My Story of Balchik, Bulgaria

Balchik is a town in the northeast of Bulgaria, on the coast of the Black Sea. It’s popularity is mainly due to Queen Mary’s castle. Long story short: a Romanian queen looking for a pretty and quiet place decided to have her summer residence here. The castle grounds include a wine cellar, a monastery, a chapel, and a beautiful park that now serves as the Botanical Gardens.

So naturally, I’ve visited this place a couple of times when I was younger but it was only last year when I discovered the other part of Balchik, the seafront. 

Queen Mary’s Palace at night

The reason the seafront was a mystery to me was mainly that visiting the castle only, you don’t really get to see a beach nor much of the seafront walkway. But last year, with the pandemic keeping me closer to home, I thought Balchik might be a good idea to enjoy the seaside for a few days. I was not wrong. Which is why I went again this year.

What can you do in and around Balchik? Here are some suggestions:

Sunbathe

Balchik has one main beach which is a medium-sized beach, with lounge chairs and umbrellas for daily rent and a bar. The entrance to this beach is not the happiest one, as it’s right next to a big abandoned building and the overall vibe is a bit depressing. But once you get past that, it should be good. 

The beach I spent time at was a tiny one, at the Nomad Beach Bar. Although very small, it was clean and pleasant. However, if you plan on staying at this beach, you have to be a very early bird. There’s a no-reservation policy, but rather a first come – first served policy. A seat is considered occupied if it has a towel on it. What we did was wake up early, go to the beach, leave the towels and go back to the hotel for breakfast. However, most seats are already taken by 7:30 am. 

TIP TIME: If you can’t find a spot, you can try crossing the walkway to the Nomad Beach Club, where there’s a pool and lounge chairs with umbrellas that you can rent.

Another beach or rather sand patch can be found right next to the castle. However, for that one, you have to cross the street to get into the water through a stairwell that goes down between the rocks, so I wouldn’t recommend it to families with kids, as it doesn’t seem kid-friendly.

Most of the town is located up the hill

Visit the castle and its grounds

As I mentioned, the Balchik Palace is the most popular tourist attraction here and it is definitely worth a visit. My favourite part is the rose garden that has the most incredibly intoxicating smell when roses are in full bloom. 

Go to Cape Kaliakra

Cape Kaliakra is about 35km away from Balchik and can be reached by car. I think some hotels or your tour agency if you take this trip through an agency can arrange transport for you, if needed. Cape Kaliakra has steep cliffs about 70m above sea level and features the remnants of a medieval fortress. The view is quite impressive. 

One of the views at Cape Kaliakra

Dalboka Mussel Farm

Near Cape Kaliakra is the Dalboka Mussel Farm, where the Dalboka company grows…you guessed it: mussels. There’s also a restaurant where you can get fresh mussels, as well as other types of seafood or fish. It’s recommended you make a reservation, as, despite the restaurant having many seats, it tends to fill up quickly, with people waiting in a long queue to be seated. Also, the road down to Dalboka is a dirt road, partly paved, but not quite and fairly steep. So, if you’re going by motorcycle (as we were), leave it somewhere up and go on foot, it’s safer. And also, be prepared to climb back up after your meal. 

Walk, eat, drink, repeat

The Balchik seafront walkway is probably one of my favourite places. Although it can get pretty crowded, particularly on Friday and Saturday night, it has the best restaurants and terraces and it can get quieter and more intimate if you get closer to the palace grounds. I recommend daily walks. You’ll notice new things every time and find some artists, along the way, playing the violin. There’s also an open air public library where you can help yourself to some reading material, as long as you know Bulgarian.

The library

For eating, I’m not sure I found a bad restaurant yet. All of them have great food with very similar menus, most of them featuring seafood and fish, but also meat, pasta, and pizza, so there’s really something for everyone. There’s also a bunch of cafes that serve dessert and ice cream. 

Restaurant La Terrassa

My favourite restaurant is Restaurant La Terrassa Balchik, part of the hotel complex Maria Palace. Besides the good food, the service was 20 (on a scale of 1 to 10). We had a particular gentleman who served us almost every day and he (as well as his colleagues) went through the trouble of speaking to us in Romanian (our native tongue) and was very nice and helpful. 

Yummy seafood at La Terrassa

For drinks, I recommend the Nomad Beach Bar. They make very good cocktails. The Raspberry Mojito was on point. 

Raspberry Mojito at Nomad Beach Bar

Where to stay in Balchik

I’ve only stayed at one hotel both times I went because I liked it very much the first time. And that is Hotel Antik. Located in between the two beaches I told you about, it features very large, beautifully decorated rooms and a restaurant. We had a good breakfast there, which somehow got even better this year. 

Other than this, I think it depends on what you’re looking for. If you want to be close to the beach, or perhaps choose a hotel that has a pool. Many of the hotels look very good and seem to be a good value for money. 

To conclude, Balchik is a great place for a short (or long) relaxing getaway. Bonus points: it’s got a lot of stray cats. Have you ever been?

Another Italian Trip part 5

My Story of Milan, Italy

We’ve now reached the final part of “Another Italian Trip”, culminating with Milan, Italy. I prefer the Italian spelling and pronunciation, so I will be using “Milano” in this article. This is one of the most popular cities in the world and somehow I felt it had a sort of “overhype” to it. 

I was here before as a teenager, spent a couple of hours in the Duomo Piazza and the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery and I remember thinking “there are too many people in this city.”

A nice little tram on the streets of Milano

But this time around, I got to appreciate it a bit more. Here’s how:

First off, you might remember from my previous story about Lake Como that we had to switch our plans because of stormy weather, so of course, we had a stormy day in Milano. The heat was already high in the morning, and the atmosphere thick and heavy with the prospect of rain. Nevertheless, we got ready to go to Piazza del Duomo and despite being only 2 metro stations away, which some other time might have seemed like nothing, we decided to make full use of the Milano public transport. Luckily, we were able to pay contactless with our debit cards. 

TIP TIME: In Milano, as in some other European cities, you have to present your metro card(or any other method of payment you have chosen) not only on entering the station but also on exiting it. So make sure you don’t throw it away and have it ready, so as not to cause a “traffic jam”. 

Piazza del Duomo

Once arriving at the Piazza del Duomo, we took plenty of pictures, noticed the pigeons that were missing from Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, and thought that even though I wasn’t interested in entering the Cathedral, we might go around it to further admire its architecture. The weather had other plans. Some huge droplets started dribbling from the sky and we took refuge in the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery. Soon, the droplets turned into a mass of water flooding the centre. 

Rain, rain, go away!

And despite it looking like it might end in a few minutes, the rain lasted more than expected, so we ended up spending some time just wandering around the gallery, waiting for the sun to come out again. 

Once the rain settled down enough to let us walk around with an umbrella (yes, it was that bad) we braved through and headed towards Teatro alla Scala, the famous opera house. I’m hoping one day to have the opportunity to see a show there, but for now, I simply wanted to remember my high school choir days, when “Va, pensiero” from “Nabucco” haunted us for 2 years straight, so much that I still remember the lyrics. 

One of the walls and towers of Castello Sforzesco

A pleasant surprise

But, the main attraction of the day was the Castello Sforzesco (Sforzesco Castle) which I did not know existed, and once I found out about it I HAD to see it. I was not sorry. From most Italian attractions this was one by far the best in terms of value for money. 

We paid, if I remember correctly, 5 euros each and had access to all museums and exhibits. We got to see lots of art, both Antique and new, decorative art, musical instruments, weaponry…you name it – it was there. 

As we exhausted all exhibits and of course, got tired in the process, we slowly made our way out in search of food, but also made some shop-stops along the way. We made a loop and came back to Piazza del Duomo where we got some sunny pictures too. 

Coat of arms on stained glass at Castello Sforzesco

The day before we’d noticed a cat cafe nearby our hotel so we decided to go there. Despite the allure of the place, we didn’t receive a very warm welcome from the staff and somehow, by the time we got seated we were both feeling quite uncomfortable and decided to leave, sad that we didn’t get to say “hello” to any of the cats. 

Even closer to the hotel, across the road, we found a restaurant with a terrace where they had a nice offer for “business lunch”, where for about 12 euro, you could choose a first and second course and also get coffee and water. The name of the restaurant is “L’Antro della Sibilla” and of course they had a whole menu besides the lunch one, so you could order “à la carte” as well. 

The food was good. I had spaghetti with tomatoes, olives, and capers and if I could get that dish every day (without me cooking it) I’d be oh, so happy. 

After this big late lunch and so many days of walking, we retired to our hotel room for rest and got ready to go home the following day. 

On that final day, there wasn’t much left for us to do. After breakfast, we saw a bit more of the Milano Centrale train station, which is quite an impressive building, and then hopped on the bus to Bergamo Orio al Serio Airport, which took about one hour to get there and the ticket cost was about 8 or 10 euro. 

The end

And that concludes “Another Italian Trip”. I hope you enjoyed these stories and got some inspiration for future travels or perhaps went down memory lane in one of your past trips. Let me know which part was your favourite in the comments: Verona, Venezia, Lake Garda, Lake Como, or Milano?

Another Italian Trip part 4

My Story of Lake Como

After taking you to Lake Garda last time, we’re now jumping onto another great lake, this time closer to Milan, Lake Como. 

Although we previously planned to go from Verona to Milano, spend a day there and then visit Como, the weather had other plans. Rain and storms were forecasted for the day we initially planned to visit Como, so we switched. 

However, this meant we greatly cut down our time at this lake, which turned our day into a sort of speed race. 

So brace yourselves for the ride:

There was no direct train from Verona to Como, so we had to change at Milano. Hence, we decided to stop at Milano and take our backpacks to the hotel so as not to carry them everywhere. Luckily, we found a hotel near the main train station “Milano Centrale” (just as we did in Verona), so we were able to do this in very little time. However, the train from Verona to Milano Centrale took about 2 hours. 

The welcoming hands of Como

We left the luggage at the hotel around 11:30, in a room that was actually the hotel staircase, where many others had left their luggage. 

Then we rushed back to the station to get the train to Como. Luckily, this one only takes about 30 minutes to arrive in the lovely town of Como. Nevertheless, we ended up getting there around 13:30. From there, we wanted to see Bellagio, so we took a “speed” boat that takes about 45-60 minutes to get to Bellagio. 

TIP TIME: There are two types of boats going from Como to Bellagio and Varenna, as well as making several other stops to the main towns around Lake Como. You can find out more about the service here.

One of the boats takes about 2 hours, the other one is faster and takes only 1 hour (or even 45 minutes). Of course, the faster one is also more expensive and operates more seldom. That said, plan your travels around the boat timetable which you can find here.

A view of the lake from the Como ferry station

Bellagio

Once on the boat, we finally got to slow down and enjoy the views. However, we were only allowed to stay inside. At Bellagio, we wandered the streets – as we do – and I marveled at how much power these Italian cobbled winding streets have over me that I could walk them forever. Of course, my feet have an entirely different opinion on this, but that’s a whole other story. It is worth mentioning that there are plenty of stairs to climb in this town. So be prepared. As charming as the towns at Lake Garda, Bellagio also boasts a beautiful lakeside walkway, lined with blossoming trees. Two grand villas and their gardens guard its ends and in between a myriad of stone houses, tiny shops, and restaurants reside. 

A small part of the Bellagio lakefront

After climbing one of the many stairs, we got some rest and enjoyed some Sicilian arancini. I mentioned these delicious rice balls in “My Story of Catania, Sicily” and I was keen on trying them again. I was not disappointed. 

After getting enough of the cobbled streets and stairways, we went back to the ferry station, got our tickets, and patiently waited on one of the benches that line the gorgeous lakefront walkway.

View of Bellagio from the boat

Once back to Como, we met with a co-worker of mine and his wife, who reside in Como. We had drinks at a nice terrace just in front of the beautiful Como Cathedral and they told us a bit about the town and walked us back to the train station when it was time to go back to Milano. 

Fun fact: I’m calling this a fun fact because I had no idea about it. However, I’m sure many of you might be aware. Como was one of the main silk centers of Europe until China took over and ran the city out of business a few decades ago. Nevertheless, my colleague remarked that some local producers have opened up shops again, so things look promising.

Como Cathedral

This is all we have

Upon our arrival at the hotel, we finally checked in and asked for our luggage. The slightly embarrassed receptionist opened the staircase door, showed us our backpacks, and told us “this is all we have” which seemed to me a sort of “if you want them, take ‘em. If not, too bad for you.” Anyways, we laughed about it and proceeded to our room, longing for a much-needed rest.

All in all, I recommend you take at least a full day to visit Lake Como and try to see Como, Bellagio, and perhaps even Varenna. For our usual pace, we would have probably had the time, if not for the change of weather. So keep one eye on the forecast and one on the boat schedule, and you’ll be fine. 

There’s still one final part of “Another Italian Trip” coming soon, with our last day in Milan when we did get that storm I was telling you about in the beginning. Stay tuned. Stay dry. 

Another Italian Trip part 3

My Story of Lake Garda

We’ve now reached the middle of our latest trip to Italy, a day spent in an area that can easily qualify for a fairytale setting – Lake Garda. 

Of course, I didn’t get to see everything but instead planned a few stops in what I considered to be key locations. 

A first glimpse at the lake

The logistics:

As I was saying in My Story of Verona and My Story of Venice, our accommodation was near Verona Porta Nuova, the main train station in Verona. There is also a bus terminal here, with both urban and regional busses. For Lake Garda, there are several buses you can take and connections to make to get the most of your visit. From this particular bus terminal, there are 3 buses. We decided on the yellow line (185) which was the shortest way to the town called Garda, from where we could take buses 484 or 483 further north to Malcesine.

TIP TIME: The tickets can be bought at vending machines found at this bus terminal. We bought 2 x 10 euro tickets, valid for a full day on all lines. You can also see some timetables here.

A small park in Garda

Garda

The bus was a few minutes late, but nothing too worrisome, and it took a bit over one hour to get to Garda, as there was a bit of traffic. But we blamed it on being Sunday. As we had 1 hour to spare before taking the 483 (red line) to Malcesine, we took a walk on the waterfront and got a better glimpse of Garda. Garda is one of the many beautiful towns around the eponymous lake. Imagine narrow streets leading to the waterfront walkway, lined with palm trees. Fancy terraces, seagull cries, and water shining in the sunlight. Need I say more?

Street in Malcesine

Malcesine

The second bus ride to Malcesine took another 50 minutes. After getting there, we went to the Funivia Malcesine-Monte Baldo (cable car) and got tickets. However, again, we had an hour to kill before going up, so we spent it winding down the streets of Malcesine. This town had a sort of older vibe to it. More cobbled streets, stone houses… The main attraction was a castle right on the shore. We weren’t sure how much time we had to visit so instead, we went around and took plenty of pictures of the gorgeous lake. We then made our way back to the funivia, queued to get in, and up-up we went! 

Castle in Malcesine

TIP TIME: Here’s how the Malcesine Monte Baldo Funivia operates: a limited number of people are allowed to go up in a timeframe of 30 minutes. There is a half-hour break between groups. The person at the ticket office will let you know what time you can go up. So, for example, if you get there at 12 (as we did), you’ll buy tickets for the 13:00-13:00 group. You can find out more here.

View of Lake Garda from Monte Baldo

The way up offers some great views of the lake and mountains. You can get down halfway up, or go all the way to 1760m altitude. Which is where we went. After the scorching heat on the lakeshore, the refreshing temperatures of Monte Baldo were invigorating. We relaxed at the SkyWalk Monte Baldo, a very nice place, with lounge chairs, umbrellas, and of course a bar. This is also where we had lunch – two delicious grilled sandwiches and coffee. I want to mention the spectacular view, but really, you just have to go there. After spending about an hour here and again, taking lots of pictures, we headed back down, as we still had one town to visit. 

Dock in Bardolino

Bardolino

We took the 483 bus back south to Bardolino. This town, although slightly similar to Garda, especially in terms of the waterfront walkway, seemed to be a bit less crowded and also quieter. If it hadn’t been for the heat, I would have stayed a lot longer, just relaxing on a bench by the lake, watching swans on the glittery water. 

Lake Garda is a wonderful place to relax and I made a mental note to return someday for at least a full week (or month) and go town-hopping, sun-bathing, and just relax and enjoy the bliss. 

A swan taking a break from paddling

Before leaving Bardolino, we stacked up on snacks and beer at a supermarket, in preparation for the Euro 2020 (football) final that night. So, that evening, we watched the final between Italy and England, from our hotel room in Verona, drinking Birra Moretti and munching on “pistacchio” and enjoying the fireworks from our window, as Italy won. 

Next time we go to Lake Como for part 4 of “Another Italian Trip”. Stay tuned.

Another Italian Trip part 2

My Story of Venice

As promised, we continue our travels through Italy with a day in Venice and a very short story. If you missed part 1 of this series: My Story of Verona, you can read it here.

After the day in Verona, on Saturday we took the train to Venice. The train ride took about 1.5 hours and it was a pleasant one. 

A Gondola Station on the Grand Canal

TIP TIME:

Trains are a good and reliable means of transportation in Italy. Delays are quite rare, most trains (that I went on) are fairly new and some have air conditioning. 

Tickets can be purchased online, from vending machines at the train station, or, if you prefer human interaction, from ticket offices, also located at the train stations. For online purchases, I’ve personally used www.thetrainline.com and www.omio.com (there are apps too).

In terms of pricing, it very much depends on distance, but also on the provider. For example, most trains in Italy are “Trenitalia” or “Trenord” or “Frecciarossa” (this one is the high-speed line). In most cases (if not all) the Frecciarossa has more expensive tickets, but it is also the fastest. 

But enough about trains, let’s talk about boats. After reaching Venice and exiting the train station, there’s a big boat station right in front. Here, you can purchase tickets for “water buses” that will take you through the Grand Canal to the key locations around Venice, including Saint Mark’s Square, also making a few stops on the way. 

Rialto Bridge

The boat ride from Santa Lucia Train Station to Piazza San Marco takes about 30 minutes, costs 7 euros and it is completely worth it. I’d say it was one of my favourite things to do on this trip. Of course, the boat was packed, with everyone flooding to the stern to get the best view and the best pictures. And yes, I was one of those people – even got a chair. So if you can do that, get your elbows up and get in there. You will really have a great view. 

Venice activities – the compact, lazy-tourist version:

We got off at San Marco Vallaresso, made a quick stop at the Royal Gardens, then made our way to the famous Saint Mark’s square, which, to my surprise, had no pigeons. None. There were a bunch of seagulls, but they weren’t flocking to eat from tourists’ hands. You’re probably wondering what’s with the pigeon obsession. Well, this wasn’t my first trip to Venice. Back in high school I went on a trip through Italy and made a stop in Venice where pigeons ruled this square. And so, I braced myself for the flutter of wings, rain of seeds, and piles of poop. I was pleasantly disappointed. However, I do hope the pigeons have been safely relocated and not exterminated.  

Front of San Marco Basilica

As it is very close to the square, we also got a look at Ponte dei Suspiri (Bridge of Sighs), probably the most famous bridge in Venice. It’s a small one, but catches the eye, by being enclosed and having stone windows. It connects the New Prison with the interrogation room in Doge’s Palace. The name was chosen to suggest the idea that prisoners are sighing at the last view of Venice from the bridge, before being imprisoned. You can walk it by visiting the Doge’s Palace

Next, we took a stroll around Piazza San Marco and admired Saint Mark’s Basilica, a magnificent structure. We decided not to go in, as the queue was literally circling the building, and the heat was already getting unbearable. After taking plenty of pictures we made our way through the streets and canals of Venice. 

View of one of Venice’s canals

Food is always good (in Italy)

We crossed the big bridge we saw from the boat at Rialto, did a lot of window shopping too and finally decided on lunch at “Al Nono Risorto”. There was no planning, but simply saw this nice garden restaurant that looked inviting, took a seat and we were not sorry. The food was good, the waiter was nice and funny and we overall had a good experience. They had some lunch offers, so you could combine the first and second courses. However, I chose a platter of fried seafood that was very big but also very tasty. We also got some refreshing local beer: “Birra Venezia”, which came in 3 different colours and flavours: white, red, and blonde. 

Fried seafood with grilled polenta and white Birra Venezia

After eating, we slowly made our way back to the train station as all the walking in the heat took its toll. 

Th-Th-The – That’s all folks (for now)

All in all, I hope you got some inspiration on what to do in a very short time in Venice, the lazy-tourist version. Stay tuned for part 3: “My Story of Lake Garda” coming soon.

Another Italian Trip part 1:

My Story of Verona

I know it hasn’t been long since I told you my stories of “A trip to Tuscany and Beyond” but I’m back with another series on Italy as I just finished another trip to this beautiful country. This time I visited Verona, Venezia, Milano and some towns from the two big lakes: Garda and Como. 

As usual, I will be talking about these locations one at a time, despite spending only one day in each, so expect fairly short stories. 

The take off:

We booked the flight and all accommodations just a week prior, which made everything a bit pricier than usual. However, the return flight Bucharest – Bergamo (Milano) was only 64 euro, which isn’t bad at all. Waking up at 4 am is at the top of my hate list, along with coriander, but we all make sacrifices… After landing in Bergamo, we went window-shopping at the mall across the street from the airport as we had some time to kill before our bus to Verona.

Castelvecchio

The bus trip from Bergamo Orio al Serio Airport to Verona Porta Nuova took about 1.5 hr. We arrived in Verona around mid-day. We chose an accommodation near the train station as we were planning to travel by train and bus to Venezia and Garda. The hotel near Porta Nuova was great and I do recommend it. It’s called Novo Hotel Rossi. Besides its great location, it was opened recently and it’s very modern and clean. 

Only a few hours to spare? Here’s what you can do in Verona:

Our half-day in Verona started with a walk to the Castelvecchio (Old Castle) which is a red-brick structure, with a big bridge and a great view. It also holds a museum, which we didn’t visit as we still had a lot of walking left to do, but if you have more time than we did, it might be worth considering it. 

View of Verona from Castelvecchio Bridge

After taking plenty of picks on the Castelvecchio Bridge, we made our way through the city centre, passing Piazza Bra and Verona Arena, which is extremely similar to Rome’s Colosseum. To a non-architecture-connoisseur and with pictures taken from the right angles, they’re pretty much interchangeable. However, it appeared that the Arena is in use for concerts, opera, etc.

Piazza Bra and Verona Arena

Our further wanderings led us to Piazza delle Erbe, one of the busiest ones, and of course, to Juliet’s House. After staying in a fast-moving queue to take pictures with Juliet’s statue and her very shiny right breast (you’re supposed to rub it for good luck), we wandered the streets a bit more. Juliet’s House is also open for visitors, but most people only go for the statue. However, if you’re a big fan, you can go up and take pictures on Juliet’s balcony and reenact the famous “Oh, Romeo” scene. 

Inside Juliet’s House courtyard

Completely exhausted by this time, we surrendered and went back to the hotel, where we ordered pizza delivery, using an app we use at home (Glovo). Surprised that the app works, we got two pizzas and asked for no cutlery, not knowing that our pizza would arrive uncut. Is that some sort of new Italian trend? Anyways, we had some fun eating and then got some well-deserved rest to be ready to tackle the following day in Venezia. So, stay tuned for my next story.

The June Book Review

The Binding by Bridget Collins

Disclosure:
After spending some more time with the second and third books of The Daevabad Trilogy, about which I wrote in my last review here, I needed some time to readjust. That series hooked me and it felt hard to pick up something, fearing it might disappoint. I have not reviewed the second and third books as I don’t want to spoil them for you, in case you decide to read the trilogy.

This month’s novel:

The Binding” is an adult fantasy novel, written by Bridget Collins. I read somewhere that this was her debut with adult fantasy, as she’s been writing young adult fiction before. I would say it was quite a successful debut.
The plot is what caught my attention: a world where people’s memories are bound into books. Cool, right? Well, of course, there’s a catch. You lose those memories completely, so that poses the question: aren’t you actually giving up and losing a part of yourself?

The story:
The book starts with Emmett, a young man from a farmer family, who is not doing so well. He is in poor health and can no longer help around at the farm. He receives an invitation to become a bookbinder’s apprentice and his family urges him to go.
We then are slowly…painfully slowly to my taste, introduced to the bookbinding world through the old bookbinder and her mysterious house.
We find out that Emmett has the gift of binding, which is the reason for his sickness, but it will pass as he gets accustomed to binding.

At one point, a weird scene takes place, where another character makes a brief appearance, Lucian Darney. He seems to make quite an impression on Emmett, as the latter falls ill again.
Later on, the bookbinder passes away and her son takes Emmett as an apprentice in the big city. However, here, bookbinding is a full business and Emmett finds himself disapproving of the way books, memories, and people are treated as currency. He is also sent to do a binding himself, to the house of…you guessed it, Lucian Darnay.

HUGE SPOILER ALERT! (highlight the ‘invisible’ text below to read through the spoiler 😛 )
There he finds a book with his name on it and decides to burn it. Burning a book makes the memories come back. As the book burns, the next part of “The Binding” starts, showing us Emmett’s memories. And yes, Lucian Darnay was a big part of those memories. I won’t get into more of the specifics, except to tell you that Lucian had also chosen to bind himself.
After getting the whole backstory from Emmett, in the third part of the book, we are now reading from Lucian’s perspective, get to know him and his awful father better as well as the terrible society he lives in.
The book ends abruptly, with the two young men running away from people chasing them.

Did I like it?
Overall, I did. But still, what caught me and kept me going was the idea of a world in which people would bind their memories. The first part was a bit murky and slow, but it mirrored Emmett’s bound/clouded thoughts at the time, so it made sense.
I thoroughly enjoyed the second part, which seemed to be a completely different story. The last part felt again a bit dragged, and with the abrupt end, I felt like I needed more. More of the young men’s story together perhaps. Oh yes, if it wasn’t already apparent, this story has LGBTQ characters.

So, I would say I give this book 4/5 stars. The idea behind it was amazing, it wasn’t a bad read at all and if you like books about books, fantasy with a bit of romance, and a satire to cynical society, you should read it.

My Story of Constanța, Romania

I interrupt my regular stories from memory lane and bring you a fresh from the oven trip that just happened last weekend. With travelling abroad still being a bit of a hassle, travelling inside the country is currently more convenient. And so, as the company I work for decided to give us two Wellness (free) Fridays every month, I took Monday off too, for a long weekend and went to Constanța. 

Constanța (pronounced Constantza, meaning “constant”) is a city in the west of Romania, on the shore of the Black Sea. What makes it a great place for a trip is that you can combine a regular city-break, usually cultural tourism, with a seaside vacation. My sister accompanied me on this trip and we decided to travel by train. 

View of the beach from the stairs

Getting there:

We took a private-operated train from Bucharest North Station that took us to Constanța in about 2 hours. We booked the tickets online and paid for them on the train. The price was also very good, at only about 10 euro for one full ticket and one student ticket. 

The accommodation:

We booked a room in a modern villa, in a quiet neighbourhood near the beach. As you stepped out of the villa and headed to the end of the street, you came upon some wooden steps, on a poppy-speckled hillside that took you down to the vast beach. On the other end of the street, you only had to cross the boulevard to get to a big, popular restaurant in Constanța, called La Scoica (“At the Seashell”). Also on the boulevard, a bus station for a bus that takes you to the city centre, the train station, or in the opposite direction, to Mamaia (a popular resort-town in Romania).

TIP TIME: Speaking of the bus, you can pay for the ticket via text message, which is a big plus, especially for tourists who couldn’t find a ticket-vending-shop. You can pay for a one-hour ticket on all lines, a one-day ticket, a one-week ticket, or for just a one-line ticket. 

How we spent the time:

Panoramic view of the centre from the Mosque

Day One:

As we got there around lunch on Friday, we dropped off our luggage and headed straight for the beach. We spent a few hours there, then had an early dinner at the restaurant mentioned before. Afterwards, we went to the city centre to meet a friend of my sister’s and stroll around the ‘old town’. This part of Constanța is full of restaurants and also has many old buildings and museums. We went up the minaret of the Great Mosque of Constanța. As a port city, Constanța (known as Tomis in Antiquity) has a great history of trading and many peoples of different cultures and religions have gathered here. The 360 view from the top was beautiful and worth the climb. After we had enough of gazing over the panorama, we continued our stroll through the city centre until we reached the seafront walkway, another beautiful part of the city.

Here, the walkway has been paved and boarded by spaces of grass and trees, which also feature small pavilions here and there, as well as benches. The biggest attraction on the seafront is the Casino. Unfortunately, at the moment it’s covered, as it’s being renovated, hopefully, to be brought back to its original glory very soon. As we reach the end of this walkway, the tourist port opens up in front, with small boats and yachts docked on one side and fancy, modern restaurants and bars on the other. We had a drink at one of these terraces, called Bacaro Port – as we found out later on, considered to be one of the best in Constanța. 

Day two:

Food from Bosfor Turkish Restaurant

On the following day, a Saturday, the beach was slightly more crowded (there had barely been any people on Friday), but still nice and quiet. After basking in the sun for a while, by 12, some clouds were beginning to gather and thunder could be heard in the distance. We decided it was better to pack up and go for lunch. By the time we got ready for lunch, it started raining fairly heavily. Lucky for us, a bus came right as we were opening our apps to call a cab. We got on and it took us to the city centre. From there, we walked for about 5 minutes and stopped at a Turkish restaurant we heard might be good, called Bosfor Turkish Restaurant. And it was great. The food was delicious and the service was very nice and fast. I got to drink Turkish tea again and tried some eggplant salad, hummus, tabbouleh, and a sort of beef stew, all very good. After lunch, we went back to our room as the temperature had dropped considerably, and we needed more cover. 

After 5 pm, some museums were open with free entrance until 11 pm, as it was the Night of the Museums. We decided to visit the Romanian Navy Museum, which was very interesting, with different exhibits, from old ship models to various navigation instruments. After this, we also visited the temporary exhibits of the Art Museum. 

Day three:

On Sunday we spent the morning at the beach again, then went to the Natural History Museum that features a small zoo, a planetarium, and a dolphin show. We strolled the alleys and watched the animals, enjoying, in particular, the llamas and alpacas, but also the raccoons and otters. Another storm was approaching, so we went to the Planetarium. 

TIP TIME: the ticket to the Planetarium, includes access to the small zoo. You can also buy a full ticket, which also includes access to a dolphin show. Remember to check the timetable of the shows both for the Planetarium and the dolphins, so you don’t end up wandering about with anything to do. 

It was the third time I attended a Planetarium demonstration with my sister, which I guess makes it “our thing”. It was enjoyable and interesting, although at times I felt like the lady who presented got a bit lost in her discourse and strayed from the topic at hand. However, watching the sky unfold is an engulfing experience that makes you forget the Earth for a bit and have your head over the clouds… I also appreciated the technological advances of the Planetarium, since I last attended a demonstration. This time, we were able to see real-time up-close images of the planets and the moon. 

After spending some more time with the lady who presented to find out if dark nebulae produce stars, just as regular nebulae (the ones that appear lit and colourful) do (it turns out they do) and a heavy rain started pouring, we eventually took courage and ventured through the ‘rivers’ flooding the alleys of the Museum to get to the bus. Once off the bus, we stopped for dinner at La Scoica. 

As the storm kept going, we spent the evening inside, relaxing and watching TV. We were hoping to get a few more hours at the beach on Monday morning, but given the storm, the temperatures were too low to enjoy, even if it was sunny. 

Last day:

The city centre

And so, we packed our bags, but left them at the villa for a few more hours, to be able to move more freely. We did go to one of the beach bars for coffee, then walked to the city centre for lunch at the Turkish restaurant. This time, I tried a “Turkish pizza” and a delicious dessert I didn’t know about before, called güllaç. 

Güllaç and Turkish black tea

All in all, it felt great being a tourist in my own country and got to better appreciate the perks of visiting Constanța and having the best of both worlds: cityscape and seascape. 

A Trip to Tuscany and Beyond part 4

My Story of La Spezia & Cinque Terre

After the short overnight stop in Pisa, we left, by train, of course, to our final destination: Cinque Terre

If you haven’t heard of Cinque Terre, you definitely saw at least one picture on the internet, depicting a cluster of colourful villas perched on a stone cliff by the sea. Cinque Terre is a string of five (cinque) coastal towns along the Italian Riviera. The five towns are, from north to south: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. And every one of them is worth at least a sneak peek. But, all in its good time. 

First things first, where did we stay? Introducing: La Spezia

Being such a popular region, the five towns can be quite pricey in terms of accommodation, though that doesn’t have to scare you. As I’ve mentioned before, my trips are mostly low-budget, so I stayed further away from the main points of interest. That means, my accommodation was in La Spezia. This is a city south of Cinque Terre, about 10 minutes away by train from Riomaggiore, the nearest town. 

Seafood at La Nuova Spezia

After getting settled into a small but clean and nice room near the train station, we, as usual, went in search of food. We headed to the seafront as we thought that was our best chance to find good, fresh fish and seafood. On our way, we passed through the city centre and wandered about. However, once we reached the seafront and got plenty of pictures, we realised the only eatery near the port was closed for the day. Luckily, a local gentleman, walking his nice golden retriever, was kind enough to direct us to what he called “the best restaurant”. Well, I would say he was not mistaken. A nicely designed restaurant, with impeccable service and amazing food, was what we found and fell in love with. If I recall correctly, this restaurant was called La Nuova Spezia

After gorging ourselves on delicious food, we resumed our wandering and discovered that the street our accommodation was on, was lined with trees. Trees that emitted a very familiar smell, the same one we were intrigued about in the Medici-Riccardi Garden in Florence and thought it was jasmine. Well, it wasn’t. Turns out that the infatuating smell was coming from orange flowers and those were orange trees.

Orange trees on a street in La Spezia

Side note: After some research, we discovered that orange flowers are often used in perfume-making, sometimes prefered to the jasmine ones, as those are more expensive. 

And now, for la piece de resistance: Cinque Terre

The following day was fully reserved for us to explore the famous region. And so, we went to the train station and started our journey.

TIP TIME: 

  1. You can buy your train pass to Cinque Terre from La Spezia train station or in any other station from Cinque Terre.
  2. The train pass includes one-day unlimited trips on the Cinque Terre route. This means you can train-hop from town to town as many times as you want.
  3. Trips take only a few minutes from one town to the other. 
  4. Trains arrive at each station every few minutes, with the longest break being around 30 minutes. However, you can check the schedule in every train station, especially to make sure you don’t miss the last one if it gets late
  5. Most importantly – the train pass we bought, also gave us unlimited access to all trekking paths and the use of some busses inside the towns. You can find more information here.
Panoramic view of Vernazza

The Itinerary:

The lady who sold us the pass also gave us very useful info and tips on how to make the best out of our time in Cinque Terre. This is why, instead of taking the train to the first station: Riomaggiore; or the last: Monterosso, we took the train to Vernazza. The main reason for that was that at the time, the trail between Vernazza and Monterosso was the only one open. So, make sure you check that too, before embarking on this trip (even if it’s at the last minute, as we did).

View from the trail

Starting from Vernazza, also gave us the trail, or at least most of it, to ourselves, as most tourists were starting it from Monterosso. It took us roughly 1.5 hours to get to Monterosso, counting stops for photos and admiring the view. Coming into Monterosso from the trail, you get to see the town peeking around the cliffs from afar. At the end of the trail, you arrive on the beach and get to relax. 

All the trekking got us hungry too, so we wandered the winding cobbled streets in search of food. We found a supermarket and our eyes fell on some porchetta and some fresh bread. We asked the nice lady cutting charcuterie if she could make us porchetta sandwiches. Although it might have been a rather odd request, she was happy to help and so we left the shop with two big porchetta sandwiches that we ate on a bench on a street in Monterosso.  

Painted wall in Manarola

After Monterosso, we hopped on the train to Corniglia, then Manarola, and finally Riomaggiore. We spent roughly one hour in each town and each one has a special something that sets it apart from the rest. Manarola has a tunnel and painted walls, Corniglia is the most quiet, etc. However, as a whole, they become truly beautiful. If I would have to choose a favourite I would pick Monterosso and Corniglia. Monterosso, for the experience, and Corniglia for its quaint atmosphere. However, the best part was, by far, walking the trail from Vernazza to Monterosso. And truly, Cinque Terre is beautiful and worth visiting. 

Sneak peek of Riomaggiore

Epilogue

We left La Spezia the following day and headed to Bologna, where we would board the plane home. On our way, we had to switch trains in Parma, with a two-hour wait in between trains. As I was (surprise, surprise) hungry, we left the station for a while, to get a glimpse of Parma and we were not sorry. The streets were quiet and on one of them, fairly close to the train station, we found a shop that sold food. Both cooked and uncooked. And it was one of the most wonderful shops I set foot in. I wanted to buy everything! I settled for some rice and pie, though. 

Bologna

In Bologna, we had the afternoon to wander through the city centre and it was worth the walk although it was quite crowded, as they were preparing for some sort of festival. And we were insanely tired and despite loving the trip, already looking forward to home.


You have reached the end of “A Trip to Tuscany and Beyond”. For more similar stories, make sure to follow my blog. Check out the previous parts of this trip below. Thanks for reading!

A Trip to Tuscany and Beyond part 3

My Story of Lucca and Pisa, Italy

We left Siena on a Sunday and unfortunately, there were no direct trains from there to Lucca or Pisa and the connection was somewhere near Florence. Moreover, luck was not on our side as we got off the train to see the connecting train leaving the station. Which meant we had two hours to kill until the next train and absolutely nothing to do. Why? Because it was Sunday, we were in a very small train station, the only shop closed and no people around. Finally, the train arrived and took us to Lucca. And, if you remember from my previous post about Siena, our tickets were still valid when we boarded the second train.

View of Piazza San Martino, Lucca

A bit about this nice town:

Lucca is a walled city about 30 minutes away from Pisa, that hosts Saint Martin’s Cathedral, several towers, and palaces. As it was already early afternoon and some fairly threatening clouds were gathering in the distance, we didn’t explore the whole walled town, but did visit the Cathedral and its museum and walked a bit the paved streets. 

Saint Martin’s Cathedral

Side note: Why did we go to Lucca though? Well, because the reader in me takes note of any beautifully described places she finds in novels and adds them to a travel list. Lucca had been on this list for many years, ever since I read “The Book of Love” by Kathleen McGowan. Besides some of the action taking place in Lucca, the Cathedral was also built at that time and it featured a small labyrinth on the wall by the entrance, which carried a great symbolism in the book. However, in real life, it is said to represent Daedalus’ labyrinth. But then again, why would such a labyrinth be on a Catholic building? For those of you who are intrigued by conspiracy theories, check it out. 

On the Wall of Lucca (the wide alley on the left is part of the wall). The storm is coming

Should you visit Lucca?

Overall, Lucca is worth visiting. I very much enjoyed it, despite only spending a short time there. If you are in the area and have a couple of hours to spare, you should definitely go. There’s enough to see, without being overcrowded with tourists, which means you can also enjoy some quiet, relaxing time. 

It’s Pisa time!

We left Lucca just in time to be spared of the storm and headed to Pisa, where we had booked our accommodation. I remember taking the bus from the train station, as the villa we were staying at was on the other side of the city, and so the bus trip was fairly long and convoluted. After getting off the bus, we still had some way to walk and by then the rain had reached Pisa too. The villa was located in a very beautiful, rather fancy neighbourhood, full of grand villas that boasted gorgeous gardens. This part of the city was very quiet and it was a pleasure to walk on those streets as we headed to the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The famous Leaning Tower:

As we approached the Tower, we could see the crowds gathering, and boy, what crowds. As always, we steered as clear as we could from the crowds and the queues, took plenty of pictures of the Tower, walked around Piazza del Duomo, which is a very beautiful place, then left in search of food. We walked most of Pisa’s centre until we decided on a restaurant, where we, of course, had some pasta. 

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa

Side note: I was satisfied with the little time I had in Pisa and didn’t really wish for more. However, if you want to visit the Tower, make sure you have plenty of time and patience. Perhaps, book your visit in advance.

With all the travelling we’d done for the day, we slowly walked back to the villa and retired for the night, getting ready to leave Pisa the next day for our following destination, and story: La Spezia and Cinque Terre. To be continued…