Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Lifestyle”

Vietnam – Day 2

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6 June 2017

I may well be unoriginal and repeat what I’ve said before, but I will say it again: what’s particularly nice about breakfasts in Asian hotels is that apart from the usual boring cheeses/sausages/croissants/toasts you can get stir-fried veggies, noodles, dim sum and even pho! Which is exactly what we did before heading down to the reception at 8 am, where our tour guide Phuoc was already waiting for us, ready for the Mekong Delta excursion.

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First of all, we took a two-hour drive in a comfortable SUV to the town of Cai Be in the Mekong Delta region. As we were driving out of Ho Chi Minh City, and also afterwards, I was thinking of my impressions about the surroundings. There are places which make you say “so beautiful that it takes my breath away”. This is not the case. The Vietnam, which we have seen so far, is best described by the epithet “charming”. And in many respects, it’s charming precisely by its imperfection, including chaos on the roads; assemblages of narrow buildings, sometimes shabby, not wider than a single window; street vendors on the sidewalks, and so on.

On the way, Phuoc was telling us how people live in country – about low salaries, about taxes and cases of tax evasion, about how, with the emergence of a free market economy, many are striving to own a business, even if a very small one, and that often all family members, including the elderly, need to work as it’s very difficult to make ends meet otherwise.

At some point, we started talking about dogs and the fact that in Northern Vietnam people still eat them despite the government’s attempts to ban this. In 1945, a terrible famine raged in the north of the country and it were dogs that helped many people survive (not by their own will though!), so some still believe that eating a dog brings good luck. At the same time, this doesn’t prevent the Vietnamese from treating the dog as a man’s best friend and even to welcome stray dogs in their shops or cafes – it turns out that dog barking somehow sounds similar to the Vietnamese word meaning wealth, so again it’s believed that dogs bring good luck, even without being eaten. As for cats, the situation is exactly the opposite, since their ‘meow’ is consonant with the word meaning poverty.

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On the way, we stopped to visit the “happy room” (that’s the euphemism used here for toilet, which is quite logical for travellers) in some interesting place, looking like either a garden or a restaurant. Through Phuoc’s efforts, the stop turned for us into something like a botanical lecture: she basically showed us every plant and explained how and for what purposes it’s used. We really got the impression that the Vietnamese eat almost any stems, leaves, fruits and roots (well, except for poisonous ones obviously), including banana tree stems, and literally every part of the lotus. Then, already back in the car, she showed us some books about tropical plants, flowers and fruits.

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Another fifteen minutes’ drive – and we arrived at Cai Be, where we had to get on a boat and continue the journey on it. The boat was big – like a sampan – enough for 10 people, but it was just for our mini-group. First, we headed off to see the famous fruit and vegetable floating market. The population in the Mekong Delta area is mainly engaged in farming, and growing fruit is a very profitable business. The local climate and fertile land definitely help. But as for rice, for example, growing it is not that financially rewarding – the market price of one tonne barely covers the labour costs of the workers involved in producing this very tonne. Coming back to our floating market, we were told that in the early morning there are particularly many boats selling goods, and by 10 am (which is the time when we arrived), mostly everything is already sold out with only a few boats remaining. That is, to enjoy the floating market in all its glory, we would have had to spend a night in Cai Be.

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Our first stop is a local village with several family businesses. Here, for example, they make coconut candy by boiling coconut milk with sugar and sometimes flavour additives like coffee and chocolate. Coconuts, by the way, are used very extensively here – pulp and milk are used for food, and the shell is used as fuel, for crafts or even for activated charcoal production.

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And here there’s clearly a rice business. A woman is making edible rice paper on a brazier. Not far away, rice alcohol is being produced and there are big jars of alcohol infused on bananas, lychees and even venomous snakes. Rice is also used for making pictures – every rice grain gets painted in the appropriate colour and used for the kind of mosaic as in one of the pictures below.

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And a little bit further they are making puffed rice, frying it on a hot pan with hot black sand. Further on, this rice is mixed with various additives – sugar, salt or ginger, and even pieces of pork or beef – and pressed into something similar to the rice cakes that we know.

I have to say, all these braziers and pans make me feel like in hell in this not-very-cool weather, I sweat a ton, but finally we are sat under fans for a cup of jasmine tea with different sweets made of banana, ginger, sesame and peanuts. Jasmine tea here is very special, much more fragrant than, say, in China or elsewhere. Phuoc explains this by a higher proportion of jasmine flowers relative to tea. Enjoying the tea, we look around and notice that they sell all sorts of things here – coconut oil, crafts made of coconut and other trees, some ointment with cobra venom and even the famous Tiger Balm, although not in the familiar little red tin.

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After the tea break, we again board the boat and drive on to the An Binh island, where we are supposed to enjoy fresh fruit and local music. Just as we take a step off the boat and onto the ground, we immediately feel knocked down by the smell of durian, and in a minute, we understand why: right in front of us there are durian trees, laden with large “fragrant” fruits.

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Fortunately, we aren’t offered any, instead on our plate we have pieces of ordinary watermelon, exotic but familiar pineapple and mango and quite unusual guava (something like feijoa and, as it turned out, closely related to it) and jackfruit (similar to durian, a bit smelly too, but, oddly enough, belongs to the mulberry family, and the pulp is bright orange, slippery and sugary-sweet, tasting like either melon or bubble-gum). At the same time, several performers entertain us with Vietnamese songs accompanied by guitar and some kind of folk instrument, and even with small performances.

The next item on our schedule is a ride on a traditional flat-bottomed rowing boat along a narrow canal. There are cork trees growing right in the water, which, according to Phuoc, protect the soil from erosion. Generally all the vegetation around is pretty luxuriant, often covered with unfamiliar fruits. Behind the plants one can see houses on stilts. Some of them look better – obviously, the owners are making good money by growing durians – and some are pretty shabby. And yet, as I already said above, there is a particular charm to all of this, especially when you pass by a house where a nice-looking middle-aged lady is sweeping her terrace to the sound of some Vietnamese song playing at full blast.

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Not counting the Vietnamese song, there is a peaceful silence around, broken only by the splash of water under the oars and by boats occasionally passing by.

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Meanwhile, the helmsman on our sampan is already waiting with young coconuts for us. Once again, so far we are very impressed with our tour, everything seems to be arranged at the highest level! And so, sipping refreshing coconut water, we headed back to the island, moored and walked to an eco-tourism complex with an orchard, where we were served lunch. The lunch was home-cooked and pretty tasty, consisting of fish that had to be wrapped with vegetables in rice paper and dipped into fish sauce, deep-fried spring rolls, grilled shrimps, vegetable soup (we liked it the least) and pork with rice. Fish sauce, I must say, is an extremely smelly substance, but it tastes a lot better than it smells. Phuoc said that the Vietnamese fish sauce is much better than the Thai one, because it is made of anchovies, while in Thailand it’s made of mackerel.

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We washed it all down with Vietnamese coffee, stronger than many varieties of coffee, but less strong than Turkish coffee. That’s when Phuoc told us that the tradition of drinking coffee is a French colonial heritage, as well as colonial architecture and baguettes, and this, in her opinion apparently shared by many Vietnamese, exhausts the list of positive effects of colonisation, absolutely not offsetting the complete plundering of royal treasures.

We also starting talking about the Vietnam War – how Saigon was much more developed, more or less in step with Singapore and Hong Kong, and then, destroyed by the war and the communist regime, fell hopelessly behind – and about relations with China, which are much better than in the 80s, but, according to Phuoc, quite dangerous and could potentially lead to the occupation of Vietnam by China.

Actually, we went into these lengthy conversations for one simple reason: while we were having lunch (luckily, under a canopy), a heavy downpour started. I have to say that we’d been lucky with the rain from the very beginning – all weather websites I know were forecasting it right in the morning and for the whole day. And it only started when we’d already finished sightseeing.

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After lunch, the only thing left was a boat ride to the town of Vinh Long, where our driver should have already been waiting for us. The rain kept pouring. Fortunately, the boat also had a canopy (unlike the flat rowing boat we were on literally a couple of hours ago), but at some point a wind broke out forcing us to put on raincoats so as not to get wet. Because of the rain, we didn’t stop at the Vinh Long market, and headed straight to the pier. As there were only a few metres remaining to the pier, the waves became so strong, making the boat reel so much that I seriously feared that it would scoop up water and capsize. But thank God, it didn’t, and we drove off back to Ho Chi Minh City. The rain was pouring non-stop throughout the whole two-and-a-half-hour drive, but not as intensely as before.

Today we decided to have dinner at the Ngon restaurant, recommended by Phuoc, which turned out to be a good choice. The restaurant is a ten minute walk from our hotel and is located in that fancier area we didn’t reach yesterday. The interior is very pretty with palm trees everywhere. The menu has several sections: Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, and of course we went for the latter – aren’t we in Vietnam after all? I had bun bo hue (spicy beef soup with rice vermicelli and greens – more precisely, it is the chili pepper served separately that makes it spicy), chicken thighs barbecue and for dessert, something like banana cake with coconut milk – not sweet at all, which I really liked. Generally, I’m enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine and finding it somewhat less intrusive compared to, say, Chinese (which I like as well but tend to have had enough of soon) – mainly because dishes taste precisely like their ingredients and all sorts of sauces and spices are served separately: you can add/dip/sprinkle if you want, but you don’t have to. It all cost us twice as much as yesterday’s dinner (almost 30 USD) – it’s a fancy restaurant after all, but we also ate a lot more.

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Singapore – Day 7 / Hong Kong

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30 November 2013

The trip to the chic and luxury Singapore ended not very luxuriously in Little India. First, we were intending to have lunch right there too, in order to join the Indian spirit, just as we had been joining the Chinese spirit in Chinatown; however the spirit didn’t please us that much, for it was very smelly! We really had the impression that the city government of Singapore had just given up on this part of town and provided people the opportunity to live in a familiar environment: very colourful, moderately dirty and ragged.

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Besides, there was a lot of construction going on around; maybe in the near future Little India too would be transformed to match the other parts of the magnificent Singapore. Quite frankly, we didn’t have the desire to eat here, so we eventually decided to have lunch at Changi Airport.

Even though our flight was delayed by an hour, we made it safely to Hong Kong on a small JetStar plane. The air temperature here is far from tropical, yet, by our standards, if it can get up to 20°C (or even slightly above), you wouldn’t really wear a down parka. By Chinese standards, though, it’s exactly the right time for those – that is why Hong Kong is dressed very diversely: foreigners walk around in almost beach style clothing, and the locals wear warm winter jackets and boots.

While during our last visit we were staying on Hong Kong Island, this time we booked a hotel on the busy Nathan Road on the Kowloon Peninsula.

Singapore – Day 6

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29 November 2013

Today we switched from fauna to flora, starting the day with a visit to the Botanic Gardens. They are huge here in Singapore, splendid and fragrant – a real riot of tropical greenery. The reason why they are called “gardens” and not “garden” is that in fact there are several themed gardens gathered in one place: the Fragrant Garden, Healing Garden, Ginger Garden, a few others, and – the crown of all – the National Orchid Garden. The territory between those gardens is actually park as well, with ponds, swans, and so on.

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

We started off very briskly, stopping next to each plant, but then our fervour and enthusiasm somehow began to diminish. The sun was beating down, even though there was a black cloud looming in the sky and mercifully hiding the sun behind it from time to time. For some reason, in the Healing Garden we were attacked and cruelly stung by all sorts of insects – seemed like they had been healed there and were now full of energy.

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Once again, for the umpteenth time in Singapore, it started raining just as we entered a restaurant to have lunch, as if the rain had been waiting for us to take shelter under the roof. The restaurant, which was obviously right inside the Gardens, was called Halia, meaning “ginger” in Malay, so, as one may guess, this spice was present in abundance in all the meals. The portions were strikingly small, but delicious. On leaving the restaurant, which we did after it stopped raining, we were provided with free raincoats, which we didn’t have the chance to make use of.

Having taken a liking to plants, we left the natural gardens just to head to artificial ones – the famous gardens at Marina Bay, with large conservatories. We feared that we would have an overdose of the monotonous tropical flora, but these gardens had a very different spirit. The conservatories, which could be accessed via a quite peculiar viaduct, were very interesting in design, looking like giant blooming bouquets or trees.

Gardens at Marina Bay

Gardens at Marina Bay

Gardens at Marina Bay

Gardens at Marina Bay

We visited only two of the conservatories: the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest (a term for a very humid tropical montane forest). The first one contained a variety of roses, geraniums and other flowers and, for whatever reason, vegetables of giant sizes, such as aubergines, peppers, cabbage and tomatoes.

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

The second one was designed as basically a mountain, with diverse vegetation on its slopes, and it was so moist there that the air was filled with drizzle. Atop the mountain there was a little garden called the Lost World, which could be accessed by lift, and there was a circular path descending to different levels from that garden. The last thing to see before exiting was a video with gloomy forecasts that by 2100 the temperature on Earth would rise by an average of 5 degrees, which would result in all sorts of disasters, such as the extinction of many species of animals and plants, reduction of the amount of drinking water, spread of diseases – although it ended with a reassurance that all this could be avoided.

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

What’s not a problem in Singapore (well, not that anything at all is a problem here!) is that everything is constructed and designed very conveniently and user-friendly. Places to eat can be found literally everywhere. Wherever you go, whether it’s a garden, a mall, a museum or a theatre, you can be sure that you won’t stay hungry. So, quite naturally, we found where to have dinner just as we exited the Gardens and turner around the corner. It was a Chinese restaurant, mainly seafood oriented, and, to spare ourselves from difficult choices, we decided to go for a set meal, where we were continuously served small portions of different dishes to sample, which seemed to be the right decision, as everything was delicious.

Singapore Flyer - view from Gardens on the Bay

Singapore Flyer - view from Gardens on the Bay

Since it was our last full day in Singapore, we definitely felt the urge to go see the famous Raffles hotel and taste its signature cocktail, the Singapore Sling. The colonial style hotel, of course, claims to be chic. It’s a white-stone building, with a courtyard and a shopping arcade full of fashion boutiques. The hotel is certainly impressive, but not drop dead impressive. A small detail: in the glamorous Long Bar, where most of the guests buy this very cocktail, on each table there is a basket filled with unshelled peanuts. Guests throw the shells right on the floor, and if they leave them on their tables by mistake, the waiters whisk them to the floor when clearing the table after them. As a result, the entire floor is littered with those shells.

Raffles Hotel

Raffles HotelSingapore Sling

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Ferragosto

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As we were planning our trip, we had no idea that we would have a chance to see a big holiday of Ferragosto on August 15. This day is celebrated everywhere – particularly, every hotel arranges a feast for their guests. Those restaurants that are not closed, also host parties. Of course, it would be absolutely foolish of us not to participate.

We were treated with very good live music – it was basically kind of a concert of old and new Italian hits. The food was really good as well and consisted of an aperitif with appetizers; assorted antipasti (ranging from ordinary bruschetta to exquisite oysters); pasta for entrée (spaghetti with seafood and ravioli ); a main seafood course (swordfish and king prawns) and a large variety of traditional pastry and fruit for dessert.

By the way, speaking about pasta for starter – this is not the know-how of our hotel. We were surprised to find out that the local cuisine (i.e. southern Italian) was totally devoid of liquid dishes, and meals very often start with pasta. Even the so-called mussel soup, popular in local menus, is essentially steamed mussels with a very small amount of liquid at the bottom.

Ferragosto Food

Ferragosto

The dinner ended with magnificent fireworks: right over our heads at 11pm, and then – somewhere in the distance at midnight. On this cheerful note, we said goodbye to Ischia – Naples awaits us tomorrow.

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Amalfi Coast

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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

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Ischia

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On our first day in Sant’Angelo we took a look around. At first glance our hotel seemed small, labyrinthine and beachless. We stared in disbelief at a small stone slab under our balcony with a couple of sun loungers and pool ladders leading into the sea. Look, we were saying to each other pointing into the distance, that hotel there has got a magnificent sandy beach. Had Booking.com simply duped us like that? It hadn’t, as it turned out. A huge spa area, covering the entire hillside, with a variety of pools – with thermal water, sea water and fresh water, hot and cold – and also part of the same beach which we had been drooling over – were all part of our hotel complex. Then we faced another problem: in order to reach it, we had to walk quite a long way up and down the stairs and paths under the baking sun. Looking ahead, I can say that in the following days this road did not seem as painfully long, as for me personally, I sometimes swam all the way from the stone slab to the sandy beach instead of walking there (about five hundred metres across the sea).

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

The Tyrrhenian Sea is clear, blue, moderately salty (not as salty as the Adriatic), the only problem is going in and coming out: the sand here is quite different from the dense and compacted one we have at the Caspian Sea, on which one can walk without falling through, the local sand actually looks more like tiny pebbles.

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

So what can I say about Sant’Angelo? It is a village, situated in the south of the island and is connected by a thin isthmus with a small peninsula, which is basically a lava formation. In the very heart of the village there is a pedestrian zone comprised of a square and a few adjacent streets, dotted with restaurants and shops. The shops look tempting at first glance, with closer examination, though, it turns out that a lot of them sell very cheap trash or the same kind of trash, but at exorbitant prices.

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

The food here is quite good, but rather unvaried: seafood, pizza and pasta. Interestingly, there are virtually no soups. The atmosphere in this area is very Italian with music playing, people dancing, children screaming, their mothers yelling at them, someone fishing and small mongrels barking furiously. Somehow the children are mostly girls: it’s either that a century of peace awaits Ischia, or for some reason boys are kept at home.

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

The vacationers here are mostly Italians themselves, there are also a lot of Russians, some Germans, French and British, and that’s pretty much it. There are no Chinese or Japanese tourists, which is surprising – I think you’d agree that places without crowds of either, cause some suspicion.

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Sant'Angelo, Ischia

Here our observation of the locals’ laziness got developed and validated. To begin with, the vacationers swim surprisingly little – if you see someone swimming in the sea, most certainly they’ll turn out to be French, or Russian, or those writing these lines. Italians prefer to float lazily on mattresses, or not to go down to the sea altogether, lying around the pool instead. As for the staff, it is astonishing that any simple request grows into a big problem requiring a vigorous discussion between a few people.

For instance, on our very first day, as we usually do arriving to a new place, we tried to book tours and excursions, naively believing that this should be an easy and usual practice for the hotel. We came to the reception, and the girl working there readily laid out several maps and brochures, noting the places which she would recommend to visit, and considered her mission completed. We let her know that we weren’t going to call any tourist organisations or taxi services ourselves and clearly hinted that we expected these services from the hotel, in accordance with the notices on the walls. The girl was surprised and puzzled, and called a colleague to help. He pulled out a few more maps and brochures, and, in his turn, showed the places, which, in his opinion, would be interesting for us to visit. We stood our own and tried to persuade them into organising something for us. Finally, he remembered with relief, that they had a Russian lady named Larissa working for them, and she would come in the evening and help us.

Unlike the Italians, Larissa took up the matter enthusiastically. She told us that only the day before she sailed to the Amalfi coast on a private yacht with a Russian couple for 1,500 euro. We asked her to take us at least on a tour around Ischia – and a cheaper one preferably! – and agreed for the next day. Larissa had been living in Italy for the past seventeen years, so had perfectly mastered the talkativeness of the locals. However, these talks ended with zilch: she didn’t manage to get the day off.
Then we went back to the reception and importuned the girl until she finally called us a taxi. This is how we literally wrung out of them a trip to Forio and Ravino Gardens. Gino, the driver, turned out to be a nice fellow, who couldn’t speak a word of English, though – however, he knew a couple of phrases in German and for some reason was using them every now and then communicating with us. Here it’s worth pointing out another feature of the Italians – they are normally nice and willing to help, unless they are playing the big boss. So Gino voluntarily offered to take us not only to Ravino Gardens and Forio, but also to drive us around the whole island, for just a little extra payment.

The Ravino Gardens are basically a small botanical garden dedicated to cacti and succulents only, which are more numerous and diverse than in the famous glasshouses of Kew Gardens in London. The specialty of these gardens is their own very tasty cactus cocktail.

Ravino Gardens, Ischia

Driving us around the island, Gino still somehow managed to give us explanations in his Italian-German and diligently stopped in the most beautiful panoramic places for us to take pictures. So we pretty much saw almost all of the towns of Ischia: Forio, Lacco Ameno, Casamicciola, Ischia Porto (where we took a look from afar at the Aragonese Castle, a local landmark on the top of a cliff), Barano.

Forio, Ischia

Lacco Ameno, Ischia

Ischia Porto

Ischia Porto - Castello Aragonese

Ischia Porto

Ischia Porto

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.

Croatia – Day 7

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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.

Croatia – Day 5

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28 August 2012 – Tuesday

Today we got up almost at the crack of dawn to take the trip to Elaphiti Islands. As it was expected, people were picked up from various hotels and taken to the port of Gruž. That’s where we boarded a 16th century galleon (well, a copy of one, of course). Altogether, there were at least 150 people on the galleon, coming from virtually every country in the world. And there were four guide girls, each speaking a different language: English, French, German and Russian. The guide for the English speakers was Ivana, whom we had already met, and since we found here very knowledgeable and nice, we decided to join her group.

So, back to the Elaphiti islands – only three of them are inhabited, and we visited all three. The first one – Koločep – is absolutely tiny, with a population of 50 people. Actually, there wasn’t anything to do on the island, neither were we given much time to explore it. We walked up the street (the only one here possibly?) a little bit, and hurried back to board the ship.

Before we got off, we had been told that everyone could change places after coming back, so seats shouldn’t be reserved. At the same time, it was allowed to leave bags and other belongings – and of course, everyone left them where they had been sitting. So when we tried to move to the upper deck (previously we had had really bad seats) returning from the first island, we encountered the stormy displeasure of a Russian couple who claimed that they had left their things under the seat, therefore it was theirs. So we realised that after the next stop we better look for seats which have no bags on, next to, or under them.

We really enjoyed the sailing, but I can’t say that the coast was of an absolutely marvellous beauty. Once again, these were no Norwegian fjords.

The next island, Šipan, was marked by the abundance of churches and olive trees per capita – for a total of 600 inhabitants there are tens of thousands of olive trees.

As we were told, there are very few people constantly living on these islands – there are almost no jobs, so the islanders mostly work on the mainland, and come here for the summer and weekends. Especially that there are only primary schools here, and also no regular medical care – the doctor looking after the islands only visits each once or twice a week.

We went up to the Church of the Holy Spirit, which looked much like a fort – it used to serve as a shelter from pirates, and the big bell was rung in case of this danger. Today, the bell signals either someone’s funeral, or that there is a forest fire.

The view along the road was very beautiful, with spectacular fields, orchards and olive groves. Overall, a very stereotypical Mediterranean view, I should say.

As we came back, there was a very nice light lunch served right on board: grilled fish, coleslaw, water, and dry wine.

And the next one – the main destination for the majority – was the Lopud Island, famous for its sandy beaches, which is quite a rarity for these places. Here we were given about three hours of free time, and we decided not to waste them looking for a taxi to get to the famous Šunj beach on the other side of the island, but to settle on the closest one. So, we had plenty of time to swim, tan and get all covered in sand. We hadn’t taken any towels with us, and there was nowhere to get them, so we had to allow ourselves some time to get dried off.

By the way, captains of ships used to settle on this island – provided, of course, they were rich enough to build sturdy stone houses.

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.

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