old friends / fam bam living in various parts of the Deutschland and giving them heads up that we're on our way. (Ends Eurotrip planning by Jin, lol.) Jan responded right away:

" ... if you're ready to make the journey -  fairytale castles, one of the finest medieval old towns in Germany and our warm hospitality wait for you." - Jan

Wow. Tübingen sounds even smaller than what Jan had described it 7 years ago! It also sounds oddly like Salamanca ... and exactly the quaint Germany I was looking for. Can't wait!

>>> August 2014 in Tübingen.

So everything about Tübingen was beyond phenomenal, all thanks to our awesome hosts, Jan and his wife, Stef. From getting personally picked up in Stuttgart to their tour guide prowess (and eagerness!) to their incredible hospitality. (So many memories to mention just in their tiny, cozy home! They offered us their bed, prepared fresh breakfast + coffee every morning on their patio, cooked intimate dinners, showed Vince how to make spaetzle, taught us a German card game - all from the comforts of their home!) I now see why Jan ended up in Salamanca all those years ago. Tübingen IS the German version of Salamanca. Only colorful.

And just like Salamanca, Tübingen is incredibly rich in medieval history, utterly simple in lifestyle, and picturesque all around. There are only a few places in the world that I can call surreal. Tübingen is def on that list.

On the last full day in Tübingen, I had tried to keep my birthday under wraps and almost got away with it until dinner time - after a full day of castle hunting and brewery hopping - when Jan actually checked his FB. (From what I remembered from my ole German roomies, Germans have their own version of FB.

But I didn't get that memo that FB sued StudiVZ a few years back. D'oh.)

'Jiiiiin? FB is telling me your birthday is today??!'

Zang. So close. So after dinner, Jan and Stef 'surprised' me with a pretty impressive (and catchy!) German birthday song and presented me with last minute German chocolates in lieu of a birthday cake. What I am surprised about is that there are FOUR German birthday songs.

FOUR!

Imagine my befuddlement when Jan and Stef said they couldn't decide what song to sing! Wow. I must say. That was pretty awesome. It's been 7 years since the last I've spent my birthday in Europe. Both times, coincidentally, Jan was there! Full circle!

But the Eurotrip adventures didn't stop there. Like almost all our flights back to the states from Europe over the past 8 years - we ran into a snafu. Nothing like having Jan hook us up with an Autobahn card, become temporary unofficial German residents til the end of 2014 to get that card (Good to know we have a home in Germany for the next 3 months, haha!), wake up at 3am, get Jan to drive us to Stuttgart, catch a 5am train ride into another country, make multiple transfers in between, and miraculously end up in Brussels. Just so we can catch our 10a flight over the pond. Whew!

Another memorable Eurotrip in the books! Huzzah!

Jan and Stef : we are most definitely looking forward to y'alls visit to Texas - hopefully in the near future! - and return the same high-standard hospitable kindness that y'all have bestowed upon us! Seriously, you two are amazing hosts!

Danke for every generous detail! Let us know if y'all need a recommendation on Trip Advisor ... 'roomies'. Oh, and there are tons of PAYDAYS here in Austin. No bribes. Just sayin'. =P

besos ... jin.

GERMANY 2014 // BERLIN

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Hipster. The one recurrent word our European friends have used to describe this city. I ain't gonna lie. I was a lil iffy at first, ya know, coming from a hipster town meeself. But then I set foot in this city aaaaand it's worth the hype that everyone has raved about. Total opposite of Communist anything. Berlin is vibrant, hip, happenin'. Hard to believe the Berlin Wall fell only 25 years ago! In my lifetime! I remember as a wee 9 year old watching the events unravel on TV. Mind blowing stuff.

If anything, Berlin is resilient. Which became very apparent when V and I met up one of my old neighbors from the Spain days, Guil, who recently moved to Berlin from Sao Paolo and moonlighted as our tour guide. I'm gonna digress a bit, but I haven't seen this dude in 7 years! He'll always have a special place in my memory during my life in Spain, being one of the first people I've met in Salamanca and one of the few who've stuck around when everyone went back to their respective home countries. We've had many a crazy nights chugging down chupitos at the local pubs and lazily drinking in front of a church and then drinking some more at our residencia. But I don't want to give the impression that we've drank a lot (just half the time =P). Fundamentally, everyone bonded over their own unique life experiences from all corners of the world during these gatherings. And that, there, is really the beauty of why I love meeting fellow travelers while traveling. Chances are you're going to meet someone who's in the same boat as you, constantly roaming the world searching for something more. More than what the social convention expects of you. Shared life stories of these fellow life wanderers reflects that. I'm in awe and inspired by these kindred spirits.

Guil is truly a kindred spirit of that very kind.

So with Guil practically a Berliner, we set forth on a cray-cray foot tour around town, hunting down currywurst and iconic street graffiti and remnants of the GDR. I swear we must've circled this town TWICE. Which is not an easy feat considering Berlin is HUGE. There are times the old Communist influences are still very evident and others like it had never happened. It's really befuddling and curious at the same time. But one thing's for sure, Berlin is a better, happier place. A city where one can easily roam its streets and find an artist's haven. A place I would come back just to explore more of its strong-willed history and perhaps seriously live in if I had the option of moving back to Europe (I wish!)

Guil - You're always welcome here at Casa de Chu-Ferrer. From one hipster town to the other, you'll love it here in Austin. We'll even take ya up on that dog-sitting offer if that's what it takes for ya to get here. Let's not wait another 7 years! ;-)

By the way, I must really mention how awesome The Generator hostel was (is!) during our 4-5 day stay in Berlin. How awesome? Let's just say it's been awhile since we've stayed at a clean, brand spankin' new, accommodating, insanely convenient, trendy hostel - not since Thailand 2009. Stay there if ya ever in Berlin.

besos ... jin.

IRELAND 2014

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This guy. Andy. From Ireland. The most unlikely character we've met at a hostel in Malaysia some 5 years ago. A meet-and-greet extraordinaire working the front desk most enthusiastically. And if anything, he was probably THE highlight of the hostel. With that Irish jive he had going on - it def overshadowed some of the interesting parts of the place (That's another story!), but yah, he'd always had something colorful to add to the mini convos in passing, day in and day out. So anyways, he thought we were cool. We (V, Yi-Xuan, ChewLee, I) thought he was cool. We're all cool. Cool people keep in touch.

Fast forward 5 years later. So we got to thinking. It's been years since our last Eurotrip. Years! How'd that happened?? Time to get back to the Old World! Pronto. And we did just that. Booked us an overnight flight in a Dreamliner, right over the pond, straight into Dublin. 'Cause we've never been to Ireland and hey, Andy is there!

In true meet-and-greet style, Andy met us up at our hotel on Day 1. Simply just to welcome us into his hometown, then he was off for a bit. Hours later he came back to what began the weekend warrior whirlwind across Dublin. Started off with some sushi (and Sake Bombs!), theeen commenced the official cray-cray Irish pub crawl. Met some of Andy's friends along the way, asked everyone of them about the Irish Car Bomb (which astonishingly enough, no one knew what the heck we were talking about), befriended a couple of gals from Maritius over pizza ('Where the heck is Maritius??') and ended the night partying with them at a salsa club. Day 1 - DONE.

Day 2 was a bit more tamed, filled with touristy fun. From the oh-so-green parks (Hello, Oscar Wilde!) to the museum hopping to the Riverdance show. Throw in the occasional Irish pub break in between, where we introduced Andy to Tinder and had an entertaining go with it before he promptly returned the kindness by challenging V to the Ice Bucket Challenge, haha! Overall, we really were surprised by the walkability of proper Dublin. Like, how insanely close everything happened to be. A 5 minute walk here, a 10 minute walk there. Easily knocked off everything (worth seeing per Andy) in just a day. Although, believe it or not, with the constant chatter as we walked through the city, it WAS hard to remember to photo-document the trip. Andy, you are one entertaining conversationalist. BUT I did manage to squeeze in some beloved urban snaps and briefly ponder upon the cityscape likeness of London. (No? Just me?)

Next visit we're def gonna extend the adventures to more than just a weekend. Rent a car and explore the Irish countryside. Travel to Cork, Limerick, up north to Belfast. Find us some leprechauns and a pot of gold. (Had to throw in a stereotype eventually! *does Irish jig* =P)

Andy, you (and your upcoming Indie film) are always welcome at Casa de Chu-Ferrer. Texas awaits your cameo appearance! Let the world adventures continue, from Malaysia to Ireland to Texas!

'Friends for life.' - Andy Byrne.

besos ... jin.

CZECH REPUBLIC 2008

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These 'Throwback Travel Thursdays' are coming to a bittersweet end. (Oh, and nevermind that it's not actually Thursday anymore. Kinda waited til the last minute to crank this out.) But yeah, can't believe it took me 6 months to plow through all my travels between 2006-2012! Now the real question is if I want to continue with my travels before 2006. It would be another 15 or so countries, at least 4 more months dedicated to weekly travel writing. It's an ambitious project to continue. Maybe something to start up again next year, 'cause to be honest, I do welcome the break after today! So it's only fitting to end here in the meantime with one of my favoritest cities in the whole wide world: Prague.

Now Prague is one of those past visited cities that me and Ricky constantly reminisce about from time to time. Actually, just 2 weeks ago we've spent a good 30 minutes laughing over travel funnies and mishaps from Prague! 'Remember when we OD'd on Haribo gummy bears?', 'Remember those giant frisbee-size wafers sitting on our hotel pillows instead of mints?', 'Remember when we bought a bunch of Absinthe from that one random store we found in an alley?', 'Remember when 2 bottles of Absinthe broke in my luggage and all my clothes got drenched? MotherF$*#%!' Hahaha! The funnies goes on and on! Good times!

Other than the inside travel jokes and memories, Prague is a stunner. A vast contrast from the rest of Czech Republic, it seems. The 4 hour train ride from Vienna to Prague proved to be a bit underwhelming, with tons of greenery blurring by and looking oddly like Texas. Occasionally, remnants of communism would dot the landscape, more so when crossing the Czech border, but the noticeable change in scenery occurred once we've entered Prague. Stunning Gothic and Bohemian architecture suddenly revealing themselves from the forest and arising from the Vltava river. It's absolutely amazing how many of Prague's historical attractions survived the world war destruction. These sites are breathtaking! Gorgeous! Pristine! Some even thoroughly enjoyed solo. That's right. Sweet, sweet alone time. When you're constantly with someone (Ricky and Vince) for over 2 weeks, 24/7, all the freakin' time - hey, that's a lot of Ricky and Vince! With Vince already back in the states after Vienna and out of the picture, it was just Ricky to get away from. Just for the day. And I must say, there are some pros in traveling solo for a bit. It's quite therapeutic. Humbling, even.

Def looking forward to the day I get to go back to Prague. Something about this city adds a lil spring to your step and brings the adventurous spirit out in ya. The carefree vibe and 'tude feeding off the awe-inspiring city visuals is truly infectious. I can only imagine how much Prague changed since the last I was there. In 2008, Prague was at the brink of no longer becoming Europe's best kept secret. Everything was still dirt cheap. Now uber touristy and overcrowded with travelers, it probably lost some of it's hidden charm and affordability. But who cares when first impressions left such an indelible mark in ya? Prague will always be a happy, happy place for me.

Prague, I am coming back for ya!

besos ... jin.

AUSTRIA 2008

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There's actually life here in Vienna! Hallelujah! A most welcomed change from our boring Bratislava day trip by leaps and bounds. That's a big deal, y'all. Bratislava was kind of a waste of time. So we had some major catching up to do in Vienna. Though, we didn't do anything that much more differently in Vienna than in Bratislava. Usual touristy bit and stuff. Just more of it in Vienna! Hah!

Vienna was one heck of a visual treat for us. Maybe because we just came from drabby Bratislava and starving for something more culturally stimulating. But yeah, the architecture in Vienna is quite unique. There was not a place in Vienna that me, V + Ricky went that wasn't in the Classical or Baroque sense. Maybe a touch of Medieval here and there, but really, Classical and Baroque all the way. There's Mr. Mozart, the master Classical pianist, and his home tour decked out in Classical decor. We attended a symphony in a church performing, you've guessed it, Classical and Baroque masterpieces. Then there's the Schönbrunn Palace in all it's Rococo and Baroque-y-ness version of Alice in Wonderland. Even the alcohol here are sold in cute little violin-shaped bottles! So Baroque! So Classical! So Vienna!

Though, this is not the last I'll see of this beautiful, Classical city. I have an older sister, bro-in-law and a lil nephew living in Vienna, of all places, so a visit in the near future is a must. Before you go asking all these questions of why I didn't visit them the last I was there - there's only so much I can cram in 2.5 days. Plus we were traveling with Ricky and he unselfishly hooked us up with Executive VIP rooms and services at The Marriott. Not my usual means of stay. I'm all about hostels and residencias. But when free and luxury comes your way - you just take it! (Thanks, Accenture! You, sucker.)

With that said, I have never ate so much complimentary Haribo gummy bears from the VIP lounge in my life. (And gourmet appetizers and fancy crackers and yummy desserts and mixed drinks and wine. All complimentary! Again, thanks, Accenture!) With all the free access to food, there wasn't much local foodie adventures squeezed in. Something I must also make up for in my next visit, 'cause ya know, I really must see for myself why Vienna sausages aren't really Vienna sausages in the American sense. Which I'm still in shock about. (Say it ain't so!)

Anyways, we'z got a date to continue, Vienna. See you in 2015-ish, yah?

besos ... jin.

SLOVAKIA 2008

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The view, the atmosphere, the people - it all seemed a bit drab as we made the lengthy trek from the train station to the castle. Remnants of Communism peppered everywhere we turned. The city unusually quiet, the streets unusually bare. Where were the locals? Everything seemed so ... off. Perhaps it was late September and all the tourists were gone. The overcast day didn't help things either.

As it turned out, Bratislava Castle was one monumental disappointment. Times infinity. It was bad enough having to walk another 15-20 minutes uphill once we've entered the Bratislava Castle grounds (which is just as visually drab as the rest of the city), but once inside the castle, we found that most of it was under renovations. However, all the artifacts were conveniently displayed on the first floor in the meantime, so we took a gander. Aaaand, to be quite honest, it was a bit pathetic. Rocks and bricks and nails all laid out, with a lil synopsis of where they used to live in the castle. Hmm. Oookaaay. But it just wasn't us who thought the mini museum was an epic fail. A couple of tourists echoed our sentiments, stormed over to the cashier, and demanded their money back, 'This museum is SO boring!'

Yah, I'm with you fellow tourists.

But fear not, there is one good thing about the castle. Yes! The vantage point from the outside patios. They hold incredible panoramic views of the city and Danube River. Needless to say, we've spent most of our time up there until we got the munchies. Only then was it time to move on. Get some food. So where the heck is this Old Bratislava? The 2 guys we've asked didn't know much English, though one of them goes into a bus and out comes the entire bus of teenagers! Soon we were surrounded by teenagers who also didn't speak English. But bless their hearts, they helped us the best they could. And somehow, we've found Old Bratislava with it's medieval architectures and darling cobblestone walkways, eerily dead like a ghost town. Wow. This totally does not look like the Eurotrip movie at all. We did manage to find an open restaurant among the sea of closed shops where we've waited forever for just okay goulash. Despite being their only customers. Heh. At this point we thought it was time to hop on that train to Vienna.

I'm sure a lil sun would have made a world of difference in Bratislava. But thank God it was only a day trip. Bratislava, you are officially the most boring trip I have ever taken. Ever. On to Vienna!

besos ... jin.