How To Celebrate Christmas in Innsbruck

When you think of Christmas, you probably picture brilliantly white snow falling on fir trees; people wearing woolen mittens holding steaming cups of hot chocolate; and little kids screaming with excitement as they watch Santa bring a bag full of surprises. This is the very Christmasy feeling you get when you travel to Innsbruck, Austria – the capital of the Alps.

The small city located near the border of Germany and Italy transforms into a winter wonderland through the month of December. There are lots of events taking place so make sure to check the calendar and plan your trip accordingly. Starting mid November, there are advent and Christmas concerts, a Christmas flea market, brass music on the tower. The best part is, most of these are free and open to public.

Here are some ways you can get into the Christmas spirit in Innsbruck…

Shop at The Christmas Markets

This was my first time at a Christmas market in Europe and I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of families (mostly Italians) in town enjoying simple pleasures. While we in US focus mostly on shopping for presents at big name brands during the holiday season, the people at the Christmas market at Marktplatz were strolling through the decorated squares, sipping on gluhwein (mulled wine), eating cheesy raclette toast, roasted chestnuts and kiachl (fried donuts).

The market in Maria-Theresien-Strasse sold unique Christmas ornaments, little village scenes, handmade woolens, candles, statues, woodwork, candy, cards and so much more. I felt a gift bought here would be a lot more meaningful than from the mall!

Watch The Krampus Parade

Prior to visiting Innsbruck, I did not know much about the tradition of krampus – which apparently has been around for a couple of hundred years in western Europe. In olden times, the Catholic church used the mythological figure (half goat, half demon) to scare kids so they behave well. Men would dress up as krampus and beat up the naughty kids while Santa would bring gifts to the nice ones (naughty or nice, get it?).

Little did I know that I had been a bad girl this year because I was beaten up by many devils in the town of Igls this year! I arrived at the annual krampus parade as an innocent spectator taking videos of the masked devils riding their chariots lit with fire. But then some of these devils pulled adults and kids from the crowd and whipped them with their brooms and sticks. Yes it hurt, and by the time the fourth guy headed my way, I ran for the bus back to my hotel.

Though scary, it was an experience hanging out with locals who brought their little kids to watch the parade. Even the young ones went along with the whippings as it is just a part of tradition.

Stroll Through Swarovski Crystal Worlds

Located just outside the city is a magical Christmas themed garden with lighted figures. Also, the new poetic garden features a unique Crystal Cloud made from 800,000 hand-mounted and enchanted floating crystals – pictures don’t do justice to the glistening reflections!

Being a Swarovski fan, I also enjoyed visiting the museum that tells the story of the family (who was from Bohemia which is now in Czech Republic), and displays some of the most famous gowns and jewels that bestowed celebrities on red carpets. Also, there is the largest Swarovski store I have ever seen selling crystals ranging from $50-50,000. There’s no way you can walk out empty handed from here.

Brunch with a View

If you are dreaming of a white Christmas, you will definitely get it in Innsbruck. Just take the Nordketten cable car to Seegrube, where you will find some of the best ski slopes in the Alps. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the majestic Stubai glacier as I enjoyed my first snowfall of the season. Many locals hike up the mountain, grab a delicious lunch at Seegrube Restaurant, and then take the cable car back down.

Another popular option for Sunday brunch is Restaurant Bergisel SKY (make reservations in advance) overlooking the famous Olympic Bergisel Ski Jump. Perched above the city, the glass enclosed restaurant has some of the best views of Innsbruck and the surrounding mountains.

In the mood for Christmas already? Then head to Innsbruck, Austria and enjoy the special season! I would recommend staying at least two days to enjoy the festivities, and longer if you like winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing, or winter hiking.

Five Tips for Traveling to Moldova

I have a few friends from Moldova here in Atlanta. But many others have never even heard about this tiny country in Eastern Europe. So the biggest question I get is: “Why would you want to go there?” My response – why not!

Moldova got a bad rep after Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven named it “the least happy nation on the planet” and travel writer Eric Weiner recounted his miserable account to Moldova in his 2009 book – The Geography of Bliss. He said the post Soviet country was full of poor, sad people that never smiled. Yes, Moldova suffered during communism, still has a very low GDP and is the least visited country in Europe, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go visit.

Besides, I found the people in Moldova to be quite friendly and happy (not LOL or gregarious). They joked, laughed and enjoyed time with family and friends as people do in any part of the world. They also complained about the cold weather, job shortages, and political distrust as we do out here. I dined with several locals, went sightseeing with them, as well as stayed with a Moldovan host at his cozy apartment. Everyone was welcoming and eager to show me around their country.

However, being an informed traveler will make your experience richer and more enjoyable. Here are some things to know before you plan a trip to Moldova.

Don’t Touch and Go

Most people stay in the capital of Chișinău,and get disappointed because it’s not the most beautiful European city. There are a few museums, lakes and parks, but 1 day is enough to cover them. Moldova is a small country but many of the attractions are far from the capital and require all-day trips. Plan for at least 4-5 days in the country if you want to see it well. Some of the places to add to your list are Milestii Mici (largest underground winery in the world), Tipova monastary (oldest), Saharna (pilgrimage site), Orheiul Vechi (cave monastery), Monastirea Curchi (largest monastic complex), Codru Natural Reservation (forest with wildlife), and Transnistria (a breakaway unrecognized country).

The Food is Really Good

Moldovan cuisine has not surfaced on the global scale but you will definitely not be disappointed with the food, which has influences of Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Think grilled meats, rolled dolmas, roasted vegetables, creamy polenta, steamed dumplings, fresh salads. If you like pork, cheese and bread, you will be in heaven. The soil in Moldova is very fertile so produce is fresh and plentiful. I had the sweetest apples ever!

The national dish is Plăcintă, fried pastry stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, eggs or mashed pumpkins, eaten as appetizer, snack or side.

Locals typically eat a big lunch and small dinner of cold cuts, salad and bread. Sample to seasonal fruit compotes (homemade juices), divin (Moldovan brandy) and wine.

Search for Good Wine

The country is full of wineries and you may want to do a few wine tastings/ winery tours while you are there. In fact, Moldova is one of the largest wine producers in the world (ranked in top 20). But most of the wine they produced was for a discerning Russian market and was not the best quality. Things are improving now as Russia banned Moldovan wines (political play) and Moldovan wine makers upped their game to appeal internationally.

One of my favorites was Mimi Castle, a relatively high end producer of dry red, sparkling and sweet whites. Definitely have a wine paired dinner at their beautiful restaurant set inside a historic castle. Chateau Vartely also makes some nice ice wines.

Save Some Money

Compared to other cities in Europe, you will feel rich in Moldova. A nice dinner with wine will set you back $20-30 for 2 people. Wine bottles cost $2-3, and young wines even less than that. A wine tour runs about $8 and a top of the line exclusive tasting of 10 wines less than $60. Many of the wineries have hotels attached to them so look for a wine/ stay/ meal package.

Fall is Ideal for Festivals

My friends in Moldova told me summer is the most boring time of the year as nothing much is going on. Fall is the best season to visit Moldova because of the leaves changing colors and lots of events going on. The Moldova wine festival, officially named “National Wine Day“, takes place in Chisinau during the first weekend in October at the end of the grape harvest.

I attended Tulburel Young Wine Festival at Mold Expo where families gathered on a Sunday to eat, drink and dance. Exhibitors from all over Moldova and surrounding countries brought their unlabeled young wines for tasting (some of which were decent). There was also food, honey, candy and crafts.

Moldova is pretty easy for tourists to navigate. There is no visa required to enter Moldova (even though its not part of EU), rental cars are available at the small airport in the capital and roads are easy to drive on except for a few bumps and a short rush hour traffic. Most people speak English and are polite. They respect each other and expect you to show up at the appointed time (even at restaurants and wineries). It is also extremely safe and affordable.

Why Go on a Free Walking Tour in Bucharest

People often ask – Isn’t traveling abroad expensive? Seasoned travelers will tell you that traveling abroad can sometimes be cheaper than living in the US! With so many platforms such as discounted airlines, HomeExchange, AirBnB, work exchanges, etc. it is cheaper to travel now than it has ever been before.

One of the best ways to save money while traveling is my taking Free Walking Tours. These are great ways to explore the city on foot, with a local guide, while getting some exercise. And the best part is they are free, though I do advise you to tip your guide generously 🙂

During my recent visit to Bucharest, I took a walking tour of Old Town Bucharest with Unbelievable Bucharest Tours.

Enjoy free concerts at the open air atrium near University Square.

I met my guide, Catalana at the guitar statue near University Square. I was the only one on the tour that morning, so I had the guide all to myself.

We made our way through the main streets, crossing church into Old Town, while Catalana explained to me some of the history of the city as well as the Parisian style buildings we were looking at.

I find it fascinating when people tell me the “behind the scenes” story of unassuming buildings we would pass by, not realizing what they are truly used for.

This palatial looking building is used as a hospital!

Statue at the entrance of Old Town that represents the birth of Rome.

Biserica Sfantul Anton church used for coronations

Stavropoleos Monastery has beautiful Turkish architecture and a courtyard to take a break

You can easily get lost in historic Old Town Bucharest. With hundreds of bars, restaurants and souvenier shops, it may look very touristy but the locals also hang out here (you just need to know the right spots). Plus, there are interesting places to see that you will miss if you didn’t know where to look, such as the remains of an underground carvan sarai attached to a church or a Soviet era apartment building.

This building was the original stock market

When most people think of Romania, the first thing that comes to mind is Dracula. Catalana explained to me that the fiction novel Dracula is based on the emperor Vlad. He never drank blood, rather impaled his prisoners in public as was the tradition during Medieval times. Growing up, Catalana was told heroic tales of Vlad as he defeated the Romans against the Ottoman empire.

She also pointed out some good places to eat, which I returned to during the rest of my stay. Finding out where the locals go eat is another great tip to gather on the free walking tours.

Hanu Lui Manuc is one of the oldest restaurants serving traditional food in a beautiful courtyard and live folk dance performances.

Caruicubere is a Romanian brewery and restaurant designed to look like a palace.

Pasajul Mazza-Villacrosse is a Parisian style covered alley with the best hookah bars.

I had a great Lebanese lunch at Finikia in Old Town.

Catalana also pointed out that I could see bullet holes in the building across from my hotel from the Romanian revolution.

Sample free fruits, cheese, ham and honey at Piata Obor market.

Further, she gave me tips to where to spend the rest of my stay in Bucharest. Since I am most interested in food, I went to see the Piata Obor market where locals come to buy fresh vegetables, flowers, cheese and spices. Another money saving tip – you can always find cheap street food and free tastings at the fresh food markets. Just ask for a sample!

To learn more about Unbelievable Bucharest private and free tours click here.

Have you had a great Free Walking Tour experience? Do share in the comments section below…

You Have to Eat and Drink This in Croatia

During the 10 days I spent in Croatia, I ate about 10,000 calories worth of wine, pastries, pasta and seafood per day! I know you are thinking, Where does the food go? I actually walked about 10 miles a day as well, so everything evened out!

While its hard to include all the delicious things you can find to eat and drink in Croatia, here are my top ones that made it to the list. Trust me, you will not be doing justice to yourself if you leave the country without tasting all of them!

Baby asparagus salad with boiled eggs at O’Zalata Restaurant located inside the walled city in Split. During spring, wild asparagus are found along hillsides and people pick them up while hiking. These are much thinner than what you find in US supermarkets and have a lovely crunchy texture.

Mushroom soup made with 20 different kinds of mushrooms at Gabreku 1929 Restaurant in Samobor. The restaurant, named best in this part of Croatia, collects mushrooms from all seasons, preserves them and uses it in this soup that is famous in northern Croatia. It is serve with mushroom trumpet powder and pumpkin powder. Even the bread is made fresh with local grains and corn.

When I saw people lining up to get a piece of this pie at Split waterfront, I had to taste it. Soparnik is a Swiss chard stuffed savory pie and is the most famous speciality of the Dalmatian region. It originated from pizza as a poor man food. You can find many street vendors selling their own recipe of soparnik.

The island of Hvar is famous for Peka, usually veal or lamb and potatoes cooked under an iron bell full of charcoal. My hosts, Borivoj and Zeljka Bojanic, who run Konoba Maslina Restaurant in the village of Vrisnik made me a tender grilled octopus peka. I’m sure they got the fresh catch earlier that morning. Even if you are not an octopus fan, this would make you one!

My guide, Tomi from Viator Travel took me to Pelješac peninsula near Dubrovnik where we went on a small boat into the sea with a oyster/ mussel farmer. He picked up oysters straight out of the water, shanked it open, drizzled lemon juice and hand it over to us. Could it get any fresher than this?

Zagreb has a lot of good restaurants but the best place I ate was Vinodol Restaurant. The ambiance was beautiful, but the Fuji pasta with fresh black Istrian truffles, and a glass of Istrian wine, to die for!

Why would you travel to a place to eat fruit? Because it the sweetest organic farm fresh strawberries you can find for really cheap! At Dolac Farmers Market in Zagreb, I bought a pint of giant organic sweet strawberries for $1.50 and devoured them sitting in the park.

The locals make all kinds of homemade brandies (called rakia or raki) using fruits, nuts and honey, often from their own gardens. These are then used for home consumption (before and after dinner) or sold in farmer’s markets. One of the best ones I had was at a simple kiosk located in the Craft Square in Varaždin. The lady who produced the honey brandy even raised her own bees.

I had an excellent dinner at family-owned upmarket Palatin restaurant in Varaždin. But the icing on the cake (literally speaking) was the Palatin Cake for dessert. The owner told me it was a 100-year old recipe that made this 6 layers of rich chocolate and chestnuts not too sweet yet memorable.

No visit to Samobor is complete without Kremšnite, a local pastry made with cream custard. It is served warm in this region (cold in Zagreb) and eaten for breakfast and dessert. In fact, many people come to Samobor on the weekends just to grab a piece.

I also visited many wineries in Hvar and Dubrovnik that are worth noting. Croatia produces excellent quality red and white wines, my favorite being malvazija (malvasia) from Istria, plavac mali from Dalmatia, and Dingač from Pelješac peninsula.

Food markets and souvenir shops across southern Croatia sell packets of candied dry fruits such as figs, orange, almonds, etc. These are called Arancini – orange peel with sugar, mixed with sugared almonds for healthy snacks and often served with rakia.

Museum of Broken Relationships

The museum of broken relationships in Zagreb is by far the most unique museum I have ever been to. Unlike other museums, it doesn’t carry any antiques, jewels or historic remanences. On the other hand, it displays items donated by patrons from all over the world that hold symbolic value to them personally.

Museum of Broken Relationships
Museum of Broken Relationships

The idea of this museum was coined by two Zagreb-based artists, Olinka Vištica, a film producer, and Dražen Grubišić, a sculptor, after realizing a heartbreak. What started as a personal collection of items leftover from a broken relationship, became a 1000-item traveling museum that received audiences across Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Macedonia, the Philippines, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Items on display include everyday quirky items such as a stiletto shoe, CD’s, laundry basket, toy cars, letter, etc. Each of the items is accompanied by a personal account of the relationship, country of origin and how long the relationship lasted. I found the the notes to be particularly interesting, and rather funny, as people recounted short stories of randomly falling in love, and of inevitable heartbreaks.

Museum of Broken Relationships
Museum of Broken Relationships

One can spend an hour or two seeing the small museum, though the museum also sells books with pictures and stories of some of the items on display. You can also find break ups on the interactive world map and read stories on the blog. Reading stories of broken relationships are perhaps the opposite of reading romantic novels, but surprisingly they don’t get you down or depressed. I feel that reading about real-life relationships that didn’t always end well makes us realize that we live in a realistic world where everything is not always perfect. It makes you feel that you are not the only one who has suffered through a heartbreak. And it makes you smile to read about how people fall in love and cherish the smallest of gifts for years to come.

Museum of Broken Relationships
Museum of Broken Relationships

While the museum is very popular among visitors, it nearly doubles its attendance around the Valentine’s holiday. If you would like to unburden your relationship, send in your item to the Museum of Broken Relationships.

The Museum of Broken Relationships has permanent exhibits in Zagreb, Croatia and Los Angeles, California.

Santa, Sleighs and Igloos in Finland

Do you believe in Santa Claus? What if I told you that the letters you address to “The North Pole” actually make it to a small town in Finland, where Santa and his helpers sit at their desks and read each and every letter? You probably won’t believe me, thinking it was a made up kids story. But really, it is actually true and I have seen it with my very own eyes!

I flew to a city called Ivalo, in northern Finland, located inside the Arctic Circle. Even in April, there was snow as far as my eyes could see. Reindeers appeared wandering around the alpine forests, as I took a 30-minute shuttle ride to Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Lapland.

Most people say they have never heard of Lapland, until I mention the “igloo hotel.” The iconic photo of a village dotted with glass igloos glowing against the twilight sky in wintery wonderland, has appeared across many social media posts. I had only dreamt of going there myself someday, and here I was.

igloo resort finlandThe shuttle dropped off the passengers at a log cabin used as the reception area. We fetched our keys and were told to use the sleighs kept outside to carry our luggage to our respective cabin rooms or igloos.

While it was snowing heavily outside and temperatures dipped under 30F (“unusually warm for this time of the year” they informed me), I dragged my wooden sleigh to my cabin.

laplandThere are three kinds of rooms at the resort. The first and most popular are the glass igloos, available in two sizes – sleeps 2 (with toilet, no shower) or 4 people (with shower and toilet). The igloos have limited space to store luggage and almost no privacy, since they are made entirely of glass. Though you have to walk through the snowy cold weather to get to the igloo, once inside, it is nice and toasty.

The second option is to get a log cabin. Here, you can get a very comfortable king size bed, kitchenette, breakfast area, as well as a personal sauna. Now, that’s luxury! For those who cannot decide between the igloo or the cabin, there is the Kelo Glass Igloo, which combines a cabin with an igloo, so you get the best of both worlds. Store your luggage in the cabin, enjoy a nice hot sauna, and sleep in the igloo at night.

kakslauttanen_kelo-glass_igloo_rgbPicture yourself lying in bed, looking at the sky, while the Aurora Lights dance around in their green, orange and red hues. That is the main reason to come here. In Lapland, you can see northern lights almost every night from August-April, in their full splendor. The resort also offers activities “Aurora Hunting” on snow mobiles or reindeer sleighs.

During the day, guests can enjoy winter sports such as cross country skiing, dog sledding, hiking, riding snow mobiles, and more.

dsc06915For lunch, there is always all-you-can-eat soup (two choices) and homemade breads. Dinner at the restaurant is also quite good. The menu features local ingredients and Lappish dishes, such as reindeer stew, Alaskan crab, grilled salmon, and stewed cloudberries.

reindeer & salmon

The resort is actually quite large and worth exploring for a few hours. First, you want to visit Santa’s house. Here, resident Mr and Mrs Claus live, meet guests and participate in activities through the season. The Celebration House is where Santa throws elaborate parties. It is also used for weddings and events. There are other small workshops, an ice chapel, and of course, the local wildlife. Couple of dozen reindeers live on the property.

Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is one of it’s kind. It was started by a visionary, Jussi Eiramo. While on vacation, he discovered this patch of beautiful area where he could camp and see the Northern Lights almost every night of the year. So, he opened a souvenir shop about 40 years ago, then made ice igloos for people to stay at, and later designed the first glass igloos using unique Finnish technology.

Today, Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is a bucket list destination for those who seek adventure, romance and off the beaten path travel. It is a place where families flock to in the winter to celebrate the holiday season, party with Santa, and enjoy the essence of the North Pole.

10 Facts You Might Not Know About Turin

What do you know about Turin, a charming city in northern Italy? I have traveled to Italy several times, but sadly never made it to Turin or Torino until now. Prior to my visit, I didn’t know much about it, except that the 2006 winter Olympics were held here. Here are some facts about Turin that I feel you should know too!

  1. Though most people are familiar with Rome, Turin was Italy’s first capital city in 1861.
  2. Turin was home to the House of Savoy, Italy’s royal family. There are many palaces, residences and castles in the city and in surrounding towns.
  3. French influences can be seen in the city’s architecture and culture. Up until the unification of the Italian kingdom in 1861, Piedmont included areas that are currently in France which explains this. The atmosphere, culture and even the local dialect is very similar to French.turin3
  4. Turin is sometimes called the cradle of Italian liberty, for having been the birthplace and home of notable politicians and people who contributed to the Risorgimento, such as Cavour.
  5. Some of Italy’s best universities and colleges are in Turin, such as the six-century-old University of Turin and the Turin Polytechnic.
  6. Turin’s several monuments and sights make it one of the world’s top 250 tourist destinations, and the tenth most visited city in Italy. Even then, it doesn’t feel touristy at all here.rive Po turin
  7. Turin is ranked third in Italy, after Milan and Rome, for economic strength. With a GDP of $58 billion, Turin is the world’s 78th richest city in terms of purchasing power. Food is actually quite cheap.square in turin
  8. Turin is also home to the Italian automotive industry, having headquarters of FIAT, Lancia and Alfa Romeo.
  9. The shroud of Jesus of Nazareth is kept in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, northern Italy. The Pope decided when it is allowed to be displayed to the public.
  10. Turin is home of 2006 winter Olympic games. Events that made their Olympic debut in Turin included mass start biathlon, team sprint cross country skiing, snowboard cross and team pursuit speed skating.

To learn more about Turin, visit my friends at Turin Epicurean Capital.

Read This Before You Rent a Car in Europe

Securing a vehicle for ground transportation at my destination is something I have done numerous times. I research the rental companies as well as third party offers through Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz, and other online agencies. Careful consideration is given to selecting the appropriate pick-up location, the dates the car is needed, best amenities, and best price; and then, finally, I book a car. Very soon the confirmation is delivered to my inbox.

Now, most people would put a check mark by “rental car” on their to-do-list. I put a check with another date, because a few days before the trip, I will call the rental agency to make sure everything is in order. Oh, I do not expect any problems, but I just like to make sure. With that said, I had obviously never tried to rent a car internationally, until preparing for my recent trip to Europe. Renting a car for my stay in Italy proved to be time consuming, nerve wracking, and an oddly rewarding learning experience. Here are 6 important things I learned.

Italian Car Rental

1. Choose stick or automatic: The first and most formidable obstacle was the scarcity of rentals with automatic transmissions. Availability and the best prices await travelers who can drive a stick. Manual transmission vehicles rent at a significantly lower rate than their automatic counterparts.

2. Begin your search early: If you are like me and a stick is out of the question, I would strongly encourage you to begin looking for a rental car at least two months in advance. What I have learned is that only in the United States, Canada, and Australia do automatic transmissions reign supreme. Not to worry though, a limited number of rentals with automatic transmissions are in stock for us Americans, but when they’re gone, they are gone. The ambience of casually touring the Italian Riviera will not be the same from the backseat of a taxi or from a tour bus.

3. Understand insurance coverage and options: The next lesson I would learn was the difference in the rental insurance requirements and mandates. In Italy, Collision Damage Waiver Insurance is mandatory. It is almost always included in the rental price quote. If this insurance is not a part of the car insurance quote, it will be added before payment is made. It cannot be declined.

Excess Insurance is an optional insurance to cover payment of “excess damage assessments” should dings, dents, scratches, or any other type of damage be found outside of what is included in the Collision Damage Waiver Insurance. This is the insurance we never really think we will need, but we are afraid not to get. For this trip the optional insurance was purchased, but not through the car rental company.

4. Shop around for optional coverage: Many car rental companies will try and convince buyers that they will not accept third party excess damage insurance. Do not fall prey to this tactic. Third party companies such as iCarhireinsurance.com sell this optional insurance at a much cheaper rate. Frequent road warriors may purchase it annually and their coverage is available globally.

After much back and forth deliberation, I booked an automatic transmission vehicle, which was covered by the mandatory CDW and the optional Excess Insurance through the third party company, rentalcars.com. Finally, I breathe a sigh of relief, feeling empowered with the accomplishment of navigating an international car rental. I could just picture us cruising along the Italian Riviera.

5. Check for holidays that may affect your visit: A few days before leaving the United States, I contacted rentalcars.com to verify the booking. Everything was confirmed, the reservation had been booked with Thrifty and I was told there was no cause for worry. Despite this assurance, I felt very uneasy, I tried but I could not shake the feeling that something might go wrong. Not having a car in the US is one thing, but to be without a car, or without one with an automatic transmission on a foreign continent would be a disaster. Perhaps my tension was further fueled by something I have not mentioned. The day we were to pick-up the car was a national holiday and most major rental outlets and other businesses across the entire country would be closed.

6. Confirm your reservation with the pick-up location: I needed relief from the awful feeling within me, so I called Thrifty and to my dismay the representative informed me that there was nothing in their system for me. After countless hours on hold, more than four representatives, and several transfers, not one representative could find my booking. Panic set in, but I quickly called rentalcars.com and explained the situation. To my relief, a very knowledgeable agent told me exactly why there was no need for all my anxieties.

To get the best prices, rentalcars.com collaborates directly with the car pick-up location. Therefore the confirmation number was specific only to the Thrifty location in Florence, Italy, where I would receive the vehicle. In my final attempt to be assured that we would not be on foot during this vacation, I loaded $10 onto my Skype account and called the Thrifty pick-up site in Florence, Italy. When I asked about a reservation for Kaylah Burks, I heard the sweet sound of, “Si, Signora Burks, we have your car rental reservation in our system.”

Those looking to travel to Crete should consider hiring their rental car through Mietwagen Kreta. They offer a wide range of vehicles and you can even decide where to pick up the car; it can be handed over at the airport or delivered to your hotel!

For more information on international car rentals, check back for my next article featuring great tips on must have gps options, the pick-up process and pumping gas.

~ By Kaylah Burks, an athlete, who enjoys traveling the world while staying health conscious. Follow her on Instagram @jadenlie

Amsterdam eats

I learned that citizens from 180 nationalities call Amsterdam home. That explains the variety of cuisines you can find here. On a single street there are restaurants from India, Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Japan, Brazil, China and more! The culture here has always been freedom of expression and will, which explains why Amsterdam is a true cosmopolitan city where people enjoy food from around the world. One point to be noted is you will always find fresh (not frozen) ingredients at almost all establishments.

Streets in Amsterdam offering all cuisines

One of the first experiences in the city is the aroma coming from bakeries baking fresh baked breads, croissants and pastries. Living true to European heritage, there are a number of places where you can grab a cappuccino and warm chocolate croissant for under 3 Euros. Sit down places will be more expensive. Bread is a staple food at all meals and can be found in various shapes and sizes. You can even get a loaf to go while transiting at Schiphol airport. Don’t forget to take a box of stroopwafel, distinct Dutch waffle cookie made from two thin layers of baked batter with a caramel-like syrup filling in the middle. It is served with tea and coffee anytime of the day. Dutch pancakes are delicious thin small pancakes eaten for breakfast and dessert. They can be served with syrup or filled with fruit or meat like crepes.

Tempting bakeries

Perhaps the most native food to Amsterdam is Haring, served raw, salted and pickled. Think of it as the Dutch sushi. There are also street vendors and hole in the wall joints that fry the haring and other fishes and serve it with french fries. Try Vishandel, a one room family run seafood place since 1938 with only take-out. You chose the fish and they cook it right there in front of you, while standing in the kitchen. Talking about fries, it’s a popular snack served in a paper boat with a sauce of your choice. You will spot people eating it with a fork while walking around or conducting business. Try Flemish Manneken Pis voted number 1 in Holland that offers 21 sauces (from curry to ketchup) to chose from.

Best fries in Holland

There are several cheese stores near the flower market that offer tastings and education on the Dutch sheep and cow cheese. You can get a young, aged or flavored with garlic, herbs, spicy, etc. Also, buy your cheese graters and condiments to go along. The most popular one from this area is Gouda.Cheese right from the makers

While in Netherlands, beer is to be drunk like water. The Dutch as proud of Heineken, the world’s third-largest brewer of beer and can be spotted drinking leisurely in cafe’s pretty much any time of the day. It’s easier to get a beer than coffee here!

Try not to mistake a cafe for a coffee shop. A coffee shop in Amsterdam served much more than coffee, legalized drugs in single dozes. I did not bother entering one of such places (even for travel writer curiosity) but managed to get a glimpse of the menu. Just make a selection based on your mood or desire of one (literally).

Coffee shop menuChina Town, located near the touristy red light district also seems to be a popular place to eat. There are Chinese grocery stores, dim sum restaurants, and other fares from Asia. I was told some of the best restaurants in the city can be found here. Does the picture below tell you something?

Sign in front of a Chinese restaurant in China Town

Amsterdam in eight

Windmills use to be the basic source of pumping water beforeOn my return from New Delhi to Atlanta this past week, I had a 11 hours layover in Amsterdam. In a way, I was glad about it. I have traveled extensively in Europe but never had the opportunity to visit Holland (or Netherlands). I was very close to moving there once in 2008 while working at ING as a Portfolio Analyst (long story).

My flight arrived at 5:45 am at Schiphol international airport. It was pitch dark outside but inside the airport, life was bustling. In fact, one can easily spend a whole day at the airport itself. There are showers, spa, casino, library, museum, beer tasting, numerous cafes and what seems like a larger than a mall complex for shopping for everything from fresh flowers, cheeses, and souvenirs to electronics, cosmetics, brand name clothes, watches and accessories.

Anne Frank's statueSince it was pretty early to go outside, I decided to refresh myself at the KLM airline lounge. I had already been on the plane for over eight hours and needed to maintain my hygiene. The lounge also offered some breakfast and really good cafe au lait and Dutch pancakes.

Once the basics were taken care of, I found a tour desk at the airport that offered Amsterdam land and water tours ranging from 2-4 hours. For 59 Euros, I booked myself a two hour bus tour that would show me the historic landmarks of Amsterdam as well as a one hour canal tour around the city. The tour included airport transfers and some time to myself. There are lockers at every terminal at the airport available for 5 Euros but the tour office can also store luggage for free.

Houseboats in the canalsAt 9 am when it was finally light out, off we went in the minibus, first visiting the countryside, charming bungalows by the waterways, each with their own canoes and boats, vast green pastures with cows and sheep and windmills – it was so picturesque that I could live here (in the summers). Next, we drove past the 18th century homes, Jews quarters and saw some great Renaissance architecture that is quite novel and unique to this area. I saw the house were Anne Frank lived and hid as well as the church she mentions in her book (which left a deep impression on all of us girls in middle school).

After getting a good orientation of the city, I found it easy to stroll around, taking pictures and enjoying the great views of the canals against the backdrop of the row of historic townhouses. I walked around Central Station, Dam Square, Flower Market, Red Light District and China Town. The flower market was my favorite. Holland is known as an international flower trading center and it was lovely to see fresh cut flowers, bonsai and plants that I had never seen before. I bought some bulbs, cheese and cookies to take back home.

Amsterdam is a great place to just walk or bike around, soaking in the views and people watching. It has a nice, friendly vibe to it. The city is small, clean, yet offers a lot to do. If I had more time, I would have visited Van Gogh’s museum and watched a show. After a relaxed lunch at De Roode Leeuw brassiere I took the train back to the airport, just in time for my departure back to USA. I would say I made the most of my eight hours in Amsterdam.