The Mexico trip or the “in persuit of Frida and Diego art” trip

MEXICO – ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS COUNTRIES OF SOUTH AMERICA

You can’t imagine all the (horror) stories I’ve been told since I said I was going to Mexico for my summer vacation with my boyfriend. Usually ending their anecdotes with “… but I’m sure it won’t happen to you.”

The weeks leading up to our flight I had panic sweats and anxiety attacks thinking we’ll be mugged, raped, sliced and diced, sick from the water, sick from the food, kidnapped… all the things you should not be thinking off before heading off to a well deserved vacation.

The thing is, pick where you want to go wisely. Avoid the north part of Mexico, being a tourist. And do enough research!
Well I must say that we loved Mexico! We had a fantastic time, too short a holiday even! Mexico and Mexicans are beautiful. Or we were just that damn lucky.

We went for about 2 weeks (give or take, with respective 11 hours flights to and from Europe, so those are lost days) to Mexico-City and Guanajuato city.  Stayed at such nice B&B’s. And ate delicious Mexican meals.

MEXICO-CITY

Our first day there and we found ourselves immediately in a demonstration. In June the Mexican people had to elect a new president and this brought with it that people took to the streets to voice their concerns. The demonstration itself was a peaceful one with a lot of banners and such. But not at all disruptive, as I’d imagine. The fun part was, that because of this manifestation, many of the main roads were blocked so cars could get through. So you could walk in the middle of the streets and have a look around the city, without being run over. Excellent to visit this huge city. But we heard that the mayor of Mexico-City often had these car-less Sunday, also for pollution reasons. When pollution ratings are too high, this car-less day is put in action. Cool.

One thing I was so grateful for is that we bought the book Lonely Planet Mexico-City. I never was such a fan of Lonely Planet, cause so much text and no pictures. But I have turned into a big fan, because it brought us to such nice places and discoveries, that the other books we had consulted never even mentioned!

Mexico-City, you could say, is divided into boroughs (though it’s even more complex than that). We almost – such a pity – , almost did them all. If only we had more days!

  • Centro Historico – with the Zócalo or Plaza de la Constitución. Aztec Templo Mayor is a museum that is modern, extensive and in no way boring. It’s located just next to an open-air site which shows excavations of an Aztec temple. The Zocalo is the largest square in Latin America and it’s worth to go watch the military parade that puts up or removes the Mexican flag (which is humongous). Our B&B was not far from Colonia San Rafael, about 5 metro stations away. Ideal.
  • Chapultepec – has a park, a zoo, a castle with the anthropological museum in it and several other museums in it. It was actually the place we visited on our last day. We only did the park, cause that day there was a visit at the monument by a delegation from Britain and the security guys made it impossible to get where you wanted to go. So we stuck to the park itself. Its name in Nahuatl means grasshopper hill, and the grasshopper is represented everywhere: on the benches, bins, the market stalls… One tip: squirls look cute, but these guys here might jump you and take whatever you have. So look at them, but best from afar, you know what I mean?
  • Zona Rosa – well as you can guess, it is kind of the gay district, but also the more touristic area with shops, many restaurants and snack bars such as Burger King, Wendy’s…  It’s known as the Reforma district because it’s right along the Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, so you can easily walk from Chaputepec to the Zona Rosa, towards the Centro Historico by just following the Reforma Avenue.
  • Coyoacán – is so worth a visit! When you get there you almost have the feeling you’re in a small town and no longer in Mexico-City. It’s the place for students, art and museums. Here you have the Blue House where Frida Kahlo lived, which is now a museum. Inside you are not allowed to take pictures but in the gardens it’s ok.
  • Condesa and Roma – we did a walking tour from our Lonely Planet guide here, but a short one. The neighborhoods are on opposite sides of Avenida Insurgentes and again another feel to the rest of the city.

Art and archeology have dominated our vacation. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are national treasures and you will bump into their art and murals on many occasions throughout the city. Especially Diego’s work is to be admired in the Palacio Nacional just off the Zócalo. In the Teatro Nacional de Bellas Artes. There is a mural museum and even in the Secretaría de la Educación Publica, which houses the city’s public services: 3 story’s high and all along the court-yard murals, murals, murals.

I’ll leave you with some pictures of the murals.

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Summer vacation to Istanbul: part 2

Eminönü – part of Fatih district

We often went over the Galata Bridge, over the Golden Horn, to get to Sultanahmet – also known as the Old City. Especially in the evenings, when we got back from our excursions, we tended to leave the tram aside and just walk through the below deck of the bridge, which is filled with restaurants and bars. From the bridge, over the water, you get some great views in the setting sun. I especially liked how I could see the Galata tower stick out in the skyline, lit up so pretty.

Right off the bridge you enter Eminönü, where you can take ferry boats (at the cost of no more than a tram ticket fare) to Kadıköy and Üsküdar across the Bosphorus. At Eminönü you can see the Yeni Mosque, right off the shore and of course the Egyptian (or Spice) Bazaar.

I liked the Spice Bazaar, which is smaller than the Grand Bazaar (duh!). It smells great inside, of spices and the lovely Turkish delights (or lokum) for sale. We bought some to taste, cause it is difficult not to when it’s all around you. I must say, I’m a big fan of Turkish delights! Especially the ones with either the almond, hazel or pistachio nuts in them! Heck, I love them all!

But the Spice Bazaar doesn’t only sell spices and sweets, you will find other things there as well (pottery, bags, lamps…). Continue reading “Summer vacation to Istanbul: part 2”

Summer vacation to Istanbul: part 1

There hasn’t been much of a summer to speak of here in Belgium these last months, more like a fall-phenomenon, you might say. So what better place to soak up some sun than in Turkey, Istanbul!

When we booked it was a bit with fear in our hearts: “will we dehydrate? will we suffer from the sun?”, cause all advise on the net was avoid going in summer time (July/August) and preferably go in April or May. As you can see, I’ve lived to tell the tale.

I had a bit of a shock the day of arrival in Istanbul: the heat and the pollution got to me. I was ill on the first day. Don’t worry, I recovered and maybe it’ll happen to you as well. It’s just adjusting to a city with so many cars and traffic (and exhaust fumes) and in that heat.

Luckily, there are people selling water everywhere you look, and cheap too. Otherwise it would be cruel!

BEING MOBILE IN ISTANBUL

First things you notice: cars are rulers and pedestrians are worth nothing (slight exaggeration). The cars don’t even try to slow down when you cross the road. Real survival instincts are needed. They do stop at traffic lights, but there are very few of them.

Positive: they have a great public transport system. The metro stations are new, clean, spacious and handy. But it’s mainly the trams that will be precious to you, especially the T1, which gets you to most of the sites ( Eminönü district where you have the Spice Bazaar, transportation boats & Sultanahmet district where you find the Haya Sofia, Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace & Fatih district where the Grand Bazaar and the Suleymaniye Mosque are…). We used this line a lot… and I have a thing of looking for trams in every city we visit. I always must have a picture of the local tram. I don’t know… my dad worked in the public transportation services, maybe it’s that.

Continue reading “Summer vacation to Istanbul: part 1”

Kraków with the girls: a city trip

I just got back from a city trip to Kraków, Poland. Might seem like an odd choice to you , but a lot of cities passed the audition but didn’t make it to the final cut: Sevilla (too expensive), Bordeaux (nice vineyards, but what else to see?), … a whole night of preparation went into deciding the destination… But after Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia… well why the heck not Poland! There’s a whole world out there and it’s ready to be discovered!

I found it also funny, seeing here in Brussels, I often get approached on the tram or street by people asking me: “Excuse me? Are you Polish/Russian? What language do you speak?”. I still find it odd when people do that, cause I would never go up to someone and ask “Hi, are you Bulgarian? You look like one.” I wouldn’t have the nerve. And so, no, I’m not Polish, no-one in my family is. Generations of Belgians I think, from Flanders. That’s all I know. And if you wondered, I wasn’t approached in Kraków. It was pretty clear by the camera around my neck and the mispronunciation of “Thank you” in Polish that I was a foreigner!

Back on track: Kraków is a discovery. Of course, when you go with a bunch of girls on a city trip Continue reading “Kraków with the girls: a city trip”

Sarajevo city trip – part 2

THE TRIP ITSELF CONTINUES

Food food lovely local food

Each city, so far, that we visited, we tried to get a glimpse of the local cuisine. Because next to culture, it’s the thing I look out for to see what could be an enriching experience. But no luck so far (up till now, but wait for it). Breakfasts seem to be a big problem abroad. Either you don’t find any, or the dough of the local bakery is tasteless, salty or either to hard to bite. As to national dishes, practically impossible to find, especially in the slightly touristic places. If someone offers me one more pizza, pasta or frites, I swear I’m gonna go bazirk! We have that at home, and that is not a real meal, but a snack! I want meat! And vegetables! And luckily, Bosnia provides!

They might be just meatballs in tomato sauce to you, but the Bosnian meatballs do have my approval! Another custom is to stuff vegetables with minced meat: stuffed tomatoes, stuffed paprika’s, stuffed gherkins, stuffed onions… with nice potatoes or rice and sauce. After a sturdy walk around town or the hills, it does taste incredibly delicious and you get the feeling you had a decent meal, at last!

Presentation is everything. Well this is what you expect when going to dinner. To me, I’m mostly happy if the food on the plate is tasty. Presentation is subjective. But here it was fun that your food comes in the very typical copper plates that are covered by a crafted copper cover, with all kinds of decorative markings carved into it.

We did not taste the local beer (though we did enjoy the Irish Pub and Cheers bar (yeah, Cheers! Right next to the hostel, but no, no Woody Harrolson in sight 🙂 ). But during our walk we did stumble on the Sarajevo brewery and I must say, that is a pretty impressive architecture for a brewery! (as you might see in the picture above)

And do try the cakes! They are huge, chocolate-y (or other) and yummy. Again, my approval as sweet tooth is given. What is finally good to know, if you are an avid coffee freak like me: Sarajevo is a big coffee fan too! You even get a glass of water offered when you order a cup!

To see

Sarajevo has many museums on offer: history mainly, but also art or the Olympic Museum (Sarajevo 1984…

  Continue reading “Sarajevo city trip – part 2”

Sarajevo city trip – part 1

(for more pictures, I direct you to my ON THE ROAD section)

THE CHOICE

A city trip to Sarajevo might not be the most obvious choice to make. That’s at least the response I got when saying where we went to recently. East Block Countries? The Balkan? Well, sure. Why not?

I had already gone to Croatia (Split, Dubrovnik), with a small stop in Bosnia & Herzegovina for a day trip to Mostar. I must say, that the day trip to Mostar was the highlight of our summer vacation last year.  Our experiences so far in the East have been nothing but interesting, fun and cultural surprises. If we could have, we would have gone to Sarajevo straight after Mostar, but time and means did not permit that. So it was obvious it would be on the list of things to visit for any other trip we’d plan.

Major popular cities for city trips, we had mostly done: Barcelona, Paris, Prague (beautiful fantastic city), Budapest, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, Köln… and seeing we have tried several times to find a link between cities to combine them, but didn’t succeed so far, we jumped on the opportunity to go to Sarajevo when it now presented itself.

Sarajevo, is mostly known to the world as the city who was besieged from 1992 till 1995 in the most horrible way, as is in all war. A genocide to try to create the Great Serbia. So this city has suffered incredibly and it must not be forgotten what happened there. The entire city was practically shot to nothingness and unrecognisable.  Today, the city has been rebuild, but not without a lot of help. 15 years later, the wound is still fresh, and the marks are still visible. But I cannot tell you how beautiful this city is. Architecture that is diverse and beautiful. And people, so diverse and beautiful too.

THE TRIP ITSELF

Quick info on travel options

We went by plane via Ljubljana (Slovenia), which has beautiful snowy mountains!! Adria Airlines rule (refreshing after the

  Continue reading “Sarajevo city trip – part 1”

Back from holiday: Budapest – Vienna – Bratislava

I’ve returned from a week of holiday. We decided to go on a prolonged city trip going from Budapest (Hungary) to Vienna (Austria), with a small stop at Bratislava (Slovakia).

(for pictures, please go to my ON THE ROAD column to your right, where I’ve put some of my snapshots).

It was actually a lot of fun discovering these cities. All three of them are along the Danube, but very different.

Budapest is divided by the Danube, with Buda on the higher ground with the castle, the Szabadság Szobor or Liberty Statue on the citadel of Gellért Hill, with the Gellért Baths (there are several Turkish bath houses – with natural springs – introduced through the Turkish occupancy), and the Halászbástya or Fisherman’s Bastion with its seven towers.

Pest is the lower side and the more commercial side of town with restaurants, hotels and shopping areas. We had a small apartment through Hostel World which was amazing, right next to the St Stephen’s Basilica. We stumbled inadvertedly into the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (Budapesti Műszaki és Gazdaságtudományi Egyetem) , which from the outside is a remarkable building with 4 huge stone carved women.  It was a surprise to us, because we found a fantastic building, which was not mentioned in our travel guide.

Several bridges can take you from Buda to Pest and back by means of the 4 bridges that take you over the Danube. Szabadság híd or Liberty Bridge is the green one and even has trams going over them.

I must say that the public transportation system is very easy and takes you almost anywhere you’d like to. To go to Vienna, we took a tourist return ticket (31€) which allows you to have a 4 day stay at Vienna and the first 2 days you can travel free on the public transport system, which comes pretty handy as a traveler! The train we took was a Rail Jet, and kind of Thalys-like, if you know what I mean. I was glad for the comfort, because the trip from Budapest to Vienna took 3 hours, and what might come in handy to know is that there is a meal wagon in the middle of the train. Expensive though.

I was a bit disappointed by Vienna. I had higher hopes and expectations, but maybe that was due to the fact that after visiting Budapest, you go comparing the city vibes. And it was grey and softly raining, which ruined the mood a bit too. But all in all, Vienna is ok. We went to the Museum of Modern Arts, or Mumok, and to the Freud Museum. We mainly visited the city with the handy trams that take you most everywhere you can imagine.

Our trip took us 1 hour further outside of Vienna to Bratislava (former Pressburg), again with an interesting tourist train ticket, which included again free transportation in Bratislava. Throughout history, this Slovak city had been under Austrian and then Hungarian rule, so it has a mixture of things and a special vibe.

What you see when entering the city is the bridge, Nový Most, that has a kind of a flying saucer thing, which in fact is a restaurant called UFO on top of the bridge. It has an observation deck, that you can visit even if you don’t go to the restaurant (but you will have to buy a ticket).

The Old Town is the tourist place to be, and you will have seen everything in a little more than an afternoon, but it’s worth it. If you are willing to step outside the perimeter of the Old Town and you wonder about a bit, you might, as we did, stumble on a weird building that is in fact an inverted pyramid ! It’s where the Slovak radio stations are found. It’s a bit further than the Grassalkovich Presidential Palace.

We saw and walked a lot in 1 week. Exploring 3 cities might seem much, but it is do-able. And heck, well you can always return in the future to re-acquaint yourself with the city and discover new locations.

Go on, dare and go city-tripping!

Köln, baby!

I went to Germany for the first time with my boyfriend. A city trip to Köln, or Cologne for the French.

I didn’t know the city that well. My former school used to organize a yearly day trip there before Christmas to visit the worldly renown Christmas Fair that is held through all the city streets. I never went, though it is said to be very impressive. But very crowded as well. So I was glad to get the chance to go there, off-season and much less crowded while wandering the streets.

Make sure to get a city map. It sounds so ridiculously obvious, but still, I advise it to anyone. Even if it makes you scream in a non vocal way “I’m a tourist, I’m a tourist!”. There is a big tourist centre right in front of the Dom or cathedral. It’s the biggest building you’ll see when exiting the train station, so you can’t possibly miss the Köln Tourismus centre. They have maps in 20 languages… come to think of it, why is that? The street names are still in German… I’ll ponder on that off the blog.

So I said it: the cathedral or Dom. Big ugly edifice, that somehow cannot make you look away. It holds your attention like a sunflower to the sun. I say ugly… well up close you will surely find beautiful sculpting. They have started cleaning the stones of the exterior. So one day – and I admire the daredevils that do the job – this big black looking Dom will shine in the sun in its white splendour! It’s patron saint is Saint Ursula and took 600 years to build(not the saint, the Dom! Focus, will ya?!). How about that! It was started in 1248 and knew an on and off building period till 1880.

You can visit the Treasury. I didn’t, but if you like to it’ll cost you ’bout €5. (Nothing for nothing, sweethearts. Besides, they need to fund the renovations!) Continue reading “Köln, baby!”

La cuenta de mis vacaciones: Asturias, tienes mi corazón para siempre!

This weekend I went to a Spanish event, fiesta de la amistad (party of friendship) for the Spanish community from Asturias. Think of it as in folk terms, with traditional food, drink and music. And as usual, I sat and observed the experience from behind my glas of wine.

It made me think of my trip there about two years ago. I went to Asturias for 3 weeks and it made a big impression on me. I haven’t travelled a lot: twice to Italy (Toscany mainly, Lucca, Sienna, Venice – the tourist kind of places), to Paris, Barcelona and The Netherlands. A big contrast with the north of Spain. The only tourist there are the Spanish themselves. So I was pretty helpless with my French, English and Dutch. But I survived none the less.

My adventures took me to Gijón, Cudillero (a fisherman’s town), Cangas de Onís to Roman artifacts, Cabrales to a fantastic food fest, through Llanes to a fantastic beach…

So this party this weekend was a lot like the one I’d been to in Mestas de Con, near Cangas de Onís. Very ‘folk’. I must admit that in Mestas, I participated more in the festivities than at the Asturian fest here. I didn’t feel that comfortable dancing in such a crowd. I have crowd issues. It takes me a while. Ironic actually, because you can be ‘inconspicuous’ in a crowd. You just blend into the mass. A shame, but then again, I had a lot of sidra to drink, so the evening was lively enough for me.

I like the fears I overcame. We went to the mountains, Picos de Europa, trekking through them with a guide. Not being of the adventurous persuasion, I had some difficulties overcoming some height issues; looking down into an abyss right next to the path made my stomach go all whoopsy daisy a few times. And the assent with the teleferique in Fuente Dé, you know, a cabin on a dubious cable with 20 people in it when it is designed for 12, all wobbling the damn thing for amusement while you try to convince yourself you are not going to tumble into an excruciating death to meet your creator. Going at the speed of light (slight exaggeration) to a hight of 400 metres… When I found out where we were going, I was dead against it. Now I am glad I followed it through, because the view over the mountain tops was the best sight I’d ever seen. (will include the picture of me later).

Anyway … I hope I can experience the same pleasurable vacation again some day. There is more of Asturias to get to know! I would go there in a heart beat if only I could afford it soon. A place that produced a legend as Fernando Alonso (Formule 1), can’t be half that bad, can it?

I would like to thank my sister for having invited me and her Spanish husband for showing me his beautiful country, family and … a very good time!