Sleepy in Seattle

Maybe it was the cool, misty air. Maybe it was a full day spent outdoors at a music festival. Or maybe it was the lunch burrito the size of a newborn baby. Whatever it was, I slept like a rock every night I was in Seattle. For a person who finds slumber in strange beds difficult, it was just one of many, many good things about the Pacific Northwest city.

This was the second trip to Seattle in two years. Husband and I didn’t want to do anything that we had done in the past. We walked right past Pike Place Market down to the piers on the shoreline. We were here to see something new.

For someone who likes an authentic experience, the piers below Pike Place Market are the last place you get authenticity. Swimming with tourists, there are enough souvenir and fish shops for everyone. But we were hungry and needed dinner. Stat.

The restaurant we focused on had a great, pre-World War II sign. There were black and white photos in the windows of waiters circa 1946. What we later discovered was the McDonald’s of seafood, the place won us over with proof that it had been around a long time. Plus, how can you not be won over by a place called Ivar’s Acres of Clams?

Ivar’s walk-up windows and sit-down restaurants are sprinkled throughout Seattle. We were at the original, on pier 54. Dark wood and a sizable menu impressed from the start. But what won us over was happy hour. Served every day from 3:00 p.m. until close, you can eat and drink from a special discounted menu in the large bar. Between the two of us we had a strawberry spinach salad, Ivar’s famous clam chowder, six oyster shots and a olive and veggie hummus plate, plus drinks from local breweries and wineries for about $20. Solid food with ambiance on a budget gets a thumbs up, no matter how touristy the locale.

With a reported 114 microbreweries in Washington state, it’s tough to find a really bad beer, even at a franchise like Ivar’s. If you are looking to experience a really good beer unknown outside of the tri-state area, sample Mac & Jacks. Located in the northeast suburb of Redmond, brewery tours in the strip-mall-office-park are Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Unfortunately our arrival on a Friday meant we were left with looking over t-shirts and beer glasses in the tiny retail store. However, Mac & Jacks was a recommendation from a trusted beer connoisseur, and husband was able to enjoy a pint later that evening. His review? Two thumbs up. Way up.

Day two in Seattle consisted of an early morning photo shoot, which didn’t produce much due to clouds, wind and mist. But it was fun to explore those unknown parts of the city, including Gas Works Park and the University of Washington.

Our beer connoisseur friend had come through with Mac & Jacks, so we decided to indulge on his second recommendation – Gorditos – a Mexican restaurant on North 85th Street in the Greenwood neighborhood. Advertised as a healthy, all natural Mexican restaurant, Gorditos is about burritos. They have dry and wet burritos, the wet being a sauce of salsa, melted cheese and sour cream poured over the top and browned until bubbling. They also provide fresh chips and homemade salsa with every order, and even have a salsa bar. Its house salsa is medium, with a delicious smoky spice and chunks of green onion.

You can order your burrtio’s heat as well, so I stuck with a veggie, veggie burrtio, medium, with no cheese or sour cream, and husband ordered the famous burrito grande mild.

The pictures hanging on the wall of newborn babies lying next to plates of Gorditos burritos should have been a warning, but we were willing to take the plunge. The burritos did not disappoint. My burrito was the size of two Chipotle burritos and husband’s grande burrito was the size of – you guessed it – a baby. I suddenly felt like Adam Richman from Man vs. Food. We ate to our fill and grabbed a takeaway box for the road.

Next stop on our Seattle tour de force? Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival. In addition to seeing family and friends, our trip to Seattle was part of a larger plan to visit one of the nation’s premier festivals, and Bumbershoot didn’t disappoint. The big acts of the night were all good – The Decemberists, Neko Case and Bob Dylan all flexed their musical muscle for thousands at the main stage. But the little finds were groups like The Constellations that proved to be a band to reckon with, and Justin Townes Earle, the son of legendary Steve Earle.

Looking back, it was an exhausting 48-hours, but memorable since everything we saw was new to our eyes. I didn’t want to sleep just because there was so much to do. So, I got myself another large latte with soy.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Standing in line at the grocery store two blocks from my rented flat in Ljubljana {pronounced loo-blee-ah-na}, I felt like a seasoned professional. The deli counter had been my first small victory of the day, successfully asking for 400 grams of cheese in Slovenian and not getting 400 kilos of liver sausage. From there it was a breeze collecting Nutella, bread and bananas.  I had only been in Eastern Europe for 24-hours and like countries before, had found market shopping a delight to the senses.

Then I noticed the elderly gentleman in the checkout lane next to mine. He was smiling at me, holding up his properly weighed bag of bananas, and pointing at my bundle.

The bananas. I had forgotten to weigh my bananas and just grabbed two from the pile like I would in the United States.

My travel savvy high diminished, I weakly smiled back and mouthed, “Hvala” in thanks for his observant and discrete assistance. Returning to the produce section, I bagged, weighed and labeled the fruit I was carrying. Task complete, I went back to the front of the store, only to find my guardian angel waiting near the door, looking to make sure I understood his sign language. I held my bagged bananas in the air, and the smile cracked across his face once again. He waved “Nasvidenje” and exited the grocery.

Despite being the country’s capital, Ljubljana maintains a small town feel with cafes and pubs, an expansive daily farmer’s market off the main square, and locals who assist strangers who haven’t properly weighed their fruit. The city also feels incredibly youthful since the University of Ljubljana resides in a bohemian district full of art galleries, coffee houses and open displays of affectionate young love just beyond the Old Town section.

Tucked between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, Ljubljana is a big city of 276,000 that is sprinkled with old structures and narrow curvy streets. Looming over the city is Ljubljana Castle, originally a medieval structure that was rebuilt to its current glory following an earthquake in 1511. Over time the castle has not only protected peasants, but has served as a royal residence, prison, and barracks. I went to Ljubljana Castle specifically to take in the impressive 360-view from the top tower, paying just a few Euro to climb 95 wrought iron steps to behold a breathtaking vista of red roofs below.

Big city elements also include a placed steeped in history. Ljubljana-born architect Jože Plečnik began his career working on churches and residential structures in Vienna, and then moved to Prague, where he expanded his craft on the Prague Castle and other ornate religious structures. Many of Ljubljana’s gardens, churches, the city’s famous Triple Bridge (Tromostovje) are designed by Plečnik, hence the dejavu feeling of being in Prague, minus the tourists. And the relatively small amount of tourists makes Ljubljana a hidden gem, not only for the amount of elbow space one has strolling down cobblestone streets, but the way it affects your overall travel experience when you dine in a local restaurant or stop in a place like the Sax Pub.

The Sax Pub is a tiny jazz club just on the outskirts of the Old Center. Playfully painted in colorful hues with a half hippie, half graffiti vibe on the outside, the bar fills most of the establishment. Four additional tables are available in a high-back booth style on the far wall. My husband and I decided to stop one evening since it was on the path back to our flat, and because it was mentioned as a “must see” in the guidebook we had along.

The mixture of English pub décor and Euro tech grooves playing through the sound system might not have matched in most environments, but in Slovenia, it worked. We chatted with the bartender while sipping Union, one of Ljubljana’s local brews, and asked about the live music schedule. No music that evening, but we were told that a jazz combo would be playing around 9:30 the next night. Duly noted.

We stopped back the next evening a little after 9:00 p.m. and found the bar hopping, and not one word of English being spoken. This was a neighborhood establishment.

After asking if we could share one of the four tables with a fellow jazz fan, our musical senses were immediately appeased. A four piece played long improvised tunes, one after another. Being struck by the scene, I pulled out my writing pad to jot down a few notes and husband pulled out his camera.

The bartender, who turned out to be the owner, had taken a seat next to me. Once I put my notebook down he leaned over and asked what newspaper we were with. I explained that we were just music fans and travelers, enjoying Ljubljana for a few days. His face crinkled. “Why Slovenia??”

Realizing I couldn’t shout in detail why we wanted to escape the ordinary over the drummer’s solo, I answered that our travel book had said that it was worth checking out. He pulled back, eyes wide. “My place is in a BOOK??”

Charming encounter number two with a local and proof that this former Yugoslavian Republic still retains its quaint originality while satisfying the American wallet.

During my time in Ljubljana, food, lodging and sightseeing cost approximately $85 American dollars each day. My fully furnished apartment offered a double bed and bunk bed option (perfect for a family), plus a small kitchen for $68 dollars a night. I purchased two days of breakfast and lunch materials, plus those infamous bananas, at the local market for $3 dollars per day, and was still able to dine out for dinner at a local restaurant for about $7 on average. In addition to lower pricing, many of the museums in Ljubljana are free or cost only a few Euro for admittance. With the Euro around $1.20 to the American dollar, Slovenia is a budget travelers dream.

It was difficult saying goodbye to Slovenia. A beautiful place with no nonsense people, Ljubljana had an unbridled enthusiasm for what is to come. Sitting in a coffee house any active eavesdropper could hear that enthusiasm, either in lively discussion over which local beer is better, Union or Lasko, or a passionate exchange about its political evolution. Ljubljanans are a distinct people, proud of their history and still unafraid of moving forward.

Another article published recently about the charming people of Slovenia can be found at The Telegraph.