Enigma of Cricova

Moldova – a tiny country in Eastern Europe, tucked in between Ukraine and Romania. Once Moldova supplied wine to entire Soviet Union. Today it exports wine worldwide.Cricova, found in the 1950s, is only 15 kilometres away from the nation’s capital Chisinau. Local legend says that many years ago, there was a monastery on the grounds of Cricova that was destroyed in a brutal invasion.As I step into the underground kingdom of wine that holds these monks’ legacies I wonder what stories are hidden within these stone walls.Cricova is not your usual underground wine cellar, it is not a secret facility, it is an entire underground wine town with 120 kilometres of labyrinthine roads that lies 100 metres below the ground.Monks were told to stop producing wine as a dry law took place. Nowadays it is hard to imagine dry law as governments of different countries own their private wine collections here. Government leaders are often having meetings and dinners in beautifully decorated conference rooms with imitated windows.As our guide continues her storytelling, I found out that monks didn’t obey the dry law and hid in caves of Cricova to keep producing wine. They were found and killed, however according to the legend you can still hear a ghost of one monk screaming sometimes. Cric means scream after all.As our driver hits the gas pedal and our tourist cart is moving deeper and deeper underground, I feel how chilly it gets. I try not to think about the monastery ghost, instead focusing on the 1.3 million rare bottles that are held underneath the earth. My favourite sparkling spirit Cricova Rosé boast a rich, velvety texture.The heart of the wine collection is Israel`s “Jerusalem of Easter” vintage 1902. Other impressive exhibits are the 1902 liqueur “Jan Becher” of Czech Republic and the 1938 Burgundy dry wine. I wonder if anyone will ever open them and what would they taste like.Unique production of red and white wine based here allows for a constant 12 C temperature – wine likes it cold. Shift workers are manually turning bottles not to disturb the buzz but to create a special sparkling bubbles. Where else in the world would you see such gentle care?Wine – drink of gods and emperors. For some wine is a symbol of civilization, and for others – sign of love, friendship and hospitality.

Lago di Como

Flashing back to my Italian Summer of 2017, I would like to do something new.

I would like to offer you a photo-essay of Lake Como and its stunning views from different heights.

Located within one and a half hour drive North from Milan, Lake Como is tucked in between beautiful Italian Alps.

Let me guide you from the lake all the way up to the top of mountains.

I started off with a boat ride. When its 30 degrees outside, being on the water does make me happier.

Lake Como has attracted artists and celebrities for hundreds of years and its famous villas come as a result of that.

A lake of glacial origin is 425 m deep. Breath in the fresh air and enjoy views of architectural heritage of Lombardi region.

Next, lets hop on to a Funicolare that is made to be 45 degrees angle.

Hold your breath as views will get more dramatic soon.

As the journey continues, I suddenly realise how big the lake is.

The funicular railway connects the city of Como with the village of Brunate.

Many Italians own their summer houses up in the Brunate village.

Funicular railway itself is a glorious view.

Red roofs are traditional for Italian buildings.

Walk up a bit more along the charming cobblestone road.

Mesmerizing view from the top of the mountain will be worth your exercise.

And of course it wouldn’t be Italy without a church on the very top of the mountain.

From here, higher than us only birds can fly.

My journey of one of the most breathtaking lakes in the world is over and I hope that yours is just set to begin soon.

Republica Dominicana Inside Out

To me an all-inclusive trip down south wouldn’t be a real experience if I didn’t make a side trip to see how local people live in the village.

As we were approaching El Salado village on our jeep, countryside excursion guide was giving us a little insight on the Dominican life.

Many Dominicans left their native land and looking for better life in other countries. Believe it or not but Dominican Republic has its own immigrants coming mainly from Haiti, some from Venezuela and Colombia in search of jobs. Haitians speak French which is beneficial for Hospitality sector jobs. Hospitality and tourism is the main economy sector in this Caribbean destination.

Average salary in Haiti is 80 USD per month while in the D. R. it is 200 to 320 USD per month. Haiti and D.R. used to fight between each other and just like after any fight there is still some tension in the air between these two countries. Haiti was a French colony while Dominican Republic was a Spanish one. Haiti actually got their independence first. Also the first ever slaves revolution was taking place exactly in Haiti after which African slaves got free. Haitians are closer to African descent whereas Dominicans are a mix of Spanish and African descent.

Dominican Republic takes two thirds of an island while Haiti takes one third of it. Socialized health care in D. R. allows its people to have a free health care.

Hospitality workers live in the hotel type of accommodation that is close to the resort where they work. If you are let`s say Sales Manager of the resort – you live at the actual property. Typically they work 11 days straight and then off for 3 days. (So, yes stop complaining about your schedule right now). If you live in the city of Higüey which is 40 min drive from Punta Cana you can drive home every day after work. Alternatively, old school bus that was donated by state of Florida or resort shuttle will provide rides to hospitality workers.

Motorcycles remain the most officiant way for most people here. I saw as scary combinations as one adult and three kids on one bike or two adults and two kids on one bike.

Unusual type of Hibiscus was blooming everywhere.

Punta Cana was a beach area name before city was called Punta Cana. Highest mountains of the entire Caribbean region are concentrated in the D. R. with Pico Duarte Mountain being 3098 meters high.

Colorful houses are spread out on both sides of not paved road. This village is not far from touristic jam of Punta Cana and they didn’t have asphalt roads in the village. Now imagine village somewhere in the middle of the country side.

Electricity is new for this village of El Salado. Not everyone can afford to have fridge. Stove that runs on gas is often not in use to save gas that comes in expansive cylinders. Locals just cook outside on fire wood.

I saw multiple homemade showers where water naturally warms up by sitting all day in a huge plastic container above the roof. In Ukraine we call this kind of shower the Summer Shower because you can heat water like this only in a summer season. Luckily for Dominicans it is always summer.

Laundry is spread out everywhere from classic ropes across the back yard to comfortably sitting on yard bushes and piles of stones.

They built houses slowly as money are coming in slowly. You can see many houses with first floor being coat painted and second floor is on very early stages of being build. Some even have plastic windows and yes, grates on windows are unfortunately necessary in a high crime country.

Usually it is a wooden house with wooden blinds for windows. Brick house that can stand hurricanes costs 35 000 USD and that is a lot around here.

23 families created their cooperative in this village and they work together towards same goals. Producing chocolate and cigars, coffee and cacao, growing sugar cane, making delicious 8 % alcohol Pineapple wine, rum and Mama Juana – drink that is concocted by allowing rum, red wine, and honey to soak in a bottle with tree bark and herbs. The taste is similar to port wine and the color is burgundy. The legend behind this Dominican Drink says that once a female healer was treating everyone with herbs and was like a mother to everyone so her famous drink got called Mama Juana. It is also considered to be the Dominican Viagra.

By the way cigars contain 30 times less nicotine than cigarettes. So you will not only look cool but actually save your health for longer if you switch to cigars.

Do try one of my favourites: Coco Loco cocktail based on coconut milk, rum, vodka and a little bit of magic.

Loteka lottery can be seen on every corner. Just like Canadians, they dream to win lottery and have better life. Music is everywhere. I feel Latin passion in every note and move. There is a discotheque in the village too.

Most of the population is Catholic and that explains church in the village. Protestant are concentrated in Samana region of the Dominican Republic. For tropical hurricane safety reason Dominicans bury their dead in crypts above the ground. Cremation is not popular here.

Little girl was running behind our jeep and so we yelled “Stop!“ to our driver. We already gave our donation bags to school and to the family we visited. My coworkers and I literally had nothing. All of a sudden Heather took her sunglasses out and said:

‘’Here, give it to the kid, they are too big for me anyways’’…

Others were waiving to us and we were waiving back to them. Sometimes all you can give is a smile and some times that is all that is needed anyways.

I find purest souls in poorest countries because these people are not spoiled by wealth, they are very honest and real, they stay true to their roots and to their lives.

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.