Archive for the 'TRAVEL' Category

25
Jul
18

Latvia: Riga, Baltics’ Liveliest Place


Riga, the capital of Latvia is the largest of the three Baltic capital cities and it is considered the party place in the Baltics. Its airport is the largest and busiest in the Baltics offering more direct flights to the rest of Europe than Tallinn, Estonia or Vilnius, Lithuania, the two other Baltic capital cities. Riga was our second Baltic and fourth European city destination during our summer escapade. We have already explored earlier the beautiful cities of Bergen, Helsinki and Tallinn.

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Entering Riga

FullSizeRenderOn a clear sunny day, we took a one hour Air Baltic flight from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Lavia.  I was seated next to a South African guy who would be taking a transit flight in Riga from Tallinn to Budapest where he is based. Indeed, Riga has more direct flights to more European cities compared to Tallinn, just a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, Finland and to Vilnius, Lithuania which is a lesser active city.

 

 

FullSizeRendereWe touched down in Riga International Airport, one of the three international airports in Latvia.

 

 

FullSizeRendercThe airport’s rather tiny and the hallways are narrow but it looked new, organized and easy to navigate probably due to recent renovation works.

 

 

IMG_1655Welcome to Riga!

 

 

IMG_1662The city center, specifically the Old Town of Riga, is less than 20 minutes away by taxi from the airport. The airport taxi service is centralized and you have to buy a coupon near the final exit door before you can board a taxi.  It is an efficient service they offer. Drivers were nice and helpful too.  You can opt to take the train to the city center but I believe the taxi is the more convenient option that is why we took it.

 

IMG_1663From the airport we chanced upon classic train coaches plying the suburban areas near the capital city. They looked very Soviet-styled.

 

 

 

Where We Stayed

It is the usual balance of our desired location (Old Town in this case) and reasonable cost when choosing our lodging in Riga. We also took into consideration that we had two babies so every place that we must visit should be within walking distance from the hotel. The Rixwell Centra Hotel inside the Old Town was our perfect choice.  It truly did not disappoint.

IMG_1668This is part of the hotel lobby and just right outside are the restaurants, bars and shops.

 

 

IMG_1681As I usually do when traveling, I did try to send a request for a room upgrade to the hotel manager. We were given a top floor, corner suite. How generous of them!

 

 

IMG_1682It was indeed a spacious suite where my toddler could run around forever.

 

 

IMG_1684Just as we went inside the room,  the views out of the windows took our breath away.

 

 

riga2The red roofs of most of the surrounding buildings truly impressed in us the Old City aura.

 

 

riga1Churches and all.

 

IMG_1764The views are even more beautiful at sunset.

 

 

IMG_1765As shown in this photo taken at sunset, just below us across the street are tons of restaurants and bars starting to come alive at twilight.  Some are even open until 7 a.m. so one of the disadvantages of a room in a lower floor in this area is the noise coming from the bars that open until the next morning even with double glazed windows.  We were located in the highest floor so the noise was almost a non-concern.

 

 

Roaming Around Riga

The Old Town & Historic Center

FullSizeRendervThe beautiful Riga Town Hall Square was a just a few minutes walk from our hotel.

 

 

FullSizeRenderIt was almost 10 p.m. and it was still a good time to take photos.  Indeed it’s summertime!

 

 

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DSC_0175Riga’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0163Beautiful buildings and lots of restaurants, shops and bars are everywhere.

 

 

DSC_0167Medieval churches are greatly preserved too.

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderWhether at sunset….

 

 

FullSizeRenders….or on a clear, sunny mid-day Riga’s Old Town is beautiful.

 

 

FullSizeRenderbThis was taken just a block from our hotel of which the church tower accentuates the aerial Old Town view as seen high above from our top floor hotel room.

 

 

IMG_1927It was not hard to fall in love with Riga after all.

 

 

If you are a party–goer, you would love it more there.  Watch this video of a mobile bar.

 

 

The Parks

FullSizeRenderkWhile on our way from the Old Town to the Art Nouveau area of Riga outside the Old Town, we cut across beautiful parks and one of them was in Bastion Hill.

 

 

IMG_1789It’s a place of beautiful, blooming flowers and….

 

 

 

DSC_0210….people suntanning or having picnics.

 

 

IMG_1787Bridge love locks abound too…..

 

 

IMG_1888…..and a lock can be solitary too.

 

 

IMG_1791The area covered parts of Bastejkalna and Kārļa Ulmaņa piemineklis parks.  The greens are amazing and in good weather there are a lot of activities that can be done inside the park like kayaking.

 

 

IMG_1889There is actually a boat tour that starts from this park using a large ferry that goes around the Old Town but we skipped it.  I thought it was wonderful to see the Old City from afar.

 

 

FullSizeRenderqWe also encountered a bunch of students rehearsing for a show.

 

 

IMG_1800A walk in the park can be an opportunity to taste a Latvian ice cream…..

 

 

IMG_1794….well the best gourmet ice cream from Latvia.

 

 

 

IMG_1877As we crossed the street from the parks we came into an area where there were a lot of flowers on display.

 

 

IMG_1879Yes beautifully arranged, real flowers.

 

 

IMG_1876A pyramid.

 

 

IMG_1912And the #SingInRiga group singing competition. Ironically, when we went inside the competition hall, the Israeli group was singing!

 

 

FullSizeRenderoWe then came to another park called Kronwalda Park.  It has the monkey statue in a spacesuit.

 

 

IMG_2360The statue is dedicated to animals that participated in exploration of outer space and it was made by artist Denis Prasolov.  It was worth a group-fie.

 

 

The Art Nouveau Area

DSC_0199From the park we finally entered the Art Nouveau area of Riga. This Baltic capital city has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world!

 

 

DSC_0197Our first grand stop was at the Museum of Art Nouveau.

 

 

IMG_1845This is the famous staircase inside the Museum of Art Nouveau leading up to its tower.

 

The following are the snapshots taken in the area of the decorative new arts applied to buildings that was popular in the late 1800s until early 1900s.

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DSC_0191DSC_0194

 

 

Food in Riga

27072320_10215402361640817_1509631548771949073_nOur breakfast moments in Riga were well-taken cared of by our hotel.  This is the first and only hotel where I have stayed that offers complimentary, unlimited champagne during breakfast. We had our other meals in low-key restaurants and fast-food chains.  However, in every trip we take, we make sure to taste the local gourmet offerings.

 

 

20245581_10213782249699031_4327947262718295568_nThe closest we had to experiencing local cuisine was our dinner spent in an awesome place called Garden Restaurant just a few blocks away from our hotel.

 

 

20246017_10213782253579128_4103698983856419920_nThis is where I initially drank the famous local drink, black balsam, that the restaurant was giving complimentary.

 

 

20245476_10213782252939112_9059758374257878717_nMy wife just took a sip of  her black balsam so I finished the two glasses.  It was flavorful, strong and a bit sweet.  I liked it!

 

 

20155727_10213782250579053_7463809804359393260_nWe ordered calamari as our starter.

 

19989682_10213782251459075_9197408986896938830_nThe traditional Latvian bread was served too.

 

 

20228964_10213782250899061_1280012536784584324_nWe ordered the pork knuckle thinking it would be similar to the crispy skin variant of the Philippines only to find out it is somewhat similar to the German version.  It was juicy though and it tasted unexpectedly good.

 

 

20246520_10213782252539102_6395466902400332454_nI am a fish lover so wherever I am I would try to order fish.  The restaurant was only offering a fried Dorado so we ordered it.

 

 

20229281_10213782249859035_1599356938223628368_nThe black balsam was sort of an appetizer drink for me and so my favorite red was the main drink. We enjoyed our dining time in this place and we were glad at least we have tasted a bit of the local cuisine.

 

In another occasion when we were in the Art Nouveau area of Riga we dined in a place called Alberta just across the Museum of Art Nouveau.

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We had beef stroganoff…..

IMG_1857…and Asian-stlye dumplings.

 

 

LEAVING RIGA

The hotel gave us two breakfast bags as we informed the front desk the evening before that we are leaving for the airport on our last day early in the morning. The driver that they arranged to pick us up was prompt, helpful and pleasant too.

IMG_1657From Riga, we took our flight back to Bergen, Norway on the way to the U.S. I was seated next to a couple of guys who smelled alcohol looking like they just got out of a bar and had a long night taking Stolichnaya shots.  Riga party fever indeed!  If I was twenty years younger I could probably have done the same thing.

 

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Ardievas, Riga!

19
Jul
18

Denmark: Ultra Cool Copenhagen


Our stop in the vibrant city of Copenhagen, considered the coolest kid in the Nordic block and is usually voted the happiest place on earth, was unexpected and unplanned.

Our Norwegian Air flight from Bergen, Norway to Providence, Rhode Island in the U.S. was cancelled so we were rerouted to Copenhagen then on to New York’s JFK airport. It was indeed a very disappointing redirection considering that my wife and I had our 6-month and 17-month old babies in tow but instead we chose to focus on the positive side that we would be able to visit Copenhagen for two days all-expense paid by the airline.

Welcome to Copenhagen!

 

Where We Stayed

The airline booked us at the contemporary AC Hotel Bella Sky Copenhagen which is a 10-min drive away from the airport. A complimentary airport shuttle runs between the airport and the hotels near it.

ZCOP4From the proudly Danish-branded Bang and Olufssen TV to the minimalist yet artistic room design and furnitures, the 4-star hotel was indeed a fresh lodging experience for us.

 

ZCOP23This is the hotel room almost in its entirety taken using a panorama shot.

 

ZCOP2The room was spacious enough for my wife and my two little babies.

 

 

ZCOP1I just loved the tiny living area.

 

 

Around Copenhagen

Our hotel was located just roughly thirty minutes away from the city center so it was easy for us to roam around the city.

FullSizeRenderThe hotel where we were staying was located in Bella Center and there was a nearby metro station just less than five minutes walk.

 

 

FullSizeRender4Surprisingly, only debit cards were accepted to buy metro tickets at the automated kiosks in the station.

 

 

FullSizeRender3Our only metro stop for the day was Nyhavn.

 

 

FullSizeRender5This was the view when we went up from under the metro station on our way to Nyhavn.

 

Here are some snapshots as we walked our way to Nyhavn.

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Finally……

DSC_0223….we reached the busy, touristy area of Nyhavn.

 

 

DSC_0235The colorful facades of 17th and 18th century buildings that house restaurants, bars and cafes lined up the river.

 

 

 

DSC_0220My wife and my daughter in the Nyhavn area.

 

 

DSC_0238The famous Nyhavn building.

 

 

DSC_0236There’s also a love lock bridge in the area.

 

 

DSC_0228DSC_0231I sure do loved the tourist boats and historical ships docked in the river.

 

 

DSC_0221We also witnessed the breathtaking and heartbreaking act of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei as he barricaded the windows of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg museum with more than 3,500 salvaged life jackets worn by migrants and collected on the Greek island of Lesbos temporarily to celebrate World Refugee Day.

 

 

DSC_0237The artwork was named “Soleil Levant” – French for “Sunrise” – and was inaugurated on World Refugee Day.  Ai Weiwei wants to put attention to the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, or as he calls it, the human crisis.  The beautiful thing about this piece is that every one of those life jackets, 3,500 life jackets, represents a human story.

 

 

FullSizeRenderzNext are some photos of the yellow buses plying around the city…….

 

 

DSC_0233…..the hop-on, hop-off tourist buses…..

 

 

 

CSC_0242…..and finally the amazing bicycles and their protected cycle tracks.  There are more than half a million bicycles in Copenhagen, more bikes than people.

 

CSC_0244A staggering 36% of its residents prefer bike as the mode of transportation in going to work and school.

 

 

FullSizeRendercCopenhagen is probably the most bicycle-friendly city in the world.

 

 

The Dining Experience

The dining experience in Denmark has been redefined largely by NoMa chain of restaurants that started in Copenhagen. We did not have the time to dine on a NoMa outlet (yeah as if we could beat the waiting list) but I could say the food scene in Copenhagen is truly one of the best in the world. If a Japanese city embodies a meticulously-prepared Asian food, I could say that Copenhagen does the Western food to perfection.

FullSizeRenderbAt our hotel, a simple dish of tatar of hay smoked salmon, tarragan mayo, pickled onions and crispy herbs was presented perfectly not mentioning its awesome taste.

 

FullSizeRendernThe pasta was prepared un-Italian, tasting like a five-star new dish. This was just fettucine with creamy mushroom sauce, roasted mushrooms, asparagus, North Sea cheese and watercress but it tasted heavenly.

 

 

FullSizeRenderuEven a simple chicken salad took our breath away!  Grilled chicken (really out of this world taste!), heart lettuce, anchovy mayo and North Sea cheese sour dough crumbs.

 

FullSizeRenderFinally, this was my favorite although the picture does not justify the taste. ‘Nordic Beef’ Burger, brioche bun, bacon, smoked cheddar, spicy aioli, pickled red onion relish at the AC Hotel Bella Sky.  Even my wife agreed that this burger tastes very good!

 

FullSizeRendermSome drinks in Danish version.

 

For desserts we had them in the city center in Restraurant Vita near Nyhavn.

FullSizeRenderFirst we had the Gateau Marcel. Just a simple chocolate mousse cake that’s perfectly done. The dark chocolate probably did the trick! 

 

IMG_2140My daughter obviously loved it!

 

 

IMG_2139Next we had the Cre’me Brule’e, The brittle topping of the contrasting layer of hard caramel over the rich custard base was just too tooth-inviting. Either paired with my wife’s coffee or my red wine, this was simply perfect!

 

Back to the hotel food….

IMG_2062Our breakfasts were complimentary at the hotel and the choices were one of the widest I have seen in a 4-star hotel.  Well, enough for the food but yes food has been one of the most striking things that we experienced in Copenhagen in addition to the Nordic hospitality. No wonder why this has been voted the happiest city in the world!  Great food makes everyone happy! Chomp, chomp, chomp!

 

See you again Copenhagen!

28
Feb
18

Estonia: Medieval Old Town of Tallinn


Beautiful Estonia became one of our 2017 summer European travel destinations because of the successive terror attacks in some of Europe’s biggest cities that prompted me to revise our itinerary as my wife and I were bringing with us our two daughters, both less than two years old. Parts of Scandinavia and the Baltic states were the easy choices. We found a tempting inaugural flight offer from Norwegian Air flying directly from Providence, Rhode Island to Bergen, Norway, a much more convenient route than the New York City to Oslo we took previously since we live in southeastern Connecticut. From Bergen we flew to Helsinki, Finland (via Stockholm) and then crossed the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, Estonia which was our entry point to the Baltic states.

OLD TOWN OF TALLINN

DSC_0091Most of our time in Tallinn was spent inside the Old Town. The imposing Viru Gate with its pair of picturesque, ivy-covered towers at the entrance to Viru Street was the first glimpse we got of the Old Town. The gate fascinated me so much that we took time to take photos at different times of the day.

 

DSC_0101Yes it was July and mid-summer yet chilly just like most of Scandinavia and the Baltics so we had to take off our jackets for the “summer” photo.

 

 

CSC_0095At the left side of Viru Gate is a small park atop a hill that overlooks the gate. We discovered it as we were walking along the main road.

 

 

CSC_0084There was less of the normal crowd above the hill so we spent some quiet time enjoying the views.

 

 

CSC_0081The two towers are actually only the foregates of what was a much more complex gate system built in the 14th century. It included a large, square tower that stood farther back along the street, close to where the city wall can be seen.

 

 

CSC_0088Most of the gate was pulled down in the 1880s to make room for traffic, but these two towers remained and have since become a symbol of the town.

 

 

FullSizeRender85This was taken as we entered the Viru Gate into Viru Street. Anyone passing between those two towers couldn’t be blamed for thinking they’ve left the 21st century behind and landed smack in the middle of the 18th.

 

 

FullSizeRender81After entering Viru Gate one will pass through the usually packed Viru Street.

 

 

FullSizeRender82A lot of shops, restaurants and cafes dot Viru Street.

 

 

FullSizeRender83Side streets are awesome too!

 

 

IMG_1360We entered a souvenir shop and we were surprised to see Trump and Putin souvenirs being sold together.

 

FullSizeRenderwFrom Viru Street we walked toward the Old Town square.

 

 

FullSizeRender4The main area of the Old Town is its square and this is the southern part.

 

 

FullSizeRender93On our first visit to the square, there was an event going on.

 

 

IMG_1429We took our own photos at the square.

 

 

IMG_1433The restaurants around the square were already bustling with local and foreign visitors alike.

 

 

FullSizeRender3Then we circled another block or two that brought us to the back of the Old Town Hall.

 

 

FullSizeRenderyThe route brought us back to the place of the square tram with authentic Estonian atmosphere.

 

 

FullSizeRendertI could never resist the temptation of having my photo taken with an Estonian girl……

 

 

FullSizeRender…or taking a photo of an Estonian girl. Yes I did ask her permission.

 

 

FullSizeRenderThis is my daughter at one of the doors of the Old Town Hall.

 

 

 

FullSizeRender2As we took another block tour we came upon this tri-cycle and to its back is where we would have a dinner like no other.

 

 

 

A UNIQUE DINING EXPERIENCE 

IMG_1426It was our first night in Tallinn so we decided to experience the irresistible call of a medieval dinner. There  was no obvious choice but Old Hanse, a restaurant we discovered as we were strolling near the Old Town Square.

 

 

IMG_1370Tucked near the center of the Old Town it has both outdoor and indoor seating.  We chose outdoor even if it was chilly because of the babies.

 

 

FullSizeRender92We were given the menu and the staff spoke with medieval flair.

 

 

DSC_0055Blankets were provided for those sitting outside as it was a bit cold summer night.

 

 

DSC_0051The weapons for dining.

 

DSC_0056I had two pieces of wild boar and a piece of elk.

 

DSC_0058My wife had a piece of salmon.

 

 

IMG_1428I tasted both our orders and they tasted so different. Well, medieval.

 

 

FullSizeRender91Yes 1400 A.D. :-). It was indeed a very unique gourmet experience something we never had before, challenging our palette and reasoning even after we have left.

 

 

NIGHT MODE OF TALLINN OLD TOWN SQUARE

FullSizeRenderDOn our second night in Tallinn, we spent some colorful times at the Old Town square.

 

 

exif_temp_imageAs we waited for darkness to set in I took this photo of my beloved with the Old Town Hall and the beautiful buildings as background.

 

 

IMG_1491I also tried the iPhone portrait camera setting as I took another photo of my wife with my firstborn who was 18 months old then.

 

 

IMG_1512We finally decided to have dinner at an Italian restaurant just inside the square to experience the moments of the day turning into night with all those lights starting to turn the square into a magical place.

 

 

IMG_1525A closeup shot of the Old Town Hall at dusk.

 

 

FullSizeRenderBA view of the buildings west of the square accented by the square stones that turned reddish due to the lights from a nearby establishment.

 

 

FullSizeRenderCA part of the north side of the square.  The left end is where the Italian restaurant was located where we had our dinner.

 

 

FullSizeRenderGSome dining options abound too in the east side of the square.

 

 

FullSizeRender(23)A panoramic shot of the square that covered the north, west and south sides.

 

 

FullSizeRenderEFinally, a monochromatic shot of one of the most exciting squares in Europe.

 

MORE OF TALLINN OLD TOWN

FullSizeRenderccOn our last day, we explored the area of the Old Town nearest to our hotel.  First stop was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an Orthodox Christian building similar to those found in Russia. Well, Estonia used to be part of U.S.S.R.

 

 

FullSizeRenderxxAfter some time circling the cathedral grounds, we finally found a spot to take a snapshot of the side of the cathedral with more of us and less of the irritating crowd.

 

 

FullSizeRenderbbThe facade of the cathedral that was not free of Filipinos taking photos.

 

 

FullSizeRendervvThe Orthodox Christian church was truly an architectural marvel.

 

 

FullSizeRenderNext was the Maiden Tower, a less than 10-minute walk from our hotel.

 

 

FullSizeRender111It is one of the more famous of Tallinn’s medieval defence towers.

 

 

FullSizeRender2It was recently renovated and reopened a museum, complete with an exhibition hall in its vaulted cellar.

 

 

FullSizeRender444What puzzled me inside the Maiden Tower complex was these creepy monks.  There are actually three creepy monks, Ambrosius, Bartholomeus, and Claudius.

 

 

FullSizeRenderThese monks in the Danish King Garden. Their creation was funded by a shady Estonian businessman Toomas Annus.

 

 

FullSizeRender555Veering away from the creepy monks, one can have the beautiful view of this part of the Old Town from the Maiden Tower complex.

 

 

FullSizeRenderLastly as we left the Maiden Tower complex, we passed by Kiek in de Kök, an artillery tower built in 1475. It gained the name Kiek in de Kök from the ability of tower occupants to see into kitchens of nearby houses. The tower is 38 m high and has walls 4 m thick.  A defense passage actually connects it to the Maiden Tower.

 

 

OUTSIDE OF OLD TOWN

DSC_0110Even if our hotel was geographically outside of the Old Town, we never ventured its neighborhood until our last day as our main focus was what was inside the Old Town  It was awe-inspiring to see outside the Old Town medieval architecture blending with modern design.

 

 

IMG_1469This is one of Tallin’s museums.

 

 

IMG_1478My wife and one of my daughters.

 

 

DSC_0097Just outside of Viru Gate, there is a nice place to go for street shopping especially for authentic Estonian handicrafts.

 

 

DSC_0098It has an extensive choices of locally-designed clothing and souvenir items.

 

 

DSC_0109Also, outside the Old Town were Hop -On, Hop-Off tour buses…..

 

 

FullSizeRendeqr….the modern transportation system of the Estonian capital…..

 

 

DSC_0099…the trike business for tourists…

 

 

FullSizeRender…..interesting buildings…

 

 

IMG_1443…and sex shops 🙂

 

Also, we had to visit a supermarket as we needed some things for our little baby.  We were directed by the hotel staff to a shopping mall less than 10minutes walk from our hotel located outside the Old Town.  It has a huge supermarket at its basement.

IMG_1463What made our day complete though was a restaurant that satisfied our craving for Asian food.  It was the CHI Restaurant located at mall’s basement, a food place of Thai-Asian fusion.

 

 

IMG_1448The place was not that crowded anymore when we had our mid-afternoon dining.

 

 

IMG_1462We ordered pad thai…..

 

 

IMG_1460….fried rice….

 

 

IMG_1451…green curry chicken….

 

 

IMG_1457…and sweet and sour fish.  It was indeed a food fest for us who have been deprived of Asian cuisine for almost a week.

 

 

GETTING INTO ESTONIA

Compared to Riga, Latvia, Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn has less direct flights from major European cities probably because of its proximity to Helsinki, Finland’s capital which is just 2 hours ferry ride away via the Gulf of Finland. We chose to cross the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki to Tallinn and it was truly a breeze.

FullSizeRenderfThe Viking Line ferry terminal was just a 10-min taxi ride from the center of Helsinki.  Although there were a lot of passengers, our check-in took us less than 10 minutes.

 

 

FullSizeRenderThere was also an automated checkin area but very few people were using it.

 

 

IMG_1271This was the massive ferry that took us from Helsinki to Tallinn.

 

 

IMG_1261With two babies in tow, we decided to book a private cabin so that we can all easily take a short nap during the sea crossing.  This is the hallway to our cabin.

 

 

IMG_1252Adding a bit more to the regular fare without cabin, one can have this cabin with three sleeping beds tucked into the wall and a fixed sofa bed!

 

 

IMG_1255This was the lower part of the sleeping area.

 

 

IMG_1260With all the beds set up the cabin looked like this.  We were able to take a short nap during the travel………

 

 

IMG_1265……especially that I took my wine inside the cabin which was not allowed.

 

 

IMG_1274We arrived in Tallinn at the Ferry Passenger Terminal where we took a taxi to our hotel.

 

 

WHERE WE STAYED IN TALLINN

IMG_1289After so much consideration with the price and location of the hotels, I booked a room at the Hotell Palace Tallinn in the Estonian capital.  It was way cheaper than the hotels of the same category inside the Old Town and it was just a short walk (less than 10 minutes) to any entrance to the Old Town.

 

 

DSC_0074Shown here is the small lobby of the hotel.

 

 

DSC_0073To the right of the lobby is the area leading to the elevators that would take you to the rooms.

 

 

IMG_1281Our room had two double beds that we later joined together.

 

 

IMG_1279We were provided promptly with the crib. The room had a desk with a Samsung tablet that guests can use freely and is connected to the ultra fast and reliable hotel Wi-fi.  Did you know that Estonia is the most wired country in Europe and probably the world?

 

 

IMG_1282The bathroom was spacious but there was no tub, only a shower area.

 

 

IMG_1283At the other end of the bathroom was a single sink with a large round mirror.

 

 

IMG_1435I think the most captivating thing for me in the hotel was the buffet breakfast included in the hotel room rate.  Fishes and eggs and everything healthy I wanted to eat in the morning.

 

 

IMG_1530And some meaty stuff too: bacon, sausages and pork ribs!

 

 

IMG_1643Tallinn summarizes and showcases what Estonia has gone through the several years of its tumultuous history.   Shown here is the Cross of

20
Mar
17

U.S.: St. John, Virgin Islands


In celebrating the 100th year of U.S. National Parks, we decided to go to the U.S. Virgin Islands composed of the three stunning islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. St. John’s awe-inspiring Trunk Bay was the main reason why we decided to base ourselves in St. John away from the maddening cruise ship crowd of St. Thomas.  Two-thirds of the island of St. John is protected as part of the Virgin Islands National Park.

We flew from New York’s JFK airport into St. Thomas which is the primary gateway to both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. We were whisked off from the airport by a private shuttle bus provided by the Westin St. John to the dock where we took the private ferry direct from  St. Thomas to the Westin dock in St. John.  We chose this route as we had our four-month old baby girl in tow.  An alternative and cheaper but more inconvenient route would be to take a 30-min. taxi from the airport to Red Hook in St. Thomas and take the ferry from there to Cruz Bay in St. John and then take a short taxi ride to the hotel.  All transportation information to St. John can be found at this link.

THE WESTIN ST. JOHN

We earned enough Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points for the year to spend a few nights at any Westin property so selecting our hotel in St. John was a no-brainer.  Otherwise, it would have been a toss-up between Westin St. John & Caneel Bay Resort if I wanted closer to Cruz Bay area.

image2Taking the hotel private ferry gives passengers a spectacular approach to the Westin dock as the ferry  makes its way to the docking area……..

image1…..and as the amazing strip of the private white sand beach comes into view in a stunningly clear and sunny weather like what we experienced.

IMG_5018Here is how the resort would look like from above.  I flew my drone much higher to get this shot. Just kidding.  Photo credit goes to the resort website.

USVI8As we arrived at the resort, we were immediately served the great tasting island signature rum punch as the welcome drink at the check-in area.  We brought our refillable drinks with us as we were transported by a hotel cart to our room.  Our luggage was delivered later. We were given a room facing the pool (shown above) that made it possible for me and my wife to dip in the pool later while our little angel slept. We brought with us our video monitor that worked via the hotel’s complimentary and reliable  Wi-Fi.

USVI3Shown here is part of the massive hotel pool during the day.

FullSizeRender_3Early one beautiful morning we had a photo shoot at the resort’s pool side when almost everyone was still asleep or was busy having breakfast.

image23Our lovely, little angel, shown here with my voluptuous wife, was very cooperative.

image25She even posed for some unforgettable shot.

image13At the other end of the resort near the breakfast area are the colorful canoes and speedboat docked at the resort’s private beach available for guests.

image27Whether it is late afternoon….

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image5..or early morning, the resort’s private beach is a great place to relax.

TRUNK BAY

DSC_0065This beautiful piece of paradise is a part of the Virgin Islands National Park and it is the main reason of our visit to USVI.  This photo was taken from the final vantage point as we began to descend to the entrance of the magnificent beach.  If you are driving your own rented car you can just stop by the lookout area. Taxis would usually make stops too that is why I was able to take this shot.

USVI6I have previously read that even if there is an entrance fee to the national park, if you arrive before it opens at 7:30 a.m. you won’t be paying anything.  We arrived there around 8:00 a.m. and the ticket counter was still closed so we did not pay anything!  We just paid for the chairs and umbrellas later rented at the single store operating there.

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What a great treat to have the entire beach to ourselves! I was actually hoping that day that the massive cruise ship crowd won’t be filling this beautiful beach and certainly they did not for the entire time that we were there!  There is actually a cruise ship schedule to make one aware when the crowd would be arriving at St. Thomas and be flooding Trunk Bay.

USVI5An hour after we arrived, there were still less than ten people on the beach.

DSC_0001This not-so-young lady kept walking from one end of the beach to the other for many times since we arrived.  Like us, she could not get enough of the stunning scenery!

CSC_0021Now as more people rushed into the beach I set up my camera on a tree and we had our family portrait.

CSC_0010As our little angel took a nap under the shade on her mother’s arms…..

CSC_0051……I explored the other end of the beach!

DSC_0049There were boulders that were less distinctive than the ones in Virgin Gorda, BVI.

DSC_0040Yet from that point, the view of Trunk Bay was truly breathtaking.

USVI4At last one of the beaches I was dying to check off my list was finally conquered in an early morning solitude and in a stunningly sunny weather. I would love to be back. This beach immediately made my list of the top 10 best beaches that I have been to.

CINNAMON BAY

DSC_0103 Longer but less impressive than Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay is worth a visit too.

DSC_0082The sand here was white too but not as fine as the one in Trunk Bay and the water was invitingly clear.

DSC_0092This is where our daughter had her first saltwater dip.

DSC_0067We left before sunset as we were told that it would be hard to get taxis after 6 p.m. We surely missed the highly-acclaimed Maho Bay Beach just a few miles from Cinnamon Bay but we promised to be back to visit it.

FOOD

DSC_0116During our stay at St. John, we only had one dining experience outside the Westin St. John and it was at the highly recommended Morgan’s Mango. The famous place is a neo-Caribbean restaurant with West Indian and Latin twist.

DSC_0121We ordered the celebrated grilled Caribbean lobster served with sweet plantains, black beans and seasoned rice with the usual butter-lemon sauce. Honestly, Maine lobster is still juicier (and probably the best) but this one is good enough!

DSC_0115This seafood soup made my day. It’s made of shrimps, mussels and squid with quinoa in seafood broth. Excellent!

seafood paellaThe seafood paella also captivated our taste buds! The Latin kick created that different twist!

GETTING AROUND ST. JOHN

DSC_1079There are only two main options how to get around St. John.  One is to rent one of those reliable Jeeps. Please take note that you would drive at the other side of the road opposite of the U.S. experience.

DSC_0056The other option would be the island taxis that abound everywhere.  These are non-aircon cars that can take up to 20 passengers.

DSC_0113Shown here is my wife and our daughter as we were about to leave Cinnamon Bay using an island taxi.

IMG_5242One of the most breathtaking views that you can have as you travel around St. John is Cruz Bay.  We saw many tourists pending time just looking at the beautiful scenery.

image8Truly, this has been one of my family’s most memorable Caribbean experiences.  Swaying palm trees, gorgeous beaches, sumptuous food, friendly people and laid back atmosphere. Ah, paradise!  Virgin Islands, we will keep on coming back!

17
Mar
17

Morocco: The Ruins of Volubilis


After spending days in the World Heritage Site of the greatly preserved medieval city of Fez and touring the blue city of Chefchaouen for a day, we were on our way to exciting Marrakesh with a stop in Casablanca. Volubilis and Meknes can both be visited along the way from Fez to Casablanca so we suddenly decided to spend an entire day in these two magnificent places. We rented a car and hired a driver during our entire stay in Morocco so even last minute decisions like this could be easily accommodated.

VOLUBILIS

DSC_0270About one and half hour drive from Fez is the spectacular, partly excavated Berber and Roman city of Volubilis. The archaeological site overlooks a rolling fertile plain and the surrounding verdant greens can make one say he is in Italy instead of Morocco.

DSC_0348There is a ticket booth at the entrance and upon entering the sprawling 42-hectare complex there is a newly constructed structure that houses the restrooms and some prototypes of architectural columns during different eras. One should make sure to use the restrooms first and bring plenty of water or any liquid as it will be a long and arduous walk especially during noontime under the searing heat of the Moroccan sun.

DSC_0352As we walked up the hilly path into the main site, we initially caught a glimpse of some of the ruins.

 

 

DSC_0347The two public buildings readily visible at the center of the city are what remains of the basilica and the Capitoline Temple.

 

 

DSC_0345Now with only one side largely intact this is considered one of the finest basilicas in Africa.

 

 

DSC_0278The basilica was used for the administration of justice and the governance of the city.

 

 

DSC_0335The outer wall of the basilica, which is faced with columns, overlooks the forum where markets were held.

 

 

DSC_0336The forum fronting the basilica used to have statues of emperors and local dignitaries but now all that remains is the pedestal.

 

 

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DSC_0338Exterior of the basilica.

 

 

CSC_0297Interior of the basilica at Volubilis.

 

 

DSC_0337Just behind the basilica is the Capitoline Temple.

 

 

CSC_0283The layout of the temple seems unusual and it has been said that it was built on top of an existing shrine.  Nobody and nothing could confirm that.

 

 

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DSC_0343The temple was dedicated o the trinity of Roman gods: Juno, Jupiter and Minerva.

 

 

ARCHOnward, we found the Arch of Caracalla, one of Volubilis’ most distinctive landmarks.

 

 

CSC_0295It was built in 217 A.D. by the town council in honour of Emperor Carcalla (an African) and his mother Julia Domna as a way of thanking them for bestowing upon citizens of Roman provinces the Roman citizenship and eventually tax exemption. Sadly, by the time the arch was finished, Caracalla and Julia had been murdered.

CSC_0328 The triumphal arch marks the end of the city’s main street on one side and beyond that leads to fertile rolling green plains.

 

 

DSC_0293Next along, the House of Columns is so named because of the columns arranged in a circle around the interior court – note their differing styles, which include spirals.

 

 

DSC_0303More columns. We were actually a bit exhausted at this point and we stopped every now and then where there was some sort of a shade from the fierce sun and sipped the refreshing water and sugar-laden coke (blame my wife!) that we brought with us.

DSC_0305Next are the fine town houses with impressive mosaic floors that were built during the first and second century AD as the city grew and prospered.  The city’s wealth was derived mainly from olive growing business that until now is widespread in most parts of Morocco.

DSC_0306Although much of the city’s structures were destroyed by previous earthquakes, especially the one in the 18th century and then looted by Moroccan rulers seeking for stones to be used in building nearby Meknes, the mosaics remained intact.

 

 

CSC_0311From the Arch of Caracalla, the city’s main street, Decumanus Maximus, stretches up the slope to the northeast.

 

 

DSC_0307Going to the other end of the city’s main street  would lead to the small Tingis gate at the far end of the decumanus.

 

 

DSC_0323Pillars lining up one side of the city’s main street lead to small Tingis gate.

 

 

DSC_0315This part of the city was the last part of the ruins of Volubilis that we checked.

DSC_0320In 1997, the Archaeological Site of Volubilis was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of its outstanding universal value as a property of the humankind. It is indeed Morocco’s best-preserved archaeological site!

06
Jul
16

Morocco: Medieval Fez


IMG_2038Arriving into Fez, Morocco from Barcelona, Spain was exhilarating with stunning top views of the Rif Mountains and its surrounding lakes.

 

 

IMG_2046The shadow of the Ryanair plane as we were about to land in Fez airport was so haunting against the nicely lined up olive trees.

 

WHERE WE STAYED

IMG_2054We were met at the airport by Mr. Abdel, whom we booked to be our guide and driver during our entire stay in Morocco (except until after he had sent us off to Marrakesh).  He brought us to the riad we booked called, Riad Rcif.

 

 

DSC_0964DSC_0967We were welcomed by the owner himself Mr. Hasish (not pictured) with complimentary Moroccan tea and sweets made by his mother.

 

 

IMG_2068This was the view of the receiving area/restaurant from the third floor of the riad.

 

 

IMG_2079Welcome to Morocco!

 

 

IMG_2074After a quick rest, we decided to have our lunch in the riad before we ventured into a city tour.

 

 

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We did the right thing! The food was sumptuous!

 

 

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This is Moroccan food at its best.  This truly stamped Riad Rcif as one of the best, if not the best restaurant in Fez. In my entire stay in Morocco the food here was the best I have tasted.

 

 

DSC_0027And on to our room.  My wife was 35 weeks pregnant and I failed to verify that the riad did not have an elevator so we had to walk 3 stories up to our room. We just considered it as an exercise and we found it worthwhile as it is the only room with stained glass windows and views of the city.

 

DSC_0036Could have I asked for a nicer bed?

 

DSC_0977There was a tiny nook with a small table and a couple of chairs.

 

DSC_0030 DSC_0029The bathroom gave us the experience of  medieval times.

 

 

image3Finally, up at the penthouse of Riad Rcif one can have the view of a part of the old walled city.

 

THE WORLD-RENOWNED POTTERY OF FEZ

DSC_1035As one of the city tour stops, our guide brought us to the famous pottery in Fez which is the biggest in Morocco.

 

 

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We were oriented on the entire process of ancient pottery.

 

 

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We were also briefed on how the intricate designs are prepared and meticulously carved out and put together.

 

 

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These are some of the outputs from the same pottery factory that are exported to all parts of the world.

 

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We also toured the area of those painting the designs on the ceramics.

 

 

Here are some of the the colorful finished products being sold inside the factory.

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We were so enticed we bought some to be brought back to the U.S.

 

 

MORE OF FEZ’S AMAZING CRAFTS

DSC_1056We were whisked off to a metal crafts store that’s selling magnificent metal lamps…..

 

 

DSC_1053….gleaming copper plates……

 

 

DSC_1052….with demonstrations of how intricate designs are etched on the plates….

 

 

DSC_1064…Berber jewelry…

 

DSC_1062….even ultra expensive dining set made of camel bones.

 

 

 

MORE BEAUTIFUL SITES AROUND FEZ

image2This is the area where we would be dropped off by our driver and picked up by the hotel staff to traverse the winding alleys of the old walled city as it is only accessible by foot and donkey. Somewhere up there is Riad Rcif, our base in Fez.

 

 

image1Yes, donkeys abound, nicely blending with modern cars and they are real mode of transportation mostly in the northern and eastern part of Morocco.

 

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Another beautiful place we visited was the Army Palace overlooking Fez.

 

 

DSC_1014At the mountain summit is a small palatial compound composed of just one squarish structure guarded by armed men.

 

 

DSC_1009 DSC_1010The sweeping views of Fez before sunset were overwhelming.  Yes a  walled city lies below with its ancient culture well preserved.

 

 

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We were not accompanied by our tour guide as we roamed around the palace and stopped at the lookout so we had to take a selfie instead as we were the only ones at the top as it was late afternoon already.

 

 

12314005_10208193219496769_8379035391630529412_nNext, the king’s palace was a sight to behold even from outside!

 

 

 

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DSC_1016More of the gates of Fez.

 

 

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DSC_1015And its walls.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0008As the sun went down the golden effect it had was captured on the city wall.

 

 

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We then visited a night market that was starting to come alive at twilight.

 

 

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DSC_1070The dramatic and imposing Blue Gate was one of the highlights of our tour of Fez.

 

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Our tour guide and driver, Abdel, also brought us to Fez’s version of the Champs Elysees.

 

 

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Here are some shots of the narrow, ascending and descending maze of alleys inside the  old walled city only accessible on foot and donkeys.

 

 

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Surely, Fez gave me and my beautiful wife a unique experience.

 

 

 




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