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

 

IMG_6294

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

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

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.

Posted in Croatia, Dubrovnik, Europe, Kotor, Montenegro

Croatia – Day 7

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

30 August 2012 – Thursday

Today, by contrast, was a very active day: we took the long-awaited trip to Montenegro. The mountain forest road, which took us quite long to drive through until the border, was indeed beautiful, but the day was extremely hazy. At first we thought it was fog, but then it turned out that it was the smoke from forest fires in Bosnia. We were told that the situation was really critical there, so a few sections of Croatian firefighters were sent for help.

In general, our guide Petra told us a lot of things, mostly about Croatia, though. For example, we learned that the Lokrum island (very close to Dubrovnik), famous for its parks and entertainment,  had been cursed. A very soon death is believed to await anyone who stays there overnight. The superstitious Dubrovnikers still believe in this, so every day the last, eight o’clock boat to the city is fully packed with people hurrying to leave the island.

We also learned that  Dubrovnikers do not like to rent housing, but tend to buy it instead – so they feel safer. In this case, they have to take mortgage loans for 30-40 years because of very high cost of real estate.

Driving further up in the mountains, we saw three islands from up high: Mrkan (St. Martin), Bobara (St. Barbara) and Supetar (St. Peter’s). In the 14th century, first quarantines in history were located on them, and all those traveling to Dubrovnik (then Ragusa) were required to spend 40 days there, hence the name (from the Italian word “quaranta” – “forty”). Owing to this, plague spread very little in Dubrovnik.

Driving past Konovle, we heard about the fertility of these lands. Here exists a kind of black market for vegetables here: there are women working on the fields, referred to as “our ladies”, who can be called any time and asked to deliver fresh vegetables, which they will do the same day (or, the latest, the next morning), bypassing shops and markets.

We got slightly anxious, approaching the Montenegrin border, and took out our passports and insurance documents in advance. But everything went smoothly and no one got into the bus to check anything – Petra sorted everything out by herself.

Generally, the difference between Croatia and Montenegro can be noticed immediately: Montenegro seems poorer, the houses are more dilapidated, there are lots of signs in Cyrillic script (they use both Latin and Cyrillic scripts here) and in Russian too.

The official currency is euro, even though Montenegro is not part of the EU and not going to be one in the foreseeable future. There is an explanation. This area is located at the junction of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, which results in frequent earthquakes. After one of such earthquakes in the second half of the XX century, Montenegro had to borrow money from Germany for rehabilitation and reconstruction. When in the 80’s Yugoslavia suffered an economic crisis and, therefore, a high inflation, Montenegro, in order to pay off the debt in German marks, asked for permission to make them their local currency. After Germany switched to euro, so did Montenegro. However, the government does not have the right to print money, it still gets it from Germany.

In general, we were told that the highlanders and the seaside residents were like two different nations. The highlanders used to lead an austere life, and very often, especially during the Second World War, when a family was left without men, some women had to take on the role of head of the family. These women, called “virdžina” (i.e. “virgin”), dressed like men, carried weapons, talked about themselves in the masculine, were always in the company of men, and only performed men’s duties around the house. Nowadays this tradition has practically disappeared. As for the seaside residents, they, in particular Kotorians, used to be were very educated (education was received by both young men and women, even from common families) and looked down upon the highlanders.

When the Boka Kotorska (Kotor Bay) eventually  appeared in sight, we were really disappointed: in the haze it looked like a decal, devoid of any colors, moreover, the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see almost anything. We were taken to a place which was supposed to have a magnificent view and where we could take photos of the Kotor Bay. But there wasn’t much to take pictures of.

And so, sad and disappointed, we drove to a place called Risan, famous for its Roman mosaics. There are the remains of an ancient Roman villa, which has fragments of these mosaics on the floor.

Near the town of Perast we boarded a boat and headed to a small man-made island called Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks) with a church of the same name. The origin of the island is rather interesting. For some reason, the Catholics in this area did not have their own church. But once, as legend says, a fisherman found an icon on a rock right in the middle of the Bay. This was considered to be a sign from God, so since then fishermen would throw more and more rocks one on another, after returning from each successful journey and also sank their old ships, loaded with stones.  That is how the island was built.  The tradition to throw rocks still exists – every year, on the day when the icon was found, local people throw more rocks. The church looks very nice inside, with many beautiful canvas by a famous local painter Tripo Kokolja. The altar is made of several kinds of marble, the most rare and expensive of which was exchanged for silver on a  kilogram per kilogram basis.

As we were driving down towards Kotor, Petra told us of some humorous stereotypes which people of the former Yugoslavia have about each other. Thus, the stereotypes are that the Croats are very good singers, but also are too arrogant, the Bosniacs have great sense of humour, but are not particularly bright (sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone – these are not my words, but those of a Croat lady after all!), and the Montenegrins are very lazy. There is even a joke about a competition on who can lie on the road for the longest time. After 24 hours, the competition had to be stopped because the three participating Montenegrins were still lying there with no intention of getting up in the near future. We were shown a card with ten funny Montenegrin Commandments:

In Kotor we were passed to a Russian guide (a lady named Katya, from St. Petersburg, living here for seven years). Very quickly, she walked us around the Old City, as we only had two hours of free time, including a guided tour and lunch. The Kotor city walls are located high in the mountains, and we didn’t get to climb up there. The Old City has plenty of churches and monasteries, the first music school in the Balkans, the first theatre (now it has been sold to become a hotel, so there is no theatre in Kotor anymore). There are both Catholic and Orthodox churches here, but the Catholic ones are more in number – as there are more Catholics here, although generally the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox. In tough times, many churches had a Catholic and an Orthodox altar at the same time, i.e. were open for both confessions.

Along with other memorable places, our attention was brought to the Pima Palace on the Flour Square. Head of the Pima family used to be one of the largest grain traders here.

Interestingly, in contrast to Dubrovnik, the buildings here are necessarily located at an angle to each other – it was believed that locating them in a row would bring bad luck.

The Kotorians are most proud of the fact that they never were under the Ottoman Empire, even though in their history they used to be subordinate to Venice, were occupied by a Napoleon’s general and by Italian fascists (for two months). On this occasion, we heard a story how Jesus Christ appeared to a girl named Katarina from a mountain village and told her that in two hundred years, the Turks would attack Kotor. The girl didn’t hesitate to come down from the mountains with her mother to warn the Kotorians about the danger. The latter immediately started building a wall to protect their land, succeeded in this and, when the the Turks did attack, they managed to parry the enemy’s strike. Katarina herself had become a nun. In appreciation, her relics were later transferred to the Church of St. Clara, right here, so that the saint would continue to defend the citizens.

By the way, her descent from the mountains was no big deal – we were informed that some inhabitants of the mountain village Njeguši do it every day when delivering products to Kotor.

Driving out of Kotor, we saw a beautiful town on the other side of the bay (the fog had already cleared a little) – either Muo or Prčanj, where we weren’t taken. There was no time left for bathing either, although there were beaches here and there.

On the way back we were told that during the previous tour a few days before, the car queue on the border was seven kilometres! The most thorough shakedowns are usually undergone by those with Albanian and Kosovar passports – this road is actually a drug “Silk Road”. Recently the guards caught a couple in a car with German plates, transporting drugs for the sum of 10 million euros. But this time we were lucky, there was only one bus ahead of us, from Ukraine, which took quite a long time to check though.

Posted in Croatia, Dubrovnik, Europe

Croatia – Day 3

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

26 August 2012 – Sunday

Today we went to the city centre again – not just randomly, like the day before, but on an Old City walking tour. Yesterday, while watching tourists walking on the city walls under the burning sun, I personally felt their pain, already sadly imagining myself in their ranks. The reality was far more enjoyable: we met our guide Ivana – a very nice girl with a bandaged leg – and within a group of 8 people we walked around the Old City in a “derated mode”, trying to avoid direct sunlight and even sitting down every now and then. The tour lasted two hours, during which we learned a lot of interesting things about Dubrovnik.

So, Dubrovnik once used to be an independent republic, known as Ragusa in Latin. The republic was democratic (albeit conditionally, as the right to vote belonged only to male noblemen). The city had a rector, who was elected for a 30-day period during which he had no right to leave the palace, where he lived alone, without family. Apparently, this was done to ensure that he did not have any outside influences and cared only about the government’s interest.

The Republic had very strict rules and laws, concerning even the construction of buildings. Thus, the buildings had to look pretty much the same – no one was allowed to show off their wealth, at least outwardly. The windows of neighbouring houses were not to be facing each other, as everyone had the right for privacy. Nobody could build their house even a foot or two ahead of others; the punishment for violation of the law was indeed very strict: the house would be demolished, and its owner would face a penalty charge AND go to jail.

Foreigners were allowed to stay in the city only during the day – at night they were expelled, and the city gates were locked. The only exception was made for the Jewish quarter, due to the extreme utility of its inhabitants to the city. But this quarter too was locked at night on both sides, so formally it was kind of outside of the city. When Dubrovnikers were blamed for the fact that they were cherishing the infidels, the very diplomatic city authorities replied that the Republic often had to deal with other infidels – the Ottoman Empire – so it was better to have these infidels communicate between each other. By the way, this quarter has the second oldest synagogue in Europe, the first one being in Prague.

In general, it must be said that the mercantile Dubrovnik had always managed to juggle between its main enemies: the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire. Its motto was “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” (meaning something like “Liberty can’t be sold for all the gold in the world”), yet the authorities spared no expense for buying this liberty – that is, they paid off their enemies.

On one of the side streets we saw the Church of St. Roch – the patron saint of plague patients. There is an interesting story associated with it: once children used to play some football-like game just outside of the church and kept pounding the ball against its walls. At some point the priest had enough of it, so he scribbled a curse on the wall saying “May peace be with you. Remember of death, those playing the ball”. The children scribbled a response – something like “We want to play – and so we will!”

On one of the staircases Ivana asked us if we could figure out why the balustrade was solid up to a certain height. Our version was that it was done in care of children, so that they didn’t fall out. The reality was nothing like that. Noble ladies, climbing the stairs on their way to the nearby Dominican church, of course, had to lift their skirts, revealing their ankles. The architecture of the staircase did not allow loitering young men to stare at them from below.

The old town is associated with many contrarieties, for example, in 1806 Napoleon deceived the authorities of Dubrovnik, asking to give him permission to just pass through the city to hit Montenegrins – the Russian allies. The authorities trustfully opened the gates for the French emperor and… the city was seized. Napoleon even built a fort atop of Mount Srđ. However, these fortifications built by an invader, saved Dubrovnik during the war for independence in 1991. By the way, during this war, Dubrovnik was besieged for real: from the sea it was blocked by the Montenegrin Navy, and from the land it was bombed by Serbs, who also cut off all communications. People, believing that the Old City was a safe place (as bombing historical objects is prohibited by international military law) rushed under the protection of its walls. However, as Ivana told us with indignation, it was bombed in the first place.

But finally there was peace, and as previously, Dubrovnik is respected among Croatian cities. If someone says, “I’m from The City”, this means that they are from Dubrovnik. The rest find this pretty annoying, but nevertheless they have also become used to calling Dubrovnik “The City”.

At the end of the tour Ivana told us a touching story about the local “Romeo and Juliet” – Silvana from the Roman settlement and Dubravko from the Slavic one. As it always happens with lovers from warring clans, they perished. Interestingly, the names of both, each in their own language, are related to the word “forest”, and the name of Dubrovnik itself is derived from the word “dub”, meaning  “oak”.

Left on our own, we walked along the main shopping street, but didn’t find anything decent in terms of good value for money. Tourist shops, no more than that. We wanted to have lunch in the Old City, but somehow ended up in the same terrace restaurant on the Pile Square, as yesterday.

After lunch we went back to the hotel, and as intended, swam in the sea, right until a tangible wind got up, bringing some rubbish to our pristine shores. From the evening impressions it’s worth mentioning an awfully brazen cat in the restaurant: it was not actually begging for food, but rather demanding it discontentedly, wagging its tail menacingly and sharpening its claws on our chairs no less threateningly. Fortunately, one of us didn’t like his Caesar salad, so virtually all of the chicken went to the impertinent animal.

The evening ended with a pleasant walk along the sea, so on the whole the day hasn’t been lived in vain.

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 5

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25 March, 2010

This day didn’t go without stupidities as well, and I must say, I’m incredibly exhausted! We started the day with a visit to the Hôtel des Invalides, intending to see Napoleon’s tomb. The turnstiles in the metro weren’t working: «Ça marche pas!» – happily exclaimed a guy walking by. So we took a free ride and got to Les Invalides.

We bought our tickets, and first popped in the Army Museum, located in the same place. It’s really surprising to see how patriotic the French are and how much they respect and love their history. Unlike back home, where with each new form of government the old one is anathematised, everything is renamed, all monuments are demolished. Here they appreciate everything, starting from the Gauls, all the Louis’, the Emperor Napoleon, all their republics… And also it looks like they are a very warlike nation – no surprise they are represented by Gallic roosters. Everything seems steeped with wars; the whole city is full of historic sites dedicated to various victories and battles.

What I liked the most in the museum were the figures of French soldiers of different eras, especially the ancient ones: Gauls, Normans, Carolingians, Merovingians …

We didn’t want to spend too much time in the museum – after all, we are not extremely excited about arms. So off we went, right to the Dome church, where the Napoleon’s tomb was. It was cold there (just like it should be in a crypt), and right in the centre was the magnificent tomb of Napoleon. In principle, the reverent attitude of Parisians to Napoleon is quite understandable – he constructed a lot of streets, built houses, including the Hôtel des Invalides for disabled veterans.

It felt relatively warm outside, after the cold church, but it was raining. It was the first time it rained here since our arrival. As I was intending to have frog legs for lunch, we went to the Latin Quarter and found the same restaurant (Auberge de Saint-Sévérin) on the Rue Saint-Sévérin.

By the way, we took the RER, and not the metro, to get there. It was more convenient, as we would have to make two changes on the metro. But we entered the metro station first and then changed to the RER station. And we had to spend an extra ticket there, so as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch (i.e., the non-functional turnstile in the morning).

Coming back to the frog legs, I quite liked them – they tasted somewhat like poultry, although a little bit dry and insipid. I also liked fish with sauce – after all, who, if not the French, knows how to prepare excellent sauces? Of course, they are all excellent! What I liked the most about this whole situation was the fact such a wonderful three-course meal with wine for two cost us only 40 euros including tip. And the restaurant had a beautiful cat!

We were planning to do some shopping after lunch, but once outside we realised that the rain had stopped, the clouds had parted and the weather was gorgeous. So we played it by ear and walked along the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

The boulevard was lively and cheerful, especially in such weather. We even were able to do a bit of shopping and bought a pair of shoes each. As the Sorbonne was supposed to be very close, we decided to take a look at it. However, as I tried asking various people the question «C’est où, la Sorbonne?», one man replied «I don’t speak French!», another woman looked puzzled and misunderstanding, and only the third Madame explained how to get there. So much for Paris, with the alleged impossibility to address to people in English, and their desire to respond only in French. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that you get “responded in French,” even when you ask nothing. For example, the old woman in Montmartre yesterday. Or today, when we turned off the Boulevard Saint-Michel to the no less cheerful Boulevard Saint-Germain, discussing how far away the  Saint Germain des Près metro station was from here, we were approached by an elderly man who said: «Le métro Saint Germain des Près, c ‘est là-bas! », and pointed in the opposite direction of our movement.

And by the way, we were interested in the metro for a particular reason. When I walked with my friend in these neighbourhoods the other day, we wanted to go to the Café Ladurée, serving fantastic sweets (according to my friend!). The cafe was closed then, but in a shop window next door, I spotted a gorgeous red evening gown. And now, I wanted to find that very boutique. We went round and round the narrow streets, and were just about to give up (as our feet were already pounding with pain!), when we noticed the Café Ladurée, and next to it – the shop we’d been searching for. We rang the doorbell, went in and asked how much it cost… Deux mille-something (€2000+) … Yeah, dream on, Leila!

On the way back we nearly got stuck in the metro – suddenly the train stopped in the tunnel, the lights went out, and the driver said something very fast – in fact, so fast that I didn’t understand a single word. But luckily it didn’t take longer than ten minutes.

In the evening once again I met with my friend and his friends and colleagues at the La Cordonnerie pub on Réaumur-Sébastopol.

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 4

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24 March, 2010

Another busy day began, finally, with visiting the Louvre. We walked into the courtyard and right up to the glass pyramid, which is maybe even more famous than the Louvre itself thanks to The Da Vinci Code, and got inside.

We bought our tickets and decided to see the Venus de Milo first of all. We spent quite some time looking for it, but in the meantime had the opportunity to view other Greek and Roman sculptures. I have to mention that we recognised the Venus from afar – by the great number of people around it.

That’s when we realised that it was a good idea to find the Mona Lisa immediately, while it was still pretty early, because later there would be an incredible pandemonium around it; and after that take our time and see some less popular paintings. And it paid off – there was already an impressive crowd gathering around the Mona Lisa by the time we found it, and later we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere close to it. As one Russian guy said to another: “In a crowd like this you can’t really find the hidden meaning behind this painting!” But judging by the photos that I made, the meaning was hidden in the bald head of a man, which was reflected in the painting’s glass 😀

After enjoying La Gioconda for a while, we took our time to see some Italian, and then Spanish paintings (and the latter, we enjoyed the most). In the end we went upstairs to see the Dutch School representatives.

I would say, the optimal time spent in the Louvre should be no less than three days. And spending the whole day there, I believe, would be too tedious, and impressions would get all mixed up. As for a half-day visit, you can either gallop around the museum and not really see anything, or, as we did, choose beforehand what you most want to see, and devote your time to it. By the way, I was impressed by the large number of Russian tourists in the Louvre.

As we were done with the Louvre, we went to Monmartre. Mom was grumbling about the need to climb to the Sacrè-Cœur Basilica, but it was totally worth it, because the stairs were really beautiful, and the view on the city from there was magnificent. Plus, I have to admit that we hadn’t been able to find the funicular. Even despite the fact that, while we were standing near the metro station on Place Pigalle, feeling lost and staring at the map, an elderly lady came up to us and offered her help, and when we asked her how to get to the Sacrè-Cœur, she replied that there was “un petit bus” somewhere around (obviously, she meant the funicular), which accepted normal tickets for public transport and it was better to use it, otherwise there were too “beaucoup d’escaliers”.

Generally, Monmartre is an amazing place! Narrow cobbled streets, a huge number of cafes, street artists, a fabulous view of Paris … By the way, Montmartre is part of that very 18th district, which I didn’t like on the way from the airport. I found the Sacrè-Cœur a lot more beautiful than the Notre-Dame on the outside.

In the evening I met my Azeri friend once again and we went to the Latin Quarter to have dinner. It is also a very interesting and colourful place. Narrow streets are packed with endless restaurants – French, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Korean, in other words, anything you may wish; in front of each there is necessarily a tout, trying to persuade passers-by that their restaurant is definitely worth visiting immediately. After we already had dinner, I found that one of the restaurants on the Saint-Sévérin street served fried frog legs. So tomorrow I will come here again!

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 2

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22 March, 2010

It was a long and rich day full of impressions! It began at 9 am, when we left the hotel after the breakfast. The original plan to go to the Louvre was dropped immediately, because the weather was delightful and promised to stay delightful all day, so spending a day indoors would have been a sin!

And so we walked to the quay of the Seine, and decided to go to the Champs Elysees from there, but this plan was soon changed as well, and we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

The road to the tower was not much impressive, but something strange happened there. Some dodgy-looking guy rushed towards us with a gold ring, asking if it was ours. After he learned that it wasn’t, he began actively trying to foist it on us, pointing at its countersign and insisting it was genuine. And then he began to beg for money to buy a sandwich and a Coke. When we asked a completely fair question on why he wouldn’t take the ring instead and sell it, he said that he was a Baptist. Somehow he managed to wheedle 4 euros out of us (yes, I always knew that the word “DUPE!” was written in large letters on my forehead). As for the ring, we decided to throw it out of harm’s way, as the whole story seemed too suspicious. Thinking back now, I realise that there wasn’t need to worry too much – the ring, according to its weight, was not gold at all, and most probably this is a common scam.

Then we walked to the Eiffel Tower without any incidents. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to go up, as the queue was unbelievable and we didn’t want to waste time standing in it. Especially that there were a lot of gypsy beggars scurrying around, soldiers with weapons, and more dodgy guys selling Eiffel Tower figurines and trying to palm them off on us. However, at some point they suddenly started off to run somewhere simultaneously! Most likely, they were running from the police, but my mom’s comment really made me laugh: “Where are they running? Did anyone tell them that more dupes had arrived?”

The Eiffel Tower itself made me want to take an infinite number of pictures of it. And the sight of this beauty was simply breathtaking. However, if you look closer, the tower doesn’t have any special beauty. By essence, it is a pretty ugly construction. So, I think that its beauty is a purely psychological phenomenon – it is the main symbol of Paris, one of the world’s major attractions, so our eyes are used to considering it beautiful.

After viewing the tower on all four sides and at least a dozen of photos made, we decided to take a bus tour around the city, taking advantage of the good weather (quite unusually, it didn’t start raining with wind, as it always happens when I get in an open-topped tour bus!). And this, I must say, was a very good idea. Such tours should always be taken at the very beginning of one’s stay in a city – it allows to understand its structure and logic, and at the same time to determine the places that you want to visit later. Especially that there are always places that you generally do find interesting, but seeing them from the bus is just enough, and in the future you don’t have to spend time on visiting them. For example, the Place de la Concorde, which we drove through so many times that we definitely didn’t want to visit it separately.

We got off near the Notre Dame Cathedral, looking for a place to eat, but for some reason couldn’t find anything other than sandwiches and croque-monsieurs. So we had to get on the bus once again and head to the Galeries Lafayette.

This area is somewhat like the City of London, where the majority of people are wearing suits and there are lots of banks around – Commerzbank, BNP Paribas, etc. We managed to find a restaurant here.

Looking through the menu, I came across a dish called «Rôti de chapon aux cèpes avec Gratin Dauphinois», and became interested, because I had previously heard of Gratin Dauphinois being a very tasty potato dish. I had no clue what “chapon” was, though, so I asked the waiter. He replied that it was “le coq”, and mimed the process of castration. By the way, the poor cockerel tasted quite good, and the Gratin Dauphinois was absolutely fabulous!

After lunch, replete and happy, we continued our tour bus, to go back to Notre Dame de Paris and get inside. As there was still plenty of time before the 6 pm mass, which we very much wanted to attend, we decided to get off near the Eiffel Tower once again and have a cup of coffee in one of the outdoor cafes.

Then we caught another bus and headed directly to Notre Dame de Paris. On the way, I made a few observations. First, it is the love of the French for their flag. It seems to be everywhere: not only over every state institution, but also over all billboards.

Secondly, it is the huge number of motorcycles on the roads, I’ve never seen that many before! And most importantly, they tend to rush at a crazy speed!

And third, I noticed that the names of shops, cafes and hotels are directly dependent on the location. For example, they are all called “Madeleine” in the neighbourhood of the Madeleine Church, or “Notre Dame” in the area of Notre Dame de Paris.

Speaking about the Notre Dame Cathedral, initially, we were prepared to stand in a long queue for an 8-euro ticket. As we approached the tail of the queue, we noticed a sign, saying that there was no point in joining the queue, as that was it for the day. We got very upset, but then decided to ask how to get to the mass, and found out that the entrance was through the church, and it was free! Frankly, I didn’t understand what these guys in the queue were planning to pay 8 euros for, because inside, we were able to view everything free of charge. Actually, “free” is a bit of an overstatement, as we had to spend money on candles, and metal medals “for luck”, and the entrance to the treasury of the church, and the donation after the mass.

The treasury was well worth the three euros paid for it – it had amazingly beautiful goblets, finger rings, busts of various archbishops, as well as objects of unknown purpose, probably just for decoration.

We highly enjoyed the mass itself too. The service started with vespers at 17.45, followed by the mass at 18.15. Everyone was given sheets of paper with the lyrics of hymns and psalms in Latin and French. Since, wishing to see everything well, we sat in one of the front rows, we had to sing along with everyone. But it all sounded truly divine! The next part mostly consisted of preaching and talking about the biblical Susanna and the two elders, occasionally interrupted by chants such as «Kyrie Eleison».

Generally, looking at all this, I come to the conclusion that if I was a believer, I’d certainly be a Catholic. Because only Catholic churches, services and rituals make me feel awe, albeit minimal. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that I would be able to listen to stories of Susanna, the elders, and others like them with sincere reverence.

Leaving 2 euros as a donation, we left the cathedral just in time to catch the last tour bus, which dropped us off at the Grand Opera, from which we had to walk to our hotel. Once near the Boulevard des Capucines, we decided to have dinner somewhere. Seeing «Le Grand Café des Capucines», I got quite excited about oysters in the menu exposed in front of the cafe, but my mom flatly refused to try them. For the sake of revenge, I suggested Pizza Hut, where the pizza was very, very mediocre.

Posted in Asia, China, Hong Kong

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 5

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30 March 2012, Friday

It was the first time in Hong Kong when we had to get up very early, as we were supposed to be picked up from a different hotel, the Excelsior, to join the tour group travelling to the Lantau Island. We knew roughly where it was (behind the Sogo department store, i.e. not far from our regular tram stop), but in cases like this it’s always better to allow yourself extra time for clarification, and so we did. As a result, everything went smoothly and we joined our group. We were passed from hand to hand several times: at the first stop we were separated from those going to the New Territories, then, as Lantau is restricted to traffic and only permit-holders may drive there (including buses and taxis), we had to change the bus as soon as we reached the island.

We drove over the same long bridges, as on the first day on our way from the airport, but this time we were told their names (Tsing Ma, Ting Kau and Kap Shui Mun). These bridges are for transport only, walking or cycling is not allowed. At our first stop we were given the opportunity not only to admire the view of these bridges, but also to get a closer look at bauhinia flowers, one of the main symbols of Hong Kong, as we were brought to a bauhinia garden.

Tsing Ma Bridge

There we parted with our nice guide named Ivy and were passed to another one – a lean, thin-faced guy. When I say “we”, I actually mean ten adults and one little boy – the son of a relatively young couple from the USA. Besides them, there were also an elderly couple from the USA, wearing identical vests; another elderly lady, also American; an Australian guy in shorts, who attracted attention by the fact that he had forgotten his ticket and was only able to say “Oops!” (nevertheless, he still was admitted to the trip, as the guides had their own lists of participants), and also a couple from Mainland China, speaking Mandarin only.

Despite the fact that the tour guide told us his English was way better than his Mandarin (just a reminder: the mother tongue of the local Chinese is Cantonese, which is very different from Standard Chinese), his intonations in both languages were absolutely the same and rather monotonous, so every time he was switching to Mandarin for the Chinese couple, we felt afraid that we stopped understanding him.

Our next stop was the Upper Cheung Sha beach. Finally we tried – with our hands and feet – the water of the South China Sea. The guide told us that the swimming season would open in three days (i.e. 1 April) – when we would no longer be in Hong Kong. In general, we were told that the time at which we arrived was the most favourable, as both in winter and in summer the humidity is too high, heavy fog makes it hard to see anything and quite often there are rains and even typhoons. The area permitted for swimming was very small and well-fenced, mostly out of fear of sharks, although they hadn’t been seen around for a long time.

The next item on the agenda was visiting the Tai O fishing village, to which we drove through amazingly beautiful mountains. Interestingly, the general view seemed somewhat in common with landscapes of Norway, which we had seen six months before, like the northern and southern variations of the same thing.

The Tai O village was a sharp contrast to Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, boutiques and luxury brands. People here live mainly in squalid, rusted shacks on stilts. A boat was moored near each shack, and it seemed that such a boat is the most valuable property of its owner, as their engines were mostly of pretty decent brands: Yamaha, etc.

We were taken on a boat ride along these shanties, and then – to a fish market that sold local specialties: dried seafood and shrimp paste. The place stunk to the high heaven! Well, fresh fish smelled ok, but dried fish… This “aroma” then haunted me through the rest of the day – every smell reminded me of it, even that of flowers! Otherwise, the market was indeed interesting and unusual. There were oysters, sea stars, urchins, seahorses, even a huge dried shark. Dried fish of some species was extremely expensive: a bunch of four cost 58,000 HKD (around 7,500 USD or 5,800 AZN).

As we drove out of Tai O, we started climbing the mountains again. We already knew that there were 268 stairs leading to the statue of Buddha which we were heading to (known as the biggest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world, as among the standing Buddhas there are bigger ones, e.g. somewhere near Shanghai), and were mentally prepared for this. A cable car way exists as well, but it was closed for maintenance.

Well, what can I say about the statue – the Tian Tan Buddha was of course majestic. On his breast there is a left-facing swastika – the symbol of the eternal cycle of the universe. We were taken into the halls beneath the statue, but there wasn’t anything really interesting, apart from bracelets and rosaries for sale and some calligraphic paintings.

We didn’t have to walk down the previously mentioned 268 steps to get to the Po Lin monastery, which the Buddha statue actually overlooks, as we were taken there by bus. This monastery was much bigger and busier than the one we saw the day before. In its courtyard there were statues of twelve divine generals, representing the twelve-year cycle, as well as time of day. On his hat each general had the animal symbolising the respective year.

For the second time we experienced this strange feeling at the monastery: we came here just to stare around, while for many people around this was a serious visit to their gods. The Chinese couple from our group, for example, were actively praying and burning joss sticks.

The tour included lunch at the monastery, completely vegetarian, just as the day before, but a bit more upper class.

We drove back the same way we had come. Unlike the chatty Beijing guide, this one kept silent all the way back and even seemed to be asleep. After being dropped off at the Excelsior, we popped in the World Trade Centre, did a bit of shopping and thoroughly looked around. A very nice shopping centre, clean, spacious, with relatively few people and without anyone chasing you with their goods.

We had dinner in the Michelin starred Golden Valley restaurant, serving Guangdong (Cantonese) and Sichuan (Szechuan) food, right in our hotel. Inspired by visiting a fishing village, we finally tried the shark fin soup. It was really good. At the next table we noticed a group of locals, literally cooking something in a simmering pot in front of them: they placed slices of meat, some fresh herbs and other products in the pot, and then took them out and ate them. The waiter explained that this was a hot pot dish, and that there was a selection of ingredients and sauces for the eaters to choose from.