Thessaloniki, Greece

Greek-out like a local
When you think of Greece, you probably think of Athens, Mykonos or Santorini – beautiful as they may be, and well worth checking out, maybe next time you think of Greece, you should also consider Thessaloniki!

We had visited Greece once before and visited some of the main sites (Athens, Mykonos, Santorini) but we had never been to Thessaloniki. Our dear friend Thomi kindly offered us to stay at her place for a week and it proved to be the perfect opportunity to get to know a part of Greece from a local perspective.

Economic struggle bus
At this point you’re probably thinking, but isn’t Greece suffering from economic strife? The truth is, yes. Of course they’re struggling –and it was a main topic of conversation during our stay– but the positive energy of the Greeks seems to allow them to look past the troublesome time and still enjoy themselves! 

We were in Greece during the most recent elections, which would determine how the nation will be dealing with their bailout plans. It was so interesting to hear everyone’s perspective on the subject. A general consensus: the government needs more organisation, better leadership, and better distribution of wages for public vs. private organisations. We spoke to a lot of hard-working citizens that just weren’t given the opportunity to thrive because of this mismanagement. However, some did admit there are some ingrained cultural aspects in Greek culture that make them value life over work, which could lead to less ambitious (and less productive) workers. We experienced some direct effect of the population’s unease at the current economic situation, when the busses didn’t run one day because the bus drivers were on strike. As an interesting backlash to the struggle, Greeks are now passionately supporting Greek brands over their global counterparts. A perfect example of this is the Greek coffee shop Mikel. It was always PACKED.. and the Starbucks right next to it? EMPTY.

Greek values
We immediately got a sense for Greek hospitality with a very warm welcome from our host Thomi and her mother. The minute we arrived, we were already sitting amongst an array of beautifully prepared Greek food and some ‘rakomela’ to go with it! (Rakomela is like a sweet raki that is served as an aperitif in Greek culture.) It’s not for everyone but I enjoyed it! 

We quickly noticed the importance of family in Greek tradition. During our stay we met Thomi’s mom, grandmother (yaya), grandfather (papou), uncle, aunt, and cousins. It was so nice to be surrounded by such welcoming people. They really made us feel like we were part of the family (even if we couldn’t understand most of what they were saying). History and politics are other huge topics in Greece, (understandably) which allowed for some really great conversations. 

Culture & nightlife
But like I said, don’t get hung up on the current crisis, instead, let’s take a look at the really cool cultural scene in Thessaloniki. Some daytime activities include strolling through the beautifully preserved ruins scattered throughout the whole city (they can’t even build a subway because every time they dig, they find more!), riding a bike / jogging along the Paralela boardwalk, or shopping for fresh fruit, veggies, nuts, fish, and meat int he colourful markets. If you’re lucky to come at the right day, you may also get to experience the excitement of a soccer match! Everywhere you look, you’ll see pubs filled with locals getting hammered off of Tuba Libres (traditional drink retsina with coca-cola) while watching the game.

At night, have a cozy evening at a greek tavern and experience the incredibly delicious food (and rakomela!) or for a more exciting night check out Siggrou street for a cool hipster scene, or Ladadiva for a more ‘posh’ night with lots of great dance spots. For a cheap student budget alternative, Ikismiki street has a cool strip where locals hang-out with drinks from a near non-stop shop.

Transylvania Countryside, Romania

I know you want me to talk about vampires, so I will..kind of; but the truth is, they're definitely not the only cool thing about Transylvania. We got the chance to check out a few of the most adorable towns in the heart of Romania and if you're considering a Transilvania adventure, make sure not to leave these out!

Vlad the Impaler: The Real Dracula
This is the story of a guy much scarier than the Dracula you might know: Vlad III AKA "The Impaler". In 1431, Vlad's dad (Vlad II) was inducted into a knightly order, the Order of the Dragon (the original Targaryens?!). This designation earned Vlad II a new surname: Dracul, which then was passed down to his son. Having dragon as your name is pretty badass, but "drac" can also mean devil.. and this guy really lived up to his name. The Order of the Dragon was devoted to the defeat of the Turkish, or Ottoman Empire. When he was a kid, Vlad III was captured and raised by the Ottomans, but after his father and half-brother were killed by them, he wanted his revenge. After some tough years winning and losing his father's seat, he obviously was a bit pissed off. So much so, that when he finally got his throne back, he invited boyars to banquets, knowing they would challenge his authority, and then had them stabbed and impaled on spikes. Funny thing is, he is still seen as a ruler that was "harsh but just" and generally a positive character in Romania.

SIbiu: Medieval Charm
We rented a car with our beautiful new Romanian friend Andra, and drove out to Sibiu! We decided to go far fist and work our way back to Bucharest through Brasov and Sinaia. First off, the drive through the Romanian countryside is absolutely breathtaking. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains and quaint streams, we could see why some people choose Transylvania for their off-the-grid getaways. Upon arriving in Sibiu, (deemed 2007's European Capital of Culture) the first thing we noticed is how drastically different the architecture is from Bucharest's. Ignoring the hilarious fact the houses look like they have eyes, the impeccably preserved Medieval walls and Germanic architecture combine to send us off to a time long long ago; say about 900 years ago (!!!). The Saxon and Hungarian influence is not only seen in the architecture; many of the folks living here actually are German or Hungarian, some of the signage is also written in these languages, and of course–the food! No wonder this charming town used to be the capital of Transilvania.

Brasov: Dracula's Neighbor
Another adorable town in the heart of Romania is of course, Brasov. This one is quite a bit more well-known to the tourist population, probably due to it's ideal location. It's the perfect mid-point between Bucharest, some of the main ski slopes, and some of the most visited castles (Dracula's castle is only 45 min away in Bran). Like SIbiu, it's also characterised by it's quaint, medieval charm and Saxon influence. 

Sinaia: The Carpathian Pearl
If you're an outdoorsy type, you might want to consider Sinaia. It's breathtaking views of the Carpathian mountains make it a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle in Bucharest. In the winter, it's a less crowded and less expensive alternative to the Alps (the Carpathian mountains are even called Tansilvania's Alps!), and in the summer, it's a perfect place to go for a hike. It's beauty even made it the summer getaway choice of the Romanian Royal family.

For more vampire fun... watch this

Bucharest, Romania

After staying in Bucharest for about a month and a half, it practically felt like home - so here's the longest post we've written as of yet! From time to time, we enjoy taking the time to really experience the culture of a place and feel like locals… and also have some more down time to get design work done! After getting a solid taste of of Romania's capital city, I would say that overall it seems to be an eclectic mix of a post-communist state and a rapidly BOOMING european-bohemian city. 

The Historic Center: A clash of the Belle Epoque and Communism
For the majority of our time here, we stayed in an apartment in the Historic Lipscani District. This older part of the city, decorated with ornate French-style architecture, would have probably extended a lot further today; but sadly, Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime and a series of strong earthquakes prevented that from being a reality. Now you just see beautiful Belle Époque buildings right across the street from big communist-era apartment blocks. Voilá, history reflects itself so vividly right before your eyes, gotta love it. But then you have the Centrul Civic District with even more notable effects of the Romanian Communist regime… the People’s Palace. It’s. HUGE. I mean, really MASSIVE. In fact, it's the heaviest building on Earth, and apparently the most expensive administrative building. Many locals say Ceausescu built it that big to match his ego (ha ha). In the 1980s, a huge amount of historical buildings were demolished in the Centrul Civic area and 40,000 people were evicted from their homes with just a day's notice to make space for 8 square km of socialist-realist style government offices and apartments. Not nice Ceausescu, not nice. We kind of ended up avoiding this part of Bucharest's center during our stay, preferring areas North of the river. There, you see a great effort to renovate the streets and old buildings... but don't expect any protection or western-style security around the construction sites!

Lipscani Nightlife: Get ready for a looong night
Getting back to Lipscani, it really does look like Paris! So much so, that it gave Bucharest the nickname “Little Paris”. It’s a super fun area to live in too. The streets are animated 24/7 with young people everywhere and bars upon bars blasting the latest top 40 hits. On weekends, you'll probably find a few latex-thonged lady-dancers or buff fire-breathers–it's totally standard club decor here. The clubs stay open all night... as in until the sunrise–sometimes even on a Tuesday.

If you'd like to stay away from the clubby naked-dancer thing, fear not! There are plenty of alternatives :) There are a few lounge-y bars in the area which we loved, like the Pura Vida rooftop bar (Sky Bar), BiutifulNomad, Bruno Wine Bar, and Bazaar; and some more laid-back "alternative-rock" bars like Mojo Club (British ex-pat bar with karaoke every night and a basement dance club) and 1974 Niste Domni si Fiii (local, cheap, rocker hangout) - Lot's of indoor-smoking happening inside both of these tho. There's also great dance bar/clubs in the area that play cooler, less-mainstream music than the bars on the main strip; like Interbelic, Control, and El Dictador

Just Outside the Center: Bohemian paradise
In between Lipscani and Piata Romana, all along the Calea Victoriei is where you'll find the artsy-bohemian crowd of locals. Once we found our way to the relaxed artsy scene in Bucharest, we really started to feel at home. Places like Gradina Eden (hidden behind Palace Stirbei), A1, and A2 were definitely among our favorite hangout spots. And traveling a bit further north, you find Terasa Baraka and Tête a Tête hidden amongst the trees of Herastrau Park. All of these bars have a very laid-back feel and usually pack up with creative-types and hipsters. Some even have hammocks and fruit smoothies, and they all also function as cafés during the day. 

Arts, Parks, & Coffee: Vampires in the daytime
A non-drinking activity we loved and would highly recommend is taking a stroll (or a morning run) through one of the many beautiful parks in Bucharest. We frequented Cismigiu Park to lay out in the sun and have a freshly squeezed portocale (orange juice) while we watched locals enjoying the little paddle boats and playing chess and backgammon. Herastrau Park is great too, only it's much bigger and has more cafés, bars, and even a skate park.

There are many art-related activities to do too. The Kulturama exhibit space in Piata Revolutiei is worth checking out to see exhibitions and artistic events that promote young talent. There are also constant art gallery shows... we went to like five of them. The art is usually really cool and creative... and the complimentary wine is always nice too. There are lots of museums and tours to check out too... but with so much to see, we didn't really fit those in.

We did however, get a lot of design work done, and got to know the best coffee shops and co-working spaces. My personal favorite was M60. The coffee, the food, the ambiance, power outlets everywhere, comfy chairs, amazing service – it just can't be beat! Other great ones include Tucano Coffee (the one by Piata Romana is the best!) and the pay by the hour co-working space Seneca Anticafe where you get a little check-in bookmark with a famous writer's name (no coffee here though, only teas). Carturesti Carusel is also worth checking out. It's a bookstore/café/event space/gallery in a beautifully reconstructed old building. Another cute but smaller spot is the Libraria Humanitas near Cismigiu Park that has a café area and a great selection of teas.

In the end, it was a bitter-sweet goodbye. We were sad to leave the great new friends we made, but thrilled to start our next adventure!

Caserta, Italy

On our way to Alberobello, we made a stop at the Reggia di Caserta (Palazzo Reale). It's a pectacular 18th century Baroque palace known as the "Italian Versailles" and just as you would expect... IT'S HUGE.  In fact, it's the largest royal residence in the world with over 2 million m³ and covers an area of about 47,000 m² (according to Wikipedia). It's also (more importantly) the setting for Queen Amidala's royal palace on Naboo in the 1999 film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.