Oh la la (Paris, France)

Going to Paris I was honestly sceptical about all the “Love City” stories I`ve heard over the years. I must confess that after feeling this city`s energy – I changed my mind. You cannot not fall in love with Paris, you are doomed!

Bastille Day or Day of France (14th of July) was a brilliant day to arrive into the capital and to meet up with my old friends. I have never seen a fireworks and light show of this calibre. It was an absolutely stunning show above the elegant Eifel tower.  The theme of fireworks didn’t surprise anyone – it was “Love“.Stairs were rapidly spinning as I was going up the tower of the Notre Dame de Paris. I felt dizzy and could barely recognize my sister from other tourists but I kept going. Not everyday life gives me the opportunity to imagine myself being an Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.

Notre Dame de Paris Gurion creatures that steal human souls have been sitting on this roof for centuries. My favourite one was tiredly holding his head with both hands and fixedly looking down, searching for his next victim…

We sneaked a peak into the mass inside the cold gothic thick walls. Sacred organ music touched my soul and I was nearly crying. Being religious all my life I do not often feel what I felt inside the Notre Dame.

The world’s most famous French Gothic cathedral gets dramatically lit at night.

Not far from Notre Dame is La Sainte-Chapelle which was also very appealing. We couldn’t find this catholic church at first as it was conveniently tucked into one of many inner backyards of busy Paris. Overall it is impossible to not get lost in circled arrondissements of the city.

If you want to feel like a princess walking through gardens, surrounded by ponds and magnificent architecture of the 16th century – Louvre museum is the place for you. Before Versailles palace, this was the main residence of the French Kings, originally built as the Louvre castle in the late 12th to 13th century under Philip II. And don’t forget to see famous Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo in the world’s largest art museum – 72,735 square metres to be precise. French people are extremely patriotic. I had an honor to be in Paris when French won the world cup for the second time in the entire FIFA history. To say that it was crazy on the avenue des Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe is to say nothing. Insane parade and celebration lasted for two days: First day for winning and second day for proud football players and French president Emmanuel Macron returning from Russia and bringing the World Cup home.

People were climbing poles and monuments and waving national tricolor flag from the highest points possible. I could hear fans loosing voices over this exciting moment in history.

“Allez les Bleus“ soccer song (pronounced “allay lay bleugh”) is imprinted in my memory for a very long time now. My sister’s boyfriend and I sing this song to each other until this day because it cheers us up and brings back unforgettable memories. Fireworks, broken glass and unbelievable air show was followed sardine style subway ride home.

If you are somehow strange as me and like the dark side of tourism – Père Lachaise Cemetery will catch your attention in a heart bit. This is where Édith Piaf, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison and incredible number of famous folks are resting forever.Take the street car to go up the hill to indulge yourself in the glory of Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Montmartre. Standing tall this pure white cathedral provides the picturesque view of the giant city of Paris.

One young couple was making out right on stairs of the church. I hope God will forgive them, it is Paris after all.Traditional duck dinner with crispy garlic potatoes and a salad must be eaten on a nice little patio outside of Le St. Jean restaurant, Montmartre.
Walking down from Montmartre through hilly streets and numerous restaurants with patios and flowers on the balconies you will also see portraitist in action. This neighbourhood is famous for its artists.
All the way on the bottom of brick roads down from Montmartre you will see so very familiar red mill of the Mullen Rouge. Feels like I have been here already because of musical Mullen Rouge with lovely Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.Seine river boat tour is a great way to see all of the main tourist points like Sorbonne University and Latin Quarter where people dance Salsa on a board walk, Notre Dame de Paris, Eiffel tower etc.

Old but lively and detailed statues eyes were looking down on us from the bridges sides as we continued our ride. I also spotted some people jumping off two bridges: Drank too much or really wanted to go for a swim? I really don’t know. What I do know is that there are definitely many reasons why France is the most visited country in the world and love in the air is probably the main reason.And since that trip I am only buying baguettes instead of bread.

Not-So-Good Old Days (Toronto, Canada)

I was fed up of hearing about how great things used to be in the good old days. Luckily, Old Town Toronto History Tour, operated by Tour Guys opened my eyes on murder and disease, ghosts and chaos, catastrophe and struggles of the early days of Toronto.

Turns out Old Town Toronto has seen its share of calamity over the past 150 years. Thanks to our guide Jackie I heard the best stories of the past two centuries.

William Lyon Mackenzie, who served as the first Toronto mayor is known to still walk around his former house, now a museum located just steps away from Yonge-Dundas Square.

Down the road there is another hunted building – St. Michael’s hospital.

Originally this hospital was created by small group of nuns from St. Joseph’s hospital.

Ghost of Sister Vincenza is still taking care of her patients on the 7th floor of St. Michael`s Cardinal Carter wing. Room number 5 doesn’t exist anymore because patients were running out scared of there every single time.

Gorgeous inside and out St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica is right across the street from St. Michael’s hospital. Where else in the world do you have 2 hunted houses in a row and a church across the street from ghosts?

Believe it or not but the last public hanging in Canada happened on December 11, 1962 which was after World War II. This last public hanging took place in the Courthouse square next to Adelaide court.

A couple of men, convicted for separate murders, were hanged on that day. “You are the last 2 man to be hanged in Canada“ was announced to them. I doubt that this announcement made them feel any better. By the way, people used to wear their best clothing to public hangings.

Even though many countries still have the death penalty, I find it hard to believe that it happened this late in history as we do not kill people in Canada, we just don’t. Even if they are found to be guilty of awful things.

Around that time was also when the largest immigration of the Irish occurred. The Great Irish Potato Famine of 1847 was the cause of death, mainly from starvation. Since it was a very bad year for potatoes many Irish were arriving to Canada already sick and collapsing, and those who survived were not welcome to have certain jobs.

We continued to walk to one of the oldest neighbourhoods in central Toronto called Cabbagetown. Originally this nick name was given to insult Catholic European immigrants who were growing cabbage in their back yards. Local people found it disgusting. Isn’t it ironic that nowadays new European immigrants make fun of cabbage being planted in public flower beds in Canada? I guess Canadians learned to love cabbage too much. In Europe cabbage stayed right where it always was – in the back yard.

Almost every Torontonian knows Massey Hall – one of the most popular Toronto’s concert halls. But very few know the Massey murder story.

The Massey family came from the south and were a generous and wealthy family. They gave Toronto many of their buildings including Massey Hall. However the Massey family legacy was not all that perfect. Old Toronto saw a famous murder case: Made Carrie Davies killed her employer Charles A. Massey who was trying to get his way with her. It was clearly self-defence. She took the revolver and shot him dead, he died almost instantly. She was found innocent in 1915 which I find pretty shocking as women didn’t have too many rights back then.

I also learned more about Cholera than I probably wanted to know while we were making our way to St. James Park – a former cemetery that contains hundreds of Cholera victims left undisturbed to this very day.

A Cholera outbreak in 1832 killed at least 20,000 people in Canada. This disease was feared because it was deadly and no one understood how to treat it or how it spreads.

Eventually Cholera was killed by a beer! Specifically for this reason brewers started to make beer with lower percentage of alcohol so women and children also could consume it. That’s how Canada got its low buzz beer but we do owe the victory over Cholera to it.

Across the street from the cemetery is the St. Lawrence Hall. It was the first place of public gatherings because it was the first big hall that could fit all the people. Old legend claims that the Maple leaf became the Canadian symbol there.

As parliament was trying to decide what is going to be the Canadian symbol, a Maple Leaf flew into the room through an open window and an ‘AHA’ moment just happened naturally.

The tour ends at famous St. Lawrence Market, the longest running market in the world. Originally it was only operating on Saturdays and it was an outside farmers market. Now it is open Tuesday thru Saturday. You will find here fine delicious foods that you can’t find in a supermarket.

If you are a history buff you have to take this complimentary tour and learn about early history of Toronto, as it grew from the Town of York into the city it is today.

Hear the stories most would rather forget and may be you will even gain a better appreciation for being alive today.

When to go

Toronto is enjoyable all year round. Best weather to do a walking tour is April through September. Tour runs daily at 1:00 PM (90 minutes walking tour). October through March tour runs only on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 PM.

Where to stay

Really anywhere in downtown is good. I recommend to stay in Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel that is located right next to Old City Hall and overlooking the Nathan Phillips square.

Where to eat

Do visit St. Lawrence Market. Enjoy meals and snacks from all over the world along with the best Canadian foods. You can also buy souvenirs here.

10 Must Visit Places In Ukraine

Eastern Europe has a lot to offer to its visitors, in some aspects even more than Western Europe.

Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe with unbelievable hospitality, more than a century old culture, not an easy history but one very positive spirit.

Some of you may think that it’s not safe in Ukraine because of annexation of Crimea and current war conflict with Russia in the Eastern territories. You will be surprised to find out that it didn’t really effect tourism.

If you are a history buff, love great food, stunning architecture, plenty of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, mountains and seas – Ukraine’s got it all!

1. Lviv

Lviv (city of Leo) is the unformal capital of Western Ukraine and is more than 750 years old. A city with poetic spirit, narrow medieval streets paved with stones, architectural decoration in different styles all preserved in its original form. In ancient times Lviv was the capital of a mighty Slavic state called the Galicia-Volyn Principality. Being a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later Poland contributing to the formation of the city’s unique image. You have to see Lviv Opera House and High Castle which is an area from where you can see the entire city. Do not leave Lviv without visiting famous Lviv’s Brewery that is successfully brewing beer since 1715.

2. Chernivtsy

Chernivtsy is a city close to the Romanian and Moldavian border in Western Ukraine and is more than 600 years old. Most of the architectural contributions were made by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and back in the day Chernivtsy was often called Little Vienna. Brick roads of the city center were swiped daily with rose bouquets and only the rich were allowed onto the Kobilianska street. Now this street is pedestrians only and has numerous cafes and restaurants with a very modern vibe. The highlight of this city is Chernivtsy National University which is the former Residence of the Metropolitans, and has a status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. And don’t forget to stop by the Drama Theater as it is one of a kind, there are only 3 equivalents to this building in entire Europe.

3. Kyiv

Kyiv is the nation’s capital and is the largest city of Ukraine, which is located on Dnipro River and filled with beautiful churches and cathedrals like St. Sophia’s Cathedral and Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Monastery of the Caves). The history of Kiev is going back for at least 1400 years. According to the legend, Kiev was founded by three brothers, Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv, and their sister Lybid. Kyiv’s prosperity was directly related to Kievan Rus – country that existed from late 9th to the mid 13th century and from which both Belarus and Russia later deriving their names. The highlight of Kievan Rus was introducing Christianity by King Vladimir the Great in 988. Kyiv is also home to a lot of monuments of World War II and the deepest subway station in the world – Arsenalna station. If you’re in town, be sure to visit Andriyivskyy Descent filled with artists and arts. Take a stroll on the beautiful Maidan square and Khreshchatyk Street, feel its rebel spirit as that’s where fatal fights between protesters and government took place in 2014. And if that didn’t give you goose bumps – visit ghost city of Chernobyl which is only a 2 hour drive north from Kyiv.

4. Crimea

Crimea Peninsula is located in Southern Ukraine and is surrounded by the Black Sea. It is known for the Crimean Mountains filled with artifacts and lost treasures of previous civilization – Skif’s tribes. Subtropical climate of Yalta city attracts thousands of tourists to visit every year. My favourite spot in Crimea is Swallows Nest which is a stunning castle on top of a giant cliff and is now converted into a high end restaurant. Just imagine sipping your cocktail here and watch the sun setting into the sea on a summer afternoon.

5. Odesa

Odesa is a southern city of Ukraine located on the Black Sea and is a marine port for navy, cruises and cargo ships. It is famous for its Festival of Fun of the 1st of April – April Fool’s Day. Odesa history starts as early as in 1440. A Unique opera house and maritime station, the famous Privoz outdoor market, Potiomkin’s Steps with funicular ride and most importantly its humorous people will not leave you indifferent.

6. Carpathian Mountains

Carpathian Mountains are in Western Ukraine, with the highest mountain of Hoverla being 2061 metres high. Enjoy Carpathian Mountains all year round and go hiking, biking, hunting, discovering remote villages and feeling the shade of ancient trees. There is something particularly special about the mountain nation of Hutsuly. They know all the herbs and all the secrets of these mountains. I would suggest you visit Bukovel ski resort, National Park Hutsulshina and wooden arts and crafts outdoor bazar in the town of Yaremche where you can find beautiful national clothing, wooden toys and sheep wool carpets.

7. Sofiyivka Park

Sofiyivka Park in Uman is the real world landscape architecture masterpiece of the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. The park was established in 1796 by a rich polish magnate, Stanislav Schensny Pototsky, in honour of his beautiful Greek wife Sophia and was presented to her on her birthday in May of 1802. The park is spread out over the territory of 155 hectares and is situated at the outskirts of the ancient town Uman, Vinnytska oblast. It is considered to be the standard of the landscape combination of water, land, architecture and sculptures. This masterpiece was created in the shortest period of time, it still astounds the imagination of visitors. Walk its exotic gardens, discover unique scenery and cozy spots. Feel the love that is still in the air.

8. Khotyn Fortress

Khotyn Fortress is located on the bank of the Dnister River in Khotyn, Bukovina region. The fortress was built in 1325. Hotyn Fortrees was the center of numerous wars and fights. In 2007, the fortress was named one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine. It is also a National Ukrainian Architectural Preserve as of 2000. Swim in the Dnister River with the fortress view, visit the church on the hill next to the fortress, pretend to shoot from a very old cannon and breathe the history of these thick walls.

9. Kamianets-Podilskyi Fortress

Kamianets-Podilskyi Fortress was first built to watch over the River Smotrych. There’s even evidence to suggest that a settlement has existed on this rock outcropping for close to 2,000 years. Kamyanets-Podilskyi, one of the oldest cities in Ukraine, is considered a phenomenon of great cultural importance. Kamyanets-Podilskyi town has the fortification system that is unique all over the Europe. Kamianets-Podilskyi fortress and Khotyn fortress are within 45 minute drive from each other. Brilliantly convenient, isn’t it?

10. Pysanka museum

Pysanka museum (Ukrainian Easter egg museum) is a one of a kind museum in the world and it is located in the town of Kolomiya, Ivano-Frankivska Oblast. The Museum, built in 2000 is famous for the fact that you can spend all day wondering about different traditional styles of Easter eggs paintings. The museum is not only shaped like an egg (14 m in height and 10 m in diameter), but parts of the exterior and interior of the dome are painted to resemble a pysanka. Embrace yourself in a friendly atmosphere and local vibe, very hospitable people and tons of souvenirs. Do eat the pierogis, kebabs, bacon potatoes and cabbage rolls in Korchma which is a traditional Ukrainian café with a real wooden stove in the middle of the restaurant.

How I got stuck in Iceland

The best thing that has ever happened to me in Travel was getting stuck for 1 night in Iceland.

When my flight was delayed for 3 hours from Amsterdam to Reykjavik I could already feel that there is no way I will make it to my connection from Reykjavik to Toronto.

I was absolutely right, and Wow Air paid for transfers and the Keilir hotel for the night and even dinner.

I could hear some folks complaining that they are not going to make their connections in time to fly to Toronto, Boston etc. I, on the other hand could not be any more excited about this adventure as Iceland has always been on my bucket list. This was the best layover in my life and it was not even planned.

Icelandic language is very cute with ‘ki ‘ki Reykyaviki kind of sounds. For example: ‘For Your Safety’ in Icelandic will be just 1 word – Öryggisreglur. I also found this language having no intonation whatsoever because when they speak it is all on one tone, one breath, one paste, one everything. Oh well, maybe it was just one hell of a tired flight attendant that I`m talking about.

I knew right away that I want to get to the Blue Lagoon at any cost. I quickly found fellow travelers whom wanted to go there as well and we shared a cab together just after we dropped our luggage at the hotel.

We were rolling down the black roads made from volcanic lava for about 30 minutes. All of the sudden I saw colorful mist far away – we were getting closer to their famous Blue Lagoon.

This natural wonder SPA was expanded in 2016 and is nothing like I ever seen or felt. The water is really blue, it is also half salty so you can’t really float like you do on the sea, but you feel pretty light and pretty good just by being in this warm nutrition filled water. It is not deep, it is just perfect to walk around. No one was really swimming, for some reason it was easier to just stroll through it. There are also saunas, steam rooms and stinky but very healthy small waterfalls where I gave my back a little massage.

I loved the mask station where you have 1 soft facial mud mask that is included in your entrance fee. Just imagine, a tall blonde Icelandic girl is in a coat (because it is windy 2nd of December we are talking about) in Mask Kiosk making you a fresh silica mud mask. After that you are in a swimming suit on the other side of the kiosk in nice warm water applying that mask. I have also purchased with my smart admission bracelet an algae mask for a few Euros because since I am here I need the Young Look mask as well.

 

Special thanks to my sister who just gave me a new bathing suit in Italy as a present because otherwise I would have to soak in Blue Lagoon in regular underwear as I would still go no matter what. There are also massages, restaurants and a gift shop.

 

I had only 1.5 hours before the lagoon closed for the day, but those were the most amazing and relaxing 1.5 hours that I ever had after traveling.

 

While floating in the lagoon, I lost my new buddies that I shared the cab with and on the way back I took a cab alone which was 50 Euros, entrance to the Blue Lagoon is also 50 Euros. In general everything is expensive in Iceland as this country has crazy debts.

   

I found fish and crabs to be cute on the Icelandic króna coins. I found it similar to Switzerland situation except debts because salaries in Iceland are also accordingly high, cab driver told me that his salary equals 5000.00 USD a month.

I woke up so fresh after the Blue Lagoon that I decided to take another cab and go to the Viking World Museum first thing in the morning and to be back by the time of my airport transfer.

I was the only person in this museum at 10 am and I loved it. It gave me chance to try some clothes on, to watch videos without being interrupted and to stare on Vikings and trolls tales for as long as I needed to.

The Atlantic Ocean smelled so good and morning birds were singing around me. I took a walk around the museum and even got the chance to see the Northern Lights through the lenses of my camera. It was a cloudy dark winter morning as we were on the darker half of the year where day light is limited to just a couple of hours per day.

I couldn’t see the Northern Lights with my bare eyes, however when I looked through my camera I saw something greenish in the sky and between clouds. God was sending me signals or Northern Lights were just above me!?

Iceland looked exactly how I pictured it in my head: yellow grass, black roads, hospitable blond people with blue eyes who put paper snowflakes in their windows…

From hotel I saw mountains far away. It is too bad I didn’t see any volcanos or gazers. I have to return to this magical land one day and for now this fresh air makes me tired, let’s fly back home. After all I only have half an ocean left till Canada.

Waiting in check-in line I heard people exchanging their “stuck experiences“ and I felt sad for those who just spent the night in the hotel and didn’t go anywhere. We have only 1 life to live so live it right!

How I got a heat stroke or unforgettable Havana with Poquito

Cuba Time is not a saying, it is a phenomenon that I believe also can be called island time because no one is in a rush and no one is ever on time. After 1 hour of waiting for our excursion and drinking strong Cuban coffee at 8 am in the lobby of our hotel we started to have doubts if anyone is coming for us at all.

After our driver showed up he said that he was late because his car was in a shop getting fixed. That is Cuban favorite excuse and it didn’t surprise anyone because cars in Cuba are as old as my grandpa. His car was this elite old pink corvette. He said: “Not your transportation, this is for photos“. After photo session this man drove us in second vehicle to nearest town of Veradero where we were transferred into a third vehicle to finally start our journey to the capital. There was 5 of us and so we were not scared to transfer vehicles. You just have to look at it as an adventure because if you are too punctual of a person, you would already go crazy after waiting for 1 hour to begin with.

I happened to have the privilege to sit at the front so I started the conversation with our driver:

–  What’s your name?

–  Call me Poquito.

–  Doesn’t poquito means small in Spanish?

–  Aaaa, no. If your dad is Frank and you are Frank that means you are Poquito Frank, comprende?

– Oh, comprende. You mean Junior like Robert Downey Jr.?

– Yes, I am an Iron Man, you can’t tell?

After this phrase I started to realize that Poquito is not only going to be our driver and guide but also a stand-up comedian all in one.

We were rolling through green areas of country pretty fast as for an old car.

– Hey Poquito, what is the average salary in Cuba?

– 20 US dollars per month. Doctor can make 40 dollars a month.

– And how much do you make on excursions?

– I make more than a doctor! See, I have Ray-Bans.

He pointed on his sunglasses and wide smile appeared on his well-rounded mid age face.

The weather was in higher 30`s Celsius on this late April day. There was not a single cloud in the sky. I could feel drops of sweat rolling down my back.

–           Poquito, can you please turn on the AC?

–           Roll down all windows, that’s my AC.

–           Then at least make music louder and how old is this Chevrolet with no seat belts anyways?

–           1957 model, I saved money and got a new engine now!

–           Holy, and how old is that jeep over there?

–           1929 model.

After this shocking number we all agreed that jeep appearance didn’t change much since the 30’s.

–           Where are you guys from?

–           Canada.

–           Oh, I want to go there, it’s a dream.

–           And we want to come here, it’s a dream. Too cold in Canada, Poquito, trust me you don’t want to go there.

He really encouraged us with his motivational speeches such as: “You didn’t come to Cuba to drink water and you didn’t come to Cuba to sleep, did you?! Party and go out and enjoy the beach and enjoy yourself and enjoy your life!“

We asked him a lot of questions about Cuban communistic regime. He said government is the biggest mafia and he kept repeating “Remember, it`s Cuba? Crazy country!“.

I really think this sunny weather has a lot to do with positive mentality of its people.

Two hours later we walked through squares and brick roads, smelling a mixture of sweat, cigars and blooming flowers that cover cracks of old buildings on the balconies, spotting Capitolium and hanging out in square of Revolution.

There was extremely hot and exhaustively exciting day ahead with cheap Legendario rum, snacking on a fresh food market and stocking up on Romeo and Juliet cigars, participating in bribe given to the road police, lining up in a wrong bank to exchange some dollars for the CUC and learning that there are 2 currencies in Cuba. We also will be discovering a statue of naked woman riding the chicken with fork in her hand that represents modern art, visiting huge cathedral with statue of my favorite Pope Saint John Paul II, visiting gigantic Statue of Jesus Christ on a hill with breathtaking view of Havana and the ocean, watching local kids play soccer right next to us…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poquito was extremely proud that Fast and Furious 8 got filmed in Havana.

It will be a few months later that I will watch this movie and with incredible and even somehow childish excitement say: I have been there, I have been there with Poquito!