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…

A Trip to Tuscany and Beyond part 2

My Story of Siena, Italy

After a couple of days in Florence, we took the train to Siena. The trip took roughly one hour and a half and it was fairly pleasant. The train goes through the Tuscan countryside, giving a glimpse of vineyards, winding roads lined with tall trees that lead to old country villas, a beautiful sight. 

A fuzzy view of the Tuscan countryside from the train

TIP TIME: the train tickets can be bought online or from one of the machines at the train station. Some of them worked with card payment too and were, in general, quite user-friendly. If you choose to get an actual ticket, instead of a digital one, make sure you stamp it at one of the tiny stamp machines found in the station. Once stamped, the ticket is valid for the destination for up to 4 hours, or at least it used to be, a couple of years ago 🙂 . 

A new place to explore

Arriving in Siena, we took the stairs up to the city perched on the top of the hill, with the train station at its feet. Luckily, there were escalators among them, so despite being long, the way to the top didn’t leave us breathless. 

However, our accommodation was on the other side of the city, so we took a walk straight through to the old centre of Siena to get there. Which made for a great walk. Both wide and narrow cobbled streets, lined with old, quaint buildings led our way to the great plaza at the heart of it all – Piazza del Campo. This is the square you’ll mostly see on the internet (and at the top of this article), by far the most popular place in Siena. You’ll also find here, the Palazzo Pubblico, a 13th-century town hall that sports a big clock tower and houses the civic museum. But, as you’ve probably already got used to my ways of travelling, I did not visit this landmark, except for its impressive outside. 

One of the streets in Siena

After reaching our accommodation and getting settled, well, let’s just say we weren’t in the mood for settling much and I, of course, was hungry. So, we went to a nearby restaurant, recommended by our hosts, which had traditional Italian cuisine, called Osteria da Gano, and where we enjoyed some well-deserved pasta. 

Looking for the known, finding the unknown

After setting our stomachs at ease, we went right back to the city centre, this time, looking for the other most famous place in Siena – Piazza del Duomo – a square that houses the Dome of Siena, slightly smaller than the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore from Florence, but very similar in architecture otherwise. Besides the Duomo, I was fascinated by some rather modern sculptures on the opposite side of it. I’m not sure if it was a temporary exhibit or if they are always there, but I suggest you look for the sculptures of Alberto Inglesi

Duomo di Siena

Once we had enough of walking around Siena, and got hungry…again, we thankfully discovered a place that had porchetta. If you’ve missed My Story of Rome, Italy, in which I thoroughly praise this Italian god-sent food, you can have a looksy. This place in Siena was a sort of fast food, where you could get different types of sandwiches. Next to it and having the same owner, and old gentleman ready to please and feed customers, was a steakhouse where we had dinner the following day.

A view from the hotel terrace

Adventuring…our way

And speaking of the following day, we decided to go the unbeaten path and wander around (literally) the old fortified centre, looking for other interesting things to see. We ended up going way further than the train station, seeing a part of the “regular” Siena, instead of the old one. We went around the city and got caught in the rain while walking by the side of a road with no sidewalk… which, of course, made the day memorable. And again, the view was splendid. After all that walking, we finally settled for a coffee on the terrace of the hotel and enjoyed the view of the Tuscan country – and that was my favourite part. 

In my next story, I’ll tell you all about Lucca and Pisa. To be continued…

A Trip to Tuscany and Beyond part 1

My Story of Florence, Italy

A year after the road trip through the Balkans, the spring of 2019 took us to Italy. I’d been dreaming about seeing the famous Tuscany, Florence, Cinque Terre, and a particular small town called Lucca for many years and it was finally time. But with Italy being further away, we decided that instead of a road trip, we would fly there and then use the public rails to get around by train.

And so, we started our trip landing in Bologna. The main reason we chose this city was that it offered, at the time, the best round-trip flight price of all. From there, we took the train to Florence, where we spent 2 days. 

Evening view of Ponte Vecchio

Florence was great, although we’ve been bad tourists and haven’t visited the main attractions, like the Uffizi Gallery or the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s David.

TIP TIME: If you’re going to Florence for these, you have to book your tickets online, and even if you do so, expect to stand in a huge line. So book a whole day just for these and arm yourself with patience and water.

Anyway, after arriving, we went to the centre to do a bit of recon, look for gelato, of course, and get a feel of the land, in general. It was a long but pleasant walk from our accommodation to the city centre and on that walk, on one of the cobblestoned streets, we found La Prosciutteria, a small eatery, which we later found out is part of a chain of restaurants around Italy. Here, we ate yummy sandwiches and drank some of their brews.

The feast at La Prosciutteria

After stuffing our faces, we continued on the winding streets and reached Ponte Vecchio. This is an old bridge as its name also suggests ponte vecchio=old bridge, lined up with small workshops of different crafts, particularly jewelry, although in the old days it was occupied by butchers and tanners. After crossing the bridge, going through Piazza della Signoria and walking a bit more, we finally reached the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, one of the greatest (literally) points of interest in Firenze. We went around it twice and then settled for a gelato.

Palazzo Vecchio

The following day, we took pretty much the same tour, with a short stop at Uffizi Gallery, where the whole Piazzale degli Uffizi was full of people waiting in 3 or 4 queues to get to visit the gallery. So we decided to skip these lines and check out the one at the Accademia Gallery, where indeed there was only one… that went around the building… so, we skipped that one as well. However, we decided to visit a lesser-known museum in Florence, the Riccardi Medici Palace, which we thoroughly enjoyed, particularly the Medici Gardens, filled with gorgeous blooming trees with an enticing smell that we thought was jasmine. 

Funny face in the Medici Gardens

After the gardens, we also checked out the DaVinci Museum. If you’re ever in Florence, do visit it, especially if you’re going with children. Several replicas of DaVinci’s inventions are exhibited and you can use them to see how they work. The entire exhibit is very interactive and we took turns trying out the inventions and wondering at the marvelous mind this man had. 

All in all, our stop in Florence was a rather lazy one, but despite visiting many cities, this whole trip was meant to be relaxing, so we took it slow. Nevertheless, Florence is a lovely and lively city that is worth visiting. Next stop: Siena. To be continued…

The April Book Review

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

The City of Brass

I was such a lazy reader this month, I only started reading in the last few days. Thankfully, the book has got me so caught up, I could barely put it down. The book I’m talking about is “The City of Brass” by S.A. Chakraborty. An adult fantasy novel, that marks the beginning of “The Daevabad Trilogy”. Beware, there are spoilers ahead.

So what is this about?

We start by being introduced to Nahri, a con artist from Cairo, who gets by in her daily life, tricking gullible patrons into giving her money or jewels in exchange for different cures or rituals she performs. Though Nahri is mainly a fraud, she does have a knack for disease and cures, as she can sense someone’s illness and can, in most cases, heal them. Her body also heals itself. However, Nahri doesn’t believe in magic or spirits, like most people, in 18th century Cairo, do. 

And, yes, you guessed it – her non-beliefs are about to change. It all starts when she performs a zar – a ritual meant to get rid of evil spirits, an exorcism of sorts. Unfortunately, something goes wrong as in her incantations she uses the language only known to her (yes, she had that too and didn’t believe in magic) and manages to summon the evil spirit within the little girl she was doing the zar for. On her way home through a cemetery, she’s being followed by the same little girl (obviously possessed) and here she manages to summon an ancient warrior who comes to her aid. 

They flee Cairo together and a journey of discovery begins. Not only of an entirely new world but also of Nahri, who, of course, is what humans call a djinn and what djinn call a daeva. Not only that, but she’s also part of a long-lost clan of daevas, the Nahid, who had healing powers. The warrior aiding her, also a legendary character in the daeva’s world, used to be a most loyal defender of the nahids. His name is Dara. And he’s terribly handsome and skilled in combat. And he can drive a carpet. 

Hold up!

Now now, I know it reads like I’m making fun and with all summarised like this, it all might seem too obvious or over the top – but as I read, what was happening was not apparent or predictable, which is why it kept me going. And yes, we discover a magical world and find out about djinn and flying carpets, but that is the point. And trust me, this world is pretty awesome. Not only in the magical sense of things, but also because the author manages to build it in a quite believable way. 

Daevabad, the City of Brass, is home to several tribes of djinn, now ruled by the Quahtani family. We find out a lot about this city’s history, the revolts, wars, and rivalries between the tribes, and how all the characters are interconnected. 

And speaking of characters, although Nahri is introduced first and she seems to be the main character, and the story flows from her perspective, we are later on introduced to Ali, the second son of the king of Daevabad, whose perspective shows us the city, the intrigues, the violence and generally the social life of the djinn. The main animosities are between the ruler family, belonging to the Gezira tribe, the Daeva tribe, and the shafit

And here’s where it gets even better. The shafit are half-djinn/half-human and although some of them are just as powerful as pureblood djinn, they are treated as the lesser race. These issues are thousands of years old when wars were fought. Some of them by…drumroll…Dara – the warrior djinn helping Nahri. 

After many obstacles, Nahri and Dara finally get to Daevabad, where they’re received by the king. Nahri goes on to live at the palace and starts treating patients, while Dara goes off after the ifrit (the evil spirits from the beginning). Nahri starts to befriend Ali and when Dara returns tension builds up between the two men. As Dara wants to flee Daevabad with Nahri, Ali stands in their way, a whole massacre takes place and despite us rooting for one character or the other, we realise they’re all just part of a much greater scheme, they have yet to take control over. 

Why I liked it:

The two different storylines that intertwined seem to be to my taste. You get plenty of characters and despite not all being very detailed, you still get enough of them one way or another. 

The main characters are likable but quite flawed, with all of them, especially Ali and Daeva going to some extremes, that can take you out of your comfort zones and throw you into liking one or the other more, but only briefly. The female protagonist is not your usual damsel-in-distress, nor some “I have these new powers and I’m gonna take on a thousand-year-old villain” kind of gal either. 

There’s some romance, but not abundant. The main theme is still a social one, with religion, politics, and various schemes at its core. We also get family relationships with all their good and bad. Above all, rules the “greater good/evil/meaning/society”, that trumps father-son relations or any romantic trio. 

Overall, I hope I didn’t give you too many spoilers and I rate this book at 5/5. I might have different feelings about it once I dive into the other books in the trilogy, but with it still fresh on my mind, I truly like it.

Road Trip through the Balkans part 2


My Story of Croatia

After two wonderful days in Montenegro, we headed over to Croatia, with a first stop in the one and only, most popular: Dubrovnik

Yes, one of the jewels of the Adriatic Coast, the town of Dubrovnik has become more and more popular in the past few years, particularly due to the Game of Thrones series, that used the stone-paved streets and stoned walls of Dubrovnik as filming location. However, the series is not what makes Dubrovnik great. The old town of Dubrovnik is like a fortress and a labyrinth of stone. We got there around 10 am and the streets were already packed and buzzing with tourists. Moreover, it was also, weirdly, scorching hot. The sun was blazing and warming up the many stones and making everyone sweaty. If you took the side streets and got lost in the labyrinth, you could get shelter from the sun and that’s exactly what we did. After meandering around for a while, the heat got the best of us and we really wanted to get to our accommodation that was all the way to Split – another great city on the Adriatic Coast.Here too we booked a studio with a kitchenette in a small town just outside of Split, called Stobreč.

Panoramic view of Dubrovnik

TIP TIME: Compared to the other Balkan countries, Croatia is a bit more expensive, particularly in tourist areas such as Dubrovnik or Split. So if you are on a low budget, avoid the centres and look for accommodation and restaurants more on the outskirts. 

After getting settled, we hopped in the car and headed to the center of Split. This center contains the remains of Diocletian’s Palace and is surrounded by stone walls. We wandered through the streets, marveled at the columns, and ate a sort of pizza-sandwich-shawarma on the steps of the ruins of the Palace of Diocletian. I have to say, perhaps it might have been the slightly cooler weather of the afternoon, or just me being more relaxed, but I liked Split better than Dubrovnik. 

Columns in Split

On the following day, we took a short trip to a nearby town, called Trogir. It’s located on a tiny island that’s connected to the mainland through a tiny bridge. And it is wonderful. The waterfront is the perfect promenade place, the stone streets – the perfect labyrinth to get lost in. There’s also a castle/fort and a tower – really fairytale-like. We also stumbled upon a choir singing beautifully, so pretty much perfect.

View of Trogir waterfront

After the short trip to Trogir, we returned to Stobreč, to relax on the small beach that was nearly deserted and very quiet. And then, of course, we got hungry. On our car trips, we spotted a remote fish restaurant and decided to check it out. We were not sorry. Although it didn’t look like much from the outside, the inside was nicely decorated, and the food was absolutely incredible and at very good prices. The restaurant is called Bistro Torcida Stobreč.

Fish and seafood at Bistro Torcida Stobrec

The following day we left Split and headed towards Plitvice Lakes National Park, one of those places you always see pictures of on the internet and say “I wanna go there somewhere”. Well, I did, and it was amazing. Plitvice is a huge park with lakes, hundreds of waterfalls and splendid views. You can get there by car, park it in the designated parking lots at one of the two entrances in the park. You can also buy your ticket at the info point and get a map of the various trails you can walk. We decided on a trail that should have taken us about 5-6 hours. If you’ve read some of my other articles, you may have noticed we’re quite fast-paced tourists, which is why it only took us 3 hours 🙂 Besides walking, there’s an electric bus that will take you from the entrance, deeper into the park, and depending on your chosen trail, you can also take a boat ride and cross the lake. Every step you take and every corner you round it’s an opportunity to take the best picture. 

The biggest waterfall in Plitvice Lakes National Park

TIP TIME: Try to reach the park earlier in the morning. It will be a bit less crowded. Also, it’s recommended to start at Entrance 2 – also considered less crowded. Moreover, if you go in the spring or summer, starting in the morning will spare you from the heat of noon. Despite being mostly in the cover of shadows, thanks to the many trees, having so much water around makes the humidity quite high, which in turn makes the heat less bearable. So make sure you have drinking water with you as well.

Once we got our fill of the beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park, we started towards our accommodation, a few km away, in a quiet hill area. The villa we stayed at was modernly designed and had a pretty garden and a gorgeous view of the hills. This allowed us to get some well-deserved rest for the trip back home that started the next day. 

Zagreb city centre

We made a one-hour stop in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where we took a short walk around the city centre. Unfortunately, we didn’t really make time for Zagreb, but the city had a big number of museums worth visiting, so we made a note of returning someday and visiting them all. We then left for Belgrade, Serbia, where we were to stay overnight, before finally heading home to Bucharest, Romania. In Belgrade, we arrived in time for a free guided tour that gave us a better sense of the city and its history. Belgrade seemed familiar to me, although I’ve never been there before. Probably because there are some similarities between Serbia’s capital and Bucharest. 

Getting back home, we took again the road along the Danube, this time driving more on the Serbian side. It was very enjoyable, so if you ever have the chance, do take this scenic route. 

Road Tripping through the Balkans part 1

I kicked off the summer of 2018 with a road trip through the Balkans, or well, part of them. Started in Bucharest, Romania, and headed west, crossed the border to Bulgaria at Vidin, then quickly got to Serbia where we had an overnight stay in a town called Kragujevac. 

The next day, we headed towards Montenegro and the adventure truly began.

My Story of Montenegro

About an hour or so after crossing the Montenegrin border, we made the first stop as we entered the Durmitor National Park. Many people were stopping to take pictures from a bridge up in the mountains, or to zipline. After taking enough photos, we moved further into the heart of the Park and got to Crno Jezero (the Black Lake) that offered a breathtaking view (no filter needed). 

The Black Lake in Durmitor National Park

A bit of a bumpy ride

However, our final stop in Montenegro was Kotor, at the time, a mysterious town in a country we’ve never been to before. Speaking of the country, it’s all mountains and forests, at least the road, that we took to Kotor crossing the entire country, was like that and it was gorgeous. However, there was a downside to it. Through all the mountains and all the forests, we didn’t find a gas station and with my partner being picky about gas stations, we realised we might not make it to our destination, before running out of gas. So, we turned to google maps to check where we could find the nearest station, and luckily, it was on our way. Unluckily, it was still under construction. The next one was in Kotor, and as there wasn’t much we could do, we simply kept going. As we set the GPS to take us on the fastest route, driving on the highway, we heard it telling us to turn left and so we did. And there it was…the weirdest road a GPS could guide you through. A dirt and gravel road, wide enough for just one car, winding down on the side of a very steep cliff. And there we were, with a stone wall on the left, a beautiful, panoramic view of the far away (and very low) Gulf of Kotor on the right and a bunch of cows in front, minding their business and hogging the entire tiny road, looking at the aliens that we were. 

A hero comes along…with the gas to carry on

When the last cow was kind enough to let us pass, we continued down the mountain path and as we were descending, the gas ended and we were just moving along thanks to the road inclination. And the cherry on top, a car was coming from the opposite direction. YES! A car was coming! My partner rolled down the window and once the driver of the other car finally understood that we were truly out of gas, he was kind enough to help us out. And so, my partner went with him, to his house (yes, his house was on that cliff and we passed it as we were going down, but it seemed deserted). I stayed in the car and waited for what seemed like forever until they got back with gas, plus, a roll of homemade cheese and a kilo of cherries. So, I’m not sure if Montenegrins are all as hospitable as Vasili, but this guy was great. He was also looking for a wife at the time, so ladies, there’s a great catch living in Risan, near Kotor. 

And guess what, when we got to the first gas station, it was closed. But we were good to go for a few more km, so we took the ferry to cross over the water. Ferries are a regular thing in the Gulf of Kotor as it’s the best and fastest way to get from one side to the other. You can go around, but the road (although paved) is very narrow and it takes a long time to get to a town that otherwise seems to be close. After finally getting gas, we found our accommodation, a studio in a house on the waterfront. The landscape was so amazing, I would move there only for that view. 

An amazing place

Part of the wall of Kotor

Once settled, we went for a walk and in search of food. Food in Montenegro seemed to me to be simple but tasty and I liked it. The next day, we went for the piece de resistance – Kotor. There was a bus that passed our accommodation and although it has stations, the driver would only stop if you waved. And so, we got out of the house and onto the street, and on the bus. Remember that narrow road I mentioned earlier? Well, it appears that the bus not only can drive through it, but it can even pass another car from the opposite direction. That was one heck of a ride.

As we were approaching Kotor, the view was filled with cruise ships. Incredibly huge cruise ships, that seemed as big as my whole neighbourhood back home. The old town of Kotor is like a fortress, surrounded by high stone walls that go high up the mountain. The streets are also paved with big stones and all the buildings are made of the same material. But truly, the best thing about Kotor, or at least the one that got us the most excited were the cats. They were everywhere. They even had a museum of their own, which we, of course, visited. 

Kotor Old Town

Sailing off into the sunset, but not really

When we got out of the old town of Kotor, we still had plenty of time to kill, so we decided to go on a boat ride. We hopped on one last minute and headed out to the sea. Although the Gulf of Kotor opens up to the Adriatic Sea, it’s big enough and closed enough that it behaves more like a lake. The water was smooth and the captain of the boat was also our guide. He told us different stories about the Gulf, its history and importance during the wars, how the Germans or the Russians (or both) dug and built bunkers in the mountains surrounding the water, where they hid submarines and weapons. We entered the Adriatic and made a stop at the “Blue Cave”, where most of the tourists went for a swim, but as we were only city-walk-ready, we passed. When we got back inside the Gulf, we stopped again at the “Our Lady of the Rocks” Islet. This tiny piece of land was man-built and holds a church. There are various stories surrounding it, including someone seeing the icon of the Virgin on a rock out on the water and deciding to build a church there, in her honour. Another one is that a lot of ships (conquerors) got stranded and sunk as they tried to get through the very narrow open of the Gulf. The wreckage was dragged closer to the centre of the water and the island was built upon that wreckage. Pretty cool, right? And also slightly creepy.

Our Lady of the Rocks

All in all, we had a great time in Kotor (and a great adventure) and it’s definitely one of the places I would return to…or move to, as long as I had that beautiful view.

For the next part of “road tripping through the Balkans”, the story takes us to Croatia. To be continued…

The March Book Review

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

The Alice Network

I’ve started the month with a big reading mood that somehow managed to fade quickly, which resulted in only one read book in March. However, the book was great. I’m talking about a novel, called “The Alice Network”, written by Kate Quinn

The description seemed promising and I had access to it through my scribd.com membership, so I gave it a try and I was not sorry.

What’s it about

The book follows two main plots that get intertwined. One of them, the one that introduces us into the story, has as the protagonist, a 19-year-old American, Charlie (Charlotte), who is travelling to Europe with her mother, to get rid of a “little problem”(hint hint – it’s a baby). It is 1947, and as she reaches the UK, Charlie, who’s been dreaming of a long-lost cousin, Rose, who lived in France but was lost during WWII, decides to go search for her once best friend. A hint she already had was the name and address of one Evelyn Gardiner. 

And so, Charlie ditches her mom and goes off to find the one person who might know something of her Rose. As she meets Evelyn Gardiner (Eve), we are introduced to the second plot where the action takes place in WWI and has Eve as the protagonist, then only 22 years old. 

We find out that Eve was recruited by the British Intelligence as a spy and sent to France, in Lille, a town occupied at the time by the Germans. She gets a cover job there as a waitress in a restaurant that hosts Germans every night. She, of course, also gets a new identity, in the person of Marguerite Le François, and becomes part of the Alice Network. It appears that the “Alice Network” was actually a real network of spies, led by Alice Dubois (her real name – Louise de Bettignies). 

We get one chapter of each plot at a time, as Charlie convinces Eve to help her find Rose. The two ladies, along with Eve’s driver, Finn, a Scottish man, go on a road trip through France, visiting some of Eve’s old friends and following any clues they get on Rose’s whereabouts. As they travel, Charlie decides to keep the baby and the three: Eve, Finn and Charlie become close. 

Eve’s story unfolds in parallel and we find out about the restaurant owner, Rene Bordelon, who makes Eve (Marguerite) his lover. This way, Eve gets even more insight into German plans and manages to deliver important information to the British. Furthermore, as both stories unfold, we realise that Bordelon is also linked to Rose, so now the group is looking for both René and Rose. 

This part contains spoilers

In case you were wondering, we do get some spice too, as Charlie and Finn become closer and fall in love. However, Charlie doesn’t find Rose (SPOILER ALERT!!!) or at least not alive. And as they find out this, Eve on the other side finds out that Rene Bordelon had been guilty of Rose’s death. This makes the women’s resolve to find the heinous man who has destroyed Eve’s youth and has led to the death of Charlie’s cousin and make him pay. 

When they finally did, they discovered he was living as well as always and was in no way regretting his past deeds. The women go head to head with Rene and manage to get their revenge. 

The overall vibe

Overall, the book gives the feeling of a movie or a tv-series. I felt it was very visual, from the first pages where we get a glimpse at Dior’s “new look” from 1947 to the gruesome details of torture from Eve’s story. So, I would expect to see it on screen soon. The two plots complement but also oppose each other in terms of style. Eve’s story is dark and gloomy, intense and sad. Charlie’s story, although also sad, gives the feel (at least in some parts) of a chick-lit novel. This is why some might prefer one story over the other. However, to me, Charlie’s story, though not as intense and impressive, came in just at the right time, allowing me to take a breath and unclasp my fingers. 

The characters

In terms of characters, Charlie is likable enough, though at times a bit of a spoiled brat. However, we give her a pass, since she’s only 19. She does evolve during their adventures and becomes a better person by the end of the book.

Eve is the type of very unlikeable person. However, she’s a good and intelligent person and as we discover her story as a spy, she really grows into the readers’ eyes and hearts (or at least into mine).

Finn, the rugged Scotsman, is the ideal male character/love interest. He’s mysterious at first, has a bad past (a former prisoner), he’s kind but blunt, has a rugged appearance that for some reason seems to appeal to Charlie and female readers as a rule. Big plus – he’s also highly sensitive. So, you got it – mostly what now is considered to be a cliche, but I liked him.

Rene – the bad guy. The very bad guy. The one you really get to hate. Because he is truly despicable. And I think the reason we’re pushed to hate him is not just because he is bad, but because he is a believable kind of bad, the kind that could actually exist, that you could actually encounter. 

My rating

All in all, I’m not sure for how long this story will stay in my mind, it might not be one of those truly memorable books, but when I read it I was completely enthralled and for that, I thank the author and give the book a 5/5 rating. I recommend it for people who enjoy fiction, historical fiction, war fiction, and even chick lit. 

My Story of Catania, Sicily

I went to Catania, Sicily (Italy) at the beginning of March 2018 with my partner and my baby sister (she’s over 20, but you know, forever baby sister). Why Catania? It was cheap. The plane tickets were around 50 euro, and the accommodation – an apartment that could fit up to 6 people was also a bargain. 

Catania is situated on the east coast of the island of Sicily, Italy, close to Mount Etna, and it is, as I perceived it, a quiet city with a great fish market and nice weather. We were only there for a few days and we were planning to visit Etna and take a day trip to Taormina, a small quaint town further north. 

Castle Ursino

The trip to Etna was not possible as it was the beginning of March and a bit too cold for our city spring attire, so we decided to skip it. However, we did go to Taormina and loved it. 

But, let’s start with Catania. After getting off the plane, we took a bus to the city center and then walked a bit to the accommodation that was perhaps 10 minutes away. Once settled, we started exploring and went straight to the main square – Piazza del Duomo, where you can find the Elephant Fountain and the Cathedral of Saint Agatha. 

From there, we walked on Via Etnea through the city center with its stores and restaurants and stopped for dinner – pizza at a tiny pizzeria, where we could see how the pizza was made. The owner/chef was cooking right next to us, on the open stove, moving with speed and accuracy. And the smell was amazing!

After pizza, we visited Ursino Castle, which although is a bit further away from the centre, it’s still in an area bustling with restaurants.

Cappuccino at Piazza del Duomo

One day trip to Taormina

We started our second day in Sicily with a cappuccino in Piazza del Duomo, followed by a walk to the train station, where we got on the train to Taormina. We got to Taormina-Giardini (the train station) in less than one hour. From there, we were supposed to take the bus up the mountain to get to the town that is literally at the top of the mountain. However, the next bus was arriving in one hour and my forever-impatient partner decided we should go by foot “it’s only 2.5 km – a nice walk!” Well, yeah…except the walk was uphill, in the blazing sun, on the side of the road, with (on some parts) no sidewalk. By the middle of the way up, both my sister and I were wheezing and the altitude and pressure differences gave us both a nice headache (probably my boyfriend had the same issues, but of course he’d never admit it). Despite this steep climb, the view was indeed spectacular and we enjoyed every moment.

Panoramic view from the road to Taormina

Finally reaching the top, the town of Taormina opened in front of us, with its stone-paved streets and stone buildings. At the very top of Taormina, so even higher than we were situated, is Castello di Mola, another castle, which this time we did not visit as there was no way we would start climbing again. So, we stuck to the town instead and we were not sorry. If you’ve seen the movie Aquaman, the fight between him and the Black Manta takes place in Taormina. There are churches almost at every street corner, places where you can see a beautiful panorama, many tiny jewelry stores, and of course, plenty of restaurants. After getting our fill of Taormina, and having some arancini (deep-fried rice balls with diverse stuffing such as mozzarella or ragu or ham) for lunch, we headed back to the train station…you guessed it – on foot. Of course, this time, we truly enjoyed our walk. Plus, as we still had a bit of time to waste before our train ride back, we relaxed on a small beach near Naxos.

Taormina

On the train ride, we got a good view of Mount Etna from afar. And it’s good that we did, as the following day when we thought we might give it a try, after all, it had rained overnight, it was colder and we could see from Catania the top of the volcano fully wrapped in clouds.

Some secret treasures of Catania

Instead, we explored more of Catania and to our surprise, we stumbled upon a really cool place – the University of Catania – The Department of Human Sciences. Now, thinking back, I gather people thought we were crazy wondering around their University like that, but no one kicked us out. The building had an interior garden, surrounded by the building’s wings, a place where students gathered for some peace and quiet, a chat, or a smoke. It was beautiful. The building also holds the Monastery of Benedettini di San Nicolò l’Arena

Interior garden of the University of Catania – Department of Human Sciences

Right next to the Monastery is the Church of San Nicolò l’Arena, which we also visited. Besides seeing the inside of the church, we also went up to the tower and got a nice panoramic view of the city. That is, after a confusing talk with the gentlemen at the entrance that ended up giving my 20 yo sister a ticket for kids as they understood she was 12. Oh, well…

After this, we visited the Roman Theatre, where we had fun going “backstage”, under the seating area and on the sitting area. We topped it all off with some gelato and cakes at a nice hipster-ish cafe. In the evening, we had a delicious dinner at one of the restaurants at the fish market, called “mm! Trattoria”.

Dinner at mm! Trattoria

This concludes my trip to Catania, Sicily. Despite perhaps not being the most popular place, you can definitely find some treasures here and you can always take a day trip to Taormina or Mount Etna.