Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Tough Luck”

Singapore – Day 4

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27 November 2013

This morning, right after breakfast, we went up to the concierge in order to find out whether there was anything interesting going on in town. Instead of an answer, he handed us a brochure, where we read that tomorrow there was going to be a performance of Lang Lang – the Chinese pianist that we had seen in a TV-programme quite some time ago in London, got very impressed and had been dreaming to hear live since then. And now we were lucky: he was here!

We immediately changed the plans for tomorrow: the concert in the evening would make it impossible to spend a whole day on Sentosa island. So we decided to book our concert tickets and then go to Sentosa right today. These plans were overset by the rather useless concierge: in response to our request to book tickets for us, he muttered with a strong Indian accent that he couldn’t do this, basically telling us to go book ourselves. We asked him to clarify whether we needed to go directly to the concert hall and got an affirmative answer. We found this pretty strange, as almost anywhere, we thought, there at least existed box offices around the city, if hotels didn’t provide such services.

Mt Elizabeth Hospital

Quite obviously, we didn’t know the exact location of the hall, so we had to stray a bit – but no rest for the wicked, so we strayed, searched and found. The receptionist at the concert hall – a nice Chinese young lady – seemed way more helpful than our concierge: she told us that the ticket office actually opened an hour later, but there were options to either book tickets online (and she gave us the link) or else to buy them from SISTIC Outlets – a ticketing service with outlets all around Singapore (which actually did exist after all!); she then asked us where we were going from there (to the Harbour Front station, in order to head to Sentosa from there, as you remember), and advised where the nearest outlet was. Surely there must have been at least one around Orchard Road as well, and if the concierge had told us about them, he would have saved us at least an hour, or even an hour and a half.

Esplanade MRT Station

Esplanade

Outram Park MRT Station

Anyway, we found a SISTIC Outlet in the Vivocity mall, which could be accessed directly from the tube, bought our tickets and, totally relieved, albeit later than originally planned, got on the Sentosa Monorail right from the mall. By the way, the train fare can be paid with EZ-Link cards, which are also valid for other types of public transport, and can even be used even in some stores.

Waterfront Station

Once on the island, we decided to limit ourselves to the beach and the Aquarium only, and then come again another time to visit the Universal Studios separately. It was lunch time and we sat down in an Asian eatery, where, as we had already seen in many places, the complete diversity of the south-east Asian cuisine was represented by countries: China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia – but also some western food, like spaghetti or Fish’n’Chips, for those tired of Asian food. Generally, what I like in Singapore, is this spirit of pan-Asianism – although it would be weird to expect anything else from a city-state with such a colourful ethnic composition: the backbone of the population is formed by Chinese, Malays and Tamils.

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

The weather was exceptionally suitable for the beach: as a special gift, the sun was shining all the time, without a single drop of rain (all the previous days had been cloudy). Arriving at the Beach station, we realised that there were beaches both to the left and to the right, and, after hanging about near the signs announcing this, like Buridan’s donkeys, we eventually chose the one to the right – Siloso beach. We had never seen such white fine soft sand before. The beach was quite uncrowded. Among the few other visitors there were a group of teen school students (maybe even skipping classes) who were swimming right in their clothes – both boys and girls.

Siloso Beach

Siloso Beach

Siloso Beach

Siloso Beach

Siloso Beach

After swimming to our heart’s content we headed to the Aquarium – the largest one in the world. It’s simply gorgeous, especially its huge glass arches, where fish glide both along the walls, and above one’s head – a very strong impression. We took tons of pictures and videos of various fish: the “smiling” rays resembling Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson, disguised as a ghost, the sharks with their concentrated yet dazed snouts, and the moray eels. I loved the large amphitheatre, where the whole wall was made of glass, and it felt as though there was a whole ocean behind it. There we just sat on the floor and stared at the fish scurrying to and fro, among which rays stood out again, but this time giant ones.

Little Ray

Some Crustacean

Nautilus

Some Jellyfish

Some Jellyfish

Ray and some other fish

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Shark

Shark

Moray Eels

Lionfish

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Next to the dolphin displays, we were warned not to attract the dolphins’ attention, or beckon them, because they might decide what we offered them food, get discouraged and never come again when beckoned. It is understandable, as dolphins are highly intelligent beings, unlike, for example, some big fish, which had been staring at us for quite a long time with the stupidest expression (and painfully resembling someone I know, just couldn’t remember who exactly it was) – whether you beckon it or not.

Stupid Fish

Dolphin

We had dinner right on Sentosa, and oddly enough, at a Mexican, not Asian restaurant.

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

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Singapore – Day 1

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24 November 2013

Before our trip, we were a bit worried because of the very short connection between the Baku-Doha and Doha-Singapore flights. But everything went like clockwork – we made it on time, and so did our luggage. Needless to say, the flight felt really long and tiring, but what can I do, if Europe, which is much closer, is of less interest to me than Southeast Asia?

We arrived in Singapore on Sunday, and the myth of there being no traffic jams there was immediately dispelled – we were stuck for quite a while, not unlike in Baku. Perhaps, if our hotel hadn’t been so close to Orchard road – the main shopping street – or if it had been a working day, we would have had more luck, but it was what it was. After we got settled in the hotel, we still had time to walk on the Orchard Road and enjoy the sight of Christmas illuminations and decorations, which in the 30-degree heat looked rather surreal. Besides, the whole street was filled with a funny jingle, sounding either like bird tweeting, or some mechanical tinkling.

Well, no matter how nice the decorations are, you can see them pretty much anywhere, as well as all kinds of street performance – what’s really interesting is the local flavour: for example, on our way to Orchard Road, around Lucky Plaza, we saw hordes of women sitting on mats right on the sidewalk and having a picnic. It first looked to us like a bunch of homeless people, but they seemed too happy and well-dressed for that. It turned out that these were local Filipino maids, who love to spend their Sundays like this.

We marked our very first evening in Singapore with Singaporean food – but the gastronomic aspect of our trip will (hopefully!) be covered in a separate post.

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Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Naples

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The transfer to Naples also started with quite a bit of a hassle. The first contributors to this were the Ischian hotel personnel. Not only couldn’t they figure out how to fill out our check-out documentation, demanding our fiscal codes, which of course, we’d never had, they also messed up our transfer – having made us pay a tidy sum for it, they sent us to the taxi stand on foot, promising to take the care of our luggage and have some hefty chaps deliver it to the same taxi stand in 10 minutes. But as 10, and then even 20 minutes passed, the luggage still did not appear anywhere in sight. Even the frail elderly driver – the one who had driven us here when we just arrived – started getting nervous. We called the hotel reception – just to hear the deadpan response that the hefty chaps were just about to leave the hotel (!). Goodness, we only had half an hour before the ferry departure, which was almost as long as necessary to get to the port in Forio! We also had a terrible suspicion that we would need to spend a lot of time to buy the tickets, but fortunately, the driver had already bought them. This somewhat smoothed out the situation, and we made it to the ferry.

The Neapolitan part of the transfer took place without incidents. But the hotel, quite frankly, surprised us – the entrance to the promised historical palace was through some dilapidated gateway, leading to a tiny elevator. But for every negative there is always a positive: it turned out that the rooms booked for us were being renovated, about which we had been notified via email – too late, though. Therefore, we were kindly moved to another hotel of their chain, a better one, and, most importantly, with a much better location – in particular, the tour bus stop was just around the corner.

After a nice lunch in a small trattoria (we had Neapolitan fried pizza – at least some diversity!), we rushed to the bus.

Surprisingly enough, initially we didn’t perceive Naples as too much of a coveted place to see. We were even saying that if our next day’s flight to Rome hadn’t been so early we would have had time to catch the very first boat directly from Ischia and would not have needed to move to Naples. How very wrong we were! Naples is an amazing city, with magnificent palaces and stunning views of the Gulf of Naples. However, our Amalfi tour guide Lena had been right in saying that it was a city of great contrasts: you can easily see piles of garbage, chipped walls, fluttering laundry – and then, just round the corner, a palace and a park of exceptional beauty. So, we happily rode the tour bus to the sounds of great Neapolitan songs – such as ‘ A Serenata ‘E Pullecenella, Marechiare, Piscatore’ E Pusilleco, and of course , the most famous one O Sole Mio.

Naples

Naples

Naples

Gulf of Naples

Naples - Castel Nuovo

Naples

As usual, our tickets were valid for all the routes, and we had the time to take two out of three: to historical sites and along the coast. And there were so many tempting places we could have visited if we only had had more time: the Aquarium, all those palaces and museums; even walking on those streets a bit more would have been lovely. Not only is the city beautiful, but it also has some sort of a special spirit and charm, so Naples became the truly magnificent completion of our trip to southern Italy, and even gave it a special meaning.

Naples

Naples

Naples

Naples

Gulf of Naples

Gulf of Naples

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.

Paris, je t’aime – Days 8 & 9

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28 March, 2010

This was my most idle day in Paris. I was going to meet a friend for lunch, and didn’t know how to kill the time before that. I couldn’t really go anywhere as my ankle still hurt. When I saw 12:00 on my mobile, I started getting ready, but then, giving my watch a glance, realised that I somehow managed to change the clock not one hour, but two hours ahead, so it turned out I had an extra hour to kill!

When I arrived to the place we agreed on (near the metro Bastille; while getting there, I saw the Canal Saint-Martin from the train window, where Amélie Poulain was throwing pebbles, not sure where exactly – the channel is pretty long), I had to wait for my friend for an hour! It turned out that she was coming by car, and not by metro, in order to save time, and it turned out even worse – some roads were closed.

But at least, on her way she called the Latin American restaurant “Barrio Latino” we were intending to go to, and made a reservation (we found out that you had to make one to be allowed in). So there we went, and we had a very good time. The restaurant was absolutely packed, because on Sundays, those who took a brunch buffet were offered free salsa lessons. We were sitting on the second floor, watching people dance downstairs.

As for the rest of the day, I had to spend it in my hotel room – all my friends were busy this evening, and I still wasn’t able to walk by myself.

29 March, 2010

My last day in Paris – hopefully, the last one this time. In the morning I rushed to buy some makeup, and also chocolates for my colleagues in the office (my ankle was doing much better). The weather was very good, and all the beggars had gladly poured into the streets. Speaking of beggars, I didn’t mention earlier that there were a lot of them here! Some of them just sat quietly and peacefully in the streets with signs saying there were hungry, and always with pets (mostly dogs, although I once saw a cat too). I don’t quite get the point of this, probably they have those pets for company, or maybe the sight of a poor hungry animal is intended to soften the Parisians’ hearts more than that of a poor hungry person. And some others keep constantly pestering you in the street, coming up with different tricks – just like that scam with the ring that we had had the pleasure to witness and take part in.

So, after shopping, I decided to visit Versailles, especially that the weather, as I said before, was good. But, as a Ukrainian proverb says (I couldn’t find its English equivalent anywhere), if a poor man is going to get married, the night will be short. In the beginning everything was going fine. I took the metro to Saint-Michel, then changed to RER to Versailles – and there I went, admiring the beautiful scenery along the way – the suburbs of Paris are much greener and more picturesque than the city itself, especially with all the flowering trees!

Once in Versailles, I decided to have lunch first. The waiter in a local restaurant was just bursting with compliments – ah, “princesse”, etc.

After lunch, I walked to the palace, and once in its territory, paid attention to the suspiciously small number of visitors for such a famous landmark. My worst suspicions were confirmed when I went to the ticket office: “Le château est fermé le lundi” (“The castle is closed on Mondays”) – read the sign categorically. Who would have thought that it might be closed on a day like Monday! I should have checked though…

But at least, the park and gardens were open, of course. I wasn’t really up to walking around on foot, but luckily I noticed a little train running through the territory. The ride on the train was very enjoyable – the sun was shining, there were beautiful green lawns and sheep everywhere.

Having made a full circle, I went back to the station, and returned to Paris. But before going to the hotel, I went to Montmartre to see and photograph the Moulin Rouge! And in the evening I met some of my French friends.

Overall, I liked Paris a lot. It’s true that I didn’t have to deal with any local crime or the local bureaucracy. But still, it’s a wonderful city, and I hope to be back some day!

Paris, je t’aime – Day 7

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27 March, 2010

The day turned out very… German! In the sense that wherever I went, I mostly kept hearing German speech around, while it hadn’t been the case previuosly.

In the morning I felt like visiting The Centre Georges Pompidou. I took the metro to Les Halles, walked out of the station and… stood agape. First, the weather was so nice and pleasant! Second, my eye was caught by the very beautiful Saint-Eustache church, around which everything was blooming with white and pink flowers. And third, I saw a black cat. Then – another one at a distance, and one more a little further. These were live cats, not figurines, as I initially thought: they were moving their heads and ears, licking and grooming, although sitting in the same place all the time. But when a fourth cat, also black, jumped down from somewhere above, I thought I was going crazy!

Generally, the place – Forum des Halles – was unimaginably beautiful! All the greenery, flowering trees, fountains, bridges and crossings, and the sky with white puffy clouds looked absolutely fantastic (okay, the sky did turn grey at some points, but I really don’t know how come all my pictures seem to capture only these moments)!

After a bit of a walk around the place, I found the Centre Pompidou, but for some reason decided against going in. Instead, as I was feeling like walking even more, I took the tube to the Luxembourg Gardens.

On the way, a guy with some papers came up to me and started shilling for something, but I cut him short: «J’comprends pas!» – I told him cheerfully. The guy made ​​another attempt: «Español?» – «Non!» – I replied. «English?» – Again: «Non!». Looks like this simple trick was the best I could think of – the guy just shrugged and walked away.

I really enjoyed the Jardin de Luxembourg. Again, largely because of the weather – it turned out that it majorly affects your impressions about a particular place. From time to time it was drizzling, but despite this it was bright and sunny, and beautiful white pillow-like clouds were sailing across the sky. Among the rich greenery, here and there, there were sculptures of various French queens – starting from the canonized Clotilde, Bathilde and Mathilde up to Mary Queen of Scots and Marie de’ Médici. I couldn’t find Marguerite de Valois or Catherine de’ Medici though – not sure whether it was me not searching properly, or for some unknown reason they are not represented there at all.

Around noon, I deigned to dine at the brasserie “Le Luco” on Boulevard St.-Michel. I had duck fillet in pepper sauce, and crème brûlée for dessert.

After fortifying myself with nice food, I walked to the Montparnasse Tower, in order to head up its viewing platform – I had heard that the queues there were much shorter than to the Eiffel Tower, plus you would get a view of the Eiffel Tower as well. So, together with other tourists, I took the lift to the 56th floor, the whole outer wall of which was basically one large window providing excellent panoramic view of the whole Paris. There I also came across a Russian tourist group of a very impressive size: apparently they had just arrived, as the tour guide, who, by the way, was telling very interesting stories, kept repeating: “This I will show/tell you tomorrow/the day after tomorrow/later”.

From the 56th floor, I got to the last one, the 59th, where the viewing platform was. Great view, it’s just a pity that the Champs Elysees were far away – I really wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of the Place de l’Étoile to make sure that the place really looks like a star.

Then I went back to the hotel, where I somehow managed to twist my ankle (right in the hotel room, wearing ordinary slippers and not killing stiletto heels as one might have thought!), so didn’t go anywhere in the evening. My ankle hurt so badly that I was struggling to walk the distance from my bed to the bathroom! So I called my Azeri friend, who had twisted her ankle a week before, and she brought some gel, which made me feel better. We stayed in all evening, listening to music, eating sandwiches, chatting and laughing.

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.

Paris, je t’aime – Day 3

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23 March, 2010

There wouldn’t be need to write anything if the day hadn’t been somewhat… well, stupid. It started quite sensibly though. We took the good old city sightseeing bus again, as the ticked was valid for 48 hours (and thus, the whole previous day we had been using it as public transport, circling and circling around the same places), intending to go to the Arc de Triomphe. But then, just as the day before, our plans changed en route. We learned from the driver that the Seine cruise tickets could be purchased directly from him and decided not to waste time while the weather was so lovely. We got off near the Eiffel Tower and went down to the Seine. Having already bought the tickets, we successfully avoided a very long queue, which included an unimaginable number of school-age children – mostly British, interspersed with a few German and French kids – in short, a pretty noisy crowd.

On the boat we were accompanied by a guide, who was making comments in French, English, Spanish and Italian. An hour later, we disembarked near the Eiffel Tower (again!) and started thinking of the quickest way to get the Champs Elysees (Attention, the first and stupidity of the day is about to begin!).

The idea to take the tour bus again was rejected by me, as in this case we would have to make almost a full circle. The idea to walk was rejected by Mom – although, as it turned out later, it would have been the best one.

Then I suggested taking the tube, as it looked like we’d get there with no changes. So, we reached the station, the sign above which read «RER», with a notice that the Métro station was 300 metres away. We followed the indicated direction until we ended up in a really stupid place, and there was no tube station in sight. I said we should go back to the RER station and take the train there – for some reason it got in my head that it was an RER line indicated on the map, rather than a tube line. Naturally, it turned out that the RER wasn’t going to the Place de l’Etoile from there! We had to try walking in the direction of the sign once again and ask how to get to the tube, and we found out that we had to walk about fifty more metres from the aforementioned “stupid place”. Well, who would have known that the station called «Bir-Hakeim – Tour Eiffel», which was supposed to be the closest one to the Eiffel Tower, was actually a mile and a day away from it?! And then we had to walk even more under the ground until the Arc de Triomphe exit. By the way, the Paris Métro was not particularly impressive.

On top of all the “joys” of the day, I got stuck in the turnstile! I’m sure that the ticket was validated normally, because I saw the words: «Reprenez votre billet», and so I had to push the turnstile, and then the double door gates. Now, the turnstile worked as it should, but the gate simply wouldn’t open! In the end, I somehow managed to slip through a crack between the gates.

When we eventually reached the Champs Elysees, it was already lunchtime in full swing, so we decided to find a restaurant. Among those rejected was an Italian restaurant (it’s ridiculous to go to one in Paris!) and the famous «Fouquet’s» (too few dishes on the menu for too high a price). Looks like we made the correct choice in the end: we really enjoyed the «Chez Clément» restaurant with its nice interior a lot. And most importantly… they had oysters! I was even able to explain what we wanted to the waitress in French. I asked her which ones were the best. She replied that she didn’t eat oysters, but usually the largest ones are the most delicious, and the largest oysters on the menu were the Creuse de Bretagne № 2. She brought us the oysters – six large molluscs on a bed of crashed ice, with vinegar and lemon. The taste was very original. I find it hard to say with certainty how much I liked them, but at least they weren’t disgusting. They had a mucus-like texture and tasted somewhere between black caviar (mind you, I’m no oligarch, it’s just that I come from a country where black caviar is quite abundant and relatively cheap!) and pickled herring (especially if eaten with vinegar).

After lunch, we tried to do some shopping on the Champs Elysees, but weren’t really in the mood for that. Plus, in one of the stores – attention, another stupidity! – I nearly left my camera in the dressing room.

So we decided to walk to the hotel, via the Place de la Concorde and Rue de Rivoli.

Once back in the hotel, I called a friend to meet him in the evening. We met at Saint Germain des Près, where I arrived without incidents this time, albeit in a terrible rush hour.

We wandered through the neighbourhood a bit and then took a tube to the Trocadero square in order to take photos of the Eiffel Tower illuminated by night. And it was really beautiful! It turned out that it sparkles with lights for five minutes every hour, and we arrived just in time to see that. The Trocadero was crowded, much more than in daytime.

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.

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