Posted in Asia, China, English, Hong Kong

Hong Kong – Day 5

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

4 December 2013

Today we made a particularly good choice, visiting the Chi Lin Nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian Garden.

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It’s hard even to imagine such beauty, peace and tranquillity as in this garden, which is essentially an amazingly harmonious composition of water, rocks and trees, and also traditional Chinese pagodas, bridges and pavilions. As for the skyscrapers in the background, not only don’t they seem to disturb this harmony, but they actually emphasise it in a rather unique way.

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Overall, the garden is somewhat oval-shaped, and each turn of the track uncovers a new charming scene, e.g. giant banyan trees, or exquisite bridges over a pond with large colourful fish, or a waterfall with a water mill. And there you are, walking and admiring it all, accompanied by the low-pitch, vibrant, ’nasal’ sounds of guqin, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, which feels like the most appropriate accompaniment in this place.

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There are some lotus ponds right in front of the monastery. The petals move gently under the light breeze, and you feel like you could spend hours and hours just looking at them – at least, you somehow begin to understand Asians who find pleasure in the long contemplation of beauty. Neither taking pictures, nor even talking is allowed in the monastery, even in the public section (the other section, where the monks actually live, is closed to public altogether). There are sanctuaries on both sides, while in the centre there is a magnificent gilded statue of Buddha Sakyamuni. The monastery is also filled with music, not guqin sounds any longer though, but the chants of the monks. Even though we have nothing to do with Buddhism, still a sense of the sanctity of the place was definitely present.

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As we returned to the Nan Lian Garden, we decided to try the tea ceremony there. The tea house has a couple of requirements: first of all you have to remove your shoes, leave them outside and put on the slippers provided, and also to switch off your mobile phone and put your camera away, as taking photos and videos is prohibited. The order has to be at least one portion per person. And a portion in this case is not one cup but rather 6 grammes of dry tea, which can be brewed in a small teapot six times. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – before talking about brewing I have to mention that there is actually a high degree of self-service here – you fill the iron kettle yourself and put it on the stove to boil, then you call the waitress. She brings you teaware and dry tea leaves, explaining how to brew them. It is actually a whole science (or should I say art?) in itself: you first rinse and fill the teapot with boiling water (the teaware stands on a grid with a drain underneath it). Then you pour the same water into a jug and cups, which thus get rinsed as well. You carefully add the tea to the tiny teapot, fill it with boiling water up to the top, then immediately pour it away – this is how the tea leaves also get rinsed. Now comes the final part: you fill the teapot with boiling water once again, keep it there for just a few seconds, and then pour the tea into the jug (so that it doesn’t get any stronger), from which it can be poured into cups.

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It’s worth emphasising that these six grams is a lot for such a small teapot, way more than the portions we are used to. The tea that we had is called Da Hong Pao, which grows high in the mountains and is considered one of the most expensive teas in the world.

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Our lunch that day was quite unusual too – it was vegetarian, as it is always the case with monastery restaurants, with a very high content of various types of mushrooms.

In the evening we went to Lan Kwai Fong yet again. Even though it was only Wednesday and not Friday, the place was way more crowded and fun than during our last visit – which in fact is quite logical. The last time we were here was Sunday, when pretty obviously very few people are keen on drinking and hanging out late before a Monday. And on a weekday, of course, many people want to relax and chill out after a hard day at work – this is exactly why we saw such a considerable number of ‘white collars’ there.

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Posted in Asia, English, Singapore

Singapore – Day 5

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

28 November 2013

The day turned out very diverse in content which ranged quite impressively from the Universal Studios amusement park to a classical concert. But – one thing at a time.

Since the day before we had spent very limited time on Sentosa, we decided to repeat the visit right in the morning, and started again from the beach, and from the same one. We had kind of got used to it somehow, but the beach attendant must have been having a senior moment: he asked us literally all the same set of questions as yesterday: where we were from, whether we spoke Russian, what kind of country Azerbaijan was and whether it was close to Kazakhstan.

Siloso Beach

Sentosa

Even though the attendant caused a puzzled laughter with his repetition, the sunny weather which also replicated that of the previous day, was accepted with joy. The water was unpleasantly different though: tons of algae had been brought by the wind, and there was also something stinging in the water.

Sentosa

We hesitated a lot whether to visit the Universal Studios after all, or not. Having googled it thoroughly, we found out that it was basically nothing more than just an amusement park, and I personally am not a big fan of those. Nevertheless, we still decided to go and take a look – a very expensive look, I have to say.

Universal Studios

As a result, we, limited in time (due to the concert in the evening!) visited only three of the attractions. The first one was a complacent and almost childlike Sesame Street ride. The second one could have been the Transformers, but we noticed just in time that the ride included rotation and tipping upside down, which I absolutely can’t tolerate – and escaped.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

The one we found tempting was the attraction themed on the ‘Mummy’ and ancient Egypt. And that’s where our adventure began! First of all, it turned out that we were not allowed to take anything inside – so everything, including bags, had to be locked in a locker. We accidentally shut the first one, even before we had time to read how to set a passcode for it, and had to call the attendant and ask him to open the locker, promising to show our passports as soon as the bags containing them would be removed from there. We then put our belongings in another locker, properly following the guidance. There was a sign saying that the first 45 minutes were free of charge, and we recklessly trusted the digital clock showing 15 minutes waiting time in the queue – so we didn’t take any money with us, especially that we didn’t even have pockets to put it in. And there we went, right into this hallway, imitating an Egyptian temple, where we got stuck in an endless queue in a totally dark corridor, which took nearly an hour. The ride itself was very short. We expected something absolutely scary, but it was rather fun, despite the dizzying turns forward, backward, up and down, as well as the roars and spits of fire of the Egyptian priests. When we finally got to our locker, we couldn’t open it again – the free time had expired, and all our money was locked inside – so we had to call the attendant for help once more.

Universal Studios

And the third attraction was simply a little 4D cartoon about Shrek with shaking, water splashing and some hairy stuff, supposed to represent spiders, touching our legs.

Of course, we were ‘felled’ by the Egyptian attraction – if it hadn’t been for the hour-long standing, we could have caught another attraction. And all we had time for was having lunch at a Chinese bistro on Hollywood street right at the Universal Studios. At least we were precisely on schedule.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

And finally the long-awaited concert! It opened with Lyadov’s ‘Enchanted Lake’, but the word “enchanted” can be also applied to our overall impressions of the concert. It was truly an awesome event! Actually, it was a concert of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, considered the best in Asia, directed by Lan Shui. And Lang Lang – a phenomenal, brilliant pianist – was taking part in it, playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s difficult to find words to describe the amazing impressions that his performance left on us. I was literally taken away, even being aware that if a piece of music as difficult to grasp as this one, had been played by someone else, it could have just seemed to me a set of random sounds and nothing special. Lang Lang’s virtuosity, power and dexterity are striking, and you just can’t imagine how anyone possibly can perform this piece at all. We were seated so that his face could be seen, so we had the opportunity to observe the infinite palette of his emotions.

Taking pictures and videos was prohibited (that’s how the lockers theme was continued – we had to lock our cameras in one before the concert), but when Lang Lang gave an encore, I, like some others, contrived to take a few pictures with my phone. Talking about the encore – the public went so wild that, despite all his efforts to simply take a bow and leave, he had to stay and play an intermezzo by Manuel Ponce and a waltz by Chopin.

Lang Lang

At first I thought that Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which was to be played in the second part, was just an unnecessary appendage to the great genius Lang Lang. But in this case there was another genius – actually Tchaikovsky himself, with a very good performance of the orchestra and Lan Shui’s conducting.

Overall, I enjoyed the concert so much that even having to wait an hour for a taxi, which wasn’t extremely pleasant, didn’t spoil the great mood.

Posted in Amalfi Coast, English, Europe, Italy

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Amalfi Coast

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

The “cool” guy despising group tours seems to have jinxed us. At first everything went very normal: the bus punctually picked us up at 5.15am, while it was still dark, collected other participants of the Amalfi Coast tour from their hotels and delivered all of us to Ischia Porto, where we boarded a ferry. In Naples we were met by a tour guide with a Baltic accent, and got on another bus.

Ischia Porto

I must say that Naples hadn’t made much of an impression when we arrived from Rome, but, as we drove through it, Lena the tour guide spoke of it with great passion. She was telling us about its status of the capital of the kingdom, its magnificent palaces neighbouring with sunless narrow streets with colourful linens hanging on the balconies, just like in the movie La Ciociara.

We drove out of Naples, past Pompeii and Herculaneum. Here we were told that everything around was pretty much sitting on a powder keg – there are lots of extinct and dormant volcanoes, and also the active Vesuvius. It erupts every 60-70 years, and the last time was just 69 years ago. Thus, on the one hand, the next eruption is anticipated with fear, but on the other, it is awaited, because the longer the interval between two eruptions, the more destructive disaster it turns into – for example, the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD occurred after 300 years of inactivity. However, people continue to settle right at the foot of the volcano with careless perseverance: the climate is too favourable and the soil too fertile for these places to be left. Officially construction within a radius of a few kilometers from Mount Vesuvius is prohibited. But people here seem to live with the if-you-mustn’t-but-want-to-do-it-then-you-can-do-it principle – especially that the law does not permit to destroy the buildings, even at the stage of one wall built only, and only makes the owners pay a fine of 20-30k euros.

Heading to Sorrento

At this point already we noticed that the traffic was very slow on our side of the road, we were basically in a traffic jam. But Lena suggested that this was due to tomorrow’s holiday of Ferragosto and had to do with everyone flocking to the resort coast. The reality was much worse: and we had the chance to fully appreciate it, as well as the “evil eye” of the New Russian, when we entered a two-kilometre tunnel. Here the column of vehicles literally froze, although the opposite lane was absolutely empty. We spent exactly an hour and a half in this tunnel, and the whole way from Naples to Sorrento took us a good four hours, while it barely should have taken 90 minutes. The people in the bus got extremely frustrated, the most radical ones were demanding to turn around, get on the opposite lane, return to Naples and get the money back, but this was absolutely impossible, because there was no opportunity to turn around, and besides large buses are allowed to move in only one direction along this coast. The most impatient ones left the bus at the exit of the tunnel, as the situation outside was no better, and walked around to stretch their legs.

Our tour guide talked to the Carabinieri driving past us, and found out that a terrible fatal accident had happened somewhere ahead and a funeral car was already heading there. Why it took almost two hours for the Carabinieri to get close to the scene remained a big question to us. And anyway, even to us (not quite knowing the intricacies of the case, of course) it seemed pretty logical that the traffic in the tunnel should have somehow been regulated in order to avoid such a disheartening and unsafe congestion in it.

It seemed that the whole tour went awry. However, the situation was saved: Lena promptly got in touch with their “headquarters ” and agreed that we would be allowed to board a different ferry at a different, nearer port an hour later than initially planned, which therefore allowed us to save an hour, and then one more – by cancelling the set lunch planned originally and giving the tourists an opportunity to eat on the go during town walks. And finally, exhausted, but happy, we returned arrived in Sorrento. What can I say, it is indeed a very beautiful town. We were told that it had been visited by Gorky (again!), Feodor Chaliapin, Sylvester Shchedrin. Everything here is all about lemons and olives – lemons reach monstrous proportions (up to two kilograms) and have a distinctive flavour, the whole town smells of them! The mountains slopes are covered with olive trees, with rows stretched underneath them. We were told that the olives for the best first press oil must be collected directly from the tree and not from the ground, which is virtually impossible to do manually on steep slopes – and that’s where those nets come in handy!

Sorrento

Sorrento

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast are considered traditional wedding places for couples from all over the world. We saw an English wedding, with guests walking on the streets and taking photos.

The views here are just so breathtakingly beautiful, in the truest sense of the word! In general, a drive on the mountain serpentine feels, to put it mildly, quite exciting. The bus is driving on a narrow ledge along the cliff, at a height of up to 300 metres above sea level. The road, however, had not always been there – it was constructed by Mussolini. Prior to that, people used to walk on foot or ride donkeys on the mountain paths.

Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast

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Despite the fact that these places are declared heaven on earth (it’s even said that righteous Amalfians will return home after death), life is not that comfortable there. Of course, it probably is for Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida, who own luxury villas along the coast, as we were shown, with helipads and elevators that can take them right down to the beach. For ordinary mortals, though, every simple thing turns into a difficult issue – they have to walk a hell lot of steps (and I mean that – really a lot!) every time they want to go to the beach or to work. If you ask someone where they live, they will tell you the number of the step rather than the street name! And imagine them having to do something more serious, such as painting the house! That’s what they do in this case: a van brings a couple of donkeys to the closest possible place, where the specially trained animals get loaded with buckets of paint and rush up the stairs.

Rock Looking Like Virgin Mary with Flowers

Amalfi Coast

We didn’t get to visit the very beautiful town of Positano, although we did fully appreciate the view over it from the observation deck: pink, white and yellow houses, literally built into the rocks. Very picturesque, but it looked even more inaccessible and impractical.

Positano

Positano

Positano

Positano

Positano

Another town where we didn’t stop either – Praiano – is less well known than Positano. It is interesting that the traditional Christmas nativity scene includes the model of the town itself. This is the ending point of the Christmas procession on December 25, carrying a miniature figuring of Christ the child. We drove past this model and had the chance to take a look.

Amalfi, despite being so celebrated, looked to us like one more replica of the previously seen towns. It is famous for the majestic Cathedral of St. Andrew, where the relics of the aforementioned saint lie. Lena was persistently urging us to see them but honestly we weren’t too enthusiastic about this idea, even though the cathedral was really very beautiful from the outside.

Amalfi

Amalfi

Speaking of holy relics: it appears that in the Middle Ages they were extremely fashionable and prestigious to have in any city, so they were then subject to barter in the best case and theft in the worst. The relics of St. Andrew appeared in Amalfi as a result of the latter actually. Sometimes they would steal not only whole relics, but also parts of them. Robbed monks were ashamed to admit being so careless, therefore, they would replace the missing parts with fake ones (surprisingly, these fake relics still went on working wonders!), and as a result, a saint could end up having three or four arms or legs.

Thus, the walking tour around Amalfi did not satisfy us, but the boat trip along its coast was very pleasant, allowing us to see all these magnificent mountains, bays, hotels and villas from the sea. We sailed in the direction of Maiori, Minori and Ravello, where our bus arrived to pick us up. By the way, on top of all the transportation troubles we had had, the bus somehow managed to hit a parked car when manoeuvring to enter yet another busy tunnel, so while we were happily enjoying our sea trip, the driver had to deal with the frustrated owner of that car.

Minori

Ravello is a small town located even higher up the cliff. We didn’t go up there, and only saw it from aside, while listening to our guide’s comments about Wagner festivals that are held there and are so popular that tickets must be booked almost a year in advance.

The town of Ravello is also a proud owner of relics – this time those of Saint Panteleimont, and every year on the day of his execution the Saint, as if to demonstrate his full consent to be in this place, arranges a miracle – liquefaction of his blood. A similar miracle, but with even more rapid boiling of the blood, is arranged by Saint Januarius, the patron of Naples. It is very important for Neapolitans, as a pattern has been traced: if the blood liquefies duly, the Vesuvius does not erupt during this year and any other ills also bypass Naples. Therefore, on this day – namely September 19 – all Neapolitans are very nervous and can’t wait for the coveted event. To guarantee it happening for sure, the oldest old ladies are sat in the first row in the cathedral (who are jokingly referred to as the “relatives of Saint Januarius” for their age), and start praying to the saint. Then, if the miracle is delayed, they switch to exhortations – gently at first, then more and more angrily until they literally end up swearing. Instead of taking offense, the Saint, either stimulated by, or scared of such attitude finally performs the long-awaited miracle!

The last town of the Amalfi coast was Vetri Sul Mare, and rounding the hill, we saw the city of Salerno in the distance and hurried back to Naples, to get to the port. On the way back, Lena told us that the Neapolitans were very superstitious , believed in destiny and tried to find signs in any event for the game of bingo . In every house there is a booklet that translates any unusual event into the language of numbers. Lena said half-jokingly, half-seriously, that upon returning home she would check that little book and find out which numbers corresponded to a traffic congestion, a corpse on the road and other events that happened to us today, and then place bets on these numbers.

Vietri Sul Mare

Posted in Europe, Italy, Rome

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – day 3

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

We still had a half more day in Rome. Our company had to split as part of it vigorously decided to go shopping. The other part, including me as well, didn’t mind shopping either, but somehow felt the urgent need to verify our own honesty by putting our hands into the Mouth of Truth. Here we were particularly lucky: a whole cavalcade of Japanese tourists arrived in several buses exactly AFTER us and formed a hopelessly long queue, while we reached the Bocca della Verità pretty quickly. It was only allowed to take one picture per person. Having confirmed that our hands remained intact, we left this place without visiting the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin – we weren’t really up for it. We tried to find a taxi to catch up with our shopping companions, but there was none anywhere in sight, so we willy-nilly had to go back to the tour bus stop and spend ages (at least, 25 minutes or so!) waiting for the bus under the scorching sun.

The Mouth of Truth

Between this stop and the one leading to Via Corso with lots of shops, there was a trap awaiting us: the Vatican with its non-visited Sistine Chapel. We looked at each other: “Shall we get off here?” – “Yeah, let’s get off. As for the shopping, the hell with it!”

At the Vatican we were delighted by the virtual absence of a queue. Little did we know then, and only later we could appreciate the full extent of our mistake – this time people were entering the Basilica the proper way: through the Museum and the Sistine Chapel, which is completely the opposite side.

And then we met either a fairy godmother or a snake temptress who was persistently inviting us to join a private tour to the Museum, which would allow us to skip the queue, as there was no way to get into the Chapel other than via the Museum. But the tour was to take at least two hours of pure time (i.e. without all the preparation) and by the time it ended we were already supposed to be on our way to the airport. So we basically decided to waste our money: pay the full price, and then skip not only the queue, but also the Museum itself with this 1000+ chambers.

Our Italian-American guide apparently took after his Italian father in being extremely talkative – he eagerly explained us every single step we would have to make, starting from the purchase of the tickets. For us, however, his every word felt like a sharp knife, as it was stealing our precious time. Somewhere in the middle of his speech he was joined by a compassionate Italian lady, who tediously explained us that there was absolutely no way their company could charge us half price for the tour, even though we were going to skip the Museum. Although we hadn’t even asked for anything like this, we had to nod understandingly.

Eventually, we have our tickets in hand, our guide bids us farewell and starts his tour for the others – and off we rush through the museum chambers, full of sculptures, tapestries, maps, mosaics, etc. We only manage to catch a glimpse of this and that on the run, lingering for literally a second in front of anything particularly eye-catching. Very beautiful indeed, but terribly stuffy and packed with people – by and large we would hardly be able to survive a two-hour tour anyway!

The Vatican Museum

 

The Vatican Museum

And the Chapel is still quite far, we accelerate and accelerate…  Finally, swathed in shawls once again (it’s also a holy place!) we enter the Chapel. Michelangelo’s paintings on the walls and ceiling are utterly amazing, it is a pity, though, that we can’t appreciate all the details – the unpleasant surprise is that it is so crowded that there isn’t even room to sneeze, therefore no chance to walk around and look. By the way, taking photos in the Chapel is not allowed, but I managed to sneakily take one or two – it is quite blurry, but at least you get the idea.

Sistine Chapel

Still, we anyway felt great satisfaction by the Chapel itself and the fact that we had chosen contemplation thereof over meaningless shopping.

We were lucky to find a taxi right next to St. Peter’s square, and as a result we reached our hotel even before our companions.

Then we headed to the airport where our flight was delayed by about an hour. The transfer in Naples worked perfectly: a minivan took us to the port, where the driver got us tickets for the boat, and on our arrival to Ischia we were picked up by another minivan with a frail elderly driver, who nevertheless famously placed our luggage on the car rooftop.

We had been perceiving Ischia as some kind of a small town – it turned out to be a large island. The minivan drove us for about an hour in the dark until it dropped us at the start of the pedestrian zone of Sant’Angelo, where it took us ten more minutes to drag our suitcases to the hotel.

 

Posted in Europe, Italy, Rome

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

The next morning, on Sunday, we confidently walked down the beaten path to the tour bus which drove us off to the Vatican. The queue, twisting, was encircling the entire St. Peters’ Square and looked so long that our very first idea was to turn back and leave. Then we looked closer: it turned out to be moving very fast, so we joined it.

The Vatican

And then it was as if an angel made us ask two Russian girls standing behind us to take our picture, which they did. But what was the most valuable part of this contact is that they told us that we would not be allowed in the holy place with bare shoulders and knees. It was then that we realised why the Square and the whole nearby area was swarming with vendors selling ugly cheap shawls, and we bought a couple.

The forty-minute queue resulted in us finally getting into the St. Peter’s Basilica. This is not the place, talking about which one would want to ironise. It is beautiful with its majestic dome, magnificent paintings and the sound of organ (it was exactly the time of the Sunday Mass). We were walking around, staring and admiring, but our eyes, nevertheless, were looking for the entrance to the Sistine Chapel – was it here at all? Finally we asked someone and it turned out that it was closed on Sunday (right, one should have thought about that!)

Instead of the Chapel we were led to a grotto, where many popes are buried. I would say this was the least interesting part of our visit to the Vatican. On the way out, as an act of kindness, we gave the shawls to some other unfortunate barelegged and bareshouldered girls, who faced an unpleasant surprise after waiting in the queue: the guards were inexorable and wouldn’t let them in.

The bus took us further, following the same route at yesterday, but didn’t bring us anywhere close to the Trevi Fountain, which we were planning to visit – again because it was Sunday – but left us in what seemed a bit of a remote area not far from Villa Borghese. It looked like the only solution was to take the taxi loitering nearby. But the driver turned out to be a decent chap (or maybe simply too lazy to move), so he told us that it would literally take us a couple of minutes walking down the street to reach the fountain. Well, let’s say, he exaggerated a little, but in any case the steep narrow road took us where we were intending to get. We diligently pushed our way to the fountain, threw some coins and made wishes.

Fontana di Trevi

Fontana di Trevi

Rome

Rome

Rome

Rome

Rome

On our way back I started feeling unwell because of the heat, so had to go back to the hotel, where I just lay on my bed, like a beached seal, for a good two hours, although duty was calling me to continue sightseeing. The next item in line was the Mouth of Truth, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck’s characters put their hands in the unforgettable “Roman Holiday”. Unfortunately, when I got better and checked  the Internet, I realised that it had relatively short working hours and was closing at that very moment! In that case we decided to follow the example of the “Dolce Vita” characters and head to Via Veneto. The guide in our bus had promised we would spot celebrities and paparazzi hunting for them, we saw neither though.

Colosseum by Night

Posted in Europe, Italy, Rome

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

The Italian embassy can essentially be considered the territory of Italy. Therefore, our Italian adventures started from there. First impressions: disorder and outdatedness, colloquially speaking, looks like a Mickey Mouse organisation (later, our stay in the “Big Italy” only confirmed this impression). Simplest things like online appointments, electronic filling of application forms etc. seem to be unheard of here. Their own regulation, posted on the wall of the embassy, saying ​​that documents must be submitted no later than five working days prior to departure, is totally misinterpreted by the embassy workers, who would not accept the documents any earlier than five days before departure (as one might imagine, this allows virtually no time for any changes or corrections). Those who come to apply for visas know none of this, of course – they arrive decorously, queue and wait… The consul, with the face of a gendarme, appears at 9.30 am and begins to check the documents himself. All those who have naively came in advance are mercilessly sent off, receiving a mark in red ink on their application, with the date they should come and the consul’s signature. Others are kindly accepted, but are picked at for every little thing (like a photo being stapled and not glued, or lack of the zillionth stamp, etc.)

Everyone’s faces carry this I-don’t-feel-like-working-but-definitely-feel-like-acting-all-bossy expression. Quite a lot of the “mainland” Italians look and act exactly the same.

As it had been forecast, Rome greeted us with a 40°C heat, thankfully, a dry and therefore, bearable one. The hotel receptionist was a Russian-speaking lady from Moldova, and she worked well and efficiently. We basically had two days to spend in Rome (one full and two halves), so the most reasonable thing to start with was a city sightseeing tour, and we rushed off to find one. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the Colosseum was just around the corner – right until we remembered that we had booked the hotel with this thought in mind, so it was actually no surprise at all. As we approached the Colosseum, we were literally attacked by sellers of all kinds of stuff like hats, umbrellas, water, as well as “gladiators” and other “ancient Romans,” offering themselves for photos (for money, of course). Unfortunately, all of this merchandising fraternity could express themselves only in Italian and had absolutely no clue where the bus stop was (as we’d been told in our hotel, it was somewhere near the Colosseum). Everyone knows that the Colosseum is a round and a rather large building. We diligently walked all around that whopper – there were no signs in sight and people passing by continued to know nothing about this. Finally, we managed to find the stop ourselves, caught the bus, perched on its upper deck and indulged in the journey through the Eternal City.

Posing "gladiator"

Colosseum

It’s all very beautiful – the sculptures, the ruins, the palaces. Everything is covered with the spirit of antiquity, you feel yourself in a huge museum under the sky. But somehow it didn’t touch the delicate strings of my heart, like, for example, London or Hong Kong.

 

Via Leonina

 

Roman ruins

 

St. Peter's Basilica

 

River Tiber

 

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As our tour tickets were valid for 48 hours, we decided to do a full circle without hopping off, and completed the tour with a Colosseum visit. It certainly is a fascinating feeling when you think of these stones being about 2000 years old. There were world wars, and they were standing there; there was Napoleon, and they were standing there; there was the Holy Inquisition, and they were standing there; there was the fall of the Roman Empire, and they were standing there… We climbed to the top and saw part of the arena and the maze beneath it, imagining a defeated gladiator and a crowd of spectators, roaring “Finish him! Finish him!”

Colosseum

 

Colosseum

Posted in Croatia, Europe, Korčula

Croatia – Day 8

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31 August 2012 – Friday

After the two tours we had had with the “Elite Travel” company, where we were picked up next to the “President” hotel, our impressions about this company and their work were quite good. And looks like we put an “evil eye” on them: our today’s trip to the Korčula island started with a hitch: the bus didn’t arrive. It turned out that the day before we had been forgotten to be included in the list. As a result, we were picked up by a separate minibus and delivered to the port of Gruž, where we eventually found our group and the guide. The guide (also named Ivana) initially seemed to us a bit rude (instead of apologising immediately, she attacked us – saying something like, come on, what’s your problem, you’ve been finally brought here after all!), and most importantly, uninteresting – she was literally falling asleep while making comments in English and German. She seemed more willing to speak German, by the way – generally I noticed a clear preference shown to German tourists here.

Another problem – among the group there was a family with a two-year-old toddler, for whom this long road, quite obviously, was way too long: in the good moments he was spinning like mad, while in the bad ones he was crying and throwing up. So, his presence added neither peace, nor fresh air to other passengers.

We climbed high into the mountains, again very close to the burning Bosnia. In the town of Slano we picked the last passengers. The location is called Slano (“salty”), because, starting almost from the first settlements, when salt used to be worth its weight in gold, it was mined here. Because of this salt, the Ottoman Empire’s caravan ways passed through these places.

This time the road was totally crazy. In some parts of it even looking down was scary, and at the same time it was hard to tear oneself away from the window – the view was unbelievably beautiful!

Virtually the entire foreseeable space around us was covered with vineyards. The plan was to visit one of them for wine tasting on our way back. Our guide told us that mainly red wine is produced here, and Postup is considered to be the best of all. Looking ahead, I can mention that Korčula is famous for its white wine, Pošip.

We were transported to Korčula on a small shuttle boat from Orebič (a very nice town, by the way), and got to observe how cars and even buses were transported on a large ferry.

In the town of Korčula we were to visit the Old Town, and the whole group was divided into English speakers and German speakers. The English speakers stayed with our gloomy, moody and sleepy guide, – and that was when she suddenly revived, and showed great artistry and a sense of humour.

First thing, she told us about the local “wind rose”. There is the north wind “bura”, which blows in winter and brings clear and sunny weather, although lowering the temperature to zero. There is a south wind called “jugo” or “siroc”, the locals’ least favourite: it blows from the Sahara in summer and brings dust, and, oddly enough, rain. The city walls are located so that this wind could penetrate the city as little as possible. Finally, the wind most preferred by the population is the western “mistral”, bringing cool air in summer. The city is open for this wind from the sea, and, as Ivana joked, this was the first air-conditioning system in the world.

On the city gates the name of the first Croatian King Tomislav is engraved, and above it there is the Venetian winged lion, as the city used to belong to the Venetian Republic for a long time. These lions usually have their attributes, or symbols, showing how easy or difficult it was to get into the town. If the lion has a closed book before it, it was hard, and if the book is open, it means that the Venetians were accepted almost with open arms.

We came to Korčula thinking of ​​Marco Polo, because we had heard that he was from here. However, it turned out that Venice claims to be his hometown as well, and also, his home as such does not exist – the assumed house is a ruin. As our guide indignantly mentioned, in communist times nobody really cared about history, and in the times of crisis the intention even was to sell it. Luckily, the town borrowed some money and bought the house out (currently the price of these ruins is half a million euros!), but that money wasn’t enough to restore the building and make a museum out of it, as planned. For the time being some enterprising and patriotic Korčulan opened a souvenir shop named after Marco Polo, and behind it, the Museum of Marco Polo, in a totally different place.

By the way, three things are cited as proof that Marco Polo was born here indeed: first, there is a De Polo family still living here to this day, while in Venice there are no families with such name. Secondly, there exists a register of baptisms of the 14th century, which mentions Marco de Polo. Of course, the great traveller lived in the 13th century, but because it was quite common to give children the names of their ancestors, this could well be some great-grandson of his. Well, and thirdly, the book written by Marco Polo’s cellmate brings his own words, saying that he saw the tower of his hometown Corcyra Melaina and sailed towards it. It is proved that this is how Korčula was called in the ancient times, and no other city, including Venice, has claims on this name. As there is only one tower in the town, the house of Marco Polo could be identified.

One of our stops was in the atrium. Ivana showed us, where the mayor and his secretary would seat and how they would collect the citizens’ complaints, literally portraying and mimicking each of them.

In front of the atrium was the doctor’s house. Doctors used to be lured from Venice, the bait being this very house. The doctor could live there with his family as long as he remained in the service of the city of Korčula.

We made good use of our free time – at least, I got a chance to take a quick dip in the sea, right in the city, among boats – even there it was very clean. I deliberately found a deep place, as it was impossible to get into the water in the shallow part because of the large slippery rocks.

On the way back we were taken to a huge winery belonging to the Matuško family. This family produces 500,000 litres of product annually, 90% of which is red wine, and the remaining 10% is comprised of white wine, dessert wine, schnapps and olive oil. They have huge cellars, completely cluttered with enormous barrels.

The first wine we tried was Plavac Mali. The name generally belongs to a grape variety, grown in the continental climate, in places where there is enough water, but not so much sun. 4—5 kg of grapes can be collected from one plant. The wine turns dry and light (only 12.2%), and is only drunk young.

The next wine was Dingač, made from the same grapes variety, but grown in Mediterranean climate: a little water and a lot of sun, and the sunlight comes from three sources: direct, reflected from the sea and reflected from stones. As a result, no more than one kilogramme of grapes is collected from each plant; the wine turns more robust, almost black (14.5%), and is preserved for several years.

The next drink to try was the sweet dessert wine called Prošek. It can be maintained for many years: according to tradition, when a child is born in a family, a barrel of Prošek is made, and it can only be opened at this child’s wedding. Personally, I found it it too sweet. And finally there was a 40% grappa and a 25% cherry brandy, made from this very grappa.

We then had a short stop in the town of Ston. There, too, there is the old town and a fortress, but we didn’t get to see them.