Montenegro: Lost in Olive Groves

Montenegro: Lost in Olive Groves

For years it was my first spring spent in Europe, and after long searching, hesitating I decided to discover a small part of Montenegro. I had my doubts about this hidden – not so well known – country, but I have to say: it was one of my best choices ever.

As Montenegro was member of former Yugoslavia, counts to war affected areas, and the marks of the Yugoslav War in the 90’s we can still feel and see. The country declared its independency in 2006, so even its union with Serbia was over. I mention this fact, because visiting this amazing country, it can be seen straight at every step, that the Montenegrins try to be as much separated from Serbia as they can. Their official currency is the Euro, though the country isn’t part of the EU. If you don’t want to get unfriendly looks from the locals, it is better not to say or assume , that they speak the same language as the Serbians. The Montenegrins have their own lingo and „that’s it”. Simply do not ask and enjoy the scenic view of mountains hiding wild waterfalls and natural swimming pools.

The way to Stari Bar

Before heading to the little, mediterranean town of Stari Bar, I had one night in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. To be honest, I was not really motivated about discovering it, especially seeing the grey, melancholic soviet buildings. I found plenty of ruins, which take us back in time – like the Depedogen, a fortress from the 15th century, or the Skaline Medieval Fortress – while the contrast between the colourful villas and the crumbling socialist blocks show the huge social differences of the country.

Walking by the Moraca river the atmosphere of the city is a bit friendlier, surrounded by mediterannean trees and flowers. If we cross the Moscow brigde, which is for pedestrians only, we get a quite nice panorama with the Millenium Bridge in front of us. After a long walk several cute restaurants are waiting for their guest in tiny streets, and for drinks. I really recommend the Karver. This unique place – hiding under one of the small bridges – is located in the central area of Podgorica and is not only home to a bookstore, but a bohemian cafe and gallery, too. I loved this kind of hippie shelter with its colourful furniture and awesome music. It was simply the best spot for glass of wine, while enjoying the sound of the river.

Stari Bar

Stari Bar, located 1-1,5 hour drive from Podgorica has definitely much more to offer than Bar, the typical beach-city, crowded with tourists. This real gem is hiding in less popular part of the region, surrounded by rough, emerald green mountains. The old town of Stari Bar, with its tiny cobbled lanes, the wine and cured hame-cheese plates, the women selling their local olive oil and other souvenirs maden from lavender take us into the sunlit „Tuscany” of Montenegro.

Going up to the old fortress we get impressive view over the valley, with the luring sea in background. More, than 200 buildings are still in ruins, so this enchanting town operates as open-air museum taking the architecture-lovers for a fabolous expedition into the world of Rennaisance, Romanesque and Gothic. After discovering marks of history or the labyrinth of nature, delicacies of local eateries are waiting for hungry travelers.

To be honest, for us – as we wanted a little bit of impishness after the yoga lessons – the pomegranate beer and local wine was more attractive than the food. Anyway, trying local fish dishes, like carp from the Skadar Lake, the Buzara – shellfish, prowns and shrimps cooked in red or white wine – or the meat specialties, like the Njeguski Steak – made of pork of veal schnitzel – is absolutely a must! When visiting rural areas of Montenegro, don’t miss out on heavenly good cheese varieties, like the Kaymak cream cheese – awh, I really loved it – and the Njeguski cheese, which is aged in cool mountains.

Under the Olive Groves

Arriving to our place I had the feeling, I am dreaming right now. the castle-like stone house with its lush green garden, river running through and mini waterfalls looked like paradise on earth, but far away from the civilization. The Grove is located in a miracolous valley enclosed by wild sierras and ancient olive groves.

The area – like the whole country – is fairly easy to visit, most of the trails are well marked, not to mention the sensational national parks showing us breathtaking views and hidden treasures of Montenegro. The secret, natural „swimming pools” are a bit off the beaten path, but no worries, just let get lost, and discover the untouched beauty of this enchanted land.

Except the hiking trails, which lead us through wonderful paths full of rare flowers and herbs to the best points of Rumija Mountain, exploring the mysterious maze of aged olive trees fascinated me completely. Walking in shadow of the arbor I met small groups of wide-eyed sheep, while the thousand-year-old olive trees were whispering their secret story. One of the world’s oldest trees can also be found here – more than 2000 years old – called Stara Maslina, unfortunately partially burned due to thunderlight.

At the top of the groves I got a superb scenery with the misty mountains and the little, luring towns spreading in front of me, and on the way back we found a fairytale-like area – the Bartula Olive Garden Camp – which offers marvellous spot for camping, fingerfood or drinks for tired hikers, literally on the idyllic „island” of tranquility.

Adventures by the lake

The Lake Skadar is, without a doubt, the gold pot of hiking trails and water activities. From Stari Bar it is a short (20 min) drive along the coast, so even the way to the lake offers us mind-blowing panorama of steep cliffs and the Mediterranean Sea.

There are several points for starting our day by the lake, I personally visited the cute fishing village, Virpazar, where the most of travel agencies, event- and tour-offices are based. The old villas and the restaurants with damn good fish dishes create the pure Mediterranean-feeling. As the Lake Skadar is Balkan’s largest lake and one of Europe’s largest bird reserves, has much to offer even for nature-lovers. I have to admit: this is a real eden regarding to wildlife – especially birds – and different waterplants.

This amazing flora and fauna can be observed by boat tours or kayaking. I definitely recommend kayaking, as it was fun at its finest. It can be guided or you can hire the kayaks for hours or the whole day. On the way I admired thousands of waterlilies playing in wild colours, while the inhabitants of the reserve were grabbing their lunch from the water. Drifting on the water we took a small sightseeing too: the islet monasteries and the mystical ruins of Grmozur’s prison – island prison – stand in the middle of the lake, like ghosts of last century.

After back-breaking „workout” we reached the Pjesacac Beach, which is accessible by boat or kayak only. There is one cute, local restaurant preparing traditional dishes with organic ingredients, but this small piece of golden-sandy beach is perfect spot for picnic, delighting in the sunshine. It was an idyllic place – in the middle of nowhere – where the birds’ song and melody of the waves was the only „noise”.

The way back was pretty adventurous: the whole activity takes 3-4 hours, but the motivation, which was my best friend at the beginning, at the end disappeared. So the return journey was longer, than expected, not to mention the upwind, which shows up every time like the bogeyman in children’s nightmare. Being almost at the pear, only one thing was floating before our eyes: Wine, wine, wine… and some beer.

In addition to kayaking, there are countless other options to explore the area. Cycling is cool for those, who want to feel a bit more lively through hazardous – kind of mountain-biking – experience. This is mostly guided because of wilder, steep parts of trails hiding in forests and up in the mountains. For foodies I advice the wine tasting tour, which can be combined with a little tracking. If you are freak about local food and wine, you shouldn’t miss it out!

As you see, the Lake Skadar as well as the surrounding towns – like Stari Bar, or Virpazar – are perfect both for lazy days and playing Tarzan deep in lush greenery of Rumija. It is the paradise for backpackers, hikers and those, who are desperately in love with gastronomy.

Cats and cobble everywhere

The titel could be a riddle, but I let the cat out of the bag: it is all about Kotor, the lovely town surrounded by the bay and the fortress high, above the winding, medieval streets. It is true, that Kotor is super-crowded in summertime – mostly because of tourists coming by ferries for a short visit – but out of season it is really enjoyable to spend here a few days, especially if you love discovering bars and romantic sunset-spots of ancient cities.

Kotor is home of several architectural masterpieces and with its colourful history, traditions is listed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking across the charming squares and lanes I got a bit of Croatia’s picturesque cities, like Split or Dubrovnik, a dash of Lisbon’s ambiance with the shiny, neverending footsteps and a pinch of Montenegrin everyday life. I think, the best option to explore the town is just wondering around and soaking in everything. Just get lost in tiny, golden-like cobbled streets, feel and try yummy bites of the local cousine and as perfect ending of the day immerse yourself in Kotor’s nightlights tasting craft beer and wine of the area.

Before you leave, don’t forget to take a look into the cute souvenir-shops selling vibrant copies of Frida Kahlo’s or Picasso’s works – but nothing to do with Montenegro – furthermore cool handmade bags and coasters with motives of the Little Prince and Bob Marley, in addition all kind of trinketry can be bought as little gift. Most of the souvenirs are decorated with cats in different colours. These furry little creatures can be seen on every cobbled corner of the town giving us the impression, that there are more cats in Kotor than humans. According to the story they were left here by the medieval merchants from all over the world and today they mean the famous symbol of Kotor.

Mui Ne, Vietnam: the spicy blend of desert, sea & gastro

Mui Ne, Vietnam: the spicy blend of desert, sea & gastro

Mui Ne – located in the southern part of the country – is less popular among travelers, than North-Vietnam hiding real treasures of nature. It is a traditional fishing town spoilt by huge concrete giants and resorts with secret gardens, which lead to the beach.

It can be easily riched from Saigon by bus in 4-5 hours. Regarding the „beach” there are two options for sunlovers and mermaids: there are some guesthouses and hostels with swimming-pool or we can check the luxury resorts providing private beach.

It is not so easy to catch the golden sunset of Mui Ne, while dipping your toes into the water „for free”, but if you are an obsessed foodie or you just have desire for chilling and pampering after long weeks of backpacking, it can be the perfect shelter.

The first impression

After my very hectic and noisy Vietnamese-city-moments I really longed for something different. Something without thousands of thundering scooters and never-ending crowd of people. And then I arrived.

The check-in was adventurous: it means, I went for basic English in order to understand each other at the reception of the – by the way incredibly awesome – hostel. We got our dorm for us only, so it was like we had a whole suite on the third floor, the view from the huge balcony was priceless. There was a nice swimming-pool in the garden: the silent sanctuary after breakfast, the perfect oasis for diving into the refreshing water sun-kissed, the unique spot for stargazing and taking a journey to the Wonderland of Alice. And the fairy-tale like place for falling in love under the shimmering pinky-blue sky.

Are we in Russia?

Yes, it may seem strange the question, but after exploring other parts of Vietnam, one thing is for sure: the basic Vietnamese language would definitely help more than the English or whatever. But here, in this cute fishing village I was sometimes a little confused, where am I?

Most of the locals speak fluently Russian, especially if it is all about bargain and selling the well-known souvenirs embroidered with the red star. The five-pointed red star is not exactly the „embodiment” of nice memories, but we do everything for the business, right?

Mui Ne is a real paradise for the Russians and for reason. There is no language difficulty, the weather is perfect all year round, not to mention the wide range of spirits and wine. A lot of asian countries I have been to, but I didn’t „meet” so much rum, than here.

The heaven of Foodies

Here comes my favourite activity of exploring the world. Vietnam is amazing for waking up your taste buds, but Mui Ne with its heavenly good seafood can be the icing on the cake.

Even here we can find the adored vietnamese flavors of Pho, Bánh Mí or Bánh xéo, however the treasures of the sea are the very best!

Walking on the main road I got pretty confused, what to chose: thousands of local restaurants lured me into their rainbow-like world. Don’t expect nothing luxurious, most of these places wait for their hungry guest with simple, plastic tables and chairs, but the magical music of the waves and the gastro journey licks everything.

The most tasty bites wait for us at the entrance, where we can chose from the fresh – still alive – catch of local fishers. I advice to try as much seafood as you can in order to get the real taste-orgy experience.

And a short introducing about drinks: as I mentioned, there are tons of local and foreign spirits, trust me, everywhere, while from wine the local one – from Dalat or North-Vietnam – is the most popular. For non-drinkers trying the maracuja juice is a must. There are delicious other compositions of vegetable and fruit juices, that it would be a shame to miss it.

For starting or ending our sunny days we took a visit to one of the locals, who was selling mostly beauty stuff, oils, medicinal products and the main medicine served in cute russian, wooden shot glasses: it was a whiskey with fermented cobra, very similar to our beloved Lao Lao – the traditional rice whiskey – from Laos. So we simply couldn’t skip it!

Discover the Fairy Stream

The Fairy Stream is located a short drive away from the centre, on the way to the famous Sand Dunes. It is one of the Mui Ne’s highlights and can be a good idea, especially if the kitesurfing or the endless sneaking into the hotels’ private beaches is already boring.

The atmosphere of this place was magical from the beginning. Slowly stepping down the stairs a mysterious world burst upon my view: the quietly creeping stream surrounded by bamboo, palm trees and lacy rock formations is definitely home of creations of our colourful imagination, the secret nest of Fairies.

The level of the stream never goes upon your knies, so you can walk in its glittering water whilst pampering your feet in golden-red, powdered sugar-like sand. The strange creations of nature – the canyon, the small dunes and the rocks – are changing their mesmerizing colour into endless shades of white, gold, brown and red, while playing with the sun.

If you would like to hike, just do it and capture the moment of freedom looking at the wonderful landscape around you. At the end of the stream a small, but luring waterfall is waiting for us, as surprise or hidden gem of the „fairy-walk”. On the way, in shade of the palm trees tiny food-stalls and restaurants are waiting for those wanting local delicacies or to sip the famous vietnamese beer.

Conquer the White Dunes

At first glance it may seem strange: there is a huge white sand oasis in the middle of this southern seaside village. It looks like a perfect painting, like a crazy blend of lush greenery and desert of the Tales of Arabian Nights or simply the silver playground of fays.

It is possible to rent a quad bike to barrel up and down feeling the sweetness of speed or to discover it walking. If you are fit enough, I recommend to do the latter. Walking through the dunes I got a unique experience: it enchanted me, as the dunes constantly were changing their shape while feeling each grain of sand on my skin.

Coming up to the „highest” point the view is marvellous with the seemingly endless desert surrounded by the sea. The best seasoning at the end of exploring this fairy tale-like place is running down from the top: just „flying” with opened arms, like a bird, whilst feeling as the hot wind is caressing your face.

Catch the sunset at the Red Dunes

On the way back from the White Dunes we ended our day with my favourite pastime: immersed in beautiful pink-purple rays of vietnamese sunset. Going up to the highest point of the „smaller” but still unique Red Dunes the sunset can be a memorable experience, especially if we just sit down and listen to the sand’s faint melody.

Some bad points: here we can find much more tourists, as most of the travel agencies are selling it as the last part of the „Sand Dunes Tour” and apparently there are thousands of sunset-lovers wanting to taste the vietnamese dusk, too. Unfortunately the littering is also very striking, I was pretty disappointed to see the here and there popping plastic bottles and rests of junk food. Furthermore local ladies wait for the visitors everywhere trying to sell plastic stuff for sliding down from the dunes, but I have to disillusion everybody: it doesn’t work unless you are light as a feather.

Anyway, I tried to forget these negative things because nothing is perfect, right? But I can tell you, to watch the dancing silver-blue clouds, the mermerising sunset, while laying in sand was the perfection of the imperfection.

I have very mixed feelings and memories about Vietnam, about the people living there. I could compare this journey to a roller-coaster. Because if you try it, your feelings are changing every second, every moment. Some parts you hate, you can’t wait to leave it and catch the new „chapter”, you are after something more exciting, breathtaking, then comes the „highest point”, the beloved part or the biggest fear full of adrenaline?

Everyone has their own roller-coaster journey. Mine was Vietnam.

Israel: Road trip across the desert

Israel: Road trip across the desert

Compared to other countries Israel is something totally different. It is not only about its religion, unusual traditions and colourful culture. The winding roads between the pinky-red secret mountains, across the desert definitely mean one of the best road trip destinations ever!

Israel is a relatively small country with a really well-built road network. It is extra easy to navigate even through the whole country making stops at several points of interest. It has everything, what we would need: rich history and architecture, unique small towns and villages, enchanting landscapes and crystal clear water beaches.

Eilat

As we arrived at Ramon Airport, Eilat, this diving paradise was our starting point. The city is very divisive: I couldn’t decide if I like it or I simply want to run away from this crowded hotel jungle. But still, this hotel jungle can be a real jewel for divers, a playground for families or a shelter for backpackers.

The Red Sea, Dekel Beach

Referring to the beaches the North Beach provides the luxury of five-star hotels with several restaurants and bars, while the South Beach has more „take it easy” vibe. The Dolphin Reef and Princess Beach are perfect for observing dolphins in their natural environment or immersing yourself in the fabulous world of the Red Sea. The Village Beach and the Dekel Beach offers sandy beaches, cool live dj sets and israeli flavours, not to mention the beautiful scenery, as the sea merges with the red painted mountains.

 Red Canyon

It is a short ride (25 min) to reach the Red Canyon from Eilat. Here I have to mention, that the route is quite adventurous: the road surrounded by the vast mountains seem to be endless and to lead to nowhere. The unique formations can be seen by different trails for hikers:

  • Green trail: I can describe it as a small adventure park for families providing short (2km) and longer (5km) version. At the beginning the canyon is wide, but after a while it starts closing and we can reach the deep, narrow part by handles.
  • Black trail: If we follow this trail, we can go back to the parking lot or follow our tour along the Southern Wadi Shani. Please note, the way back to the starting point leads up the canyon and mountains, so I really don’t reccomend it for those who have a fear of heights.
  • Red trail: it is a 6 km long trail, mixed with the black-marked trail.
  • Blue trail: it is much more longer leading to the Mountain Neshef.

Colours of the Red Canyon

The Red Canyon was my top „must-see” place in Israel. I have to tell you guys, it was worth to see: the whole reserve, the surfy creations of nature are fascinating, especially as the sunlight plays upon the rocks changing their mesmerising gold-red colour.

 Timna Park

The next stop of our road trip was the Timna Park located in the Negev Desert. This barren, yet enchanting area – 15000 acres – surrounded by golden mountain ranges hides magical desert tales, which come alive at night under the stars.

Seeing the breathtaking masterpieces of the nature – the different geological formations – I had my doubts: some of them look like man made statues and giant rock-hewn faces.

The Sphinx by night

The park provides marked trails for hikers and for bikers as well. Some animals are active during the day, so not to follow the trails is forbidden. I really recommend to arrive at the park by car, because the distance between the formations and canyons is fairly large, not to mention that the oasis is located literally in reserve’s centre. It is the green gem of the desert with a luring lake, palm trees and super cool camp site in case, if we want to enjoy the „desert-feeling” by night.

 And yes! We tried it, we loved it: the sundown painted pink-purple abstracts on the sky, while the mountains dressed fleming red. The visitors left the park, so I had the feeling the entire desert is just mine. The marvellous creations of the Timna Park are lit up at night showing us something totally different: the „Wonderland” of ancient times. My very favourite one was still the oasis by night. I just stared at the scenery taking a journey to another world, to the fabolous world of Aladdin’s Agraba.

The magical view from the campsite

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea or rather floating in its „wonder-water” is simply one of the Israel’s highlights. We can take a dip in its emerald green, healing water at several free beaches, like in Neve Zohar, in Ein Bokek or Ein Gedi (for an indefinite period closed).

I choosed the free beach of Ein Bokek, but my original plan was to visit the coast in Ein Gedi. Ein Bokek provides free amenities, like drinking water, shower, toilettes, umbrellas. The only think that was not really me: never ending, sky-reaching hotel buildings behind me. For seeing the more natural part with the awesome dried salt clusters along the coast, we had to leave the public beach. Apart from that „swimming” in this incredibly oily-salty water is firmly superb experience. The water is extremely rich in minerals, it has countless health and skin benefits and… to be honest, who wouldn’t want to float carefree, weightless at the lowest place on Earth, while getting younger, silky skin and sunkissed?

The untouched shore of the Dead Sea

For our stay I found in Ein Gedi the best camp site ever! A damn good place with painting-like scene, authentic israeli draught beer, hummus and the best pizza – yes pizza – in the country. The camp site is kind of luring hippi paradise up the hill with the magical Dead Sea in front of you. Ben, the guy at the reception welcomed us following: „Enjoy your stay, and you can do here everything. But really…everything.”

Ein Gedi Camp Lodge

The perfect ending of our Spa day was just looking at the sundown by the sea, listening to mixture of country and jazz music from the hammock and getting high from not our joint. I swear, from not our!

Ein Gedi Nature Reserve

It can be kind of mini stop while staying in Ein Gedi or on the way to Jerusalem. Ein Gedi is Israel’s biggest oasis hiding hazardous trekking trails, siren springs and waterfalls.

The nature reserve is open every day 04.00 pm except Friday and holiday eves. I can assure you, even if you don’t like hiking, you will appreciate the refreshing water surrounded by lush vegetation, hills, desert and the Dead Sea.

Refreshin waterfalls of Ein Gedi

Jerusalem

It is about 1,5 hour drive from Ein Gedi and offers something different after hiking, floating in the Dead Sea and chilling in hammock. This surreal place brings to life the tiny pieces of history and religion while walking silent in the Old City of Jerusalem. The four quarters, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian show us exactly, how special Jerusalem is. For more relaxing time with bars and restaurants is recommended West Jerusalem, the modern part of the city.

In case, if you want to continue your trip, this place is perfect to reach Tel Aviv or Haifa, but we took the direction back to Eilat.

Israel is the place, where the desert meets the sea, the elements of different religions melt and lush green oases come to life in the middle of nowhere.

 

 

 

Koh Rong, Cambodia: the reality behind the paradise

Koh Rong, Cambodia: the reality behind the paradise

Cambodia always was for me something special, like a rough diamond in South-East Asia’s treasure chest. I was deeply interested in its history, the sorrowful life of the people there and I am sure it is a bit platitudinous, but stills of the movie Beyond borders touched me, when I was a child. I simply decided: I have to see this remote, but enchanting part of the world.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries of South-East Asia. The marks of the French colonization and the Khmer Rouge can still be seen. The „dream” of the brutal regime was to create a communist state removing everything what is in connection with the intellectuals, the knowledge. Everybody, who was educated in any way, was an intellectual or weared glasses, was transported to special centres – death camps – and forced to do unhuman work. Most of them were tortured and executed.

But then why did I use the term of „paradise”?

I wanted to plan my trip with less touristy places, so I decided to catch the beach-life feeling of the khmer islands, which can be defined as paradise for backpackers.

The best way to reach the islands is taking ferry or speedboat from the small town of Sihanoukville. If you take the smaller boat, you can start praying for a journey with no engine problems. Otherwise you can chill floating on the turquoise water hours on end. Most of the islands are easily accessible by boat from this port. About the possible itineraries and tips you can read here.

As I mentioned, it took us a bit longer to reach the magical island of Koh Rong, but to be honest, the incredible view made me up for everything. Here I have to share some infos with you: if you do not want to stay at the central point of the island, you have to continue your boat ride, which is mostly provided by the owner of the choosen accommodation. We wanted to sleep in tent, so we were on one of the most remoter, emptier part of this kingdom of coconut trees and luring beaches. Exactly in this hides the true charm of the island: it is not spoilt by sky-high hotels, tourist-luring shops and high infrastructure. Simply some tents, restaurants and bungalows serve the convenience and „luxury” – or the biggest nightmare – of the visitors.

Koh Rong

Koh Rong

Koh Rong is the right place for hiding from the world, from the „money is everything” thinking and the selfishness. Perfect for those, who want to experience, how it is to spend the days poor, but yet rich. The endless ocean, the palm trees and the rainbow color painted sky was our best company. Nothing else. The flip flops or my lovely Converse lost their function: who would not love walking in a powdered sugar-like, twittery beach sand?

From Koh Rong several other islands can be visited. Some of them are so extremely uninhabitated, that the prints of the human destruction do not exist. Here I have good news for the adventurers: there is possibility for staying in a tent for 1-2 nights in order to get a dash of Robinson Crusoe-feeling.

My lovely tent far from the village

I was lucky to get this feeling on the „secret” beach of Koh Rong, which can be reached through the jungle. Here I could see it, feel it and taste it. We met four foreigners living here, like the biggest king in his golden palace. The „furniture” was very rich, in paradise way: snow white, powdered sugar-like sand under our feet, in thousand shades of gold playing sunset, a small wooden hause, fireplace for romantic dinner and the autenthic khmer beer. The four guys left for years ago their home: the rushing, selfish western world. For one of them was even Thailand too materialistic. They just did not want to live in this way anymore: with hate and being shallow.

„At this place the money counts nothing, it does not matter, that we spend the whole day barefoot.”

The “palace” of the guys

It makes me wonder: we started for more than 1000 years ago from here, we needed only, what is necessary. Nothing else, nothing more. But today we want everything and even more. The lack of „luxury”, the lack of a pillow makes us totally disgusted.

In a better case we wake up, like the Sleeping Beauty from her dreams, and we go back to the basics. We start loving the nature, valuing the very simple things.

But what does hide behind this adorable paradise? What do not we see… or rather we do not want to see?

The reality behind the curtain is often ignored in order to not spoil the wonderful holiday.

The first thing, what I was terrified of, was the problem with the canalisation, in other world the small, dubious colour rivulets and ponds running out from the secret world of toilettes. The only thing I can advice: please do not even dip your toe close to these „this-is-no-Spa” creeks!

No Spa creeks

The second thing can be seen, if you wake up very early. The mesmerising turquoise water and the shore looks like a colourful plastic blanket, but not in a good meaning. I have to mention the outstanding positive attitude of the locals, which means, that they work really hard every morning in order to see the ocean and the beach in its natural beauty again.

The human destruction

If you are traveling with open eyes, you can see in several bars or restaurants of Koh Rong, that you will be asked by one person and served by another one. The reason is for it the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. There are still many people, who can not write and/or read. As we drunk our favourite, perfect roasted coffee at the beach – brewed coffee is very rare on the island – my friend asked the waitress and owner for translating and writing down one word in Khmer. She answered with a sad smile:

„My brother is the only one, who can read and write, but he comes later in the afternoon. I am very sorry.”

On the hidden islands, in tiny villages of Cambodia the knowledge is something special, a really rare treasure.

The marks of colonization can be found on every corner, too. It is common, that the owners of the restaurants, hotels and bars are expats, mostly French and English. I think, it is no problem, our world became nowadays so „small” without distance. But sometimes I was ashamed, that I am european. I was ashamed as I saw the exploitation of the locals. I was almost crying, as I walked down the pier to my room and saw those guys sleeping on the floor, who prepared my coffee every morning with a gorgeous smile and happiness.

One of my favourite moments

The chance of the local people for something better, for way out is minimal. The things, which are for us so trivial, like reading, writing, just learning something about our amazing world, is for them the biggest gift. Still, their smile, their bright shining eyes enchanted me. Teached me.

The time spent here was not only a paradise, it was a lesson at the same time.

How to spend a short weekend in Taipei?

How to spend a short weekend in Taipei?

Moments in Lungshan Temple

Taipei can be at the first view like a jungle of huge buildings and mind blowing toys, especially with Hello Kitty on every corner. But even so I fell in love with this surreal city due to its amazing temples and delicious food.
I prepared a 2-day itinerary, a small mixture of sightseeing and gastro touring, which can be changed for longer stay as well. However, before we jump into this virtual journey, I would like to share with you some tips reffering to the public transport and money exchange.

About the public transport:

The shuttle or taxi from the airport is nearly three times more expensive, while the public transport is much more affordable, easy and very well organized.

From the airport you can get the Airport Train right to the city (145-150 TWD), after this you have to take the MRT, which stops at the most frequented points of Taipei. You can buy tickets at ticket mashines, but if it is confusing for you – what I can understand – there is always somebody to help you. In terms of costs I recommend you to buy a ticket for 24-72 hours or the Fun Pass, which can be used all day long and includes 12 attractions.

About the money exchange:

In Taipei there is no money-changer, what means you have to go to the bank to have some local money. In this case please mind the opening hours and can happen, that you have to stand in a queue.  You need to have your passport, furthermore intact banknotes are accepted only.

As in Taiwan it is pretty difficult to make yourself understood in English, a Chinese-English offline dictionary can ease your journey.

After these helpful infos I would like to share with you my 2 days itinerary in Taipei, in the capital of Taiwan.

Day 1.

As I mentioned, it is really easy to get to the city from the airport. In order to visit the most points of interest, Ximen District can be a good initial point for your Taipei-adventure not to speak of the accommodation.

Tasting of the real Taiwanese breakfast is the best start before you immerse yourself into the world of beautiful temples and heavenly delicious bites. Maybe that is why I visited Taipei for short trip…I did not want to leave this country like a big meat dumpling gained plus 5 kilos!

As a tasty energy bomb I advice to try the pancakes filled with spring onions, topped with eggs, different omelettes or pen-fried dumpling with creamy pork inside. I am a person, who could die without sweets and creations of best bakeries, so I had to take a look into these luring places. I have to say, visiting of the local bakeries and tea houses is a must. You will find something for sure, that meets your taste.

After the breakfast I walked around the area in order to get a pinch of Taipei-feeling. The tiny streets in the junge of skyscrapers hide the paradise for foodies. Thousands of food stalls, local restaurants provide the authentic Taiwanese delicacies.

The worldwide famous Bubble Tea, Taipei

I tried the Bubble Tea, which can be found in Taipei on every corner. It is a very popular Taiwanese drink, very well-known in Europe as well. It is milk tea containing tapioca pearls or fruit jellies according to your choice.

The Gate of Integrity

Sipping the original bubble tea my next stop was the Liberty Square, home of the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. This famous national monument was built in honor of Generalissimo Chiang Kai shek, the first President of the Republic China. At the beginning of the square is the Gate of Integrity, one of my favourite architectural jewels in Taipei. To the right is the National Theatre, to the left, the Concert Hall: ideal examples of Chinese buildings.

the National Theater, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall

The Memorial Hall is located at the end of the square waiting – with its unique octagon shape – for the visitors.

Peace Park 2/28, Taipei

The next hidden treasure of the city is the Peace Park 2/28, which I discovered accidentaly. It is one of the oldest parks of Taipei designed traditional with beautiful ponds and Japanese gardens. There is an aphiteather, the National Taiwan Museum, an old radio station – today home of the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum – and the Taipei Memorial 228 Monument, which was built to remind us of the Taiwan’s White Terror period. Visiting the museum you can learn about the rich history of this country, while walking through the gardens you will definitely find tranquility and peace. I really loved this place watching the chatty locals and the woman, who eternized the magical, precious moments in this park by her paintings.

Waterfall of the Lungshan Temple

From here the Lungshan Temple is an easy walk. It is a must while visiting the Wanhua District, because it is one of the oldest temples in Taipei, very well known – of course always crowded – and not to mention, that it is one of the „Big 3” (must see temples in Taipei). On the other hand the Lungshan Temple is very special, because it is not place for one religion only, but Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian faiths are welcomed equally.

The Lungshan Temple

The whole temple complex is very detailed and richly decorated: dragons, phoenixes and other mystical creatures can be seen everywhere. I spent here an hour just sitting on the floor and I observed all these praying and chanting people, who simply enchanted me.

Praying man inside of the Lungshan Temple

And now is coming the program, that never can be missing from my list: to find a cool spot for watching the Taiwanese sunset. This is the Elephant Mountain, easily accessible from the city centre, and even the trail is not very back-breaking, perfect for those, who are less fit. I adore this place thinking about it, like about a small green island in the middle of concrete jungle. From the top we get a fabolous panorama with the shiny Tower Taipei 101 fleeing into the sky. If you have companion, it can be memorable to dive into the golden world of the dusk with a small picnic busket and wine.

As a perfect end to the day I warmly recommend to have a colourful dinner at one of the Taipei’s night Markets, like the Guangzhou, the Shilin or the Huaxi Night Market. For dessert after dessert I would definitely take a foot massage!

Day 2.

I devoted my second day for visiting Beitou, home of natural hot springs of Taipei. My opinion is, you simply have to see this remote, cute close-to-the-nature part of the city. Especially if you are tired of hustle and bustle of the urban area, just take your swim-suit, towel and let’s have some pure Taiwanese bathing experience.

On the way to the Hell Valley

Before I got immersed in pleasures of springs I took a look at the Puji Temple, which is located a short walk up the hill. This is one of the few Japanese-era Buddhist temples pointing the traditional Japanese architecture full of harmony and serenity.

In garden of the Puji Temple

Among several Buddhist temples countless other attractions can be found: the Hot Springs Museum, the traditionally built Plum Garden and the Library.

The Beitou Thermal Valley

My very best and favourite place is the Thermal Valley or the „Hell Valley”. Regarding to springs in Taipei I have to mention some infos. The local springs contain three different varieties of sulfur, that is the reason of their mesmerising colour and – often – disturbing, strangling smell. The green sulfur occures in Beitou, Taiwan and in Akita, Japan only. This type of sulfur gives the magical emerald green colour of the Hell Valley. I spent a lot of time here just staring at the sulfuric steam rising up from the water.

The magical view of the Hell Valley

This place has a mysterious atmosphere and something calming at the same time. The valley is perfect spot for making pictures and timelapse videos, but I have a bad news as well: there is a fence around the water for security reasons, because the water is highly corrosive. So before you would like to jump for a little swim, trust me …You do not want to be cooked!

In relation to the thermal baths there are different etiquette rules referring to gender and swim-suit. From the luxurious, private spa rooms to the local, authentic thermal baths, from naked bathing to less „free spirit” swimming costume dip there is everything to get pampered. You will find the perfect thermal bath for sure, which fits your taste and your wallet.

For foodies I have something special here, in Beitou too. For having lunch the Manlai Hot Spring Ramen providing amazing ramen is a cool idea, while the Sushi Express is 100% fun waiting for exciting dishes, which arrive on conveyor belt. Before leaving the Thermal Springs the tasting of hot spring eggs is a must!

Lunch at Sushi Express, Taipei

As I am an insatiable sunset-lover, I found again a mind blowing good spot for watching the twilight. This is the famous, third tallest building in the world, namely the Taipei 101. The building has 101 floors providing remarkable view for its visitors. The tower is open until 10 pm. so you have a chance to catch a wonderful sundown at the top – 382 m high – of the city and be amazed by little lights under your feet.

After this phenomenal scene you can stay for an outstanding dinner at Dai Tai Fung located in the tower or go for a gastro night to one of the city’s night markets, like the Gongguan Night Market or the Raohe Night Market.

As you see, Taipei is an incredibly diverse metropolis offering for all of us something different, something special. One thing is for sure: if you love to eat, if you are enchanted by new flavours, this city is the right destination for you.

The heavenly good must try delicacy of Ay-Chung, Taipei

My summary, what to eat in Taipei:

  • Baobing: dessert made of condensed milk, fruits, ice-cream, peanut and azuki beans.
  • Baozi: small buns filled with meat or vegetables.
  • Beef Noodle Soup, called as Taiwan’s national food, so it can be found everywhere.
  • Me Sua: tender pork intestine with noodles, kind of soup seasoned with garlic and fresh coriander. I recommend to try it at Ay Chung Flour-Rice Noodle, established in 1973, serving heavenly good Me Sua.
  • Pineapple Cake
  • Bubble Tea
5 things I have learned in Cuba

5 things I have learned in Cuba

 As I spent one month in this incredible destination, I decided to share my stories, experiences and tips separate in different posts.

First of all, I have to mention that Cuba is a very unique, in many aspects different, hard-to-understand country. While visiting it you need time to get the real essence of cuban way of thinking and mentality.

The marks of the Spanish colonization and the Soviet Union can still be seen in the architecture, what gives a bit confusing image about – mostly – Havana. The lack of basic food articles may seems unbelieveable but still: it is true. On the shelves of the stores you can find several types of local tomato sauce, rice, pasta (penne or spaghetti), some biscuits, marmelade and never ending choice of rum. The meat, chocolate or the shampoo are definitely luxury items. Everybody can decide, that it is the result or failure of the communist state or of the economic blockade of the USA. Anyway, one thing is sure: Cuba is something, what you have to feel, to taste and to touch, simply you have to arrive while traveling.

Since I was a child I wanted to see this remote country. Watching movies with cuban scenes I always was so fascinated: how they can be so happy, so life-affirming, if they are so poor, so „not free”?

After spending here a month I got the answer and even memorable moments, experiences.

 

1.My first encounter with the Yoruba

 

Miramar was one of the most famous districts of Havana full of noble hotels, restaurants providing glamorous events in the 1950s. Nowadays it is a small empire of embassies and secret parks. For architecture lovers I recommend just walking around to see the charming examples of colonial style.

 Colonial style villa, Havana

 

 

 

 

 

 

I personally loved these fabolous houses, villas, which hide cigar smelling secrets from the good old days, but for me the biggest experience was something else: seeing a unique ritual, which was creepy and magical at the same time. I wanted to see the sunset – like always – but instead Afro-cubans came to the beach holding a rooster, knife and wooden musical instruments. They started to make music, to chant or kind of sing while sacrificing the live rooster for the God. The animal blood sacrifice is important to connect to spirits – orishas – as well.

This mysterious, secret „world” impressed me, though most of the people are thrilled with horror seeing a sacrificial ritual. It was my first encounter with Santeria while sipping my very first cuban mojito. Santeria is a pretty common religion in Cuba, which combines spanish catholic elements with african Yoruba.

2. The cuban recipe of happiness

I know, this is maybe the most difficult question to answer in the whole world, but still the version of the Cubans is very close to my heart. My opinion is, the meaning of happiness is very subjective depending on biological, psychological, or religious aspects. It can be so different on every corner of the world: while the one seeks for happiness buying a luxurious car, the other find it in balance and harmony.

 Rundown house, Havana

Seeing the poverty, the destitution and the endless smile, the spiritual freedom of the locals at the same time – the freedom given by Cuban music – I tought, I was sure, they are happier than any rich man. The food, I mean the availability of certain articles is limited or simply they do not exist. Some items are for us normal, trivial, whilst for them it is unavailable, equal to the luxury. They live often in abandoned houses and villas, which old sparkles we can only imagine. In Europe it would be defined as homelessness. For them it means to have roof over their head instead of nothing.

 Hidden streets of Vedado

Walking the enchanted streets of Havana I tried to find the answer, the secret of this enviable, joyous mentality. I was sure, they are not satisfied with the system, but they are blissful for sure. Finally my afro-cuban Spanish teacher told me, what is their philosophy, the cuban repice of happiness: „We have cigar, rum and salsa. Everything else is irrelevant.”

 Dancing Salsa,Viñales

The first two things symbolize the elements of pure pleasure, while salsa is something unique, something elusive. It is definitely not just a dance or music. This dance without conventions, rules and the Cuban rythm fly you to a different world. Into the world, where everybody is equal, carefree and delighted. When I saw them dancing, immersed in the spicy melodies, I felt they were simply happier, richer than anyone else on this earth.

 I would say: rum, cigar, salsa & sunset

3. The creativity in povert

Seeing the broken down houses, the lack of food and simply the indigency, I wondered:

  • How the Cubans can afford these amazing old-timers?
  • Where do they get eggs or meat from?
  • Where do they buy all these amazing fruits and vegetables?

Well, I can safely say they can repair everything. In the majority of these wonderful cars hide different parts of the legendary Russian Lada. I am not sure, what was the „more special” adventure for me: visiting the cuban, dusty streets sitting in an old, classic Cadillac or taking a 3,5 hours drive to Vinales by a rotten, but glamorous Lada, which gives you absolutely a pinch of Russian-feeling.

 The iconic Lada, Cuba

 Cuban Oldtimers

The way to buy eggs, meat in Cuba was a real mystery for me. I lived in a fabolous house of Miriam and her husband, an old, extremely interesting cuban couple. Living with locals, I had the opportunity to take a look into their everyday-life and moreover into the fridge. To have the fridge more or less „full” they need to have realy good relations, maybe a well-developed network. Through this network they have chance to get this precious items, even if it means an all-day search. The fruits and vegetables are less hidden treasures of Cuba. Wherever you are, you will always find a Cuban selling fresh delicacies. The screw part is that it can be bought for local money (CUP) only. About money exchange you can read in my related post Tips&Tricks for Cuba.

 Selling of eggs

I find honestly admirable, how they navigate in this labyrinth of survival bringing out the best of everything.

4. „La vida se vive una sola vez, cuando te mueres, es que te llevas.”

No worries dear Readers! I will translate this marvelous thought for you, but I had to write it in Spanish, to give you the sense, the melody of this beatiful language. This theory or more philosphy was told by a cuban guy introducing me their mirth seasoned life and explaining me, why it is so important to live every moment of our life.

 Rum, cigar & salsa

I mentioned some of the cuban „Happiness-Bubbles”, so I do not want to repeat myself. But my opinion is, that the above sentence crowns the whole cuban way of thinking. If I try to translate it, to give you the chance to feel the noble simplicity of this idea, it sounds like this:

„You only live once, when you die, this is the only thing, what you take with you.”

The long and short of it is, that no matter, what happens, you can still smile and live your life to the maximum. Every day. Every minute.

5.Just take a sit and arrive!

It might sounds a bit weird, but I wanted to heighten the word „arrive”. In order to understand this matchless country, it is important, not to rush, not to hurry. The real essence of Cuba you can get through seeing, understanding and arriving.

 Sunset in Varadero

Slowly we forget to stop. Simply take a rest and look around. The Cubans still know the secret of relaxing or rather the small delights of life. The children still know, what it means to play outdoors, to enjoy running while taking deep breath, to share small „childhood-secrets” with each other. The people still can talk to each other, dance with each other immersed in the magical sounds of salsa.

Due to poverty and restriction of WiFi – not supported by the government – I experienced moments full of life. Without phones, skyscrapers and luxury.

I would summarize my Cuban Experiences in a very short sentence, which can also be a feeling or way of thinking:

They don’t have nothing, yet have everything.