Sunday, August 21, 2016

Helena — The Capital of Montana

Montana State capitol.When we put together our road trips we try to include state capitals even when those require a bit of a detour. Especially for those capitals that we haven’t been to previously. But Helena, the capital of Montana, turned out to be directly in our way and not only that, but very much in the middle of our drive from East Glacier Park Village to West Yellowstone — our next destination.

Helena. Montana State capitol.However instead of going through Helena and just stopping there for a short while we decided to break our long drive apart and spend a day in Helena itself to make things easier on our kids. It was 187 miles away from Glacier National Park and 176 miles to Yellowstone. We spent one night in Helena and we stayed in the only Hilton owned property of our whole trip — Hampton Inn Helena.

Capitol from the front.The drive to Helena itself was mostly uneventful except for a bit of anxiety we experienced on the part of us running out of gas and a complete lack of settlements of any kind on our way. So we were quite relieved to reach a town of Choteau with a population of around 1,500. We decided to grab a quick lunch at the gas stations where we filled up our car. We ate some typical gas station food, but Alёna and my dad ordered some soup to-go at a small sandwich place across the street.

Inside capitol. Anюta being Anюta.Hampton Inn turned out be very pleasant. Probably the cleanest and nicest place we stayed at on this trip. The only exception is a place at Jackson where we actually had a huge two bedroom, two story suite to ourselves — the only place where we actually finally got a joint room — our last day. Anyhow, we deiced not to procrastinate and get right back into our car right after check-in.

Looking up into the dome.The only thing that we wanted to see in Helena was its capitol complex, which was only 10 or so minutes away from the hotel. Since the day was Sunday the capitol building ended up being closed, just as we expected. We walked around it, looked at various monuments and simply spent some time laying on the green grass surrounding the capitol while kids ran around and played.

Walking up.As far as the pictures go, the sun was shining from the wrong direction, but the biggest issues that prevented me from taking decent photographs was my continuing lack of a shift lens. Thus without having one on hand all my pictures in their original form have a serious case of converging vertical lines — buildings appearing to be falling down behind themselves. Thank you, Photoshop.

Hibachi dinner.While kids were running around Alёna and I were going through restaurant listings on TripAdvisor. We wanted something different from the usually available American cuisine and ended up settling on a Japanese hibachi place called Nagoya Steakhouse which was in 18th out of 115 places — decent enough. The food turned out to be very good. Kids enjoyed the show and all of us enjoyed the food. Even my dad, who is not easily impressed by restaurant food, commented on the fact of it being delicious.

Senate chambers.And to finish our day all of us went out to hotel pools which also had a hot tub. Here I was pleasantly surprised by the progress that my kids had made with swimming. If back in April during our Canadian trip Arosha used to swim like a kind of a mix of amoeba and a zombie, he was actually swimming like a typical human would. And Anna who would refuse to go into a pool alone before was swimming all around it with a help of inflatable arm bands. All those trips that Alёna makes to our building pool with them really pay off.

Senators.One the morning of the next day — Monday, before leaving Helena we drove over to the capitol complex again. The building was open to visitors, we got our official capital stamps in our passports and were able to explore all over the capitol itself. It had a lot of paintings depicting Native Americans inside. We also were able to check out house and senate halls. It looks good inside, but to tell you the truth all the capitols are started to blur together in my head by now.

Inside the capitol.And that was our stay in Helena. The next stop was Yellowstone National Park itself — the longest single portion of our whole trip — five nights in one place.

Some of my stamps along with the one we got at Montana capitol building in Helena.
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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Glacier National Park

Saint Mary Lake.Glacier National Park was the new destination for myself and Alёna on this trip. We’ve been to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in 2009, but Glacier was a bit too far off for that trip so we left it for some time later. So seven years and two kids later we finally got around to booking this trip. We also did look forward towards the rest of our family enjoying all three of these places already knowing that two of them will definitely be awesome.

Glacier Park Lodge.But I’ll start from the beginning. We arrived to Great Falls, Montana at around noon. It was the closest airport that we could get to without having to do more than one plane change. We rented an enormous three row Chevrolet Suburban which fit all six of us quite comfortably along with for large suite cases. As for Great Falls itself — we really didn’t find anything to look at or see, so after driving through a couple of streets we got on a highway and left for our first destination of this vacation.

Entering Glacier National Park.We were staying in East Glacier Park Village in an old lodge — Glacier Park Lodge — right on the edge of the park — 10 miles away from the nearest entrance. The drive from Great Falls was 140 miles which wasn’t too bad. Everything started on large plains, often covered by fields of flowers with dark silhouette of the mountains visible on the horizon. The mountains themselves are located inside Glacier National Park — the continuation of Rockies which run through the whole continent from top to bottom. As we were getting closer, the mountains were getting bigger and we could make out their snow covered peaks.

Two Medicine Lake. On our way to Stain Mary entrance.We arrived at our lodge at around 5pm local time, which is 7pm in New York. We were pretty tired. We got a pair of rooms next to each other at this magnificent looking lodge made out of enormously sized logs. The lodge itself was built over a century ago and it feels nice. The rooms were not akin to a 5 star hotel, but that was expected. I’m sure they were renovated from the time that the lodge has been built, but not quite obvious how long ago.

Our rental Suburban.By the time we got to the lodge everyone was pretty tired and I was quite sleepy since I woke up way too early in the middle of the night. And I can’t sleep on the plane at all. So we just went to the diner room of the lodge, ate our dinner and I turned in for the night to explore the park the next day. Alёna though took kids to the pool if I remember correctly, but I think I slept through all of that.

Us on one of the meadows.We had two full days in the park and thus we had two different locations that we wanted to visit, both on the east side of the park as the western entrance was too far away to drive to and back to the lodge on the same day with kids. We decided to start with a further objective on the east side of the park — Saint Mary entrance and visitor center. That’s where Going-to-The-Sun Road starts that runs across the whole park to the western exit.

Saint Mary Lake.On our way there we stopped by a couple of lakes to take in the views and eventually got to the visitor center. We stamped our passports and inquired about hikes that we could take. I always imagined Glacier National Park to consist of multiple lakes surrounded by mountains and I wanted to visit something like that. Out of all the possible hikes we decided to take a trail leading to Hidden Lake which starts at Logan Pass Visitor Center and is 2.7 miles long.

Trail to the Hidden Lake.And while driving to Logan Pass we made numerous stops along the highway. The most spectacular view was on the shore of Saint Mary Lake. There was no wind and the water was very still and mirror like. That’s where I took one of the best photographs of this trip — mountains reflecting in the water of a lake — just like I imagined this park would look.

Snow on the trail.When we got to Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot we were surprised to find out that there is absolutely no parking. After circling around the parking lot for some time we eventually got lucky with somebody driving off right in front of us. This turned out to be a common theme all-throughout our vacation. Yellowstone was the worst.

Mountain goat.While the trail itself didn’t seem all that hard if you’re a young adult it ended up being fairly steep for kids. And my 77 year old dad a lot of the pain in his knee lately, so he ended up not going — the only trail that he missed. As soon as we started up Arosha decided that he urgently needed to use the bathroom, so Alёna had to go back with him. And Anna’s pace was — well, not fast, her not being even 3 and all.

On the trail.I had my tripod with me and Alёna told me to just continue and not wait for them. So I did. The fact that the trail was fairly steep was exacerbated by the fact that soon after you start the climb the trail is covered by snow that still hasn’t melted by the end of July. So climbing up the mountain via a slippery snow is not exactly fun, but I was determined to get to the lake.

Hidden Lake.On my way up I ended up seeing at least 10 mountain goats in different places. I was feeling sad that I’m going to be the only one to see all this, but I took enough photographs to show all this to the rest of the family. And eventually I got to the overlook of this lake. It turned out that the lake itself was still quite a bit away down from the mountain and I felt that I probably should head back after taking the pictures from the overlook since everyone was waiting for me.

Hidden Lake overlook.And as soon as I turned around I saw Alёna and Arosha standing next to me. I was so happy to see them. They actually did get to see all the snow, the lake, the goats and I really at all didn’t expect to see them here. I knew Alёna could easily do the hike, but the fact that Arosha was there with her made me very proud. She says that she kept her own pace and he kept up with her just fine.

Hidden Lake.After taking in all the views we decided to head back. And when we were somewhere in the middle of trail down we ran into my mom who was carrying Anna up the hill. That was another very surprising discovery. We took over Anna and my mom continued all they way to top of the trail. Interesting things about my mom is the fact that it’s really hard to pull her out of the house for a walk around Brooklyn, but when we go to a vacation she turns into a hiker that doesn’t miss a single trail.

Inside our lodge.Heading down the trail was actually quite a bit harder than it was going up. Some places which seemed just fine on the way up looked downright scary on the way back. One wrong step and you are sliding down a steep mountains into somewhat of an abyss. So we took it really slow, holding kids by their hands or in the hands in Anna’s case. Anyhow, the hike felt really exhilarating. And the fact that we ended up seeing so many wild animals on our first day was exciting too.

Glacier Park Lodge.And that was mostly it for our first day. On our way back we drove by the shore of Saint Mary Lake again and the view has changed completely. There was a slight breeze and the water has lost all of the reflections. We were glad that we stopped by the lake in the morning and didn’t leave it for later.

Two Medicine Lake.When we got back to East Glacier Park Village we decided to go to a Mexican restaurant that had high ratings on TripAdvisor, but it turned out that they have a long line. So we went back to the lodge for their not exactly stellar food. It was decent, but not anything to write home about. And I think I started falling asleep again. Kids played around the lodge on a big grass field that it had for a long time. And that’s how the first day ended.

One of the meadows on the trail.On the second day our plan was to explore the other of the two eastern entrances to the park — Two Medicine entrance. This entrance was only 10 miles away from our lodge. The main event would be a hike along Two Medicine Lakes to Aster Falls.

Meadows.Before setting out to a hike we stopped by a general store to buy a pair of light aluminum hiking sticks for my dad. A lot of people use them on the trails and we thought it makes a lot of sense to take some of the weight away from his aching knee. We spent some time in the store picking out the sticks and some other souvenirs.

Aster Falls.When we walked out and put our hiking gear on — backpacks, hats and all it started raining. Within 3 minutes of us starting our hike it switched from raining to pouring and it got really cold. We were glad that we decided to pack our light rainproof jackets with us, but the weather was not hikable at all. So we figured we should have a quick lunch and see if our fortune changes.

Photographing.We went back into the general store and had a nice hearty lunch — I had a chili soup and a hotdog. We bought hotdogs for our kids, but they have a strange way of eating those. Anna only eats the hotdog itself and refuses to eat the buns and Arosha does the exact opposite. Also we figured by having an early lunch we would be hungry just in time for dinner.

Aster Falls.By the time we were done even though the sky stayed very dark and ominous the rain has stopped. So we set out for the falls which ended up being a four mile three and half hour hike. We made a lot of stops along the way to take pictures — tripod setup takes time, Anna is not a quick walker yet, but the views were worth it.

Two Medicine Lake.Most of the trail took us through the forest and multiple blooming meadows and valleys. Some valleys had lakes by them with magnificent reflections. The sky though was dark and uncooperative for photography, so it’s really hard to really convey how beautiful the setting was. So many flowers.

Us by the lake.The waterfall itself was usual. Just your average waterfall. But as I said before — the final destination was not the point. There was a ton of people with little kids at the falls. Some of them kept falling into the water from time to time, but we managed to keep ours from getting wet.

Trail to Aster Falls.On the way back we made a little detour to get directly onto the shore of one of the lakes — the trail itself starts from the opposite side of the lake. I again tried to take some photographs, but Saint Mary shot from the previous day was still my best.

Trail to the falls.By the time we were back at our car everyone was tired and hungry. So we drove back into East Glacier Park Village. We again tried to go the Mexican restaurant I mentioned above and again there was a ton of people outside, waiting. I decided to try my luck and asked for a table anyhow. And what do you know — because most parties were smaller they were waiting for smaller tables, and because there was six of us we got a table right away.

Hidden Lake overlook.Our kids love Mexican food. One of Arosha’s favorite cuisines — mix rice with black beans, add some guacamole and sour cream — there is nothing better. I love fajitas and Anna just eats a bunch of meat of all kinds. We also washed it all down with some nice margaritas.

Two Medicine Lake. Panorama.And that’s how our introductory trip to Glacier National Park came to an end. The park has a lot of beautiful places and trails, but we’ll have to explore its other parts on some of our future trips. We spent our last night at the lodge and in the morning set course south, towards Yellowstone.
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New York State Capitol.Albany was the fifth and the final stop of our vacation. One of the reasons for the stop was to break up a long drive from Montreal to Brooklyn. Another reason to stop specifically at Albany was the fact that we have never actually properly visited the capital of our own state. We drove through it before, but have never explored the city or laid eyes on the capitol building and its surroundings.

Empire State Plaza.The ride down from Montreal was supposed to take about four hours, but it started with what I clearly remember about our last trip to Montreal — major road closures. This time they just completely closed one of the bridges that was supposed to take us across Saint Lawrence River. GPS was sending us in circles and all the detour signs would just abruptly end. Luckily I remembered that there was another bridge at the north end of Montreal. And even though that ended up being a pretty big detour for us we finally got out and were on our way.

Rest area stop.The rest of the drive was uneventful. Our phones came alive after we crossed into United States. We stopped at Duty Free on the boarder and bought a couple of souvenirs. We ate our lunch at some fast food place. And we took a short break on some rest area in some part of Adirondack Region where Alёna got talked into playing a little bit of soccer with Arosha.

Capitol view from another side.By the time we checked into our hotel, parked the car and unloaded the luggage it was 6 o’clock in the evening. The hotel was Hilton Albany and we chose it because of its proximity to the capitol complex. It was nice enough as Hiltons typically are. However we were unfortunate enough to have to eat dinner at a hotel restaurant. The fact that it was completely empty should’ve been a sign. The food was less than stellar to say the least.

Kids by one of the fountains.Anyhow, since we were staying for only a single night the rest of the day was the only time that we would have to explore the center. So we set out towards the capitol building. The walk was probably no more than 10 minutes long at Anna’s pace. The day was warm, the sky was blue, it was a nice end of the day.

Capitol.The capitol itself is non-typical looking. It doesn’t have a traditional dome, but instead looks more like some large castle. Sadly because we were visiting over a weekend the building itself was closed, so we were not able to see it inside. I guess we’ll have to come by some other time to get our stamps.

The Egg.Next to the capitol building there was a large open area — Empire State Plaza developed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. It had large fountain pools which were empty at this time of the year. On its edges there was a good number or large monolithic buildings and there was an egg shaped concert hall which was called exactly that — The Egg.

Climbing assistance.Kids had a lot of fun running and climbing around, exploring empty fountains — basically expanding all the extra energy that got accumulated in their systems after a day of driving. Then we tried to go to some highly rated pub nearby, but there was a 30 minute wait for the table. Since we were very tired and hungry by then and there was nothing else open in a walking distance we decided to dine at our hotel, which turned out to be a mistake as I explained earlier.

Units.And to finish the day off we went for a swim in the pools — last pool of our vacation. That was actually the only time we ended up socializing with other people while sitting in a hot-tub. As a result Arosha ended up with a much longer pool time than he was originally promised.

Climbing.And when we got back to the room I attempted to push Arosha’s bed toward the wall as we often do to minimize his chances of falling off the bed during the night which he still does from time to time. However I did not anticipate that I would slip out out of my still wet rubber slippers during this maneuver. As a result I performed a major face plant into the bed after which one of my legs slammed into the floor. I still limp two and half weeks later.

Another view.On this positive note I will conclude the last day of our vacation. Our drive home was uneventful and we got home early enough to rest and then visit our parents for a nice dinner in the evening.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls. Both sides.We arrived at Niagara Falls, Canada via Rainbow Bridge. There was a long wait line of cars for passport check, and children were getting a little stir-crazy, but as always we survived with only minor damage to our nervous systems.

Our hotel. DoubleTree Fallsview Resort and Spa.We stayed at DoubleTree Fallsview Resort and Spa. It is the same exact hotel where we stayed with Daniel and his parents last time we visited this town. We got a nice room at high floor, albeit one level below the executive one.

Us in Niagara Falls.We were pretty hungry by the time we got there, so we decided to have a light lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. The restaurant was quiet and empty, and the lunch food that we ordered was not bad, with the exclusion of Caesar Salad. I think once I started making it at home, restaurant versions with their bottled dressings got much less satisfying.

On a ship to the falls.After lunch we headed for the falls. They were a relatively short walk away from our hotel. It was cold-ish outside, but bright and sunny. To our surprise, the boat ride underneath the falls was running, and Arosha REALLY wanted to go. What do good parents do when their five year old is bubbling with need to go into the cold mist of giant waterfalls? Of course they do exactly as he asks!

Red raincoats.Since it was so early in the season, the line was very short, and we had hardly spent any time waiting for the ride. Each one of us got a red disposable raincoat, which we put on right away. In fact, we put two of those on Anюta (one was smaller, one was bigger) to make sure she’ll stay dry. We all enjoyed this little adventure. When we were near a big waterfall, the mist turned into a full fledged pouring rain, but luckily, it did not last too long.

Inside the casino.After the ride, we walked along the waterfront, admiring the views and smelling first daffodils. For dinner we decided to go to the buffet in one of the casinos, but they were really strict and did not let us pass through the casino to the restaurant on the account of children. For me it was quite unusual after the family-friendly atmosphere in Las Vegas, but oh well.

Alёna and Arosha.We wondered around the shopping area attached to the casinos, and ended up going to the Chinese buffet. The food was very mediocre, but they had sushi, and Arosha stuffed himself up with them. There was also a pretty decent variety of vegetables (not so with meat), so I did not left the place hungry either.

Whirlpool on Niagara.We started the following day with the trip to the Niagara whirlpool. The day was nice and sunny again. There is a cable car running over the whirlpool in season, but it was not open yet. I am not sure if we would have taken a ride anyhow, since to me it seemed like a pretty scary endeavor.

Ride over whirlpool was closed for the season.When we were in Niagara Falls area last time, we visited the Butterfly Conservatory. I remember being very impressed by it, and we wanted to share this experience with the children. They’ve been to similar thing during our visit to the Museum of Natural History, but their butterfly exhibit was tiny compared to this conservatory.

Arosha hoping that a butterfly will land on his hand.Arosha and Anюta both liked the butterflies, although at some point Anna ran to us all excited holding a big butterfly in her hand. I honestly hope that she did not catch it, but picked up from the floor, but who knows.

At Butterfly Conservatory.We explained to her how we should never do such things and that she might have accidentally killed the poor insect. It made a lasting impression on her. She was not very upset, but to this day she remembers it now and again and tells us that she is sad because she killed a poor butterfly.

Алёна с бабочками.We went to the hotel after this, and had lunch at the local restaurant again. The kids were really excited at the prospect of going to the pool, so that’s exactly what we did. We spent a good chunk of time there, since there was a Jacuzzi to get warm after a cool pool.

Skylon tower.Our next objective was the Skylon tower. We walked around the observation deck for a little bit and enjoyed the falls views from high up. Originally we wanted to have dinner at their buffet, but it was only open for lunch on that particular day. There was a highly-rated revolving restaurant on the tower as well, but we decided to save the experience for the CN Tower in Toronto. Plus it was rather expensive, as one might expect from a place like that.

Conquering the fear of heights.Instead, we ended up going to a Brazilian steakhouse, and it was just so good! It was probably our best dinner of the whole vacation. It was not cheap either, but the children ate for free, so it was a very good deal for us, considering that Arosha ate more meat than I did, and Anюta was in a close lead to me.

SkyWheel.I have to say that normally Arosha is not a big fan of meat. He oftentimes refuses to eat meat that I cook at home, unless it’s in the form of meat pie or samsa or part of the soup. However, he loves shish-kebabs and good steaks in restaurants, and when we go to Brazilian places, he always surprises me with his appetite.

View of the waterfalls from the top of SkyWheel.Our last day at Niagara Falls was cloudy and grey. We started our adventures with the ride on the SkyWheel. For some reason, our children really enjoy Ferris Wheels, so we try to take a ride on one whenever the opportunity presents itself.

View from our window.After the ride we went to some arcade place. The most interesting thing there was an air hockey table. Danya and Arosha played a game, but Anюta was too small to hit the puck. To be quite honest, I get really bored with arcades after spending more than 5 minutes in such places. I think Danya feels the same, so we did not linger.

Clifton Hill.We walked around the city down the Clifton Hill street for a while. There are a lot of souvenir shops, different strange entertainment places, where the visitors are either being scared or are supposed to laugh. There are also some “museums”, most notably the Guinness World Records one, but they did not look interesting enough to spent our time and money on them.

Lunch at Niagara Brewery and dinner at Rainforest Cafe.We were not sure where to have lunch. We almost went to Friday’s, but the prices there are unjustifiably high. How weird is it, that they charge almost a third more than in our local TGIF? The Outback Steakhouse had the same issue. So we ended up going to the Niagara Brewing Company. I really enjoyed our lunch, and so did Danya. The children were not impressed with the food, but I am still glad we went there instead of some chain place.

Waterfall with a ship.After lunch, we walked by the falls again and headed to the hotel. My head was starting to ache, which unfortunately happens to me at least ones on vacation with kids. I am not sure if I just get overtired and my body protests in such a way, but this seems to be the trend. I think we went to the pools again, but I am not sure 100% if we did.

Brazilian.By dinnertime, my headache got worse, but the children were getting really hungry especially considering that they barely ate anything at lunch. We decided to head for the nearby Mexican restaurant with good reviews, but unfortunately it was closed.

View from our window.We could not find anything good close to the hotel, and ended up going to the Rainforest Cafe, which we spotted during the day. It was pretty far from the hotel, but since we did not anticipate going there beforehand, we did not take Anna’s stroller. She did not mind walking by herself, but sometimes we carried her for better speed.

Crossing the street.The food in Cafe was nothing special, but the atmosphere was perfect for the children. We were sitting next to the gorillas, and our little ones were fascinated when they were moving and talking. Arosha also went to explore other parts of the restaurant to get a closer look at elephants and waterfalls, and Anюta followed him around like a little pup.

Niagara Falls.I was feeling quite nauseous, so I just ordered hummus and water. I think I would have been better off skipping dinner altogether, but I did not know that at the moment.

Rainforest Cafe.We went to the hotel afterwards, and Danya had to carry Anюta most of the way, since I felt too sick to do it. When we got to the hotel, he and Arosha took a car and drove to the Falls to see the night illumination. They only saw the white lights, since the colored illumination comes up fairly late.

On a ship.I felt even worse, but after throwing up a few times, I took tylenol for the headache and was able to fall asleep. I felt just fine the next day, to everyone’s relief.

Skylon Tower.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Toronto

Toronto skyline.Toronto, the capital of Ontario Province, was our third stop of a trip. Alёna has been to Toronto once before and I have visited it multiple times, but I wanted to take our kids to it for one reason in particular among others — it’s a home to the world’s third tallest tower — CN Tower. In fact it held the record of the world’s tallest tower for 34 years.

Streets of Toronto.Toronto is a very short drive away from Niagara Falls and so we had more than half a day available to us at the time when we were fully checked in into our hotel.

From the top.We stayed at DoubleTree Toronto Downtown where we ended up on a 3rd floor with pretty much no view of anything. We typically book the cheapest available room — this time it was a room with two double beds — and hope that our Diamond VIP status will raise us to a high executive floor. This was a rare time when this bet failed — double rooms only go as far as the 6th floor and the hotel was fully sold out. Oh, well.

CN Tower. I really need a shift lens.As I said earlier our main objective was a visit to CN Tower. CN Tower has a revolving restaurant at the top which is while quite expensive is worth a visit for the experience. The earliest dinner time is 4:30pm and that’s the time we made our reservation for. There was no point eating lunch, so we stuffed up on marinated olives and croutons that we bought several days earlier at a winery near Seneca Falls.

Dinner at 360 Restaurant.So as we were done with “lunch” we set out for a walk to CN Tower. The distance was a little bit more than a single mile, but our Anюta often prefers to walk on her own, so we had a good long (time-wise) walk ahead of us. To my delight though Toronto is a city where streetcar system is one option of public transportation. As last time in Lisbon I’ve taken way too many pictures of those trams.

Us at the stop. Not a stellar picture sadly.When we arrived to CN Tower we were able to skip all the lines because of our reservation to 360 Restaurant at the top. We have been sat at one of the tables by the window and Arosha couldn’t quite grasp the concept of not sitting on the heaters by the perimeter of the restaurant and his table getting away from him. I kept telling him that they are not spinning when he clearly saw that they are moving. After a short while he finally figured out that it was the table that was moving after all.

Admiring the view and Anna vs ice-cream.Anna on the other hand has managed to fall asleep in her stroller right at the last moment and was in a pretty bad mood when we had to wake her up and sit at the table. I think only a sight of french fries eventually calmed her down.

Lower level observation deck.Meanwhile Arosha was really admiring the view — quite a change from little Arosha who probably wouldn’t care at all. He still has a pretty serious case of fear of heights, but having glass windows separating him from the abyss seems to completely alleviate all his fears.

Glass floors.The dinner was, while good, quite expensive. I was charged 75 dollars (albeit Canadian1 ones) for a piece of steak, Alёna was charged $65 for her salmon and we split a steak for kids for $40. And again, we didn’t have to pay for the ride up the tower and the experience was definitely worth it. I think Arosha will have lasting memories of the place.

Toronto trams.After the dinner we walked down to the lower floor which has a portion of it made out of glass. And there is nothing below it but a far away ground on which the base of the tower stands on. I was wondering if Arosha’s fear of heights would prevent him from getting close to that, but again, glass seemed to do the trick as he was the first one to jump onto one of the glass panels.

Toronto trams.After the walk back to the hotel we did a mandatory visit to the hotel’s pools and that was the end of our first day there.

Toronto skyline from Polson Pier.On the second day I wanted to find a place to photograph the skyline of Toronto WITH CN Tower included, but somehow the city seems to totally lack any other observation decks, but the one on CT Tower itself. So instead we set out to drive onto one of the peninsulas that extend into Lake Ontario from the city itself. And we actually managed to find one such place relatively easy.

High Park.There is a place called Jennifer Kateryna Koval’s'kyj Park which is located on one such peninsula. While the place itself was quite dirty and small it gives one a great vantage point to photograph Toronto’s skyline from. The day was very clear without a single cloud in sight which makes for a pretty uninteresting composition, but I still think that Toronto’s skyline is very distinct thanks to CN Tower … ehm, towering … over everything.

Brewhouse.Since it was morning and we were done with planned things to do we decided to turn to TripAdvisor for … yes, advice. We ended up going to High Park which seems to be a large green park right inside the city à la Central Park. Kids played on the playground, Arosha managed to climb atop of a pretty high stump of a tree by himself as he always does and so on. And then we got hungry.

Lunch at Amsterdam Brewhouse in Toronto.We looked through the list of highly rated restaurants and spotted two breweries on it. After calling both of them and asking about the parking situation we set out to Amsterdam Brewhouse which was located right on the shore of the lake. And after a nice lunch we walked along the shore boardwalk for more excellent views of the tower which was not far away. And then a stroll through a train museum, another brewery upon entering which I was just handed a free glass of beer and we were spent.

Boardwalk by the shore.By the time we got back to our hotel it was pretty late and I was sad to find out that another famous place, city hall, which we left for the last because it was one block away from our hotel closes at 4:30pm and it was quite well past that. So we figured we’ll eat our dinner and even though we can’t get inside we’ll just walk to the front of it anyhow. We ate dinner at a nearby Korean restaurant and walked over to city hall as planned.

Rail museum.There is a big square in front of it and kids enjoyed climbing all over large letters that spelled out Toronto. And then I spotted that somebody walked out of the front door of city hall. I ran towards it with Arosha hoping that we can slip inside and so we did.

Toronto City Hall.The interesting thing to do is to point somebody’s attention to a diorama on the wall and ask them to guess what is made of. I’m guessing nobody gets it right. When you get closer you realize that the whole composition is made out of nails of different sizes. It’s actually pretty impressive looking.

Diorama made out of nails.And on that note our trip and exploration of Toronto was complete. The next day a long road and Montreal awaited us.

Climbing all over Toronto.

  1. Canadian dollar was worth 79 US cents at the time of our visit. []

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Montreal

Streets of Montreal.The drive to Montreal was the longest one we did on the same day during this trip — somewhere close to 340 miles. Actually, our GPS switched to kilometers as soon as we entered Canada, so we had to drive 550 kilometers that day! Sounds even scarier, doesn’t it?

To be completely honest, I was slightly dreading the drive. Luckily for me, I did not have to be at the wheel, but I was worried about the kids getting tired and bored and really whiny. Surprisingly, the day went relatively smoothly.

One of many islands on the river of Saint Lawrence.We drove for a few hours and then made a stop at one of the little towns in the Thousand Islands area. There was a visitor center, where a very nice lady had disappointing information in terms of us being there a few days prior to the start of the season: no boat rides after 12pm (it was already 2pm), fun castles we can ride to are closed, fancy restaurants are opening in a few days. Alas, it was slightly sad to be there on the verge of the beginning of the touristy activities, but we still spent around 2 hours over there. The kids ran around the playground by the visitor center, and then we went down to the river for a little walk, had lunch in a Greek Pizzeria and even did some shopping (got jeans for Danya and earrings for me).

Streets of Montreal.Afterwards, Danya took a scenic route which zig-zagged by the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, and we made a few stops for pictures. After that we just drove and drove and drove until we finally arrived to Montreal. Arosha was often asking about the remaining distance — I think the diminishing number of kilometers helped him to cope with the long ride.

When our GPS led us to the hotel’s address, we were surprised to see that there was no hotel to be found. Apparently, the street it is located on has an East and a West side, and GPS led us to the wrong one. We soon figured out where to go, although kids were even more anxious to get out of the car due to this delay.

On the way to the center.The rooms of the hotel, Doubltree by Hilton, are located on the first 10 floors of the 20+ story building. We got a spacious corner room at the 10th floor. There was no good view from the windows though — all we could see was a tall building undergoing contraction in front of our hotel. There was also some strange rubbery odor in the room, which especially bothered Danya, but considering that it had disappeared the next day, we assumed that it was probably some cleaning solution smell. Another thing was that the pool and gym were located on the 11th floor, so during the first evening we heard some loud bangs from dropping balls upstairs. Luckily, it did not bother children, and the gym closed at 11pm. We had no similar issues the following night, so all in all, I am quite happy with the room we got.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal.Since it was late, we decided to have dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, which turned out to be pretty good. We just ordered a soup and a few appetizers, and I was especially happy that kids ate steamed vegetables, which were delicious, even the asparagus, which none of us is a big fan of. We got lucky with a very pleasant waiter, who totally won Arosha’s heart. Arosha felt very comfortable chatting with him in Eglish, and even tried to teach him a few Russian words (privet, poka).

We had only one full day to spend in Montreal, so we did not make ambitious plans. The only thing we knew we wanted to do for sure (apart from going to the pool of course) was to visit the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. Danya and I have been there before, and I remember being very impressed by the gold and blue interior of the church.

Inside the Notre-Dame.The Basilica was a walking distance from our hotel (a little over a mile I think), so we just strolled there at Arosha’s pace. The day was rather cold, but still nice and sunny. We spent probably about 30-40 minutes inside the church. The children especially liked the lit candles. Arosha even insisted on lighting a candle in the memory of his great-great-grandfather Aaron (even though he was a bit confused and thought that Aaron was the one to fight in the World War II, while it was his great-grandfather Leonid/Levy). Daniel pointed out the fact that neither one these grandfathers belonged to the Christian church, but I don’t think it really matters. To be honest, I am not even sure that we lighted the right candle, but I strongly believe that in cases like that intent is much more important than following established traditions.

In front of the Science Museum.We also told Arosha a short and most probably imprecise version of the life of Jesus, and again he was quite fascinated by the story. I wish I knew the Bible better, but my knowledge is very limited.

Afterwards, we just walked around the city a for a little while. We were considering going to the Science Museum, but decided against it in favor of exploring Montreal a little bit more. Danya suggested to take a horse carriage ride, and the children were very excited about the idea, as was I to be honest. As my smart husband had pointed out to me, we finally got a reason (kids) to take one of those rides.

Carriage ride.We were a little short on cash, but the coach driver gave us a discount for a shorter ride. She drove us in a pink carriage for about 20 minutes, which was plenty to have all the fun it could be. I am glad we did it, and next time we visit Venice, we should have a reason to take a gondola ride as well.

After our first ever carriage ride.By the time we were finished, everyone was pretty hungry. We walked down the Saint-Paul Street, which had a great variety of restaurants. Danya used TripAdvisor to see their ratings, which is now always one of the factors when we’re weighting options for our dining choice. We ended up going to a well-rated French place and it really felt like we traveled outside of North America. We ordered a vegetable soup, fondue and crepes with ratatouille. Everything was very good.

After our very French crepe and fondue lunch.After lunch we went back to the church to take some more pictures, and then leisurely went to the hotel. We stopped at a little jewelry boutique and got me a modern-looking set of necklace and earrings and a pretty ring.

The children were very excited at the prospect of going to the pool, so as soon as we got back we changed into our bathing suits and headed up to have some water fun. I have to say that this place had the best pool of all the hotels we’ve been to on this trip — the pool itself was big with very warm salt water, the Jacuzzi was spacious, the restrooms and water fountain were close. There was even a sauna, but we did not use it. We ended up spending almost two hours there.

Lunch. Fondue!We were so wiped out by the end of the day, that we decided to have dinner out our local restaurant again. We got the same friendly waiter as the night before to everyone’s delight. The waiter asked if Arosha wanted to teach him any new words in Russian, and Arosha, after a 30 second deliberation, chose the word “spasibo”.

To sum up, even though we stayed in Montreal just one full day, it gave our vacation a pinch of extra flavor. French Canada for me feels very different from its British counterpart, and it’s exciting to submerge into less familiar waters ever so often.

Square in front of the basilica.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Finger Lakes

Taughannock Falls.We are back and we can declare that our Canadian road trip was a success. We ended up driving for a total of 1,416 miles throughout these 11 days with Toronto to Montreal drive of 340 miles being the longest single stretch.

That’s how we ended up spending two nights and a full day in Finger Lakes region of New York state — we wanted to break up the longest stretches of the road as much as possible to make it easier on the kids. Kids, which I must say, handled the road just fine. They didn’t do a lot of sleeping, although Anna did more of that than Arosha, but they were perfectly content with looking at the surrounding areas and holding conversations with us and between themselves.

Our hotel.We made it our policy long ago to avoid any devices in the car, so as such kids don’t even ask for them. By looking at the world around them they come up with a lot of different topics to discuss. For example we talked about the names of Finger Lakes, then we talked about their depth, their length, differences between seas, oceans and lakes, moved over to Great Lakes and eventually even have gotten as far as Lake Baikal.

We picked Finger Lakes as stop point because there really is not much else interesting in between Brooklyn and Niagara Falls — our first major destination. Another reason was that after having lived in New York for over 20 years I have had yet to visit those lakes and famous town of Ithaca. And we picked Seneca Falls to stay at simply based on hotel pricing, even though there was a large selection of Hilton chains in the region.

Winery.We drove out at about 3 o’clock on Thursday right after Arosha’s school ended. Kids ate a quick lunch, we packed the last of our things — well, mostly Alёna did — and were on our way. Arosha and Anюta were very excited. Anna kept exclaiming from time to time that she really wants to go on a vacation and Arosha was counting the days and really barely could wait. He, as the rest of us, was very worried about one of us getting sick which would cause us to cancel our trip.

In order to reach Seneca Falls we had to cover a little bit over 300 miles which makes it more than 5 hours of driving. Luckily because we left early we beat any major traffic around NYC which helped us get to our hotel earlier than I expected. Along the way we made a stop for dinner and Anna took a little nap. Arosha stayed awake the whole time and only fell asleep when we were 10-15 minutes away from our hotel.

Wine tasting.The next day kids woke up very early — too much excitement about going to the buffet for breakfast. I think Arosha doesn’t really like the food as much as he loves the processing of picking stuff out on his own. After breakfast they wanted to go swimming at the pool, but we wanted to do some exploring of the area first and convinced them to leave the pool for the second part of the day.

We didn’t really have much of a plan, except for the fact that we were on the top of the lake and Ithaca was at the bottom. So we figured we’ll just drive down to Ithaca by taking a scenic road along the shore of Cayuga Lake and figure out what we want to do on the way. The only sad thing was that the day turned to be quite gloomy and it was raining from time to time. But everything worked out in the end as it would just stop raining when we wanted to take a walk.

Taughannock Falls.On the way to the lake we stopped by a historical women’s rights site, looked at the museum and got a couple of stamps in our National Park passports. I think this time around Arosha has gotten noticeably older. He was much more excited by the “right” things to be excited about at each location. He was asking about the Finger Lakes, the Great Lakes and kept explaining to Anюta what our next stop was suppose to be when she would get confused.

Our first activity on the way down to Ithaca turned out to be wine tasting to our surprise. We kept driving and we were passing one winery after another. Eventually the signs convinced us that we should stop. It so happened that we stopped at Varick Winery & Vineyard — just a complete random choice on our part.

Hike on a trail at Taughannock Falls State Park.The kids spotted a box of gummy bears which we agreed to buy them and they also discovered a couple of rocking chairs on the porch of the winery. So while Alёna and I went through a bunch of wines which were served with various snacks that matches the wines kids entertained themselves by climbing and rocking on those chairs.

We ended up buying a bottle of white wine, a jar of garlic olives, a jar of soft cheese and were given a bag of croutons as a bonus. The kids also ended up running around the big green lawn in front of the winery thus expanding some of their extra energy.

Ithaca.And even though it was raining slightly the winery was located in a beautiful place on a shore of Cayuga Lake, the wine tasting went well, the day was shaping out quite nicely. We were all in a great mood.

The next thing we spotted on the way down was a sign pointing to falls overlook of some kind. So naturally we took that road and in a couple of minutes were parked inside Taughannock Falls State Park as it turned out. And a short walk from the parking lot there indeed was an overlook of a quite impressive waterfall. Because of the gray sky that I mentioned before the photographs didn’t come out well, but there was a nice trail running around the edge of the canyon that we took.

Little swimmers.Kids played with all kinds of sticks and cones and the whole setting was very serene — except for the loud kids of course. And the weather was kind enough to us to stop raining for the duration of our walk.

Eventually we made it to Ithaca. We stopped over for lunch at some Korean-Japanese place recommended by our trusty TripAdvisor. Arosha loves sushi and Anna liked the noodle soup that she got so kids ate quite a bit — our constant problem to deal with — they’ve gotten quite picky lately.

Pool.We walked around some central square, acquired some nice crystal necklace-earring set for Alёna and drove over to Cornell University campus. It was raining at that point, so we just drove around it, but decided not to stop and just go all the way back to the hotel instead for the long awaited pool time.

And that was our stop at Seneca Falls. A day well spent.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Niagara, Toronto, Montreal Road Trip

Canada 2016 road trip map.For this spring we decided to forgo the trip to a warm sandy beach in favor of a road trip in our own car to a cold Canada. Our kids haven’t been to Niagara Falls yet and I wanted them to see it. Another big factor is a matter of having to purchase four plane tickets which comes out to quite a bit of money for a type of vacation I enjoy the least — laying on the beach, doing nothing.

The total round trip ends up being 1,200 miles. One other option that we have considered was going to Great Smoky Mountains again, but it’s quite a bit farther away and we all have been there. I wanted our kids to explore something new and it’s always interesting to see those new to them things through their eyes.

We tried to beak the trip up into many parts so we wouldn’t have to drive for very long periods of time in a day. Our first stop of the trip is the Finger Lakes region of New York state. We’re going to spend 2 nights1 in a hotel in Seneca Falls and try to do a hike or two along one of the lakes. The drive there is 271 miles long and we hope to do it on the first eve of our vacation.

Our second stop is going to be Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. We plan to get there on Saturday, April 23rd. We are going to stay there for 3 nights2 at a resort that we’ve been to before. There is a lot to do and see at Niagara Falls — the falls themselves (although Maid of the Mist is not running yet for the season), butterfly observatory and horseshoe bend among other things.

Our next stop is Toronto, which is really close to Niagara. We’re going to spend 2 nights3 here. The main thing that we want to see is CN Tower and have a dinner at a spinning restaurant at the top. Hopefully nobody will get dizzy this time around, unlike it was in Berlin.

The drive from Toronto to Montreal is going to be the longest — 336 miles. We might stop at The Thousand Islands region for a break. Montreal itself has a lot of old cathedrals to explore and had a nice World Fair site if I remember correctly. We’ll spend 2 nights4 here.

And one our way back home we’ll spend 1 night5 in Albany, the capital of New York State. And even though we have driven through Albany before I have never seen the capitol building of the state that I’ve lived in for the past 20+ years.

On the final note on all of the hotels — they all have pools — an important thing to have when traveling with kids as we have established. Also the Canadian Dollar at the time of the writing was worth only 73¢ of US currency. Hooray for strong US dollar — it makes it cheaper to travel beyond the border. Should be a fun exploration road trip with kids. I only hope Canada has proper diesel for our car.

  1. Hampton Inn Seneca Falls — 2 nights for $258 with taxes. []
  2. DoubleTree Fallsview Resort — C$450 for 3 nights with all the taxes. []
  3. DoubleTree Toronto Downtown — C$504 for 2 nights with all the taxes. []
  4. Hilton Garden Inn Montreal Centre-Ville — C$427 for 2 nights with all taxes. []
  5. Hilton Albany — $172 for the night with taxes. []

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Friday, February 12, 2016

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon from the castle.Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, was the very last stop of our vacation. I guess we somehow expected it to be somewhat more along the lines of boring and underdeveloped being on the outskirts of Europe, especially seeing the signs of all that in Spain in many respects. But we were very pleasantly surprised when our expectations turned out to be all wrong. In fact Lisbon ended up being one of our favorite locations we have visited throughout this trip.

Bus station in Seville.Of course getting there was a whole other story. As I have possibly written before, we booked the plane tickets and hotels well in advance and left the planing of the logistics pretty much to the last minute, expecting that we’ll just book train tickets with ease online as we usually do. Were we wrong or what? Not only we couldn’t book anything online, but I was somewhat shocked to find out that there simply aren’t any trains running from Seville to Lisbon.

Entering Portugal.There were few options to solve the problem, but each one of them had quite a significant downside. In order to get there via a train we would have to backtrack to Madrid and catch an overnight train. And I typically tend to stress out on trips like that so I really prefer to travel during the middle of the day and spending nights and mornings at a hotel.

Streets of Lisbon.Another option was renting a car which would end up running us close to $600 and we would still have to spend hours upon hours driving. Third option was catching a plane for even more money.

Streets of Lisbon.And the very last option, option that we decided to go for, was taking a bus. The journey on the bus takes 8 hours. And on most days buses only go to Lisbon overnight. Meaning that there was no way we could get a good night of rest and then there is the above mentioned stress. Luckily for us since we had to travel on a weekend there was a day bus departing at about 3pm and arriving somewhere around 10pm. That’s what we did.

Streets of Lisbon.We got to the bus terminal at around 1:30pm since our tickets said that boarding would end 30 minutes ahead of the departure and our departure was at 2:30pm. Little did we know that they don’t really care for schedule in Spain. The actual boarding did start much closer to 3pm. Oh, well.

Streets of Lisbon.Our bus driver decided not to let anybody use the restroom either. I guess he didn’t want to deal with cleaning it. When somebody asked for it he asked to hold on a little bit. About 40 minutes later he did pull into some bus terminal and let people go. Luckily for us we didn’t really have to go on this trip, but it would sure suck if we did have to.

Alёna.On the positive side the bus had WiFi that actually worked. So we did play some Hearthstone and even managed to do a good quality video call with our family.

Streets of Lisbon.Nothing else noteworthy happened on the trip beside the fact that everyone had to have their passports inspected when crossing the Spain-Portugal border. I suppose that was somewhat new and was caused by the recent refugee crisis that Europe has been going through.

Our DoubleTree hotel.Upon arrival to our hotel we checked-in and got some recommendations for a nearby dinner place. The hotel itself turned out to be and ultra-modern kind. DoubleTree hotels tend to be that way from time to time. It had totally black hallways, a bathtub in the middle of the bedroom, practically no light in the restroom (who needs any light beside the glow of an iPad screen, right?), but it did have a nice balcony. Maybe they overdid it a bit on the hip side, but it was a really nice hotel nevertheless.

Lisbon.Back to dinner. We got a recommendation to visit a nearby place called À Parte Grill. It had a sister part on the other side of the street which was full on that night and both parts had pretty good ratings on TripAdvisor.

Streets of Lisbon.And what a place. This was probably the best dinner of our whole vacation. Everyone spoke English, the service was great, the food was great and this was the first time we ordered a sangria. Alёna didn’t really want to get one since she doesn’t like sweet wine (nor do I), but being in the region and not trying sangria would just be wrong.

Sangria.Imagine our surprise to find out that if done properly this was one of the best tasting alcoholic drinks that I have ever tried. Our negative predisposition to it came from the fact that we did try it before in New York and several times after our trip, but now I know that it wasn’t done properly. We liked it so much that we ordered another pitcher. It was really really good.

São Jorge Castle.One of our first day in Lisbon we decided to explore São Jorge Castle, a castle built in the 11th century upon what seems to be the biggest hill in Lisbon. We decided take the shortest route from our hotel (2 mile walk) which would give us a chance to experience the views of the city within.

Tiled buildings.The things that stood out the most were all the sidewalk that were made out of stones and lots and lots of buildings which were covered by various colorful tiles.

Lisbon trams.On our walk to the castle we also noticed colorful trams scurrying around the city. I kept taking photographs of the trams, but I don’t think I ended up with a perfect one like I wanted to. Also by taking this route we went through some shady neighborhoods with shady elements, but overall the character of the city looked pretty new and interesting to our eyes.

Castle.The castle itself indeed looked like a castle and one could climb atop the walls and walk around. A lot of good views opened up on the city below, but the most interesting side — looking toward the water and the bridge had a sun shinning right into the lens. After wandering around the castle for a while we kept walking in the same direction as to the castle and eventually ended up near the water.

At the castle.The tiny little cozy streets were littered with little restaurants. We ate lunch at a place that ended up being more of a chain than a private restaurant, which was a mistake, but we corrected it the next day by preparing before hand with TripAdvisor. And after lunch we kept walking through the streets.

Streets of Lisboa.One weird aside about Lisbon — numerous people tried to sell hashish to us. All over the place right in the open. Sunglasses? Marijuana? Hashish? Strange.

Full store of sardines.Back to our day. Eventually we came upon a store that specializes in canned sardines. Apparently sardines are a big deal in Portugal. And we thought that those cans would make for a nice souvenir for ourselves and for our parents. By now most of these have been eaten, but it’s a much better thing to bring that some useless trinket that will stand on a shelf collecting dust until eventually being thrown out.

On our way to the castle.That’s pretty much was our first day. In the evening we decided to try the 2nd part of À Parte and were sad to discover that both of them are closed on Mondays.

Streets of Lisboa.The next best thing that TripAdvisor led us to was a restaurant called Viva Lisboa which was located inside a hotel. And typically hotels have overpriced restaurants with mediocre food, but this one turned out to be amazing. The was yet again extremely tasty.

View from the top of the castle.And sangria that we drank a pitcher of was also amazing. I think I’ve ended up being drunk for hours after we were done. I’m glad we made it to our hotel OK. It was really good.

Lisbon.Our second day was even simpler. We headed out towards the central streets taking a different route. This day was more like walking around central streets of Manhattan (without the skyscrapers) and stopping by some 5th Avenue-like stores, doing a bit of shopping.

One of the central streets.We also came up with a decent present for Arosha. We got him an official Euro 2016 soccer ball made by Adidas. We ate a tasty lunch at a nice place. Then we tried traditional Portuguese pastries called natas at some coffee shop and we just enjoyed the day.

Streets of Lisboa.In the evening we did make it to a second part of À Parte, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. I think our waiter was not very good and turns out it’s a big factor.

More trams.And that was it. Portugal was great. Lisbon was one of our last stops and it ended up being a pleasant and memorable one.

And some more trams.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Seville of Spain

Seville from the top.We arrived to Seville by train from Madrid at around mid-day. Since our hotel was not in the center, but more on the outskirts of the city, we took a taxi, and soon after were checking into Hilton Garden Inn.

Hilton Garden Inn of Seville.Now I want to say a few words about this particular hotel. Even though its location was not optimal for city exploration, the staff really made us feel welcome and at home. Talk about the art of hospitality! The manager was a really nice woman in her 30th, and not only she sent us some fruit to congratulate us on our anniversary, but she included a hand-written postcard with warm wishes.

First lunch in Seville.After we checked in, we went to get lunch in one of the places that was recommended to us by the front desk. What can I say? The food was pretty good, and very cheep too, but they did not have a menu in English and not a single person there spoke English. Somehow we were able to ask him to bring us 4 tapas of his choice and two beers — to give you an example of the prices, beers were €1 each.

Streets of Seville.The city center was a 30-minute bus ride from our hotel. In reality, it often took us over 45 minutes to get to and from because of the wait time on the bus stop. On our first evening we decided not to go the the center, but to walk to the nearby canal instead.

Bridge.The weather was warm, so even though we took our jackets with us, we ended up wearing just sweaters and carrying warmer clothes in our hands. The canal was not too far — probably a 30 minutes walk from our hotel. I really enjoyed walking there — we had to walk for a while next the wall of a giant cemetery, and then through some neighborhoods with 5-6 story buildings, orange trees in the yards and clothes handing on balconies.

Graffiti walls.When we reached the canal, there were a lot of people running and some skating or bicycling. There were a lot of graffiti drawings on the walls by the canal, and it was interesting to check them out. We also saw some good-looking bridge, but did not walk far enough to reach it.

Streets of Seville.We took a different route home and acquired a bus pass in one of the little grocery stores. It took us a while to explain what we need, since the owner, a young guy, spoke zero English. Luckily, his assistant could speak a little bit, and she also was checking some words on the internet dictionary.

At Bodeguita Ar Sabio.We ate dinner in one of the places close to our hotel — a little restaurant called Ar Sabio. It opens at 8, and it looked like we were the first customers. The owner did not speak any English either, but at least they had a menu in English. I liked the food and the atmosphere. The owner was very friendly, and the bill was ridiculously small.

Streets of Seville.The next day we decided to take a bus ride to the city center to see some of the main Seville attractions. The weather was nice again, so we felt very comfortable without warm jackets.

Plaza de España.After we got off the bus, we walked to the Plaza de España. It was built for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair of 1929. What can I say? The plaza looked interesting, and it was nice to walk and gawk. As in many places in Seville, there were a lot of beautiful tiles in Neo-Mudéjar style.

Alcázar of Seville.Afterwards we proceeded to Alcázar of Seville. The walk itself was quite enjoyable. I have fond memories of bright orange trees, and palms, and blue skies, and even people roaming around. When I was doing some research on the Spain beforehand, I found out that in addition to still being one of official residences of Spanish royal family, it was a residence of the fictional Dornish prince in “Game of Thrones” — the HBO show that Danya and I were watching prior to our vacation. It made visiting Alcázar even more fun!

Alcázar of Seville. Dorne from Game of Thrones.The palace is old and beautiful, with lots of Moorish architecture. The tiles again were simply amazing. We even bought a decorative gold-plated plate in one of the ceramics shops of Seville that was made using an old Moorish technique. It hangs on the wall in our apartment, and every time I look at it, it brings me back to Seville and Alcázar.

Alcázar of Seville.After walking through Alcázar for a while, we decided that it was time for lunch. By that time we were pretty tired of Spanish cuisine, so we picked a decently rated Italian place. We ordered a buffalo mozzarella pizza, which for some reason was not baked as we expected, but rather it was a caprice salad on top of the cooked crust. It was still very delicious, so no regrets there.

Seville Cathedral.After lunch, we went to see the Seville Cathedral. It was beautiful as all old churches are. It was big too — apparently, this Cathedral is the third largest church in the world. We walked around for a little bit, and walked by ramp to the top of the bell tower. The ramp has 35 sections, but still it was much easier to get on top using it, than it would have been if there were actual steps. Apparently, the ramp is wide and tall enough for the person on horseback to get to the top. The walk down was even easier and faster.

Climbing atop the tower.There were many other people, who wanted to see Seville from the top of the tower, but it did not bother me. We admired the views for a short while, Danya took some pictures, and we went down again. We stopped at the inner garden, full of orange trees. There was also a little pond with waterfall.

Garden of orange trees on cathedral grounds.Afterwards we just wandered around Seville some more and went home. Waiting for a bus took forever, and by the time we got to the hotel we were so exhausted, that we decided to have dinner at the hotel. It was Thanksgiving, so Danya ordered duck, and I just had a risotto. The food was nice, the service was friendly, and even though we payed 2.5 times the cost of our other Seville dinners, the prices seemed normal relative to NYC.

Cathedral.On the next day we went to the center again. I really wanted to get some ceramics as souvenirs, so we went to a part of the city which was identified as full of pottery shops by the hotel staff. We crossed some bridge and went looking, but did not find any ceramic stores at all. Just a bunch of little cafes and cheap souvenir shops. Maybe we were looking in the wrong place.

Lunch at Gusto Ristobar.We went back to the Alcázar-Cathedral area, and Danya picked a place with decent TripAdvisor ratings for lunch. It was called Gusto Ristobar. We ordered some jamon, spaghetti, cheese and beer. To our surprise, they even had Franziskaner, albeit a bottled variety. It was still so good! The waiter was very nice and spoke good English. He suggested a few nice authentic Spanish draft beer places for the evening, but we passed on those since we had to leave for Portugal the next day. He also suggested to go see Metropol Parasol — a modern mushroom-like structure not far away, and was kind enough to show it on the map.

Metropol Parasol.We did go to that Parasol structure afterwards, and it was a nice activity to do. We got to the top of it (the fee is 3 euros per person) and walked around a bit. The Seville lied spread down around us again, so we admired the views one more time.

Views from the top of Metropol Parasol.After that we spent some time trying to find nice souvenir ceramic plates for our parents and us. There were plenty of shops with similar things, but we ended up getting hand-painted gold-plated plates sold in the factory store. We only saw those in this one store, and the sales girl, who was Russian by the way, explained to us that the factory owner sells this particular collection in her store only.

Still atop of Metropol Parasol.The owner, an old lady, who spoke perfect English, was there too. She even gave us a discount on account of American Black Friday, which was a big surprise for the sales girl, since she said this normally does not happen. I like our plates, and I hope that our parents do too.

Sevillians after work.Afterwards, we just decided to get to our bus stop and go to the hotel. It was surprising to see crowds of people drinking coffee and beer and wine in the outside bars on some streets. There was really really a lot of people. I guess, it was Friday after all, and the locals were starting to enjoy the weekend.

Somewhere at Seville center.We ate dinner at Ar Sabio again. We actually planned to go someplace different, just for variety, but the owner saw us coming by and invited us in, so we decided why not. The food was very good again, and cheep too, and the owner even remembered what we drank last time. I had a great time, and even felt a little sad about leaving Seville in the near future. In my mind, it remains the coziest and friendliest of all cities that we visited during this trip.

Plaza de España.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Madrid

Streets of Madrid.Madrid was our shortest stop of our vacation and luckily so, because it was also our least favorite stop. Train ride was not memorable as nothing really happened except for the fact that it fell on November 23rd — our 9th wedding anniversary. Just as heads up — the first part of this article is going to be somewhat harsh, but things do pick up on the second day.

Our AC hotel.We arrived fairly early and had an almost full day to spend on sightseeing. Madrid also happened to be the only city where we ended up staying in non-Hilton owned hotel. The reason for that was the fact that the only Hilton was by the airport which puts it quite far away from everything we wanted to see. So we opted in to stay at AC Hotel which belongs to Marriott.

Our room.When checking in I mentioned to them that I’m a Diamond member at Hilton and that we’re thinking of maybe becoming the same with Marriott. They also knew it was our anniversary, but that was completely ignored. Overall the hotel was just fine, but nothing at all like the treatment we get at Hilton. Obviously the Diamond status affects that, but seeing that somebody has such a high status with a competing chain I would think you would want try to give those people a reason to consider yours in the future.

Madrid Atocha train station.Basically the only good thing that we got out of staying at this particular place was the fact that it was not far from the train station — which we had to be at while getting into and out of the city and it was in a walkable distance from all the places that we wanted to visit. Actually Madrid was the only place where we didn’t have to use any public transportation.

Puerto del Sol.So on the day of our arrival and checking in into the hotel we picked the shortest route to the very center of the city — Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor after that. And now even considering that New York can be quite dirty in places we were seriously shocked by what a garbage pile of city Madrid is. Really really unpleasant. And closer you get to the center the worse it gets.

Street name signs.Puerto del Sol gets billed as the Times Square of Madrid. Whoever thinks that has never been to Times Square. It really is a dirty little square with, well, nothing to see. They also have what seems to be a popular attraction that leaves yet more unpleasant feelings — a desk with 3 heads on it that and idiot under the table sticks out and starts screaming on the top of his lungs at unsuspecting passers-by. One day somebody wrong is going to get scared and the idiot under the table is going to get punched really hard into the face. Rightfully so too.

Plaza Mayor.After Puerto del Sol we followed to Plaza Mayor which was under some major construction as well. While many cities have cozy little neighborhoods with tiny old streets Madrid was ruined by all the dirt. We did like the city labels though. Each building on each corner had colorful signs with a different drawing attacked to them with the names of intersecting streets.

Almudena Cathedral.We walked over to the main cathedral (Catedral de la Almudena) which is quite new and boring and walked by the palace which we were too tired to visit after all the bleak impressions. On our way back we ended up taking some other route than our original one and apparently went through some shady neighborhoods. We were glad to be back at hour hotel at the end of this day.

Our dinner place.After getting to our hotel we went for what we hoped would be a nice dinner to celebrate our Anniversary. We found a place with high ratings on Trip Advisor, but were recommended a different place (El Rincón Asturiano II) by hotel staff which also had high ratings. So we went there. Everything started with the fact that there was no menu in English and the English expert that we were provided spoke no English. Our whole picking and ordering was quite comical, but I don’t want to go into too many details.

Our anniversary dinner.We both ended up ordering a leg of lamb, since it was the only thing that we were able to decipher out after a long conversation with our expert. The leg turned out to be dry, the potatoes boring and the lack of any vegetables or souse disappointing. Pretty much like most of our other dinners in Spain.

Prado Museum.Luckily day two moved the needle on the meter of our feelings on Madrid in the positive direction. Instead of going towards the center we went in the opposite direction. We decided to start our day by paying a visit to a famous Prado art museum. We spent several hours at the museum looking at paintings of artists that we’ve heard or read about. That was pleasant.

Iberian Acorn Ham.After the museum we stumbled upon a little cafe (Cafe El Botanico) that we decided to lunch at. We had a nice hearty soup and decided to try Iberian acorn fed pork ham (jamon). They serve it on bread with a tomato-garlic spread. It turned out to be very tasty. As I wrote before — the meal is actually has pretty much nothing in common with what is called ham in America. This was one of our better food experiences of the trip.

Palacio de Cristal.And after lunch we spent several hours walking through a big adjacent park colored by fall. It was very serene, quite and clean. Like we were in a different city. We walked by a Chrystal Palace — a steel and glass building that is used for different expositions, listened to numerous street musicians and just simply sat on a bench enjoying the pond and the whole atmosphere of place. A good relaxing day.

Beautiful pond.For dinner we had another adventure. We figured that we should go to the place that we originally wanted to go, so we did. Only to find out that only the bar portion was open and for dinner we had to come 3 hours later. So we went back to our hotel, got online and consulted Trip Advisor again. Found a nice restaurant in the opposite direction, only to find out that it is closed on this particular day of the week after walking there for 20 minutes.

Plaza de Santa Ana.So we went back to our hotel. Got online yet again. Found another place (Bodegas Rosell) again. Went there. It was open. I ordered some pork which was bland. Alёna ordered something the opposite of bland — some fish soup-stew deal which turned out to be filled with some parts of fish which were inducing a vomiting reflex for both of us when we tried to eat them. So that was that.

Streets of Madrid.We went to some bakery afterwards because Alёna was hungry. But at the bakery we also were not able to explain what we wanted, so we had to settle for things that we could point a finger at.

Streets of Madrid.And that was Madrid. Even though we had mixed feelings and experiences in Madrid I’m glad we got to visit it and it add yet another pin to our growing map.

Royal Palace of Madrid.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

General Observations and Barcelona

Streets of Barcelona.We’ve come back from yet another one of our European trips and I wanted to share (mostly with myself) some thoughts and impressions of our travels through Spain and a little bit of Portugal. I think it makes sense to go through some general thoughts and feelings at first and dive a little deeper into each city we have visited later on.

Overall the best part was just spending some “us” time with my wife. We love our kids dearly, but they are always a handful and it’s hard to really relax with them being around. During these fall vacations of ours we can really enjoy each other’s company while exploring new locations and cuisines of those locations. We can just wonder the streets of an unfamiliar city for hours upon hours. In fact during this particular trip we have averaged about 8 miles of walking per day, including the days when we took the trains from one city to the next.

La Rambla.Of course we have to say a huge thanks to our parents who stayed with our kids, allowing us to take the longest “alone” vacation since Arosha was born. We spent 3 nights in 3 cities and 2 nights in one city. On our previous vacation to Germany it was only 3 nights for 3 cities, meaning that we could have to drop Madrid from this trip — which frankly wouldn’t be a huge loss though.

Alёna’s mom stayed with Anюta and my dad took care of Arosha. My mom helped on both fronts, but she didn’t have to spend her own vacation on us. Again, we’re extremely grateful for having this opportunity to take some time for ourselves every year.

La Rambla.With respect to the cities we visited — Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Lisbon — if I had to pick my favorite I would have a hard time choosing between Barcelona and Lisbon. I can easily pick my least favorite by far — Madrid. Seville also was very likable. But more on all of that later.

Spanish cuisine has surprised us. We have tried quite a number of places relying on some random choices or TripAdvisor ratings and various other guides and recommendation — which never failed us before — and ended up with a quite unremarkable impression of it all. Not that it was bad, it was just very unmemorable and not special as during our previews trips. Granted, it is possible that we in fact did end up with a bad selection of eateries, but nevertheless that’s what we have taken away from it all.

Streets of Barcelona.We did try numerous tapas, we tried paella and other things guides recommend. My most favorite entries from the tapas selection ended up being Ensaladilla Rusa and a selection of Iberian Acorn Ham (Jamón [xaˈmon] Ibérico) served on a bread with various tomato pastes.

As far as Ensaladilla Rusa goes — it turned out to be a dish commonly present on our holiday dinner tables at home — variations between what we call Olivier and Mimosa salads. For the Jamon — I was never really a big fan of these kind of food — but the Spanish version was quite tasty. And it really has very very little in common with the thing that is called ham in America.

Barcelona.Another surprising thing for us was a complete and utter lack of English in Spain. Nobody speaks it with very few exceptions. For example for our anniversary dinner we ended up in a highly rated places of Spanish Cuisine which didn’t have any menus in English. However we were provided with an English expert that would help us out with anything we needed. The only problem with that concept was the fact that this English expert’s English was only slightly better than my Spanish which is saying quite a lot — I don’t speak any Spanish.

At one time we tried to buy a bus pass which took about 15 minutes instead of 30 seconds. Or our lunch where we basically just somehow managed to get our waiter to pick four tapas for us. Portugal on the other hand was a complete opposite — everyone had great English — like every other European country we visited before. Or Japan.

Barcelona


Avinguda Diagona.Barcelona was the first stop of our trip. Our plane got in quite early and we were by our hotel at around 10am — way to early to normally get a room. But we haven’t slept for the most of the night and I got really motion sick (normally never happens) during the flight for some reason. Very luckily for us they saw our Diamond status with Hilton and gave us a nice room right away. That really saved the day for us. We took a two hour nap and decided to explore the city around the hotel — that actually helped me off walk off my motion sickness as well.

The hotel itself wasn’t exactly in the center, but it was located on a pretty big street called Avinguda Diagonal. We decided to walk towards the center as far as we would feel like. On a sidenote I’ve read through a number of guides of Barclona and for some reason all of them mentioned that you have to be real careful around another famous street called La Rambla because chances are you are going to get robed. So I was thinking to avoid that place altogether.

Streets of Barcelona. Not La Rambla.Funnily enough after talking quite far along Diagonal we saw another big street mostly closed off to traffic. There was a good number of people walking around and a whole bunch of open air restaurants in the middle of it. So we decided that it looked like a nice place to explore so we turned into it. After walking for a couple of blocks we noticed the name of the street. You guessed it, La Rambla.

And I have to say that not a single time throughout our whole trip we felt threatened or uncomfortable in any way. We walked through a lot of touristy places, used public transportation in multiple places and not a single time we didn’t feel as comfortable as we feel at home. So indeed, if you act with common sense nothing will happen. We kept our documents in Alёna steel mesh purse just in case, but I carried my cell phone in my front pocket — as I always do. We did see some people walking around with 1/3 of their phones sticking out of a back pocket — that’s like asking for it to be stolen. Anywhere.

Gothic district.Anyhow — we ended up at the old gothic district — one of the places that we planned to explore. So on the very first evening we saw the main cathedral of Barcelona — another one of our objectives. There was a number of street musicians playing Spanish music and it created a really nice, special atmosphere. We wondered around for quite a bit through the old tiny streets.

Barcelona Subway.It was already getting dark, and we were feeling pretty tired, so we decided to take subway back home. Luckily for as all of the stations are equipped with vending machines which could be operated in English. It was quite easy to figure out and we did easily get back to our hotel.

Streets of Barcelona.We ate our first Spanish dinner in a place right by our hotel called Piscolabis — not the best sounding name for Russian or even English speakers. What they had going for them was a menu with pictures for all the tapas. It was a decent dinner, but as I’ve said before — nothing really stood out. If after Japan or Italy we wanted to find good places specializing in those cuisines in Brooklyn we got no drive to find anything Spanish here.

On the roof at Park Güell.Another thing that stood out for us in Barcelona was how clean it was. A really pleasant city to walk through. It was also covered in Catalan flags. Felt very much like the good old US of A. We really do love our flag over here and so do Catalan people. After all, Catalonia did vote to split off from Spain in a very recent referendum. Not sure it’s going to go anywhere, but they sure do wish it.

Park Güell.On our second day we took a taxi to Park Güell. The most interesting part about this park was the fact that it was designed by Gaudi. Although you need to buy tickets to get into the architectural part of the park, the park itself is pretty big and has a lot of free zones. You can actually rise quite high above the city for some good views, but the sun was shining right in our faces, so no good pictures came out of that. And as far the the Gaudi buildings themselves — they are as visible from outside as they are from the inside for the gated section — as became apparent after we got in. So we’re not quite sure why we paid to get inside after all.

Inside Sagrada Familia.And from there we set course to Sagrada Família — a massive cathedral designed by Gaudi that is still under construction, but it is open to the public. The thing is that we’ve been to a lot of cathedrals all over Europe now. And most of them look very similar, especially inside. Sagrada Familia is nothing like any of them. Gaudi really was an architectural genius. We also had to buy tickets to get inside, but thanks to this being November, lines everywhere were quite short. Also we didn’t get a chance to get onto the top of the towers because the day was windy and they were closed off.

Sagrada Familia.And after that we set course to the gothic district again to wonder the old streets. We did a really nice dinner here this night — thank you TripAdvisor. We walked all the way over to the water with a huge monument to Columbus. Not everyone likes Columbus on this side of the pond, but they sure love him in Spain. And by this time we were spent. Over 10 miles of walking. We jumped onto a train again to get back home for our mandatory 12 hours of sleep.

On the roof at Casa Mila.One the last day of our stay in Barcelona with all our main goals met we decided to knock off a pair of other famous buildings designed by Gaudi. Both of them were located on the next street that runs in parallel to La Rumbla. It was less than a 2 mile walk from our hotel via Av. Diagonal and we had a full day ahead of us. Since it was a Sunday all the stores on Diagonal (lots and lots of fashion stores) were closed as in pretty much any other self respecting European country.

Casa Mila.The first of our two stops was Casa Mila also known as La Pedrera. It really does look like nothing else. We bought the tickets for the inside tour (no lines again) and were able to walk through the inner yards, get up to the roof and take a walk through an apartment-museum where all the old furniture was left in place. We asked our parents who traveled here with a tour group if they have been to the roof, but because of the group size these kinds of things are skipped often — they haven’t been up there.

Casa Batlló.A couple of blocks further was another famous Gaudi building — Casa Batlló. For this one we just sat on a bench in front of it resting our feet and admiring the structure. We decided not to go in inside of this one as one was enough for us. Seeing these in person though did bring up some distant memories. I’m sure I’ve seen it somewhere (pictures) before, I just didn’t really know what it was.

From the roof of Cathedral of Barcelona.And after that we proceed to walk to the same gothic district again. This time we ended up there earlier than previous days, so we decided to take a tour of the main cathedral. We went inside and to our surprise discovered that one could actually get up to the roof, which we did. We took some panoramic pictures and moved on.

Streets of Barcelona.We couldn’t really get an internet connection so we picked a place for our dinner at random. We decided to try some traditional Spanish Paella, but we didn’t make a good choice of a restaurant. It had the illusion of being full, but it turned out to be just one big family occupying several tables. When those people left we were left alone. Tapas were pretty stale and Paella was … not tasty. That was our first and last Paella try. Luckily we were able to fill up on good tapas back at the executive lounge of our Hilton.

Streets of Barcelona.And thus our Barcelona stay has concluded. On the next morning we checked out from our hotel, jumped into a taxi and asked for a drive to the main train station. Our next destination was Madrid.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Испания — Барселона

Avinguda Diagonal. Barcelona.Ну что ж, еще один отпуск позади! Пора писать, пока мысли и ощущения не потускнели в каждодневных хлопотах.

Конечно, я знала, что Испания и Португалия — это южная Европа, но всё равно меня почему-то очень поразили пальмы и апельсиновые деревья. Первые дни я то и дело удивлялась, а потом привыкла и уже принимала их как должное. Еще меня очень удивило то, что в Испании очень мало и плохо говорили по-английски. Я-то думала, что все европейцы из развитых стран как минимум двуязычны (со вторым английским языком), но это оказалось не так. Вот думаю, что надо будет Ароше выучить испанский — очень даже может в жизни пригодиться. В Португалии же, напротив, все могли обьяснится по-английски — кто-то лучше, кто-то хуже, но не владеющих английским языком людей мы там не встретили.

Streets of Barcelona.Все города мне понравились по-своему. Пожалуй, немного худшее впечатление произвёл Мадрид — своей грязью и подозрительного вида типами в людных местах — но и в нём несомненно есть свои прелести и интересные места.

In front of one of Gaudi's buildings.Начали мы наше путешествие с каталонской столицы Барселоны. Кстати, я и не знала, что существует каталанский язык, который совсем не похож на испанский и активно используется в Каталонии наряду с испанским языком.

Hilton of Barcelona.Прилетели мы в Барселону рано, и в гостинице были часам к 10 утра. Нам повезло — в гостинице в это время уже была свободная комната и нам не пришлось ждать до 14 или 16 часов дня чтобы заселиться. Мы немного отдохнули, и пошли гулять по городу.

Av. Diagonal.Барселона оказалась очень чистой, с ухоженными домами, на балкончиках которых очень часто гордо висели каталонские красно-жёлтые флаги, с маленькими уютными детскими площадками, с большим количеством красивых зданий, с пальмами и, конечно, мотоциклистами. Мотоциклистов в Барселоне ну просто пруд пруди. Причём мне показалось, что для большинства людей мотоцикл — это не принадлежность к определённой сабкультуре со всеми вытекающими отсюда последсвтиями, а просто средство передвижения.

Streets of Barcelona.В первый день мы просто пошли вперед по широкому проспекту, идущему вдоль нашего отеля, а когда решили свернуть на понравившуюся аллею, то с удивелнием обнаружили, что мы оказались на известной Ла Рамбле, которую хотели посетить. На Рамбле было много кафешек на открытом воздухе, но несмотря на относительно тёплую погоду, мы решили перекусить где-нибудь в помещении.

Inside Cathedral of Barcelona.Еще до поездки Даня читал, что на Ла Рамбле надо держать ухо востро, потому что там много карманных воришек. Мы старались быть осторожными, но честно говоря, там было не очень много людей и момента, когда я могла бы заволноваться о своей собственности у меня не было.

La Rambla.Мы прошли по Рамбле до Готического квартала, по которому тоже немного подбродили. Мне барселонский Готический квартал сразу напомнил Флоренцию. Те же каменные старые здания, узкие улочки, мощёные булыжником дороги. Мы дошли до Барселонского Собора. Площадь перед ним мне очень понравилась в первую очередь из-за уличных музыкантов, которые очень хорошо играли на гитарах. От их музыки создавался особый настрой и теперь в моём сознании Готический квартал Барселоны прочно ассоциируется с гитарными ритмами.

Inside Casa Mila.Поужинать мы решили недалеко от гостиницы. Нам очень хотелось попробовать испанскую кухню, и была надежда, что в ресторанчике под не очень благозвучным для нашего уха названием Piscolabis будет вкусно, несмотря на средненькие отзывы о нём на Trip Advisor. К сожалению, приятного сюрприза не произошло. Еда была сьедобной и сытной, но не более того. Вкусной её не назовёшь. Мы заказали по пиву и штук 5 разных тапас — закусок, распространённых в Испании. Единственное, что мне на самом деле понравилось — это оливки.

Tapas by our hotel at Piscolabis.Вообще надо сказать, что несмотря на то, что иногда мы в Испании ели вкусно, еда в целом была так себе. С нами такое случилось впервые — обычно во время отпуска в другой стране мы не могли нахвалиться национальным кухням, а в Испании уже на третий день при слове “тапас” пропадал аппетит. Паэлья нам тоже не понравилась — но мы и раньше её не очень-то любили, просто думали, что в оригинальном исполнении она будет лучше. Зато нам очень понравилась испанская иберийская ветчина, по-испански хамон. Хамон, особенно от свиней вскомленных желудями, блюдо дорогое, но вкусное. Больше всего он мне напомнил поляндвицу и кумпяки, которые готовили мои бабушка и дедушка, несмотря на то, что в случае моих родственников мясо коптили, а испанский вариант — сыровяленный.

Inside Sagrada Familia.Следующий день мы посвятили Гауди и его постройкам. Начали мы с парка Гуэля, куда добрались на такси. Денёк был очень тёплый, и в парке мы даже сняли куртки. Парк оказался большим — мы там довольно долго бродили. Было много музыкантов, играющих на совершенно разных инструментах — от волынки до цимбал. Сами постройки мне понравились, но из-за того, что я их уже видела не один раз на фотографиях, какого-то особо сильного впечатления не произвели.

Sagrada Familia.После парка, мы пошли в Храм Святого Семейства, или Саграда Фамилия. Этот храм, работы над которым начались в конце 19 века по проекту Гауди, до сих пор находится в процессе постройки. В принципе это не очень удивительно, ибо многие знаменитые церкви строились не одно столетие. Несмотря на незавершённость, Саграда Фамилия поражает своей красотой и необычностью как снаружи, так и внутри. Я не очень разбираюсь в архитектуре и не владею правильной лексикой, но мне запомнились разноцветные витражи, колонны в виде деревьев и вообще когда мы были внутри, то мне казалось, что я нахожусь в каком-то подводном царстве. К сожалению, на крышу мы не попали, потому что день был ветренный и туда не пускали из соображений безопасности.

Park Guell.После посещения Саграды Фамилия мы снова пошли в готический квартал. Мы там немного побродили, а потом наобум зашли в какой-то ресторан подкрепиться. Выбор наш оказался неудачным — тапас там были не слишком свежими, а паэлья слишком жирной. После еды мы побродили еще немного, посетили площадь со огромной статуей Колумба, доехали на метро до гостиницы, где вскоре после небольшого ужина в executive lounge отправились спать.

Casa Mila.В наш последний полный день в Барселоне мы посетили еще две знаменитые постройки Гауди — дом Мила и дом Бальо. Находились они относительно недалеко от гостиницы, так что мы дошли до них пешком.

Inside Casa Mila.В доме Мила, или камелономне, как её когда-то прозвали не очень впечатлённые постройкой барселонцы, сразу чувствуется рука Гауди. Извилистые фасады, своеобразные функциональные статуи на крыше, внутренние дворики, несущие осветительные и вентиляционные фунции… Внутри дома находится квартира-музей, обустроенная предметами быта испанкой буржуазии начала 20 века. Мы эту квартиру посетили, было довольно интересно. Еще мы поднялись на крышу.

Casa Batlló.Дом Бальо находится совсем близко от “каменоломни”, так что мы туда быстро дошли пешком. Внутрь дома Бальо мы не пошли — только полюбовались на “рыбий” фасад сидя на скамеечке напротив, сделали пару фотографий, и отправились дальше.

Потом мы снова дошли до Барселонского Собора, и на этот раз зашли внутрь и забрались на крышу, с которой открывался неплохой вид на Барселону.

Cathedral of Barcelona.Потом мы решили пообедать, но на этот раз, чтобы снова не поесть чего-нибудь невкусного, мы опирались на помощь Trip Advisor. Даня подключился к интернету возле какого-то ресторанцика с бесплатным вай-фаем, и для обеда мы выбрали ресторан под названием Xaloc с относительно высоким рейтингом.

Park Guell.Еда там была очень даже неплохая — закуски хорошие (хотя “русский салат” наподобие “мимозы” есть было скучно), Данино мясо оказалось очень вкусным, ну а мои кальмары средненькими. Я их взяла в первую очередь из-за соуса айоли, который несколько раз делала дома сама, но хотела попробовать в оригинале. Мой соус мне нравится больше. Еще мы зашли в джелатерию и я заказала какие-то экзотические сорта джелато — из маракуйи и инжира. Было неплохо, но, наверное, слишком холодно, чтобы насладится холодной сладостью по полной программе.

Dinner at Xaloc.На следующий день нас ждал Мадрид.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Montana & Wyoming National Parks

This is a vacation that we were planning to take for several years now and it’s finally booked. The main point of this trip is going to be Yellowstone National Park. While Alёna and I have been to Yellowstone before, my dad always wanted to visit it as well. It’s going to be an interesting destination for our kids too. I, on the other hand, wanted to visit Glacier National Park in Montana for a while now, so this trip is it.

This is the first road trip that all six of us are going on. Original plan was to fly up to Calgary and explore Banff National Park in addition to everything else, but it turned out that renting a car in Canada and returning it in U.S. is not easily achievable. So we decided to nix Canada and start from Great Falls in Montana instead. And we’ll finish in Jackson Hole of Wyoming.

As expected there are no direct flights1 to either of these locations, but we’ll save time on having to drive to any big destination such as Salt Lake City. We also have reserved a humongous SUV for this trip — Chevy Suburban2 or similar. Seven seats and plenty of luggage room. I wish we could fit into something smaller such as Tahoe, but we’ll probably have to take a look and see if it’s feasible at the rental place.

So on July 14th we arrive to Great Falls. We rent a car and drive north to East Glacier Park Village — a town on the edge of Glacier National Park. We’ll be staying here for 3 nights3 and we’ll explore different parts of the park from here. On July 17th we start our drive south, but in order to break up the trip we’ll spend one night4 in Helena — the capital of Montana.

On July 18th we arrive to Yellowstone. We’ll be staying here for 5 nights5 in a little town right on the edge of the park called West Yellowstone. There is a lot to explore, but kids can only take so much in a day, so we figure 5 days should be good. And we opted in for a regular hotel instead of a lodge because lodges typically don’t have pools. And kids love pools.

And on July 23rd we arrive to Grand Teton National Park — a really short drive from Yellowstone. It’s actually right to the south of it. We’ll be staying here for 2 nights6 at the same exact place that we stayed at with Eldar back during our 2009 trip. This was the most affordable place even though it’s a bit farther out than the rest of the lodging.

And our last night we are planning to spend in the town of Jackson itself to save ourselves a drive on the day of our flight back home.

  1. Delta from JFK — $593 per person and we need tickets for both of our kids now. []
  2. Alamo — $885 with all the taxes and fees included. []
  3. Glacier Park Lodge — $640 per room for 3 nights with all the taxes. []
  4. Hampton Inn Helena — $147 for the night. []
  5. Best Western Weston Inn — $1,108 for 5 nights with taxes per room. []
  6. Headwaters Lodge & Cabins at Flagg Ranch — $434 for 2 nights per room. []

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Spain & Portugal

Spain, PortugalAt the very end of September we have booked ourselves a new vacation to Spain and a little bit of Portugal. This one is just for Alёna and myself. Alёna’s mom and my parents are going to look after the kids. The plan is again simple — Barcelona, Madrid, Seville in Spain and we finish our vacation off in Lisbon of Portugal.

Right after we booked our hotels and our flights we left things off for a bit. All the hotels are Hilton’s as always except for Madrid where there was no conveniently located one. We assumed we’ll just book trains later on. Imagine my surprise to find out that there are no trains running between Seville and Lisbon. Shock even.

We were left with three options — rent a car for an insane amounts of money, fly, or take an overnight bus. Overnight bus was the cheapest bus, but it would ruin the next day because of a lack of good sleep. Luckily for us because we had to get to Lisbon on Saturday there was an extra trip available throughout the day. Of course the bus will take over 6 hours. Far from stellar, but decent enough of an option.

We fly1 to Barcelona directly from JFK leaving on the evening of November 19th. And we fly back from Lisbon with one change of plane. Both flights are serviced by Delta. I want to write down the highlights of the trip for each city so we could use it as a bit of guide for ourselves.

We arrive to Barcelona on the 20th. We’ll be staying2 here for 3 nights. The points that we want to visit are Catedral de Barcelona and the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic); La Sagrada Família and Parc Güell. Everything I read about Las Ramblas scares me. We’ll have to figure out public transportation as our hotel is not as close to all these locations this time.

On the 23rd (our anniversary) we’re taking a train to Madrid. We’ll be staying3 here for only 2 nights. On the first day we want to walk through Plaza Santa Ana, Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor. We also have to find an interesting place for our anniversary dinner. On the second day we could possibly take a side trip to Toledo.

On the 25th we take a train to Seville where we are going to be staying4 for 3 nights. We plan to see Catedral de Sevilla, Alcázar and climb Giralda Tower. Apparently portions of the 5th season of Game of Thrones was filmed at Alcázar.

And on the 28th we take a BUS which takes approximately 8 hours to get to Lisbon. As I said earlier, if I knew of this beforehand we would’ve probably excluded Lisbon altogether. We’ll be staying5 in Lisbon for 3 final nights of our vacation. We plan to visit Castelo de São Jorge among other things.

And that’s our plan. Looking forward to another memorable adventure. And all that starts tomorrow!

  1. Round trip tickets came out to $895 per person. []
  2. Hilton Barcelona — 90,000 points total. []
  3. AC Hotel Carlton Madrid — €248 in total. []
  4. Hilton Garden Inn Sevilla — 60,000 points total. []
  5. DoubleTree Lisbon — 90,996 points in total. []
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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Page, Arizona

Horseshoe Bend.It’s been months now since our summer vacation, but here is the lost continuation. Page was the next destination of our big southwest road trip after Grand Canyon National Park. Out of all our stops this was the only place where Alёna and I haven’t been to previously. And I can easily say that it was my favorite part of the whole trip. So many interesting things to see and do.

Our Best Western.By the time we arrived we were quite hungry. Before going to our hotel and checking in we made a mistake of stopping at a nice Mexican place and eating our lunch. The food was great. As a side note — TripAdvisor app is great for finding good places to eat. We use it extensively during vacations, including this one.

Glen Canyon Dam.Our mistake at eating first and going to the hotel later was in us not realizing how long the line and the wait at the hotel will be.

Bridge by the dam.It all started with the Best Western that we had a reservation in closed for a massive renovation. They sent us to another Best Western across the street to check-in into the one which had massive construction going on.

Turbine with Arosha on it.The one across a street had a long line of people waiting to check-in as well. When our turn arrived they told us that they decided to place us in the hotel where we were in, which was fine with us, but we had to wait a couple of hours for our room to get ready.

Our hotel's pool.We decided to spend this time by visiting a nearby Glen Canyon Dam. It was only 10 or so minutes away and it turned out to be pretty interesting. The dam blocked off Colorado River which ended up flooding the whole Glen Canyon itself and forming Lake Powell — second largest man made lake in the country. The largest one was Mead Lake which was formed by Hover Dam near Las Vegas on the same Colorado River.

On the edge by Horseshoe Bend.The dam had a nice visitor center with several official NPS stamps. It also led visitors to a great view of the dam, the lake and the river below. There was also a turbine on display which Arosha promptly climbed into. At one point he managed to actually slide down into the center of it and started asking to pull him out. The problem was that it was too far for us to reach to pull him out. Luckily he managed to climb back out by himself.

Under the rocks.After we checked out the dam we returned to our hotel where we were given a room with a view of the whole valley below — the hotel was on a hill — including a view of the dam and the lake. The hotel also had a great pool with a hot-tub also overlooking the same valley.

Anna riding Alёna.Another side note — all the places that we visited were filled with Europeans. A lot of French and German people. We also met people from Belgium, Netherlands and other countries. At first we weren’t sure if French speaking people were Canadian or not, and god forbid you ask them that — but people from Netherlands told us that they can tell the accents apart and everyone is definitely French.

BBQ.As far as our dinner and lunches went — we visited a nice BBQ place with huge steam-train looking grills, pizza places, burger places and even managed to go into a sushi place.

Sushi place. Dinner.Even though we weren’t quite sure about eating raw fish in a desert it went without incidents and Arosha was very happy — he loves sushi. All places were found via TripAdvisor app.

By Horseshoe Bend.On our first full day we went to see the Horseshoe Bend. It’s a 1.5 mile round trip hike over a top of a somewhat steep hill. Arosha did really well. When he saw a bunch of people near the edge he knew where he needs to walk and did it without complaining of any kind unlike our Grand Canyon hikes were.

Climbing as always.I’ve seen this place on multiple pictures all over the internet, but I did not expect how big it would be in the real life. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The view was breathtaking.

Waiting for our Antelope Canyon tour to start.I held Arosha firmly by hand and we stood on the edge in amazement. The river was far below us and we could see white specks which were tour boats cruising on the river.

Antelope Canyon.After a short while Arosha spotted some rocks and some mini-cave under them which Anna and him proceeded to occupy. While I was trying to do some photography they were climbing and playing around while Alёna watched over them. Alёna, by the way, carried Anna everywhere.

Yoga inside Antelope Canyon.In the evening we had another special thing planned. Our second reason (Horseshoe Bend was first) why we wanted to visit Page was to see the famous Antelope Canyon. We decided not to plan anything in advance and just wing it. I was honestly thinking that we’ll probably skip it altogether because of our laziness. But we asked at the front desk at our hotel and they booked a tour for us.

Antelope Canyon.Both of the canyons are located on Navajo lands and the only way to see those canyons is to book a tour. Most popular time is usually during the middle of the day, but we decided to go in the evening at around 5. Even though the sun wouldn’t shine beautifully into the canyon we wanted to avoid the crowds and the mid-day heat. Overall it worked out well, although it wasn’t cheap.

Another mega climb.We were told to arrive to a certain location 30 minutes before the tour start. But I think we ended up leaving 30 minutes after the designated time. And somehow we were given the very last car. I guess that might be because we had little kids with us and they didn’t have any car seats. So instead of taking a normal route via highway our guide drove through the desert over some crazy hills.

Us by Antelope Canyon's entrance.The guide was not much of a guide. He just kept grabbing cameras from everybody and switching settings around. I gave him my camera just out of curiosity of what he would do. He cranked up contrast and screwed up the white-balance to make everything appear more warm. Of course that has no effect on RAW images, but I guess that’s beyond his area of expertise. Anyhow, I set everything back to the way it was and kindly declined any further adjustments.

Our tour guide and ride.The canyon itself was quite cool and dark at 5 o’clock. But it was still a very beautiful and unusual sight to see. I did manage to take several good shots by pressing the camera against the wall for stability to take multiple-exposure bursts. We also managed to take a good number of nice shots with our iPhones. Overall we were very happy that we decided to pay the money and do the tour. It was definitely a worthy place to see.

Lake Powell.On our second day we drove out to the beach on Lake Powell itself. We didn’t spend a lot of time there but it was nice to take a swim in this famous lake. The beach was kind of small and not very sandy, but all of us enjoyed the experience.

Our Anna.And in the evening of the same day we decided to repeat our hike to Horseshoe Bend to see the sunset. We didn’t quite make it. Our timing was less than perfect and toward the end of our hike poor Aroshka miss-stepped of a stone and face planted into hard rock. I felt horrible. I think I might’ve been rushing a bit too much to take some pictures before the sun went down and I should’ve paid more attention to him.

In the lake.When he calmed down we took some pictures and decided to climb a nearby mountain that he really wanted to scale as a consolation prize. By the time we were done it was quite dark outside. Some starts started to appear. I have an app on my phone that identifies each star and it turned out that the brightest spots were Venus and Jupiter. We decided to head back to the car before it has gotten pitch black, so I still didn’t have a chance to actually show Arosha a night sky. He won’t believe how many stars there actually are.

Horseshoe Bend at sunset.And that’s how we spent our days in Page. After page we set course north, to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
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