Back in Athens, our first time since just a week or so before the first COVID lockdown began in Germany. We spent about a week between the city, where we waddled our gluttonous selves across an Athens food tour, and Hydra. Now we’re back to take care of some unfinished business.
Athens is both a wake-up call and a shot of adrenaline. Cars and crotch rockets whip around skinny streets before the road suddenly turns into a pedestrianized zone. Not that I––a pedestrian with bones that don’t hold up well to getting bulldozed by metal––am complaining.
It’s our fourth day in Malta and I’ve yet to hit the trails. Excuses kept conveniently presenting themselves.
“What if the weather turns and I get caught in a storm on the coast?”
“Running doesn’t seem particularly popular here. I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb with my red running vest.”
“I just don’t feel like it.”
My excuses are fruitless this Wednesday morning. There’s nothing more than a gentle breeze in the air and the sun is shooting through a clear sky like a tractor beam pulling me outside. I decide to just pick a route off Komoot and get my ass out the door.
Welcome to Hydra, a Greek island a couple of hours off the coast of Athens. This is a place that holds a special place in my heart for two reasons.
It’s car-free. So no douchebags speeding around with their crotch rockets or in their military-sized vehicles as if their fragile masculinity gives license to pollute our air and clog up our streets! (I have thoughts about this, if you couldn’t tell.)
You have a taste for history, cities, and the great outdoors, so you’ve made the wise decision to visit Germany. There are plenty of resources out there to help you plan for your trip to Germany, but all the focus seems to be on the big cities of Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, and Frankfurt. To be fair, they are all fantastic cities and you should visit them.
That said, there’s more to this country than these cities. Luckily, this is a big chunk of land, so there is no shortage of things to do in Germany, and although the country in and of itself is not necessarily off the beaten path, getting away from the cacophony of clicking cameras can still be done. So, when compiling this off-the-beaten-path travel guide for Germany, I used a few self-imposed barometers.
Despite the veil of darkness, the splendor of Valletta hums softly against dim streetlights after our flight lands. I get a glimpse of the city’s ornate facades that make you feel like you’ve stumbled into a baroque masterpiece. This is all confirmed the next morning thanks to a rooftop view after breakfast. We head up, minding our heads as we navigate the narrow, black spiral staircase––the norm for Valletta where there simply isn’t much space. That is, until you find yourself in the countryside or diving into the depths of the sea in search of the island’s many mysteries.
What can I say about gallo pinto? First and foremost, it’s how I started many a day in Costa Rica. In the land of pura vida, it’s breakfast––rice mixed with black beans, cilantro, onions, maybe a red pepper, and seasoned with Salsa Lizano, a kind of Worcestershire sauce that’s truly the nectar of the Gods. This simple yet delicious combo is typically served with some scrambled eggs and a hot cup of coffee. I came to love gallo pinto in the same way I loved my ridiculously sugary breakfast cereals with cartoon mascots before I hit double digits.
If you’re looking for something different to make for breakfast that isn’t your typical egg-focused dish, pancakes, or cereal, then you ought to start working gallo pinto into your routine. It even stores and reheats nicely if you want to make a big batch. Just be sure to keep a bottle of Salsa Lizano handy so you can top yourself off with each plate.
There’s a glow over the horizon when I start hearing someone tap at my door. It’s a conductor. Snapping out of my dream, I throw some pants on just as he opens the door. “We are almost there,” he says before moving along. I close the door, look out the window of my private cabin and see the landscape vanish, giving way to urbanity with its stocky square buildings, trains, and highways. We roll to a stop at the central station with the white cables of the Basarab Bridge hanging in the background.
It’s 6:30 in the morning and it’s time to see Bucharest.
A crowd gathered and took their seats in the courtyard of the Elie Wiesel Memorial House. Postcards with historical images of Jewish Sighet and others with different culinary Yiddishms lined the trees, stretching alongside the picket fence separating the museum grounds from the sidewalk.
“Don’t eat the challah before saying the blessing” reads one with a picture of a presumably naked woman covered by a challah. “If you’re going to eat pork, eat it till your mouth drops” reads another. My favorite? “When a thief kisses you, count your teeth.”
Guests listened attentively to the evening’s hosts. They were giving a background on Jewish food, explaining basics like the laws behind kosher eating.
But I was busy in a makeshift outdoor kitchen, cooking up some kasha varnishkes. I couldn’t remember if I volunteered or was asked to help, but it didn’t matter in the moment. I had a professional chef next to me watching curiously, asking me about the dish and how to make it. I couldn’t screw it up.
This trip, my visit to Sighet, had been a long time coming. I originally planned to visit in May of 2020 after learning that my great-grandmother, Bertha Lax, was likely born in the northern Romanian city back when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I’d been looking forward to it ever since my first Jewish heritage trip to Bardejov, Slovakia.
Then, the pandemic happened, and leaving Germany for any kind of travel beyond an emergency seemed like a bad idea. When countries started to open back up the following year, I determined to make it happen knowing how quickly things could change. I booked a flight to Cluj-Napoca, took the bus up to Sighet, and spent the better part of a week in town before taking the overnight train from Sighet to Bucharest.