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Traveling around Europe, we are often struck how local alcoholic beverages counter the general tide of globalization. They prevail, sometimes against the odds, as assertively regional products—occasionally even limited to a single city. Whether you opt for Ginja in Lisbon, Unicum in Hungary or for Tentura in Patras, the glass in your hand contains more than just a drink. It is a distillation of local culture and tradition.
The caraway-flavored liqueur Allasch is too sweet for our taste, but it has become over the years the signature drink of Leipzig—even though its origins go back to Latvia. There is plenty of Allasch in Leipzig shops, but we do wonder if these days it is purchased mainly by tourists.
Baltic favorites in Latvia, Estonia and Finland
Latvians may have lost their taste for Allasch, but Riga Black Balsam is still going strong. It has been made in Riga for over 250 years. Its distinctive ceramic flagons are a Latvian icon, but you will also run across Black Balsam in maritime communities across the Baltic region.
Vana Tallinn cannot claim the heritage of Black Balsam, as it is a child of the sixties, when Estonians realized that cheap Caribbean rum could be improved through the addition of a cocktail of spices. It comes in a medley of styles, some verging on the bizarre. Vana Tallinn Chocolate Cream is one to ponder.
Moving north from Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland, you might run across Minttu, which is as minty as the name implies. We think it is made only slightly more palatable by mixing it with hot chocolate, just as Finns often do in winter. Another Finnish favorite is Lakka, made out of cloudberries. Take it straight, on ice or mixed in with coffee.
Here’s a handful of other local drinks to tickle your taste buds as you travel around Europe:
1. Patxaran – Spain
Made from sloe berries, this drink comes from Navarre in northern Spain, but it’s also a firm favorite in the Basque region just to the north.
2. Cantueso – Spain
Brimming with thyme flavors, a bottle of this is hard to find once you get beyond the Alicante region of Spain.
3. Noyau de Poissy – France
Crafted from apricots, this regional drink is a specialty of Poissy, a community on the bank of the River Seine just downstream from Paris.
4. Becherovka – Czech Republic
This spirit comes in distinctive green bottles which are found everywhere in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. The town even has a museum devoted to the history of its signature drink.
5. Danziger Goldwasser – Poland
Intimately associated with the Polish city of Gdansk, we suspect that nowadays it is mainly German visitors to the city who splash out on a bottle. It is a herbal liqueur which has wafer-thin flakes of real gold floating in it. Devotees of this oddball drink debate how far the gold inflects the taste.
The post Sipping your way through Europe: The geography of regional drinks appeared first on EuroCheapo's Budget Travel Blog.
Latitude: 6° 08.5126’ N
Longitude: 1° 17.0908’ E
In the last two updates I said that our next stop was going to be Cotonou, Benin. Togo is clearly not Benin.
What happened was a classic case of West African bureaucracy and being able to adapt. Day 15 was actually Easter Sunday. Despite the fact that this trip had been planned for over a year, it was less than 24 hours before we landed that we were told that the port in Benin was closed for Easter!
Thankfully, our ground agent for Benin was also our ground agent for Togo, so the staff on the ship and the agent on shore scrambled to switch our schedules for the two days around. Also, because the sailing times between Benin, Togo and Ghana are so short, it didn’t really affect our sailing times. To give you a sense of scale, the distance from Lome, Togo to Cotonou, Benin is only 90km (55 miles).
In the end, they managed to switch around our days in Togo and Benin and everything worked out. There were some small changes which had to be made because it was Easter Sunday, and thankfully it didn’t really change the experience.
For the first time on the trip we were greeted at the port by a welcoming committee of dancers. What made this remarkable was that it was Easter Sunday and it was organized with less than 24 hours notice. The most impressive part of the show were the dancers on stilts. The stilt walkers were quite high. I’d estimate they 12-15 feet (4-5m) off the ground. Moreover, they were wearing masks and costumes that looked like they would be extremely hot, and our day in Togo was turning out to be the hottest day of the trip so far. (see the photo above)
After the dance show at the port, we traveled 45 minutes outside of the capital of Lome to the village of Akato Viepe. It took me a while to realize that this was the first actual village we had visited on the trip. Our school visit in the Congo was in a large city and the visit to the Monte Cafe in Sao Tome wasn’t really a village visit per se. Likewise, our stops in Angola were both in sizable cities.
In Akato Viepe, we were greeted with full fanfare by the village chief and his entourage.
The people of the village gave us our warmest reception we’ve had to date. I can’t help but think that part of this was the result of visiting the village on Easter Sunday. (There was a service going on in a nearby church during our visit and it sounded like quite the celebration.)
A common theme in my daily updates is how little tourism this region gets. This has both positive and negative ramifications for traveling. In the case of Akato Viepe, it resulted in people who were as curious about us as we were about them. While we outnumbered them in terms of cameras, they took their fair share of photos us.
The chief and his officials entered in a formal procession to drumming and singing before sitting down in an honored position in the village ceremonial grounds.
Like our visit to the school in the Congo, we provided the village with a large box full of school supplies and gifts which was the culmination of the ceremony.
While the audience with the chief was obviously done for our benefit, the enthusiasm and reception of the villagers was genuine. We also had the pleasure of touring the village before we left. The school and other facilities were close due to Easter, but we still were able to get a decent feel for what the village was like.
In the afternoon we headed back to Lome and visited an African art museum, a artist market and….the fetish market.
To understand the fetish market, you have to understand that in Togo, traditional religion, often called voodoo, is still practiced by a very large portion of the population. The fetish market is a market for dead animals and animal parts which are used for voodoo religious purposes.
Prior to our visit, the staff on the Expedition, which has several experts in African culture and wildlife, gave us advanced warning for what to expect. First, we were warned that many people would be very turned off by the fetish market. While it is a cultural part of the Togo, it is also something which is very offensive to western sensibilities. Secondly, we were warned not to buy anything. I didn’t really think there was a high risk of anyone on the ship buying a dead bird, but they didn’t want to encourage the wanton killing of forest animals.
Given the amount of discussion, debate and preparation we were given for the fetish market, I found it a bit underwhelming. While it was a bit morbid, the sight of dried dead animals didn’t really bother me too much. Moreover, the market really wasn’t as big as I expected.
If you visit Lome, I’m sure the fetish market will be suggested as an attraction. Just know what you are getting yourself into before you go. The photo I’ve posted here pretty much sums it up: lots of dead animals.
I also want to take some time to talk about the thing which everyone who visits this region talks about: development.
You simply cannot help but to compare the cities and countries you visit in West Africa. Each place we visit puts the other places we’ve been into a different perspective. You notice the condition of the roads, the houses, the public buildings and the monuments. The funny thing is, there doesn’t seem to be a general agreement on which place we’ve visited is the most or least developed.
Togo was a forgotten sliver of Africa which was controlled by the Germans, transferred to the French and had the unfortunate distinction of having the first military coup of any independent African country. It is a legacy they never seemed to have been able to overcome. The president today is the son of the man who took part in the 1963 coup and obtained power in a second 1967 coup. While democratic on paper, there has always been major issues with irregularities in voting.
Lome is a pretty rough city. The streets, even in the city center are often not paved or covered in so much dirt that it seems unpaved. The national monuments are in a state of disrepair and its largest building is missing many windows. Few people live in proper cement brick structures.
If you look at a map, you’ll see that Benin, Togo and Ghana are all very small and close to each other. In my upcoming posts, I’ll be addressing just how different these three countries are and how these three places, which are populated with basically the exact same peoples, took such very different paths.
Next Stop: Cotonou, Benin
In theory, day 14 was supposed to be our most ‘dangerous’ day at sea. I put dangerous in quotes because it wasn’t really dangerous at all. Nonetheless, it is worth talking about some of the issues the G Expedition has to face in this part of the world and the security precautions which were put in place.
For starters, it needs to be noted that West Africa is not East Africa. The problems with piracy off the Horn of Africa are nothing like what has been happening in the Gulf of Guinea. While piracy has become a full blown industry in Somalia, in West Africa there have only been a small number of cases of piracy, and those have only involved oil tankers. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a case of a passenger vessel being taken in West Africa.
That being said, it is possible there could be a first time, so there have been security measures put in place to ensure the safety of the ship. Here are some of the things which have been done:
- The stern of the ship has been covered in razor wire. As this is the lowest point of the ship where someone could climb on board, this part was given the most attention in terms of security. Most piracy attempts involve putting a ladder against the ship or throwing up a rope, so by securing the lowest accessible point of the ship, you can do the most good.
- In addition to the razor wire, several fire hoses were installed which point outward on the stern of the ship. The theory being, that if someone still tried to scale the ship, they would be blasted with a high pressure flow of water and would be knocked back.
- Most of the piracy incidents which have occurred in West Africa have come near the coast of Nigeria. That is the reason why we didn’t visit Nigeria on this trip. Also, as we traveled from Principe to Benin, we didn’t take a direct route. We took a roundabout path which was a bit longer, but was further away from any potential source of danger. This is also why I’ve withheld the latitude and longitude from today’s update.
- A team of former special forces soldiers were brought on board in Swakopmund. These guys are trained in courter piracy measures and one is on security duty at all times during the cruise. None of them are allowed to drink during the trip. (Which I know because several of us have tried to buy them a beer :)
- The entire crew has been trained in security procedures in the event that something should happen. Should a small team of people in a boat try to take us, they’d have their hands full with a bunch of angry Filipino crew members. The fact that you’d have to deal with so many people is one reason why hijacking passenger ships isn’t a good business decision for pirates.
- During periods where we are closest to Nigeria, we’ve been running at night with most of our lights out. You can still see some lights out the windows, but it has been minimized.
- We we fortunate to have a Turkish warship in the region this year. I’ve also understood that there is usually one or more naval vessels in the region all the time. That means if pirates did try something, they have to deal with armed soldiers within a few hours. Again, that is bad for business.
- This is actually a very busy stretch of water. Along Togo and Benin we saw dozens of ships including container vessels, oil tankers and other ships with actual, sellable cargo. They are much better targets than a passenger ship filled with retirees.
So, while the threat was minimal to begin with, the security procedures put in place has made it such that none of the passengers have been seriously concerned about our safety, myself included. I have no desire to be a martyr for the cause of travel, and I didn’t feel that traveling in West Africa was in any way an extreme risk.
I have no doubt in my mind that this is by far the least dangerous way to experience West Africa.
Next Stop: Cotonou, Benin
Mention lounges decked out with designs by the likes of Moooi and Tom Dixon, and you’d probably picture yourself inside a budget-busting hotel or restaurant. But they’re just a couple of the impressive pieces you’ll find in London’s far more wallet-friendly Generator Hostel, which has just undertaken a £8 million revamp.
The London Generator was the first in a chain that now includes hostels Venice, Barcelona, and coming soon in Paris and Rome, each with the same emphasis on contemporary design and style and, sixteen years after its original opening, the London branch was felt to be looking a little tired compared to its newer counterparts.Stylish and fun upgrades with a London theme
In terms of looks, the makeover is pretty impressive. There’s a London theme throughout, from the Mind The Gap signs to the huge red double decker bus in the bar used by DJs on club nights. In the café area, the comfy seating and the wingback chairs make it a more attractive place to hang out and check your emails than many other London cafes.
What’s even more appealing is that the design has been done with a sense of fun. Each floor is devoted to a different famous fictional Brit, ranging from the sublime, in the examples of Alice in Wonderland or Mary Poppins, to the more ridiculous Ali G and Austin Powers.Affordable and bright (but still small) rooms
However, when it comes to the rooms the revamp has, unfortunately, had to be a little more limited. As the hostel is housed in a listed historic building that once provided accommodation for the local police it means they haven’t been able to make any structural changes to address the complaints about small rooms that frequently crop up in online reviews. The only rooms with ensuite facilities remain the twin rooms. Furthermore, each room has been given a colorful paint job to make it feel a bit brighter and clever under-bed lockable storage helps maximize the space.Tasty food & cocktails but no kitchen
Another possibly divisive factor is that the hostel contains no self-catering facilities for its 870 guests. There’s a full café and bar menu, with appetizing sounding dishes such as bacon, leek and Stilton tart with a watercress salad or a toasted flatbread with hummus and roasted red peppers, goats cheese and rocket at competitive but not bargain basement prices. Perhaps more indicatively there’s also an extensive reasonably priced menu of cocktails and shooters.The lively scene may not be for everyone
To its credit, London’s Generator is trying to keep the sociable aspect of hostel staying alive, with nightly DJs, film screenings and events such as quizzes. There’s music playing throughout the reception area too, making for a lively feel—perhaps too lively for some. In fact, comments about the noise remain the most common complaint in online reviews.
The care and attention to detail that have been put into the revamp definitely make it worth checking out, that is if the idea of staying in a large, buzzy and irrepressibly lively hostel appeals. For a more sedate time, you might be better looking at a smaller hotel, even if the chairs aren’t quite so handsome.
Read our full review of the hostel here, along with dozens of other affordable London hotel options.
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