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.
The overnight train from Sighet to Bucharest isn’t the fastest way to cross the country. But for me, the 15 hours on the train overnight beats driving 9 hours––by a long shot. It was also a nice way to decompress after completing my heritage trip to Sighet, learning about the Jewish history of the city––where my great-grandmother was born––as well as the surrounding region into Ukraine.
The overnight train leaves Sighet once a day, departing at 4 pm and arriving in Bucharest at 6:30 am the next day. Train schedules will make it look like there’s a transfer in Beclean pe Someş in the middle of the night, but the train simply changes its service name. You don’t actually get woken up to switch trains.
My ticket for a private cabin was 292 RON or about €59 / $67. That’s about what I was spending for my lodging in Sighet and Bucharest per night. For me, it was worth it to ensure privacy, especially since it was still pandemic season and the prospect of sharing would’ve been exceptionally unappealing.
Poland in and of itself is a country that I think gets unfairly overlooked by travelers. But if you want that quintessential European aesthetic of cobblestone streets and gorgeous centuries-old buildings without lighting your wallet on fire, then you go to Poland.
Warsaw and Krakow are a couple of the first cities to come to mind (though some, unfairly I think, deride Warsaw’s old town as a Disneyland for tourists). But those towns are just the tip of the pierogi, if you will. In fact, one of the most impressive cities I’ve seen––across Western and Central Europe––is Gdansk, a seaside city where you can get your fix of Polish culinary classics alongside fresh fish and Baltic beach access.
Hankering for some pierogis, Baltic beach, and a train ride, we hopped on Deutsche Bahn Eurocity’s EC59 for a lumbering six-hour ride through western Poland and into Gdansk.