Belgian fries, Belgian Chocolate and Mango Beer

That pretty much sums up my weekend in Belgium. But of course it was a lot more than that. Not just the time spend in the land of good beer and extraordinary chocolate, it’s worth describing, but also the amusing and unexpected journey to it. And by unexpected I mean, we literally didn’t have a clue what to expect from a 9h coach journey. Let’s face it, getting the coach from London Victoria to go anywhere it’s not particularly fun, but when it’s cheap, and you want to travel, you have no choice but be uncomfortable. My friend, Mandy and I, didn’t get much sleep on those 9h (although that was the initial plan), and the reason for that was because we were totally unprepared for it. Every time we were dozing off, the light came on and the driver was saying to get off for some reason. The best part was when we finally got on the ferry and we thought…that’s it. We can sleep, but guess what, we didn’t. As soon as we boarded the ferry, we needed to get off the coach, and go upstairs. We thought that’s fine, is only for like 10 mins, whilst everyone is getting ready. NO!!! A very big NO! It was for an hour and 35 mins to be precise. Some of the people are definitely doing this journey more often than my friend or me are. They were prepared. They went there early, made sure they got a sofa, or a chair, or two chairs, or a chair and a table, or any combination of furniture that they could find, and sleep on it. They had pillows, and sleeping bags and blankets. Don’t get me wrong, I had all of them, but I left them in the coach, so I found myself wandering around the ferry in a desperate attempt to find a place to sit. Ohh….and when we found a half decent place to lay down (on the floor, of course), the music started. It was 1:55am. No one, but no one wanted to listen to music at that time. So we wandered some more.

We finally made it to Brussels. We got there at 6.30 in the morning. So what is there to do that early in Brussels (or anywhere)? Go exploring, get to know the city before the crowds of tourists and the busy locals take it’s beauty away. We walked aimlessly and took pictures with statues (we also touched some statues, but that is now a tradition), we’ve seen the flower carpet in Grand-Place, took pictures of the City Hall. We were doing what every tourist does, but without the crowds and the fuss. I highly recommend to get to a new place, and start discovering it early in the morning. You will learn things you wouldn’t normally do if you go there at midday. I will share with you some facts, that probably most of you didn’t know about Brussels.

1. Forget about Paris being the city of love. Go to Brussels, or just go to Belgium. People there are very much in love. You always see couples on the streets, in the parks, kissing at the bus stop, or in the shops. People having romantic picnics and dinner and holding hands.

2. Fashion! Never thought fashion is a big thing in Brussels. Well…it is. Very nice dressed people, and the local designers have some brilliant stuff on display. Ohh…how I would have loved to have the money to buy some things.

3. 15th of August it’s a Bank Holiday. We learned this the hard way. More than half of the shops and cafes were closed that day, when we were desperate for some breakfast and a hot drink.

4. Chocolate taste good, more than good, anytime!

5. Men. Brussels, and Belgium, it’s a very manly city and country. There were groups of men, just men everywhere. Every 20metres, another group of 4-5men. All chatting away..waiting for something and staring at us when we were passing by.

Once the streets get busy, and the markets are up, the atmosphere is completely changed. You can definitely see and feel it’s the capital city, and not just any capital city, but one that speaks two languages. You are never quite sure if you should start your conversation in a shop with Bonjour or Hallo, but nevertheless you try, because you want to feel as authentic as possible (we even talked French to the taxi driver, to make sure he’s not taking us on any detours). So once the vibe in town is changed and the craziness comes out, you have one thing to do (or maybe a couple or more).

1. Have dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant (and go for the frog legs). They are delicious, and you can’t find them in many places.

2. Have one (or more) of the over 2000 different beers that you can find in Brussels. I had the mango one, purely because the 3 Turkish men in front of us let us try their beer first. We tried mango, chocolate and honey. I went for the mango, Mandy for the honey. If you can’t find anyone who is willing to give you a try of their drink, your decision will be impossible. There are too many to chose from.

3. Stumble upon and Irish pub, that serves beer for 1 euro and then go upstairs, where the pub is weirdly transforming into a club.

4. Go to a bar and enjoy the drinks. It is so much more fun than a traditional pub. (English pubs)

5. Go to a night club. And it will be something completely different from probably any night clubs you’ve been before. In Brugge, my friend and I wanted to go dancing, but I suppose Belgians don’t dance. The night club was absolutely packed and everyone was standing up, barely moving. They do not dance, they drink, and smoke and listen to very loud music. If you want to dance, you’ll feel a bit of order. (we’ve done it anyway).

6. Buy some Belgian fries, and enjoy them covered in mayonnaise. (in case you can’t have dairy, have them plain), or a waffle.

7. Talk in French to the taxi driver.  

P.S. The photos will follow shortly.

Here they are:

 

More statues touching!
More statues touching!
Chocolate!
Chocolate!

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Mango and Honey Beer!
Mango and Honey Beer!
More beer!
More beer!

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Statue touching!
Statue touching!

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Smallest hot chocolate in the world!
Smallest hot chocolate in the world!
Frog legs!
Frog legs!
Cheap lunch! And beer!
Cheap lunch! And beer!

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Flower Carpet!
Flower Carpet!

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Half decent place to sleep!
Half decent place to sleep!
People actually prepared for the journey!
People actually prepared for the journey!

I left a part of me in Iceland!

I find it rather difficult to summarize my first encounter with Iceland. How come I went to Iceland? Simple. I just woke up one morning, and before I rolled out of bed I checked my Facebook (do not judge me, everyone is checking Facebook or Twitter or something along those lines), and I read something about the summer solstice. It sounded interesting, so I booked a return flight to Reykjavik, and it was one of the best decision I made this year. As soon as I landed and took the bus from the airport towards the city, Iceland took my breath away. I have never felt more relaxed and at peace with myself. Everything seemed so beautiful to me. I usually have no expectations when I’m travelling. I don’t think about how awesome, or how bad it’s going to be. I let myself decide whenever I get there. And Iceland stole my heart.

I went there all by myself. And if any of you are having trouble travelling by yourself, and you’re wondering if you should do it or not, go to Reykjavik. I met some amazing people. I never felt alone, and there was always someone around. First, I couchsurfed at Brian’s house (an Irish man, moved there for the summer, because Iceland stole his heart as well the first time he visited it). We got along great almost instantly, and within 2 hours we knew so much about each other, that people would always think we knew each other for years. Then, I met Luc, a French guy who was also couchsurfing at Brian’s, and he is awesome. Probably one of the most approachable people I know. And last, but not least, I met Tiana, who started talking to me whilst we were queueing for the toilet, and ohh boy I am so glad she did. We became friends instantly, and we had great fun walking around Reykjavik.

But, apart from meeting extraordinary people, who definitely made my stay in Iceland even more pleasurable, I need to tell you about the Iceland. I was overwhelmed by it’s natural beauty. My words it won’t make it justice, I know it won’t, but I think the best way to do that is to show you.

Iceland from above!
Iceland from above!

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One of the symbols of Reykjavik.
One of the symbols of Reykjavik.

Reykjavik is a small town, and as long as you stay there more than 2 days, you are going to know your way around, even know some shortcuts to get to the hostel, or the house you are staying.  I visited on the summer solstice, in June. That meant it was summer. Summer maybe for them, because, personally I was  freezing. I had at least 4 layers on my at all times. Also, there was 24h of daylight. Yes, you read that right. It was probably the most confusing time of my life, and I loved every bit of it; your body doesn’t really slow down, and I can’t describe what you feel when you look out and you think it’s 5 pm, when actually, it’s around 1am. Even if it’s a small town, there are plenty of things to do. There’s a flea market every Saturday, where you can find some awesome things if you have the time to look for them.You have local designers shops and vintage ones (one of the best thing is that you do not see international brands), you can walk around and enjoy the fresh air and the nature and you can eat indulge in their cuisine. 

If you are not afraid of trying different things, you can always have a whale steak, or try a sample, or maybe a lobster soup. If your aren’t too adventurous with your food, you can always have a tasty meal at Chuck Norris Grill. Yep, Chuck Norris Grill, first country that I saw that, but very ingenious, and very good (I actually ate there twice).

Lo
Lo
Wha
Wha
Whale Steak!
Whale Steak!

If you do stay more than 2 days in Iceland, I think the best way to spend time is to go on an excursion around the country. You will then see some pretty amazing places. Waterfalls, geysers (which in my opinion, they’re a force of nature), volcanoes, and even the tectonic plates widening the gap between them, and you can finish the day by enjoying a relaxing evening at the Blue Lagoon, which I truly believe is heaven on Earth. Let’s not forget that you can also go whale watching, and see the northern lights if you’re going in the winter (that’s on my to do list for next time). 

Vikings!
Vikings!
It was truly boiling water.
It was truly boiling water.
Steam coming from the boiling water in the ground.
Steam coming from the boiling water in the ground.
Part of the Blue Lagoon!
Part of the Blue Lagoon!
Waterfall selfie!
Waterfall selfie!

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P.S. Everyone in Iceland is incredibly good looking! Very beautiful people! 

When in Vilnius…make a wish, or two, or three…

Last October my best friend, Cristina, moved to Vilnius, Lithuania for 9 months.  I can’t say I was surprised with her decision, or that it was completely unexpected; she’s a free spirit just like me, and she moves around probably as much as I do. When she told me, she will be there until June 2014, my first reaction was: “Sweet, I’m coming to see you!”. In my years at university I met loads of Lithuanians, yet I knew next to nothing about their country or the capital city, Vilnius. But what better way to find out about it then actually go and visit it. So I went, in April 2014. Now, that my flight tickets were booked, I was telling everyone about it, and everyone’s reaction (including the many Lithuanians) was: “Why are you going there?”; “Why did your friend move there?”, but I didn’t listen. and I went…and ohh boy..was I surprised of my findings. I went for 5 days in April. Apparently, they never know how the weather is going to be around that time of the year. Last year it was freezing cold and snowing, this year..I was lucky enough and it was sunny (most of the time anyway). First impression of Vilnius was…that it look a lot like home, like Romania home. Both Lithuania and Romania have been under communism, and it is clear that it left a great impression and influence on the streets of the cities. My friend said it didn’t take long  for her to get used to the city, it was nothing that she hasn’t seen before at home. However, unlike like any city in Romania, I was gobsmacked by the space. They said it is quite a small city, yet I felt it was massive. They have a lot of space. Empty space. They have woods in the middle of the city. Even with the big communist blocks, you don’t feel crushed. You have enough space to run, and walk and breathe. Everyday I was shocked of the immensity of just empty space. Second thing that I discovered about Lithuanians (although I was warned before I left), is that they don’t smile. I don’t blame them. I  actually understand them (and whoever met me, know for sure I am not lying). That doesn’t mean, they are not polite or friendly, I think they are absorbed by their own problems, and their own life, and unless something is ridiculously funny, they won’t laugh. Despite their lack of smiling all the time, the food they serve in restaurant is very close to perfection. Lithuanian cuisine is absolutely mind-blowing. I love food. I love trying new things, and cooking and learning new recipe, and I was surprised by some of the traditional recipes.

  •  Šaltibarščiai (Cold Borscht aka Beetroot Soup) it was my very first dish. I loved it. I think the nice pink colour has a lot to do with it, and the fact that I like beetroot, but all in all, this is a very easy to make dish. The taste and the flavours of all the ingredients blend in so nicely, that it makes it the best choice in the hot summer days. (I was there in spring, and I still had it everyday)
  • Blynai or something similar with pancakes. You can have it with different vegetables, or cheese, or meat. They are not my favourite. To be fair, I won’t be trying them again. But you out there might enjoy them.
  • Kibinai which are specific to this small village, Trakai, situated next to Vilnius. They are pastries filled with vegetables or meat, and they are lovely. Everyone who visits Trakai, needs to try them. And I am sure you’ll love them.
  • Kepta duona- ohhh….my mouth is watering only thinking about them. Black bread with garlic, deep fried and served with melted cheese. Ohh…man it is just delicious; they are crispy and full of flavour, and you can never have enough.
  • Surealis – which is soft cheese covered in chocolate. I know, for many of you, it won’t sound good, but trust me, just try it, and you will change your mind. They are fantastic, and luckily, I can find them in England as well.
  • Cepelinai which is by far the most known dish in Lithuania. They are potato dumplings filled with meat, and sadly, even if they sound amazing, I never tried them. Most probably because I was always too full with kepta duona and surealis

The fourth thing I discovered about Vilnius was it’s architecture. You can easily get lost in the small streets. But not only that, they don’t have a style. Every street, especially in the old town centre, it’s different. Walking down on one street you feel like you’re in Spain, turn into another street and you have a proper russian style in architecture, walk further down, and a couple of churches will give you the impression you are in France. It’s quite amusing. One of the must-do things in Vilnius is to walk up the hill towards the Three Crosses, which were built in the 17th century and commemorate a group of monks. Once you are there, you can view a panorama of the city, and also feel closer to the clouds (my friend swore that the clouds are lower than any other country she lived in, and in all fairness, I trust her). Last, but not least, everywhere in Vilnius, you can find places where you can make a wish. I think that lithuanians are a very hopeful nation, and that they dream high and always, but always wish for something. I made around 3 wishes, on 3 different monuments. And I also rubbed a statue’s belly for some money luck. So, all I can say is, that even though Vilnius, is not on many people’s travelling list, I think it definitely needs to be taken into consideration. Let’s get out of our comfortable western Europe cities, and travel further north-east. Vilnius left me more hopeful, and happier and it taught me that it is ok to dream big; (also, that is ok every now and again to get drunk before noon).

P.S. Here are some pictures with me making wishes. And I’ll put more pictures in my gallery.

 

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How it all started…

It’s hard to pinpoint the time when I decided I will travel the world someday. I was one of those lucky children that got to explore caves, and climb mountains and camp in the middle of nowhere. I know that all of those holidays  I had with my family sharpened my desire to travel and explore unknown places.

(I think writing about all those places that I visited in the past, it won’t do them justice. But I will revisit them, and I will write there and then about them).

I guess that start of the journey was when I decided to come to university in England in 2010. I was 19 when I left Romania, and I remember saying to my dad: “Even if I end up sleeping on a bench, in a park, I won’t come back. The world is just too big to stay in one place.” He agreed to it (not the sleeping on a bench part). Just before I left, he took me on one last trip together, just the 2 of us. He took me to Istanbul. Ohh…he knows how to treat me right, since Istanbul is my favourite city in the world. From what I remember the whole trip was perfect. We stayed in Aksaray, one of the neighbourhoods in the European part of Istanbul. One of the things that I can vividly remember is that we walked everywhere (my dad swore to my mum he never walked so much in his life, and he probably won’t ever again). That’s what I do when I am away somewhere, and I would recommend to anyone who is willing to get to know the core of a city. Walk everywhere! You get to know the place, you get to understand it and feel its emotions. Istanbul speaks to me in a way that no other city does. Berlin is very close to my heart as well, but that’s another story. It wasn’t the first time I was in Istanbul, we were there plenty of times before, but it was only on business trips. This time around we got to visit it. We were there for 5 days. We had a Bosphorus cruise, we went to the Grand Bazaar, we visited Aya Sofya, The Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace. We ventured on unknown streets and we got lost. We had amazing food, and drank a lot of Efes (which in my opinion is one of the best beers in Europe, if not the world), and I bought tens of scarves. I know this story it won’t do Istanbul justice. But I promised myself I will go back and I will let myself absorbed into the fervour of the city and I will try to write about it in a way that will fully express my emotions about the grandeur of Istanbul. I came home after that trip, eager to find out more, and let myself go and fall in love with the world, and with cities around the world.

Who knew, it will take me another 2 years, to slowly start adventuring out of my new comfort zone. In 2012 I met Kath, one of my dearest friends. She is from New Zealand, and she moved to UK to work and to travel. Soon after we met, she admitted that the reason she wasn’t traveling was because she didn’t know anyone willing to do it (at the time, I could totally relate to that). I said I will do it.

The first trip we took was to Amsterdam. Oh..the joys of being on the road again. It was magnificent. The trip to Holland, resuscitated the traveling bug. After Amsterdam, we had 5 weeks in New Zealand. Then the summer of 2012 we went backpacking through Germany, and Poland and Hungary. I realized I could easily carry a tent in my rucksack and have enough space for my clothes and toiletries. Sadly, she moved back to New Zealand, so my travelling buddy was now gone, and so were my adventures for some time.

However, this year, something changed. I don’t know what, or how, or why. But I realized I need to push myself and push boundaries, and get out of my comfort zone. And so I did. I’ve done it so well, that now, I can’t stop, and every time I am going to a new place I am eager to discover more and experience everything. I am determined to do it.