Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mountain Spring Lake Resort Getaway

Our cabin at Mountain Spring Lake Resort.В конце августа со дня свадьбы Даниных родителей стукнуло ни много ни мало, а ровно 40 лет! Желаю им счастливо и здорово дожить до следующего юбилея!

Our cabin inside.Чтобы отпраздновать это событие, Данины родители забронировали на три ночи домик в Mountain Spring Lake Resort. В прошлом мы пару раз ездили в этo место, и нам там очень нравилось, но в предпоследний раз мы там были больше 5 лет назад. Причина простая — цены. В Poconos в принципе везде не очень-то дешево, но этот резорт стоит раза в полтора-два больше среднего.

Tree climbing.Выехали мы около 4 часов дня в пятницу, и ехали ужасно долго, застревая в пробках на протяжении практически всего пути. По дороге перекусили в McDonald’s потому как все были голодными, а ужинать по прибытии прямо перед сном не хотелось.

Swing.Домик Данины родители сняли трёхкомнатный — в одной комнате спали они, в другой Лина с Арошей, а в третьей мы с Даней и Анютой. Для Анюты мы привезли её переносную кроватку, что было очень кстати, так как две кровати было только в одной комнате. Место у домика было просто шикарное — прямо напротив пляжа (а их на этом курорте два) и детской площадки.

Ambush.Лично я получила большое удовольствие от озера. Вода была не такой тёплой, как, например, на Коста Рике, но всё равно достаточно приятной по температуре. Я плавала несколько раз довольно долго. Для разнообразия было здОрово не бояться волн и подводных течений. Дети тоже купались несколько раз за время отдыха, хотя Арошу в воду тянуло явно больше Анюты.

Grilling.Еще одной радостью была еда с гриля. Всё так вкусно получилось — и бургеры, и овощи, и рыба, и мясо. Хотя skirt steaks вышли какими-то немного резиновыми. Не увереа в качестве ли мяса дело, или ещё в чем-то, но последние два раза, когда мы с Даней готовили их на гриле, получилось хуже, чем мы ожидали.

Burgers.А вот prime rib вышел очень удачно. Наверное, в следующий раз стоит воздержаться от skirt steak.

Grilling vegetables.Еще на территории резорта было огромное количество грибов. Ну буквально на каждом шагу. Наверняка, какие-то из них были вполне сьедобными. Мы были уверены только в сыроежках, и Даня даже зажарил один небольшой грибок на гриле для Арошки.

Row boats.В воскесенье мы с Даней и детьми сделали хороший круг вокруг озера — прошли где-то около двух миль. Было интересно.

Our cabin assigned boat.А еще мы два раза катались на лодке. Даня грёб, Ароша пару раз пытался, но у него получалось еще не очень. У меня тоже, кстати, не очень хорошо получалось, так что мне самой с детьми лодку без особой нужды лучше не брать.

On a trail.А еще мне очень понравилось по вечерам просто сидеть в большой уютной гостинной и со всем общаться. Мы, конечно, видимся с Даниными родителями, но так долго сидеть и разговаривать обычно не выходит, потому что надо или заниматься детьми, или укладывать их спать, или еще что-нибудь.

Also grilling.А Ароша с Анютой вечером долго занимались огнём на гриле. Они подкладывали туда веточки, раздували огонь одноразовой тарелкой, шевелили угли длинной палкой — вобщем, получили море удовольствия.

40th anniversary.В понедельник мы поехали домой. В этот день над нашими широтами должно было быть частичное солнечное затмение. Мы заранее обзавелись специальными защитными очками, чтобы иметь возможность посмотреть прямо на солнце. Честно говоря, я думала, что во время затмения будет гораздо темнее. Наверное, было немного темнее, но не настолько, чтобы мы это заметили, не зная заранее о происходящем событии.

Yum.Когда мы посмотрели через очки на солце, то затмение были видно очень четко. Солце было похоже скорее на громадный оранжевый месяц. Мне понравилось, хоть я и ожидала несколько иного.

Lina.Еще мы по дороге заехали в торговый центр и провели там часа два делая разные закупки типа курток, маек и джинсов (кстати, для Ароши мы купили джинсы размером на 10 лет, и он их уже носит в школу).

More Anna.После перекуса в противном гамбургерном месте, мы отправились на ферму собирать малину. Для нас это был небольшой обьезд — по 8 миль в каждую сторону, так что оно того стоило. Было очень жарко, поэтому собирали мы ягоды не очень долго, но успели набрать каждый по коробочке (а я две — за себя и Анюту).

Hike around the lake.Малина там была разных сортов — и красная, и жёлтая, и даже чёрная (не путать с ежевикой, которая там тоже, кстати, была). Еще мы купили там две баночки мёда — одну для себя, другую для Эрики, которая в эти дни приглядывала за Шубликом.

Sunset on the lake.К сожалению, Данин папа в кустах случайно обжёгся ядовитым плющом. Похоже, что он разнёс частицы масла этого зловредного растения по телу, и на следующий день у него распухла мочка уха и отёк один глаз. Кроме того, у него выработалась аллергическая реакция на ядовитый плющ, и жутко зудящие пятна появлялись потом по всему телу в течении недель двух. Из этого я сделала вывод, что даже на фермах не стоит соваться в кусты.

Parents.Не считая этой неприятности, сьездили мы очень хорошо. Я бы с удовольствием повторила как-нибудь еще.

On a trail.
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Friday, February 24, 2017

Amsterdam

Amsterdam canals.Amsterdam was the final stop of our November anniversary trip. I did not have especially high expectations of the city, but thought that it is worth visiting in any case. Some people that I spoke to before going really love Amsterdam — the so called energy — but for my taste it was a little too heavy on the pleasure seeking crowd. Granted, our hotel was pretty much next to the red light district, so it might have skewed our impression a little.

Our DoubleTree by Hilton Amsterdam hotel. Our room was in that hanging section.We arrived to Amsterdam by train and walked to the hotel since it was close to the train station. Hilton upgraded our room to a fancier one with an amazing view. The thing that surprised me was the size of the hotel — it took us a few minutes of brisk walking to reach our room from the elevator. Longest hotel ever!

View from our window.We had our first Dutch lunch at the bar downstairs. Danya got a cheeseburger, I got a risotto, and we washed it down with some very nice tasting local wheat beer. I am still not sure what Dutch cuisine is apart from the cheeses and herring sandwiches.

Cheese shop.The breakfast bar was indistinguishable from other Hilton buffets in Europe, and the snacks in the executive lounge were worse than in two previous cities. The one thing that stood out in the executive lounge was the Heineken beer on tap. I’ve never seen tap beer in such places before.

Royal Palace.Later in the evening we went for a walk in the hotel’s vicinity. There were a lot of bicyclists by the way, which reminded me of Munich. Unlike Munich though no one was yelling at people when they were walking on bicycle paths, and the reverse was true — no one scolded bicyclists for riding at pretty high speeds through the crowds.

Red light district.What surprised me was a traffic regulator on one of the relatively quiet intersections. Later we had a chance to see him in action — he ran to the car which was taking a wrong turn yelling (in English) something about the driver smoking too much pot and being stupid. I guess, these Dutch people know what they are doing when they assign traffic controllers.

Amsterdam canals.The red light district left an uneasy impression. I’ve never tried any kind of drugs, so even though pot seems benign to many people, I look at any kind of drug use more harshly than some. So for me it was not very pleasant to walk in the cloud of pot smoke. The smell to me is pretty disgusting (I feel the same about cigarette smoke), and I kept thinking how many of those people were using something stronger than marijuana.

Streets of Amsterdam.As for the prostitutes, we’ve seen a bunch in the windows. Some were young, some were more middle aged, some were skinny, some were curvy, but it just felt so weird that they do what they do in the open. Don’t get me wrong, I think legalized prostitution is better for everyone than the illegal one, but the whole idea of selling sex like candy makes me feel bad for women who resort to that profession.

Amsterdam.The next day after breakfast we went for the walk in the red light district again. Amsterdam has a lot of canals going through it like blood vessels. We also saw many bridges connecting the banks of canals, which gave it more romantic haze in my view. The city itself is beautiful, even though it does not have some famous landmark which would make it instantly recognizable in pictures.

Heineken Experience.We walked around for a while and ended up going to the Heineken Experience museum. It is worth mentioning that there was a sizable line to get in — longer than we’ve encountered in any European museum in the second half of November.

Beer stages.The museum was OK. I somehow expected more, but it was interesting to taste… whatever it’s called, the liquid which will later becomes beer. And see and smell hops. And hear about Heineken way to fame. The beer tasting at the end was disappointing — it was just regular tap Heineken, which I could have gotten for free in the hotel lounge.

Boat tour.We also booked a boat with Heineken Experience to take us to the Amsterdam lookout. Danya’s parents really enjoyed their tour on Amsterdam canals, but for me it was fun for the first 5 minutes, and then I just could not wait to get out of there.

On Heineken boat.Maybe if we had a guide who would have told us about city’s history, or if our driver was not an inexperienced lady, who was going sooooo slowly, it would have been a different story. Oh well. I am glad that we did not book a longer tour — our ride took about 45 minutes, even though it was supposed to be 30.

View from the top. Amsterdam Centraal train station across the bay.When we arrived to the Amsterdam lookout, we went straight to the top and Danya took a bunch of pictures. It was cold and windy out there, so we went inside a few times to warm up.

Window view.There was also some sort of swings which was putting people outside of the roof and they were kind of hanging in the air. There was a lot of excitement and screams associated with that contraption, and the line to get in was long, but I know that I would not get there even if I got paid. Adrenalin rush? Thank you, I will pass.

Streets of Amsterdam.We ate dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. It was very decent. Danya got a steak, and I just ordered a few side vegetable dishes, which turned out to be tasty and very sizable for the price.

By Delft shop.By the way, when we were walking by the canals we tried to find, unsuccessfully, the famous herring sandwiches. I suppose, they don’t sell them in November. What a shame!

Delft vases.On our last day we went searching for gifts. Danya found an interesting looking tulip vase online and we thought that something like that would be an original gift.

Little Delft museum.We started with souvenir shops, but buying things that are made in China seemed… I don’t know… boring? So when we spotted a real Royal Delft pottery store, we were very pleased. Unfortunately, if you want an authentic thing, you have to pay prices corresponding to developed country labor costs.

Walking around.Luckily for us, they had a 50% discounted section with last season’s stuff, which made the pottery more affordable. The vases were still in 100-200 euros range, but the one that we’ve chosen had a little defect, which Danya discovered at the counter, so they sold it to us at additional 50% off (we bought two vases total).

View from the top of Heineken Experience.We also visited the second floor of the store and watched an artist decorating the pottery for a while. We talked to her a little bit about the process and she was informative and also let us into the little museum belonging to the store for free — normally it is 5 euros per person.

Hearty lunch at Irish pub.After that we wondered the streets for a while, but did not buy anything else except for some wooden tulips.

Irish beer at Irish pub.We ate a very nice lunch at an Irish Pub — I washed it down with Guinness, Danya stayed loyal to wheat beer.

View from our hotel window.And this was our Amsterdam. It has its charm, but I liked it less than our other stops during this trip.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Bruges and Ghent Day Trip

Bruges. Bruges Photo Point.During our latest November vacation to Europe our longest stay was in Brussels — 4 nights and almost 5 days since the ride from Paris takes only 1 hour. Our 10th wedding anniversary — November 23rd — also happened to fall on that stay in Brussels.

Street of Bruges.The reason why we made the stay in Brussels longer than in other cities and to make our anniversary stand out more we planned to take a side trip to a pair of old Belgium cities — Bruges and Ghent.

Streets of Ghent.As with all our side-trips there was a slight fear that we might flake out and not make it as happens with about half of our planned trips of such kind. In our overseas vacations we managed to keep our trip to Miyajima Island in Japan and we rented a car for a day to drive to Pisa in Italy. Yet we didn’t make it to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany nor did we visit Toledo while in Spain. Luckily us skipping out wasn’t the case here.

Streets of Bruges.What made this trip especially easy was the fact that trains running to Bruges and Ghent originate from Brussels Central Station which was located right across a tiny square from the entrance to our hotel — extremely convenient.

Our train tickets.I did a little bit of research beforehand and knew that we could buy an open “via” ticket — no specific time — which would allow us to break our trip in two on the same ticket. In other words we could go to Bruges, get off at Ghent on our way back if we felt like it and get back on the train to finish the trip off. And this whole privilege ended up costing us only a couple of extra euros.

Bruges train station.We were definitely set on seeing Bruges which was the farthest of the two cities and it also was older than Ghent. I wasn’t sure if we were going to stop at Ghent at all and neither was Alёna. So we got on a train and in a little more than an hour were standing at Bruges train station.

Streets of Ghent.The unfortunate thing for us was that it was the only day of our whole vacation when it was really raining. When we left Brussels in the morning it seemed like it would be a nice day, bus alas, it wasn’t. In fact it was raining to hard that we had to find a store to acquire a pair of umbrellas. But overall walking through an old town and it’s narrow empty streets and rain soaked alleys ended up being quite romantic.

Bruges central square.When we got closer to the center we stepped inside Sint-Salvator Cathedral for a couple of minutes, but it was pretty bleak inside compared to some of the other cathedrals we have seen in Europe. And soon after we were on the central square of Bruges which had a good number of tourists all over it. However the rain was still strong, so we didn’t walk around too much.

Belfry of Bruges.Instead we decided to climb to the top of Belfry of Bruges. It’s 83 meters tall and it takes 366 steps to get to the top. But the views from the top were magnificent, as expected, including the main squire right below. I also spotted some waterfront from the top to which we walked to and took some nice shots. It seems that it actually is a pretty popular place for photography.

View from the top of Belfry.After the tower we ate lunch at some Italian place and then the rain was done. So we did walk through those streets and numerous and numerous chocolateries.

Waffle on a stick.I’m not a fan of any sweets, but we bought Alёna a waffle on a stick and bought a pair of artisan chocolate bars for our kids — white chocolate for Arosha as he doesn’t like dark chocolate and dark for Anюta. I also liked how chocolate looked when it was made in a form of rusty nuts, bolts and pliers of all kinds.

Artisan chocolate.That was our visit to Bruges. We started to walk back to the train station trying to take a different route through more old quite streets. And at some point we just stood on one of those tiny streets making out — it was our 10th anniversary after all.

10th wedding anniversary!We got on a train to Brussels feeling ready to go back to our hotel. But then we though — why are we so set on skipping Ghent? It was only around 5pm and we had a ton of time to stop by there as well. Both of us felt kind of happy that suddenly decided to visit it — again, not sure why both of us were sure that we won’t make it to Ghent.

Streets of Ghent.We checkout out the map and went towards the old center of the city. It took us about 40 minutes at a decent pace to get there. We went though the usual streets of Ghent, looking at people going about their business, returning home from their day of work. When we were getting closer to the center the sun was gone, the streets got tinier and lights from all the trams running along those streets made everything look really cozy.

Ghent's main square.We walked around the main squire taking some pictures of Saint Nicholas’ Church and Het Belfort van Gent set against a dark blue sky. Sadly by now it was too late for us to climb the tower. We spent some time admiring the old structures and all the atmosphere of this place and set back to the train station.

Saint Nicholas’ Church.We also saw that there was a ton of trams running all around the city and it turned one of those runs directly back to the train station. So we hopped onto it, bought the tickets from the driver and were back on a train station soon after. Catching a train to Brussels was also very easy and soon we were back at our home away from home. We were so tired that we just went to our executive lounge for a free dinner. It was a good day.

Streets of Ghent.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brussels

Grand Place.The ride to Brussels was fast and easy. We took a cab to the Paris Nord train station and after a relatively short train ride we arrived at Brussel-Zuid station. Our Hilton was located right next to another train station — Brussels Centraal.

Brussel Centraal train station.We did not know it back then, but we could have hopped on pretty much any train going in that direction for free (our tickets from Paris covered it) and would have gotten to the Centraal station in 5 minutes. Instead, we decided to take a local subway, and it took us around 40 minutes to get to the hotel. Oh well, we still saved some money if not time compared to the taxi ride.

Our top floor hotel room.At Hilton, we got an upgraded room looking out to the city center. The hotel had an executive lounge, which is a always a big plus. This particular lounge served not just appetizers, but full dinners in the evenings. The hotel’s staff was also very nice and they sent us a card and a bottle of Prosecco wine at the day of our anniversary. As I said many times before, Hilton does not disappoint.

One of the multiple fry places.We arrived to the hotel mid-day, and were pretty hungry by that point. Since all the travel guides praise Belgian french fries as superb and authentic, we decided to get them for lunch. We randomly picked a small place with a lively crowd. Danya got a burger with fries and I got a salad with the same side. What can I say? It tasted just like plain boring french fries is supposed to. Have you guessed that I am not a big fan? There was nothing special or extra delicious about it in this place, or any other place in Belgium for that matter.

Grand Place.After a quick lunch, we walked around the center and checked the Grand Place for the first time. Funny thing is that during our preliminary research both Danya and I were sure that there was a Grand PAlace — a King’s residence, and not a PLace — an old square in the center of Brussels. I’ve read that the Place looks especially Grand during flower blooming seasons, but with our vacation happening at the end of November the flowers were long gone.

Grand Place for afar.Our first impression was that even though the city center was nice, it was not distinguishable enough to stand out from the other European cities. The thought that we should have spent more time in Paris and less time in Brussels came to our minds more than once. However, Brussels grew on us as days went by. We circled around the center many more times and as the streets were getting more and more familiar, the city seemed more and more charming.

Beer tasting.But back to our first day. After lunch we picked a pub to taste some of those famous Belgian beers. The bar that we chose was cozy, but I think that we made a mistake by buying a sampler instead of just going for the beer types that we typically enjoy. There was probably one or two beers out of 6 that we’ve gotten that were more or less OK, the rest was just too bitter for our liking. We did mention to the bartender that we like wheat beers that are more sour than bitter, but with the exception of one beer she pretty much gave us the standard sampler. What a pity.

Our first beer bar.We went to pubs in Brussels two more times during our trip. Second time we picked a bar across the street from the first one and got a pair of Hoegaardens. The beer was nice — draft is draft — but the atmosphere was probably a little worse than during our first day. The bartender spoke Russian to us (we did not inquire where she was from though), and there was a big table with older people who were pretty loud.

Our second beer bar.Our third and final beer pub experience was the best. The bar itself had pretty high ratings, but it was not the beer, but the company that made it more special. We decided to sit by the bar this time around and at some point a young guy, who happened to be an American on a business trip to Europe, started a conversation with us. It was fun to talk to someone about a whole bunch of things, and he also suggested that we should try a sour beer — Belgian specialty, which I ended up really liking. In fact, we tried two different types of sour beer and one of them reminded me of kvas, only with alcohol.

Delirium Café. Largest selection of beer per The Guinness Book of Records.On our fist day we had dinner at a highly rated Belgian restaurant Fin De Siecle, which apparently translates as The End of the Century. It was really crowded and they had a layout similar to beer halls — long tables that people share and all. There was no menus available, just a blackboard with chalk writing on it by the bar, and they did not accept credit cards.

Central. Place.The food was decent and relatively inexpensive, but it was so hot and loud that I was glad when we got out in the cold and quiet of the night. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the city center again and the buildings were lighted up in blue, which looked pretty nice I think.

Metro station.The next day was our 10th wedding anniversary. Yay to the happiness that we’ve had and hopefully will continue to have! We decided to go to Brugge and possibly stop at Ghent on our way back. There will be a separate post about that day.

Atomium.On the third day we made a trip to the Atomium, which was constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. Travel guides say that Belgians consider their Atomium to be on par with Eiffel Tower, but I beg to differ. I have not heard about Atomium prior to visiting Brussels, and I bet I was not alone in my ignorance.

Inside one of the strands at Atomium.We took a subway ride to the place — even though we had to switch train lines ones, it was easy enough to figure out how to get there. Once we got there, we first took a stroll in the vicinity and took some pictures and then got tickets for the inside tour. It was not especially memorable — mostly a bunch of World Expo posters. The view from one of the spheres was OK, but nothing special as well.

Looking out one of the windows.After Atomium, we walked around some more and went to have lunch at another place rated well by Trip Advisor. It was almost closing, so we could only pick one of the two dishes from the day specials, which actually worked out just fine. I got fish, Danya got meat, and I ended up really enjoying it. I also got a raspberry Hoegaarden beer, which tasted more like compote.

Another window view.Funny thing is that when we were looking for that particular place, we passed a whole bunch of other places where the waiters were quite aggressively trying to lure us in, promising free beer and such. From what Danya read on Trip Advisor, such places turned out to be tourist traps, where people ended up paying high prices for substandard food. Good thing that we skipped those. Although, as a rule, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Park by Atomium.In the evening we took another stroll though the city center and even went to see the silly statue of the pissing boy — Manneken Pis. I don’t know why, but it managed to be in a spotlight of tourist attention for a very long time, and people do not seem to tire of it. Oh well, why not?

Park by Atomium.The next day we just spent a good chunk of the morning staying in bed — vacations without children are the only time when I have a luxury to do this. I actually managed to read three books during the vacation. For me it’s a very fast pace, since I don’t normally have much time for reading for myself — reading for kids is the whole other story.

By Atomium.For lunch we’ve decided to check out a cheese sandwich place — Tonton Garby — which had very high ratings on Trip Advisor. The shop owner is very chatty and attentive, and he obviously knows his cheeses. We liked our sandwiches a lot.

Tonton Garby cheese sandwich shop.The downside is that you have to wait for a long time to get your sandwich since the owner spends roughly 10 minutes per customer. We stood in line for about 40 minutes — there were two couples ahead of us — but I think it was worth it. We ate our sandwiches in Hilton’s executive lounge though — more room, warmer, and who can beat free drinks?

Église Notre-Dame du Sablon.In the afternoon we went to explore the city some more. We walked to the Royal Palace, had a nice stroll in some park and even visited a church, which was probably nice, but does not stick out in memory.

Grand Place.We also stumbled upon a shopping avenue with many famous brands present, but we just passed them by since neither me, nor Danya felt particular urge to buy stuff. We did visit a BMW shop which had a free expo going. There were a whole bunch of historic BMWs, and even though I am not an automobile aficionado, it was interesting to see the car industry evolution through the experiences of this particular company.

Christmas market.And of course we ended up in the center again, where we got lucky because the holiday market, which was being built during the previous days, was finally open. We wondered through it for a while, and I even got a nice hand-made pendant on a black rope.

View from our window.After that we made our last visit to the local bar — a place called Delirium. I’ve wrote about our nice experience there a few paragraphs back.

At Delirium bar.I think we had dinner at the Executive lounge, and it was really good as always.

Brussels. Park by Atomium.
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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 attached 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 our 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 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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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Germany Vacation — Berlin

Looking into Tiergarten.Как всегда перед полётом в отпуск без детей, я волновалась. Волновалась о том, как им будет без нас, волновалась о том, как справятся с нагрузкой бабушка с дедушкой. Волновалась, хватит ли Анюте 3-х литров сцеженного молока, волновалась о том, будет ли она давать спать бабушке. Волновалась о том, чтобы с нами не случилось ничего плохого (по этому поводу мы написали завещание и оформили на меня страхование жизни). Волновалась о том, чтобы не волновался Даня. Волновалась о погоде. Но несмотря на все волнения, я надеялась, что всё пройдёт очень хорошо.

Empty streets of a weekend Berlin.Так всё и оказалось. Я как-то отдохнула, даже не столько физически, сколько морально, набралась сил и терпения. Даня тоже стал меньше переживать из-за разных вещей, которые наводили на него стресс. Отпуск — это так хорошо!

Walking around. Our reflection.Улетали мы в пятницу вечером. В четверг накануне я должна была закончить собирать чемоданы, но мне было очень плохо — жуткая мигрень, которой не помогают таблетки, слабость, тошнота (вырвало меня только раз, но подташнивало весь день). Я только и могла лежать на полу и ждать, когда же скорее наступит ночь. Хорошо, что Данин папа посидел у нас пару часов, а вернувшись с работы, помогла и Данина мама. Честно говоря, если бы такое случилось в день отлёта, то пришлось бы переносить рейс. Я думаю, что виноваты во всём новые очки, которые я начала носить в среду. Кстати, когда мы вернулись из отпуска и я снова попробовала носить очки, у меня был повтор ужасного дня. Так что теперь придётся идти в оптику и требовать, чтобы заменили стёкла (читаю пару недель спустя — таки да, в одном из стёкол есть небольшое отклонение, и его сейчас меняют).

Government building.Таким образом, в день отлёта у нас были практически несобранные чемоданы. Я чувствовала себя не ахти, но всё же намного лучше, чем накануне. После отпусков с детьми, паковать чемоданы на двоих — плёвое дело. У меня всё равно ушло на это много времени (тем более, что Ароша не пошёл в школу из-за того, что его утром вырвало от кашля), но к вечеру всё было готово. Дети со своими чемоданами, коляской и Анюткиной кроватью переехали на 10 дней к бабушке с дедушкой, а д. Боря отвёз нас в аэропорт. Самолёт вылетал в районе 22 часов из JFK, и летели мы Люфтганзой. Перелёт был с пересадкой во Франкфурте.

Сам перелёт прошел неплохо. Мы посмотрели пару фильмов — в частности Guardians of the Galaxy — перекусили, и прилетели во Франкфурт минут на 40 раньше срока. Поспать особо не удалось, хоть и хотелось. Хорошо людям, которые могут спать в самолётах. К сожалению, мы к таким не относимся.

Busy Berlin construction. Look at the number of cranes.Ждать пересадки было утомительно, но на самом деле по прибытию в Берлин мы были менее уставшими, чем, например, после перелёта в Рим или Токио. Не знаю почему, но это факт.

До гостиницы мы доехали на такси. В один момент таксист сказал нам — вот, посмотрите на этот дом, типичная нацистская архитектура. Нравится? Я немного растерялась и не знала, что ответить. Наверное, он говорил это с сарказмом (водитель не был немцем), но я так и не поняла, к чему это.

Alёna by the window in our suite.Когда мы подьехали к гостинице, Даня стал расплачиваться с таксистом, а я, чтобы чем-то занять руки, вытащила чемоданы из багажника. Я знаю, что, в принципе, этим обычно занимается таксист, но мне хотелось поскорее попасть в номер, и вообще — после постоянного таскания на руках 10-киллограмовой Анюты, руки как-то сами, почти независимо от меня, ринулись в дело. Таксист был удивлён, и Даня до сих пор со смехом вспоминает его восклицание: “Ого! Сильная женщина!”. После этого, чемоданы в такси я больше не трогала.

Living room of our Hilton suite.Берлинский Хилтон располагался очень близко к местам, которые мы хотели посетить. Нам дали не комнату, а настоящую квартиру, с огромным угловым окном, выходящим на Немецкий и Французский соборы и Жандарменмаркт. Честно говоря, я до сих пор под впечатлением от этого номера. Так же, я так полагаю в честь нашей с Даней годовщины, Хилтон подготовил для нас бутылку охлаждённого шампанского, клубнику в шоколаде, фрукты и вино. К сожалению, они забыли нам об этом сообщить, и мы заметили всё это только на следующий день (бутылка шампанского плавала в ведёрке с водой). Мы немного угостились фруктами, а алкоголь решили не трогать.

View from our hotel window.Оставив вещи в гостинице, мы отправились на прогулку по окрестностям. Местный рынок, к сожалению был закрыт — там всё активно наряжали к Рождеству — но всё равно было где походить и поискать местечко для еды.

View from another window.На ужин зашли мы в ресторан Августинер. Там было шумно и многолюдно, и царила празничная атмосфера. Сперва у нас, правда, поизошёл небольшой конфуз. Когда мы попросили столик на двоих, официант сообщил нам “да, но только на 3 часа”. Так как в тот момент было около 4-х часов дня, мы подумали, что следующий столик будет только к 7 вечера и собрались уже уходить. Хорошо, что Даня решил уточнить, правильно ли мы его поняли.
– О нет! Столик есть уже сейчас, но через 3 часа вы должны его освободить, потому что на 7 часов вечера он зарезервирован. Вы можете есть, пить сколько хотите, но только в течении 3-х часов.

Хорошенько посмеявшись, мы сказали ему, что нам такой столик подходит, потому что в среднем на ужин в ресторане у нас уходит 1-1.5 часа.

Manhole cover in Berlin.Официанты и официантки в ресторане были одеты в национальные костюмы, что, кстати, нередкое явление в Германии (во всяком случае в тех местах, которые мы посетили). Мы заказали Augustiner Weissbier — пшеничное нефильтрованное пиво, которое мы с Даней очень любим — и два вида немецких колбасок с капустой и картошкой. Всё было очень вкусно! Вообще я поняла, что немецкая кухня нам по душе. Думаю, что особенно хорошо она идёт в холодное время года. Мне все эти капусты-сосиски-клёцки-отбивные-гуляши очень напомнили польско-белорусско-русскую кухню, на которой я выросла.

После ужина мы отправились в отель, немного поиграли в Hearthstone и отправились спать.

Наверное, если бы мы ехали с группой, наше расписание было бы более насыщенным, мы бы увидели больше исторических мест и услышали бы намного больше информации о Германии в целом и о Берлине в частности. Мы же, как обычно, выбрали довольно небольшой ассортимент местных достопримечательностей для посещения во время этой поездки.

By Checkpoint Charlie.На следующее утро, хорошенько позавтракав и напившись капучино и чаю, мы пошли к бывшему американскому контрольно-пропускному пункту между западным и восточным Берлином под названием Checkpoint Charlie. Теперь там находится музей. Даня не был уверен, стоит ли заходить в здание музея, но нам его очень уж рекомендовала одна знакомая, которая бывала в Берлине неоднократно. Честно говоря, музей не произвёл на меня большого впечатления. В основном он посвящён людям, которые пытались перебраться из восточной части города в западную, и разным хитростям, к которым они для этого прибегали. Наверное, можно посочувствовать бедным ГДР-овцам, но у меня особых эмоций их проблемы не вызвали. Думаю, что слишком много я слышала, читала и смотрела о Второй Мировой войне, чтобы жалеть немцев, таким образом немного наказанных за те ужасы, которые они творили. А вот при виде актёров в американской форме, стоящих у пункта на радость туристам, у меня даже возникли патриотические чувства к моей новой родине.

Jewish Memorial.После Checkpoint Charlie мы отправились к Бранденбургским воротам. Идти было относительно близко. Было холодно, но солнечно и вобщем-то приятно. По пути мы заметили большое поле, уставленное многочисленными серыми каменными плитами разной величины. Мы не могли понять, что это такое, хотя было ясно, что просто так плитами поле никто не заставляет. Немного погодя мы прочитали на знаке, что это поле — мемориал памяти убитых евреев в Европе, и открыт он был относительно недавно, в 2005 году. Надо заметить, что мы сознательно старались не посещать в Германии места, связанные с войной, но, конечно же, совсем избежать истории невозможно, да и не нужно. Причина для ограничения соприкосновения с напоминанием о последней войне проста. Моё отношение к немцам двояко: с одной стороны я думаю о Бетховене, Бахе, Гёте, организованности, педантичности, трудолюбии, а с другой — о фашистах, холокосте, загубленных жизнях и прочих ужасах. Вобщем, я боялась, что при более близком столкновении со второй частью, первая уже не будет иметь значения.

Шарманщик.Бранденбургские ворота были как на картинках — ничего неожиданного, но всё равно приятно на них посмотреть. Людей вокруг было довольно много, но, наверное, меньше, чем в разгар туристического сезона. Мне понравился шарманщик — он улыбался и время от времени приподнимал шляпу и слегка кланялся зевакам. Играл он Баха, и от этого как-то острее чувствовалось, что мы находимся именно в Германии.

Memorial to soviet solders.Потом Даня отправился к мемориалу павших советских воинов в местном парке, Тиргартене. Монумент был внушительных размеров, с надписями на русском языке. Даня читал, что где-то должен стоять советский танк, но мы его так и не нашли.

Потом мы посмотрели на здание Рейхстага, который планировали посетить на следующий день (туда надо заранее регистрироваться, и сделать бронь на субботу у нас не получилось), и отправились в гостиницу, чтобы немного отдохнуть перед праздничным ужином.

Праздновать восьмую годовщину нашей свадьбы мы планировали в крутящемся ресторане, расположенном в сферической части Берлинской телевизионной башни. Даня еще из Бруклина купил билеты на башню, которые во-первых, гарантировали нам место в ресторане, а во-вторых, освобождали нас от необходимости стоять в очереди, чтобы попасть на смотровой этаж башни. Обошлось нам такое удовольствие 50 евро, но мы решили, что оно того стоит.

Rotating restaurant at the top of TV Tower.И вот, пребывая в отличном расположении духа, мы добрались до башни, поднялись в ресторан и получили замечательное место у окошка. И тут я начала понимать, что, может быть, крутящийся ресторан был не такой уж и хорошей идеей. Мы долго ждали официанта, и чем дольше мы там сидели, тем хуже я себя чувствовала. Я пробовала сидеть и по ходу движения, и против, но разницы не было. Думаю, на это еще повлияло то, что всего пару дней назад мне было так плохо из-за новых очков (ведь мы когда-то ели в подобном месте в Торонто, и всё было ОК).

Вобщем, минут через 20, так и не дождавшись официанта, мы оттуда удрали. Конечно, немного было жалко зря потраченных денег, но и оставаться там смысла не было.

West Berlin traffic light.Мы зашли в сувенирный магазин при телебашне, и при покупке подарка для Арошки — чашки с забавными человечками, которых мы видели на светофорах — мы узнали интересный факт. Даня на всякий случай решил уточнить, что это именно светофорные человечки.
– Да, да, — уверила нас продавщица, — Это наши, восточноберлинские светофорные человечки Ampelmännchen.
– А что, в западном Берлине на светофорах кто-то другой?
– Да, в западном Берлине люди на светофорах больше и без шапок, и руки у западного красного человека прижаты к бокам, тогда как у восточного они расставлены в стороны.

East Berlin traffic light.Мне данный факт показался особенно интересным потому, что это дало нам возможность ориентироваться в какой части Берлина мы находимся. В основном мы гуляли по территории бывшего ГДР.

Berlin bear. One of many.Еще одна интересная вещь, которя бросилась мне в глаза в Берлине — это большие статуи медведей из стеклопластика. Мы почитали на интернете, и выяснилось, что называются они Buddy Bears, и появлись в Берлине в 2001 году. Мишки эти сначала были созданы для украшения города, а потом появился проект обьединённых мишек, и они стали путешествовать по разным странам, проповедуя терпимость, мир, дружбу. Вобщем, мишки мне показались очень симпатичными, и мы чуть не купили одного из них в качестве сувенира, но передумали, и вместо них купили… пивные стаканы. Ну какая же Германия без пива? Стаканами, мы, кстати, уже пару раз дома воспользовались, и пить нам из них очень нравится.

At our anniversary dinner.После фиаско с телебашней, мы отправились искать что-нибудь поспокойнее для ужина. Выбор пал на ресторан “Mutter Hoppe”, хотя мы чуть было не ушли из него из-за того, что Даня принял русскоговорящего посетителя за владельца ресторана (хотелось есть в аутентичном немецком). Конечно, начали мы с пшеничного пива, в данном случае Erdinger Weissbräu, которое оказалось ожидаемо вкусным. Еще мы ели очень вкусную селёдку, мясо дикого кабана и sauerbraten (тушеное кисленькое мясо), который, правда, оказался немного жестковатым. Ужин удался. Так хорошо, когда можно уделить друг другу время и снова признаться в любви.

At the top of Reichstag dome.Следующий день был пасмурным и даже немного дождливым. Зонтики я не брала, но, к счастью, Хилтон отдолжил нам два чудесных больших зонта. Впрочем, к тому моменту, когда мы вышли из гостиницы, дождь прекратился, и зонтики из функциональной вещи превратились в громоздкий аксессуар.

Inside the dome.Прогулка по Рейхстагу была интересной — мы посмотрели на старые фотографии здания, почитали исторические комментарии, поднялись в купол, и в очередной раз пообсуждали немцев и Вторую Мировую.

At the top of Park Inn.Потом мы погуляли по городу, отдохнули в отеле и на такси отправились в Park Inn — гостиницу с открытой смотровой площадкой на тридцать-каком-то этаже. Даня очень хотел сделать фотографии Берлина, которые включали бы в себя телебашню. К сожалению, у него не было трипода, а площадка, хоть и открытая, была завешена сеткой, но всё же он смог сделать очень неплохие, на мой взгляд, фото. Надо заметить, что там было жутко холодно (а я, как всегда в отпуске, была в короткой юбке), но мы мужественно провели там минут 30, дожидаясь правильного света. Мы всё равно ушли немнго раньше, чем хотел бы Даня, но еще минут 5, и я бы превратилась в самого настоящего снеговика.

Потом мы побродили по рождественскому рынку возле Александрплац, но ничего там не покупали. Люди пили тёплый глинтвейн, ели аппетитно пахнущий гуляш, приобретали новогоение подсвечники и ёлочные игрушки. Вобщем, красота, да и только!

Holiday market at Alexanderplatz.Поужинали мы в ресторане “Lutter & Wegner”. Еда там была отличная — мы взяли гуляш и sauerbraten — а вот пшеничного пива не оказалось. Мы выпили какой-то пильзнер, но нам оно показалось горьким и совершенно невкусным. Ну ничего, после такого пива, то, что пьём мы, кажется в два раза лучше.

На следующий день, попрощавшись с нашей шикарной хилтоновской “квартирой”, мы отправились в Мюнхен.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Berlin

Cityscape of Berlin with Berlin TV Tower from the roof of Park Inn.At this point it has been more than a month since we came back from our vacation to Germany and Austria and we have yet to put down our thoughts on “paper” — it’s always hard to decide how to go about it. In short — it’s been great. We had a chance to truly relax, see a lot of great things and try a lot of delicious things from local cuisines. And of course we drank lots and lots of beer.

The Flight


Lufthansa.The flight itself was pretty uneventful. It was a red-eye trip via Lufthansa on Boeing 747 with a changeover at Frankfurt. Because it was a red-eye flight it was rather hard on us. We’re not used to not sleeping for that long, and due our general inability to sleep on a plane we were just falling in and out of consciousness, yet not sleeping everywhere, including during our wait for our plane to Berlin at Frankfurt.

Arrival


Streets of Berlin.When we got to Berlin we went through the passport control quickly, got our bags and were on our way to catch a taxi. Now Germany turned out to be probably the only country that has a higher concentration of … wait for it … German cars than Brighton Beach. I supposed there must be some kind of tax breaks that German car makers get that makes their cars affordable for pretty much everyone.

Berlin streets.All taxis were for the most part made by Mercedes Benz. They were all beige in color too. We got into one and asked to get us to Hilton Berlin. Since there is only one Hilton in Berlin driver knew were to go. The only notable thing that happened during the ride was the driver who was of non-German origin stopping in the front of one of the plain looking buildings and saying: “This building is typical Nazi architecture. Like it?” We had no idea how to respond to that, so we just stayed quite.

TV Tower.During our drive through the edges of the city we saw a lot of empty and beat up places and structures. We also noticed huge quantities of construction cranes all over the city from one edge to another. But the city looked quite unwelcoming until we got to more central parts of it. There everything looked clean, new and pleasant. The city is quite modern, which probably is a result of it being leveled during the war.

Enormous ex-Soviet, now Russian embassy. It was huge.The ride from the airport took about 20 minutes. When we got to our hotel Alёna got out of the car while I was paying the driver. When both of us got out of the car we saw that Alёna has pulled out two 50 pound suitcases out of the trunk by herself. The driver’s eyes doubled in size and he proclaimed: “Whow, strong woman!” I have no idea what possessed Alёna to do that, but it was quite hilarious.

First Night


Our suite.Hilton welcomed us as Hilton often does. They put us on a high floor and upgraded our room to an executive corner suite with a spectacular view of a square right across the street from the hotel with German and French churches and apparently one of the famous markets which exist all over the place, especially close to holiday seasons — Gendarmenmarkt. Alёna kept referring to our suite as an apartment because it was indeed quite big. They also gave us a bottle of champagne on ice and congratulated us with our anniversary.

One of many markets.We thought that when we get to Germany we will be totally like zombies and the only thing that we’ll want to do would be sleep. That’s what happened to us in Italy. However here for some reason we got a second wind and went out exploring the nearby area. We walked around the square where Gendermenmarkt was located, but the market on it was closed. They were preparing it for the holiday season and it was in a construction mode. It did open a day later. And we found a lot of similar markets all throughout Germany and Austria later on.

Hilton Berlin.Eventually we settled on the dinner in a place that we were passing by called Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt. It was packed with people and it was about 4:30pm. When we came in nobody paid attention to us. As we later noticed it was the case everywhere and while in US you expect to be seated by a hostess in Germany people just come in and pick their own table.

East Berlin traffic light.Eventually one of the waiters came by and we asked him for a table. He looked over the notes of reservations and said something about 3 hours in broken English. We were quite disappointed to find out that we had to wait for 3 hours. He asked if we wanted to sit down now. We said, sure, that’s why we’re here. He mentioned 3 hours again. We were very confused by now. Eventually we figured out that we actually could have a table right away, but we had to be done with our dinner in 3 hours since the table had a reservation for 7:30. Yeah, I think we could finish our dinner in 3 hours.

West Berlin traffic light.For our first dinner we ordered two entries — two different kinds of wursts with sauerkraut and cabbage. And of course there was mandatory beer. Everywhere we went we ordered wheat beer with our meals. Beer in Germany is served in at least half a litter glasses in majority of places and that’s what we stuck with. They also serve it in the properly marked glass with a logo of the beer that you’re drinking and they give you a bierdeckel (a cardboard coaster that you place your glass on) that we ended up collecting. Our dinner was delicious and atmosphere of the restaurant was great.

Berlin bear.As you can imagine we consumed quite a large quantity of beer. We also did a lot of sleeping. We were going to bed early and to our surprise we were waking up quite late — 8-9am. We slept at least 10 hours every day. So that’s exactly what we did next. We went to our hotel and got into the bed. That’s pretty much how our vacation went — we saw a lot of cool things, walked a lot, eat and drank a lot and rested. It was great.

Berlin Day One


Checkpoint Charlie.The location of our hotel turned out to be perfect. Imagine a triangle with Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate on one corner, Checkpoint Charlie on another, Fernsehturm (TV Tower) on the third corner and our hotel and Gendarmenmarkt at the center. Those are the places that we wanted to see during our first visit to Berlin and it couldn’t have worked out better.

Museum.We got a great night of sleep, ate breakfast at our hotel and set out to see Checkpoint Charlie. This place was a border crossing from Soviet part of Berlin into an American controlled one. There is a sign next to it warning people in large letters that they are about to leave American territory. Also there is a museum dedicated to bad life of people in DDR (Soviet Germany) and how many people tried to escape to the west. We walked around and maybe we’re cold hearted, but we just could not feel bad about those people considering the events that lead to the split of Germany in the first place.

Brandenburg Gate.After that we set out to see the Brandenburg Gate. As I said before the city seemed quite modern and there wasn’t much of anything old left. The gate itself was nice to see as it is such a famous monument. The gate is located next to Teirgarten — Central Park like place. I read somewhere that there was a monument to Soviet soldiers not far into the park, so we set out to find it. It wasn’t far from the entrance. The monument was huge. It had several large columns dedicated to different parts of the army, a huge Soviet crest and a statue of the soldier. Everything was written in Russian. It felt weird to see such a monument to somebody who conquered your country some time ago. I think it’s very nice of them to preserve this piece of history.

Monument to Soviet soldiers.Reichstag — the government building — was also nearby. But one needs a reservation to actually go inside for a tour, which we luckily have made on our last day in New York. I somehow missed this piece of information, but Alёna spotted it just in time. However the availability was limited therefore our reservation was for the next day. We walked around, took some pictures and went back to the hotel.

Reichstag.The weather was not very cold and it was the only sunny day that we had. On the first day Alёna has spotted that Berlin is covered in wooden bears. They have some art project going and they were all over the place. All similarly shaped, but each one had a different paint job.

Berlin bears.After a nice rest at the hotel we were ready for a second half of the day. The day itself was special — it was our 8th wedding anniversary. We had planned ourselves a nice dinner at the top of Berlin TV Tower at the rotating restaurant in the sphere. We paid €50 ahead of time to reserve a table by the window and a-line-free ride up the tower. The sun has already set down by the time we got up the tower, so the pictures weren’t very good. Also there is no open air observatory up there.

Berlin street with TV Tower in the background.We sat down at our table. The view was great. Dark blue sky over the city full of lights. The special dinner was going to be memorable. The restaurant was indeed spinning. After about 15 minutes of sitting down Alёna said that it appears to be making her dizzy. We decided to switch places, so Alёna would be facing forward. That didn’t help. After 20 minutes our waiter didn’t show up and Alёna was getting dizzier. We decide to leave. We wanted the evening to be memorable good, not memorable bad. So we figured, fine, we’ll just find a nice non-spinning restaurant closer to earth somewhere.

Berlin TV Tower.We walked out of the tower, but before finding a restaurant we decided to checkout Park Inn. In my pre-trip research I was looking for a place that would let me take bird-view picture of the city with a tower as the centerpiece. Park Inn was not far form the tower and from what I read it had an open deck on the roof accessible by tourist. The only “but” about this place was that access was granted to those who wanted to bungee jump from the roof for €70. I was hoping to convince them to let me out there for pictures for a smaller sum of money, but most importantly without having to jump off the roof at the end. We were happy to discover that one could get to the roof for picture taking for just €3 per person. By now it was too dark, but we decided to come back the next day for the sunset.

Anniversary dinner.After that we started walking back to our hotel while looking at the menus of various restaurants that we were passing by. Near one place that were considering we ran into a guy who asked us for a light in German. When we responded that we don’t speak any German he detected our Russian accent and switched to Russian. He saw us looking at the menu and said that it was a very nice and popular spot. For some reason I thought that the guy was the owner and the last thing I wanted to do is eat at a Russian restaurant in Germany. We have plenty of those in Brooklyn.

Our 8th anniversary.And we walked away, but then decided to give it a look inside. It turned out to be somewhere below the ground level, but the place looked very cozy and was packed with people. The guy that we met outside was sitting at the table and was one of the customers. And that’s how we picked the place for our special anniversary dinner — Gasthaus Mutter Hoppe.

View from the tower.We ordered two glasses of wheat beer (half a litter each) and some herring appetizer which turned out to be quite delicious. For the main course we ordered wild boar and sauerbraten — sour roast meat. Wild boar was excellent. Sauerbraten was OK, but our local German place in Brooklyn serves a better, softer version of it. All in all we had a great dinner and have a “spinning” story to go along with it. We also got a nice stack of beer coasters given to us by the waiter when we asked for a clean pair of the ones we were using.

The gate.We got back to our hotel, spent some time in the executive lounge where I found some excellent sour cherry juice among many other things and went to bed at about 8pm. It was a great first day.

Berlin Day Two


On the roof.On our second day we woke up not so early. The plan for the day was simple — tour the Reichstag in the first half of the day and get up on the roof of Park Inn for some cityscapes. The morning was rainy. We were thinking of a place where we could buy a pair of umbrellas as we forgot to park ours. When we asked at the front desk if they could point us in the right directions they said they couldn’t, but would happily land us a pair. That’s how we ended up with a pair of nice, large Hilton branded umbrellas.

Reichstag roof.We made our way to Reichstag via some different streets and were inside the government building rather quickly. We got up to the roof and inside the glass dome which also had walkways leading to the very top of the dome itself. It was really nice and allowed us to look at the city from a different high vantage point. Inside the glass dome there was a large circle of photographs about the history of the building and Germany in general. For the WW2 era the photos note that the country was under a hard dictatorship. I imagine that modern German people think of Hitler as a normal Russian person thinks of Stalin.

Inside the dome.In the second half of the day we were on the roof of Park Inn as planned. Sadly I didn’t take my tripod with me on the trip and this was one of the few places where it would’ve come handy. The open area was not on the edge of the roof. If I were to rest my camera on the guard rail for an HDR burst a large portion of the roof itself would’ve been in the shot. There was a also a metal net, but it was actually a net, which was not stable, therefore I couldn’t mount the camera higher either. So I ended up taking all the shots hand held, yet I’m very happy with a couple of shots that I walked away with.

Glass dome.For the dinner we went back to our hotel area and found another German place called Lutter & Wegner. We ordered an excellent beef goulash and a much better sauerbraten that we ate on a night before — just like we know it — soft and delicious. The only problem with this place that it was the only eatery we have discovered in Germany that had an only one kind of beer. It was some pilsner and itwas too bitter for our taste. It was also the only place that had beer glasses that were smaller than half a litter. But as I said, the food was great.

Another view from Park Inn.And that was our second and last full day in Berlin. As you can see we took it really easy, ate great food, explored some sights, drank great beer, slept a lot. By the end of our Berlin stay I already felt relaxed and it really felt like a vacation.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anniversary in Venice

Sunny day in Venice.Venice was the final stop of our Italian trip. We timed it so that our 6th wedding anniversary would fall on one of the days that we would be staying in Venice. In fact, originally we planned to spend 2 nights in Venice and 2 nights in Milan, but shifting one of those nights over to Venice was definitely the right thing to do.

Venice character.If I were to write a short story it would be this: Venice was magical. It really was the peak of our trip. Rome was a great place to start our vacation and Venice was the right place to finish. I’m glad that it wasn’t the other way around. And it really would be hard to find a more romantic place on Earth to celebrate our anniversary at. And our hotel was the most luxurious one of our whole trip. While other cities have places to see Venice itself is a place to see.

Canals of Venice.And now into the details. We arrived to Venice by high speed train sometime in the early afternoon. Venice has two train stops and luckily we did our research ahead of time, so we got off on the right one — the very last stop of the line. We were slightly worried about getting to our hotel as we had to catch the right “bus” boat since we couldn’t really walk to the right place and taxi-boats would be very expensive. However directions that we prepared ahead of the trip turned out to be very easy to follow.

Canals of Venice.Right after walking out of the train terminal we saw what looked like a bus stop, only for boats. We had two options — either take one directly to the island where our hotel was located and walk, or take the boat to the island across the canal and catch a shuttle provided by hotel directly to the doors.

Streets of Venice.We figured we’ll just take the one that shows up first — they had numbers just as buses do. The one that arrived first actually stopped at both places, but the shuttle schedule didn’t really line up, so we figured we’ll take a walk, even though we worried slightly that there might not be a sidewalk or something like that.

Hilton Molino Stucky Venice.Our hotel was located on an island called Guidecca, which is directly to the south, across the canal from the main Venice itself. The stop that we got off at was called Palanca. Turned out that the walk itself took no more than 10 minutes at a relaxed pace and the only slight complication was that we had to carry our luggage up to a pair of small bridges to cross the canals — no big deal at all. Soon after we were inside the lobby of Hilton Molino Stucky Venice hotel — the most expensive (point-wise) stop of our trip.

Our suite.Several days before our arrival I got an email from the hotel manager asking what is the occasion for our stay and I told him that we are celebrating our anniversary. When we arrived instead of getting an upgrade to executive floor (our Diamond VIP benefit) they actually upgraded us to an executive floor suite with a view of Venice. When I checked the actual cost of the room it clocked in at over $1,000 per night. And we were getting this for free.

Window view.The view really was great. Included breakfasts were usual Hilton style — full kitchen with hot food. And executive lounge provided free drinks and snacks all day long. We really did drink a lot of wine throughout our vacation. There was no way to walk to the main part of Venice, but there was a ferry running every 30 minutes provided by our hotel with two stops on the other side: Zattere — a stop right across the canal and San Marco — main squire of Venice. The ride to Zattere was about 5 minutes and to San Marco around 15.

Ponte dell'Accademia. View from Accademia Bridge — one of four bridges over the Grand Canal.We also soon realized that you can walk all across Venice by foot. All the places are interconnected by tiny bridges along with several large bridges across the Grand Canal — no need to figure out public transportation or anything like that. Plus Venice itself is pretty tiny and can be walked across in a short amount of time.

Streets of Venice.Now we heard things from people that Venice doesn’t smell good, is very hot and humid. It very well might be that during the summer, but it defiantly is not the case at the end of November. We didn’t notice any smells and the temperature was very mild.

Venice. Daniel.We actually lucked out with the weather. Less than a week before we got to Venice there were a lot of reports of Venice being completely flooded. When we were there it was perfectly fine and we didn’t see any signs of flooding. However right after we left the city got flooded again. Talk about good timing.

Foggy night.I also got a good amount of great photographs. First day was cloudy, second day was sunny and third and forth days were very very foggy which made the place even more cozy and romantic. The city definitely has character. We spent hours upon hours just walking around, looking for the tiniest and quietest streets and bridges we could find. All in all we absolutely loved it.

San Marco. The center of Venice.On the first day we just walked around and looked around and had a very nice dinner at Santo Stefano. Alena’s black ink risotto was especially nice.

Inside San Marco Cathedral.On the second day we went to explore the main square and San Marco Cathedral itself. It’s an eastern influenced architecture and has 5 domes more reminiscent of those that you would see on a mosque.

Piazza San Marco.There is also a high tower next to it. There are no stairs and only an elevator ride to the top. As a result it didn’t seem as impressive — there is no sense of accomplishment that I’ve experienced when I was at the top of the tower in Florence. But the weather was nice, so we got some bird-eye view photos.

View from the top of the tower.And we did a lot of wondering on this day as well. We also stopped by Venetian Guggenheim museum, and quickly realized that if you want to visit Guggenheim you do it in New York. They advertised that they had Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky and such, but in reality had one of each. New York is where you go.

Anniversary dinner at Trattoria Ai Cacciatori.This was the day of our anniversary. We decided to find a dinner place somewhere on Giudecca for this night. We ended up walking all the way from our hotel on the west side of the island to the very eastern side of the island and in the process discovered only two open places. I guess in low season this island is really asleep. We ended up eating dinner at one of the places that we found online prior to our walk — Trattoria Ai Cacciatori.

Streets of Venice.Although the pictures that we saw showed a very rustic looking place when we got there it turned out that they renovated and ended up with plain white walls. Sounds like a mistake to me. The food however was good. We ordered a couple of appetizers, I had Venetian liver and if I remember correctly Alena had some fish. And of course more wine again. This also was the only place where our waiter (a young guy) had trouble understanding our English — probably one and only such occurrence during our whole trip.

Venice masks.On our third day we did a lot of wondering around again. I’m repeating myself — but what a beautiful place. On this day we started looking for something authentic to bring as a gift to my parents and something for ourselves. When we first arrived to Venice we noticed tons of shops selling masks. At first we thought that it was weird, but later on, when you start looking at them you see how really beatiful and well crafted some of them are — they are indeed art. However the trick is to find the real ones that are made in Venice and not some imports. At first imports might sound like a good deal price-wise, but when you hold both in your hands you feel a substantial difference.

Mask shop.We walked through a lot of stores until we found one that we really liked. This place didn’t even have a sign, but when we walked in it had a nice collection of all kinds of masks and there was no sales person to pester you. There was a master working on them. When we walked in he was picking the masks out of the forms and cutting them out. He greeted us and carried on doing his thing leaving us to look at everything at our own pace.

Venice. Fog.We ended up picking out the ones that we really liked and got a pair of them for a very nice price of about €50 each — it really is a good deal. I asked him to pose for a picture, but he, what seemed like a typical Italian, said that he doesn’t really like himself on pictures, but instead will do something else. So he grabbed a mask, a cape and a hat and stroke a rather cool pose for us. We were quite happy with our acquisition and were actually glad to see the process of those being created with our own eyes.

Streets of Venice.In the evening we picked another restaurant to eat at, but this was really the only time that we struck out with our random picking. Not that the place was bad or anything, it just wasn’t anything special either — and by now we were spoiled with our luck with restaurants.

Foggy day. Venice.When we got to our hotel we ordered a taxi to the airport. The price was quite high — €105 if I remember correctly. But we were aware of it from the time that we were booking planes and decided that we don’t want to fumble with public transportation and other people’s schedules on the day of our departure. My nerves are worth to me more than the money and me being me — this was money well spent.

Canals of Venice.In the morning taxi picked us up at our scheduled time and gave us the last ride through the romantic canals of this beautiful city. We arrived at Marco Polo aiport and had an uneventful non-stop flight back home. Now some time has passed and all those cities have a very fond place in my memory. So many great days and places I’ve seen with my bestest friend in the whole wide world, my beautiful wife.

Streets of Venice.P.S. I have a lot of great photographs of Venice left, but no room to post them. The city is just too photogenic.

Fog. View from our window.
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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Grand Italian Vacation

One of magical canals in Venice.It’s already been seven days since we returned from our “Grand Italian Vacation” and I’m faced with my usual post-vacation conundrum — how do I do a good job conveying and preserving all the great feelings and experiences that we had, through words and pictures.

I think I will start by saying a couple of general things and will go into more details as I go on. Our Italian vacation — as most of our vacations tend to be — was great. We really liked Italy and all the cultural and historical experiences that it has to offer along with an abundance of famous places to visit.

Having said that I probably should mention that while we enjoyed our trip greatly we weren’t completely swept off our feet the same way we were in Japan. I’m not exactly sure why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that we really wanted to visit Japan for many years and year after year some obstacle would prevent us from going. So when we finally managed to do it — the achievement itself made if feel more special. And then there is the fact that it still is much more exotic of an experience. After all — United States itself, even though quite a bit different — did originate from Europe, while Japan existed and developed on a very different trajectory for thousands of years.

Florence. Climbing the tower.But not to get way too off course — back to Italy. The trip was great and everyone who has a chance should visit Italy. The country has so much history to offer in various forms that 10 days is barely enough to touch upon it — ancient structures, famous locations, familiar to everyone paintings and sculptures, unique cities and a great selection of local cuisines. We spent 10 amazing days in Italy that we will probably remember for the rest of our lives.

So a short summary of our trip would be that we got lucky with the weather, loved our Hilton hotels, used trains with great success to get around and even rented a car for one day. We tried a good number of Italian specialties and had a rather good luck with randomly picking places to dine at. All the cities look and feel quite differently from familiar to us U.S. cities and we loved exploring each and every one of them. But my favorite stop of all would have to be Venice — there is just nothing like it in the world and you feel how special it is when you’re there.

Milan. Main square.One of the things that we were worried a bit about was the time of the year that we were going at and all the floods that happened in Italy a week before our departure. However it turned out that weather was warmer and more pleasant than it was in New York at the time even though the most southern city (Rome) in our itinerary was still closer to the north pole than New York is. There were no signs of recent flooding when we were there, but even more surreal was the fact that the flooding has started again right after we left.

However a bigger advantage of the time of the year that we picked was the fact there were no enormous crowds. There were still tons of tourists everywhere, but we didn’t encounter a single line — no line to Saint Peter Basilica, no line to Vatican Museums, no line to Uffizi Gallery and tons of empty restaurants which were very happy to serve us.

Venice. View from Accademia Bridge over Grand Canal. Basilica of Saint Mary in the background.Speaking of which — the service everywhere was great. I couldn’t tell a difference between the typical great service that you would get at restaurant in U.S. from what we were getting in Italy — fast, courteous and very polite hosts and waiters everywhere. A lot of places put a sitting charge on your bill — ranging from 1 to 4 euros per person, but from what we learned from other Italians that we talked to — this pretty much frees you up from having to leave a tip. Even though we still left tips at certain places we felt very much OK with leaving a small tip or not leaving a tip at all.

But of course the best part of the timing of our trip was the fact that we ended up celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary in possibly the most romantic place on earth — Venice.

And now having all of the above laid out I can jump right into our trip and start from the beginning and get deeper into details.

P.S. Selecting photographs for the introductory post was really hard. I didn’t want to use up photos from the stories about each city, yet this post came out looking really photo-scarce. We’ll probably readjust this when we are done with all the posts.
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Friday, April 13, 2012

Anniversary in Kyoto

One of the wooden wall at Nijo Castle.It has been almost 4 months now since our trip to Japan and yet I keep coming back to it, trying to write more and more about it. As I’ve said many many times before, this vacation of ours was amazing. And even the smallest references to Japan in our everyday lives fill up my heart with warmth. We’ve been to many places there that became special to us and one such place was Kyoto.

Planning


Originally we planned to stay in Osaka and make a couple of day visits to Kyoto. The express train ride was from 15 to 30 minutes long which is much shorter than our ride to Manhattan is. But later on we thought that Kyoto would be a great and very romantic place to spend our anniversary day and night at.

To make it even more special we made a reservation for a stay in Nishiyama Ryokan — a traditional Japanese inn — for the night of November 23rd. The stay also included a traditional Japanese dinner on the eve of 23rd and a breakfast on the morning of 24th. It also happened so that our anniversary of November 23rd fell on the same day as a national holiday in Japan.

Subway station.Our plan was simple — take a bullet train to Kyoto in the morning of the 23rd, buy the daily passes for Kyoto subway and buses and spend 2 days exploring the city with a stay and celebration in the above mentioned ryokan. We had the luxury of leaving all our bags in Osaka at our Hilton hotel, since we had a room there booked and paid for anyhow. And that’s exactly what we did.

Morning


On the early morning of our anniversary day we ate breakfast at our hotel buffet and soon after got on the train the schedule of which we confirmed via Hyperdia website — our JR station in Osaka was right across the street from our hotel.

Nijo Castle grounds.We got slightly confused by the signs at the station, since they were not specifying Kyoto on the train that we were supposed to take. When we asked for confirmation at the entrance booth we were told to take some other train which would get us to Kyoto later than the one we were thinking of taking.

It turned out that the sign at the station was actually specifying the last stop of the train (which makes sense) and Kyoto was one of the stops before that. So we did hop on the train that we planned to take and it worked out just right. In a little more than 20 minutes we were standing at the main Kyoto JR station right in the heart of Kyoto itself.

Inside Kyoto JR station.Our first order of business was to buy our passes for the local trains and buses — JR basically doesn’t have any lines to any of the places that we wanted to visit and we thought that instead of making it hard on ourselves by trying to calculate the cheapest and the correct fare to all the places we wanted to visit we would rather spend a little bit more money and just buy a pair of unlimited passes.

Inside Kyoto JR station.The option that we chose was a 2-day pass covering two main subway lines and most of the city buses for ¥2,000 per person. That came out to about $50 for both of us and gave us the freedom of hopping on as many buses and trains as we wanted.

After spending ¥4,000 on the passes we came to a sad realization that we had about ¥1,000 left. To put that into perspective a can of soda or tea typically costs ¥150. We had dollars, but when in Japan dollars are only good to purchase yen. So we needed to find an exchange place. And from what we read the best place to exchange money was a post office. And to our surprise there was one right outside the station.

Staircase at one of the subway stations.We walked into the post office and asked a man at the counter if they do currency exchanges. He confirmed that typically they do, but today being a holiday the bank portion of the post office was closed. We went back into the station which had a large underground mall inside and tried to find another currency exchange place. It was too early in the morning and all of them were closed. In addition to that at the information desk we were told that chances are that they are closed for the day because of the holiday.

We found an ATM machine and tried using our ATM card, but the machine told us that our bank declined the transaction. We found a couple more — some were in Japanese and we could not use, and the ones that were in English kept saying the same thing as the first one did. It was becoming obvious that we had no way to get money, the entrances to all the places that we wanted to visit are not free and that this “little” debacle might just ruin our day.

Golden Pavilion


Bus to Kinkakuji.We still decided to take our chances that we’ll have enough money and go to Kinkakuji — Golden Pavilion. We needed to go to the northern end of Karasuma subway line which goes right through Kyoto JR station and from there get on the right bus — no direct subway service, hence the need for bus pass. Luckily for us we had it all planned in advance and had detailed directions on how to get there.

On the bus.We went to Kitaoji Station (15 minute ride) and there we asked for direction on how to find the buses. Turned out that there was a bus terminal right at that station and each bus stop had a list of bus numbers and places that the bus stops at — this made things very easy. Soon after we were on a bus where we were pleasantly surprised to learn that each bus stop also has an English name on the sign. Plus it appeared that a most people were going to the same place as we were, so we had no problem getting off at the right stop.

Temple map.And from the stop we just followed all the people to the temple. Funnily enough a number of locals, when spotting us, were instantly pointing out the direction to go to for us even though we weren’t asking. Also there were maps on the way on which the temple was marked by a swastika symbol. In Japan swastika is an ancient sign of the sun and even though there is a lot of bad stigma associated with the symbol in the west it is still widely used in Japan.

Near the entrance to Kinkakuji.When we got to the entrance to the temple grounds we were relieved to find out that the entrance would cost us ¥400 per person or in other words pretty much as much money as we had in our pockets. Also upon getting inside we were surprised by how crowded the place was — tourists from Japan and all over the world. We were having a hard time getting to the fence to see the temple.

Crowd at Kinkakuji.Forget about taking a good photo. Matters were further complicated by all the dark clouds covering the sky which meant that in order for me to take a beautiful photograph I had to rest my camera on something for an HDR burst. However I was lucky enough to find a good place on the wooden fence and as a result I managed to capture the Golden Pavilion and an illusion of tranquility that this place would project if all the people would suddenly disappear.

Golden Pavilion — Kinkakuji.We started walking along the path that would take us through the territory and were soon stopped by a shy Japanese girl (15 years old maybe?) apologizing and asking if she could talk to us. We noticed her nervous classmates nearby and her teacher encouraging her to be brave. Turns out she had a school project where she needed to find foreign tourists and ask them (us) several questions in English.

Kinkakuji.She had a hard time writing down our names, but was happy to find out that we were from New York — a familiar word that she knew how to write. She asked us several more questions and asked to take a photograph with us. We should have asked the same in return, but it didn’t occur to us at the moment.

Here we are.She was very happy and quite relieved that she has completed her project. It seemed that she was the first and the bravest out of her class. I think in their culture it’s a hard barrier to cross — to “bother” somebody. But it was no bother for us and we were glad we could help.

Kinkakuji.After that we covered the whole path rather quickly and decided to leave the temple grounds. If the place would be serene and quite we would probably spend much more time here, but since it was so crowded we decided to get out of the mob of tourists and just walk around city street. Plus there was nothing else we could do since we had no money to get into the next place we wanted to visit anyhow.

Hotel


Russian cartoon character — Cheburashka — seem to have taken over Japan.We spent over an hour walking through the streets. On our way we discovered several small temples, a whole bunch of closed banks, a number of restaurants for which we had no money and even got rejected at a local McDonald’s — they do not take credit cards.

Hirano Shrine.We were getting somewhat tired and hungry, so we decided to get back on the bus and go to our hotel. Remembering how there should be Wi-Fi available I thought that maybe we’ll try to call our bank and ask them to unblock our debit card for us in Japan. The bus took us to the same subway station that we were at when we got here. There we took a train back to the center of the city — the central station called Karasuma Oike. Here we jumped onto another train line called Tozai and went one stop to the east. Our hotel was located two blocks away. Very convenient and right in the center of the city.

Typical Kyoto street. This one leads to our hotel.To get to our hotel we had to walk along a tiny street. There was enough space for a single car to fit and there was no sidewalk — we just had to walk along the road itself. Our hotel was easy to find and even though its entrance had a historically old look the building was quite modern. It was just decorated as an older structure. When inside we were greeted by friendly staff, but we were told that they can keep our bags (we had none), yet check in only happens later in the day — it was still too early.

We asked them about currency exchanges and they gave us map which was listing all the banks in the area, but as with other ones — they were all closed. I got on their Wi-Fi network and tried to dial 1-800 number on the back of my debit card via Skype. That didn’t work. So I called my sister, explained the situation, gave them all my information and asked her fiance to call the bank and to pretend to be me. They were keeping him on hold for a long time and we decided not to wait for it to work out and just went out to explore the area.

Street mall.On the map here we saw a long long street that was covered with a roof and littered with all kinds of shops, restaurants and temples. These malls seems to be a popular type of thing in Japan as we saw these kinds of places in several other cities. We walked there, but our mood was pretty sour by now. We wanted to drink, but couldn’t buy anything, we want to eat, but all the places only took cash and no credit cards. After walking through this mall for some time we were starting to feel down right depressed.

Then we saw a 7-11 with an ATM inside. We decided to try our luck again and see what happens. We were hoping that maybe Lenny was successful by now and managed to get our card unlocked. I inserted my card, entered my pin and requested a withdrawal of ¥10,000. The machine started thinking, dialing and then we heard a magical whirling sound lighting up a feeling of hope in us and then it spit out the money! We were ecstatic. Never before we loved 7-11 as we did at that moment.

Entrance to our ryokan.We took our new found fortune and proceeded to buy some food. Alena got herself some red bean ice-cream which she keeps cursing to this day and I got myself some cross of a bun with meat and a wanton. It was the most delicious wanton-bun thing I ever ate. We got ourselves some juice and tea and were on our way back to the subway station to proceed with our plan. Lenny has saved our day and our anniversary.

Nijo Castle


Gates to the castle. Palace is inside.Nijo Castle was located only 2 subway stops away from ours. It was the first thing that we put on our list of things to see when we were planning our trip since it was so close to our hotel. The hunger was gone, we were “rich” and an ancient castle was awaiting us. We were in a great mood.

Nijo Castle.Nijo Castle itself was built somewhere in early 1600s and is currently designated a UNESCO world heritage site. The castle has several high walls surrounded by moats, multiple ponds and gardens and a large palace which served as the residence and office of the shogun. And visitors were allowed inside the palace.

On one of the guard towers.We were asked to give up our shoes at the entrance and were welcomed inside. There was no photography allowed in there, but it was a very interesting self-guided tour. First thing that we noticed was the sound that the floors make — nightingale floors. When people walk on them they make a high pitched melodic squeaking sound. If we didn’t read about this before we would think that the floors were simply old, but in reality they were specifically designed this way so nobody would be able to approach the shogun without being noticed.

View from the tower.Inside there was a large number of different rooms and each one had its purpose. They had mannequins dressed in kimonos in most of them displaying what normally would be happening — a dinner, a meeting and so on. Shogun was always protected by body guards that were hidden from view behind different kinds of doors and closets. The place was quite huge inside. It took us at least 20 minutes to walk through it.

One of the paths inside the castle grounds.Afterwards we walked around the territory of the castle looking at the gardens, ancient buildings and taking photographs. It was all so interesting and unusual. So many great moments and memories — I can’t say this enough.

Ryokan


The sun was starting to set, we were tired and we were getting ready for our special anniversary dinner — we had to get back to hotel by 7pm — the dinner takes a very long time to prepare and has to be served at a precise time. We got back to subway and soon after we were at our hotel. We were warmly greeted, they showed us around, made some green tea for us and we had our dinner.

Our room at Nishiyama Ryokan.For dinner there were only 2 of us there, we tried a lot of different and unknown things for us, drank some sake and had a great time. The room was very cozy, the breakfast in the morning was equally great and a tea ceremony that they performed for us was very special too. Alena claims that it was the best tea she has ever had a chance to drink, although I myself didn’t like the taste — it was too bitter for me.

I’m running through this part because I’ve already written about the hotel and our dinner in much more detail earlier. I’m really glad that we decided to spend some extra money and book a room here. Maybe it’s not a 100% authentic ancient place, but it was a perfect place for beginners like us.

Tea ceremony.It’s a great tradition that we have — to do something special on each one of our anniversaries and this day is definitely one of the most memorable and unusual days to date.
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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Годовщина — Вдогонку

WineХочу добавить пару слов вдогонку по поводу нашего маленького праздника. Идея романтического ужина с вином и свечами (вернее свечкой) ) оказалась весьма удачной. Даня купил вино — Beaujolais Nouveau, которое порекомендовал нам д. Боря, и еду в Сахаре, а я скромно декорировала столик используя подручные материалы. )

Daniel & AlenaПосидели мы очень хорошо — было так уютно рядом с любимым человеком. Мы даже потанцевали немного под какое-то танго… Ароша мирно спал — нам помогла его уложить Данина мама.

Romantic EveningВобщем, вечер лично мне запомнится. Желаю нам еще много-много лет счастья вместе!
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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

4th Anniversary

Our guests.Today is the 4th anniversary of our marriage. I think in the past week or so we have passed another milestone in our lives — we’ve know each other for close to 8 years now and we’ve been married for the longer part of those years than non-married. And yet when we got married we thought we knew each other for eternity. Continue Reading
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Friday, December 5, 2008

Carlsbad Caverns

One of the caves in Carlsbad Caverns.Our second day started out very early. After eating the breakfast at our hotel and driving through the downtown we left El Paso and set out to the east, towards the Carlsbad Caverns National Park through Guadalupe Mountains National Parks. These were our two main objectives for the day.

Papa and mama along the route 180 in Texas.As soon as we left the city we were greeted by an always familiar yet different southwestern landscape that I’ve come to love so much over the past years. Huge flats, tall distant mountains, what might seem to be scarce vegetation of unusual to us composition — cacti and yuccas, and the never ending road. Road that I might say is always great no matter how distant of a place it runs through.

Alena and I on salt flats in Texas along route 180.Our first find was a big white field that was absolutely flat. Finally, the salt flats that I’ve heard so much about. I guess the water evaporated not so long ago, or it was raining recently. The salt was not rock hard, but soft and slightly soggy. I imagine during the summer it feels more like concrete.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park.In Gaudalupe Mountains NP we got a whole bunch of new stamps for our passports (4 official and one bonus). The park consists completely of hiking trails. We took a rather short one going through different plants with plaques attached to most of them. But we didn’t spend much time here as we didn’t want to be late to our next park.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park.We got to Carlsbad Caverns NP at about 1:30pm. The natural entrance to the caverns closes at 2pm and the elevator down closes at 3:30. After talking to the park rangers we decided that we’ll take the elevator right away, since the natural entrance adds an hour to the hike and you don’t really get to the interesting part until you reach the point where elevator would put us anyhow.

One of the caves in Carlsbad Caverns. Look at the guardrails around the trail to get a sense of scale.The elevator took us 750 feet down (that’s more than half of Empire State Building). I’ve never been in any cave or cavern before so for me this was a new experience. First of all the whole thing is HUGE. The farther we went the more space opened up. There were bleak lights installed behind some rocks, but you had to watch carefully where you were going because it was still pretty dark.

Hall of Giants. Carlsbad Caverns.The formations of different stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other things I do not know the names for were magnificent. Underground lakes and springs, the constant sound of water drops. My dad was the “luckiest” of us all with respect to water drops landing on his head. At one point he started worrying about growing a stalagmite. )

Carlsbad Caverns.I managed to take a good number of pictures and most of them came out well thanks to my micro-tripod and a remote control combo. The only thing that is hard to capture is the size of the whole thing. On some photos you will notice the trail itself with guardrails around it. Those were from 1 to 1.5 meters in height and should give you some sense of scale.

Alena with a nice prickly pear cactus in Carlsbad Caverns NP.After that we drove through a tiny town of Carlsbad itself to our final destination of the day — another tiny town in New Mexico — Artesia. We ended up having our 2nd anniversary dinner right in the hotel Chinese Buffet. But it’s not the food that matters, but the company, and the day itself was great.
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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Годовщина

Wedding Anniversary Отмечать годовщину свадьбы мы пошли в тот же ресторан, в котором состоялся свадебный ужин — Luxor Stakehouse. Всё же стейки там ну просто обалденные (даже я, не большой любитель мяса, это признаю). Мы с Данькой заказали шампанское, обменялись нашими новыми кольцами.

Дело в том, что Даньку осенила идея купить что-то памятное на годовщину. Ну, почему бы и не кольца? Мы остановились на 2х одинаковых, относительно недорогих, титановых, с золотой полосочкой. Хотели что-то на них выгравировать, но не нашли где. Данька будет его кольцо носить на смену — обручальное платиновое очень тяжелое, а титан суперлёгкий. А я своё ношу на правой руке — теперь и по американским, и по русским стандартам обручальное кольцо одето на правильном пальце. Continue Reading
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Monday, August 20, 2007

30 Years Together

Papa i MamaToday my parents celebrate their 30th anniversary together. I wanted to wish them 30 years more and to thank them for our (mine and my sister’s) great lives that we owe completely to them. To think, 30 years! It’s longer them my whole life (for obvious reasons too). )

Papa i MamaI only wish to be able to do what they have done, and I think I’m on the right way! teeth And the hardest part will be raising such a great pair of children. )

Thank you for being the best parents anybody could hope for! All of us love you very much and wish you long long lives together.

P.S. Vika gave my mom a great present for her birthday – a romantic dinner aboard a ship on the Hudson river for two. I just spoke with my dad and they sound like they really did love it. ) Great thinking, Vika.
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