Cuba. Part 5: About peculiarities and specialties

The last post in this series. Cuba was indeed amazing and this part is about some things that I found very special, sometimes awkward or fascinating…

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Signs for a casa

Remember, when you are searching for a place to stay, you can easily spot them by the sign like the one below on the photo. The color of the sign show what type of casa is that: blue – for tourists, red – for locals.

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Cuba. Part 4: Cuban cities and national parks

We had 11 days on Cuba and managed to see 10 cities and 2 national parks. For many, this intense trip could seem too hectic, but for us this rhythm is quite usual. We can’t spend more than 3-4 hours on the beach or stay in one city longer than 2 days. We are hungry for new places, new things to do and to see. Probably, this will change with time, but while we are young we want to take as much as we can from every trip.

In this post I will write about our impressions from the cities on Cuba and its national parks (the complete route and a map of our trip you can find in my previous post: Link) Let’s go!  Continue reading

Cuba. Part 1: Prepare for the trip and find a place to sleep (about casas)

Cuba was one of the most spontaneous and still very desirable and expected destinations. Our friend asked us in the middle of January if we like to fly with him to Cuba next month. We weighted the options, pros and contras and decided to book – literally, to run away from rainy and cloudy Berlin to a sunny island. Besides, the touristic flow to Cuba is expected to grow and winter is the best time to escape from cold Germany.

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Как поменять заграничный паспорт в Берлине.

Так как путешествую я очень активно, и россиянам почти везде для въезда в страну нужны визы, страницы в моем заграничном паспорте закончились быстрее, чем его срок действия. Встал вопрос о замене паспорта. Решился он довольно просто и безболезненно по сравнению с другими бюрократическими задачами.

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Paris, Paris… Cliché and hidden gems.

Third time in Paris. Almost all cliché highlights already seen. Several to be visited again: you can’t just avoid it – being in Paris and not seeing the Notre Dame de Paris or Eiffel tower. To climb it or not is another question. In addition to these overwhelming-touristy must-see places we included couple of “hidden gems” in our list and even succeed to find them.

La Pagode.

An old movie theater (that is still working), built in 1896, that looks like Japanese pagoda surrounded by the bamboo garden.
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Quiet, cozy, close to the Musée de l’Armée. A place to take a little break and picturesque photos before heading to the Eiffel Tower.
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Rue Cremieux.

A colorful paradise in the very heart of the city (close to Gare de Lyon train station). Pastel colored houses and shutters, almost no people around, very clean and intimate little street called Rue Cremieux…

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Rue Dauphine.

A lively bustling street leading to the river Seine. Lots of restaurants, cafes, small shops where you could either enjoy a good meal or buy a little treat to go and eat it at the bank of the river.

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If you took a bottle of wine with you and want to enjoy a little picnic in a public place (indeed, what can be more romantic to have a glass of wine with fine cheese watching the waters of Seine and breathing clear autumn air), be careful: French police is inconsistent in application of rules when it comes to alcohol. A nice description of drinking and non-drinking places in Paris you can find here: http://www.myfrenchlife.org/2012/06/15/france-paris-rules-on-drinking-in-public-places/

Montparnasse Tower.

The line to climb the Eiffel tower is always endless (but gets shorter at night, closer to 10 pm), and I doubt if it is worth it to wait so long. The view to the Eiffel Tower and not from it is amazing at night. So you better take a metro to the Tour Montparnasse and an elevator to the 56th floor to appreciate a panoramic view of Paris. A ticket costs around 15 Euro (same price as to Louvre and Versailles). Inside you can enjoy both: a coffee and a view.

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A great area for dinner.

After visiting Basílica de Sacré Cœur take a street to the right: it will lead you to the Rue Lepic where you can try the best tarts in Paris. This area is in general a perfect area to have a delicious French dinner. Try Onion Soup Gratinee cooked in a pot and served with fresh crispy bread. Bread and pastry is indeed a separate story in Paris. It seems that batons and croissants taste just better than anywhere else.

Free entrance to the museums. Versailles.

Do you know that entrance to many museums is free of charge on the first Sunday of a month? We proved this in Versailles. It is free, indeed, but a line is incredibly long, though it moves fast. For those who travel with a suitcase there are lockers inside.
Versailles is spacious and luxurious. Though, not so impressing as Petergof, a suburb of Sankt Petersburg.

Probably, a one-in-a-lifetime trip. But worth seeing. If you live next to the park, it is a nice place for a weekend walk with a family or a picnic with friends.
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Metro.

The only thing that confused us was Parisian metro. The directions are not always clearly pointed, the metro maps are not always available… Often we were making circles and loops to empirically find the right direction. There are no ticket machines when you change from a regional train to an ordinary city train and vice versa. My advice: buy tickets in advance. 10 single trips cost 14 Euro. A RER from CDG airport costs 10 Euro one way.

Paris is definitely a city one would return to many times. Perfect for a long weekend. Next time – in summer.

Georgia: a song about food.

Indeed! It’s so much about the food here. Having a hasteless dinner with a bottle of wine, enjoying incredible meal, listening to live music, getting to know people at the neighbor table – priceless! And so affordable – Oh My Goodness! So affordable, that we managed going out every single night to a good restaurant, ordering whatever we like and choosing a good wine. Below are a couple of tips and places where you can have a delicious meal with a good atmosphere for a nice price.

Breakfast. Here you don’t have any problem of choice. You should only decide how much time is in your command. This will define the place you choose. Fast food that you grab on the street costs almost nothing: in Kutaisi we had a Kada for 70 Tetri (25 cents = 0,7 Lari. Further I will give the prices only in Lari: keep in mind, you have to divide it to 2,4-2,7 to get a price in Euro) and a simple chachapuri (that tastes good but not so amazing as special ones) for 1,8 Lari while exploring the city and not willing to wait in a café.

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In Tbilisi, on the opposite, we went to a nice open café and ordered an Adjarian chachapuri (Acharuli/Adjaruli) – here the dough is formed into an open boat shape and the hot cheese inside is topped with a raw egg and a pat of butter before serving. You should mix the cheese with the egg and butter and eat it together with the dough. Mmm, yummy! A huge, huge portion that is enough for two if you are not extremely hungry. Costs about 8 to 12 Lari for a portion.

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You can order an ice-coffee for 3 Lari, Coca-Cola for 1,5 Lari. Mineral water 0,5l costs in small shops on your way about 20-50 Tetri depending on the proximity of touristic attractions. By the way, you should try the salty mineral water. Same price, new taste. A lot of minerals, but still very specific. Some people say it quenches your thirst. Anyway, try to get to know if you like it or hate it.

Fruit is in abundance, fresh, juicy and tasty. For instance, 1kg of grapes costs 1,5 Lari. Another local thing you should try is churchhela. It’s receipt is ages old: it is made by dipping strings of nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.) or dried fruits into thickened grape juice with addition of flour and drying it in the sun. One piece costs 2 to 4 Lari. Looks, probably, a bit weird, but tastes gooood.

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In Kazbegi we were very short of time and bought just a bread on our way to a hill we were willing to climb. De-li-ci-o-us! Freshly baked, crispy, flavorous, huge (talking about the size of the portions again). Bread is called “puri” in Georgian and is being baked in a deep circular clay oven. We had luck to find one bakery right next to the place we stayed.

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After climbing a hill we had a light lunch at Khavi, a restaurant that offers a fine selection of meals and cheapest prices in the very heart of Kazbegi (next to the “bus station”). It was recommended by our host, but we didn’t manage to get inside the night before as it was booked for a private dinner.
Instead, the evening before we had a great meal in a place called Shorena’s Bar Restaurant (Al.Kazbegi Square). We ordered a recommended dish called “Shkmeruli” – chicken cooked in milk and garlic. It took us a while (more than an hour for sure, but be prepared: in Georgian restaurants you should not be in a hurry – it always lasts long if you want it cooked from A to Z and be super fresh).

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Excuse me, but I will repeat myself again: the portion is sooo huge, enormous. Enough for 2-3 persons. It cost 25 Lari. The eggplant cooked with tomatoes and spices – 9 Lari. A bottle of wine Kindzamarauli, the best wine they offer in Shorena’s, – 32 Lari. Second best – Saperavi – 23 Lari. Chacha – 5 Lari for a shot.
The waiters in this restaurant speak at least four languages (Georgian, Hebrew, Russian and English) and have an interesting sense of humor. An answer to our any question was first “No”, then they did what they have been asked. Young funny guys, have an Israel’s flag in the room and singing Georgian pop songs with a TV on. A charming evening with a nice couple from Tel-Aviv and lots of wine.
Another thing to do in Kazbegi in the evening is to go to the Hotel Rooms Kazbegi and grab a drink there. The prices and not Georgian at all. But the view is breathtaking. Those, who do not climb the hill to get to the Gergeti Trinity Church, should definitely enjoy the view on the terrace of this hotel.

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In Tbilisi we went twice to the same restaurant, called “Georgian”. Not so easy to find, as I recognized later. The restaurant is in a small cellar, open late in the afternoon, live music every evening: two elderly guys playing American songs and some other swingy-jazzy music. A liter of wine costs about 15 Lari. You should try mushrooms baked in cheese with nuts, khinkali, suluguni (local mild cheese), you should just basically try everything! And local Georgian Brandy. If you like it, you can find it in the wine shops in the city. It costs 14 Lari and more. Wine you can buy for 6 Lari and higher. For my favorite Kindzamarauli I paid 18 Lari in Tbilisi and 7,5 Euro in the duty free in Kutaissi. That was the medium price. It can cost 40 euros and more. But one of the best red semi-sweet wines I’ve ever tried. Definitely a must.
The best dinner we had in Batumi in the restaurant Shemoikhede Genatsvale (8 Noe Zhordania St). It cost us 48 Lari – where else you could enjoy a whole palette of local cuisine and drinks (out of that 16 Lari a bottle of white wine, Chachapuri on a stick, fried suluguni in a pan, four khinkali, meat dish, 2 shots chacha). On the photo delow is suluguni fried in a pan. A bit bread and tkemali sause (beware, a lot of coriander as in almost all dishes of Georgian cuisine) – is all what you need for these savory moments.

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We were stuffed and happy. However, not only the meal was good but so was a “show”. Next to us, about 15 Georgians at the table sang before they started their meal, during and after. Strong voices, great sense of melody, surprisingly good sound. We were literally impressed. It suited very well together: delicious slow meal and powerful voices. Applauses followed. The link to the video is below (filmed somewhat secretly):

Georgians singing

Last night before our flight back to Berlin we spent in a restaurant “Palaty” (Pushkini Street II) in Kutaisi. Medium check with wine was 45-50 Lari. We had something different that we tried in Georgia before: a lechkhumian smoked pork on a wooden plate, with local moist bread and slices of suluguni. The combination was heavenly savory, and the portion, as ever, immense.
We absolutely come back to Georgia to enjoy more great stuff and authentic cuisine. And wine, for sure!

A little Baltic journey: Lithuania and Latvia. Part 1: Lithuania

I’ve been always confusing the names of these two countries: Lithuania and Latvia. In Russian language they sound indeed very similar: Литва – Латвия. As soon as I got an opportunity and a couple days of vacation, I decided to feel and learn the difference once and for all. What it the best way to learn something? To try it! Therefore, on my way back from Kazan to Berlin I decided to make a little Baltic journey. I’ve already been to Estonia before, so only Lithuania and Latvia left unvisited. Two days were planned for Lithuania and three days for Latvia. Four cities were in my list: Vilnius, Trakai, Riga and Jurmala. I managed to see them all. The only thing I was completely pity about and was blaming myself the whole trip: I decided to travel without my camera. Never again! Silly me, I thought, a smartphone would be enough… Thence, please excuse me for the mediocre photos. Certainly, a very bitter feeling to see an awe-inspiring view and not be able to capture it on a photo properly. Next trip, even the shortest one, is only with a camera!

Lithuania

Lietuva

The first city of destination was Vilnius. Probably, two days are not enough to explore the city properly. But this time is enough to feel the city, to make the first impression, and to decide, if I would like to come back. I definitely would! Therefore, this entry is dedicated to my personal impressions and revelation of the city. I share my “local” experience and guide you through the things you have to give a try when you are travelling in Lithuania.

Flying from Moscow took couple of hours, tickets were around 70 Euro. Probably, this destination is not exceedingly popular – the plane was one of the smallest I have flown so far. Vilnius airport (in Lithuanian Vilniaus oro uostas) is quite small, if you are travelling with a hand luggage, you don’t have to follow endless labyrinths to find you way out: you just go straight forward to the exit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t connect to the free Wi-Fi. So you should think about checking the way to your place of accommodation in advance. A nice detail – the airport is very close to the city, it takes about 15 minutes to reach the central bus station (Stotis) or railway station (Vilniaus geležinkelio stotis) with a bus (Nr. 1 and 2) and the tickets cost 1 Euro. The timetable could be found on the site of Vilnius public transportation: http://www.vilniustransport.lt/autobusai.html. All public transport in Vilnius (buses, trolleybuses) cost 1 Euro (for EU students – 50 cents). The tickets are purchased from the driver by entering through the front door.

When I was walking in the city, I was actively using a special city map “like a local”, made by people living in the city, adoring it and willing to share their very best experiences with the tourists. All hints and tips in the map were useful and helpful, in particular in terms of bars, pubs and cafes. Many hostels have this map as a handout on their reception. An app is available as well: it could be downloaded from the page Vilnius.likealocal.co. There were almost no problems with finding this or that location: the map was enough detailed and there is plenty of open Wi-Fi connections in the city.

The city is very cozy, safe and small (or seems small), though this is the second biggest city in Baltics – about 540 000 people are living in the city. I was lucky to find a hostel in the very beginning of the old city and still very close to the central station. The hostel’s name is Hostelgate (Aušros Vartų g. 17, Vilnius 01304), it has a 24-hours reception, great facilities (a fully equipped kitchen, a meeting room under the roof with super-cozy bag-chairs, a soccer and a strong Wi-Fi channel). I booked in advance, so the accommodation was more than affordable. Site of the hostel: http://www.hostelgate.lt/index.html

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Every morning I woke up at about 9 o’clock when a melodic singing of the congregation was starting in the nearby church. It didn’t bother me at all, in the opposite, it was very lovely to get out from the sleep with a help of soulful music… In Vilnius you can find more than 40 churches and this is only in the old city. Lithuania was the last country in Europe converted to the western Christianity. After Christianization, during many centuries the country was conquered by various nations. The Germans had built their churches, as had the Polish and the Russians. Lithuania has gained its independency only in 1991. The biggest church is without doubts the Vilnius Cathedral. It is truly enormous (that is tiny me hugging one of the columns)!

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Vilnius Cathedral

Next to the Cathedral, separated from it by a park, resides the imposing Gediminas Tower. The symbol of Vilnius and one of the city most prominent landmarks is situated on a hill that is easy to climb: there are two ways up – a steep one and a sloping one. To ascend the easy one takes about 10 minutes maximum. Besides, on the other side you can find a funicular, it works from 10 to 17, and a ticket (both ways) costs around 1,5 Euro. The Gediminas hill is open to the visitors from 7 to 23 and is free of charge. The entrance to the Gediminas Tower costs 2 Euro. The view from both locations is beautiful. Definitely worth a visit!

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A view to the new part of the city

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A view to the old part of the city

Another nice location to take o panoramic look at the city is the Hill of Three Crosses. You can see in from the Gediminas Tower and many points in the city.

Meal and drink is a separate story in Vilnius. They are tasty and more than affordable here. Even in the city center you can get a lunch or a snack for a good price. I decided to follow the recommendations of the “like a local” map and went to three out four pubs. Šnekutis has three locations in Vilnius. The ambiance is authentically pastoral: here you are surrounded by dusty windmill wheels, peasant household items and sacks dangling from the ceiling. Here so called “rural food” is served: nourishing, often oily, local. For a second dish you will pay about 2-3 Euro. You should try zeppelins (Cepelinai), potato dumplings stuffed with minced meat, but take only one piece – the portions are huge. The same price (2 Euro) you will pay for the snacks such as garlic rye bread with a cheese sauce or Lithuanian beans with pork. The beer costs 2 Euro 0,5 Liter and 3,5 Euro 1 Liter. I tried Senovinis (6%): not bad, but the taste is not as deep as I expected. The bar is open from mid-morning till 2 am.

Another interesting and more exquisite place with a distinct flair of Britain is Portobello. “British mood” starts from the entrance: you get in the bar through the red telephone cabin. Here an “Admiral’s Pint” (0,66 Liter) is served and costs 2,7-3 Euro. Everyone will find the beer that he likes from about 32 kinds. The cuisine promises to be delicious: unfortunately, we couldn’t try it as we came there completely stuffed after Šnekutis. The bar is open from 4 pm to 4 am.

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Portobello

The third place is called Deveti and has two advantages: a very hospitable and communicative waiter and delicious locally brewed beer. I tried three sorts of beer from Dundulis brewery: the dark Gutstautas (5,2%), the red Kurko and the pale Humulupu IPA (5,5%) (it has a mango nuance in its taste and smell). Besides, I tried apple cider Strong bow (very pleasant taste) and local kvass Gira (0,05%) that tasted like damson – deliciously indeed (considering that I’m not a fan of kvass). Beer costs around 2,5 Euro 0,5 Liter and cider 4 Euro for the same volume. Deveti is open from 4-5 in the afternoon and the guests decide till when.

I didn’t go to the sea cost of Lithuania, it takes about 3-4 hours to reach the Baltic sea (Klaipeda) and I didn’t have enough time. Instead, I went to Trakai – a historic city and a lake resort. To go to Trakai from Vilnius you can take either a bus (from central bus station Stotis) or a train (from central railway station). A bus drive takes about 30 minutes and lasts 30 minutes. A ride costs 1,80 Euro independently from the size of the bus (there are smaller and bigger ones). The trains go significantly rarer. Trakai is incredibly cozy and beautiful: little old wooden houses, a riverside, authentically handmade souvenirs and handicraft from amber and wood… The most charming view is the one to the island castle (takes about 20 minutes from the bus station to walk there). To see the castle from the close proximity or even go inside you can take a walk over the bridge or rent a boat or a catamaran for about 6 Euro an hour.

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Trakai island castle

The most fascinating area of the city that you can’t give a miss is without any doubts Užupis. The Lithuanians call the Republic of Užupis a country within a country. It was founded by artists and painters couple of decades ago. They even have their own constitution that one can find definitely amusing and from any other existing constitution. It was translated into 23 languages, written on giant plates and affixed to a wall on Paupio street in the neighborhood. Among the articles are very unexpected and liberal ones: “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to understand nothing”, “Everyone has the right to cry”, “A dog has the right to be a dog”, etc. The full text of the Užupis constitution could be found on the site of Užupis: http://uzupis.uchplus.org/2013/10/14/constitution-republic-of-uzupis/.

Visiting Vilnius courtyards is another must do in the city. Getting lost in the city center is easy and rewarding: small clean patios are full of flowers, colorful plants and private household items. The one-two store houses are joyfully colored and inviting. Strolling along the streets in the center, I frequently noticed construction work ongoing. When rebuilding or renovating buildings, a small spot of the wall is usually left untouched to show how the building looked before the reconstruction.

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Vilnius courtyards

If you are in the city and the sun is going down, you should stroll to the Subačiaus street: the sunsets on this hill are absolutely delightful. There is a little seasonal café on the hill where you can buy hot drinks and snacks. Don’t forget to take something to sit on and a good company. Exactly at that time I was blaming myself even worse for not taking a good camera with me. The silhouette of the city with the pinkish-orange colored sky in the background was awe-inspiring.

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A view from the Subačiaus street

My last day in Vilnius was on the 1st of September. I went to the IKI shop inside the bus station (that is open 7 to 22) and wanted to buy a local cider for a long bus ride to Riga, but was rejected – this day is officially named a day without alcohol. Shops don’t sell alcohol at all and so do several bars. In that way the Lithuanians try to limit the drunkenness among the youth celebrating the beginning of the new school year. I hope, this approach works.

(to be continued with the Part 2: Latvia)