Skip to content

Category: History

Castle 0

Prague vs. Brno, Czech Republic

The two cousins that like to compete. Prague is obviously the capital, and Brno a second biggest city in Czech Republic.

It is quite clear that Prague is beautiful, great historical city and a capital which means way more opportunities, foreigners, tourists, businesses.
On the other hand, Brno is a very compact city, with great atmosphere, swarms of students, many tech companies and start-ups, plus I really like the nature around the city.

When speaking to locals, I heard stories from the ones from Prague who won’t leave their car parked in Brno overnight, because the ‘A’ on their license plate indicating their from Prague means it could get damaged. Some of those same locals from Prague will also tell you that they love their city because of all the sites and history, and say that Brno has just one site worth seeing … the exit sign to Prague.

Here is what I got from a taste of the great Czech rivalry:

Prague

Situated on the Vltava river, Prague is a political, cultural, and economic centre of central and eastern Europe complete with a rich history. When you look the quarters and facades of this city, you can tell it was founded during the Romanesque and flourishing by the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Prague was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the main residence of several Holy Roman Emperors, most notably of Charles IV  (14th century). It was an important city to the Habsburg Monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city played major roles in the Bohemian and the Protestant Reformations, the Thirty Years’ War and in 20th-century history as the capital of Czechoslovakia between the World Wars and the post-war Communist era.

When flying over Czech Republic, I spotted the power station. Short googling and it is named Počerady – the main Czech electricity producer.

My first impressions of the city, revisiting after 16 years, was about clean spotless streets and renewed facades. I had a long weekend ahead with a sunshine in my purse. Discovering started.

Prague’s architecture is like an open history book. It’s historical city center is one of the largest ones on the UNESCO World Heritage List and you can bump into most of the architecture styles ever used in Europe’s history on your walk.

Even though I was revisiting many sights and refreshing my knowledge on culture, I discovered Art Nouveau in Prague. In my younger ages, I was not that much attracted by it, ofently not understanding the concept and the time. For example, I didnt know that Prague was home to one of the greatest Art Nouveau artists, Alfons Mucha, and that the Mucha Museum on Prague Old Town Square is a must-see for Art Nouveau lovers.

Living in Brussels for 8 years now, the city brimful of art nouveau and art deco buildings, let me enlighten the term a bit: Art Nouveau is the name given to a vast range of contemporary art roughly. Originated in Belgium and France late in the 19th century, a more free-flowing expression of art and architecture emerging after decades of neo-Gothic and neo-Classical influence. Art Nouveau designs covered everything from complete buildings to items of furniture to paintings and advertisements for bars of soap. Whole buildings were now considered to be works of art. Art Nouveau architects also experimented more with form, especially bringing curves into their design. So if you see a curved doorway or a window with a curve rather than a corner, it’s highly likely you’re looking at Art Nouveau architecture. Inspiration in art nouveau comes from nature, women and geometrical shapes (more like art deco in this case).

To add to this, the art nouveau style, was followed by the period characterised by optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, colonial expansion, and technological, scientific, and cultural innovations (think about the construction of Titanic!) called La Belle Époque. It started in 1890 and ended with the start of World War I. The Lost Generation was the social generational cohort that was in early adulthood during World War 1. This will later result with the Lost Generation. Lost in this context refers to the “disoriented, wandering, directionless” spirit of many of the war’s survivors in the early postwar period (Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrud Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Elliott). But that’s another story to reflect on this blog under Paris section post. 🙂

In the meantime, let’s jump back to Prague. To the Old Town Square, or in Czech: Staroměstské náměstí.

The square features buildings belonging to various architectural styles, including the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn, which has been the main church of this part of the city since the 14th century. Its characteristic towers are 80 m high. The Baroque St. Nicholas Church is another church located in the square.

Then there is Prague Orloj: a medieval astronomical clock mounted on the Old Town Hall. The clock was first installed in 15th century, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still in operation.

The square’s centre is home to a statue of religious reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in Konstanz for his beliefs. This led to the Hussite Wars. There is also a memorial to the “martyrs” beheaded on that spot during the Old Town Square execution by Habsburgs.

Moving through the Old town, having the smell of local cuisine, the tourists are led towards another attraction: Charles Bridge, or in Czech: Karlův most. It is a medieval stone arch bridge that crosses the Vltava (Moldau) river. Its construction started in 14th century thanks to Charles IV – King of Bohemia and to become Holy Roman Emperor. He was a member of the House of Luxembourg from his father’s side and the Czech House of Přemyslid from his mother’s side; he emphasized the latter due to his lifelong affinity for the Czech side of his inheritance, and also because his direct ancestors in the Přemyslid line included two saints (I will explain the later in this post).

The Charles Bridge, that  links Old Town to Malá Strana, is a piece of medieval engineering that has stood the test of time. Why? Because Charles IV was a strong believer in numerology. The first stone was placed on the 9th of July 1357 at 5.31. That is a palindrome that creates 97531 and backwards. It also creates the pyramid.

On the 9th of July 1357 The Charles Bridge has witnessed some gut-wrenching scenes in its time: it used to serve as a place of execution or of public chastisement for criminals who were dipped into the river in wicker baskets. The most famously was when Jan Nepomuk was thrown into the river in 14th century for allegedly refusing to divulge the queen of Bohemia’s confession secrets to suspicious king Charles IV. Guess we will never know who shagged the Queen. Or do we know? Shagging or not, Jan Nepomuk was canonised in 18th century by Vatican and became a saint patron of Czech Republic.

Crossing over famous river Vltava, I couldn’t not remember famous peace of art of classical music: The Moldau, Czech Vltava, symphonic poem by Bohemian composer Bedřich Smetana that evokes the flow of the Vltava River. Listen and enjoy! 🙂 For more Czech pieces of art, check Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 9.

We finally arrive to Malá Strana. Boy where to start XD. District on the other side of the Vltava river that got me confused. As this Quartier was founded as a royal town (a town founded by the king) it got many privileges. You can find the stunning view on the Prague from there but as well on Petřín Tower – a steel-framework tower.

One of the recommended attractions is the The KGB Museum. If you think there will be informative museum collection on communist time espionage and some intelligence, you are wrong. So was I. Upon the entrance, there is a machine gun, a Russian ex-KGB member in retire with his personal weapon collection and stories on how to kill with a knife, gun and a wire. It is an experience, not a museum. You have to take it from there. I was initally afraid as the guy locked the door and sat me down on chair to watch the Russian military parade.  I was upset on his way of interpreting the gulags and Stalin but I got a good wtf moments to tell when he started to explain me how to paralyze a Nazi and make him mega bleed from the liver. And this is only one of the at least 20 examples of WTF moments.

Take this knife, Madam (showing me some knife from his personal collection).

– No thank you. I am not a fan.

Take it, take it. Do you know how to kill with this knife? (already squatting in the position to throw the knife at the doll)

– It never occurred to me.

You do it like this and like this and then in the liver. The victim is dead because of quick bleeding. Mega bleeding. Smell the Nazi blood. (sticking out his tongue).

Me: OMG where did I got myself into (praying to go out alive).

Anyway, you judge by yourself if you want to have this experience or you would profit more from a good lager on a sunny terrace of Prague. Me, I am still not sure…

One bizarre experience led into another one. Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague. Upon the arrival, there is a bar which serves funny alchemist cocktails. The guides are weird, but hey, after previous experience, I can’t be stopped.

Prague is a golden, mysterious city with one hundred spires, and for all that it thanks among other to the alchemists, who belong to it inseparably. Here I discovered philosopher’s stone produced by famous renaissance occultist and alchemist Edward Kelley and his friend John Dee, both financed by Charles IV to produce gold in a mysterious laboratory.

Ok, I think it is enough of weirdness. Let’s focus on food. Let’s not beat around the bush here, Prague doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to food. But real foodie will have a great time. Let me show you.

How about some beer? 🙂 Cheaper than the water. One of the best lagers you will ever have!

Among other famous things in Bohemia, there is a famous Bohemian glass or crystal. It has a centuries long history of being internationally recognised for its high quality, craftsmanship, beauty and often innovative designs.

Prague has a reach deep history. There is many stories to discover. The legendary origins of Prague attribute its foundation to the 8th-century Czech duchess and prophetess Libuše and her husband, Přemysl, founder of the Přemyslid dynasty (earlier mentioned dynasty of King Charles IV). Legend says that Libuše came out on a rocky cliff high above the Vltava and prophesied: “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.” She ordered a castle and a town called Praha to be built on the site. The region became the seat of the dukes, and later kings of Bohemia.

One of the seats was a large Gothic castle founded in 14th century by Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor-elect and King of Bohemia. The castle is called Karlštejn.

One last story about Prague: The Jewish Quarter. Definitely recommended. I wandered the streets of ex- Jewish ghetto and imagined the history of Jewish settlements in Prague which dates back to the 10th century. Of course, it has been marked by sad episodes of persecution. Therefore, the Jewish quarter of the Czech capital, known as Josefov, is a tribute to a community that has had to face continuous exile and incomprehensible turmoil. In light of this, I visited the Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery from 15th century, Maisel, Spanish and OldNew Synagogue.

I whispered to F. Kafka. It was an exchange of fine talks among two welt-schmerzers. This German-speaking Bohemian novelist and short-story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature has had a complex relationship with Judaism, veering between secularism and Zionism at an uneasy time for Jews in Eastern Europe. He attended services at the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest surviving Jewish house of worship in Europe. It’s said to be the resting place of the mythical Golem, a creature that protected the city’s Jews from violence.

Franz Kafka and Me

My Jewish experience ended with kosher food at King Salomon restaurant. Just to mention, I had to wait 65 min for the food in order to align with kosher meat and milk diet.

Brno

Brno is a city in the South Moravian Region of the Czech Republic. Located at the confluence of the Svitava and Svratka rivers, on a hill that makes the streets looking cozy and trendy.

Brno is the former capital city of Moravia and the political and cultural hub of the South Moravian Region. The name derives from a Slavic verb brniti (to armour or to fortify).

In the old city center, at the main Liberty Square, you will find Brno’s Quirky Astronomical Clock in a shape of a penis. The controversial monument, made of black marble, took three years to build at the cost of 12 million Czech crowns.

Curiously, despite its name, it’s not an astronomical clock at all. It’s just a clock. It was built to commemorate a famous and unlikely victory the citizens of Brno had over invading Swedes in 1645 as part of the Thirty Years’ War. After three months of failed sieges, a Swedish general decided to give in if the city hadn’t fallen by noon that day. Faced with this ultimatum, the citizens of Brno put the town clock forward an hour at 11am, so that it read noon. Sure enough, the Swedes retreated.

There is no art nouveau here, but there is great Moravian wine. Wine in the Czech Republic is produced mainly in southern Moravia, although a few vineyards are located in Bohemia. However, Moravia accounts for around 96% of the country’s vineyards, which is why Czech wine is more often referred to as Moravian wine. Traces of the viticulture s go back to Roman times, of course. The Thirty Years’ War (17th century) destroyed a significant portion of the vineyards in the Czech Republic, and over the next hundred years they were gradually replanted. In 18th century, Austrian vintners asked Habsburg Kaiserin Maria Theresa to limit new vineyard plantings in Moravia to reduce the competition from Moravian wines.

Strolling down towards the Church of St Michael. The church was heavily damaged by the Swedish army in the 17th century. Its current Baroque form is the work of the local architect Jan Křtitel Erna. The Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre at the southern wall of the church in Dominikánská Street is modelled after the chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

There are several legends connected with the City of Brno; one of the best known is the Legend of the Brno Dragon. It is said that there was a terrible creature terrorizing the citizens of Brno. The people had never seen such a beast before, so they called it a dragon. They trembled in fear of the dragon until a brave man decided to kill the monster by tricking it into eating a carcass filled with lime. In reality the dragon was a crocodile, the preserved body of which is now displayed at the entrance of the Old Town Hall. Crocodile and dragon motifs are common in Brno. A crocodile (in Czech: krokodýl) is the local stuffed baguette, and the city radio station is known as Radio Krokodýl.

Ossuary is located underground, partially under the Church of St. James (Kostel svatého Jakuba Staršího). It is considered the second-largest ossuary in Europe. It is estimated that over 50,000 people were buried there in the 17th and the 18th centuries. The ossuary was forgotten for a long time. In 2001, a team of archaeologists discovered it while conducting excavations before the renovation of the Jakubské square. Since 2012, the Ossuary of St. James’ Church has been open to the public. I visited this obscure place with the dumpling in my throat.

To conclude this rivalry: Go and check it out. Both Prague and Brno are beautiful cities with great people. Ignore guide books. I would say, there is a massive (but mostly friendly) rivalry between Brno and Prague – Praguers tend to look down on the city seeing it as a sort of provincial outpost, with jokes portraying the Brno people as being yokels with chickens under their arms and the suchlike, laughing at the Moravian dialect, but the feeling is mutual as the Prague accent sounds hilarious to people from Brno.

Bye Czechia!

cathedrals 0

Madeira island, Portugal – I discovered Atlantida

If you are not familiar with Madeira, it is a Portuguese island sitting in the Atlantic Ocean between Portugal and Morocco. It is an archipelago in region known as Macaronesia (group of volcanic islands: Azores, Madeira, Canary Island and Tenerife and Cabo Verde).

History by Greeks claims this might be Atlantida. Plutarch writes the impressions of founding the island covered by the trees from the high mountains and down to the ocean.

Vikings were there as well – as the archeologists have found some archeological artifacts from 10th century. But oficially, Madeira was discovered by Portuguese in 15th century and inhabited by Portuguese people from mainland, which built their own distinctive culture.

Statue of the Discoverer of Madeira, in Funchal – main city

Madeira island is home to several endemic plant and animal species. In the south, there is very little left of the indigenous subtropical rainforest that once covered the whole island (the original settlers set fire to the island to clear the land for farming) and gave it the name it now bears (Madeira means “wood” in Portuguese). 

Landing to Madeira is not an easy task for pilots. It is the shortest airport runway of Europe with occasional winds from west. The airport is called by local football player happens to be one of the greatest in the world: Christiano Ronaldo. I will come back to this topic a bit later.

First impressions of Madeira: lots of flowers. These typical flowers that we all buy in store and pay good money to keep them alive in our houses, here are growing like crazy, all over the places: parks, restaurants, terraces, atriums, sidewalks… As the climate is hot and humid, but never too hot – around 20 – 25 degrees, I felt this is the true Paradise on Earth. I have seen similar flora and fauna at the Canary Islands – geographically located just 300 miles to the south, but it was more dry and nothing like Madeira!

Madeira is still relatively untouched, with wild eucalyptus forests, picturesque villages, and breathtaking views. Anywhere we went around the island, we got rewarded with dramatic vistas stretching as far as the horizon.

And to add to the impressions list:| we were not bothered by the locals. Usually when travelling, I meet locals who want to take advantage of tourists, harassing me to buy their products, trying to scam or divert my route. Madeira locals, on the contrary were making our life easy and our vacation calm enough and without stress.

Funchal

The main city of Madeira island is called Funchal. My accommodation was just a bit outside in the place called Lido – loads of hotels and restaurants, with a 20 min walk to city center. Visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Portuguese: Sé Catedral de Nossa Senhora da Assunção) and stroll down the riviera to enjoy the good view.

Inevitable is the Farmers Market (Mercado dos Lavradores), situated in the Old Town of Funchal. It is an iconic building from 1940, with so many tropical fruits: avocados, passion fruit, mango, dragon fruit etc.

Funchal is very up and down place. In the times of great humid and heat, make sure you are having lots of water next to yourself. You never know what street you will have to climb. And become red… 🙂

City of Funchal and the bay

To climb the upper part of Funchal – where the climate is again something else – less dry, more wind – you can take the Teleferico – a cable car. It is worth a visit!

Once you are up, you can visit Jardim Botanico. We continued our way towards the Habsburgs church. Namely, Habsburgs liked to come here too. They would reside at Reid’s Palace Hotel in Funchal, actually a bit closer to Lido (nowadays touristy part of Funchal). Empress Sissi adored to come – she payed her visit 3 times at least. I found her statue not far away from the Reid’s Palace. Her grandnephew Karl l exiled here with his wife Zita after the fall of Habsburg Empire during the World War One. He is buried in the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte. It took us some time to climb through the semi forest and flowered paths – but as always, it is worth it. Plus you get a beautiful view on Funchal!

To stroll down is even easier – just continue imagining the courtesy of the royals! Take the Monte Toboggan Rides or “carros de cesto.” The “Carreiros do Monte” appeared in the middle of the 19th century as an alternative and fast means of transportation of people and goods, from Monte to Funchal. It is believed that the wealthy owners of some Quintas (local Manor Houses) in Monte were the first to use this form of transport. With the growth of tourism at the end of the 19th century, these wicker basket cars became very popular among visitors. Today it is one of the highlights in Madeira.

North East side

It was a one day trip with the safari jeep. The driver and the tour guide took the steepest streets of Funchal and continued through the steepest landscapes above. As we were riding through the forest, admiring the greenery, slowly the green landscape of forest became small bushes with light green and yellow.

That moment when you spot the clouds below your level was amazing. Looking at the horizon and not knowing when the ocean stops and sky begins… So we arrived to Pico de Arieiro. It is the third highest peak (1820 m) on Madeira Island and is one of the most popular sunrise spots. It gathers crowds to watch the sun break through the thick sea of clouds that create an otherwordly atmosphere. On a clear day it is possible to see the neighbouring island of Porto Santo, 30 miles to the northeast.

The next stop were the levada walks. “Levada” is a Portuguese word derived from the word “levar” – which means to carry and is roughly translated as “carriageway”, but more correctly defined as mini-canal. The mini-canals are irrigation systems developed to distribute water from the rainfall heavy and wet regions on the north of Madeira island to the drier sun parched regions of the south. The water is usually stored in reservoirs or tanks, or captured directly from natural fountains to be redirected and channeled across a wide network of winding canals. These narrow water carriageways deliver precious water along far distances to banana plantations, vineyards, fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, as well as to hydro-electric power stations dotted around the island. The levadas criss cross the mountains and cover a total distance of 2500 km, and date back to as far as the early 16th century.

The Levada walks are walking trails along the maintenance paths beside the Levadas. Although the Levadas were constructed primarily for agricultural/industrial use they are just as important for tourists and local people alike who want to enjoy outdoor adventure activities inaccessible by cars.

Close to the Santana city center you can find the Centre for Traditional Santana houses. This is a preservation area, expanded by the municipality of Santana, in memory of local heritage.
Here we found some typical Santana houses, all adapted to their current use, where you can buy a wide variety of local products and traditional crafts.

The tour was coming to an end but our driver decided to shake us more and drive through steep mountains and edgy roads. So we ended up just a bit north from Porto da Cruz – a city famous for North Mills Distillery.

The Portuguese island of Madeira is best known for its eponymous fortified wine, but it was not always king of drinks alone — there was rum, too. Madeira rum is “rhum agricole”, meaning it is made directly from cane syrup, rather than “rhum industriel”, which comes from the byproduct molasses. It is also matured in Madeira fortified-wine casks. Madeira used to be number one sugar cane production place in the 17th century onwards. The Portuguese took the habit from the Caribbean, borrowed the money from Genovians and Flanders distributed it all across the continent, making Antwerp port the richest of its time. As the Colombo had its house in Canary Island and Porto Santo island to stop by before and after his discoveries in the New Wolrd – no wonder some goods and traditions remained on the island.

We tasted the traditional rum 970 and rum branco (white rum). I have to say, Madeira kicked me with many thinks, but rhum is not one of it. Caribbean still rull when it comes to this.

Last stop for the day was the most east point of the island: Ponta do Bode. The view of this cape stretches towards Porto Santo islands and Desert Islands on the other side. In the sea cliffs of Ponta do Bode, one can observe volcanic formations of effusive (lava flows) and explosive nature (pyroclasts).

North West side

North west Madeira is where the wild Atlantic crashes headlong into the jagged and imposing cliffs that dominate landscape of the north-coast. It is more humid, a bit more chilly but whole loads of fun. First stop was city Camara do Lobos. A fisherman village famous for very first ponche pescador – a strong rum and lemon drink taken in the morning by the fisherman after spending long night fishing.

So our road continued again towards north. But before we had to cross the mountainous part of the Madeira island – again, enchanted by the clouds…

We have hit so many tunels on our way but the one that will stay in my mind was the finished but yet unfinished tunel with water drops. Such an unusual place this island is!

And if you need more proof, here the Veu de Noiva waterfall – it falls in the middle of the freaking road.  A beautiful waterfall that cascades down the rocky slopes towards the sea. So amazed how the water on this island comes from everywhere.

Further to the north – and time for bath in the ocean 🙂 We visited the small city called Porto Moniz famous for the natural pools. A very popular complex in an outstanding location, with great facilities, lifeguard surveillance – really needed due to unexpected sudden high waves, natural seawater volcanic pools for both Adult and children. Sometimes a bit crowded during the summer, but an excellent place for visitors to enjoy the sun and a safe swim.

On our way towards different city we passed again through the semi forest and rocky countryside with small farmer houses and stables. Noting locals producing bananas, tobacco, passion fruit and vineyards.

Sao Vicente has popular black sand beaches. Its sea can be a bit rough but it’s quite popular with surfers for this reason.

The nearby city is called Seixal. This is precisely the stunning scenery of one of the most popular beaches in this parish, Porto do Seixal Beach, a natural black sand beach located right next to the rocky cliff with the waterfall. No need for after sea showers here. All natural.

On of the last stops of the day was Ribeira Brava. The municipality gained its name due to its river – Ribeira Brava, which translates as ‘the angry river’. In rainy seasons, the river had an extremely strong and powerful current, that often wreaked havoc over the entire eight kilometres of the route.

Finally the last point: Cabo Girao – a popular lookout point, the highest cliff in Europe (580m) and a skywalk. I have to say, we managed to visit this place both from above (hitting that wobbly skywalk) and from below, having a bath in the ocean, just at the beach below it. Both moments were breathtaking.

Ocean

If you ask me, this is the best part of Madeira. Surrounded by the Atlantic ocean, there is so much to discover. Madeira is rich with flora and fauna on the land, but so in the sea. Taking a one day catamaran trip in the outskirts of the ocean, you can’t miss the sea turtle or the dolphins.

When it comes to typical holiday sun bathing – there is plenty of choices. From the black volcano sandy beaches (I can still say black, right?), cliffs to jump, rocky natural pools to the concreted and arranged beaches in front of hotels with sun umbrella and arm chairs. We did almost everything. As we had a pool in front of our accommodation – we used it, the cliff – we jumped and bathed in front of it, black beach – same thing, and cooling while reading a book at the Miramar hotel in touristy Lido.

Food and Drinks

When it comes to wining and dining – Madeira is not expensive at all, yet tastes delicious. Here is the best fish I have eaten – fresh, simple, tasteful. Every time, the chef of the restaurant would come out of the kitchen, present the daily fresh fish and advise on cooking. And the vegetables that comes to the fish it the sweetest ever!

Some of things you have to eat when in Madeira: scabbard fish with grilled banana, black squid risotto, parrot fish, octopus, tuna and limpets.

Meat is equally good, fresh and not industrial at all.

Usually we started our meal with Bolo do caco – a circular Madeiran flatbread, shaped like a cake and thus called bolo. It is traditionally cooked on a caco, a flat basalt stone slab. The bread is usually served with garlic butter. My ode to this discovery:

Madeira is a constant spring. The temperature never goes more than 29 Celsius. There is constant water circulation which makes the gastronomy of this place astonishing. Especially the taste of fruits and coffee we had for breakfast and for desert. The passion fruit cake/ pudding is a must try!

When it comes to drinks, first thing first – the poncha! As already described, it is a traditional alcoholic drink made with aguardente de cana (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice), honey, sugar, and either orange juice or lemon juice. Some varieties include other fruit juices. My favourites were less traditional one – minth and passion fruit.

Then there is red wine or vino tinto. When you order red wine in Madeira, you will get sweet liquorish drink as an aperitif, or sweet wines usually consumed with dessert. But very rarely the red wine as we know on the continent.

The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history, dating back to the Age of Exploration (approximately from the end of the 15th century) when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat and movement which transformed the flavour of the wine. This was discovered by the wine producers of Madeira when an unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands after a round trip.

Recommendation: Bastardo and Malvasia.

Then rose and white wine – Atlantis and Colombo are the local productions and offered almost everywhere on the island.

Perhaps is worth to mention the local brewery production. I was not amazed by the heavy beers they offered. It just doesn’t go with the climate.

Madeira, the Atlantic Pearl, is a dream holiday destination. It’s ideal for romantic getaways, family trips, and fun vacations with friends. It is full of movie-like landscapes, historical and cultural attractions. I hope I managed to describe the enthusiasm I collected and the blues I am feeling now. It is a place to come back.

Inevitable sangria! Cheers from the Lido Atlantic beach!
Castle 1

Koblenz, Deutschland

Visiting the Burg Eltz it was inevitable to stroll down the hills of  Rhineland-Palatinate and explore.

To be honest, the navigation was not up to date as bringing us to the closed local roads or reserved only for the local agricultural vehicles. But there is a beauty in getting lost like that! 🙂

Around the hills in Wierschem

Koblenz is a German city on the banks of the river Rhine and of the Moselle, a multi-nation tributary. Thanks to its geographic position, it is one of the most beautiful vineyards location. Let me tell you our entrance to the city with this:

Schloss von der Leyen

On our right is the river Moselle, on the left the vineyards scenery on the cliffs and we are driving right through the castle. The fairytale!

No wonder, Koblenz was established as a Roman military post around 8 B.C. Its name originates from the Latin(ad) cōnfluentēs, meaning confluence. The actual confluence is today known as the “German Corner“, a symbol of the unification of Germany that features an equestrian statue of Emperor William I.

Opposite to this Deutsches Ecke – where the river Rhein and Moselle confluence and continue towards Rotterdam is the Fortress Ehrenbreitstein as seen from Koblenz.

Fortress Ehrenbreitstein as seen from Koblenz

The old city has a triangular shape, with two sides being bounded by the Rhine and Mosel and the third by a line of fortifications. The city facades are neo-baroque and classical. With loads of shopping streets and commercial centers interfered. It the Altstadt one can find bars and restaurants to enjoy german culinary and recommended wines from the valleys of Rhine and Mosel.

I couldn’t skip The cultural centre Forum Mittelrhein and the Kulturbau Forum Confluentesstands as a singular, solitary volume on the square and is wrapped in a striking, partly translucent shiny façade that reflects the sky and the clouds. It houses the public library, the Mittelrhein Museum and the tourist information of Koblenz, with their ‘Zentrum der Rheinromantik’, inviting both tourists and residents to learn more about this beautiful region.

To conclude with the Rhine riesling and Mosel gewurztraminer.

Castle 2

Burg Eltz, Deutschland

Eltz Castle (German: Burg Eltz) is a medieval castle nestled in the hills above the Moselle between Koblenz and Trier, Germany. It is still owned by a branch of the same family (the Eltz family) that lived there in the 12th century, 33 generations ago.

Hidden in the western Germany, in the hills above river Mosel, deep deep in the Rhineland Palatinate region hence only local roads lead you towards. Because of this, it is pretty easy to get lost.

Rhineland -Palatinate is a southwest German state bordered by France, Belgium and Luxembourg. The lush Moselle Valley, with its riverside towns is one of Germany’s largest wine regions.

We parked the car some hour away of the castle and started our trip through the forest. There are many paths through the forest but the one towards the castle is guiding you by itself.

Upon the entrance, I was surprised with the view on the nearby forests and the endless greenery. It was in a total contrast of the strong fortification and its red wooden construction.

Time for food? Some good German bier and sausage?

food and drink 1

Route des 🍇 vins d’Alsace 🍇

Two days reserved for doing this route 🙂 My travel soul was reaching its immortal stage. Let me show you which route we took:

Our very first wine cellar was the winery Turckheim. We took a nice walk through the city of Turckheim, again colombage or in english; timber houses forming the line of endless streets of the city. Afterwards we climbed the hills of Turckheim, and we had a view to see:

The road continued through many small cities with timbered houses, churches and wine cellars. We stopped so many times just to take the smell of the view. As odd as it sounds.

Next stop: Stoeckle! Boy that was an atmosphere. When I heard the music from the hill, it reminded me on my home region in Croatia: the Zagorje

Immediate stop, entrance to the wine cellar full of people and owner blowing into horn tube, playing the traditional song of Alsace. Here I tried all the possibilities of the wine of Alsace: Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Muscat d’Alsace, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, Cremant d’Alsace, and the rose made of Pinot Noir. I think that night I was in the mood to buy entire cellar.

Continuing the road, hitting the best moments of the golden hour and the best medieval cities on our way.

Next stop: Achilee. Don’t ask how we managed to stop there, but the vibe of this cellar was odd. The wine host was very nice and welcoming, while xplaining how the bio in his wines actually means performance to the full moon etc. I looked at the barrels, they looked happy. So what the heck, bring the degustation on the table! 🙂

Protected by the natural barrier of the Vosges Mountains, the vineyards of Alsace benefit from a unique climate and a variety of different grape-growing districts. The many different grape varieties which thrive here produce an incomparable range of rich and aromatic wines, from the driest and most delicate to the most opulent and full-bodied. The Alsace Wine Route, one of the oldest in France, crosses these different wine districts. From Marlenheim to Thann, it allows you to discover 170 km of scenic landscapes, from medieval villages and half-timbered houses decorated with flowers, to castles and Roman and Gothic churches. Enjoy!

food and drink 3

Colmar, Alsace, France 🥨

In the northeastern France lays Alsace, the region so much popular in Europe as it used to be German, French, German and then again French. No wonder people of Alsace speak German-French dialect and share French-German type of food. Oh, and wine! There is nothing better than sitting on a terrace of a bar with the view on collombage (timber-houses) and having a taste of vin d’Alsace. 🙂

Colmar’s old quarter is as complete as it is lovely, with street after street of corbelled wooden houses and sophisticated renaissance palaces decorated with flowers. We were so lucky to have an accommodation in the city center in one of the old wooden houses from 15th century. This was total experience!

Colmar was first mentioned by Charlemagne in his chronicle about Saxon wars. This was the location where the Carolingian Emperor Charles the Fat held a diet in 884. Colmar was granted the status of a free imperial city by Emperor Frederick II in 13th century and became the part of Holy Roman Empire of Germans. Check my story about Nurnberg visit and you will understand more.

Alsace is famous for storks so on many places there were these birds, reminding about the fertility and family times. There were less in the city but once outside of the city, you can see many of them flying around building the nests.

Fooooooood 🙂 Boy I enjoyed 🙂 Although the bars were not opened yet, the Marche couvert offered us variety of alsacian specialties. In the end, we bought 2 beautiful Flammekueche (Alsatian), or tarte flambée (French) and ate them back in the hotel, with a glass of fine vin d’Alsace. Little things in life…

To follow the rules of my Grandfather, we are missing now only the church. The museums we could have not visit due to the chinese virus performance.

Église Saint-Martin – 13th century is the largest church of Colmar and one of the largest in Haut-Rhin. Displays some early stained glass windows, several Gothic and Renaissance sculptures and altars, a grand Baroque organ case. The choir is surrounded by an ambulatory opening on a series of Gothic chapels, a unique feature in Alsatian churches.

Definitely worth to visit for a nice weekend getaway. Next stop> many at the Route des Vins d’Alsace 🙂

cathedrals 1

Bamberg blue, Germany

How to travel when China creates the virus, when European Union mismanages the coordination of vaccination and Belgium sets the travel ban? How to explain to your travel heart that far destinations are impossible?

In the pursuit of some beautiful precious gems among German towns, especially after last year visit to Rothenburg ob der Tauber we discovered Bamberg, Bavarians like to think of it as its own Rome. It is a magnificent medieval town full of typical medieval half timbered framework full of lavish splendour and playful decorative elements.

To be more accurate, Bamberg is a town in Upper Franconia, which is part of Bavaria, on the river Regnitz close to its confluence with the river Main which is part of the Main-Danube canal, one of the most important river canals of Europe.

The town dates back to the 9th century. From the 10th century onwards, Bamberg became a key link with the Slav peoples, notably those of Poland and Pomerania. It experienced a period of great prosperity from the 12th century onwards, during which time it was briefly the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. Emperor Henry II was also buried in the old town, alongside his wife Kunigunde.

This Holy Roman Emperor Henry II ordered the building of a new cathedral, which was consecrated in 1012. Pope Benedict VIII visited Bamberg in 1020 to meet Henry II for discussions concerning the Holy Roman Empire. For a short time Bamberg was the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry and Kunigunde were both buried in the cathedral. Pope Clement ll as well, as the only Pope behind the Alps.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to enter as the cathedral is closed due to virus outbreak. Nevertheless, on the other side lays the Neue Hofhaltung, residence of the bishops since the 17th centuries.

When you visit Bamberg, there’s no way you can miss the town’s most iconic attraction. Sitting on a tiny island connected by grand bridges is the Bamberg Old Town Hall. In German the Altes Rathaus, this historical landmark is as unusual as it is stunning.

Running along the river bank called Linker Regnitzarm, there is a row of houses that showcase Bamberg’s traditional side. Each narrow house, some of which are half-timbered, has their own little garden. They are gathered around the old port which today serves only as a meeting point.

Getting lost in the city center, admiring the typical Bavarian timber houses which are traditional guest houses and restaurants, I couldn’t hide my sadness seeing them closed. A foodie like me likes to sit in the restaurant, try the local specialties, admire the surroundings. None of this was possible because of Corona virus outbreak.

Bamberg is known for its smoked Rauchbier and is home to nine breweries. So I promised myself to come back to Bamberg to finish the mission. It seems to me like I haven’t properly visit the city.

Castle 2

Roche-en-Ardenne

Still pandemic times, less travels and huge desire to go somewhere new. In case I haven’t mention yet, thank you China. One big f***ing thank you.

Anyways, how about some snow? Belgian Ardennes are a good answer. Fresh and healthy winter air with lots of white cover.

Why this city? Except the fact that we are not allowed to leave this country of Belgium if it is not an essential travel, there has been a rumour that Roche-en-Ardenne is  is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Ardennes.

La Roche is believed to have first been settled in the Neolithic era followed by the Celts and the Romans who built a fort there following their conquest of Gaul and the Ardennes.

The town’s medieval castle was in use between the 9th and 18th centuries. It provided protection to the many barges that plied their trade along the local river systems.

In World War II, the town was occupied by both Nazi and Allied forces, suffering severe damage. Freed by Americans in September 1944, the town was recaptured by the Germans in December, during the Battle of the Bulge. I was particularly surprised with the Museum of the Ardennes Battle.

The museums tells the story of local people fighting for their city. Belgian King Leopold I was advised to move his most ekite artillery and infantry towards Antwerpen thinking Hitler would never break strong cold Ardenne mountains. It happens that Hitler arrived with tanks, entered into every village in Ardennes in no second and broke Belgium. The fall of France and The Netherlands was the direct consequence of it.

The city is walking area with lots of shops, bars and restaurants. Thank you China so much for allowing me to enjoy this! We were allowed to walk down the Quay of Ourthe.

Never visit The Ardennes without buying the delicious local products: cheese, sausage made of boar and local beers. Here is what we brought home 🙂

Castle 5

Nürnberg, Deutschland 🍻

Tourism is sometimes challenging. There is a struggle that popped this time to understand this city. I didn’t get it by first. Sometimes, it’s difficult to swallow. 

Understanding Nürnberg. Don’t mind the hair, I was previously partying for 7 days in my hometown Croatia

In the case of Nuremberg, we are talking about the actions and horrors done by Adolf Hitler whose legacy to Nuremberg is a tainted, poisoned one. It was his favourite city leading in rich Germanic and imperial history. It is used to be called the “most German of German cities.”

Maxbrücke (bridge) over river Pegnitz

Nuremberg became the venue for the Nazi Party and later the place of the Nuremberg Trials – it had to compensate somehow to skip the historical judgment. The city and it’s residents paid a hefty price for Nazi Germany’s obsession with the city. Nevertheless, the locals rebuilt the city, but much of the city’s original character and medieval charm got lost.

Way of Human Rights – outdoor sculpture designed by Israeli artist

So, Nurnberg is the second biggest city in Bavaria, just after Munich. The first documentary mention of the city, in 1050, referring the King Konrad III and Frederick I, Barbarossa Holy Roman Emperor (mostly famous for leading the Crusades).

We have visited the Imperial castle but unfortunately had no time to enter.

In the medieval times, the city was flourishing as being the free city for trade. Plague was coming many times but the city managed to sustain.

These are the times of the great painter Albrecht Dürer. He was born in this city and made his best works.

The cultural flowering of Nuremberg, in the 15th and 16th centuries, made it the centre of the German Renaissance. In 1525, Nuremberg accepted the Protestant Reformation which led into construction of the churches not so rich as it can be seen in other catholic cities.

Weißer Turm (White tower) and the Ehekarussell fountain (marriage carousel – representing marriage from beginning to end both good and bad moments)
Fachwerkhaus – the house with wooden construction

The large market square located at the heart of the city centre is surrounded by a multitude of must-see sights. The daily market takes place here, where you can buy all sorts of tasty treats, flowers and spices. 

Schöner Brunnen – fountain with the sculptures of all the Holy Roman Emperors

The main square is the most vivid during the winter times. The Christmas market originates from this city = the so called Christkindelmarktplatz.

Church of Our Lady at the main square

Finaly, what is Germany if there is no good beer and sausage?

cathedrals 2

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Deutschland

In case you want to experience Bavaria region in south of Germany and get lost in time and space, I definitely recommend you this city. It is well known for its well-preserved medieval old town, a destination for tourists from around the world. It is part of the popular Romantic Road through southern Germany.

The name “Rothenburg ob der Tauber” is German for Red fortress above the Tauber, as the town is located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber river.

So these was our entrance to the city surrounded by the wall. The Markus tower, preserved from 15th century. Our hotel was in this tower. Let me show you the creepiness…

The Markusturm and Röderbogen

Upon our arrival to the hotel, a lovely Lady in Bavarian clothes took our check in and helped us to find the room. Little did I know that she was Bosnian (immigration wave in the Balkans is huge and Germany is always looking for work-force). However, I was a bit surprised hearing the accent. 🙂 Later we found out that her husband is the chef in the same hotel. Oh Balkans around the world…

The hotel is the medieval tower so the halls on each floor are going in the circle. Not to mention the wooden floors, squeaky stairs, creepy porcelain dolls in the baby carts, old wooden furniture from medieval times. etc. It had a soul, dolphinately! 🐬

Hauptmarkt (main square)

Due to chinese virus situation we were allowed to stay in the Biergarten restaurant for no longer than 2 hours. Fair enough. We had to continue to hit the road the next day so not much left for partying. Except that it was my birthday that night. 🙂

Upon breakfast, quick look on the city on our way to the car. Enjoy!

cathedrals 3

Amiens, France

Some 100 km north from Paris, in Normandy is chick city of Amiens. I say chick cause it totally anonymous but elegant and worth to visit.

The city is famous for the largest gothic cathedral in France. There is a marty – left hand of St John Baptist. The right hand, with which he baptised Jesus is in Istanbul.

food and drink 2

Honfleur and Le Havre, France

Another day in Normandie.

Honfleur

Honfleur is a perfect city for one day visit. It is located in the North France. It is especially known for its old port, characterized by its houses with slate-covered frontages, painted many times by artists, including in particular the impressionists like Claude Monet forming the école de Honfleur (Honfleur school) which contributed to the appearance of the Impressionist movement.

The first written record of Honfleur is a reference by Richard III, Duke of Normandy, in 1027. By the middle of the 12th century, the city represented a significant transit point for goods from Rouen to England.

The town’s defences were strengthened by Charles V (the Habsburg). If you follow my blog and read the articles across, you will make the link.

And the continued with very good sea food.

The port is now a busy tourist spot so there are many good sea food restaurants around.

It is very important to visit the Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

It was built on the model of a market hall, using naval construction techniques, which gives the impression of an upside-down ship’s hull. 

The city is situated on the bank of the estuary of the Seine across from le Havre and very close to the exit of the Pont de Normandie. We took our day and decided to cross the bridge.

Le Havre

An urban French commune. And I would say not much to this. Industry.

It is situated on the right bank of the estuary of the river Seine on the Channel. The name Le Havre means “the harbour” or “the port”.

Largely destroyed during the Second World War, the city was rebuilt. The Church of Saint Joseph du Havre, built by Auguste Perret, dominates the city with its spire 107m high.

Castle 2

The Ardennes ⛰️


The Ardennes is the name given to a region of Belgium in the south that extends into Luxembourg, France and Germany. This southern region is totally different from the busy, industrial north. The things available to do in this region are as varied as you might imagine and include some great museums, plenty of beer and even the world’s smallest city. Given the rolling hills and the lush green scenery, it will not surprise you that The Ardennes has become a popular spot for travellers who love the outdoors. 

We started our day at 9am travelling to Bouillon, chasing the Templars.

The landscape aside the highway was full of green grass, deep forests, cows and sheeps. My heart was warm.

Tombeau du Géant

There is a magnificent open view at Devil’s view, looking across to ‘Le Tombeau du Géant’ (The Giant’s Tomb), so named because one of the bends in the Semois at this point seems to enclose a coffin of gigantic proportions. It is not easy to reach it. We walked an hour through the forest athough the tracks are pretty good marked.

Saint-Hubert

Cozy little town actually hides many secrets. Hubert was actually a prince of Liege. Being passionately in love with hunting, perhaps too passionately, one day he saw a deer with the christian cross on his horns. The deer asked not to be killed and advised prince to live modesty. So prince became a monk and the patron of hunters. And later of this city.

Wéris

Well known for its megaliths from pre-historic times. Most probably Celts. It is a nice little village with stone houses and some timber houses.

Durbuy

The last the cutest. 🙂 In medieval times, Durbuy was an important centre of commerce and industry. In 1331, the town was elevated to the rank of city by John I, Count of Luxemburg, and King of Bohemia. In 1628 by permission of Felipe IV of Spain it becomes the duchy. One of the people connected to the city was the son of Lancelot II: Count of Durbuy.

The Ourthe river flows through the municipality.

cathedrals 23

Cuba libre in 13 days

Cheese and chalks!

Every corner was wtf, every moment was mind blowing! I don’t know where to start as Cuba is one of these countries that left me speechless. In one same moment I happened to be disappointed and thrilled in the same time. So the best might be just start chronologically and tell you the tales that happened on our way.

We landed to Varadero and immediately went to Matanzas. We had our taxi already arranged by the hosting lady in Matanzas.

Matanzas

Matanzas is a small city next to the Varadero hotels resorts so kinda neglected by the tourists. I found it hypsterish and cute: there are streets falling apart typically for Cuba, the smelly river but lively river coast with bars, small restaurants and artistic shops that are more like garage shops but for Cuban standards these are the galleries.

River San Juan and the city of Matanzas, Cuba, West Indies, Caribbean, Central America

Our host was a nice Lady owning the casa particular where we stayed one night only. She was curious, helpful, offering hospitality and more. We slept in an improvised room with toilets barriers – not walls! Little privacy but we didn’t care. We knew what Cuba is and where we arrived. Except that in developed part of Europe you will not pay more than 15 EUR for this type of accommodation. Here we paid 25.

However, she had a lovely house and garden for the cuban standards thanks to this room renting. I concluded that Cuba is changing quickly from its socialism where richer are getting richer.

The next morning she prepared us breakfast and arranged us the shared taxi to Havana. Cubans don’t have internet – here and there you can go online at some hotspots but only for a while as many people use these hotspots which are 3G only. So no photos no videos – only quick whatsapp message to parents that we arrived safely.

We were sharing our taxi with some two Cubans. The driver was particularly nuts. He was totally against the political system, media manipulation and demanding the private ownership. Me, having the problem to enter the country and being additionally interrogated why I am entering to Cuba – well, I kinda decided to keep my usual political discussed mouth shut up. I was still observing and not sure when is appropriate to speak. I intend never to offend the hosts. And keep myself safe.

The highways is a two way fast road – no middle fence to divide and protect. Quickly I noticed that everybody goes on this highway: from 80 years old cars and trucks til’ carriageways, horses, local field workers and even unsaddled horse wandering arround.

After two hours we arrived to Havana. I got out of the car, stepped into the dog shit and crashed the screen of my phone. The warmest welcome l ever had.

Havana

We passed next to the stadium. Baseball is their national sport. One of the pure things left from the times the US was influencing the country through its mafia and banking system – which was a trigger for Cuban The Revolution in 1959.

The Stadium of La Havana

Havana is the capital city. Founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, becoming a stopping point for treasure-laden Spanish galleons returning to Spain. The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor in 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish–American War.

We climbed to the first floor of some old house in Havana Vieja. Our host was supposed to be the anesthesiologist. We rang the door bell. Wrong one. We rang the other one. Some Lady opened. Are you Belkis? -Si, porque?

– We have a reservation at your place. – Oh really, ok, what can l do? I have a room but is not ready.

Later we discovered that she pays other person to put her house renting on the internet but this time the person forgot to inform her.

The city attracts over a million tourists annually so the local people quickly discovered the value of foreign currency 25 times stronger than cuban peso (CUP) – trying to gain that one foreign peso (CUC) at every corner pumping the prices, cheating on services and even lying to attract you for some sightseeing. For example, we were about to go to The Museum of Revolution. The boy arrived quickly to us asking if we are going to the Museum and explaining that we shouldn’t go cause it is closed for the lunch time and that we should follow him to go to some bar with some cuban cigars sells offer cause today it is a very special day and all cigars are 50% off. We didn’t follow him, we went to the Museum which was open until 19:00.

Or another typical scam: a girl asked me for some chewing gum (children are not allowed to work nor beg as Cuba provides very good health and education care system which is totally for free). I didn’t have any so she said that today is her birthday and if I could buy her something in a nearest shop. I asked her if she knows the date. She knew. 🙂 So I decided to buy her some package of chewing gums still, I am a human after all.

Few seconds later, she entered to the store, returned the package of chewing gums and got her 1 CUC/ EUR instead.

Nevertheless, I do not recommend to stay no more that two full days in Havana. It stinks, it is Europe way expensive and has not that much to offer as the other locations and cities in Cuba.

We started our exploration with Havana Vieja – old Havana. Old facades that are falling apart, not much of the hygiene on the streets and the stinky canalization since Cubans don’t throw their used toilet paper in the flush but in the trash bin next to it. Lovely!

Let me show you the market:

Conquistador Diego Velázquez founded Havana in 16th century. Soon it attracted the pirates mostly from France like famous Pirate Wooden leg or in french Jambe de Bois.

Hence the french and mostly spanish influence in architecture.

Three centuries later and numerous luxury hotels, casinos and nightclubs were constructed during the 1930s to serve Havana’s burgeoning tourist industry, which greatly benefited by the U.S. prohibition on alcohol from 1920 to 1933. These was the time of art deco buildings in Cuba and its Belle Epoque. In the 1930s, organized crime characters were not unaware of Havana’s nightclub and casino life, and they made their inroads in the city. The US mayor of Havana wanted to create the casino city bigger than Las Vegas of its time! Casino, prostitution and money laundering was happening in the famous hotel buildings like the Hotel Habana Riviera, Hotel Nacional Casino etc. At the time, Havana became an exotic capital of appeal and numerous activities ranging from marinas, grand prix car racing, musical shows, and parks. It was also the favorite destination of sex tourists.

Cubans led by brothers Castro, CheGuevara and C. Cienfuegos decided to end this with the Cuban Revolution of 1959, so the new régime under Fidel Castro promised to improve social services, public housing, and official buildings. Nevertheless, Castro allowed USSR to put nuclear rockets on Cuba (the famous Cuban crisis in 1962) facing Florida, US which is only 40 miles away from Cuban shore. So US decided to make embargo. Cuban’s economy struggled suddenly since most of ts export was towards US. The other Caribbean countries are to poor to trade.

Leaning on USSR – it didn’t last long. USSR fell apart in 1990. Cuba becomes more and more poor, but as Castro says on the national TV: we are happy people, we dance, we don’t live for the money, we are small Nation but great Nation because we faced big USA.

Not like I am a big fan of US Government and its exploration of the Latin American continent for the entire 20th century but there is something wrong in Cubans when they look at tourists as people with dollar sign on their foreheads.

Our second stop was El Capitolio. The neoclassical building – the seat of the Republic of Cuba. Cubans say it is not the replica of Washington DC Capitol but they like to add that it is a meter higher, a meter wider, and a meter longer. 🙂 You do the conclusion here.

Across the street is the Opera house. We had amazing cocktails here with the view on the Capitolio.

Next thing we did was taking an old timer to drive us through the city. We read before on the internet that the ride should not take more than 20 tourist pesos aka CUCs (which is around 20 EUR). However, none of the drivers wanted to take us around for less that 40 CUCs.

Capitolio from the Havana Vieja street

So we got the stroll through Vedado – the district with houses of the rich and embassies. It was developed in the first half of the 20th century, during the Republic period.

In Vedado I saw brand new hotels. The driver explained that the night costs there up to 700 EUR. Later I was walking around these tall buildings again and people were approaching to me saying: Se acabo, se acabo con el socialismo. Meaning: it is finished with socialism. Pointing these huge massive 21 century hotel buildings.

We stopped at La Plaza de la Revolucion.

Plaza de la Revolucion

And then at some park with the statue of John Lennon. Apparently F. Castro did not allow to Cuban people to listen the music on english but Cubans still adored The Beatles. So F. Castro decided to built his statue.

The bar called Le Petit Paris for some cocktails and salsa dance. Never enough of Mojitos and Pina Colada. This is something Cubans really know how to do it – using their best rhum!

The rest of the day we wandered around the city, admiring, re-thinking, analysing, having fun and cocktails! 🙂 I had the best daiquiri in my life!

Of course, live music is in every bar. Salsa is everywhere. And so is the basket with the tips.

Food is bad though, but they will still ask for the tip, or propina in spanish, a EUR to go the toilet and a EUR for the music they just performed in the bar or a restaurant.

Most of the time, due to embargo, many items from the menu are missing. So the best is to go with the rice, lobster and some fish. During our stay, there was no beer for three days. People were literally driving around from the bar to the bar asking if they have some beer to sell. Talking about beer, they like to make it with some lime juice and ice. It is good, unusual but good at that heat 🙂

One of the bars had a nice examples of paintings in cubismo style. Picasso would be amazed, I am pretty sure.

The next day we were exploring the renovated part of Havana: Plaza de Armas, Cathedral, Plaza de Havana Vieja.

There is something about Cuban dogs always chilling at the middle of the road! XD

We strolled down the famous busy street or in spanish Calle Obispo and arrived to the Museum of The Revolution. The museum is housed in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista – the last US established president in Cuba.

Inside you can see items like the radio CheGuevara used to communcate or the socks of F. Castro. Poorly presented.

However, in the backyards are the vehicles that were taken from the dictator’s Batista regime like the food vendors truck and turned into army defence vehicle. Or the US plane that crashed into the sea near Havana which was long time searched by the US public together with the body of the pilot. US that time didn’t want to admit that they are involved into Cuban Revolution so they were not demanding the body to be returned for the next 40 years.

In front of the Museum is the monument to José Martí. He was a 19th century Cuban poet and philosopher, considered a Cuban national hero because of his role in the liberation of his country, and he was an important figure in Latin American literature. Very politically active, and considered an important revolutionary philosopher and political theorist. The political scientist in me is now coming to its peak 🙂  Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol of Cuba’s bid for independence from Spain in the 19th century, and is referred to as the Apostle of Cuban Independence.

Cooling down at El Malecon. The broad esplanade, roadway, and seawall that stretches for 8 km along the coast in Havana. Watching the new cruise ship entering the city – bringing more money desperately necessary. Or maybe not?

Cubans like to hang out at the street. I was particularly amazed how kids are still playing outdoors, playing football, hide and seek etc.

In the afternoon, exhausted by the heat we decided to visit the House of Ernest Hemingway. In the local bar they told me not to pay more than 15 – 20 CUCs for both ways. There was no driver wanting to take us for less than 40.

It is not allowed to enter to the House but only have a look from the doorstep. However, there were 5 ladies sitting around and looking at tourists. One of them approached to me saying: This is the living room and this is the toilet. – Thank you Captain Obvious!

Hemingway had many books – she said, pointing to the obvious again. I decided to stay away from her. – Look, there is the work of Picasso, the Bull.

Then she said that we should go to Havana like all the other tourists and visit the places there. And of course, she asked for the money explaining how Cuban people is very poor people.

The gardens around the house are very beautiful. I recommend to watch the Pappa Hemingway movie, shooted exactly in this place.

We came back to Havana center to the Floridita bar where he was having his daiquiri. 🙂

The evening was reserved for the Buena Vista Social Club show. On our way to the building, at least 3 women approached to us starting the random conversation and then suddenly saying how tonight is a special night and all the tickets are 50% off hence we should go to Buena Vista Social Club and that in fact it is very close, just here!

Viñales

Sharing the car again with some old couple from Finland and a girl from Denmark. Two hours on a cuban styled highway. Before we arrived to this city, the driver decided to stop at some local farm or how they say in Cuba – una finca of the tobacco production, manual of course.

A typical tourist trap where they sell uncertified cuban cigars but we didn’t care. We were enjoying what we were seeing and learning. Plus, I met my Austrian friend that I haven’t seen for years! Small world, isn’t it? 🙂

When we arrived to the Pinar del Rio valley, to the city of Vinales I have noticed that tourism there already changed lots of things. Houses were new, reconstructed, more equipped (I mean, better shower and the toilet that is not falling apart).

The city is famous for the valley and its nature, the tobacco fields around and the cliffs painted by the hand from the pre-historical times. We decided to do the horse riding through the tobacco fields and cliffs and degustating local version of rum made of the special plant Guayaba only growing here in Vinales. They said so.

The biggest rain shower ever fell down on us and moistened me and my horse Mandarina. El sol del Caribe.

Moving forward, from the North West of the island towards middle south on the other side of it.

We planned to go to Trinidad and after it to the city found by French. We couldn’t as we lost lots of time in the meantime. We shared a minibus which happened to be the long 1952 chevrolet where they fir 8 young people from all over the Europe and the driver. We had to drive first to Havana as there is no other road and then down to Trinidad.

Ode to the socialism on our way to Trinidad:

Trinidad

We arrived in the late afternoon to the city of Trinidad. It is the colonial old town with cobblestone streets. I loved it! So much different from weird and stinky Havana. And local people and more calm and less pushy.

Its neo-baroque main square, Plaza Mayor, is surrounded by grand colonial buildings. We entered to some restaurant with the terrace and enjoyed the great sunset.

The Trinidad cocktails is a must! With traditionally bad food. But who cares, Cuba Libre! 🙂

Sleeping dogs again…

That night we decided to do some proper rum tasting. We started with rum blanco, the Havana Club of 7 years and Rio Anejo of 15 years.

We knew that the next day we will spend at the beach. After 5 days of wandering around it was time to chill for a day.

The third day in Trinidad we went a bit out of the city. First we went out of the tourist center and faced the real Cuba again. Poor houses, stinky smell, canalisation on the road, dogs licking it flies all around.

The afternoon we spent in the Valle de los Ingenios. It is the valley that used to be full of sugar cane fields and slaves working on it. We visited the 2 haciendas where Dom Pedro lived with his wife and a daughter, having the sugar production thanks to the massive slaving he kept behind the house.

The house was yet to be reconstructed again. I asked the local guide where is the furniture. He didn’t have the answer. Perhaps it was eaten by the Revolution, I thought?

Later he claimed how the nowadays slavery is in the money and capitalism which Cubans are resisting to gloriously even though they were hungry of the oil and flour in the 90s after the collapse of the USSR. I told him I am coming from Croatia and survived the war in the 90s.

There was a Belfry in front of the House of Dom Pedro. It was used as a guarding tower, and belling the slaves to come back to their shelters as the day on the plantage finished. The higher the tower, the richer the family.

Next to this improvised bath thub of Dom Pedro, just in front of the dwellings of the female slaveries, more than 50 bottles of wine were found. You do the math here.

Archaeologist depicted all the brutality that was happening here. Slaves chopped and in chains, their feces used fr the fertilisation of the soil etc.

We were driven to another hacienda. This one has been turned into the restaurant, had lots of furniture, a very big belfry and loads of local people selling souvenirs while being pushy. Even the our cuban driver was upset saying it is not authentic anymore.

Finally, as driving through this rich land, he mentioned that in these fields and mountains many Contra revolutionaries that were against F. Castro were hiding and plotting their attacks on Castro’s regime.

He brought us to the last stop: the sugar cane factory. After the discovery of the steam engine and abolished slavery, the production of the sugar became industrial. This factory was productive until the fall of USSR.

We finished the day with local cocktails: canchanchara and trinidad. And the traditional dish called Ropa Vieja, meaning the old clothes. It is the chopped lamb with some rice.

Santiago de Cuba

The 12 hours bus ride for the tourists only (but drivers picks up locals as well) turned to be 15 hours. Why to start on time? Why not to board all 50 tourists in the bus and let them sit one hour before the ride?

During our ride we passed through the cities like:

  • Camaguey – founded in 16th century by some spanish colonist, famous for Ten Years War against Spain.
  • Holguin – the location where Christopher Columbus landed
  • Bayamo – where the cuban anthem was composed. Also, the city where Carlos Manuel de Céspedes – a cuban revolutionary hero, and a plantation owner – freed his slaves and made the declaration of Cuban independence in 1868 which started the Ten Years’ War which ultimately led to Cuban independence.

We arrived around 23:00. The taxi drivers were fighting for us at the bus station. I decided to trust to some young black guy with dreadlocks. It was a mistake. He packed us in the old russian Lada, I got stuck for some wire. I asked if 5 CUC is ok. He said 20 would be fine. So we payed 15 EUR for a 5 mins ride to our hotel. The car almost died at the hill before our hotel. The guy was explaining to me that the car is old, needs more gasoline and because it is night so the prices are hire. I was furious so I almost decided to stop the ride and continue walking. The 1litre of the gasoline costs a bit less than one EUR here in Santiago. Not to mention that he wanted to give me back money in CUP (currency for Cubans which is 25 less valuable) instead of CUC.

The hotel was amazing. A real spanish colonial architecture. No wonder, since Spaniards firstly arrived here, built the city and then moved the capital to Havana. So there is always a bit of the competition between these two cities.

We fell asleep as dead. The room had 30 years old chinese air conditioning but we dint care. We just needed a shower and the bed.

The next morning was the hottest. Santiago is in the pure south of the island and more close to the Carribbean temperatures and lifestyle. Even if it was winter there was 29 degrees. Locals had socks and long sleeves in the morning. Cause it is winter time!

We visited the Bacardi’s house. The guy who started the Bacardi rum production. A mason who liked to collect the artifacts from around the world so his house is kinda museum of the Cuban history containing the artifacts from the pre-colombian indigenous people Tanejo or the egyptian mummy that he brought after his travel to Egypt in 19th century. I mean, to be honest, there was no souvenirs that time, right? Totally understandable.

We continued exploring the old streets. There is not much toursits in the streets so the locals are pushy. Sometimes in a good will, sometimes just to tell you in which restaurant you should go cause they get provision.

Needless to say that I had very much difficulty to understand their spanish.

The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption was built in 16th century and is more beautiful than the Cathedral in Havana. I told you – competition!

The Balcony of the already mentioned Diego Velázquez – spanish discoverer and later mayor of the city was built in the 16th century, where from he was watching the maritime traffic to avoid surprise attacks of the pirates and corsairs. The building was finished many years later due to the constant interruptions for fighting against the indian uprisings that needed both money and men destinated to the ravelin.

Little bit more of the lifestyle of the Cubans in Santiago:

We discovered the school of F. Castro but we were not allowed to make photos. He went to Jesuit school. Just like Macron. 😛 Next to it was the building of the police station during the time of his rival Batista. Apparently next to it was the house where F. Castro lived but I could not locate it if it really was there since the locals were giving me mixed instructions. ??

The long white building is the Jezuit school of F. Castro, the yellow building is the former Batista police station where F. Castro was imprisoned twice

And strolling down the city to the sea.