Monday, 27 July 2015

Slovakia - The Road Trip Continues

After our slight miss when choosing a mountain town to explore in Poland (top tip, don't go to Zakopane!) I was super happy when Nick and I reached our Slovakian campsite at the base of the high tatras. It was pretty! And secluded! And there weren't stalls lining the streets selling all manner of tacky things: no pope paintings, no mass produced stuffed toys, nobody trying to sell me a five minute go on a bouncy castle. 


This felt like a true escape from the real world which is, I imagine, what everyone's looking for when they think about heading into the mountains and getting "off grid" for a few days.


The other great thing about our chosen campsite, Rijo Camping, was that it was only a 15 minute walk from Stará Lesna, a small train station where you can catch the electric train to places like Štrbské Pleso, Stary Smocovec, Vyšné Hágy, Nová Polianka, Tatranská Polianka and Tatranská Lomnica to explore the Slovakian towns and mountains. 



Like good hikers we consulted the free Vyoské Tatry summer hiking map displayed at entrance to the campsite and took pictures of the areas we wanted to check out (sorry, I can't spend €7 on a map I'll use two or three times!) and headed off on what was marked as an easy hike. About 7 or 8 minutes into the hike I came to the realisation that Lonely Planet weren't kidding when they said to wear proper hiking boots. This was the moment that I realised that hiking isn't really just a big walk! There are steep inclines and when it rains, which of course it did as soon as we started out, those inclines will get slippery and your running shoes and strawberry print umbrella really aren't gonna cut it as outdoor wear! Still, like the idiots we are, we pushed on. We had decided to hike and hike was what we were going to do. After 50 minutes (the amount of time the map said the whole hike would take) we realised that we were roughly halfway. We also realised that the more it rained the more slippery it was and that maybe, jut maybe, my optimism and confidence in our abilities might be both adorable and incredibly stupid so, we turned back! 


We got to see this totes adorable slug on the way down though, it's teal! How cute is that?! After many laughs about our attempt at hiking we decided that scoping out the vegan snack sitch' might be more our speed so we popped to the closest shop to scoop up whatever vegan treats we could find. We hit the jackpot (or so we thought!) at the only supermarket in Stary Smokovec where we grabbed this fine selection of vegan eats.




I'll start with the positives. The bake rolls have become a firm favourite of ours, both the garlic and sea salt flavours are vegan, although we were sad to discover a pizza flavour that of course contained milk products. Sadly the chocolate soya dessert and the garlic sausage were not, shall we say, to our tastes. The sausage was almost flavourless but was a colour I associate with my pastel hued hair or a whipped buttercream icing and definitely not with savoury food and Nick described the dessert as grainy. Neither of us think that pudding should be grainy. Still, if you're vegan you won't starve in the mountains and that's definitely a positive.

The next day, after much map consulting and photographing we decided to take a funicular from Stary Smovovec up to Hrebienok and hike around up there for the afternoon. It was a bit of a gloomy day but I was quite happy with that, as you'll see later I'm not cut out for hiking in the heat!


The hikes really weren't super challenging even for noob's like us, there were definitely some spots where you really had to concentrate as you climbed from rock to rock and, of course, a lot of it was uphill (these are mountains after all!) but it wasn't especially difficult. As always I was in charge of snacks and I packed a Clif bar and a tub of mixed nuts. 


I make our nut mixes myself with whatever nuts we can afford at the local grocery store and I usually go for roasted and unsalted as I prefer them that way. The base mix is almonds, cashews and pistachios and if we're feeling fancy we'll pick up some macadamias or hazelnuts to throw into the mix. The scenery up in Hrebienok was stunning and just what I'd hoped for from the High Tatras. I loved seeing the fir trees, lakes and waterfalls and getting right out there into nature. 


I don't really consider myself to be an outdoorsy person because I'm a city girl at heart but I do love being outside and I feel like walking around like this is one of my favourite forms of exercise. Maybe there's an outdoorsy person inside of me just waiting to get out?!

After our hike we still had enough energy left to take the train to Štrbské Pleso to wander around a lake we'd seen marked on the map.


It's super beautiful and peaceful there, it has a real picture postcard look and I'd bet that it looks even more ridiculous in winter! There was no logical route around the lake so we walked halfway around in one direction and then went back the way we came before heading to the biggest supermarket in the area to grab bread, fruit and veggies for dinner.

On our final day in the mountains we decided that we wanted to get as high up as possible which meant braving the cable cars. I'm going to be honest with you here, I'm not a natural adventurer. It may seem like I must be because, y'know, I'm a traveller, aren't we all adventurous? But nope. Not always. Not in every single scenario - travel involves pushing myself out of my comfort zone regularly. I have a very real awareness of my own mortality which, combined with a very vivid imagination, sometimes conspire to make things like cable cars, roller coasters and boats panic attack inducing experiences. Basically though I try super hard not to let these anxieties stop me doing anything I want to do. I'm not always successful but I try and this time it payed off and I hopped onto the cable car between Tatranská Lomnica and Štart and, after a brief pause to get my mind to shush and stop telling me I was about to plunge down a mountain to my death, I switched to the second cable car, hopped off at Skalnaté pleso, and was up at 5659 feet within minutes.


It wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination but wow, I was so glad I did it when I got to the top, breathed in my first lungful of crisp mountain air and gazed out at the view. Gorgeous. As you can see in this pic there's actually a third tiny cable car that goes up even higher. We decided not to take that one because it was already chilly at the altitude we were at and the cars were both tiny and incredibly cramped. It was fun to watch them disappearing up into the clouds though.


We were sad to be leaving the mountains the next morning but we were ready to cruise south and we had a leisurely day of driving with a few sightseeing stops in mind. Levoča was our first planned stop because who could cruse by aUNESCO World Heritage sight without stopping to explore?


Lecoča has a beautiful old town and we walked along the well preserved city walls, zig zagged through the streets, scoped out the medieval church and ate a picnic on a bench in the town square.




I think this photo Nick took accurately sums up what's so great about our little romahome, we were able to swing through the streets of Levoča and pop it into a regular parking spot no worries. I'd like to see most of the camper vans I've seen on this trip try to do that!


Our next road trip destination was the ruined, and partially rebuilt, Spiš Castle. The hill up to Spiš Castle from the back car park, yes, it turned out that there is in fact a closer car park, is a lot bigger, steeper and longer than it looks from the bottom. I was thinking that it would be a nice stroll but nope it was, forgive the hyperbole, horrific. I am not cut out for climbing giant hills in the midday heat, I like to think that I am but the reality does not match up with what my inner monologue is telling me I can accomplish. At one point I lay down in a bush and told Nick to just leave me there to die. I can get quite dramatic when I'm too hot.


We made it though and after lying in a heap by the entrance for 20 minutes getting our breath back and discussing how ridiculous I am we enjoyed exploring and checking out the views. If you're driving from Levoča I would highly recommend continuing round the bend in the road to the official car park if you don't want to arrive sweaty and exhausted!



After our sojourn in the moutons and our day of exploring we needed to stock up the van with vegan yums for our journey into Hungary so I had a quick look at the Happy Cow app to see if any of the cities we'd be driving past had health food stores. I hit the jackpot in Košice which has a BioPark store that Happy Cow helpfully informed me was located within the Aupark mall. The mall also has a Billa so we stopped there first to see if we could grab any cheap staples. I picked up two kinds of tofu as well as cherries which were so cheap that I'm still regretting not filling up bags and bags full, grapes, a green juice, bread, soya milk, cereal and pasta. My zine came in super handy when picking a suitable cereal as I was able to avoid all of the ones with milk, honey and dubious D vitamins.


After stocking up on the basics at Billa we delved into BioPark and found that it was stuffed full of vegan eats.


We grabbed some Wheaty salami and sausages which were on the expensive side compared to everything else but in my mind they were totally worth the splurge, I've been a big fan of Wheaty products for as long as I can remember and their spacebars are one of my go-to travel snacks. We also picked up some super firm smoked tofu, some basil and tomato spread that sadly wasn't the greatest, spelt burgers that we're yet to try and a bar of Vivani dark chocolate with orange. I love vegan friendly health food stores and this was a definite winner - these purchases kept us going during our time in Hungary and I was super glad to have found them.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Vegan in Poland: Wrocław and Krakow

Poland was the first new-to-me country of the trip which meant that I was extra excited about setting foot on Polish soil. There's always something invigorating about visiting a totally new place. Will I like it? Will I fall in love with it? Will there be accidentally vegan treats hiding around every corner? In the case of Wrocław, our first stop in Poland, I was mainly just incredibly surprised that the city hadn't been on my radar earlier! Wrocław has eight all vegan listings on Happy Cow, including a vegan shop, as well as many great sounding vegetarian spots with vegan options. It's also compact and beautiful making it an absolute joy to explore. 


After swinging the van into a centrally located multi story car park (one of my fave things about the van is it's size!) we visited Ahimsa for a spot of lunch. I couldn't understand much of the menu but we thought the falafel platter sounded like a good bet for both of us to share. It came with tabbouleh, babaganoush, falafel, a huge flatbread and salad.


The babaganoush made a lovely change from the hummus that I usually see gracing Middle Eastern mezze platters and the tabbouleh was flavourful and not overly herby. The falafel were the real stars of the show though, you could tell they'd been made that day with fresh herbs and we very carefully split the last one! The dessert case looked fabulous so sharing wasn't going to be an option. Nick was desperate to try the cheesecake and I had my eye on the berry and chocolate torte.


If this had been a dessert battle the berry and chocolate torte would have been the clear winner. They both had some of the cheesecake filling but the chocolate / fruit / cheesecake ratio was balanced better in the torte. It also had the better crust, crunchy and biscuit like, compared to the cheesecakes coconut filled raw base. I would definitely recommend Ahimsa, it has a nice atmosphere, was constantly busy with locals popping in on their lunch breaks and the food was spot on.

I have to admit to only glancing at Happy Cow before we arrived in Wrocław, we had patchy wifi so I took screen shots of a few spots and that was that. Ahimsa was actually our third choice after we found both Machina Organica and The Root closed for holidays / refurbishments but we were then surprised by a fourth option whilst we were exploring the Market Square. Right there in the main square, in amongst some of the city's top tourist attractions, was a 100% vegan restaurant! We paused at Vega for a cool drink but were sadly too stuffed to partake in anything from their vast menu.


The beauty of the city continued to astound me as we wandered around, it reminded me of Vienna or Prague just with way less tourists.



Our final stop in the city was Urban Vegan, Wrocław's self proclaimed 101% vegan shop. Pedantic math stuff aside I was excited to see such a huge vegan store in what is quite a small city.


The shelves were quite well stocked with cleaning products, make up, dog food and snacks as well as basics that I'm guessing are hard to find elsewhere like canned beans, mirin, tahini and miso. Most impressive though was their wall of fridges which were chock full of seitan, tofu and tempeh products alongside soy yoghurts and mayonnaises. I loved how cute this brand was and we picked up some seitan.


We even found a kitty to show some love to on our way outa town.


Wrocław has shot to the upper echelons of my vegan friendly European cities list, I loved the whole vibe of the place. I'd say it should be a strong contender for a weekend getaway if you're in the mood for exploring a small and not too overwhelming city.

The next stop on our tour of Poland was Auschwitz-Birkenau which, depressingly, everyone has most likely heard of. It was a sobering day but I felt like I had to visit somewhere that was such a huge part of European history. It still blows my mind that this happened within the last century and it serves as a good reminder of why we must never sit silent when fascists want to spread their message of intolerance. I didn't take any pictures because it's not my history and taking what would essentially have been a tourist snap in a place of so much recent suffering would have been, in my opinion, super inappropriate.

I have no idea how to segue from talking about something as awful as Nazi concentration camps to something as seemingly trivial as Krakow's vegan options so consider this my clumsy attempt. Mastering the busses from our outa town campsite into the city centre was surprisingly easy and we were soon outside vegan burger joint Nova Krova bang on opening time.


Their burger menu is vast and varied and we were able to choose between seitan, tofu, tempeh, bean, kasha, quinoa and falafel for the protein part of our burger and then from a list of eight sauces and 14 toppings to round it out. Each protein listed helpfully came with a list of suggested additions so I went with one of those. Nick had to be difficult and go the DIY route where you can pick five toppings and two sauces and confuse everyone working there by only wanting one topping and one sauce. 


I went with the tofu burger (of course!) which was grilled marinated tofu with vegan mayo topped with lettuce, fried mushrooms, avocado and roasted leeks. It was a delicious combo and the only fault I found with the burger was that the bun wasn't really squishy enough to accommodate all of these fillings and fit into my mouth. I have a pretty decent sized mouth and I've never been defeated by a burger before (no, not even the ridiculous creations from V Revolution!) but this was was too much for me and I had to resort to a knife and fork. Sacrilege. It was super filling and totally delicious though so I'll let them off for making me look like I don't know how to eat a burger. I was a little sad not to have any room for dessert but I wish that I'd remembered to grab something to take away.


After we were suitably stuffed it was time to explore and we headed for the Kazimierez area to wander the streets, check out the street art and architecture, and visit the Galicia Jewish Museum. I've always been drawn to photography museums and this one was huge and needed to impart a lot of info alongside the pictures so we were there for a while.



Next on my must-visit list was Veganski Bar a vegan bar that serves food. Having visited places like The Bye and Bye and Sweet Hereafter in Portland and Viasko in Berlin, I was excited to try this place to see if it lived up to the high standards that have been set for vegan gastro pubs. As soon as I spotted the entrance I knew that it probably was not. As soon as I saw the homemade sign I lowered my expectations massively, I was now thinking Cowley Club not Bye and Bye. Not a problem, I love The Cowley for what it is. It's no gastrobub but it doesn't aspire to be, instead it's a cool, punky, vegan dive bar with fun events so y'know I was still optimistic. 


I fancied a beer and as there was a language barrier I did a lot of smiling and pointing at what I thought looked like beer on the menu, head shaking told me they were out. I pointed at a couple more things but nope, also out. We settled on lemonade which I think turned out to be lemon squash from concentrate. Food wise we went through a similar pointing ritual and eventually settled on a tart from the dessert section. When the food was put in front of us I was... what's the right word? Confused perhaps. Definitely disappointed. Because whatever the tart we'd ordered to share was seemed to be chopped jelly (jello to my American friends) thrown on top of a wholewheat crust.


Now I am a firm believer that you shouldn't slate somewhere without visiting a few times, it can be incredibly damaging to a business if you slate their food because you didn't like it - maybe it was an off day? You have no idea. But I feel like I kinda need to warn people not to eat here. This was a frankly awful dessert no matter which way you look at it. It was literally strawberry jelly with a few unpeeled apple pieces mixed in atop a base that must have been made from wholewheat bread flour and a mashed banana. I really, really, genuinely wanted to like this spot that was very clearly the dream of a few punk kids and their dog but really?! C'mon now! There's no excuse for food this terrible. It was what I would imagine might happen if you let a three year old loose in a badly stocked kitchen. To add insult to injury they brought us two slices which were very challenging to stuff into my handkerchief. We still payed. And tipped.

I have since translated the menu description of this dish using google translate and rather than translating to "weird Polish dessert that I probably shouldn't be insulting" it translates to "tart with fresh fruit". Tart. With. Fresh. Fruit. I'll let that sink in for a moment.

I have no more words.

After that distressing experience I was almost scared to go somewhere else but we needed a palate cleanser so off to vegetarian Tibetan fusion cafe Momo it was. This seemed like a safe bet as it's actually recommended in Lonely Planet.

We ordered the Tibetan dumplings, or momos, partly because Lonely Planet told us to and partly because I figure if you're naming your cafe after a specific dish it's gotta be good. We weren't disappointed, maybe that was because they weren't filled with jelly, but more likely it was because they were tasty lentil stuffed dumplings.


Momo seems like it'd be a good place to grab lunch in the city for sure and they helpfully mark the vegan options on their menu which is a major win for a travelling vegan struggling to decipher the menu. Another veg spot with marked vegan options is Green Day, we didn't eat there but the 90's pop punk lover within me had to stop and take a picture!


Opposite our campsite was a supermarket where I was able to take my zine, European Vegan, for a whirl. The Polish page helped me work out which breads were really stuffed with cheese and I grabbed some rolls and soy yoghurts for breakfast. 

This photo is also serving as a timely reminder that I reeeeally need to dye my roots!

I feel like I'm raving about soy yoghurt in almost every post at the moment but really Europe knows where it's at when it comes to vegan yoghurt.


It was actually the one thing I was seriously craving by the end of my travels in SE Asia and US vegan yoghurts are honestly pretty terrible especially now that Whole Soy has disappeared from the market. Silk can't confirm or deny whether their yoghurts are really vegan (so, they probably aren't then) and I've heard rumours that Daiya are bringing out some yoghurts but I didn't see them whilst I was over there. Since I set foot on European soil in June I've been diving headfirst into huge tubs of Alpro Cremoso whenever I can get it and in the meantime Sojasun is filling the gap nicely.

The next day Nick wasn't feeling great so like the good wife that I am I abandoned him in the van and went to get some pierogis and do some writing. I settled upon Glonojad after it was recommended to me by a friend on Instagram and I was so happy I went with her rec'. I finally got to try pierogis and they were gooood.


They were stuffed with lentils and I went with what I thought would be the most traditional sides, cabbage slaw, roasted beets and carrot and raisin salad. Okay, I didn't think the carrot raisin salad was authentic I just really like carrot raisin salad! This plate of food was my favourite out of all of the things I ate in Poland and I loved the atmosphere at the cafe too. It was bustling all day and despite spending hours there working on the blog (don't worry I kept buying drinks!) I never felt rushed or like I was taking up too much space. Their wifi is also fast which is a win for any travel blogger / digital nomad.

After Krakow we were headed south towards Slovakia and had planned to spend some time exploring the mountains. We settled upon Zakopane which was definitely a bit of a mistake, the campsite we picked was kinda cool - you aren't allowed to light fires at most European campsites but there you could do what you wanted as long as you quietened down by 11pm, but it turns out that Zakopane has been horribly overdeveloped and the streets are lined not only with sad ponies forced to ride people about the place but also with bouncy castles, street stands selling tourist tat and games to play on. Call me weird but I don't think areas of natural beauty need tonnes of blow up toys to entertain you! 

We hightailed it outa there the next day and headed for Slovakia and the High Tatras which were ridiculously beautiful. More on that next time. In the meantime do let me know if you've got a favourite off the beaten track location or hidden gem that you think I have to check out in Eastern Europe. I'm in Hungary right now and will be heading to Vienna next then onwards to Slovenia for Punk Rock Holiday at the beginning of August and then I'll head south east from there.