a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘in your pocket guides’

who needs noma? ;)

I hope no one will get vertigo as we bounce around the world and I catch up on the stories from past travels that have been floating around in my brain for some time but have not yet made it onto a keyboard…

First, we are going back to Bucharest.  Even though it’s been months since I was actually there, it was such a fun and memorable trip, it feels sad to be typing the final posts.

It’s not that I wouldn’t love to go to noma 😉  Perhaps someday…  I only saw El Bulli in the film.  I am sure a meal at an institution of that stature would be worth all of the trouble of securing a reservation but I have managed to stumble upon places with a level of culinary artistry such that you will remember the meal for a very long time.



As usual, I arrived ill-prepared but the hotel did have a copy of the in your pocket guide so I knew I would figure something out 🙂


Had some time to kill before it would be time for dinner so just started randomly walking the streets near the hotel.  They were filled with fin de siècle architecture, graffiti and the occasional KFC or Pizza Hut – a fascinating and unusual mix.

who needs disney to act like a princess :)

who needs disney to act like a princess 🙂

I definitely wasn`t dining at either of those options but no other restaurant screamed `pick me` so I kept wandering.  I was starting to get tired and hungry so decided to venture into the Grand Continental Hotel where I found Concerto.  There are several versions of Romania one can explore.  That night I was channeling a Habsburg princess.  It`s not my usual style but fun for a couple of hours.


The service was very formal and the dining room was opulent.  There were only a handful of diners so it felt like I had servants at my beck and call.  The meal was delicious and I had my first discovery of Romanian wine (it`s very good and great value).

If you like a side of history with your beverage, check out the English Bar at Athénée Palace Hotel.  It was a den of spies, political conspirators, adventurers and their assorted entourages in the years leading up to World War II.  It was then nationalized by the Communist government and filled with bugs and informants.  I just had a glass of wine while I read my guidebook and planned my next move but it would be the perfect setting to have a “martini, shaken, not stirred“…


I was on my way to Eden on the recommendation of my server in Amsterdam who loved Bucharest and was jealous of my impending journey.  Unfortunately, I was in the wrong season for the nightclub but it was still a very pleasant place to have lemonade after all my fervent trekking to see the real Bucharest.


I eventually got to the Old Town, which is even more spectacular with note-worthy architecture.  Since it is also a tourist zone, it`s easier to find intriguing restaurants – and also lots of spots obviously dedicated to tourists 😉  I spotted a place called Nouvelle Vague.  It looks like it belongs in Gastown so I decided I would ask for a table.  My instincts are solid.  Had an excellent main course called “sparkling fish“ and equally excellent Romanian sauvignon blanc.  The service was a wonderful treat and I found out they had only been open for three months so it was nice to support some young entrepreneurs.


By the next night, I had carefully read the in your pocket guide and had zeroed in on The Artist as my dining location of choice.  But then I got more typical Eastern European service… apparently, all the tables were booked even though the restaurant was empty and I wasn`t planning to linger BUT I was able to make a reservation for the next night.

But that meant I still had to find somewhere to have dinner that night.  So I continued on my wandering and consulted the guidebook and decided to select la Bonne Bouche.  Yet again, an outstanding dinner.  Was really craving beet salad by then (just getting salad in Europe can be a dilemma) and there it was!  Accompanied by delicious moules frites and a flight of Sauvignon Blanc to expand my knowledge of Romanian wine.


And then it was finally time for my dinner reservation at The Artist!!!  It`s run by a Dutch chef who I gather fell in love with a Romanian woman.  Now, Dutch and chef is not a word combination that normally makes one salivate but, given my obsession with the Dutch and the amount of hours I have spent in recent years in Amsterdam, I knew that was changing and it was now possible to find a good Dutch chef.


But The Artist is not just a good Dutch chef.  It is the kind of meal you will remember for the rest of your life.  It`s not Eleven Madison Park but it`s not something you would expect to find in Bucharest either.  The food is exceptional and creative but there is also a little theatre to make sure the meal takes you to the next level.

The meal began with a literally smoking amuse bouche.  Each course was accompanied by different bread, chosen to compliment and expand the flavours of that element.  There is also a `spoon` selection for each course so you can have a large spoonful of each option.  So I got to try ALL the appetizers.  Each was a great pop of complex flavour.

food as poetry...

food as poetry…

I stuck with sea bass for my main course and chose the cucumber sorbet for dessert as I had observed it came with a side of theatre.  First, you are presented with a mortar and pestle and a nest of herbs.  The chef then appears with a ball of sorbet.  You are encouraged to mix the herbs with the sorbet to create your own dessert.

You finish with sublimely rich chocolate truffles.  The entire experience was accompanied by champagne and an excellent Romanian white wine.  I can`t remember the exact cost but I think it was around $50 USD.

Bucharest is a total bargain.  What I hadn`t expected was the delicious modern food and Romanian wine.  You can eat even cheaper if you are into sausage, sauerkraut and offal but, if you are more a beet salad kind of person, you will be equally well-served.  Just arrive hungry! 🙂


let’s get this party started ;)

Right now I am reading a book I bought when I ran out of reading material in Prague.  It’s called Revolution 1989 The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen.  I highly recommend it.  I am fascinated by history in general but having been in Berlin in November 1989 makes the events described in this book especially poignant.  And it felt like something I should start reading in Prague…

I am always reading several books at the same time so I am only about half-way through this one.  Merely by accident, I just finished a chapter describing Romania under Ceauşescu.  I knew the dude was evil but it’s hard to imagine someone treating other people the way that he did.  Of course, psychopath dictators likely didn’t score points for sharing in kindergarten.  That period of Romanian history is shocking.  Hollywood loves to keep blaming the Nazis long after Germany has cleaned up its act.  There are plenty of other evil guys – and their Lady MacBeths.  They really need to branch out.

You, on the other hand, should just book a plane ticket to Bucharest!  I feel very guilty that it has taken me this long to write about Romania but I did make notes so will try to do it justice over the next weeks.  There is lots of talk of Cuba and of Myanmar.  I have already booked to see the first and am hoping to get to the second before 2016 is complete.  But there is little talk of Romania – or Bucharest.  I think it’s a place to go now before it becomes totally sanitized and you aren’t sure exactly what city you are in.  The internet is a wonderful thing but it – and the Americans’ incredible skills at marketing – are destroying the differences between cultures and making the world more homogeneous.

bucharest pre ceausescu

bucharest pre ceausescu

At least for now, Bucharest feels unique.  It’s an eastern European former communist city with a Latin soul.  It’s a bit like Las Vegas.  Nothing seems to shut and you lose track of time.  The first night was safe because I didn’t know my way around the city yet so didn’t want to be wandering the streets at 3am.  The second day I did a gigantic tour on a very jet-lagged sketchy night of sleep so partying hard was out of the question.  But then I caught up on my sleep, knew how to get back to the hotel in the dark and was ready to fully experience Bucharest 🙂

There is the quintessential charming European Old Town and it’s a tourist mecca.  There are the bars catering to the drunken lads and ladettes celebrating stags, hen parties or just the fact that beer is really cheap in Bucharest.  You will see them roaming in packs.  If that’s your thing, there are definitely lots of options catering to that type of tourist.  I am always hoping to meet locals and get a sense of the culture of the place.


Once again, I found the in your pocket guide very helpful.  I also just roamed around looking for something interesting, which is how I discovered XIX.  Alex was singing in the window and he was fantastic.  You could just watch from the street but I spotted a free seat and thought I should support the bar.  At the time, it was pretty new on the scene so the servers were very enthusiastic.  Had a lovely conversation with two of the staff, one Romanian and one Russian.  They were sure I had to try a Black Mojito.  It was too sweet for me but the Black Ursus beer is excellent and costs about $3

serendipity in bucharest

serendipity in bucharest



Alex was a revelation.  It was covers but his range was amazing.  Music is definitely globalized.  It is always disconcerting to hear people singing English lyrics in foreign countries but he is an amazing singer.  From AC/DC Highway to Hell through the BeeGees, Leonard Cohen, Coldplay to Roy Orbison “In Dreams” and Radiohead “Creep”.

The “scene” is still under development – and especially as a foreign tourist – it was hard to figure out what to do once Alex had ended his set.  I tried a few places recommended by in your pocket but they were either empty or full of sweaty people singing karaoke without air-conditioning so I ended up at the Control Club.  It was also a bit quiet but there was music so I bought a beer and figured I would finish it and then head to the hotel.


But, unlike Paris and London, Bucharest is not yet overrun by tourists so the locals are very friendly.  I was invited to join a bachelor party and ended up having one of the most memorable nights of my life.  I am always hoping to meet locals and get a real sense for the place, not just tick off the tourist sites.

Life in modern day Bucharest is interesting.  It is no longer a violent police state and you can sense the optimism but it is also still an emerging market country and – as someone born in the first world, you appreciate how privileged your everyday life really is.  What I have found most interesting in emerging market countries is that generally people seem smarter and better informed.  They have to try harder than the privileged children of the west with their over-sized sense of entitlement.

It all started as just a friendly sharing of information.  The group was composed of civil engineers and architects so my kind of people 🙂  I forgot to check the time.  People started going home.  The bachelor left.  It was just George, Marius and me.  George was interested in Canada so we got another beer and somehow it was 4:30am when I got back to the hotel!  The young guy on the desk was super friendly so just added to the glow of a wonderful evening where I transcended being a tourist.

Everyone was so friendly and welcoming I went back to XIX the next night and met David Dango who was the musician in the window.  The friendly Russian server was on again and I met the owner before I left to head for the Control Club.  Once again, expected the night to end at normal time but a friendly Romanian guy had just broken up with his girlfriend and I don’t think the Control Club ever shuts… evening ended at 5:30am this time.  I needed to go back to Amsterdam to get some sleep!  On second thought, we’ll go with the whole sleep when you’re dead concept…

My time in Bucharest was far too short.  I only really scratched the surface.  I would love to see the country prosper.  At least, it is really heartwarming to see people having a chance to speak their mind and party like it’s Vegas.  And they can even joke about the evil Mr. C.  Check it out while it is still has the sense of opening a time capsule.  Even if history is not your thing, just go for the Romanians 🙂



who knew Poland was a hipster paradise? ;)

I realize it’s unfair to keep comparing Krakow to other places but it is still enough of an underground destination that it helps people to more easily visualize what Krakow has to offer so, sorry Poland, but I did wonder if I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Austin… or Portland…

Given that Austin and Portland are two of my favourite places on the planet, it was like being transported into a fairy tale.  Like the others, it is a college town so there are lots of cool things to do – and lots of offerings students can afford.

I really regretted my early Friday night – and that I hadn’t booked a longer stay – but I was determined to at least get a taste for what Krakow had to offer.

I first discovered this in Dubrovnik but, if you are heading east, check out in your pocket guides for great tips on what to do.  I had an amazing time in Krakow thanks to them.  In writing this, I finally signed on to the website and see they have lots of destinations but what makes them special is that they have insider tips for countries like Latvia and Belarus.


I am far too old to be a proper hipster but, rather than having an arrested adolescence, I seem to have an arrested 30something complex.  Luckily, as long as I get a decent amount of sleep, no one seems to question my age-appropriateness in the venue.

The challenge in Krakow is that there is way too much to do, especially on the weekend.  You can watch live music, you can go to a dive bar, you can be a tourist and park yourself on the main square with a beverage, you can dance to electronic music or you can watch a classical music concert in a baroque church.  You just have to pick something.  Otherwise, you will just sit with your in your pocket guide in your hand evaluating options until the current venue kicks you out.

on your way to the music :)

on your way to the music 🙂

I didn’t manage to get through all the options but I did try to mix it up and see what I could in my short visit.  If you are travelling with a companion or two and want to have a cocktail in a sophisticated environment, Baroque is a good choice.  If you are travelling solo and looking for some interesting people watching, try Baccarat.  It is a little rough around the edges compared to London but there was a good local band playing covers and singing songs in Polish that the crowd definitely enjoyed.  There was a lot of velvet drapery, much of it in crimson.  Perhaps it is a hangout for Dracula…



I would not have taken Dracula for a Mojito kind of guy.  But I would recommend you stick to those kind of cocktails in eastern Europe.  It’s still the 90s in some ways.  But there is a charming retro vibe.  Just don’t try to order a Manhattan.  They didn’t have any bourbon!  I am sure there would not have been a sour cherry or a burnt orange garnish… Don’t try to be fancy… drink beer – or vodka – and you will have a blast.

I had one more evening and had done enough exploring to know my way around quite well so went a little further afield for Sunday night.  The club is called Piec’Art and is famous for jazz.  It wasn’t actually jazz but folk music as channeled by the Poles.  The cover was minimal, the beer was cheap (and excellent) and the band was talented.  I felt very local.  There were only a handful of people in the venue.  I had asked in English if there was a band in order to buy the ticket so the band said they would have to skip the intro because it was in Polish.  I said I was in Poland; I expected people to speak Polish.  So they just performed as planned.  I didn’t know what they were saying a lot of the time but that is the amazing thing about music – it is universal even when you can’t understand the lyrics.


During the band’s break, Lucas asked me where I was from.  Apparently he and his father are big fans of Canada and hope to visit someday. I learned that the bar was empty because there was an election in progress and people were at home watching the debate.  I expect people vote in Poland.  Because I roam the world so much, I have often ended up in places while there was an election in progress.  It’s always interesting to see the political process in different places.  The right to vote is such a privilege but people in old democracies often don’t bother voting or making an informed decision.  You come for the entertainment but often the experience is richer than expected.

I’m not cool enough to be a hipster but have followed my own drum and been into alternative stuff since I was pre-teen.  I came of age when it was a lot more controversial to be different and the global political landscape was a galaxy away from where it is now.  With the Americans and Russians running around the world trying to stir up trouble and handing out AK-47s like Halloween candy, it can be hard to feel like we are making progress but I keep visiting countries where democracy is a newish concept and lots of people have been lifted out of poverty in the last couple of decades.

The alternative has become the mainstream.  And not all stuffy old practices were bad.  One of the great delights of travelling in Europe is the eye candy – well-groomed, clean shaven men of all ages in tailored suits and wonderfully shiny chic shoes.  Personally, I think if the hipsters want to score more often, they might consider shaving, put on a suit, trade the ironic trainers for a pair of shiny lace-up oxfords and learn how to talk like a charming Latin gentleman… 🙂  You probably can’t trust them but it doesn’t mean you will be able to resist 😉

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