3 Nights in Havana, Feb. 2017

vedado1I looked at other places we could visit in Cuba, but in the end, we spent 3 days in Havana. We stayed in  Casa Idalma y Ivan, booked through Casa Amador. The casa particular is located in Vedado. The first day, we walked around the neighborhood and ate at El Cimarron. My friends liked their food but I found it salty and too ketchup-y. I had a chickpea dish. The first one had hot dog in it, so my friends had it and I ordered a second one, without meat. I also had a vegetarian tamale, which was good but salty. One friend enjoyed the chicken soup, while the other ate some boiled vegetables. The fried ripe plantain was delicious. None of us took any pictures of the food. After walking around the neighborhood to get a feel for the place, we went back to the casa particular. Since we had a late lunch, we skipped dinner. We sat on the beautiful terrace and enjoyed the weather.

The next day, we awoke to rain. After a delicious breakfast of fruit, egg omelette, juice, bread and coffee, made by Idalma and Ivan, we took a taxi to old Havana. First stop, Museum of the Revolution. I found the museum quite enlightening. I had never heard about the Bay of Pigs until a few months ago when I read A Brief History of Seven Killings. I always think it important and interesting to hear the same story from different perspectives.

From there, we did some shopping for souvenirs, and found a great restaurant for lunch. The seafood soup and sweet potato fries were delicious. My friends also enjoyed the gazpacho, the yuca fries, the taro croquettes (note that they have meat in the center), and the tamale with meat. A memorable part of the meal was the band that played in the little alley where we sat in front of the restaurant. There were some guests, skilled, enthusiastic dancers who added to the atmosphere.

We wandered through the streets, observing the environment. We stopped at a mercado to see what was available for sale. The offerings seemed quite sparse. Lastly, we walked to see El Capitolio, Hotel Inglaterra, and the Grand Theatre. Just as the rain started, we took a taxi back to the casa particular. I enjoyed reading my book while the rain fell, and then enjoyed sitting up on the terrace. Finally, we went to dinner at Karma, where I had black rice, vegetables, and grilled lobster, shrimp and fish. It was delicious.

For our last full day in Havana, we took the hop on, hop off bus around Havana. We stayed on except for a stop at the San Jose artisan market. We also stopped to visit the Hotel Nacional. Our plan was to get back on the bus, but in the end, we went for lunch instead. We both had delicious seafood dishes. The quality was a bit better than Karma, but much more expensive, so I think I would pick Karma if I had to choose.

rainbow from WIFI parkOn the way back to the hop on, hop off bus stop, we noticed a spot with WIFI access. WIFI spots can be found around the city. From my observation, some of them are in parks, and some in hotels. The WIFI seemed a bit more reliable than at the park two blocks from the casa particular, so we sat on the side of a building to check our email and check in to our flights the next day. At that point, we decided to forget about continuing our tour, and walked 40 minutes back to our casa.

We walked past many embassies and residences on our way. The contrast between fancy, renovated apartments and houses, and dilapidated ones is startling. Some sidewalks are well maintained, while others are torn up and in disrepair. My friends asked if Cuba reminded me of St. Lucia. It didn’t. Some of the foliage is the same, but the scale is just so much larger in Cuba. We drove down an 8 lane highway on the way to Varadero, and it was a 2.5 hours trip from the airport. The architecture is different, with flat roofs instead of pitched roofs. Also, there are many old cars being driven in Cuba, for private use and as taxis. Many of the older cars look in beautiful shape. We saw a variety of transportation options: bicycle taxis, horse drawn carriages, yellow taxis (many of which seem to be Kia), modern cars such as Toyota, and buses being used by locals and tourists.

For our final night, we went to Fabrica de Arte Cubano. It is about 10 blocks from the casa. There was a 2 CUC cover charge. There is art and music spread over 3 floors, with both indoor and outdoor spaces. Drinks cost about 2 CUC each. We had dinner here consisting of snacks: hummus on toast, salads, savory plantain fritters, sandwiches, baguettes, and tapas. My friend thought that the Cubano sandwich was delicious. The hummus and plantain fritters were fine, but not particularly flavorful. I had a virgin pina colada, which was full of eyes from the pineapple. There were people of all ages there, in all sorts of dress. It’s definitely worth a visit.

2 nights in Varadero, Feb 2017

After a few years of yearning, I finally made it to Cuba. I visited Cuba with two friends, a colleague and her husband. It’s a long way from Prague, but we decided that it was worth it to travel that far for some heat and sun, especially heat. I often find that I am tired of winter by February.

We spent the first two nights in Varadero, at the beach. We stayed at the Melia Marina Varadero Apartments. We had a one bedroom apartment with a pull out couch in the living room. The bedroom had an ensuite bathroom, in addition to a second full bath off the living room. There were televisions in the living room and in the bedroom. There was a kichenette with pans, crockery and cutlery, a coffee maker, a microwave, electric stove and oven, dishwasher, and washing machine and dryer combo. We also had a balcony with a table and a lounge, accessible through sliding doors from both the living room and bedroom.

At the hotel, there is a bar, where we had breakfast on our final morning there. For the first evening, we had (unmemorable) Mexican food at the plaza which is part of the Melia Marina grounds. For the second day, we paid 42 CUC for an inclusive day pass to the Melia Marina Varadero. This gave us access to the buffets, beachside drinks, and additional pools. The beachside drinks were quite good. I enjoyed the buffet breakfast as there was an omelette station. I had some calamari at lunch but found it chewy, and there were no spices added. The seafood that I had at dinner was better; there was some shrimp and a nice cooked vegetables dish. The buffet had a good variety, but none of us was impressed with the quality of the food, particularly with respect to flavours. The breakfast the next morning for 6.50 CUC included a nice variety of food, that was better than the breakfast that I had from the buffet.

There is internet access at the hotel. I found that it worked better at the apartments than at the all inclusive hotel. To access the internet, you have to buy a WIFI access card, which gives you an access login and password. The cards cost 2 CUC for 1 hour of WIFI access. The WIFI is quite slow, and reminded me of the days of dialup access. Perhaps one is meant to do yoga while waiting for pages to load :D.

Front of WIFI access card

Back of WIFI access card

 

36 hours in Stockhom

I flew direct from Prague to Stockholm on SAS on a Sunday morning, arriving in the early afternoon. By the time I checked into my hotel and got oriented, it was late afternoon. I didn’t actually count the hours, but 36 seems like a good number.

Several people had recommended that I visit the Vasa Museum, so that was my first stop. It was easy to get there by ferry from Mariantorget, where I was staying. I’ve taken ferries a few times while travelling, but their haven’t lost their novelty and excitement for me. They are also very convenient for travelling around Stockholm, and the same travel card can be used for the metro, trams, buses, ferries.

The Vasa is a few minutes walk from the Djurgårdsvägen ferry stop. It’s interesting how much of the ship was salvaged, and that it was so well preserved, but I’m amazed that it was not better tested. Maybe I misunderstood, and there are lots of (possible) explanations in the museum, but I find it incredible.

From Vasa, I took a ferry to the Modern Art Museum. I only had 45 minutes until the museum closed, so I focused on visiting the permanent collection. I tend to be a bit disconcerted by cubist paintings but still find it interesting to watch them and consider their meaning/message. I’m not very knowledgeable about art, but I had downloaded the app of the museum at the WIFI point and was able to listen to information about the artists and paintings, which provided a bit more context in which to consider the paintings. I enjoyed the visit to the museum, which has lots of what I call Math art.

By the time I left Vasa, it was 6 p.m. I took a while before I managed to catch a ferry back to Slussen. I walked around a bit and decided to have dinner at Tehran Grill which was in the vicinity of the hotel, with good reviews. There were lots of spaces and my impatience was about to get the better of me since it was taking the hostess a while to sit me after she had stopped and said hello. Just as I was about to leave, she sat me. I ordered a shrimp dish with saffron rice, and passion fruit juice. I seldom drink juice and had planned to have tea but I love passion fruit and could not refuse. It was worth it. The food was good, with the jumbo shrimp being perfectly cooked. The saffron rice was nothing special. There was no special flavor that I could discern, just a slight yellow tinge. The restaurant was busy but not full, and the two servers were working non stop. It took a while to get my food, but it was hot when it arrived.

Since the next day was Monday, many museums were closed. Had I planned more carefully, I would have gone to the Vikings museum (not its actual name) on Sunday and left Vasa for Monday. Not having done that, however, I went on a revised version of Frommers’ walking tour of Gamla Stan in reverse (because I got lost and decided to go with it). I stopped and bought some Happy Socks as gifts (which I hope are making whoever found them very happy). The German church was closed so I couldn’t visit. The Storkyrkan cathedral is impressive, and I took the opportunity to light a candle for my grandmother, and seat in a pew to say some prayers for the departed. I visited the church three times. The second time, I went back to see the statue of St. George slaying the dragon that I’d missed the first time. The third time, I went to see if I could find the happy socks, since that was the only place that I’d sat on my tour. The Royal Palace was closed but I was in time to see the changing of the guards. (The one in Prague is more impressive I think.) From the Royal Palace, I quickly walked over to Riddarholmskyrkan. It’ grand to look at from the outside, but was closed so I couldn’t see the inside. From there, it was time to hurry over to the City Hall, so I caught Bus 3.

I made it to the City Hall just after 13:00 and was able to join the tour that had just started (which was my goal). The tour starts in the Blue Room which is a reception room used after the Nobel Prize is awarded. The room is not actually blue, but is elegant. The ceiling is flat and can be used for projections during banquets. The guide mentioned that the stairs were carefully designed to allow women to be able to walk down them elegantly. The architect has his wife test prototypes of the stairs wearing a ball gown and heels, so he could get it right. We swept up the stairs from the blue room and continued our tour through hallways and other rooms. The ceilings vary greatly from room to room. In the council room (I may have made up this name), the ceiling has a feeling of openness, almost like a staircase, and the guide mentioned that’s because everything said in the room should be able to rise and float out to the general public. In fact, there is seating for the general public to be able to attend sessions. At the time of my visit, the room was set up for a session happening later that day. It seats 101 council members, who are seated from left to right, by affiliation. There were originally 100 members, but one was added to avoid ties during voting. I don’t remember the uses for all the rooms that we walked through, but the most visually vibrant room is the Golden Room. Ten kilograms of gold was used to create the mosaic effect on the walls. The central image is a caricature of a queen, emphasizing her abilities and strength rather than physical beauty. The golden room opens out to the balcony above the blue room, and the guide mentioned that the two rooms are used together for the reception of the Nobel Prize award.

After all the walking, I was famished. I’d saved Hermans n my offline map and noticed that I could walk there in about 20 minutes. Hermans is a vegetarian restaurant. A buffet lunch costs 125 SEK and includes tea, water and/or coffee. There were a large variety of both cold and hot food, and I definitely ate too much. The protein sources were tofu, TVP, and beans as far as I could tell. I highly recommend Hermans!

I saw Fotografiska while walking to Hermans so I knew it was nearby. I hadn’t realized that Stockholm was so hilly, and my fear of heights had reared its ugly head again. I think it happens whenever I’m afraid of falling on a bridge in the winter, and it didn’t help that I’d slipped and fallen on the ice the night before while walking over a (thankfully pedestrians only) bridge. I looked at the long path to the museum by road and watched the steep stairs down the street. I really wanted to walk down the stairs (my Withings Pop had already recorded 15000 steps) but was afraid that the stairs would be slippery. I stood at the top of the stairs trying to psych myself up. Thankfully, at that moment, a woman started walking down the stairs and I figured that if she could do it, I could too and followed her, albeit at a slower speed.

It was a quick visit to Fotographiska sine only one floor was open, with a new exhibition being prepared on the second floor.

I walked around a bit after this, and did some shopping. I was looking for snow boots but didn’t find any where I was. I asked a salesperson who directed me to a mall, but I was tired and decided to call it done and head back to the hotel.

 

Revisiting Rothenburg

It was about a year ago that I visited Rothenburg. And this weekend, I’m back  with a few friends. We drove down on Friday (well one friend drove) and will head back to Prague on Sunday.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a beautiful old city with a wall and many buildings from the 15th and 16th century.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   
We stayed in a lovely guesthouse. The breakfast was varied with a spread of cereal, cold cuts, eggs, sausage, hash browns, fruit and vegetables. A veritable feast!

Food was challenging on this trip. I’ve been avoiding milk and minimizing wheat. The first night, I tried to order baked potatoes without sour cream or potato pizza without cheese and was told neither were possible. This response was delivered with a look of disdain. I settled for French fries and ketchup. My shrimp salad for lunch on the second day was delicious. However, the waitress delivered 3 forks and 4 knives so I had to ask for one more to eat my meal. She looked around the table quizzically and insisted that she had brought 4 forks. Is it really so much more believable that I did away with the fork instead of thinking that she possibly made a mistake? Oh German hospitality!

4 Days in Venice

Colorful Burano

Colorful Burano

I head back to work tomorrow. My trip to Venice just over a week ago was the final trip of my summer, a send-off for Jane and Emily who are moving on from Prague :(.

Venice is beautiful, with its scenic canals, iconic gondoliers, glass, masks and vibrancy (in the summer). It was amazing watching the traffic on the canals, the garbage boats, ambulances, taxis, vaporetto, delivery trucks and private crafts.

We didn’t visit many buildings but we went to St. Mark’s basilica for a free tour. We paid 2€ to book our entry online and avoid the long ticket line. (Well worth it!) Our entry time was 10:45-10:55, which as perfect for joining the free English tour that started at 11:00. The tour was done by an enthusiastic student intern from England who shared many interesting facts about the cathedral, particularly about the design and the Renaissance and Byzantine mosaics. In one period, a sketch is made before the mosaic is created, but not in the other. (I can’t recall which is which; maybe I’ll look it up.) We paid the extra 1€ to see the Pala d’Oro with its gold and polished, unfaceted gems. We were lucky that the lights were on during our visit; apparently the lights are only turned on for one hour a day!

From the basilica, we went to Galleria dell’Accademia to see some art by Titan, Bellini and other Venetian, Byzantine and Gothic art.

This was a laid back trip, with a focus on lots of (delicious) seafood. We started every meal with by sharing seafood and vegetable antipasti. The seafood was invariably varied, fresh, and delicious. My entree (premi or secondi) often included more seafood. I was trying to avoid wheat, and there is an amazing amount of gluten free available. However, the one gluten-free pizza and bread that I tried was a relative of cardboard. After that, I was reluctant to try the gluten free pasta.

Our last breakfast was at a wonderful bakery, Pasticceria di Chiusso Pierino. I made an exception and tried an almond croissant. Delicious with both sliced almonds and marzipan.

The slideshow won’t below won’t work without flash. See the photos at https://goo.gl/photos/Xv6QQ7eHGDoV6Hb68.

Long Weekend in Vienna

As part of the continuing adventure of summer holidays, we went to Vienna from July 17 – 20.  What a beautiful city, and not so far from Prague. The whole train ride was just over four hours, which makes it an easy trip from Prague.

Entertainment during the train ride

view from train entering Vienna

We got to Vienna early in the afternoon, but given that we had a small child on this trip (3.5 years), we relaxed during the afternoon and just walked around a little to get our orientation. This included walking along the Ringstrasse and finding out about the Vienna pass with hop on/hop off bus access.

Goethe on the Ringstrasse

Mozart in the Burggarten

Since we’d use Priceline to find the hotel, and it was a Marriott with a price of 30 euros for the buffet breakfast (!), we took off to find a local restaurant to fuel ourselves for the day. We’d noticed Chilai near our hotel and decided to go there. They have a variety of breakfast options, and I ended up ordering the breakfast with hummus and falafel. I found the falafel uninspired but my friend enjoyed it enough to have the same meal twice . (The meal was good value so when we had trouble finding our choice the next morning, we ended up there again.) Once we had breakfast, it was time to head off on the yellow hop on/off line for Schonbrunn Palace.

The Vienna pass includes free entry for the grand tour. The entry is timed so it’s good to get the ticket first. We had about an hour to wait so we first went to the carriage museum (Kaiserliche Wagenburg). After the carriage museum, there was enough time to walk around the gardens a bit, but it was a hot sunny day so my friend and her daughter went to the Kindermuseum Schonbrunn and I went off on my Grand Tour. On my tour, I could look out the window and see my friend and her daughter. I think it’s really cool that the museum has a specially designed children’s tour/experience!

After we were done with our tours, we had a nice lunch at Cafe Residenz before going to the Apfelstrudelshow (free with the Vienna pass). The pastry chef was impressive at opening the dough by flipping it in the air and using her knuckles! I was suprised that she rolled the dough in a circle rather than a rectangle, but she said that you can reshape the pastry after it’s filled to make sure that each slide is roughly the same size. She also used a strudel cloth over the rotating board, which she spread the dough on, and used that cloth for rolling the dough and moving it to the baking dish. I found the whole process impressive, but I am not such a big fan of apple strudel (I prefer apple pie). By the end of the show, it was already 17:00, and the sights were starting to close down.

We decided to take the train/bus (free with the pass) to get an overview of the other sites. The vehicle stopped at the (already closed for the day) Gloriette for 10 minutes, which was a great opportunity to enjoy the view. The child had fallen asleep during the ride, so we carried her to the hop on/off bus and headed back to the Royal Opera stop, from where we could walk back to the hotel. I can’t remember what we had for dinner so I suspect we had fruit and nuts, and leftover bread from breakfast (for the child).

I love blackout curtains, because sleeping in was easy the next morning. We left the hotel around 9:30 and went back to Chilai for breakfast. We had another plan, but the cafe was empty and looked uninviting. From breakfast, we walked to the Spanish Riding School for the Piber Meets Vienna show. The free entry with the Vienna pass is for standing. The show was a boring, with only a few horses galloping around, or prancing about. Even the child had little interest in it. We stayed for most of the show (45 minutes) but then went off to other adventures. My friends went to the zoo and I took off for the free 2 hours walking tour.

The walking tour was great for learning the history of the city, but didn’t involve much walking. I could have done it quicker with a Frommers self-guided tour or something like that. Then I went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Sigmund Feud Museum, Donauturm, and to see the Imperial Silver Collection. My main reason for going to the Kunsthistorisches Museum was because it is world renowned, with many famous artists there. I went through a few of the rooms to see the highlights but there was too much to see in one visit. I tend to have an attention span of 1 hour – 1.5 hours for museums. The Imperial Silver Collection is impressive. It’s also interesting how the history of Prague is linked to that of Vienna. The Sigmund Feud Museum is quite small. It’s the place where he lived and had his office for many years. I loved visiting the Donauturm. It was wonderful to get a panoramic view of the city. Definitely worth a visit.

On the final day in Vienna, I went to visit the Belvedere. I first encountered Klimt while attending University of Ottawa. I was walking through the student center when I noticed an display of art prints. I hadn’t realized until going to the Belvedere that Klimt had so many different styles. There are also some lovely paintings by Delacroix and many other artists.

Tokyo Stop

I’ve been to Tokyo before and seen most of the sites. This time, I spent one night and explored a few places with a friend. Mount Fuji still didn’t reveal itself to me. I give up; I clearly chose the wrong time of year to attempt a view.

Enjoy these pictures of my trip:

 

Visit to Utsunomiya

I travelled to Utsunomiya for a few days to visit a friend. There aren’t many tourist sights there but it’s bigger than I expected. Nikko isn’t nearby, but it was too rainy for a visit. Instead, it was a great opportunity to relax and visit the Ota Museum.

I will embed the pictures later, but for now you can see them here.

Rainy, Relaxing Days in Nagoya

I loved visiting Nagoya. It felt familiar, like an old friend. And it was great to meet with friends, and revisit some of my former favorite haunts.

Near my friend’s apartment, there was an old shopping “mall” called Oz Mall. I’ve never seen Wizard of Oz (which Jane and Emily consider a travesty) but I feel I got the gist from the displays on this street.

Wizard of Oz display, Oz Mall, Nagoya

I did little sightseeing in Nagoya as I lived there for four years and visited the sights of interest to me in that time, plus it was the rainy season and rained every day of my trip. 

It was a lovely trip, thanks to a gracious host, and wonderful friends that I got to hang out with. 

I will embed the photos when I am back on my laptop, but in the meantime, they are available in Google photos.

First Return to Japan

Residency Card

Residency Card

It was lovely being back in Japan (July 3 – 11, 2015), so different from my first arrival when I felt like an alien. Maybe Japanese officials knew of this feeling, and that’s why they issued me an “alien registration card”. By year four of my residency, however, the card name had changed to the “residence card”. I’m not sure what prompted the name change but found it a welcome one. On my recent trip, neither of those two names applied to me. I was simply a tourist.

I landed in Tokyo after paying homage to the troll in the sky by surviving the turbulence upon approach there. Customs was painless and quick, and both my pieces made it (find out why I had an unplanned second piece of luggage in the next post). I successfully found a data SIM card for my phone, had a snack at Starbucks near the JR train station, and got Narita Express train tickets to Shinagawa followed by a Nozomi shinkansen ticket to Nagoya. The journey took a while but was thankfully smooth, with no greater challenge than handling my heavy suitcase.

on the NEX from Tokyo to Shinagawa

on the NEX from Tokyo to Shinagawa


Be consider, be quiet on the train ...

Be considerate; be quiet on the train …