Tag Archives: Europe

Little Vietnam in Prague. Finding Pho.

My favourite dish in the entire world is Pho. First discovered when I was just nineteen and wide eyed in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Min city, after finding my way to the city’s famous Pho 2000. After that I could, and would, quite happily eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A bottle of Tiger on the side and I’m in heaven.             

You can find somewhere serving Pho almost everywhere in the world. In Sydney, for the best and most authentic head to Cabramatta. In London? Head straight to Shoreditch. For the past two weeks I have been craving it more then usual. Most of my Sydney expat friends in London just happen to be of Vietnamese origin, all their parents being born and raised in Vietnam. So it wasn’t just me that was constantly craving a bowl of Pho, or a plate of Summer Rolls – I’m just the only one who is white. So for the past few weeks I had been sending regular messages; “Pho this week?” Though true to London form, making plans isn’t as easy as it should be. So off I set for a week in Prague still thirsty for soup.

One late morning a few days later however, I came across a market which really wouldn’t have looked out of place in any Vietnamese town I have ever been to. Squeezed inbetween stalls selling cheap knives and fake Calvin Klein underwear is where I found a tiny little shop, consisting of a two burner stove, a drinks fridge and a woodern board with a menu. I smelt it before I saw it, coming from a huge pot of broth on the stove; Beef Pho.

In front of the ‘open kitchen’ where several long communal tables with bench seats. Above then sat a wooden board with the menu, in Vietnamese and Czech, though it didn’t matter that I couldn’t read either of them. “One beef Pho please. Oh, and this beer”, opening the fridge and holding up a can of Czech Kozel. Proper South East Asian service; ‘Relaxed’.
  
It came out quickly enough and though it didn’t have a side plate of the usual bean sprouts, basil and mint, it was accompanied by some lemons and a chili and garlic oil. And of course a bottle of chilli sauce. The soup had the usual rice noodles and coriander, though it was a bit light on the spring onions – my favourite part. The broth however was clear, a slight layer of fat sat on top, and was just what I wanted.

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Though not my usual Tiger, I sipped the beer and slurped my soup in the warm and slightly humid weather. Around me small children wander around, their parents minding their respective stalls, Vietnamese chatting and laughter, it felt like being back in South East Asia even though I was as far away from there as I could get. Craving satisfied.

“Of Course You’re Going To Slovenia”

“Of course you’re going to Slovenia.”

Said with a sigh, shrug of the shoulders and a quick roll of his eyes, my friend Dave stood in my room inquiring as to where exactly I was off to the next day. We met two years ago in Vietnam, and ever since his newsfeed has had a pretty constant stream of photos, statuses and check-in’s from all corners of the world – the majority of which have had my name attached to them. So his response was pretty understandable. Apparently I’m the “of course she is” friend.

The next day, after a particularly boozy evening and an impressive 5:00am return home, I got up at the fairly respectable time of 10:30. Followed by a run to the shop for eggs and a hungover household breakfast of bacon and egg sandwiches was made, I was walking out the door still shoving clothes into my bag for the next week. The next several hours were lost in transit, but I eventually arrived in Ljubljana.

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The week before I had met a friend of a friend, another Australian who had just moved to London, at a dinner with a bunch of other Australian’s (which seems to happen on a weekly basis actually). We got talking about backpacking around Europe (something which every Australian seems to talk about with other Australian’s), and she starting saying how much she loved Ljubljana; hence my decision to go and check it out for myself. I had rather high expectations already – as one would, hearing it be described as “my favourite place in Europe” – but even those expectations were pushed out of the way as even my first impression – a dreary, raining, cold night – found me liking Ljubljana even more then I had expected.

After finally finding my hostel (has it been mentioned that I am, quite ironically, extremely bad at directions and geography?) at the well known Sax Pub, a blues a jazz pub in the bohemian part of Trvono, I caught up on some missed sleep from the night before. Next next morning, after a bit of a sleep in, I headed out to find some breakfast. If I thought I was impressed the evening before, this morning I was one hundred times more. Standing on the stone paved road, in front of me was a narrow river which was border either side with tall trees, their leaves hanging down in shades of yellows and oranges. Now, I’ve always had this impression of Eastern Europe – gathered mainly from Vice documentaries on drug epidemics and illegal sex trade going-ons that it is kinda, a bit, dodgy and gross, probably with stray dogs just wandering around. Obviously however, I’ve been watching to many illegal sex trade documentaries. Okay, so maybe some parts are like that, but not here. Ljubljana is amazing, and everything about it is beautiful. The landscape, that buildings, the streets, and in particular, the people. I am yet to see an unattractive Slovenian, with the exception of a couple of 85 year old’s, but maybe they’re actually really attractive to other 85 year olds.

DSCN5394‘The Pink Church’, the main attraction in the Old Town centre.

So their country is beautiful, their architecture is beautiful, their people are beautiful – so far everything is going well for them. But it gets better – they speak perfect, fluent, 100% understandable English. Now I’m not one of those people who thinks everyone should speak it, not at all, but when someone does, it really makes everything a lot easier for everyone involved in communicating with me.

I arrived on a Saturday evening, and I’m going to be honest here…there really isn’t anything to do on a Sunday. Everything in the Old Town is closed, with the exception of the tourist information centre, a handful of restaurants, and a Zara store. Although the free walking tour does run every day and would be my recommendation of what to do on a Sunday. It starts at 11:00am, so not to much of a sleep in – unlike me. Due to the fact that I missed it, I went for a bit of a wander around and spent a bit of time taking some amazing pictures of the town in Autumn, followed by a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The rest of the day was spent in cafes and restaurants catching up on some writing or doing some reading. Everyone needs a day like that every once in a while, even while your traveling.

The next day I did drag myself out of bed at a reasonable hour and got out to see what the, somewhat more lively, streets of Ljubljana had to offer.

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The Dragon Bridge: a couple of hundred metres east of the main square is a bridge which, quite proudly, houses four statue dragons. Dragons happen to be the national emblem of Slovenia, appearing on the Coat of Arms and the Ljubljana flag. There are two stories as to why this is, one long and one short.

Let’s start with the short one; the main cathedral in Ljubljana is named and honored to Saint George, who as everyone knows, defeated a dragon.

Now the good one, and it involves Hercules; back in the mythological ages of Greece, there was a prince and his evil half uncle, and when it was time for the prince to inherit his royal duties the evil uncle stole his position and sent him away. Several years later, the prince returned demanding his rightful throne. The king decided to send him on a long journey, which he couldn’t possibly complete, and if he was to succeed the throne would be handed over to him. This journey involved traveling to Turkey to retrieve a magical woolen fleece. Well, when the prince got there with his posse, he tricked the guards and stole the fleece, fleeing back to their wooden boat, with them the beautiful princess, who went with him willingly of course, because after all, he is prince charming.

However, the Turks had followed him and the Prince knew that if he lead them back to Greece he would start a war. So instead, he decided to navigate their way through various rivers throughout what is now Eastern Europe, losing them on the way and making it safely back to Greece. However, while passing through Slovenia, the river dried up and turned into swampland, forcing the group to dismantle the boat entirely and carry it across. Luckily for them, Hercules was good friends with the Prince, and obviously did most of the heavy lifting. There was however, a dragon which guarded the swampland, and he challenged the Prince to a fight. Obviously the Prince won, as he always does in fairy tales, and they all went back to Greece where he claimed his throne and everyone lived happily ever after.

Which really doesn’t make any sense as to why you would put the defeated dragon on your Coat of Arms, but it makes a good story. It is also said that if a virgin is to walk over the bridge, the dragons will wiggle their tails. One Ljubljana local who I spoke to found this myth particularly funny, saying, “I’ve never seen that happen. I guess that says something about our people!” he exclaimed. He also had quite a laugh when he said, “Maye we should get Miley Cyrus to walk across it. A wreaking ball might come along and smash it to bits!”

The bridge itself however, was built between the two World Wars, when Slovenia was under Austrian rule and very poor. The bridge was the first of it’s kind, as it was built with an untested material of crushed rocks which were mixed with cement, due to the bad economic situation at that time. As it had never been tested to with stand use, the Austrians decided to give the Slovenian’s their bridge, arguing that if it did collapse, no harm done.

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Unlike most statues in Europe (and their is a fucking lot!) which depict conquers, monarchist, and military generals, the statue in the main square of Ljubljana is of the Slovenian poet, France Preseren. The Slovenian people believe that anyone who has contributed to language and literature, has had as much of an impact on their history then any military General. Personally, I find this extremely cool! Preseren was considered to be quite the romanticist, and wrote many well know Slovenian poems, as well as their national anthem. Above his statue sits another of a muse for him, just like most statues of other poets. In cities like Paris for example, statues of naked women has always been widely excepted. In Ljubljana however, a predominantly Catholic population at the time of it’s construction, this was not the case. Locals would complain about it’s lack of modesty, particularly visible from the church’s steps. It is said that to solve this problem, three large trees were planted on the statues right, blocking it from view of the church. This works great all times of the year, except for winter when the trees leaves fall of and no longer provide a barrier between the two sides of the square.

DSCN5392Juliet, France Peresen’s real life muse.

Peresen also had a real life muse, coincidentally, named Juliet. He first met, and feel in love with Juliet when she was just 13 years old – he, 42. Peresen would continuously ask her out, Juliet always refusing. Eventually Juliet grew up, married, grew old and lived happily every after with her husband. She continued however, to be Peresen’s muse, and was the inspiration of many of his writings and poems. Juliet also had a statue put in the Old Town square, on the side of a building, in the direct eye line of France Peresen’s statue, so that he can forever admire his real true love.

DSCN5432The beautifully lined canals of Ljubljana.

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Although most people assume that the Lover’s Bridge tradition started in Paris, being the city of love, it actually originated from Italy after a writer wrote a novel about two lovers who locked a lock onto a particular bridge in Italy, and threw the key into the water to symbolise their love. People started to copy this act, and it soon spread throughout Italy, into France, and now Slovenia. What’s ironic about the one in Ljubljana is that, unlike the romantic name of Lover’s Bridge in Paris, this one is called Butcher’s Bridge, due to the butcher shops with border it’s entrance. Although the government don’t seem to mind the new tradition which locals have started, they do however come along once a year and take a a hundred or so locks off when they feel that it is getting a little to crowded.

DSCN5416Local florists selling their flowers at the town’s outdoor markets.

In the middle of Ljubljana is a hill, and upon that hill sits a castle which looks down on the city. Although the castle it’s self isn’t as exciting as some in other countries, and the grounds seem to mainly accommodate people walking their dogs and a few groups with a quite recognisable smell of weed coming from their direction, it does house two restaurants within the castle’s walls. One is a ‘Jamie Oliver style’ Slovenian cuisine restaurant, and the other serves up  traditional medieval dishes.

There are two ways to get to the top of the hill and the castle. The first being a ride in the shuttle for about 4 euros, and the other being a slightly steep walk up. Because I’m cheap, and feel as if I should probably do more physical exercise then I actually do, I decided to walk. It’s been a few months since I was trekking various mountains in Peru (and even then, with the altitude, thin air, and the fact that I’m not fit at all, I was dying) I did stop a couple of times, but trust me, it’s worth it, because when you get to the top you are greeted with this view.

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And here marks the third time I have ever seen snow. I can only imagine what it would have looked like during winter!

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Blue Lagoon, Malta

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Situated on Comino Island in Malta, Blue Lagoon is absolutely beautiful! With the clearest water I have ever seen, boats packed with passengers start coming in early morning and all day the rocky cliffs which enclose the lagoon are packed with both locals and tourist swimming, sunbathing, snorkling or playing waterpolo – the national sport, which they are extreamly passionate about. On a good day you will be hard pressed to find a spare beach chair and umbrella to hire, unless you get there early. Inbetween all the beach chairs and sunbathers, there are various food stalls selling kebabs and hamburgers, to ice creams and slushies. Blue Lagoon is a definite must, and my number one recommendation for if you are visiting Malta!

Português Caramujos

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Something in Europe this time. In a small family run restaurant, in the back streets of Portugal’s capital Lisbin, you can order these little suckers. With the mother of the family in the kitchen, and the teenage children taking orders, the restaurant was packed on this week night, with local families and tables of men eating and drinking.

A few friends and I had booked an evening food tour, which consisted of a local guide in his 20’s who drove us down alleys and backstreets in a bright yellow van to restaurants  and bars popular with the locals. Once we arrived at the restaurant we were seated in the very modest and simple dining room. Our local guide spoke with the teenage daughter serving us, in a way which showed he, like most of the customers, was a regular and had a familar relationship with the family.

He ordered for us and out first came a jug of vinho verde, which translates to green wine. It is a young wine, which is ment to be drunk within a year of being made. This was followed by a selection of soft cheeses, then the speciality – snails in chilli and lime. We were shown how to eat them (by pulling them out of the shell with a toothpick) and we tucked in. They were de-licious! Once picked out of their shells, the snail it’s self is quite small and it is hard to tell what it even is you’re eating. I had never eaten snails prior to this, nor have I since, so I don’t have anything else to compare them too, but they were full of flavour! The chilli and sourness of the lime was subtle, and the juices which sat on the bottom of the plate ensured that the snails were kept moist and none were spared, as they could easily soak and absorb the flavours while still in the shell. I could easily sit around and eat these little guys all day – and with a glass of green wine of corse!

578847_10151087391768996_1436129974_nBingeing on snails and trying to forget about my ridiculous sunnies tan