Two September days in Montreal

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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My hotel room on the 15th floor faced north, to Mount Royal — aka the Mountain. It’s really a very large hill, with a very large cross on top that glows white in the night, but a great landmark.

I used to fly kites there when I lived here at the age of 12 and took the bus along Sherbrooke Street — a major east-west thoroughfare — to school, a place that felt exotic and foreign to me because it was both Catholic (I’m not) and co-ed (I hadn’t shared a classroom with boys in four years.)

Half a block from my hotel is where I used to live, 3432 Peel Street, but that brownstone is long gone, replaced with a tall, new apartment tower.

Montreal is a city unlike any other, a mix of French chic and staid British elegance, of narrow weathered side streets and wide busy boulevards named for former politicians. One distinctive feature are the spiral or straight metal staircases in front of old three-story apartment buildings, which are hell to maneuver when they’re covered with snow and ice.

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Street names reflect the linguistic mix: Peel, Mansfield, Greene, Drummond — and St. Laurent, St. Denis, Maisonneuve, Cote Ste. Catherine.

It’s always been a divided city, between the French and English, and at times deeply hostile. Signs, by law, must be in French. Everywhere you go, you’ll hear French being spoken or on restaurant and store playlists.

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Sidewalk closed; use other sidewalk….a common sight there now!

 

I worked in Montreal as a reporter for the Gazette for 18 months, enough for me. The winter was brutally cold and two months longer than Toronto. (Two of my colleagues from the 80s are still at the paper, now in senior positions.)

I loved my enormous downtown apartment with a working fireplace and huge top-floor windows, but I hated that our building was broken into regularly and that shattered car window glass littered our block almost every morning.

On this visit, I met up with a younger friend at Beautys for brunch, (in business since 1942), and got there at 10:00 a.m.,  before the Sunday line formed outside. The food was good, but hurried, and we were out within an hour, meandering in afternoon sunshine.

 

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We ended up at Else’s, a casual/funky restaurant named for the Norwegian woman who founded it and died, according to her bio on the back of the menu, in 2011. It’s quintessentially Montreal, tucked on a corner of a quiet side street, far away from bustling downtown where all the tourists go. Its round table-tops were each a painted work of art, signed, and covered with layers of clear protective gloss. We stayed for hours, watching low, slanting sunshine pierce the windows and hanging ferns.

 

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The city’s side streets, full of old trees and flowers and narrow apartment buildings with lace-covered glass front doors  — Duluth, Rachel, Roy, Prince-Arthur — remain some of my favorite places to wander.

Montreal, (which this visit had too many squeegee guys at the intersections, never a good sign), always has such a different vibe from bustling, self-important Toronto, where I grew up, and where ugly houses now easily command $1 million; In the Gazette this visit, I saw apartments for rent for less than $800, unimaginable in most major North American cities now.

I visited my favorite housewares shop, in business since 1975, Arthur Quentin (pronounced Arrr-Toor, Kahn-Tehn), on St. Denis, and bought a gorgeous burgundy Peugeot pepper grinder. Everything in the store is elegant, from heavy, thick linen tablecloths and tableware to baskets, aprons and every possible kitchen tool.

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Downtown has many great early buildings with lovely architectural details —- this is the front door of Holt Renfrew, Canada’s top department store, in business since 1837

 

I went up to Laurier Ouest, a chic shopping strip frequented by the elegant French neighbors whose homes surround that area, Outremont. It has a great housewares store, (love those brightly colored tablecloths!) and MultiMags, one of best magazine stores I’ve ever seen anywhere, with great souvenirs, pens, cards and notebooks; (it has multiple branches.) A great restaurant, Lemeac, is there as well.

I savored a cocktail (OK, two) at one of my favorite places, the Ritz, where we used to dine every Friday evening the year I lived here with my mother. On our visit after 9/11, when hotel rates plunged enough we could afford to stay there, my husband and I noticed a group sitting near us at breakfast — Aerosmith!

Montreal is also a city of students, with McGill’s handsome limestone campus starting on Sherbrooke and climbing Mt. Royal from there; UQAM is just down the street and there’s also Concordia, (where I first taught journalism.)

 

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Great reflections in the window of a tearoom on St. Denis — the words above the window say: Drink, Laugh and Eat

 

I’ve visited in glorious 70-degree sunshine — like this past week — and bitterly cold, snow-covered February.

It’s a fun, welcoming city in every season, with great food, cool bars, interesting shops, small/good museums and 375 years of history.

And 2016 saw more visitors than any year since 1967.

If you’ve never visited, allez-y!

 

Remember unmediated life?

By Caitlin Kelly

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If my European journey taught me anything — or reminded me more powerfully than ever before — it’s to live, and savor, an unmediated life.

By which I mean, one experienced firsthand, feet-first, immersed in all of it.

Not, as has become normal/affordable/easy for me — and so many of us — a world and its wonders seen and heard only through a screen or scrim, whether social media or explained by the traditional mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio and television.

The soft, smooth cobblestones of Rovinj — a small seaside town in Croatia — were silky beneath my bare feet, the light snaking around corners as the sun moved through the sky, every hour offering a different tableau.

I’d have known none of this without my (grateful!) physical presence.

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Ironically, I follow several cool, adventurous people on Twitter whose lives are devoted to professional exploration, including aviation and wildlife photographers and three archeologists.

I love seeing what they find, but this is also, I realize, a little weird.

I need to go find this stuff myself!

Sadly, it’s now considered normal — starting in infancy — to spend hours consuming others’ visions and impressions and analysis of the world, instead of gathering every sense impression ourselves. (As I write this on our balcony in the early morning, I hear traffic on the bridge, a passing train and birds in the trees. The air is fresh and cool, the sun gilding the balcony’s outer edge.)

Plato’s cave, and our addiction to shadows, pales in the face of this.

I work alone at home in the suburbs of New York, with no kids or pets to distract me. I  work full-time freelance, which means I have no boss or coworkers with whom to share ideas or jokes or talk about our weekends.

Most of my friends here are too busy to actually get together in person, which all combines to create isolation, and so I’ve slipped into the tempting bad habit of feeling connected to the world through consuming social media — instead of socializing face to face.

If I want to actually be with someone, it takes me an hour each way, and up to $25 in train fare or parking fees, to go into Manhattan.

But if I don’t, I’m essentially a self-imposed shut-in, which is  — my six supersocial weeks in Europe reminded me  — a terrible choice for mental health.

My time in Europe, literally, exposed me to hundreds of strangers, some of whom became new friends, like an archeologist and travel blogger and translator, all of whom live in Berlin, all of whom had only been Twitter and blog pals before they became real, corporeal human beings sharing space with me, laughing and joking and hugging hello.

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Zagreb

 

I was also struck by people’s gentleness with me, like the man on the busy, crowded Tube stairs in London, watching me slowly and painfully climb beside him, who asked: “Are you OK?”

People can be perfectly nice on social media, but they’re not beside you.

They’re not — as two young men did — ready to carry your heavy suitcase up (!) three flights of stairs.

In Croatia, I sat for hours in a cafe with three new friends, talking and talking and talking.

 

No one stared into their phones.

No one stared into their laptop.

No one was rushing off to something more important.

 

What we were doing — just being together, enjoying one another’s company and conversation — was more important.

 

 

Are you living life firsthand?

 

 

 

6 weeks in Europe: what to pack!

By Caitlin Kelly

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I spent most of my time walking in large European cities, in high temperatures, with four professional meetings at the end in London and Dorset.

I wanted to look elegant when needed, and still be comfortable/stylish when it was — often! — 85 to 90 degrees F.

I did a lot of handwashing!

Here’s what I brought from New York, when I left on June 2:

six dresses; (one super-dressy for my Paris birthday dinner and for meeting editors in London)

black cotton leggings, Capri length

dark gray workout leggings; Capri length

A workout tank top

3 bras; 9 pairs panties

a watch

sunglasses; regular eyeglasses; eyeglass pouch

medications, including those I need for dental work (in case of emergency)

1 pair socks

1 pair purple mesh sneakers; 1 pair flat bronze sandals; 1 pair heeled black sandals, I pair red close-toed flats

1 long-sleeved T-shirt (white), 1 short-sleeved tee; 1 black hooded sweatshirt; 1 pale gray light sweatshirt

several large scarves in cotton and silk

a red leather envelope-style purse

a beige leather envelope; (contains all documents and paperwork — doubles as  purse)

a silver leather pouch; (contains all cords; doubles as a purse)

1 nightie

toiletries; (including medications for diarrhea/upset stomach/painkillers/bandages; make-up; red/pink nail polish/remover for DIY mani/pedi’s, shower gel and mitt, fragrant soap, perfume)

deck of cards

Bananagrams

paperback books; (left in hotels when I was finished)

good personal stationery and business cards; (all of which I used)

maps

cellphone

laptop; power strip; converters

 

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small stuffed bear (for company!)

umbrella (proved most useful in Venice as a parasol!)

shower cap (never used)

two bathing suits (used one)

black crushable hat (used a lot)

floral cotton cap (used once)

leg brace (essential for supporting my arthritic right knee!)

brown satin Lipault backpack

Leica digital camera (birthday present from Jose!)

2 lightweight cardigans

 

Here’s some of what I bought/added along the way:

 

a small metal water bottle (Berlin) — incredibly useful, as staying hydrated is key in high temperatures

a vintage sturdy cotton bandana (Paris) — great for mopping sweaty face and neck

sports bra (Berlin)

2 pair cotton sneaker socks (Berlin)

Voltaren cream (topical pain reliever for my knee)

two rings, one costume, one silver (Zagreb)

earrings — multiple pairs, (one gold, Rovinj)

scarves — two cotton, two silk (Berlin, Paris, London)

a necklace (Paris)

a bathing-suit cover-up (Paris)

make-up and perfume (Paris)

two bras, T-shirt, sleepwear (Zagreb)

three paperback books (Berlin, Budapest)

the FT Weekend; my favorite newspaper

a large cotton tote (Paris ) — essential!

a beach towel and goggles (Croatia)

four nice T-shirts (Berlin)

pale pink cotton dress from a street vendor (Budapest)

new sneakers (Berlin; lighter, better-fitting, perfect for swimming in rocky Croatia)

 

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black patent Birkenstocks (Berlin)

gifts for friends and husband

 

Here’s what I didn’t need or use the whole time, (and some of which I mailed home):

 

my red shoes, bronze sandals, purple sneakers; (none sufficiently comfortable for so many hours of daily walking)

my black cotton hoodie (too hot)

two dresses and a workout tank top (not using them)

beach towel and goggles, (used only in coastal Croatia)

guide books and maps from places I’d been to already

I spent about $150 in all to mail home packages from Berlin, Zagreb and Rovinj, sometimes lightening my suitcase by as much as five pounds; as I boarded my Venice-London flight my bag was still 3 kilos below the weight limit, *saving me $60 for that flight in excess weight fees.

Yes, that’s a lot of money to spend on postage — but hauling a heavy suitcase alone up many, many stairs in many cities and train stations is seriously no fun.

 

 

 

 

Six weeks away: assorted epiphanies

By Caitlin Kelly

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This was my longest break from work since 1988, (not including job-searching!)

It was the best possible birthday gift I could have given myself as I enter another decade, and with fewer ahead than behind me now.

Some of what it reminded, or taught me:

 

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The world is filled with kindness

 

Yes, we live in an era that can appear utterly savage: terrorism, racism, violence, economic inequality, grinding poverty. All of these exist and can destroy our hope, our belief, that there is also counter-balance, much active kindness and compassion.

I was so lucky and so grateful, even in the busiest and most crowded cities in the blistering heat of summer, to be treated with kindness by almost every single person I met. It was deeply moving to me, just one more random stranger amid the millions of tourists out there.

 

People’s lives are complicated — everywhere

 

When we go on vacation/holiday, we switch off from our daily cares, which is the whole point. It was powerful to hear of Europeans’ challenges, from the Venetian chambermaid whose wristband prompted our conversation (27 years lifting heavy mattresses had injured her) to the Croatian tour guide who told us his monthly wage is about $200, typical there, to my London friends and colleagues who are seeing some pernicious effects of Brexit already.

Listening at length means the world you’re passing through isn’t just some postcard.

It’s full of fellow human beings struggling as we do.

If you feel disconnected from the world, from others who seem so different from you, travel and speak and listen to them with an open heart and a healthy curiosity.

 

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Slowing down — and getting off-screen — is essential for mental health

 

I wish someone could put electrodes on my head right now as I can feel a major difference in my brain function and mood between when I left New York and how I’ve arrived home:

I didn’t listen to or read news.

I didn’t watch television or movies or listen to the radio.

I didn’t waste hours every day on-line attached to a screen and social media.

I didn’t consume two newspapers every day.

I interacted on-line maybe an hour a day.

Instead, I was outdoors in sunshine and nature, watching and listening to and connecting with people.

In real life.

Here’s a great recent essay about the value of sleep and silence.

 

So many stories!

 

I enjoyed the people I spoke with on my journey, from a woman at the Venice airport from Calcutta who’d traveled the world to the Romanian professor of anthropology I talked to on a bench in Zagreb to the young women who vividly recalled living through the Bosnian war as children.

Unless you get out into it, and speak to people, the rest of the world can feel very distant and literally invisible when you live in the enormous and self-centered United States, where “foreign” coverage of the world is shallow and the “news” forever dominated by American politics and violence.

 

 

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Working alone at home can render you a little feral

I’ve been working alone at home — no kids, no pets — since 2005 and rarely in a cafe or library, although our suburban New York town offers both.

Being surrounded by so many people in crowded cities reminded me what a hermit I’ve become. By the end of my journey, I was relieved to withdraw to silence and solitude.

But this trip also reminded me how stimulating and fun it is to meet new people, so this has shifted how I now think about spending more of my time in others’ company.

 

 

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Jose in our rented cottage in Donegal, June 2015

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

 

Having been with my husband for 17 years, and now both of us working from home much of the time, we can end up in one another’s pockets.

I missed the hell out of him on my trip!

There are some husbands who would freak out if their wife said: “Bye, honey! I’m traveling Europe alone for the next five weeks.” But we have the savings, I have the time off I need as someone self-employed — and he knows he married a restless globetrotter. Tethering someone like me to home/work is not w prudent decision.

 

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Routine is comforting — but deadening. Break it!

 

It feels good now to be home again and to enjoy my routines: the gym, the coffee shop, cooking, favorite television shows, two newspapers every morning thumping onto our apartment doorstep.

But it’s also deeply confining to keep doing the same old things the same old way, day after day, week after month after year. Only by cutting the cord to all of them could I envision — and in solitude really think through — some new ideas and ones I’m really excited about.

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If something makes you really happy, savor it now

 

I arrived home in New York to the terrible news that a local writer, someone whose work I’d seen for years — envying her Big Magazine bylines and steady, well-paid work for them — had died.

At 46.

Leaving three children and a husband.

With 1.5 months between her diagnosis and her death.

We have no idea, ever, how long we will live or how many more precious opportunities we will have to seize joy, to hold our sweetie’s hand, to cuddle our kids or pets, to connect deeply with work we still enioy.

Or to travel, even a bike ride or bus ride to a nearby and beloved beach or mountain-top or museum.

Travel makes me happier than anything else, ever, anywhere.

I’m so grateful for taking this time and having, for now, the health and the income to do it.

Nothing is guaranteed to us.

 

Do it now!

My top 10 travel tips

By Caitlin Kelly

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Whatever medications you might possibly need, bring them with you!

I learned this the hard way when I wrenched my arthritic knee in Berlin — and assumed I could pick up some anti-inflammatory pills at the pharmacy. Nope! Not without a prescription, so I had to wait until I got to Budapest. Then (bad luck trip!) I cut myself in London, and the wound was painful, so I went to buy Neosporin, a terrific antibiotic cream easily available in Canada and the U.S.

Not in England! I had to settle for some gel. Note that my journey took me not into remote jungles or desert areas of developing countries, but major European cities.

 

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Make note of landmarks

Whether you take a photo or simply use your memory, make note of some basic landmarks, especially on the route(s) back to your lodging. And be sure to have the complete address and phone number with you and written down (in case your phone dies!)

Again, I did this the hard way in London, limping the entire length of Waterloo Bridge (!) after mistaking the north side of London for my destination on the south bank. A day later I found the right bus because I’d watched the route carefully so I knew where the correct bus stop was by remembering its location outside a college.

Yes, you prefer to use apps on your phone, or a map — but what if your phone dies or, as happens, is snatched from your hand and you’re disoriented?

 

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Make time to rest and totally relax

Yes, you’ve possibly paid a fortune for your travel and lodging and dare not miss a minute.

But racing around for eight or 10 or 12 hours every day, especially in summer heat and crowds, is truly exhausting for even the most fit.

Travel is a huge privilege, certainly, but it’s also disorienting, tiring and sometimes anxiety-provoking.

Build in downtime for yourself and your travel companions to sleep, read, listen to music, watch a video or go to a movie.

Hydrate!

I was impressed by huge posters in the London tube, suggesting that passengers eat before a journey and to always carry water with them. The single best buy of my trip was a $10 metal water bottle that I filled each morning and carried everywhere, refilling it as needed.

Especially in summer, it’s too easy to scarf down calorie-laden ice cream, beer or soda instead of healthy, no-cal water.

 

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Vary your normal schedule

Get up at 5:00 a.m and watch the sun rise — or stay up late and watch it set, (that can be as late 11:30 p.m. in Scandinavian summer.)

Places are wildly different at sunrise and sunset. It’s so fun to watch a place come awake or locals emerging into the cooling dusk for their passeggiata.

Get out onto the water!

Every time I meet someone eager to visit New York City, I remind them that it’s an island — i.e. with water you can get out onto, whether in a sailboat, a rented kayak or a ferry. Few sights are as memorable and gob-smacking as watching a city light up around you.

Take a brief river cruise in cities like New York, Paris, London, Berlin, Chicago or Budapest — anywhere that offers one!

Toronto has gorgeous harbor islands reachable by ferry, as do Stockholm, Vancouver and others. You can even land on an island in the Toronto harbor at Billy Bishop airport, (if you fly Porter Air.)

You get a totally different perspective of a place from its adjacent waters, whether a lake, river, sound or ocean, certainly in summer (and even in winter.)

Talk to locals, at length

Some of my best memories of my six-week journey have been the candid conversations I had with hotel staff, taxi drivers, a sailing instructor, a tour guide, with professors and students.

I would have had no idea that the average Croatian monthly wage is about 700 kuna — $109 U.S. dollars — a sum I fact-checked with others and which still leaves me shocked.

Remember that every safely completed journey relies on the skills and talents of  many people, some invisible to us, no matter how essential

From pilots and fight attendants and maintenance crew to the chambermaids cleaning your room to the wait-staff to the bus and train and boat drivers.

I made sure to leave healthy tips for the chambermaids at every hotel and was deeply touched by the kindness I received while coping with my injury — even from Venice’s overwhelmed and harried vaporetto staff to busy London cabbies.

Say thank-you! Leave good tips!

 

Your best travel skill — flexibility!

I love Paris, but recently overheard two London businessmen discussing their holidays — the younger one, maybe late 20s, early 30s, said he’d found that legendary city a huge disappointment.

Much I as want to love London, (and I enjoy elements of it a great deal), I inevitably leave it behind with a sigh of relief: for me, it’s just too big, too crowded, too expensive and it takes an hour to go anywhere by public transit. It’s not my favorite city, no matter how hard I try.

So when you arrive at a place you’ve worked hard and saved hard to get to, you might love it — or not. Prior research helps, of course, but things happen: there might be a strike or lousy weather or someone gets ill or (rarely), you might (be cautious and smart) get robbed or pick-pocketed.

Don’t expect perfection!

 

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Have some emergency savings or access to additional funds through a credit card

I certainly didn’t plan — two weeks into a six-week big-city European trip — to badly injure my right knee. But I did, and that meant much slower days, less sight-seeing than I hoped for, and a few more taxi fares — which cost additional funds I hadn’t planned on.

Same thing for getting to and from airports/bus/train terminals, especially with luggage — if you’re exhausted/ill/injured/coping with children or frail companions — prioritize comfort and speed over saving a few dollars.

Here are six more excellent tips from travel bloggers, through USA Today.

 

 

A week in London

By Caitlin Kelly

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The last stop! (sob)

So grateful to stay with friends who live in an impossibly fab flat facing directly onto the Thames — as I write this, the only sounds are seagulls shrieking.

I took the bus a lot more this time than in previous visits, specifically the 188, (which terminates in elegant Russell Square, a block from the massive British Museum) and the C10 , which terminates in (!), the aptly-named Canada Water, (I’m Canadian.)

 

Traveling London by bus is fantastic for a few reasons:

 

—  It’s a hectic, crowded city so buses get your weary body off busy streets

— The Tube has a lot of stairs and few escalators or elevators, and a lot of walking between stations and its many different lines, so if you’re tired or have mobility issues, the bus is much less tiring

— The views! The buses, as you likely know, are double-decker, so head upstairs, and if you’re lucky, grab the very front seat for amazing vistas of the city below

— Building details are much easier to see and photograph, as is the stunning skyline.

Here’s some of what I did on this visit (one of many) in London:

 

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Museums

 

The Wallace Collection is a gob-smacking insight into accumulated, inter-generational aristocratic wealth, handed down from one marquess to another — room after room, (25 galleries in all), covered in jewel-colored damask silk — of paintings, sculptures, bronzes, armor, miniatures.

The collection is astonishing in its depth and breadth.

I loved their explanations of how armor was made and custom-fitted; you can even try on (!) some chain mail and helmets for a selfie.

Their cafe is a delight — huge, airy, filled with natural light. Be sure to make time for a cup of tea or lunch.

I finally went to the British Museum, with a friend, to see a fantastic show about the later years — ages 60 to 90s — of one of my favorite artists, Hokusai; the show is on until August 18.

He’s one of the legendary Japanese woodblock artists and painters, whose image The Great Wave, remains instantly recognizable centuries later.

I loved this show, and appreciated the way his life was contextualized, with insightful quotes — in 1830 he was terrified of penury (what creative person can’t relate?!)  — and the details about how he worked with and lived with his daughter, an accomplished artist in her own right.

Life in the late 1700s was every bit as challenging for this legendary artist as it still is today for so many of us.

Like most British museums, entrance to the collection — 8 million objects — is free.

I also dipped into the Victoria and Albert Museum, checking out their fantastic fashion display and some of their Islamic materials. It’s also huge, so plan accordingly.

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While you might see the Tate, Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery, the Design Museum, the Imperial War Museum (whew!), the city also has smaller, more intimate spots. Two of my favorites are Freud’s house and Sir John Soane’s House.

 

Exploring

 

If you end up on Oxford Street — filled with every major store imaginable — its crowds can easily overwhelm.

Duck instead into a narrow side street and you’ll find all sorts of lovely discoveries, like St. Christopher’s Place, filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. At Malini, I scored two terrific cotton cardigans (they came in every color) for 39 pounds each  ($51 each.)

Try to make time to also check out quieter neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Primrose Hill — each of which have gorgeous architecture, parks, shops and restaurants.

I got to know Primrose Hill because a relative lives in the area, on a square with every house-front painted the delicious pastels of sugared almonds. Regent’s Park is spectacular, and has wonderful views of the city from wide green hills.

London is a city that rewards slow, focused, observant walking.

Look up at the city’s 900 ceramic blue plaques commemorating famous people who’ve lived there. On one busy block of Argyll Street, there are plaques for the American writer Washington Irving and Brian Epstein, who once managed the Beatles; the latter’s is above Five Guys, whose burgers and fries are amazing.

Flea markets

I love these places…this trip, I went to Bermondsey Square, (held only on Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a great bacon and egg sandwich-maker on-site). I snagged a 16th century fragment of ceramic found in the muddy banks of the Thames, thanks to a terrific practice called mudlarking.

I also found a great little Art Deco rhinestone-studded rocket ship, also for 10 pounds — about $13.00.

Arrive as early as possible — 7 .a.m. — and bring lots of cash.

My usual haunts are Camden Passage and Alfie’s, and I’ve even brought home ceramic platters and jugs; (bubble wrap! hand luggage!)

If you want to ask for a lower price, do it gently, very politely and delicately: “What’s your best on this?” is a decent phrase to use. Do not think that disparaging an item will reduce the pricewhen it just pisses off the person who chose it and set it out for sale.

Even if you don’t buy, some vendors can be friendly and incredibly knowledgeable — I learned a lot more about early sterling silver from one man at Bermondsey while looking at his teaspoons and about 15th. century ceramics from the vendor selling mudlark shards.

We also visited Portobello market, where I got a gorgeous cashmere turtleneck for 10 pounds ($13) and splurged on fabric and ribbon at this amazing shop (who ship to the U.S.)

Here’s a comprehensive list of London’s flea and antiques markets.

I lived in London ages two to five and have been back many, many times since, enjoying everything from tea at the Ritz to shopping at Fortnum & Mason to an amazing show of photos at Tate Modern.

The city really offers something for every taste. Be sure to enjoy a few very British traditions, from a leisurely afternoon tea to a pint at a pub.

Make time to watch the river traffic on the Thames, with everything from small sailboats to coal barges.

 

Have you been there?

What did you enjoy the most?

 

 

A week in Istria, Croatia

By Caitlin Kelly

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My hotel, Angelo D’oro, Rovinj, Istria, Croatia

Most people who choose to visit Croatia head to the more familiar Dalmatian coast — to Split, Dubrovnik and the islands there, like Hvar; fans of the the HBO series Game of Thrones know that Dubrovnik is the location for some essential scenes.

I decided to skip that part of the country, knowing it would be expensive and crowded, and chose Istria instead, a place I’d never heard of before.

Here’s how I found it and chose to go:

1) I consulted Relais & Chateaux , a worldwide association of small, independent luxury hotels. Once I start to think about a future trip, I look for a R & C hotel I might like to try — if I can afford it! (I did in Malta.) That led me to Istria, although the only hotel they included was more than I wanted to pay.

2) Thanks to a Twitterchat I participate it, I met a travel agent based in Zagreb who helped me plan.

3) This travel blogger based in Berlin did a post on Rovinj, and I was sold.

Rovinj, a town of 15,000 people, is called Little Venice and feels like a smaller, less-jammed version of that much larger city. The streets are narrow, the houses painted ocher and mustard and a gorgeous deep raspberry color, and the stairs up to people’s apartments are Amsterdam-steep.

I got there by bus from Zagreb, about 4 hours’ journey, and walked to my hotel, the Angelo D’Oro, which (it had to happen!) turned out to be a lot more expensive than I had remembered when I booked it. (Like, holy shit, twice as much.)

It was worth every penny.

The hotel has only 23 rooms, and is housed in two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, and used to be the bishops’ residence. My room was on the top — fourth — floor, with a small terrace overlooking the harbor, my only companions flocks of swallows and shrieking seagulls.

Buffet breakfast was served on a shaded terrace full of oleander trees, with two small cats who came by each morning to visit.

Every morning and evening at 7:00, the bells of Santa Euphemia rang out from the church just above my windows.

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The town is so small you can easily walk everywhere, although there are taxis and the hotel has a little golf cart for moving luggage.

There’s not a lot to do, but it’s a place to kick back and soak up the sun and sit in cafes and savor the views.

The beaches are rocky, (and sea shoes are essential because spiny sea urchins live in the rocks and you do not want to step on one!), and the water crystal clear and the perfect temperature.

You can sail, sea-kayak, fish, snorkel. You can buy really pretty linen shirts and dresses from Italy inexpensively and I treated myself to a pair of gold earrings.

I took a narrated bus tour one day to two hill towns, Groznjan and Oprtalj (right at the Slovenian border), which was terrific — a lovely break from 85-degree heat and a chance to see how gorgeous the hilly interior is.

Istria is small, so it’s easy to see a lot of it within a day’s drive.

Only two words of warning about Rovinj — restaurant food, generally, is of very mediocre quality and almost every restaurant has the same (!?) menu, with fried fish, spaghetti or steak, catering to a lower-income tourist, enormous families and its typical mix of British, German, Austrian and Italian tourists.

Crowds! You can escape them, but restaurants can be busy, especially the very few ones with excellent (and pricey) food.

I loved my time there and was sad to leave — taking a catamaran the 3.5 hour trip across the Adriatic to Venice, the perfect way to arrive to a maritime city.

 

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Loved the light on the cobblestone streets

 

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Lots of stores selling pearls — loved how stylish this one was!

 

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I often walked barefoot — the stones are silky-smooth, and, when steep, quite slippery!

 

 

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For 80 kuna — about $16 — round-trip, you can take a 20-minute ferry ride to Red Island, where this sort of beauty awaits. I had this beach all to myself all day.

 

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Santa Euphemia church, Rovinj, Croatia

 

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Old Town, Rovinj

 

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The view from Groznjan, Istria

 

 

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This gorgeous image sat in a niche outside my hotel room. I loved seeing it every morning.

10 reasons to travel alone

By Caitlin Kelly

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I went to say thank you and good-bye to one of the waitresses at my last hotel, and we chatted for a bit.

Then she exclaimed: “But…you’re alone!”

True.

I’d stayed a week at a 23-room historic hotel and I hadn’t seen anyone else there who was traveling solo.

In my time here in Europe, now five weeks, most of the travelers I’ve seen are in couples, or families, or packs of friends, whether teens or seniors.

I’m clearly an outlier, and I’m fine with that; my mother traveled the world alone for years and I spent four months alone traveling through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy at 23.

 

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy traveling solo, even (yes), while female:

 

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No one dictates my schedule

Unless it’s a travel day, and I have to meet a plane, train or bus on time, it’s no one’s business when I get up or go to bed or do anything. Total freedom is priceless to me.

No one is insisting we must do this or must see that

Again, if I want to retreat to my cool, quiet hotel room at mid-day to escape 90-degree heat, no one is having a (literal) meltdown or tantrum because they want to do something else.

I’ve missed all sorts of must-see’s and must-do’s on this trip, (all those museums! all those famous sites!), because I wanted to just rest and relax and see only what I want to see.

People can be much kinder than you’d expect

This trip has been savaged by a lot of right knee pain and right foot pain. It makes walking slow and painful. It makes stairs slow and painful. I also do poorly in heat, and everywhere people have been very kind, offering to help me with luggage or stairs.

 

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Pauly Saal, the Berlin restaurant where I met two new-to-me friends for lunch

 

Making new friends is easier

When you travel with others, their wants and needs, of course, matter to their enjoyment of their vacation. If you just want to sit and have a long conversation, sometimes even a short one, that can impede your companions’ progress.

I’ve really savored the long conversations I’ve had along the way, and have learned a lot about the places I’ve been.

I don’t want to just slide past, taking lots of photos.

And yet….

 

Silence is truly golden

When traveling solo, you don’t have to talk to anyone beyond the most basic questions. I can go an entire day without conversation, and what a relief that is.

As the waitress agreed, about having to be charming and social: “It’s exhausting!”

 

You’re present in a way that’s usually impossible when traveling with others

I’ve been amazed at how I just sit, still, for an hour. No book, no magazine or paper. No screens. Whether I’m watching someone in a cafe, or the local cats who shimmy down the garden trees, or admiring kids splashing into the Adriatic at sunset, I can pay all of it my full attention.

I’ve gotten some astounding photos at all times of day and night, able to see clearly without interruption or distraction. I spent one happy afternoon sketching and painting.

 

No fights!

I witnessed a furious mother and her mutinous little boy, (and his brother and their fed-up grandparents), at a table near me in Rovinj, a seaside resort in Croatia. It was clear they were all totally annoyed with this kid, and he with them.

Thank heaven it wasn’t me; having had some monumental arguments while very far from home — out alone with my father, my mother, my husband — I know how stressful that is since you all still have to get back into the same hotel or flat and/or the same means of transportation later anyway.

 

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Time to reflect

I’ve had all sorts of new-to-me ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work.

I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change  — and loving it.

 

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The trams in Zagreb — fast, cheap, efficient

 

You (re)-learn to be self-reliant

My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”...which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”

Solo travel turns you into that person, and quickly!

At 25, I won an EU journalism fellowship based in Paris that required four 10-day independent  reporting trips throughout Europe. No one was there to hold my hand or to show me stuff. I loved it!

Whether you’re madly calculating currency differences, (try 276 Hungarian forints to the U.S. dollar!) or trying to read a map in another language or making sure you’ve caught the right bus/train/boat heading in the right direction, it’s all up to you.

If it goes pear-shaped, (as the British would say), everywhere has some sort of medical care and usually someone who speaks English. Absolute worst case, you can contact your consulate or embassy for emergency help.

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The Washington, D.C. Metro

The self-confidence solo travel creates is fantastic, lasting and can inspire others to take the leap

I’ve been traveling alone since I was 17 and first crossed the U.S. border by train to attended a photo workshop — although I took my first flight alone, from Toronto to Antigua, at seven.

Once you realize how to navigate the world, and see that many people — like us — just want to make a living, help their kids and grandkids thrive, and to enjoy their lives as much as we do — it’s a much less intimidating place.

Yes, some spots are tougher than others, and some truly no-go zones for women alone. But fewer than you’d think.

 

Have you traveled alone?

 

How did you enjoy it?

 

How to plan a perfect vacation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Toronto, March 2017

One new friend, a Zagreb travel agent, says: “A perfect vacation is one without expectations..”

She might be right.

When I plan a vacation I focus on what I, (and/or my husband), really want to do, (not what we see on social media or what’s “hot” this year) — informed by my participation in multiple weekly travel Twitterchats, and reading travel websites, blog posts and articles that offer specific ideas and inspiration.

Having been to 40 countries, I’m torn between visiting the familiar, like Ireland, (five visits), and France (many more), and seeking out new experiences.

Things to consider when planning your holiday:

For how long? (Will it be enough or will you get bored?)

Using what transportation?

With whom, (or alone?)

How much activity, and how much downtime?

How many (tiring) travel days and transfers?

What will you give up to stay on budget, (e.g. luxury hotels, taxis everywhere)?

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Washington, D.C. June 2016

 

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The Donegal cottage, 3 bedrooms, great views

“Perfect” for me includes:

 


 

Easy/safe/quick/affordable, (hello, $$$$$ London!), public transit in and around the city/town, ideally without cars or taxis. My favorite vacations involve no driving, unless it’s a road trip or touring.

— Making emotional connections. I travel out of curiosity, and having long conversations with a country’s residents is a great joy for me. I got to know two sisters in Croatia whose powerful memories of Zagreb being bombed are much more powerful to me than any lovely vista.

Kind and welcoming locals. I liked Berlin, but didn’t enjoy “Berliner schnauze”, a biting, sarcastic edge that’s quite common. Travel is disorienting enough and you can feel vulnerable, especially if you’re alone. Croatians have been terrific.

Healthy food at decent prices. Easy access to farmer’s markets, (in cities like Toronto, Paris, London, Zagreb, New York), can make a real difference to your budget and ability to eat well.

A climate with some variation. If it’s a sweltering 80 to 90+ degrees during the day, a drop of even 10 degrees and a breeze is a blessing. I can’t handle humidity; cold, for this Canadian, is not a problem.

Ready access to nature: lake, river, ocean, forest, parks, gardens. Too much concrete makes me feel ill, even on a city-focused trip.

Great shopping. I love finding items, styles and colors I just can’t get in New York (yes, really.). I treasure wearing and using them for years to come.

— Culture/design whether music, museums or just well-designed lighting, streetscapes and buildings.

Personal safety.  Especially in an era of terror attacks, I avoid crowds whenever possible and am extremely aware of my surroundings in large cities..

Fleeing American violence and toxic politics. I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1989, but am so sickened and embarrassed by its current politics and President I want to be as far away from of it as I can afford, and for as long as I can afford.

Nor do I want, on vacation, to be surrounded by Americans, so I choose places, and hotels, with a more international clientele.

While trying to relax, the last thing I want to think or talk about is American politics.

— History. The town I’m writing this in, Rovinj, Croatia, has buildings from the 16th century — and my hotel dates from the 18th and 17th, two buildings later combined. I’m happiest in places with a rich, accessible history.

Eastern Europe also offers something I’d never seen before — in Berlin, Budapest and Zagreb, museums of torture, places where its citizens suffered unspeakable crimes. History is filled with darkness, too.

Grace notes

Everything from the starched, spotless linen napkins and tablecloths in my Rovinj hotel to the oleander blossoms that fall onto my breakfast plate from the terrace’s overhanging trees. For me, touches of beauty and elegance make a place deeply memorable. 

— Rest!

It’s so tempting to gogogogogogogo. I finally lay in bed one afternoon and napped and listened, on the Internet, to my favorite weekend radio shows from NPR.

— A mix of solo and accompanied time

So many women are afraid to strike out alone, to eat alone, to walk alone.

I’ve done it in Istanbul, Spain, Mexico…

Dig through the archives here and you’ll find several posts detailing how to do it safely and enjoyably.

Ideally, I like a mix of vacation time both solo and accompanied; alone here, I’ve had terrific conversations with bus and train mates, at cafes and in shops and restaurants. These included two U of Texas accounting students; a Croatian art history major; a Romanian professor of environmental anthropology; an epee fencer, and an electrical engineer, both from Zagreb and an IBM exec — who I met smoking a hookah! — who’d worked for NGOs in Africa.

Even when I travel with my beloved husband, taking some daily time apart is essential.

 

Some of our best vacations have included:

 

• Our rented cottage in Dungloe, Donegal, in June 2015, (through this website), and the flat we rented twice on the Ile St. Louis in Paris (friends.)

• A five-week bus journey throughout Mexico in May 2005, including Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived as a teenager.

• Since our first visit in the fall of 2001, exhausted by covering the events of 9/11, we’ve returned six (!) times, so far, to Manoir Hovey, a resort on Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a 7-hour drive from our home in New York; elegant but not stuffy, welcoming, great food and lovely in every season.

 

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships

This European trip has offered virtually no disappointments, not bad for a month on the road through four countries so far. I chose a mix of larger and smaller cities, with a seaside break in Istria, Croatia.

I also chose three long train journeys — Paris-Berlin (7 hours), Berlin-Budapest (13 hours), Budapest-Zagreb (6 hours) —  in order to rest and see the countryside. I dislike flying, so this also reduced my stress.

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This trip’s two greatest surprise expenses?

Hotel laundry, (sweaty from walking all day in 80+ degree heat; one hotel even forbade hand washing!), and taxis, when my arthritic right knee gave out. I could have used laundromats, (as I have in Paris), but right now, free time is more precious to me.

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Lincoln Center, New York City

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Bucks County, Pennsylvania

 

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Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

 

Have you had it — or planned it — yet?

Four days each in Budapest and Zagreb

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’m now in Istria, the northernmost part of Croatia, only three hours by car from Venice. I’ve booked a week’s stay in the town of Rovinj, hoping to do a lot of nothing — no museums, no shopping, no walking with a bum knee along hot, crowded streets.

The Adriatic!

I really enjoyed my four days apiece in Budapest and Zagreb, my first visits to both. I’d definitely return to either one, but in spring or autumn.

 

Budapest

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One of the pleasures of this trip is seeing how different each city is from the next. Budapest is very much not Berlin; its buildings feel older, dirtier, more massive in scale and design.

I stayed with my best friend from University of Toronto, (who lives far from me in the interior of British Columbia), and her 24-year-old daughter in a rented one-bedroom flat in District VII, the former Jewish quarter, which is very lively and filled with bars and restaurants.

The company is called 7 Seasons,  on Kiraly Street, (with a Metro stop within a two-minute walk.) I liked the flat very much — although the bedroom didn’t have air conditioning, which in this brutally hot summer, was unpleasant. It had a small balcony with table and chairs, and lots of natural light. facing a huge central courtyard; below were about five restaurants, including a fantastic Middle Eastern one.

Lots of fun shops, including vintage clothing and (!) endless “escape rooms”, whose attractiveness completely eludes me.

A great pleasure of Budapest is how affordable it is, for food, lodging and transport (except taxis!) A great disappointment for me was — because it’s so much more affordable than other European cities — it attracts roving/shouting/shrieking gangs of men and women who’ve flown in cheaply for their “hen” and “stag” do’s, (what North Americans call their bachelor or bachelorette parties.)

We visited the 99-year-old Gellert Baths,  (about $20 for admission; bring your own bathing suit, cap and towel), and savored the warm waters of its two indoor thermal baths. I didn’t try the sauna or swimming pool but dipped my toes into the frigid cold bath.

The place is astounding and well worth a visit to spend a few hours lolling beneath its stained glass and mosaics.

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Budapest’s Houses of Parliament

 

Loved our night cruise on the Danube, choosing a 10:00 p.m. boat so the sky would be completely dark. Like Paris and New York, Budapest is a city of bridges, each with its own history and character.

 

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The New York Cafe, Budapest

 

We also loved our visit to a local legend, the New York Cafe. Go!

One hot afternoon I managed to walk for ages (!) in the opposite direction to my goal, passing every embassy on Andrassy Avenue, which terminates in Hero’s Square. 

Desperately tired and thirsty, I staggered into a shady seat in a cafe…full of men smoking hookahs! I got chatting to a man beside me, about my age, and happily puffing away on his after-work treat. We had a great conversation: he was born in Lebanon, raised in Kuwait, studied to his PhD in India and had worked with NGOs in Africa before coming to IBM. Hussein was a sweetie and I so enjoyed meeting him.

 

Zagreb

 

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So far, perhaps, my favorite city for its relaxed quality: Berlin’s blocks are very, very long (so tiring to navigate) and Budapest was just too full of bro’s.

Zagreb — with only 790,000 people, (to B and B’s 3 million or so) — felt just right.

I liked my hotel very much, The Palace, and my small room with its quiet garden view; (the street-side is busy with tram traffic.) Had a phenomenal massage in their wellness center for $60 — about half what it costs in New York.

Zagreb feels lived-in, in a good way. I was very struck by how clean the streets are, and its many green, flower-filled parks. No graffiti, at least not in the central areas — something Berlin is covered with.

The city’s many cafes were full of people actually talking and laughing with one another —- not staring grimly into laptops.

Food is a mix of Eastern European (lots of meat!), Italian and Balkan, with various kinds of cheese and cottage cheese I’d never seen before.

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Loved the Dolac, the central  daily farmer’s market that runs from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m, filled with fruit and vegetables and flowers and cheeses and nuts and lavender and local shoppers with their wheelie carts. The square is edged by cafes, so you can take a break as you head home laden with cherries!

 

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Loved the city’s many blue trams, making it quick, easy and comfortable to get around.

Loved its architecture and ocher and yellow-painted walls.

 

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Loved most the Upper Town, silent and breeze-blown, with a spectacular church. I visited two museums there and loved both — the atelier of Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most famous artist. His sculpture is exquisite, in marble and bronze and his home, built in the 1920s, a lovely space as well.  If you like Rodin/Giacometti and/or the work of Diego Rivera, you’ll like this.

The Museum of Naive Art, a block away in Upper Town, is fantastic — filled with works on paper and many done on glass. A small museum, maybe four or five rooms, (a docent told me they have 1,900 items with only 75 on display), it’s really special. (Word of warning, though: both of these museums have steep narrow staircases to enter and to see everything in the Mestrovic site. Those with mobility issues might not be able to enjoy them.)

The city has 37 hotels — and 33 (!) hostels, making it an accessible place for all budgets.

I mostly loved seeing how people enjoy their city — guys playing badminton in the park, little girls rollerblading, people just sitting on the many pretty benches to chill out in the shade.

Zagreb felt civilized in all the right ways.